Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Excerpt: "Overfly"

A while back, in May last year, I helped write a novel in 24 hours. I wrote Chapter 2, which I've pasted below. You can find the rest here.


The porky cashier girl reached for another package of the factory-made cookies. “You sure like Oreos, Mr. Rafferty.”
She chewed a pink blob of bubble gun as she talked and the old farmer thought she looked like one of his cows.
“They’re not for me,” he said. “They’re for —.”
He stopped, remembering he couldn’t tell the girl who the cookies were for; it was his cross to carry. He shook his head and then grinned like Mortimer Snerd. “They’re for my cows, darlin’. Make the milk sweeter.”

Rafferty had nearly cleaned the tiny store out of the little cookies. As he packed them into his cart he remembered a summer job he’d once had, cleaning leftover chocolate out of the inside of tanker trucks. He’d had to crawl inside the tanks with a scraper and broom. Sweat flying, boots stomping, spitting and farting, he’d cleaned every inch of leftover chocolate out of the tanks. Rafferty swore the scraps he’d swept out were what they made those god damned cookies with.
The fat girl loaded the cookies into paper sacks and watched the aging farmer as he walked out the door with them. He knew she’d be laughing about it before he got to his truck, and that she’d tell everyone she rang up for the next three days about crazy Old Man Rafferty and his cookie-fed cows. The farmer scowled. In another year or two they’d be using his name as a punchline.
Rafferty loaded the paper sacks into the bed of his Ford, propping them upright with his travel toolbox. The driver’s door squealed like a pig when he pulled it open and rust flakes pattered down on the parking lot. Rafferty stared at the flakes. The slow rot of his truck seemed like the only normal thing in his life. He shook his head and climbed into the cab.
The truck’s starter cranked the big engine into life and the radio came on. Patsy Kline singing “I Fall to Pieces.” Rafferty grinned. He thought Patsy Kline sounded like 100 pounds of crybaby in a 50-pound shit sack. The song had hit the charts when Kline was in the hospital, recovering from a car accident.
“Look who’s in pieces now.” He laughed at his own joke and threw the old truck into gear.

Rafferty liked the road out of town and figured he could have driven it blindfolded and drunk. The little town petered out to occasional houses then to swamp land and finally to green fields. The road curved and switched back on itself dozens of times. Rafferty drove with one hand on the wheel, the other hanging out the driver’s side window. Occasionally he slapped time with the music on the rusty door panel, knocking paint chips off what was left of the double-f in the “Rafferty’s Farm” sign painted there.
Patsy Kline gave way to real music. Hank Williams. No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.
Rafferty kept his truck going at a good clip and nearly had to stand on the brakes as he rounded the next bend. He swore through his teeth and he fought the steering wheel for a few heart-thumping seconds before he brought his truck to a stop alongside an equally battered vehicle. He worked some saliva into the dry panic inside his mouth before setting the hand brake and putting the transmission into neutral. His balls felt tight inside his pants and he shook his left leg to loosen them up as he climbed out of the truck cab to greet the other driver.
“Having some trouble, Bert?” Rafferty said.
The other driver’s grin of recognition dropped into wariness within two heartbeats. He nodded. “Earl.”
Earl Rafferty and Bert Olson had grown up together, gotten falling down drunk together, even stood up for each other at their respective weddings. They hadn’t talked much since Rafferty’s wife took off and word got around that Rafferty had gone crazy.
Rafferty’s felt the wind go out of him. Losing Bert’s regard was like losing a brother’s love. He’d been about to offer his hand but wiped his palm on his shirt instead. He nodded at Bert’s truck. “Horse give out on you?”
Bert shrugged and spit to one side. “Transmission or some such thing.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “She runs alright.”
Rafferty nodded. “You need some help?”
Bert looked at his old friend, his eyes traveling from Rafferty’s battered hat to the flowers embroidered on his overalls to the mismatched boots — one brown, the other some kind of sparkling material — on his feet. Bert’s eyes found Rafferty’s. “I reckon I got it.”
“Horseshit!” Rafferty took a step closer. “Goddamn, it’s me, Bert. I got eyes in my head!” The angry farmer thumped the hood of his truck. “I damn near ran into you coming around that curve.” He swore again and shook his head like a tired horse. “At least let me push you off the road.”
Bert nodded slowly and looked in the direction Rafferty’s truck had come from. “I guess that’d be alright.”
Rafferty grinned. “Get in. I’ll push.”
It only took a couple of minutes, with Bert in the cab of his truck and Rafferty pushing slowly from behind. They moved Bert’s truck off to the side and out of danger. Bert stood by while Rafferty leaned against his tailgate to catch his breath.
“Appreciate it, Earl.”
“Always a pleasure, Bert. You need a ride back to the house?”
This time Bert took a long look at his old friend’s truck. Its sheet-metal flanks and hood were piled high and deep with Christmas decorations and naked plastic babydolls, held in place with barbed wire and baling twine. He looked back at Rafferty. “What’s going on with you, Earl?”
Rafferty’s heart sank again. This is where it always went bad, where the secret got in the way. He rubbed at a patch of drying pink paint along his forearm and then shrugged. “Don’t know what you mean, Bert.”
Bert shook his head. “I reckon I’ll wait here for someone heading back to town.”
“I can go back that way. Don’t mind at all.”
Bert looked at the old farmer, trying to see past the orange and black tiger-stripe tattoo covering Rafferty's face. He shook his head. “Reckon I’ll wait.”
There was another five miles of road between Rafferty’s farm and the near-accident site. Rafferty took them slow, letting the songs on the radio change his mood for him. He hoped he’d end the trip on something angry and hard, like Johnny Cash, but Buck Owen’s “Mental Cruelty” was playing when he pulled into the long driveway.
He stopped the truck and gazed out the dusty windshield at his house.
“Can’t believe she made me paint the god-damned thing god-damned pink,” he said, and slapped the steering wheel. The house had been white for generations of Rafferty’s family. “If it were good enough for them —.” He shook his head. No use crying about it now.
Rafferty felt 1,000 years old as he opened the door and slid out from behind the wheel. A friendly woof failed to startle him and he dropped his hand to his side, finding the top of the dog’s head, right where it should be. He looked down at the hound and swore.
The dog was purple, like someone had dropped the poor thing in a bucket of paint. He knelt and looked into the dog’s eyes as he scratched both of its ears at the same time. “Sorry, boy. She just gets it into her head and does it.” The hound looked up at him, brown eyes so loyal it almost brought tears to Rafferty’s own. He slapped the god on its ass. “Get on, Shep. Go on down to the barn.”
The dog loped off on its mission. Rafferty stood up and stretched his back. He took two steps toward the house before he remembered the cookies, then turned back and grabbed the paper sacks out of the truckbed. He made one more stop, pulling two books out of the truck cab.
At least the kitchen looks normal, the farmer thought. He stomped his boots on the mat before pushing through the screen door into the darkness beyond. Rafferty pumped himself a cool glass of water before putting most of the cookies into the pantry.
One of his mother’s china-blue plates was still drying the rack and Rafferty grabbed it on his way to the table. He gave it a swipe with a dishcloth and then set it down in the center of the rough, broad table. There were six chairs: one for Rafferty, one for his wife, one each for their two sons and daughter and one for company. The kids were all grown now and none of them were much interested in farming or even paying a visit it seemed.
Rafferty pulled a jackknife out of his pocket and worked his thick fingers to open the blade. The knife was as sharp as gossip and it opened the package of cookies as quickly as a kiss. The farmer counted out a dozen cookies and arranged them on the plate. Then he took his seat.
“You get on out here,” he said.
Rafferty stared at the table, moving his eyes from seat to seat. The chair he was in now used to belong to his daddy, John Rafferty. In those days, little Earl sat three chairs to the right and kept his elbows off the table and dirty feet on the floor. Nowadays, it was just him. Sitting at the head of the table, presiding over no one.
Almost.
Rafferty counted the cookies on the plate. Eleven. He nodded.
“Alright, I know you’re here. Make it so I can see you.”

A light flashed to his left and his wife, Pearl, was there. All her attention was on her cookie and she seemed oblivious to the fact her flowered housecoat was on fire. The first time Rafferty saw this way he’d panicked and tried to put the fire out. This time he just scowled. “I’ve seen that one before. Got any more?”
The flames disappeared, as did the housecoat. Pearl grinned through cookie crumbs, daring him to comment on the fact that she was now naked and covered in blood. It coated her slumped shoulders and dripped off her sagging breasts onto the table. Only her face was clean.
Rafferty shook his head. “Seen that one, too.”\
He blinked and his wife shed 40 years. Now she was 16, the age she was when they started dating after the Harvest Dance, and still naked. Rafferty’s brain stalled for a moment as he looked at her smooth, taut skin and remembered the dance and the spring day, eight months later, when they’d broken each other in up on the Ridge. He swallowed and forced himself to shake his head again. “How about just Pearl.”
Pearl, now the right age and wearing a flame-free housecoat, reached for another Oreo.
Rafferty looked at the thing that used to be his wife. Despite what everyone in town believed, that she’d left him and moved back north, that she’d gone west with an old flame, that she was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the back 40, Pearl had never left the house. Refused to leave the house. And the thing that got inside her 10 years ago, wouldn’t leave, either.
Rafferty pursed his lips. It had been a simple thing, and over quick. She’d been snapping beans on the front porch when whatever happened happened. He’d heard her scream, just once and short. By the time he’d run from the barn to house, Shep barking beside him, it was over. The bowl full of snap beans was scattered across the floor and Pearl had something else behind her eyes.
She still talked sometimes. The first time, just after it happened, she laid down the law. If anyone came out to the house, Pearl would die — and so would the visitor. If Rafferty failed to do as she demanded, no matter how strange the command, Pearl would die. If Rafftery told anyone about Pearl, Pearl would know, and Pearl would die.
Pearl could do amazing things now, not just make herself look different. She’d turned Shep purple with a thought. A couple of years ago she butchered twenty head of cows without laying a finger on them. She could have turned the house pink on her own but she liked making Rafferty work. Rafferty thought she killed him once, and then brought him back. He dimly remembered a time he got drunk and shouted. Pearls eyes burned with rage and Rafferty burned, too, he thought. There was still a big scorch mark in the living room.
Mostly she just sat there, grinning at nothing. Sometimes it seemed like she forgot to be and vanished for an hour or a day.
Rafferty figured Pearl was still in there, else he might have tried to kill her.She’d always liked Oreos and sometimes the jokes she played, the things she made him do, seemed like something the old Pearl would’ve liked. One night, about six years ago, he’d woken from a sex dream to find her, looking 16 again, with his penis in her mouth. He’d been afraid to move, terrified she’d bite down or even tear it off. So he just lay there with his fists clenched, staring at the ceiling, as she licked and sucked. Eventually it started to feel good and he relaxed. Just when he was sure he was going to pop, she stopped. He looked at her face then, and she was back to looking like old Pearl. She laughed and vanished, leaving him with a head full of bees and a hard on a cat couldn’t scratch. Rafferty had needed to go down to the barn that night. That’s what made it seem like Pearl. She’d always been a cock tease. A lot of nights, when they were courting, he’d come home from a date and have to go straight to the barn.
Rafferty looked at the thing that used to be his wife. “I think I know what you are.”
The farmer made a long arm and snagged the books off the countertop. Rafferty was not an educated man but he could read as well as the next; he’d spent a lot of time in the town libary over the last couple of years. It was another thing the people in town held against him, not going to the library as much as what he read.
He showed Pearl the first one. He tapped the title. “‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ by Jack Finney. It’s about these things from outer space that can look human.” He put the book on the table and showed her the second. It was thinner, more a magazine, printed in lurid colors. Rafferty pointed to the title. “‘Tales from the Crypt.’ There’s a story in here about a woman who is taken over by a demon.” He placed the book on top of the first one.
He looked at Pearl, his wife of more than 40 years. “Which is it?”
Pearl grinned, which didn’t mean anything, and stared, which meant nothing. Rafferty waited. His blood pounded in his ears, his heartbeat so loud inside his head he almost missed a roar growing outside. Pearl head it first, she — it, Rafferty decided — tilted her head up and to the right as if she could see through the ceiling, the second floor and the roof.
The sound built from the east and crossed to the west, making the glassware in the cabinets vibrate and Rafferty’s teeth ache.
“Don’t you want to see who it is, dear?” Pearl said.
Rafferty glared at her. “This isn’t over.”
Shep met him at the door. The purple hound trembled and cowered, its tail between its legs as Rafferty shoved him out of the way. He looked west and had time to see an airplane with two propellers descending into his back field.
“Come on, Shep.”
The dog beat Rafferty to the truck but it took two shouted commands and a not-so gentle prod with the toe of Rafferty’s work boot to get it into the cab. The old truck started on the first try, and was soon bumping along the rough-cut road to the back of the property.
Rafferty drove slowly to avoid rocks and holes. The plane came into view in minutes. The farmer let the truck stall as he braked to a halt.
The plane was intact, roughly parked in the field. The passengers were climbing out, hugging each other and kissing the ground in relief.
Rafferty cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey!” he shouted. His voice, trained by years of yelling across fields to hands and herds, carried easily. “You folks alright?”
A man in uniform, probably the pilot, Rafferty thought, looked up and waved. He shouted back. “We’re alright. By god, we’re alright!”
Rafferty and the pilot walked toward each other over the rough field. Rafferty stuck his hand out as soon as he got close enough. “Earl Rafferty.”
The pilot extended his hand, then hesitated when he saw the tattoo on Rafferty’s face. “Captain O’Hare. Where are we?”
Rafferty jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “My farm. Bluff Oaks. Where were you headed?”
“Havana.”
“Cuba?”
The pilot nodded. “We were hit by lightning. I barely got her down one piece.”
“Anyone hurt?”
“Not badly.”
Rafferty rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’m glad you folks are OK.” He pointed west. “Town is that way, about twelve miles.”
The pilot nodded. “Do you have a telephone I could use? I need to report this.”
“Phone.” The farmer shook his head. “No phone. There’s one in town.” He jerked his thumb again. “You can take my truck. There’s a road on the other side of the plane that will take you right to the outskirts.”
The pilot nodded. “Is there a place nearby the passengers can stay?”
Rafferty shook his head. “No. She’ll ki —.” He shook his head again. “You’re not welcome here.”
“There are several children on the plane.”
Rafferty put his face close to the pilot’s and bared his teeth. “I said you ain’t welcome, and I mean it.”
The farmer walked to his truck and let Shep out of the cab. The purple hound raced to the plane, circling the survivors with his tail wagging like a fan blade.
Rafferty yelled. “Shep! You get back here.”
As the dog returned, cowed, Rafferty reached back into the truck’s cab and pulled his shotgun from the rack. He pumped it once, loading the chamber.
He showed the gun to the pilot. “You see this?” The pilot nodded. “The keys are in the ignition. Town is that way.” Rafferty pointed west with the muzzle of the gun. “If I see you coming the other way, I’ll shoot you.”
Shep pressed against Rafferty’s leg and growled, sensing the farmer’s tension.
Rafferty glared at the pilot. “You don’t want what I got.” He held the shotgun in both hands. “Get these people off my property.”
The farmer clicked his tongue to get the dog’s attention and turned to walk back to his house, and his wife. Since the shotgun was already out, maybe it was time to give it a try.
“Let’s go, boy.”
The old farmer walked down the road and the purple dog followed.



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