I knew those would be my wife’s first words when she got home. I went to kiss her hello. Her eyes burned through me. I paused at a safe distance.
“It’s a hearse,” I said. My enthusiastic grin bounced off her like rain on granite.
“I know it’s a hearse. Why the hell is it here?”
A hell-oriented pun of a reply died on my lips. “We own it,” I said.
“Oh no. We don’t. What were you thinking when you bought it? ‘I’ve always wanted a car that transported dead people.’?”
“I think the politically correct phrase for them is ‘post-living’. It fits my image. I’m a horror writer now.”
“You published one book.”
“The Horror Writer’s Association says I’m a horror writer.”
“And I say you’re an idiot. And that rusting pile of junk in the driveway confirms my assessment. How do they back up theirs?”
Hard as it may be to believe, this encounter was going better than I planned. No china had been thrown. Yet.
“That car is a classic,” I said. “It’s a 1960 Caddy with suicide doors.”
“The only thing committing suicide is our marriage if that thing doesn’t find its way to the junkyard it deserves.”
“It will be like advertising. I can drive it to book signings.”
“You don’t do book signings.”
“Because I don’t have a car worthy of one. Now I do.”
“This is like when you bought that headstone and thought we were going to put it in the front yard. Or when you wanted to add a belfry to the house.”
“No, no. Those ideas were stupid. This is practical.”
“It’s got loads of room. We can get our money’s worth at Costco now. You can buy that 250-count toilet paper pack you’ve been eyeing.”
“And how many miles per gallon do we get on our embarrassing jaunt to Costco?”
“On the highway. But once I have the engine and carb rebuilt, it could go as high as ten. Plus we can use it as a camper. The back area can easily sleep two.”
“If it’s still in the driveway tonight, it’ll certainly be sleeping one.”
“Halloween’s coming up in two weeks. Think how cool we will be driving this baby to the Fright Night Party. You didn’t want to wear costumes. Ensconced in this Detroit classic, we won’t need to. We’ll just say we’re undertakers.”
“I’d rather wear a costume than be caught dead, well, alive in that thing.”
I sensed a risk/reward analysis calculating in her head.
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “Get that rolling wreck out of here first thing in the morning, and I’ll do costumes to Fright Night.”
“Ugh. Yes, fine, vampires.”
She entered our bedroom. I followed. A pillow flew out and hit me in the face.
“You’re still sleeping in Bleak Beauty out there.”
I smiled, victorious. I’d only borrowed the car. And we would be vampires at Fright Night.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Russell James is offering one signed paperback copy of his book Dark Inspiration. To enter post a comment in the section below or e-mail email@example.com and put HH CONTEST ENTRY in the header. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by e-mail.
RUSSELL JAMES has published the paranormal thrillers Dark Inspiration and Sacrifice, as well as the alternate history Touch and Go. His next novel Black Magic will be published in 2013. His short stories appeared at Tales of Old, Encounters and Dark Gothic Resurrected magazines. His wife reads what he writes, rolls her eyes, and says “There is something seriously wrong with you.” They share their home in sunny Florida with two cats.
Purchase ebook or paperback Sacrifice at http://www.amazon.com/Sacrifice-ebook/dp/B008DZNWCC/ref=sr_1_1_title_1_kin?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1347490083&sr=1-1&keywords=sacrifice+russell+james
“SACRIFICE is a straight-up thrill ride. Fast-paced writing with unexpected twists left me on the edge of my seat through-out much of the book. I actually found myself comparing Russell James style to Stephen King in several places… With the boys, he has created a core group of protagonists that we can’t help but cheer for, the quintessential underdogs.”
-Cheryl Beal at Fresh Fiction
Read an excerpt from Sacrifice:
Lightning arced across the night sky. In its flash, the Sagebrook water tower stood like a gleaming white beacon above the trees on the hill. Ten seconds later, thunder rolled in behind it, the way every event has an echo that follows.
Five figures scurried along the catwalk around the tower, one of the old-fashioned kinds, where a squat cylinder with a conical hat sat on six spindly steel legs a few hundred feet in the air. A newer tower served the people’s water needs, but the old girl was an icon for the Long Island town, so the trustees kept it painted white and emblazoned with the “Sagebrook—Founded in 1741” logo to remind themselves of their heritage. Once per year, the logo changed to celebrate the graduation of the Whitman High senior class.
The boys on the catwalk were going to see that this year it changed twice. These seniors had committed more than their fair share of pranks—stolen street signs, a tap into the high school PA system, swapping the state flag in front of school with the Jolly Roger. But this stunt would top them all.
They had all met in the sixth grade, where their teacher had dubbed them “The Dirty Half Dozen” due to their inseparability and penchant for trouble. The title had stuck. They hadn’t done anything as dangerous as tonight’s foray, but anything worth a good laugh was worth doing.
“Who’s got the red?” Bob whispered, though no one but the boys could be within earshot. He crouched at the base of the new banner that read “Congratulations Class of 1980” with “Go Minutemen” painted underneath in red letters. Bob was rail thin with an unruly head of brown hair that consented to a part on the right and little else. An unlit cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth.
“Right here,” Paul said. He handed Bob a can of red spray paint. Paul stood several inches taller than the rest of the boys, and his broad shoulders made the narrow catwalk a tight fit. He wore his Minutemen football team jacket, though Dave had told him the white leather sleeves would look like two glow worms crawling across the tower at night. His hair was cropped close, and he sported the shadow of what he euphemistically called a moustache.
A blast of cold wind hit the tower. The snaps on Paul’s jacket hit the metal railing with a reverberating ping.
A third boy, Jeff, hung over the catwalk railing. He had a long face with ears that stuck out just enough for a good round of elementary school ribbing. He held his New York Mets ball cap tight as he looked down at the perimeter fence. A ten-year-old Olds Vista Cruiser station wagon idled near the hole in the fence. There was a slight lope to the modified V8’s rumbling exhaust through the turbo mufflers. The headlights were off, but the parking lights lit the edges of the car. Jeff spoke into a cheap Japanese walkie-talkie.
“Dave,” he said. “What the hell are you doing with the lights on?”
“Damn,” Dave answered from the Vista. “Sorry man.” The marker lights in the car went dark. “It’s clear down here.”
“At two a.m. it had better be,” said Ken, a redheaded kid with a rash of freckles across his cheekbones. He slipped behind Jeff to join Bob and Paul. He brushed against Jeff’s butt as he squeezed by.
“Watch it, homo,” Jeff said.
“It’s your ass,” Ken said. “It’s so enticing. We’re here in the dark…”
“Hey,” Bob snapped. “You girls want to shut the fuck up and start spraying?”
Twin lightning flashes lit a big cloud like a floating anvil-shaped lantern. Thunder crackled across the sky five seconds later.
Marc, the last boy on the tower, sat where the access ladder met the catwalk. His feet dangled through the opening. Both hands gripped the catwalk rail. He was the slightest of the group, and he had to brace himself against a renewed gust of wind that rocked his thick, curly, black hair back and forth. There were only four cans of paint, so he could have stayed in the car on watch with Dave. But he had something to prove by climbing the tower, though he wasn’t sure if it was to the others or to himself. The journey did enlighten him about one thing. He was definitely acrophobic.
“We better hurry,” Marc said. “We don’t want to be up here in the rain.”
“You said we’d have clear weather,” Paul said to Ken as Ken handed him a can of white spray paint.
“No,” Ken said. “I said there was a twenty percent chance of a shower. When I have a few free hours, I’ll explain probability to you, Jockstrap.”
“There’s a one hundred percent probability I’m going to throw you all off this fucking tower if you don’t shut up,” Bob said. The spray can in his hand started to hiss. “If we don’t do this tonight, they’ll have time to paint over it before graduation. Let’s go.”
“All for none…” Paul said.
“And none for all,” the group finished. The teens’ unofficial motto, in its sarcastic denial of camaraderie, completely represented their philosophy.
Paul, Jeff and Ken joined in, and the side of the tower sounded like a den of spitting cobras. The “G” in “Go” lost a few of its edges. A “B” took shape on the tower’s side.
Another bolt of lightning arced from the anvil cloud to the ground. This time the thunder reported only a second after. The smell of rain wafted in on the breeze. A spray of fat drops splattered against the tank like machine gun fire.
“Hey, guys,” Dave’s voice said from the walkie-talkie in Jeff’s belt. “It’s starting to rain down here. Is it raining up there?”
“No,” Ken answered to himself with a roll of his eyes. “It always rains from the ground up.”
Jeff gave a quick look at the peak of the tower, then at the approaching cloud. “This thing is one hell of a conductor. We should…”
Lightning split the sky above their heads. The thunder was simultaneous and sharp, so loud the boys could feel it rumble.
“Hang on, wussies,” Bob said. He gave the tower one last blast from his can. He stood up and leaned back against the railing. “Go Minutemen” had been transformed into “Blow Minutemen.”
Paul gave his “L” one final shot of red. He appraised his work with an admiring stare. “How did Ms. Kravitz ever give me a D in Art?”
Marc stood at the ladder, one foot on the first rung. “Let’s go!”
The air around them seemed to come alive, as if the molecules had decided to dance in circles around each other. The hair on the boys’ arms stood on end. Jeff’s walkie-talkie buzzed like a cicada. A freezing downdraft swept the catwalk. Five heartbeats went into overdrive.
“Lay flat!’ Jeff shouted.
The boys dove for the decking. Marc, already on the ladder, just hung on.
A white light blinding as the power of God enveloped the tower. Deafening thunder blanketed the boys, and the air turned hot and dry. Uncountable volts pumped through the tower as the lightning bolt ripped from the spire on the peak to the ground below. Jeff’s radio exploded in a shower of sparks and melted plastic. The boys’ bodies jittered against the catwalk decking, belt buckles clanging against the steel. Clothing smoked, and there was the disgusting smell of burnt hair. The split second seemed to last forever.
The night returned and the boys were flash blind. Jeff lay flat, his head near the ladder. Marc groaned next to him. On instinct he shot his arms out over the catwalk opening. He felt the nylon of Marc’s jacket and grabbed just as Marc sagged away from the ladder. Jeff’s over-stimulated muscles cried in protest as he pushed Marc upright. His sight returned and he shook Marc.
“Marc!” he shouted. He gave him another shake. “Pull yourself up!”
Marc shook himself conscious and forced his eyes wide open. He dragged himself up and onto the catwalk where he rolled face up. His scrawny chest heaved as he gulped huge breaths of air.
At the other end of the catwalk, Bob pushed himself up from the decking. “I feel like a broiled steak,” he muttered.
Paul rolled over into Ken’s sneakers. He had a headache the size of a Buick. The world came into focus, and he saw three of his friends stirring to life. Ken did not move. He shook Ken’s leg.
“Kenny! You okay?”
Ken did not respond. In the low illumination, Ken’s normally fair skin looked ghostly white. His chest was still.
“Son of a bitch.” Paul’s lifeguard CPR training kicked in. He crawled to Ken’s side and began to administer mouth-to-mouth. After five breaths, he straddled Ken at the waist and began chest compressions. Rain exploded around them, a deluge of freezing heavy drops.
“You die on me,” Paul said between compressions, “and I’ll kill you.”
Ken’s head jerked back, and he sucked in a screeching snatch of air. He coughed and spit a mouth full of rainwater aside. He looked up at Paul sitting on top of him.
“Now who’s the homo?” he croaked. Paul rolled off him and against the tower with a sigh of relief.
Dave stuck his head up through the ladder opening. He’d jumped from the Vista Cruiser as soon as the lightning hit. His long blond hair was soaked and pasted to his head and shoulders. Raindrops beaded up on his wire rim glasses and distorted his blue eyes.
“Jesus Christ, are you guys okay?”
The five on the tower each moved to sitting positions and gave some form of acknowledgement. Then one by one they followed Dave back down the ladder to the base of the tower. The worst of the rain passed and left a sprinkling in its wake.
The boys’ soaked clothes had a variety of singe marks. Ken turned to Paul. “Up there…”
“You weren’t breathing.”
“You didn’t…” Ken ran his index finger around the outside of his lips.
“Hell, no,” Paul said.
“Good,” Ken said. “No one gets to first base without dinner and a movie first.”
The six looked each other over and realized they were all unhurt. Relieved, Paul started to laugh. The rest were soon infected.
“All right,” Dave announced to the group. “Who votes we don’t tell our parents about this one?”