One or the other of you may be wondering what happened to the last novel I excerpted here, Blood Bonds. It’s on the back burner, that’s what happened to it. There are some thorny issues going on in the realms of character motivation and development, and I shoved it to the back to simmer for a while.
While it was simmering, I wrote this. A Place to Die is not a warm, cuddly book. It is the first book I’ve written that I intended to be specifically “Christian fiction,” although I may not have made the grade. It may be too dark and edgy. Read it and decide, but be warned: the message of this book is aggressively Christian.
A Place to Die
Who are you, that you should forget the Lord your maker, who has stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the Earth?
All day long the thought of death has taunted him. It was there in the morning, fleeing swiftly from his muggy dreams to squat malignantly in the shrill sound of his alarm. It followed him to the bathroom, staring from the mirror as he stood motionless, waiting for his toothbrush and comb to wake him up. In the kitchen, at the bus stop, on the sidewalk, all day long in the unending toil of his mindless job, it hovered there next to his ear, whispering its evil little mantras and chants. The time has come. Today’s the day. There’s no point. Give it up. She’s gone forever. There’s nothing left. This is it. This is all. There’s nothing more. Forever and ever and ever.
In the silent apartment, he nukes a tray of something he couldn’t name if you put a gun to his head. Lets it cool completely in the microwave while he watches nothing on the wall. Throws it away. Turns the TV on and cycles through all the channels he has, his eyes wandering the screen like an alien’s might. There’s a razor blade in the medicine cabinet. He turns the TV off. There’s drain cleaner under the sink. There’s a cliff down by the water. There’s a tide coming in to get him every few hours. He could go stand on the sand and wait.
Turns on the shower and watches it run. Turns it off.
Death. So easy. Why not? Why? There is no reason one way or the other.
There are no reasons at all anymore.
The phone rings. He watches the wall and waits.
“Matt? … Matt, it’s your mother. Pick up, ok? … Ok, listen, Matt, I know this is tough, but come on, you can’t just drop off the face of the Earth, ok? You know she wouldn’t want that. Matt, pick up… Ok, I’m coming over. I know you’re there. I’m coming over. Just wait for me, ok? Matt? … Wait for me, ok?”
He watches the wall and waits.
He’s no longer sure exactly what he’s waiting for. He spent so long waiting for her, and then he found her, and now she’s gone, and now he’ll wait again. There’s a razor blade in the medicine cabinet. There’s drain cleaner under the sink. This is it. This is all. There’s nothing more. Forever and ever and ever.
When the knock comes, he’s standing in the bathroom, turning the razor blade over and over in his hands. She rattles the knob, knocks again, calls out his name. He stands and waits for nothing.
Long after she’s gone quiet, he slips back down the short hall to the dark living room, the blade gone, somewhere, somehow. He can see her car sitting on the street below his window. For no reason he can think of, he tiptoes to the door, lays his ear against it. Oh, no. Not again. Not still.
“Oh, Lord God,” she’s whispering, “please help my son. He’s so lost and alone,” and now his tears come. He can see quite clearly, through the wooden door, that she’s standing with her forehead pressed against the other side, between her hands. He places his hands over hers, through the door, two inches away, a million miles away. He stands with his hands against hers, his head bowed over hers, and cries silently until he realizes she’s gone.
There’s a razor blade in the medicine cabinet. There’s drain cleaner under the sink. This is it. This is all. There’s nothing more. Forever and ever and ever.
“Jobs don’t matter,” she says, her eyes damp in the light of the candles. “Honey, jobs are just jobs. You’ll get another. Don’t let it ruin things.” Her hands cross the table as though they’re on their own, seeking his.
Not fired, Simpson. It just isn’t…
“Allison,” he says, reaching for her across the table, through the drifting tendrils. “I’ll always love you!” he shouts, struggling now, fighting the seaweed and the seat belt and the sheets and sitting bolt upright in dark screaming silence.
After a long time, he throws the blankets off and sits on the edge of the bed. This is pointless. There’s a razor blade in the bathroom. This can’t go on. His mother prays against his front door and his dead fiancée haunts his nights and his own death stalks his days and he surges to his feet and into the bathroom and slams open the cabinet door and stands stonestill.
That’s no reason.
Shut up, but he closes the cabinet door and slides slowly down the wall to huddle on the floor.
His entire reason for life, his reason for living, his goal and his goad, his other half, finally found and lost so quickly. Five years to find her, five months to know her, five seconds to lose her. Five weeks now to miss her. Five weeks down, eternity to go.
One day. One day took both his job and his life, and now he only waits for the strength to give up and lie down. He watches nothing on the wall as the gloom slowly lightens around him. His alarm goes off, alone, down the hall, and he ignores it until it gives up.
Mid-morning, late, too late to keep the drudge job that was what he could find, he rises. The mirror mocks him, and he opens the door to silence it. He stares a long time at the waiting blade. There’s drain cleaner under the sink in the kitchen. There’s a tide, coming in to find him, circling now around his ankles and pulling, pulling hard. Back in his bedroom, he dresses slowly and packs quickly. One last look around the living room.
He leaves the door unlocked. There’s nothing there. Nothing to come back to. No intent to come back.
The “new” car’s a wreck, but it runs. With everything gone to pay for the ring she wore for an hour, he had nothing left. The ring’s gone, too. By the time they could get her out of the car, it was gone.
One duffel bag in the seat next to him and no backward glance and he drives away.
Some unknown time later, some passage of miles that he can’t remember at all, low on gas, he stops. While the pump works, he stares mindlessly at nothing, thinking nothing. There’s a small plastic cross on the car in front of his, and he turns away. You had your chance, God. You could have saved her. You could have kept us out of the river. You could have kept me from gazing at her when I should have been–
You had your chance. Now leave me alone. He turns his back. Dim thoughts from childhood. Nineveh. Something about Nineveh. Something about running, and asses, and talking, but he turns his back. Absalom and his talking donkey, on the way to Nineveh.
His cell phone rings, and he turns it off without looking at it. Tank filled, junk food bought, he parks the car at the edge of the lot and starts up the ragged gravel slope behind the building. Five minutes up the slope, he stops and looks around. Phone still turned off, he smashes it carefully and buries the pieces, starts back down.
Not Absalom. Balaam. Balaam and his donkey. Not Nineveh, either, that was someone else. Not that it matters. Not that he gives a flying fig. God had his chance, and if that car’s still there, he’ll rip that plastic cross sticker off the back and smash that, too, bury it by his phone, but it’s gone, and he heads east into the desert.
His first night out, confused and lonely, he spends in huddled misery, the only car parked at an isolated rest area. The desert, so hot and angry all day, inverts itself at night. The heat becomes cold, seeping in through the inadequate seals of the car doors. The shadows become highlights, the harsh light of the full moon giving them mass, stretching out toward him, grasping toward him. When he gets too cold to sleep, he runs the car engine, but the noise keeps him awake. When he’s warmed up, he turns it off, but the echoing silence returns to claim him, and he can’t sleep. When he sleeps, evil stalks him, shaking him awake.
The fifth or fiftieth time he he shambles and gasps toward waking, there’s a dim purple light in the sky ahead, and he gives up completely on the hope of rest, pulling back onto the road. He drives toward the sunrise, his mind a blank. A cipher, that teacher his junior year in high school would have said. A cipher. He turns an aborted reach for his phone into a vigorous scratching of his head. He needs a shower.
No phone, no internet. No definitions. He’s a cipher.
As he drives, his mind reaches constantly for things to do, for things to think, for some respite from the idle drone of driving, and every single thing it finds is pain. He hates the desert, seeing it only as something to be gotten across, but she would have been stopping at every high point to try to capture all the images she claimed she saw in what was, to him, only rock and sand. When he drives those thoughts away, when he turns his mind inward away from the dull moonscape, he finds her haunting his left-over dreams from the ragged night. Seaweed seems to have become their theme, although there was no seaweed in the river. No, not the river, either. Something else. Traffic.
He’ll think about traffic. He’ll play that license plate game, the one where you have to get the whole alphabet, but there’s not enough traffic and no competition, and all he can think of is her frightening agility at finding the letters she needed when they played it with signs, driving up the coast toward Oregon. He turns on the radio.
Stopping near noon for gas, he sees a hitchhiker seated patiently on a guard rail by the ramp back up to the freeway, beyond the intersection. He’ll pick him up. If he’s still there when he gets back on the road, he’ll pick him up. He fills the tank, hits the ATM for all it will give him in one day, goes into the store. Picking junk food and drinks, he thinks of his passenger and tries to get a wider selection than he normally would. He clears the seat, tossing trash into the back. He should clean the car out, but he’s in a hurry so the guy will still be there.
Too far back to make the turn, he sits trapped by a red light, watching the hitchhiker. Clean, young, well-shaven, well-scrubbed. A cardboard sign that says “Grandma’s.” Army-green duffel bag, a big one.
The light changes. Matt carefully drives past the hitchhiker, not looking, accelerating, turning his head away to check traffic as he merges.
Not Balaam and his donkey, and not the Nineveh guy, either. Those guys were running from something.
Three days. Iowa, some nameless town in Iowa. He fills the tank, checks his balance at the ATM. Thirty-two something, plus seventeen dollars in cash. He spends a careful hour in a grocery store, adding things up, and when he checks out, it comes to $33.79. He empties his account, pays the rest in cash. In the parking lot, he bends his bank card in half, folding back and forth till it finally tears most of the way across. There’s a dumpster by the side of the building.
He sits in his car and slowly eats pepperoni and string cheese and drinks a Red Bull, staring across the street at the peeling white paint of a tiny Baptist church. He can still feel his mother, still leaning against his door, still praying, his father at home, pacing up and down the hall with that half-prayer, half-mumble that he has. The can follows the bank card, and he goes next door to the coin-op laundry.
His back against the washer, he drifts again into that last dinner. So carefully planned for so long, every dollar he had, almost. The ring, the food, the white wine the manager had assured him was “nice, but not expensive.” He’d had to take his word for it. He’d planned that night for weeks. For months. For all of the nearly three months it took him to pay for the ring, in fact. He’d known the moment he saw her. He’d rented a tux. The manager had told him the table would be near the back, but quiet. Then, that afternoon, hours to go…
Not fired, Simpson, it just isn’t working out for us.
He hadn’t wanted to ask her after all, after that, but the place… the tux… the wine… She needed an explanation, and in the end, he broke down and told her. He nearly broke down, telling her.
“Jobs don’t matter,” she said. “You’ll find another. Don’t let that wreck things. Don’t let that wreck this. Matt, I love you. It doesn’t matter.”
He just stared into the dark alcove beside them. Nothing so movie-cliché as a steel door with a small round window, just a discreet little alcove where waiters and waitresses and busboys appear and disappear like magic.
“Give it to me,” she says. He shakes his head, not looking at her.
“I can’t. Ok? I can’t. It isn’t right.”
“Why not?” she asks, her face beginning to draw together in that dangerous way she has, her voice edging toward stubborn. “Was it right this morning? Were we right for each other this afternoon? Did something happen that changes anything?”
When he tries to answer, she cuts him off. “Give it to me. Don’t wreck this. I only get this night once, Matt. Don’t wreck this.” Unable to meet her eyes, he watches her lips move, watches her brows go straight and hard, watches her ear begin to jump a little, and then somehow, he’s trapped in her eyes again and just like that, she’s right. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s different. He brings the tiny white box out of his pocket and slides the ring through his tears and onto her finger. It’s too big. He had to guess her size, and it’s a little too big, and they laugh as though they’re laughing at that. They’re only laughing to center themselves, to regain themselves.
In the car, driving home, by the river, the lights along the river, looming and flashing and fading, looming and flashing and fading, seem to hypnotize her, and she holds her hand up, the ring flashing like a tiny rainbow echo, and she giggles. Too much wine for her, he knows, and she giggles, and he’s watching her, and trying not to giggle, and she giggles, and he’s watching her…
The washer behind him has gone silent. The clock on the wall ticks. The paint peels on the church across the street. Somewhere, seaweed waves in a silent river.
You can download the rest of this book, as well as read significantly more of it, at Smashwords.