Tom Piccirilli brings us a story for our current struggling times, taken directly from a broken heart. It is full of realism, grit, and a depth that gives voice to the fears most of us can barely imagine. The terror of loss, the overwhelming dread of failure, the horror of missed-out, mediocre dreams. And the all-too average explosive rage.
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.20(h) x 0.60(d)|
|Age Range:||16 Years|
About the Author
Tom Piccirilli is the author of more than twenty novels, including Shadow Season, The Cold Spot, The Coldest Mile, and A Choir of Ill Children. He’s won two International Thriller Awards and four Bram Stoker Awards, as well as having been nominated for the Edgar, the World Fantasy Award, the Macavity, and Le Grand Prix de L’imagination. Learn more at: www.thecoldspot.blogspot.com.
Read an Excerpt
I was three days into my life as a homeless loser drifter when they broke my nose and dropped me on the street in front of a nameless pawn shop. I hit like two hundred pounds of failed dreams.
My gold band wedding ring was still on my finger, covered in spit, because I'd been trying to work it out of a ten-year groove in my flesh. My mother's beloved nineteenth-century art prints and my father's prized coin collection scattered across the cement. It's all I had left of my parents and all I had left of any value. Churchill barked like a state ward maniac, trying to work his snout through the three-inch space of open car window. He hadn't eaten today and sounded a little raw and weak.
I hadn't even gotten out of Denver yet. I'd been killing time the last few days, circling the city and doing my best not to puke at the thought of driving home to New York and showing up on my brother's doorstep. I knew how it would go down. He would give me the slow once-over. He would pull a face. He wouldn't give me a brotherly hug. He'd chuckle but it wouldn't be tinged with humour, it would be coming from a place behind his spleen where he kept all his self-righteousness. He'd point me to a guest room that would have a fruity air freshener plugged into the wall that spritzed the place down automatically every twenty minutes. It would smell like every funeral I'd ever been to. He'd feed me well and offer me money to help me get back on my feet. He'd set me up on dates with successful middle-aged women who would find my grey hair distinguished and cry in my arms after we made love. He'd hide his sneer and I'd do my best to be grateful until the day came when I went for his throat.
Churchill let loose with a howl. He missed his spot on the end of the futon. I missed my spot lying next to my wife on our king-size bed. I missed my house. The bank owned it now. I'd thought I'd put down some deep roots over the last ten years but they'd all been tugged up like a handful of dying weeds.
I had a final royalty cheque in my pocket for $12.37. For some reason I was hesitant to cash it. Maybe because it was the last money I'd ever see from my writing. My last novel had sold even worse than the one before it, which had sold worse than the one before that, going back more than a decade to the first book, which hadn't done all that well either.
Somehow though, I'd managed to swing the mortgage every month until the so-called economic crisis dovetailed perfectly with the self-destruction of my marriage. I still wasn't sure what had happened. It had all just fallen apart so slowly and steadily that I never noticed I was walking off the big ledge — until the creditors began repossessing my furniture and my wife started texting a guy she called "sweetie." Sweetie came by one day and helped her move all her belongings into the back of his 4 x 4 while I fielded calls from the mortgage company.
I turned over onto my back on the sidewalk in front of the pawn shop and someone kicked me in the ribs. My vision turned red at the edges and my head filled with the voice of my editor telling me I simply wasn't commercial enough. Readers wanted more mainstream material. They didn't want sentences that sounded like poetry. No one read poetry. No one liked poetry. This wasn't the fucking Renaissance.
I tried to tighten into a ball but the next kick caught me in the hinge of the jaw. I tasted blood. It was thick and probably full of sodium and fat or whatever else gave you arterial sclerosis. My old man's heart had given out on the job he'd put forty years into. My mother's heart had failed on her third night in the hospital for a varicose vein operation. My brother's pulse was as strong as a stallion's and he played tennis twice a week with the bluebloods on the bay.
Just for the fuck of it they stomped the prints. Someone went for my ring finger. I really hoped they didn't have wire cutters. They tugged and tugged until I thought my finger would break, but they quit before that. They scooped up the coins.
I couldn't tell how many of these punks there were. Three maybe, looked like your average hardass street trash. They went for my wallet. It made me snicker. What were they going to get there? I had eight bucks in cash and three maxed out credit cards. Good, they could steal them and deal with the bill collectors from now on.
My laughter pissed them off. They started to stomp me. It made me laugh louder. I hoped they would take the royalty cheque and forge my name and try to cash it. I wondered if they could handle the superior smarmy leers of the bank tellers who always gave me the fish eye when I brought in a cheque that small. When I needed to withdraw six bucks so I could put a couple gallons in the car. When I brought in my spare change and it added up to five bucks at a shot.
"This prick is crazy," one of them said.
I sipped air through the pain and clenched my eyes against the tears and wondered if Sweetie was a fan of chick flicks and vanilla incense.
Then they opened the car door and Churchill hit the ground beside me with a thirty-five pound belly-flop. Our gazes met and he gave me such a look of confusion and unconditional love that a sob welled in my chest and nearly broke from my throat. He snuffled at my neck and licked me twice and they went for the keys in my pocket and Churchill went for their ankles.
I had a flash, almost a premonition, where I saw that here it was, my very worst moment in a long chain of very worst moments, where I was going to have to watch them kick my dog to death. It was worse than my wife leaving me, it was worse than losing the house, it was worse than visiting the graves of my parents. It was going to be nearly as bad as the day I'd passed wailing protesters at Planned Parenthood following my wife's staunch shoulders across the lot. They'd break Churchill's back, boot him into the gutter, dance off with my father's coins, and drive away in my car.
Church growled and hung onto an ankle, and the guy tried to shake him and bitched, "Fucking fat dog piece of shit!" His partners found it funny and started to laugh. I got to my knees and then to my feet, and I remembered that I was a man with nothing left who wrote stories about men with nothing left who did ungodly acts of violence against each other.
I wrote from the safety of a desk but the dark cellar door of my failures had opened and called me through it, and I found all my urgent whispering pain and hate, and I laughed again and they turned to look at me and I went to work.CHAPTER 2
I'd lost eighty pounds of flab in the year since Sweetie had entered my life. I vomited more than I ate. A decade at a desk putting my guts on paper had made me obese, and the dissolution of my marriage and stress over a failed career had gnawed at me like cancer. But instead of being sick, I'd become healthy. Lean, trim, strong.
I was still trying to figure out how to use my new body. I moved swiftly in ways I didn't recall. My muscles were corded and black veins twisted along my wrists and forearms. I listened to Churchill snarling while I sucked down my own blood, grabbed the number three punk and hammered him under the heart with a hard right hook.
I hadn't thrown a punch since junior high when some kid hocked on an essay I'd spent three days writing. I still didn't know what that was all about, but I'd brought a wild roundhouse up from my knees that hadn't come within three inches of his chin. He beat the shit out of me. I suspected he had self-esteem issues. Now I had a few of my own.
I lashed out. I kept my hands up and elbows tight to my sides. I'd written a lot of tales of killers on the prowl, heroes defending their honeypies, champions who rose above ignorance and setback to win respect and true love. I wanted to kill the fuckers.
The blood kept pulsing down my throat. The taste reminded me of steak night at Jensen's in LoDo. You finish a sixty ouncer and it's free. Jensen had lost money on my fat ass. Black spots danced in front of my eyes. I twisted and brought an elbow back into the punk's teeth before the number two mook was on me.
My lips moved and a voice I didn't recognize as my own said, "Oh yes." I didn't know to what it was referring. The mook had a bicycle chain wrapped around his knuckles. He was a kid, maybe twenty, wearing one of those knitted hats, baggy jeans, a wife-beater T. I thought he should be at home reading Catcher in the Rye or Slaughterhouse-Five or On the Road. He should be sending me emails about art and literature, and he should beg me to be his mentor. I'd critique his first fumbling steps into the writing world and we'd both suffer the vagaries of art together.
His heavy-lidded eyes held no spark. His face was scabbed over from picking at it so much because the meth had driven his nerves toward frenzy. He punched me in the centre of my chest and the pain fired up into my brain like a short fuse on a stick of sweating dynamite. I almost asked him to do it again.
I gripped his throat in my left hand and tightened my thumb down on his Adam's apple. He made the same kind of sound that Church makes after eating too much chili con carne. I pressed harder. The mook folded in half and I kneed him in the face.
I rushed across my mother's prints to the last punk, who was still trying to shake Churchill loose. I looked at my boy scrabbling for purchase on the cement and thought this was a lot like playing tug-of-war with him in our backyard at home. When we had a home. He looked happy. He looked like he could do this all day long.
The prick was reaching into his back pocket. I hesitated a second, wondering what he was going to pull. I'd written this same scene many times before. I knew the choreography as if we had practised and performed this ballet a thousand nights to raves across the world.
Church finally rolled free with a grunt. He flipped over hard and banged his chin on the curb and let out a yelp. For the first time I realized there were dozens of people lined up on both sides of the street watching. No one offered any help. I didn't see anyone holding a cell phone to their ear calling the cops. It felt like they were all just waiting their turn in line to get at me. An old man at the curb, a girl on a bike. I thought, You next. Then you. Then you. Then you.
The knife finally came out. The prick snapped it open and I noted it was a four-inch blade. I'd written before about knives like this going between ribs and up into the heart. I wondered if he had the skill to do it to me in just the right way. Get up behind me, yank my chin aside, expose the floating ribs, then up and twist. I wondered if I should offer him a clear shot at my left side. I wondered if he even knew that the human heart is on the left side of a man's chest.
He glanced down at his two buddies on the ground. His eyes shifted to my father's coins and he wet his lips. So did I. His gaze finally struck my face and I saw him frown, a bit puzzled now, like he hadn't seen me before, or I wasn't the person he was expecting. The knife wagged back and forth. He wasn't holding it right. He had it gripped in his fist, like he was going to draw it back over his head and plunge it down into a Thanksgiving turkey. I thought he should hand it over now and I'd show him how to grip it correctly. Hold it lightly across the second knuckles, low for easy slashing, stabbing, and perforation.
Deep creases of fear distorted his features. It was the kind of expression I'd woken up to in the bathroom mirror every day for the last ten years. The mortgage and my prostate and the coarse, grey hairs in my beard made me stare at myself in that same way. Curious, alarmed, stupid. Low print runs, shit sales, invasive editorial comments, the sneer of my wife, it all fucked my face up no differently than a couple of years of crank would have.
He wised up just a touch and decided to make a run for it. I angled myself in front of him. Church waddled over and sat behind me.
The prick said, "I'm a suicidal meth-head, bitch! I got nothing to lose!"
I cocked my chin and stared at him. He was in better shape than me and wore better clothing. I could see the bulge of a wallet in his front pocket. He might've stolen the cash but at least he had some. A gold chain with Z Loves M spelled out in diamonds hung from his neck. He had youth, gold, diamonds — he even had a girl.
Everything I owned was in the back seat of my car, packed into a couple of boxes and a rucksack. Church and I shared an old comforter for warmth. The pawn shop had everything else that my wife and the creditors hadn't taken. All the CDs, DVDs, first editions of my valuable books, my comic book collection, my signed posters, everything that had made me who I was would be making other men into who they were. My wallet didn't bulge. In it I had photos of my dead parents and my brother and me as kids, a driver's license with an invalid address, and a library card.
A voice that might've been mine said, "Well, come on then."
We circled each other and he made fitful hacking motions with the blade. I knew the correct way to defend myself was to take off my jacket and wrap it around my right arm. But there wasn't going to be any point to that. He was either going to get lucky and chop me through the sternum or I was going to break his wrist and stomp his guts. I already had both images firmly embedded in my mind.
I saw myself with the knife jutting from my chest, my eyes rolling back into my head, my legs giving out as I fell. There wouldn't be much blood. The knife would stop my heart almost instantly so there wouldn't be any arterial spray arcing out into traffic onto passing windshields. They'd drag me off and bury me in whatever landfill this city's potter's field passed for. They'd toss Churchill in the pound where he'd growl at all the little girls who made faces at him. They'd consider him unadoptable and give him a hotshot two weeks later.
I saw me reaching out with my left hand, my weak hand, yet somehow full of power at this moment, grabbing hold of his wrist and squeezing. The tiny bones grinding together and forcing a cry from his mouth. He'd hang onto the blade for a couple of seconds and then it would clatter to the cement. I'd tug him forward until we were nose to nose and I'd hiss, "Oh, Z, you just don't know what it means to have nothing to lose." It wouldn't be a good line. I wouldn't snap it off the way my protagonists might in my novels. It would hang in the air for too long and then I'd twist my hip into his groin and I'd duck and pull him forward across my back. He'd somersault in the air and land with a crunch. Vertebrae in his lower back would pop so loudly that Churchill would back away from the sound. Z would start wailing in pain. I knew how much lower back pain hurt. When I carried all the extra weight I'd get out of bed groaning and have to take a handful of pain medication and muscle relaxants to start my day. Then I'd kick Z in the forehead just hard enough to put him out.
I looked down and there he was, bleeding from his scalp, unconscious but moaning like a lonely old man in his sleep. The mob around us began to move again.
I reached into his pocket and grabbed his bulging wallet. He was brazen enough to keep some packets of crystal stuffed in it. It seemed like no one else in the world held any fear of doing any fucking stupid or evil thing they felt like doing except for me. There was about eight hundred in cash. It would help keep me and Church going on the road to New York. I backed away and tossed his wallet on top of his chest. Then I turned and gathered up my things from the sidewalk.
I thought, Shit, I'm still not dead.CHAPTER 3
The guy in the nameless pawn shop took my father's coins and the battered remnants of my mother's prints from me. His shelves were stacked with the vestiges of my life. It was like walking into some alternate version of my house. Even a few literary awards I'd won over the years were tagged as paperweights and bookends.
In a display of mercy he waved me forward and offered to set my nose straight again. I swallowed a squeal while he placed his blunt hands on my face and cartilage crackled and snapped. He let me wash my face in his bathroom and then packed my nostrils with gauze and taped the bridge of my nose. When he was done he said, "Not so bad."
In the shine of his glass counter top I saw that my nose looked like hamburger. I glanced down at Church and he did a nervous little dance and snorted at my knee as if to push me back to the home we'd once had.
The pawn shop owner offered me a pittance for the coins and prints, the same as he'd robbed me on all the rest of my shit, but it was no less than I'd get anywhere else in these times. I took it.
Church groaned. He was hungry. We started for the door and were almost there when I turned.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Every Shallow Cut"
Copyright © 2011 Tom Piccirilli.
Excerpted by permission of ChiZine Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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