This is a preview my second, full-length novel, A Shadow Paler. For additional content or publication interest, please contact at joshua.a.crook@gmail.com or via Twitter.
Content Warnings: Abuse, blood, death, and violence.
The Present Truth

 

Jonas sat at the bus stop and spit seeds out onto the searing concrete. The West Texas sun hit the bench beneath the awning and shadows hung from the back of the building. Jonas’ saliva dried on the seed as it sat prone and broken on the ground and it became a pimple on the old gray asphalt, like this place in the world and like him within it. Jonas wiped his tangled and peppered beard and smeared the leftovers of shell bits. His eyes narrowed and unnarrowed as the heatwaving plains beyond him manifested ghastly shadows that swung their dark hips to and fro until they disappeared into potholes like skittish mercury but one shadow remained. It came closer until it took the form of a man.

              Jonas turned away and looked toward the road to town. It cut through the middle of everything like a great scar of modernity. Brick halfbuildings remained on each side of the road—the remnants of Eli’s Bookstore. When the road came through, it severed the building’s stubborn rebar and plumbing that jutted from the earth. Jonas remembered people saying, They don’t make buildings like this anymore. Judith Lynn, Savannah’s child, took an interest in reading and was one of the bookstore’s few clients. The girl couldn’t stop the old place from being gutted and she watched it happen. The place died because no one read between television and gossip in Bales, and it was a strong building with a weak modern premise. Beyond the short stumps of houses and abandoned main street buildings were great fields, cultivated with flowering cotton plants stretching to the flat horizon, each field and its pseudo-nature jarred by rocking horse heads of pump jacks.

              Jonas turned back to the approaching man. The man wore a black wool suit in the heat. He was old like Jonas, but thinner. His beard was shorter and trimmed and he looked clean for walking a highway. Jonas looked around the man for the bus. Sometimes it didn’t come at all and he wasn’t sure he’d go if it did.

              When the man arrived, he smelled of musk cologne. His suit was clean of lint or grassy things or dirt at the ends of his pants and Jonas saw himself in the ebon mirror of the man’s shoes. The man carried a scuffed black briefcase in his hand and stood quiet at an intimate distance. Jonas said nothing so the man broke the silence.

              It ever occur to you that, though the sun’s beatin down from ninety three million miles away, on that summer road it feels like hot coals are crammed into your armpits?

              Jonas spit.

              And look at this right here, too, the man said. You’re sittin here waitin for a bus, I presume, just scorchin outright. It aint right. You’d think the Lord’d have mercy.

              God aint always merciful, Jonas said.

              I guess he aint after all, is he? the man said. I read of the trials and tribulations, the sensations, gold-cast imitation of things other than God and I remember he’s a wrathful god too. But mercy me.

              You want somethin? Jonas said.

              Do you?

              What’s that?

              I said, do you want somethin?

              I want you to tell me what you want and why you’re botherin me.

              Aint no real bother in just sharing a short conversation with a new friend of mine, the man said.

              I don’t know you and we aint friends, Jonas said.

              Well, maybe that’s somethin you and I can rectify.

              Jonas cracked a couple seeds between his teeth and snorted. His red, glossy eyes stung from sweat breaking down his forehead and through carved wrinkles, each a canyon wrought of sweat itself. The man turned away and put his briefcase down on the black asphalt and the leather hissed against the heat. He flipped open two golden clasps and the man put a white cloth to the side and rifled through things that sounded like metal and glass. When he found what he was looking for, he put the white cloth back inside the briefcase and closed it again. He revealed a handheld fan.

              Jonas stopped chewing and watched.

              This here is what you want, aint it? the man said.

              What is it?

              It’s a fan. An electric fan you can hold right in your hand. You ever seent anything quite like this?

              Maybe once on television.

              And yet here it is, the man said.

              What about it?

              I bet you could use one a these right now, with all this heat.

              What’ll it do?

              Well, you could try it and see for yourself, the man said. Aint nothin I could say that it couldn’t say for itself, this thing here.

              The man gave the handheld fan to Jonas and Jonas took it. Jonas’ hand was big with fat fingers and his skin was darker than the man’s. Jonas lifted it to his face and he watched the suited man through the still blades and smirked.

              Go on now and hit the switch there, the man said.

              Jonas did. He pulled his face back as the fan blades spun around in a flurry, creating a small gray circle in front of Jonas that buzzed. Jonas felt the cool air and couldn’t help but smile. Then a single puff of wet mist shot through the blades and dewed Jonas’ face and he lowered the fan.

              What was that? Jonas said.

              That right there was water, the man said. You can fill it with water right there on the bottom and it’ll shoot out and mist you just like that. Just like that.

              Jonas checked the bottom of the cylinder and noticed a small plastic cap. He eyed the man before he brought the fan to his face and misted it again.

              Feels nice, don’t it? the man said.

              I’d be lyin if I said it didn’t, as hot as it is.

              Well, how about you have it?

              Have it?

              Well, sure. It aint free, but it won’t cost you much.

              I aint got but a bus fare, mister, and I don’t think that’s what you want.

              And how much is that?

              Maybe five dollars or so to get to the next town, Jonas said.

              Well, listen, for five dollars, I’d be willing to part there with that thing and I’ll be damned if I aint being stolen from and it aint a steal on account of you, but if you like it right now like you say you do, it's as good as yours for five dollars.

              For five dollars? Jonas said.

              I reckon so.

              Jonas turned the thing off and set it down on his lap and stared at it. Just a piece of compact machinery. Jonas pulled a wrinkled five dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to the man. The man took it. He put the bill in his pocket and picked up his briefcase and looked down the road to the town.

              What’s down that way? the man said.

              Bales, Texas.

              Like hay bales?

              Yessir.

              Farming town? the man said.

              Town there’s got a little a everything and a lot a nothin.

              I’d best be gettin on then, the man said.

              Mister, Jonas said.

              Yeah?

              What’s your name?

              Erbert Ellington. That’s Erbert with no H.

              Jonas nodded and wiped away cold bits of wet dew stuck to his stringy beard hairs.

              Jonas Deckard.

              A true pleasure Jonas. A true pleasure, Erbert said.

              Erbert nodded toward the town and then he went that way and he whistled as he went off, and as he passed signs or caught a breeze, the sound bent into eerie groans. Jonas lifted the fan to his face and turned it on. A minute later the bus showed up and Jonas didn’t have the money to take it so he didn’t and just sat there.

No Blood Be Shed for Him

 

              On the corner of Main Street was Earl’s Auto Parts and it was once a gas station too before going out of business. The pumps stood next to each other shoulder to shoulder like stalky robots with ripped out guts. Inside of their skinless bodies were stringy wires with frayed ends. A Texaco logo was rusted over and massive pits painted it leper. Scrawled into the pumps with key ends were confessions of teenage love come and gone. The sign over the hollow store once read Auto Parts but now it read utopia and the missing letters from the sign bore fossiliferous traces and were readable yet. The I in utopia was struck in red with the obvious dedication of a single stroke. Most people in Bales didn’t know what a utopia was.

              Liam and Colten Divine were twins and were the only twins in Bales. They wore leather jackets with useless zippers like scars. Their jeans were a light wash but dirty. No one could tell them apart by looking at them but Colten was deaf and he had been since he was a baby. Most of the town knew that their dad was an abusive alcoholic and Colten was his drum ever since the two came out. There wasn’t any reason why Colten was beaten and Liam wasn’t. But the two became closer to one for Colten’s deafness. When Liam spoke, Colten felt the rumble of the words in his own chest. Where Liam was one hand of some greater body, Colten was the other.

              Mac McKenzie, or Big Mac as he was referred to by most, was the only cop in town. He was also the county sheriff for as long as anyone could remember. He surveyed the town rarely and when he passed by the boys that afternoon in a patrol car, the boys hid liquor bottles and small, rattling paper bags away. Mac gave them a stare before lifting a prescription bottle in front of his face and the sunlight, through its empty, orange shell smeared across Mac’s wide-brimmed, white cowboy hat, and as soon as he was gone, they pulled the liquor back out and returned to drinking.

              After an hour, more young boys arrived. They were a mess of rags and each of them hadn’t showered in days. They were rank with adolescence. In the end there were ten of them altogether and Liam stood up on top of an old plastic crate and looked down at their miserable faces. He wiped the edge of his lips and pointed to one of them.

              What’d you figure out? Liam said.

              They got somebody comin, I think, the boy said from under Liam’s pointed finger.

              You know who it is? Someone from out of town?

              I don’t know. Only know that someone’s comin for sure.

              Liam looked back at Colten and Colten nodded. Colten walked forward and grabbed the boy by the hair and shoved his face against the broken concrete building. The boy cried and the others crowded around him to hide the confrontation from the rest of the world.

              I told you to have a name before you come back, Liam said.

              I know, the boy said against the wall. His cheek was smashed and his lips were a big oval. His buck teeth were hissing out his hot breath. Then he said, But they aint sayin anything about it out loud or nothin.

              Then get in the building and look for something, Liam said.

              Look for somethin?

              Colten smashed the boy’s face harder against the wall and the boy whined and tears welled at his underlids.

              Okay okay, the boy said.

              Been long enough, hasn’t it? Liam said.

              The boys all nodded. Colten nodded too.

              This town is ours, aint it? Liam said.

              They nodded again.

              You know, we all have it pretty easy with Big Mac, but you get one a these uppity fucks from the outside tryin to change the world and everything won’t be easy anymore, I can tell you that. Then what? You won’t eat as you’ve ate. You won’t have shit.

              The boys all stared at Liam.

              Then maybe we go back to the way things were before. Ignored. Hungry. Forgotten about.

              They all looked at one another.

              Liam stepped down from the crate and he put a hand on Colten’s shoulder and Colten let the boy go. The boy unglued from the wall and the sound it made was wet. The boy rubbed his raw cheek and it was cut near the cheekbone. A line of blood ran to the boy’s chin and Liam watched it.

              When no one’s afraid, there aint no order, Liam said. And we’re always the first ones to suffer.

              Colten folded his arms and leaned back against the wall. He stamped the back of his jacket into the blood he’d drawn from the boy and made nothing of it. Colten’s gray eyes scanned the scared and turbulent faces of the other children, each a product of Bales’ brokenness and poverty. Things went quiet when Liam paused, but things were always quiet for Colten. When Colten was angry, he thought he heard something. It sounded like a river, but he couldn’t have compared it so.

              You’re gonna find his name, Liam said and he turned to the bloodied boy. Hell, maybe you’ll find his home. We’ll welcome him too, won’t we? Maybe his wife. His kids.

              The boy rubbed his cheek and the blood had already dried. The others nodded and made sounds of guttural affirmation.

              Liam waved them off and the boys each went in a different direction and the angles between each of them were the same. It was anomalous and accidental math between idiots.

 

Liam and Colten walked home together. Their father’s old Chevy was outside of their small mobile home and the truck’s bed was full of crushed cans and bottle caps each reflecting the sun in a different way but all beholden of an unseen darkness in the home beyond. Liam and Colten’s mobile home needed paint and the original turf green exterior had become a patched wasteland of lime and greater yellow, a quilt of sores sewn of neglect. Three stairs on a metal frame rose to the thin door and each stair was a leftover of years of woodrot. The wooden planks bent and leaned with each step as the two went up them. It was natural for boys to take in a long breath before they opened the door, but the smell of death clung to the outside walls of the trailer too. They opened the door and went inside.

              They closed the door behind them. The television whispered a low static as black and white dots skittered around droplets of red, dried blood. Blood dotted the walls and countertops, the ripped curtains and stainless steel kitchenware. In the center of the room, between the bowing of reverent and unstable furniture, breached the shoulders and head of Colten and Liam’s dead father; a stump rising from beneath the broken floorboards where his body sat in his recliner still, sunken within shallow crawlspace below. Their father’s head leaned against the stained recliner’s back with heavenward eyes, sunken by repeated blunt trauma, and his mouth sneered, ripped beyond the limits of any smile, yet his expression fringed upon marveled disbelief. A circular stove grate decorated the top of his head and the bloody metal pipe used to kill him rose from between his thighs, resting against his limp shoulder. Wayward light plunged through cat-chewed holes in the home’s skirting and the beams crisscrossed within the pit.

              Liam and Colten circled him. They leaned and looked down into the hole and to the trailer’s concrete foundation. Blood bloomed from below the chair outward in the shape of a flower. The loose ends of errant skin and teeth textured the ground. They felt gravity of his death pulling them so they backed away, while the furniture around them creaked with submission, tipping closer. Pockets of fluids and gasses hissed as they burst in expansion of their father’s putridity. The boys looked to each other and walked through the lightless home to the kitchen.

              They pulled bottles of pills from brown plastic bags and swallowed pills until the smells and the sights subsided. They sat on the yellowed, linoleum kitchen floor, sticky with old bacon grease. They played cards together with a deck so scarred that they knew each card by its back. The competition became predictable but the comfort of predictability fled when they glanced to living room. They played in the haze of highness until they slept on the hard kitchen floor on a bed of scattered cards, among kings, and queens, and jokers all. Their tired bodies rolled while asleep from instinctual resistance to the fetid toxicity of the room. When either would wake and saw their father, the panic evoked a dreadful wail that the other would calm to sleep again. In the early morning, they woke before first light and smoked cigarettes quietly from the back of their father’s truck and watched as the sun rose and everything began again—predictably—while the trailer behind them groaned as it drew towards its center.

  • Twitter
  • Black Instagram Icon
  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black YouTube Icon
  • goodreads_4096_black

© 2020 Joshua Aaron Crook (I probably don't have the money to sue you.)