Here’s something I hope you’ll like and will comment on, an excerpt from a novel I’m working on called The Last Pope of Antioch. Be sure to let me know what you think of it. Thanks!
Part One: The Red Convertible
The red convertible flew down the dusty, empty road like flame seeking something to ignite. The driver concentrated on his task. Seeing far beyond his horizon, far past his destination, he stared out through the waves of heat reflected from the road surface, sunglasses wrapped around his face seeming to form themselves to the contour of it. His face was angular, giving the impression of sharpness. Although it had been days since he had shaved, his pockmarked skin, possibly an artifact of the ravages of youth, showed no sign of stubble. The truth of it was that he had never developed a beard, so common in other men, and he counted himself lucky to be spared the razor, that dragging of sharp steel across unprotected flesh.
It may have been a reflection of light off the red convertible, complete with a red interior, but his skin had also taken on an unnatural redness. It was redness from more than just exposure or windburn. The redness stayed with him and was part of him. Contrasting with the redness was a gold ring that complimented his left ear and a dark, flat, wide-brim hat turned low in the front to shade his eyes.
He drove on through the wasted land, never turning, never stopping, never caring for what or who might either be by or in the road. Had there been a what or who, he would have simply gone around or through, never slowing, never losing his fix on that which his sight, not his eyes, showed him. His eyes sometimes failed him, but his sight was perfect. With his sight he saw the city, but before the city was—
The small town, it’s stick buildings little more than a flashpoint in the sun, stood as the last habitation before the hundreds of miles of borderland that separated the wastelands from the city. The wastelands were death. No one enters the wastelands and no one ever leaves was the old adage. The borderlands offered at least the possibility of life. And yet there he was, about to leave the wastelands, the cloud of dust generated by his flight still drifting across the scorched earth.
He brought the red convertible to a halt in front of what, in another life, may have been a hotel or saloon, but now it was a little more than a façade, a former shadow of itself. Despite its appearance, it seemed to offer respite from the glare of the hardpan and the suggestion that there might be drink. He sensed that there was life here, the smell of it was undeniable. If there was life, then there had to be water, or even better, hard drink. And if it was here, he would have it.
He was right about the life, of course, within the building were people―old, gray, frighteningly thin―dressed in rags, remnants of a time even before their remembering. Shadows within shadows, their existence was survival. Each breath was their work, every drop of sweat a cost. Trapped by their circumstances, they hid within their prison, terrified of the light. Their prison had been their home, a boarding house in the beforetime, now it was their coffin.
At his coming, the tremor of his engine brought them to the windows, disbelieving their own senses. And suddenly it was there and the very sight of it filled them with trepidation. Bright red body, chrome wheels, immaculate tires, it was something so alien to the people, so foreign, even to the concept of it, that they dared not even consider approaching it. So they stayed inside, hidden back against the shadows until he emerged from it. It was upon his emergence that the people turned from awe to trembling.
Had there been one still, or for that matter had there been one ever, one might say that he was dressed for Florida. But of course, there was no Florida, and not to anyone’s knowledge had there ever been. There was only the here and now, the hot dry hardpan of the wasteland. Yet there he was, with his leather deck shoes without socks, white khaki slacks, and a brightly flowered shirt, loose and airy. All these were clothes foreign to this where and when, a rash display of color foreign to this drab world of dust and dirt.
In a moment he was standing in the boarding house doorway. With the open door, light and heat burst in from the street, temporarily incinerating the shadow. He walked through the door, staring into the shadow, and squinted his dark green eyes together in an attempt to focus. As the door closed, the shadow regained its dominion.
Around him was noise, at first almost imperceptible, then it rose to a shuffling and the unmistakable sound of several someones trying far too hard to be quiet. Those sounds were followed by animated mumbling, but he could make out a few words. There was the word “stranger”, the word “red”, and the word “dangerous”. He didn’t like that at all. He didn’t come here to make trouble, just to get what he needed and leave.
The room he entered had, perhaps, been intended as a foyer with a sort of welcome desk facing the front door, but now there were several dusty tables with chairs between the desk and the door. This suggested to him that at some point in time the tables had been necessary to accommodate an overflow beyond the normal capacity of the dining room. The extra tables and chairs certainly weren’t needed now as the entire population of this town, including him, could probably be seated at two tables.
He picked a table in the center of the room and, after blowing the dust away from the seat, sat down.
“Barkeep!” he shouted to the shadows. “Whiskey for me and my friends. And water for my pony.” He spoke with a gritty brogue.
The shuffling and murmuring in the shadows grew more pronounced. He drummed his fingers on the table, not impatiently, but as if keeping time with a tune only he could hear. No, he was not impatient. He knew they would come to him eventually. They had to. They always did.
From the murmuring, from the shadows, came the first to be drawn. A tremulous, barely audible voice.
“Ain’t no whiskey nor water,” said the voice. “None since the beforetime.”
The beforetime. A quaint reference to the mythical time before this and all the worlds changed, he thought. And the thought brought him a tenuous grin. It was all myth to them and it would remain so. Their miserable lives were full of myths, like whiskey, ice cream, and God. When you have nothing else, myths fill the dark, empty, scary places in the lives of the lost.
“You may not have whiskey, but you must have water,” he said. “If you are alive, you must have water.”
The voices murmured were again punctuated by shuffling feet.
“Ain’t enuf ta share,” said the voice. “Ya bitter go now for the dark come.”
“Good advice,” he replied, “but I must still have water. Haven’t you heard that man cannot live by bread alone, he must also have water?”
More murmuring, more shuffling feet.
“God,” said the voice. This time he spoke more confidently. “Must have God.”
“God?” he asked, and then followed with, “No God, just water.”
“No water,” said the voice
“No whiskey. No water. No God,” he said flatly. “Are you ghosts that you have nothing, want nothing?”
“Not ghosts, alive all,” said the voice defensively.
He smiled now, as genuinely as he was able, disarmingly so.
“Then show me you are alive. I have not seen anyone in weeks,” he said. “Would you not share yourselves with a stranger?”
There was more murmuring and in the murmuring was fear. Their fear was palpable. He could feel it like a buzz in the air surrounding him, and he was glad for it. The fear made him strong and them weak. Fear opened the empty places so he could fill them with—
Darkness, more darkness than Kef Haener had ever experienced. And cold, even amid the one hundred and ten degree heat, he was chilled. He stood among them, suddenly struggling for breath with a thousand times his weight pulling him downward, down into a dark chasm within himself, down into the dark and the cold. In his terror he cried out.
“Stop! It hurts!” Kef screamed. “The dark. The cold. The…” He stopped screaming suddenly, because there was something else in there with him. He stopped screaming just short of naming it. His cries turned to pleas. “Make it stop. Oh, God, please make it stop.”
“No God,” the stranger said affectlessly. “No god can stop it, only I can. But you need to be emptied before you can be filled.”
Kef had fallen backwards violently, as if pushed, back into the small cluster of men and women in the shadows. In falling he knocked over a table and several chairs, creating a general tumult that scared the others and filled them with fear that the same thing would happen to them. They pulled back from Kef, not understanding what was happening. They could not comprehend his terror, could not conceive how the stranger was responsible, but were sure that he was. They shrank even farther back into the shadows while Kef began to gather himself. He stood, wobbly at first, but stood unaided, and then slowly, deliberately walked forward towards the stranger.
“Kef,” said the stranger, “if you would look behind the desk, I believe that there is a closet. In the back of the closet there is a panel that, once pressed, will open to reveal a trove of little treasures. And a bottle of whiskey. If you would bring me the bottle of whiskey with some water, I would be extremely grateful.”
Kef didn’t know why, but he was no longer afraid of the stranger, in fact he wanted to please the man. When the stranger requested the whiskey and water, he had no other thought than to comply. He found the bottle of whiskey and from a jug hidden behind the desk he poured a glass of water. He poured the precious liquid without thinking, without considering that it was all they had. One partially filled jug of water for all of them to share. The others, still afraid to show themselves, watched with horror as what little they had was presented to the stranger. Their horror turned to an impotent rage as Kef set the glass and bottle down.
“Leave the whiskey with me,” said the stranger, “but the water goes to my pony.”
“Pardon?” Kef looked confused.
“My little red pony.” The stranger made a waving motion towards the convertible. “The radiator must need water by now. Just check it and fill up the radiator if it’s low.”
Having never seen a convertible, much less a radiator, Kef stood there dumbfounded, unable to express his confusion.
“Hmmm,” mulled the stranger, “I can see where you might have a problem with that.” He stood up. “Grab the jug of water and come with me.” He motioned for Kef to follow him as he walked towards the door, whiskey bottle in hand. Kef followed obediently, although still not completely understanding why.
Outside in the terrible glare of the sun, the stranger unlatched the hood and explained to Kef about an automobile. The reservoir for the radiator was low and the stranger instructed Kef how to fill it. As Kef poured the water into the reservoir, angry, confused faces watched from the shadows through dust crusted windows.
Kef lowered the hood and was about to go back inside the boarding house when the stranger motioned for him to wait.
“You don’t need to go back in there,” he said. “Their destiny is no longer yours.” Kef didn’t understand what the stranger meant by that, but had no desire to question it. He turned and walked obediently back to the car.
The stranger stood for a moment staring at the boarding house. He shrugged his shoulders as if whatever he was contemplating had concluded without real resolution. Still holding the whiskey bottle, he screwed off the lid and held it up to his lips, taking a deep draught. He turned to Kef to offer him a drink, but then pulled it back as if thinking better of it. Next, he removed a rag that was lying on the dashboard of the convertible and tore off a strip which he soaked with whiskey. He shoved the whiskey soaked rag down the neck of the bottle. Taking a match, one perhaps saved for this specific purpose, from his pocket, he struck it and set the rag on fire. He watched the fire burn for a moment, then with an overhand pitch threw the bottle in a perfect arc, smashing it into and through the open door of the boarding house.
Immediately the dry timber building was an inferno. There was barely enough time for those left inside to realize they were dead, no time for anguish or prayers. Within minutes there was only ash and ember.
Kef’s reaction of horror was real, if delayed. He had known that others would die. He had known that from the moment the stranger walked into the boarding house. The others were different, somehow lesser, like bit players that existed only to keep him occupied until the stranger arrived. It was the suddenness of their deaths that shocked Kef, the sheer suddenness. And now he was alone with the stranger.
And now they were in the convertible, flying towards the borderlands at what Kef believed to be an unimaginable speed. The vehicle, the red pony as the stranger called it, moving almost soundlessly on the road, was something totally foreign to Kef. Yes, there were those that talked about such things, about how things like that existed in the beforetime, long ago before the world changed. As foreign as the concept of the red convertible was to him, one might have well described a moon landing, ice cream, or God.
© Copyright 2014 by Kevin Fraleigh.