…I hope you had a fantastic weekend and that you spent some time with people you did not know, who are now new friends.
...I have been immersed in my new novel. It’s become a bit addictive, which I think is a good thing. I like spending time with the characters.
Here’s the first chapter…
Rayburn, Wyoming, 2009
In bed late at night, by herself again, Jo listened to the crickets chrip while she waited patiently for her dead husband to walk through the bedroom door.
Monty was late again, as always, which was his way of teasing her—tormenting her really. Foreplay, Baby, he liked to say whenever he finally showed. I’m just stoking the flames.
Tonight, same as every evening, Jo worried that she might not be able to make Monty appear. She worried, too, that she’d become a crazy loon like her mother, worried that living on the fumes of a dead love was not only tragic but perhaps a clear signal that she’d lost all sense of the here and now. The only thing Jo knew for certain was that Monty was dead, yet she loved him and always would.
Gusty winds shook the walls of Jo’s trailer home, rattling hinges as well as items left on the stubby bureau butted against the end wall of her bedroom. In the distance outside, a train chuffed, passing by the town of Rayburn the same way hundreds of automobiles did every day. The sound of the disappearing train cut a gloomy arc through Jo’s soul and so as a buffer she resurrected an image of Monty and her—Jo in a white wedding gown, Monty wearing a bolo tie and denim tux with a glob of wedding cake hanging off his chin. The image and the photograph that was taken of it didn’t show what happened afterward, how Jo had craned her neck at an awkward angle, mouthing his chin like a trout, sucking his skin clean all the while giggling like a school girl.
Inside Jo, her unborn child--nearly nine months along now--flopped and flailed the way it always did whenever Jo yearned for Monty. The baby-to-be was a constant reminder of how things were different, how they’d changed, and Jo, superstitious to her core, credited the baby with powers and abilities no human possessed.
“Settle,” Jo said aloud, though in a whisper, patting the puckered lemon end of her distended belly button. “Do you hear me? Settle down.”
Instead, the baby railed harder, throwing a conniption fit, making Jo clench and squirm and sweat.
“You rascal,” she whispered, patting again, her fingers trembling. “Are you trying to kill me?”
Jo thought about turning on the light and reading—something to distract her thoughts from the scuffling baby, but the only book on the lampstand was one of poetry and it required Jo’s entire concentration to make sense of the poems’ hidden meanings. She reached over and took a sip of water from a glass next to the book of poems. The water was tepid with an iron tang. Something was wrong with the well again, she’d told Shane as much, but like most things Jo told her husband, Shane passed over them with nary a look of recognition.
She glimpsed the alarm clock’s pulsing red glow: 1:33 and Shane still not home. Nothing unusual there. It should have been upsetting—her husband out carousing every night--yet Jo actually preferred Shane’s absence, and of course with Shane gone that left Jo free to enjoy her imaginary trysts with Monty.
How could two men, twins, be so different?
She thought about them now, how she had married Monty when she was just seventeen, how only three years afterward Monty was dead, with Jo gripped by a pull of grief so strong it threatened to bury her, too, until she did the unthinkable, marrying Shane.
Now the crickets hushed and the whipping shadows along the trailer windows stalled and, mercy of all mercies, there stood Monty, leaning against the doorframe, grinning. He looked happy if not also a bit cocky, and Jo knew Monty wanted her but that he would stay like that, in a James Dean pose, until she begged him to come to her.
Jo pulled the covers off and lay on her side and as she did the baby inside her turned on its ESP and kicked so hard Jo coughed. She pressed her forearm against her belly trying to still the child, pressing a little too hard maybe, but now that Monty had arrived, she had no patience for the rummaging in her uterus.
As Monty approached, the child recoiled harder, throwing vicious uppercuts and jabs, so Jo squeezed down firmly to thwart the blows, wondering if she clasped enough could she silence the unborn baby once and for all, wondering next did she mean it, did she really want the baby dead?
Hot tears—tears of guilt and frustration--splashed down Jo’s bare breasts. She knew she should be happy. After all, a baby was something to celebrate, a giddy event necessitating revelation, yet to Jo it felt like one more warning flare exploding in a sky.
Hey, Cuddle Bug, don’t you worry about a thing, that kid’s going be all right.
Monty always had the ability to read Jo’s moods and tics, as if he and Jo were an elderly couple, working from rote memory. She loved this about him, how Monty could recognize what was eating her below the surface, how he was so unlike Shane in this way.
Gorgeous, what’s the matter?
“It’s just…” Jo stared in Monty’s eyes which glimmered dewy brown. She didn’t want to worry him, spoil their night together before Shane returned home drunk and ornery as always. “I’m so goddamn fat.”
Nah, you’re beautiful. Beautiful and perfect.
“I sure don’t feel that way.”
Monty sat down on the side of the bed and took Jo’s chin in his hand, brushing away tears with his thumb. He had the softest touch, callused hands yet smooth as gossamer.
Look at me. Jo, look at me. You’re beautiful and the one great love of my life.
Jo felt herself flush, same as the first time Monty had labeled her eyes emeralds, said he was a sucker for redheads, especially redheads with connect-the-dots freckles splashed across their cheeks.
“Stop being so sweet.”
I’m only as sweet as you make me.
Now Jo felt herself sweating under her arms, inside her calves, between her toes. “Why did you have to go off to that stupid war? Why in the hell?”
They sent me.
“But you didn’t have to. There wasn’t a reason. You weren’t drafted.”
I told you. 9/11. I saw those towers burn and melt, and the pictures of it played over and over so many times, people dropping from skyscrapers like puppets…I just felt like I had to do something, you know?
“Like you could change things?”
Yeah. Maybe a little bit.
“And then you died. You got killed.”
Not only me, but a lot of others, too.
“You were mine, Monty. Mine. How am I supposed to go on without you?”
“Don’t shush me,” Jo said, swatting away Monty’s hand or the air where it was supposed to be.
You wanna wrestle?
“Shut the hell up,” Jo said, with a giggle. “I’m pregnant.”
You’re a breadbasket, do you know that? A--what-do-they-call-it?—a cornucopia of contradictions.
“I’m just a widow who’s pregnant and miserable.”
You’re not that miserable, are you?
“Yes, I truly am.” Here Jo was, talking when she wanted to be making love. “But like you said, I’m lots of things.”
Then tell me what you are.
“Okay,” Jo said, “for one, I’m lonely.”
You have Shane, though.
Jo flinched at the sound of Shane’s name and decided to dismiss hearing it. “I miss you so much.”
But I’m here now.
“You are, right? This is you. I’m not making it up, am I?”
Monty ran his palm across her right breast, tweaking Jo’s nipple until it became erect. He stared at her nakedness boyishly, full of awe and wonder, his eyes mobile, as wide as Jo had ever seen them.
“Make love to me.”
Is that request or an order?
“Both, I guess. But do it quick.”
“Let’s go already.”
I’m happy to oblige.
Monty disrobed and lay on top of her, his body weightless yet alive, as real to Jo as the last time they’d made love. He entered her with ease even as the baby inside Jo started its familiar rummaging. He was gentle, always gentle, completely unlike Shane, but Jo wanted Monty to be rough tonight in order to distract herself from the flailing fetus, and so she urged him to thrust harder.
“Yes. Definitely, yes.”
Soon they were bucking, the bed making screeching sounds, headboard banging. Monty obliged her request in a wonderfully wicked way, and even though in one part of her mind Jo knew this was all her imagination’s work, another part believed it was factual, their coupling, frantic and manic, the most delicious sex she’d ever had.
Jo climaxed in three successions, every nerve ending turning prickly and electric. She heard herself scream after the final release. Gasping, clutching the bedcover in her fist, she felt how wet she was, soaked actually.
“Oh, God, Monty, I’ve flooded the bed.”
I’m not so sure.
“What do you mean?”
Have a look.
When Jo inspected the mattress, she saw that she had indeed flooded it, but it didn’t have anything to do with sex.
Your water broke.
Getting out of bed, a dizzy spell sideswiped Jo and she had to grip the edge of the bed in order to keep from falling. She saw shooting spots the size of coins. Breathe, she told herself. Breathe.
Jo started to dress, then stopped and got her cell phone off the top of the dresser. She punched in Shane’s number, but it went straight to voice mail. She left a message, trying to stay calm yet urgent, and called again--same thing. He was probably three sheets to the wind. After work at the mill, Shane spent nearly every evening throwing back Jack and Coke’s at The Iron Side, a dive bar with prostitutes stationed near the restroom stalls.
Jo finished dressing and tried to plot her next steps but contractions came at her without warning--piercing darts that made Jo’s legs wobble. She knew she had to hurry. She wished she had someone she could call, but her father had passed away and her lunatic-of-a-mother would simply make a mess of things if she became involved, calling Jo a witch, invoking Satan or some such nonsense.
Then Jo remembered Sloan, Monty and Shane’s father. Sloan was a good man, kind and soft spoken, always ready to lend a helping hand without the expectation of compensation. Jo could phone Sloan and have him track down Shane. Yes.
She was about to call his number when the doorbell rang.
Jo checked the red-lit alarm clock: 1:45 am.
Another panic attack seized her, clamping its hands around her throat, the way Shane often did, and cutting off her air again. She equated surprises at the door with horror and death. In a flash she saw herself opening the door of her other house, finding the two uniformed officers there, dour looks on their square-jawed faces. Without a word passing between any of them, Jo knew Monty was dead.
We regret to inform…
We’re sorry for your loss…
He was a valiant soldier…
Because of the, the condition, well you know, the manner in which, well, it was an IED he stepped on…
He’s been cremated.
Jo pinched her eyes and shook away the memories. Go away. Go. Be gone.
Now her lower back ached, as if someone had slammed her with a steel plank. She stood leaning over, praying it was Shane at the door, that he’d lost his key.
No, what a stupid thought that was—if he’d lost his key, Shane would jam his thumb on the bell and keep it there until Jo answered. Then he’d blame her for losing the key and he’d most likely swear at her, calling Jo names.
The doorbell chimed again. Jo straightened as best she could and grabbed her robe from the closet. She flicked on the bedroom light and the hall light and lumbered with great effort through the wood-paneled walls and down the steps, clutching her stomach with one hand, her back with the other. She paused at the door, wishing she had one of those peep holes that hotels had on their doors. At this hour, anyone could be on the other side— a fugitive on the run, a psychopath or an axe murderer.
Jo took a deep breath as a flurry of contractions ambushed her. She almost screamed.
The bell chimed again, no different than the other times, yet it startled her all the same. The visitor was persistent.
From the slit in the door she heard someone call her name. Then, “It’s me, Sloan.”
Sloan. Thank God.
But why was he here?
When Jo opened the door she knew instantly that something was wrong. Sloan wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“Oh, God Sloan, I can’t take any trouble right now. My water broke.”
“You’re in labor?”
“Yeah,” Jo said, choking out the words. “And this damn baby wants out in a hurry.”
Sloan reached out his hand as if to touch Jo’s stomach or perhaps to steady her but he must have realized how awkward the gesture was because he withdrew his hand at once, holding it at his side, not knowing what to do with it. It was the first time Jo had ever seen Sloan flustered.
Another pang came, leaving Jo gasping, doubled-over. “Can you drive me to the hospital?”
Jo started to make her way off the porch, then remembered her daughter, her and Monty’s daughter. She felt sick that she’d almost forgotten, but she told herself it was because of the labor pains.
“Would you run up and get Ella? I don’t think I can do the stairs.”
For a second or two the labor pains subsided and Jo gained clarity. “Sloan, why are you here? It’s almost two in the morning.”
“We can talk about it in the car.”
Jo grabbed Sloan’s wrist as he was walking past. “Tell me now,” she said. “I know it’s bad and I don’t want Ella catching on.”
“Shane. He got himself into some trouble.”
Of course it’s Shane. “What happened?”
“He was in an accident.”
“Is he hurt?”
“Not really. I don’t think, anyway.”
“What kind of accident?”
“He’s okay. He’ll be fine.”
“Goddamn it, Sloan, don’t be coy with me. Where is he? I’ve been calling him.”
“Well, that’s the thing. He’s in jail.”
“He’d been drinking and he hit another car.”
“Oh my God.”
“The other driver is just a little banged up.”
“But…” But this was Shane’s third DUI.
“Really, Jo. We can’t do anything for Shane right now.”
Jo nodded and released her grip on Sloan’s wrist. She watched him head up the steps taking the stairs two at a time, moving with the agility of a teenager, though he was over forty years old. She leaned against a wall with her aching back to it, the contractions sharp as ever. She knew she wouldn’t make it to the hospital. Neither would Shane. The baby was on its way with a fury. Jo wanted to tell it to stay put, not just for a while, not just until they could get to the Emergency Room, but forever. She wanted to tell the baby she was sorry she ever got pregnant, sorry she’d been such a fool to marry Shane, sorry she’d made such bad choices. She wanted to warn the child about what life would be like once it arrived because Jo had a feeling that bad as things were, they were about to get worse, and if Jo had any special gifts at all, it was the gift of premonition.
The girl was as tough as most of the men Sloan knew, yet this was enough to break her. He wished she’d scream or bawl but the only sounds she made were chuffs and gasps, as if she was drowning or being smothered.
A wild, sleeting snow made it difficult to focus on driving, or Jo, who was reclined in the seat to him. Every so often she heaved and her breath washed over the truck’s console, sour-smelling like curdled milk. She squeezed the vinyl seat between her parted legs and each time she did the fabric mewled.
“I’m not going to make it.”
“Sure you are,” Sloan said, careful to keep his voice steady. “You’ll make it.”
But the nearest hospital was still thirty miles away. He was doing seventy on the freeway despite the lashing snow and winds that kept nudging Sloan’s pickup nearly off the side of the road. He should have taken her to Hendricks. A horse doc was better than nothing, but now Sloan was headed in the opposite direction of Hendricks and there was no turning back.
In the back seat Ella, Jo’s two year old daughter by Monty, sat bug-eyed but quiet, sucking on her thumb. Her eyes looked black, yet she had Jo’s fair red hair and it was long and lank like Jo’s.
“This is bad,” Jo said, her voice placid all of a sudden, curiously calm, as if she’d gone into shock.
“You’re going to make it,” Sloan said, hating the futility of his words.
“This baby, it’s bad. A bad seed.”
“Don’t say that.”
“It hates me.”
“It knows things.”
Jo’s calm nature and comments spooked him. Jo was one for the supernatural—a fan of astrology, Ouija boards and tarot cards—superstitious as all heck, her interest ramped up even farther after Monty’s death, but Sloan had always thought it playful, a harmless hobby.
“It’s not only inside my uterus, it’s gotten inside my thoughts and true feelings.”
Sloan wished she’d stop talking nonsense. Jo was a smart girl, brighter than most, a reader of poetry, and while this was merely the ramblings of a woman unwound by her current ordeal, Jo sounded too much like her crazy mother.
“It hates me.”
“You shouldn’t say that.”
“It wishes I was dead.”
“It hates me, and I don’t blame it.”
Sloan patted her knee. It was a dumb thing to do but he’d done it and when he returned his vision to the highway ahead of him he saw the glowing frame of an animal in his lane. There was no time to brake or swerve or even blink. The animal—most likely a coyote—slammed into the truck’s fender, crumpling immediately under the right wheel well with a grotesque sound like meat and bone being fed into a wood chipper.
Sloan’s heart was in his throat, throbbing behind his eyeballs, making him tear up, the windshield a sheet of water on both sides. He thought he should pull over to inspect the damage but the truck still flew at the same speed and there was another twenty-five miles to go.
He glanced back at Ella and forced a smile. When he looked over the seat at Jo, her head lolled against the headrest and her eyes were crossed. Drool leaked down her neck, pooling in the cup of her clavicle.
“Hey, Jo. Jo, you okay? Jo?”
And then her knees banged against the dashboard as if Sloan had slammed on the brakes. She screamed now, the scream of a woman dropped into a vat of boiling oil. She thumped her head against the dash and would not stop no matter how Sloan pleaded.
Ella began to cry, too, flapping her thumb in front of her like a diminutive, confused hitchhiker.
He pulled the pickup over, hearing the sound of fluid pouring forth from the front engine block. Steam rose over the headlights like sea horses made of fog. He knew it was only antifreeze, yet all the late-night TV watching in him made it gasoline. He imagined the gas catching a spark and that spark igniting an inferno, him, Jo and Ella sent sailing through the snow-smeared night sky in a red and black explosion.
The engine hissed and in seconds a great cloud misted over the entire windshield. Sloan punched the dome light on.
Jo hadn’t noticed they’d stopped. She continued butting her head against the truck’s cab like some deranged mountain goat.
“Jo. Jo, stop!”
But she wouldn’t. Even after he grabbed her wrist, she jerked away and continued slamming her head. Ella squealed and squirmed, trying to free herself of the car seat.
“The baby’s coming,” Jo said. “It’s trying to kill me,” she said as she banged her head.
Sloan got out and was at once blinded by a hailstorm. It hit his face, forehead, and eyes. A pellet nicked his tooth so hard--ricocheting into the black night--that Sloan wondered if it wasn’t his own tooth that had been broken off and flung away.
Coming around to the passenger side door, jagged diamonds of hail beat down on Sloan’s head and neck and pinged off the truck door and glass, a stampede of thundering ice chunks falling by the thousands, the sound almost deafening.
Sloan reached in and grabbed Jo’s shoulder and as he did she started to wail. Her forehead was berry-red with mucus and sweat slathered across her cheeks. She worked her jaw up and down as if testing to see if it was broken.
He told her to be quiet, to be still, and forced her to lie back across the truck seats. This took some doing because she kept trying to sit back up, but after a while she complied.
A spur of shame ran through Sloan as he spread his daughter in-law’s legs, but there was no other choice. He looked and saw that the baby was already on its way out. There was black blood and slime and the dome of an infant head staring at him.
He was scared but forced his fear aside and told Jo to push. Jo chanted to herself, some kind of prayer maybe, while the flesh on her thighs jiggled as she trembled. Sloan told her to push again and there was a warning in his voice this time that even quieted Ella.
The plate of the baby’s skull, looking like the base of a greasy tin bowl, seemed to swell with each push Jo gave, but still the baby did not want out.
“You need to focus, Jo. Focus and push.”
She gave it a great effort, huffing, one hand gripping the headrest, the other the steering wheel. She bore down and tried and tried.
They had been at it for fifteen minutes with no progress. During that time several cars passed by them on the highway, one blaring its horn. No one stopped. He could be a man killing a woman and no one would stop.
“Push as hard as you can, Jo. This is going to be over soon.”
When she obeyed, he told her, “Again. Again!”
Finally the head came out, shoulders, too. The baby was wearing its umbilical cord around its neck like some kind of slimy rubber necklace. Sloan uncoiled the cord with great care but as he did so he knew it was too late. The child was a cold, navy color. It did not cry or breathe or do anything.