The last place you’d expect to find writing advice is in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ journal Transactions on Professional Communications. Yet, there it was.
In the 1980 issue, Kurt Vonnegut dispatches advice on “how to put your style and personality into everything you write.” What’s even more interesting, is that he does it in an ad, part of a series from the International Paper Company called “The Power of the Printed Word.” It was a ploy, a decree, or call to arms urging all of us to “read better, write better, and communicate better.”
Below you will find that advice, as well as other snippets about writing from the prologues of his novels, interviews, and his memoir of essays, A Man Without a Country.
How to Write with Style: An ad
1. Find a subject you care about Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way—although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.
2. Do not ramble, though I won’t ramble on about that.
3. Keep it simple As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.
Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
4. Have guts to cut It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
5. Sound like yourself The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.
In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand.
All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when your write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.
I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.
6. Say what you mean I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable—and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.
Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.
7. Pity the readers They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school—twelve long years.
So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient readers, ever willing to simplify and clarify—whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.
That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.
8. For really detailed advice For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, in a more technical sense, I recommend to your attention The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.
You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.
—How to Write With Style, published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ journal Transactions on Professional Communications in 1980.
Construct Short Stories with Purpose
Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing short stories from the intro to Bogombo Snuffbox:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.
Brian Collins at The Writing Cooperative did a great write up on each rule and what they mean.
Have Other Interests
I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.
If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
—A Man Without a Country
I used to teach a writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa back in the 1960s, and I would say at the start of every semester, “The role model for this course is Vincent van Gogh—who sold two paintings to his brother.” (Laughs.) I just sit and wait to see what’s inside me, and that’s the case for writing or for drawing, and then out it comes. There are times when nothing comes. James Brooks, the fine abstract-expressionist, I asked him what painting was like for him, and he said, “I put the first stroke on the canvas and then the canvas has to do half the work.” That’s how serious painters are. They’re waiting for the canvas to do half the work. (Laughs.) Come on. Wake up.
—The Last Interview
The Shapes of Stories
I don’t have the will to teach anymore. I only know the theory… It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: “Don’t take it all so seriously.”
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are [and what they want].
And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
So much of what happens in storytelling is mechanical, has to do with the technical problems of how to make a story work. Cowboy stories and policeman stories end in shoot-outs, for example, because shoot-outs are the most reliable mechanisms for making such stories end. There is nothing like death to say what is always such an artificial thing to say: “The end.” I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.
I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day. Nine to twelve in the morning, five to six in the evening. Businessmen would achieve better results if they studied human metabolism. No one works well eight hours a day. No one ought to work more than four hours.
—An interview with Robert Taylor in Boston Globe Magazine, 1969
Learn the Rules, then Break Them
Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
[Then, later in his book …]
Those of us who had imagination circuits build can look in someone’s face and see stories there; to everyone else, a face will just be a face.
And there, I’ve just used a semi-colon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules.
SETTING:the year of The Light: 2333 | B-more Prison in B-more District of Charm City, a supermassive 12k sq mi. city in the (now) flooded mid-Atlantic region of the US | Quantico District | The Corner | The Circle | The Swamp
CONTENT WARNINGS: forced drugging | unsexy sex | non-graphic situational non-con | tasteless humor | probable cannibalism | gonna warn again for the humor | too many characters | mentions of clowns | grossness | nothing is sacred
SUMMARY: Lowbrows walk the land like zombified addicts, endlessly searching for their soulmates to rid them of their painful need to feel complete. Meanwhile, the elite enjoy a carefree life from on high, ruling all and easily finding and binding to each other by their fated markings scrawled somewhere on their bodies. Will Graham (of the infamous Dr. and Mrs. WillabyGraham Grahams), has carried the burden of his embarrassing soulmark for thirty-two long, arduous years. He’d forced himself into seclusion over The Fence to avoid meeting the cretin who should mouth the saying etched into his forearm, but now that he’s about to serve an overwhelmingly long prison sentence for a crime he did not commit, all that is about to change.
Even psychopaths are blessed with doting soulmates. Especially Willaby Graham II.
SPONSORSHIP: This WIP is “fortunately” brought to you by your favorite non-bovine dairy alternatives MELK®ORIGINAL and new MELK® UNORIGINAL flavors. I am contractually obligated to say that MELK® does not interfere with the hormonal development of Charm City youths. It is 100% certifiably safe as declared by the Jersey Board of Genetic Discrepancies and is highly effective at staving off a myriad of childhood ailments including: Bark Lung, Black Mouth, Syphilitic Encephalitis, PPS (pre-pubescent soulsickness), and mild childhood dementia when consumed daily as part of a balanced diet.
Please “MELK® Me!”
WILLABY GRAHAM II – bleeding heart | loner | full of shame | oral fixation | gross moodboard (coming soon)
DR? HANNIBAL LECTER – eats bleeding hearts | eats loners | full of himself and others | oral fixation | unnecessary moodboard (also coming soon if I get to it)
THIRTY+ OTHERS – from across Hannibal and the HEU | even some obscure ones | unsurprisingly, Mads’ characters fit right into Charm City | the fancy Dancy boys do not, c’est la vie
WIP FIC: In Poison Pen/Charm City – This fic originated as a one-shot on AO3 based on a curiosity I wondered on Tumblr, “What if someone mixed a prison AU with a soulmate trope?” The attention it received was excited enough to warrant further exploration. I don’t know why I decided to make it 20+ chapters, but there we go. BTW, this one-shot will get a massive overhaul when I begin uploading the final fic (I’ve doubled the length of the one-shot for chapter one). If you are interested, bookmark or subscribe to the one-shot and I will let everyone know when it’s been overhauled.
Also, if you comment (or already commented on the fic), I LOVE YOU AND WILL REPLY TO YOU WHEN THE FIC IS NEARING COMPLETION!! I have NOT ignored any of you! I’m simply working on my replies between chapters.
PLAYLIST: Youtube| Clutch, Notwist, NIN, dubstep and the ilk.
WRITING UPDATES & STATUS=
CURRENT STATUS: first draft | 154,540 words | 24/? chapters
EVENT LOG (most recent entry at the top):
03/16/19 – Chappy 24 down the drain. As far as you know, I hit 155k. The end is nigh.
03/09/19 – Hit 150k words. Working on ch 24. Wedging in as many eel references as humanly possible.
02/25/19 – 143k words. 23rd chapter done. Nadsat has begun. Season one title challenge complete.
02/23/19 – 4300 in single a day. God make it stop. 140k total.
02/18/19 – Decided to make a WIP page on Tumblr to share updates and plan my escape. 21 chapters. 133k words. 37 characters, guys. It’s a new record for me. My last record was 5. New MELK® shipment received. It was Original. I am no longer a man of god.
02/02/19 – Just began chapter 19; 128k words. Help is still needed in the form of two-ply toilet paper, stickers, coffee, or Mangy Moose Saloon tees from the 1980s.
01/12/19 – The rest of the story is being scrawled on toilet paper. If this fic doesn’t kill me, all this complementary MELK® I keep getting in the mail will. It tastes like you swallowed a mouthful of granulated sugar if the sugar was actually ground up glass mixed with imitation rum flavored ash. I told them I didn’t like Original. Fingers crossed they send me Unoriginal next month.
12/10/18 – I have run out of wall. 108k words and I can’t open the basement doors. I’ve been physically cockblocked by UPS. I should not have ordered all those cocks. Alexa is unresponsive.
11/25/18 – 106k words. Must characters make the beast with two backs? It’s so gross and dirty, and I can’t see my page by the bear-grease candlelight. Also, my typewriter keys are stuck due to the extreme moistness of the basement. I’ve resorted to writing the remainder of the story on the wall.
11/15/18 – The box contained MELK®. It was my advance.
11/14/18 – 90k words; fixed a major plot hole thanks to nosy friends. I received a mystery box in the mail. Will keep you informed.
11/11/18 – 5 chapters; 87,300 words. The basement is very dark, and I need sustenance and perhaps a medical kit. It burns more than I expected, but I’m writing! Yay!
09/13/18 – 68k words. “In Poison Pen” was completely rewritten, but remains unpublished. I think I found my creative spark, and it only burns a little!
08/20/18 – I sent a text to my friend stating, “I really need to finish Charm City,” so I locked myself in the basement as a precautionary measure. Gonna finish soon!
08/18/18 – Renamed “In Poison Pen” to Charm City on AO3. I think I’ve forgotten how to write for a minute. No worries.
08/12/18 – Posted “In Poison Pen” as a one-shot on AO3. Hope you all like it!
08/11/18 – Started writing after posting to Tumblr and having a brainstorming convo with a dear friend. I love friends and late-summer! The cerulean sky is so mind-clearing. I love life and creativity!
“Being stuck on one [project] is an opportunity to work on something else.”
Recently, this Ted Talk gave a name to something I’ve been thinking about for months: slow motion multi-tasking.
It’s the reason why my upload speed on my major projects has slowed. It’s the reason why I trashed or logged out of my social media accounts. It’s why I can’t respond to comments for days, weeks, months.
I am working on three major bodies of written work: each fiction, each varying styles, and each developing at different rates.
To be a better writer, we are told to write in any way, shape, or form but also to read. Everything and anything. Consume the written word and it will flow through us.
So when I am stuck, I work on expanding my library of knowledge by reading collections of short stories, my favorite novels, modern classics, Oscar Wilde …
The inspiration comes easier now as I spread my attention between these things, not at the same time, but giving each one my fullest attention in turn.
No Tumblr notifications, no AO3 hit counts to see, no Twitter twitting in the background. Just me and Scrivener, or my headphones and Kindle, and a hot cup of tea.
Yesterday I wrote 3000 words for Charm City. Today, I opened my Unhitched file for the first time in months and edited it. Last week I finished two books, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and Trigger Warnings by Neil Gaiman. Next week, I will begin two more, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the new edition of American Gods when they are both released as audiobooks on Scribd.
When I cannot do any of that – listen to a droning narrator, or write for one of my many versions of the same men in hostile, bloody, or psychologically strained environments – I work on my new novel in the style of J.M. Barrie. It is light. It’s refreshing. It’s resetting to me and I listen to classical music while I do it.
This blog is my collection of cardboard boxes, keeping my inspiration organized and my tasks filed away.
So, thank you, Tim Harford, for helping me justify bouncing between pages and books without publishing my work in a timely manner. It’s opened my eyes to what I have already accomplished and how my process of creativity is not scattering my brain or being used as some sort of avoidance tactic, but rather allowing me to slow down and move past blocks while still maintaining creative productivity.
I notice a lot of people enjoy posting images on AO3, banners or art, but are forced to deal with the lack of customizable options in the default AO3 editor. Below I will show you how to make a workskin to display your banner images centered and to the size of whatever screen the reader is using.
To create your new image resizing Work Skin:
1) Go to your Skins page from the link in your Dashboard
2) Click the “Work Skins” button
3) Choose “Create Skin”
4) In the “Create New Archive Skin” form, change the popup menu beside “Type” to “Work Skin” (very important)
5) In the “Title” box, enter a title that is meaningful to you (for example, “Banner Resizing”)
Optional: If you like, in the “Description” box you can enter a description of what the skin does
This fic concept was inspired by a few of my fellow Fannibals asking quite mightily for the little number below to make an appearance as a hitchhiker in my 1970s Hannibal trucker AU, Unhitched.
I couldn’t put him in Unhitched canon, so I did a couple spin-offs with him as a little side piece for Hopper (the narrator of this story and Will Graham’s character). This Dancy on Dancy action has been unofficially coined Gramcest, though technically Hopper’s last name is still unknown and this kid is not a Will Graham iteration. He is something entirely different.
The basic gist of the below fic was originally posted on AO3 entitled my blue karass in April 2017. [View the original.] I have since removed it from the site in April 2018 for personal reasons, but due to the grumbling of a few friends, I have decided to repost it here, where I feel I have more control over it. It is not nearly as polished as Unhitched, nor is in the Unhitched timeline. It’s for fun, so keep that in mind before publicly sharing your disappointment with the quality of the story or writing. I understand how Hopper’s behavior could be construed as out-of-character, but seeing as how Hopper is less Will Graham and more my own OC at this point, I give it a pass for entertainment purposes.
I did end up editing this fic a lot from its previous version on AO3. That editing put this fic in line with a few future projects, mainly a continuation of my American Gods/Hannibal Extended Universe AU (or whatever you want to call it) where I put Mads and Hugh in the American Gods universe as OCs, good old St. Nick (inspired by Flying Rotten’s Santa Mads) and Bill, a sniveling Big Pharmaceutical God. If you want to read that Gaiman-inspired holiday fic, it’s called ‘Tis the Season and is, surprisingly, still posted on AO3.
What’s all that have to do with stolen fruit? Well, nothing if you don’t care about American Gods. If you do, I summed up the idea at the bottom of the fic.
All that said, meet my original Hugh Dancy character, the sweet-hearted numen of mead and merriment, Blue!
UPDATE: A wonderful, amazing, incredible person commissioned a couple of chibis to be made of Blue boy. 😍 Aren’t they incredible!
Tags: everyone’s drinking, penetrative sex, oral sex, technically a 4000 year age gap
word count: 13491 (original fic: 7394)
Nothing I’ve ever said to him has had any bearing on the man’s actions – not my questioning of his ethical code, not my insistence that we take a few months off to recuperate, not even my benign suggestion that he take a shit when I had – at the last station – when it was convenient.
To the great and powerful Butcher of Men, my words are but the foamy spittle that drips endlessly from Garm’s jowls. I’m just another beast shuffling behind him catching scraps, not a sentient human being with somewhat swell ideas when it comes to toilet habits.
The Butcher of Men is an insufferable toddler.
After he started complaining about the pressure building in his ass, I pointed out his ability to shit out of the truck window. I was even willing to hold the wheel if he asked nicely. We could’ve pulled over, of course, as he often does for me when my stomach can’t take the grisly aftermath of an encounter. Had we pulled over, I’m sure Garm could have directed him to a great spot to defecate after a thorough forty-five-minute search through the snow.
He refused my suggestions like he always does, and we pulled off the interstate to park at some hole-in-the-wall literal strip mall.
He didn’t just have to shit. I should have known. This was about the other unmentionables he was hauling – the ones rotting in the log pile behind us.
I’m not normally amenable to just tossing body parts in dumpsters – I think it’s disrespectful and crude, not to mention illegal – but Butcher was insistent that the smell in the back was both overwhelming and conspicuous. It smells like nothing to me, the damn thing’s half frozen, but I placated him and agreed to let him toss the remains in the trash rather than giving them a proper burial as I have insisted we do in the past. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I like to think my bones will rest well underground one day and feel the urge to do the same for my fallen comrades, despite what fell them.
The days are getting shorter as winter takes hold of Wyoming. Trees are brown, barren claws reaching from the frozen earth, and the world is filled with a dull greyness covered in icy snowbanks. It’s nearing sunset, and I’m getting hungry, but this “rest” stop only houses a small motel and what appears to be an adult novelty shop with a strip joint selling Tall Boys tacked on the back. I know Butch is going to want to scope out dinner in there, but I refuse to eat whatever diseased meat’s hanging out in a shit hole like that.
I’m leaning on the truck, snacking on a wad of half-melted then refrozen chocolate raisins I found in the back and waiting for Butch to finish taking a dump and tossing whatever needs to be tossed behind the building when a Chevelle slows at the far end of the lot. A young man gets out of the passenger side and flops down his seat, hauling some girl out of the back and throwing her onto the slush-covered asphalt. The man rips a backpack out of the backseat and chucks it at her before getting back in the car – a pretty disrespectful roughhousing if I ever saw one.
Then the Chevelle hauls ass just leaving her there, surrounded by the shit that burst from the bag when it slapped her face.
She stands and takes a few tentative steps toward the car’s exhaust plume but gives up. I can’t imagine she’d want to follow them after that manhandling, and she evidently agrees with me, scooping up her bag and belongings, then starting to hoof it toward the building next to me.
She’s young, skinny and shapeless, and wearing clothes not fit for the sub-freezing temperatures of a Wyoming winter: just a jean jacket over a bright green tee-shirt with The Mangy Moose Saloon scrawled across it. Her jeans are ripped to hell at the knees, and now bloody, probably from the tumble she just took across the pavement, and she has a messy mop of brown hair almost to her shoulders.
It’s when I see her face that I realize it’s not a girl at all. The kid’s a boy, and he’s got the face of a twelve-year-old with clear blue eyes like a husky. He throws his brown backpack over his shoulder and I suddenly realize he’s headed right toward me, waving like he knows me.
Jesus fucking Christ; I don’t know this kid from Adam and I plan to keep it that way.
Butcher’s, of course, a wisp on the frozen wind again, but we have to get the hell out of here before I’m expected to socialize with this giant child.
“Hey, man!” His breath fogs the air behind him as he jogs over.
There is literally no one around so I can’t ignore him. “Yeah?”
“This your truck?”
“Nope.” I didn’t lie. It’s not my truck.
He frowns as he comes to a stop next to the trailer. “You know who’s truck it is then?”
“I might. Who’s asking?”
His face lights up, and he stretches out his chapped hand. “My friends call me Blue!”
I briefly shake his hand before his frigid fingers get tucked back in his jacket pockets.
“Welcome to Wyoming, Blue.” I don’t plan on ever seeing this boy again, so he can carry on his merry way without my name.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
I quickly light a smoke to keep warm and take a peek behind the building. No luck.
“You can call me Hopper,” I finally say, turning back to the kid.
“Hopper?! What kind of name is that?!” he laughs.
“What the hell kind of name is Blue?”
“My eyes are blue!”
“It’s short for Hopper-dropper,” I say, “It’s a type of lure–”
“I know,” he says, all matter-of-factly. “It’s a fly fishing rig.”
“How’d you know–?”
“I know my way around nymphs, Hopper-Drop. Nice way to land trout.”
I am suddenly finding myself a tad more interested than before, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve got bigger fish to fry and that fish probably just finished wiping his ass and is about to round that corner as we speak.
He peers behind the building for something and says, “You have any food you can part with? Maybe know of a place to grab some grub around here? Looks like I landed in no man’s land.”
“No grub to spare unless you’re from Punxsutawney,” I say around my smoke, and I point to the trailer full of logs.
“Phil’s not a beaver,” he snaps, “he’s an oversized rat who doesn’t know his ass from the hole they yank him from every year.” He’s suddenly getting way overheated for someone having a conversation about a groundhog a thousand miles away. “It’s been four years, you know that? Four years since that weasel predicted an early spring. And look!” He gestures at the dead trees and slushy, trash-filled parking lot. “A frozen mess. But next year’s it. February 2nd, 1975 his reign is over, and we’ll all finally stop having to suffering with this goddamn snow ‘til the Ides.”
I have to laugh at his tirade because he’s serious as hell, and he huffs as he shoves his cold hands under his arms.
As much as I might actually like to keep talking to this kid – maybe get his take on the tooth fairy – I know I have to ditch him so I point across the street. “That motel probably has heat, maybe a vending machine, that titty bar probably has a phone. I suggest you use it to call a couple of friends who won’t ditch you in the middle of nowhere to freeze your ass off.”
“Those guys weren’t my friends,” he says. “Just a couple of chumps pretending to be literate in the ways of cross country travel. They didn’t know shit, like most people around here.”
I smile at his sudden bitterness again, but all that couldn’t be more inconsequential. “Still. There’s a motel, maybe sleep off that cynicism … and there’s a bar, get a drink to warm up. And a payphone.” I hand him a dime. “Watch your back and stay out of trouble.” I turn away and open the truck door, hoping to slip inside the cab while little boy Blue wanders away, but as soon as the latch opens, Garm bursts out of the truck and knocks the kid to the ground.
“Garm!” I yell. “No! Leave him! Tssk! Tssssk!” She never listens to me …
I thought she was attacking him at first until I hear his laughter. She’s licking his face, and he’s giggling like a schoolgirl.
“Sweet dog!” he chuckles, scratching her neck. “I love puppies! Her name’s Garm?”
“Yeah. And she needs to get her ass back in the truck!” I try to get her to listen, but she ignores me so she can bathe this jackass with her tongue. “Garm, no! In the truck!”
She growls and now I’m getting pissed. I can feel my face turning red over the obstinance of that damn dog when Blue pushes her away and stands up. He brushes off his wet knees and clears his throat, obviously sensing my anger building – good for him. He better watch himself; I’m in no mood for his, Garm’s, or Butcher’s steaming pile of shit.
“So, this isn’t your truck?” he wonders, but I’m not repeating myself. “It’s getting dark and those guys were supposed to drop me in Billings.”
“There’s a payphone right over there, boy. Call someone who cares.”
He’s not giving up.
“Are you heading that way, though? Toward Billings? I don’t have any money … except a dime,” he says with a smile, “but once we get there, I can get you cash for gas. I have weed, too, if you want that … or, I gotta bottle of wine …”
Wine? What kind of kid carries wine?
“Payphone,” I snap and smack Garm’s haunch. She finally hops back in the truck.
If that asshole behind the motel’s hunting or picking berries or some such shit, heads are going to roll.
“Come on, man, please, you seem cool,” he begs. “I’ll get down on my knees if I have to. Just give me a lift – a couple miles. It’s freezing out here.” The kid stares at the porn shop over his shoulder. “I just can’t do that right now … and you seem like a way nicer person than what I’m going to find in there.”
That’s a fairly odd statement coming from a young man. He’d rather beg a stranger like me for a ride than set foot in a strip joint and call a friend. I think I can relate to both that fear and disgust.
Now, I’m not a nice person like he thinks, and I know nothing about this kid except he’s cold, down on his luck, and vulnerable out here in the wild, none of which is my problem, but there’s something about him – something oddly compelling about his face and his boyishly confident demeanor … and if he actually has a bottle of wine on him, I might have a bargaining chip to use with a certain someone …
This is stupid, and I know I’m going to catch hell for it, but I nod to the cab, and Blue grins like an idiot as he clambers inside.
He knows his place and scrambles over the console between the front seats to sit with Garm on the bed, still shining with glee at his luck at finding such a nice cab to ride in. I thought that at one time, too.
I hop in behind him and as I get settled, I hear his teeth chattering in the back. A quick crank of the engine and the heat blasts as I glance back to find him shivering with the wool blanket draped over his head like the Sweet Mother of Mercy herself.
As we wait, I pull out my nearly ruined snack from earlier. His eyes stare pitifully at the box and he gives me an embarrassed grin, so I resign myself to another hungry night and hand the blessed virgin my raisins.
The box is immediately emptied into his mouth, chewed and gulped like a desperate animal, then he grows still, flushed, and gingerly examines the crumpled box.
“Hungry?” I ask.
“Been a few days,” he says meekly, turning the box in his hands. “The guys said we were getting hamburgers soon … we never did.” He’s avoiding my eyes, studying the lines on the box like his life depends on it. “Seedless,” he reads, “poor grapes.”
Then the driver door swings wide and Butch climbs up.
“What the hell took so long?” I ask.
“The dumpster was full so I figured I’d do it the old-fashioned way, but the goddamn ground’s frozen. Had to make a cairn,” he snickers, slamming his door and huffing into his hands. “The bastard won’t be pissing on my tires anytime soon … I even gave him a special headstone – a big old pile of shit so he remembers to defecate in the woods like the animal he is. Thought you’d like that.”
I scoff and wait patiently for him to notice anything odd.
His gaze snaps to the back and he’s suddenly boring holes into the kid.
Blue’s eyes are now wide and his grin gone.
“Who’s your friend, Hopper?”
“He calls himself Blue, Butcher.”
Butcher’s eyes narrow as he scours the kid’s body. Up and down. Up and down.
No, I didn’t find our dinner, you asshole. “Billings,” I say. “He doesn’t have a lot of friends. Thought you’d appreciate that.”
His jaw clenches but his eyes keep flicking between me and Blue like he’s reading the same story written across both our faces. He slowly turns back to the wheel, his dismissive tongue clicking away, and cranks the engine.
“Welcome aboard, Blue,” he says, sneering at this apparently interesting new development. “It’s getting a little cramped in here; hope you don’t mind riding with a dog and a couple of old-timers.”
I’m not old …
“I don’t mind!” says Blue, all chipper. “And there’s plenty of room! You got a whole bed back here!” He cozies up under the blanket again, wrapping it around both him and Garm.
“That we certainly do,” says Butcher, and he pulls back out on the icy road.
Suddenly Blue’s serious, his voice dropping an octave and solemn-like. “I appreciate the ride, Mr. Butch, uh, Butcher … I don’t know which way your headed, but I can get you gas money if you drop me in Billings, Montana. More than gas money, actually – for your trouble.”
Butcher looks over at me, and I can’t stop the smile creeping across my face. The kid’s got manners. Whatcha gonna to do now, big man?
Butch peeks at Blue in the rearview. “You keep your nose clean, son?”
“Yes, sir,” he says with a shit-eating grin. “No trouble at all.”
“You ever kill a man, Blue?”
“Just last Saturday,” he says. “I normally take the weekends off, ‘cause of the sacrament and all, but the man was asking for it bogarting my blunt like that; it’s unconscionable not to mention rude.”
He’s joking, but Butcher’s not laughing.
“You hunt?” he asks the kid.
“Yes, sir, with my uncle every fall … except for the last few years …”
“You fish?” I wonder.
“I’m from Montana,” he snickers. “Ice fishing’s all I do in the winter back home. I bet I’m a better fisherman than you.”
Damn. This is a sassy kid. I can’t help but wonder what’s reeling through Butcher’s head at the moment.
“You dress your own kills?” he asks the kid.
Blue laughs and nods. “Yep. Been doing that since I was eight. I grew up on a cattle farm. I know my way around a Buck knife.”
Well, well, well. “I’m glad we could give you a lift, Blue,” I say. “You sound like a good kid.”
“Thanks.” He laughs and despite the gray gloom outside, his grin brightens his whole face and the cab right along with it. “I’m not a kid though,” he continues, “I’m actually eighteen – birthday was last weekend.”
Good God, he doesn’t even look like he’s hit puberty yet.
Butcher snickers at my obvious shock and reaches under his seat, pulling out a bottle of Four Roses. He hands it back to Blue and says, “Happy Birthday then.”
I recognize that bottle of rotgut immediately. “Is that from my father’s cabinet?! The one by his old chair?!”
“Neither that greasy chair nor your old man had any plan to finish it, Hop, and with how banged up you like to get, we needed a fresh antiseptic.”
He and I are going to have some words about this goddamn thieving of his.
You can hear Blue’s hesitation at receiving such an unwarranted gift when he mumbles a thank you, sir and takes the bottle.
“When we stop, we’ll drink to you,” says Butcher, his red eyes flashing in the mirrors again, “until then, let’s just stay quiet as a church mouse. Dangerous to distract a driver with inane twaddle.”
At Butcher’s bizarrely threatening insistence, we drive in silence for about an hour before Blue finally warms up and lies down in the sleeper with Garm curled up beside him. The blankets are a twisted mess – a nest of scrawny arms and wool, and his torn up knees are bent and leaning against the back wall. As the truck rocks, his chest slowly rises and falls, slow and steady and peaceful.
“He’s out,” I say, and Butch nods to the bag on the bed. I carefully tug it away from Blue’s shoes and rifle through it while Butcher fingers the pockets of the kid’s jacket.
“He’s a damn hippie,” I say, digging through the backpack, “Old clothes, bag of weed, a mug, a flute?” I hold up a labelless wine bottle which looks untouched but has a cork sticking half out of the neck. “Looks like a cheap red.” He wasn’t joking about that.
Butcher yanks the bottle out of my hand before I go back to my rooting. At the bottom is a softly crumpled paper bag of candy. “Atomic Fireballs … You got anything?”
“Receipts and a ticket to a film festival in Montreal.” He tosses me the bottle and drops the jacket with a huff, returning his attention to the road.
Something has gone unnoticed in the front pocket of the jacket – something about the size of a paperback, so I put the wine away and lift the pocket flap, pulling out a tattered book.
The kid reads Vonnegut.
“Apparently,” he says.
Yet another very interesting development. I wonder why Butcher intended to not mention it.
I tuck the book back in the jacket. “Kid’s a little shit but clean, Butch. No dice.”
“I know that, dumbass. Your Blueboy will live to pester someone else tomorrow,” he says, and I find that hard to believe.
“Not hungry? Conscience getting the best of you?”
“You know as well as I do why he’s untouchable. You’re not so foolish to think I wouldn’t notice.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. “You’ll have to share your concerns with the class, Butcher. As always, us dumbasses can’t follow the logic of you arcademic types.”
“He’s your spitting image,” he finally says. “And he’s hiding something.”
What the hell’s he smoking? “No he isn’t.” I peek back at Blue’s face. “He has brown hair, that’s it. And what would he be hiding? A fake ID? The answers to a geometry test?”
“He smells like you.” Then he eyes me suspiciously. “You sure you’ve never been to Montana?”
He knows I’ve never been to Montana. “I wanted to go fish the Bitterroot but you wouldn’t take me! And he smells like cheap cinnamon and pot. Is that what I smell like to you?”
“He has your damn face, Hopper.”
“Bullshit.” I lean back and look at him again. We have a few similarities, I guess. His hair is kind of curly like mine, and he has the makings of stubble on his baby cheeks, but nothing like my mustache. He still looks twelve to me.
“He has your blues,” says Butch, and he tries to light a smoke to calm down, but drops his Zippo between his knees.
“Blue eyes aren’t uncommon,” I say, handing him my lit butt.
He lights his smoke and shakes his head, then goes back to staring at the wet road cutting through the woods, completely rattled now.
“Should we have left him at the grave? What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“I said he looks like you, smells like you. Sounds like you. Can’t trust him.”
“You can’t trust him, but you can trust me, right? I said he could ride along. That should be enough to set your mind at ease Butch; I’m not a greenhorn here.”
“You lack refined sensitivity,” he says. “You tromp and squeal like a baby elephant on fire.”
That’s not very nice.
“I dance,” he continues. “I know where to place my feet so I don’t tread through piles of shit like you.”
“’You don’t know shit from Shinola,” I scoff. “What’s any of this have to do with Blue?”
“That boy is a liability. You let him in the cab without a plan. And that was a mistake, Hopper. Remember those? You get three, I told you that. This is strike two.”
“You think all your dancing – twirling and whirling like a fancy boy – keeps your eyes on everyone in the room. But you want to know the truth? All that spinning does is scramble you goddamn brains.”
“He’s hiding something.”
“So are we!” I snap. “And at present, that child is sleeping like a baby while you’re belly aching and shaking like a leaf.”
He scratches his neck and ashes out the window. “I’m fine.”
He sure as shit isn’t fine. I can’t believe he’s bothered by this kid sort of looking like me.
We’ve lost the light, but even so, as he drives, he continues glancing over his shoulder when he thinks I’m not watching. He keeps straining to see the kid’s bent knees, then his eyes skim my lap like he’s seeing double and about to witness us merge into a single blurry beast.
“Maybe we should call it a night,” I say. “I think you need some sleep. You’re losing it, old man.”
We’ve been on the road for hours and it’s clearly showing as he rubs the dark bags under his eyes and finishes his smoke, flicking the butt out the crack in the window. “I’ll pull off before we get on 90.”
Forty-five more minutes of watching Butcher nervously sniff his nose and chain smoking has me anxious but also sort of sadistically entertained. I’ve never seen him so bizarrely riled up, and I’m starting to fear for Blue a little bit. I’ve watched what Butch is capable of, and he will not show mercy once he starts scratching those itches that keep his belly full. If that kid is the reason he’s sweating so much, he’s going to feel compelled to stop that agitation at all costs.
We finally pull over and as Butch kills the engine, Garm whines, begging to be let out. I open my door and she hops down, running off to maul a couple rabbits in the woods next to the truck. Despite trying to close the door softly, Blue stirs at the click and sits up, scratching his sweaty head.
He asks through a yawn, “We get to the highway yet?”
I flick on the dome light to find Butcher incapable of even talking now. He’s just sucking down cigs and staring into the clear, cold, twinkling twilight hovering over us.
“Highway’s just up there,” I say, “We’re stopping for the night though.”
He nods and lifts the whiskey, shaking it between the seats with a half-cocked grin. “You still want a drink? I said I had wine if you’d rather–” He’s looking for his bag when he realizes it’s at my feet. “I guess you found it.”
“No hard feelings. Just making sure you’re as good of a boy as you claim to be.” That invasion of privacy doesn’t seem to faze him, so I toss his gear over the seat.
He catches it. “You don’t think I am who I say I am?”
“I don’t think I know who you claim to be, other than a lost boy. Butcher seems to think you’re bad news–”
“Bad news?” Blue repeats. “I come bearing only the best news. Fun times and music.” He leans between the seats and flicks on the radio, cranking it as An American Band blasts through the speakers.
If I’m being honest, as I am apt to be, I agree with him. I think he’s funny and frivolous in a way that could bring some serious joy to the weighted drudgery that only I seem to be burdened by, but Butch is still not feeling it.
He immediately turns off the music.
The kid tried, I’ll give him that, but he’s not yet lapping at Butcher’s godly teat just yet.
He tries another appeasement, pulling out the wine and waving the whiskey bottle again like an invitation, and we all finally agree to partake in the off-chance it will settle all of our nerves before we pass out.
Blue twists open the whiskey and takes a long swig, then practically blasts it over the windshield when he coughs. I remember that first swig of whiskey as a kid. It looks about as bad as I remember.
He wipes his mouth. “I never got a taste for liquor,” he says, hissing through his teeth as he reads the label again. “I prefer my vino.”
The kid has standards, imagine that. “Butcher here also prefers the juice of the vine. It’s gotten him in trouble on more than one occasion, ain’t that right Butch?”
“I could say the same of you,” he grumbles.
The kid bites the cork and with a quick pull and a jerk, pops open the bottle – a real summertime sommelier. “There is truth in wine, Butcher,” he mumbles, spitting out the cork. “And you look like a man who devours the truth. Maybe you should imbibe with us a little.”
That gets his attention alright, and Butch holds out his hand into which the wine bottle drops. He swigs, Blue swigs, and I’m passed the dregs, but I’m neither an oenophile nor a vintner. I’m a malted barley man.
I tip back my father’s pilfered hooch, letting the nasty burn flow down my throat, then say, “Happy birthday, kid. It’s a big year, eighteen. You’re a man now and you can legally be an alcoholic, too.”
He finds that hilarious, laughing between huge gulps of wine. “The man hasn’t stopped me yet,” he says. “Nothing could stop me from enjoying the thirstier parts of living.”
That captured Butch’s heartier laugh, and I have to say the kid certainly has a captivating aura.
Blue’s cheeks are a nice piggy pink now. “So you said you go by Hopper-Dropper, you ever been trout fishing in Montana?”
I’m about to tell him all about my dropper rigs when Butcher clears the last of his pleasantness from his throat. “I think it’s time we rest our bones and our flapping jaws,” he interrupts. “I’ve spent all day listening to Hopper prattle on, I don’t need little Hopper prattling the same. Hopper gets the bunk. Blueboy’s up here with me.”
There is no way in hell I’m leaving the kid alone with him. I’d like a hot breakfast tomorrow morning just as much as Butch, but not at the expense of little boy Blue. I’m kind of starting to like him.
“I think Blue should keep the bunk,” I say. “Consider himself a guest.” I’m hoping my stern and unwavering eyes end this without much hassle.
Blue seems to pick up on it and nods a thank you, but he’s hedging. “I’m just not … never mind.”
“I’m just not tired yet … but I can read for a while.” He snatches his book from his jacket and falls back on the bed like he owns the place.
His love of Vonnegut has me wondering, “You ever read Sirens of Titan, Blue?”
“Empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death,” he snickers, “those are a few of my favorite things.”
My eyes widen, but Butcher’s face is much less impressed than mine. I pull Sirens out of the box still at my feet. “We’ll be reading,” I say, nodding to Blue, and Butch scowls as I trade places with Gram, squeezing through the seats to wedge myself next to the kid.
Blue shows me his tattered copy of Cat’s Cradle scrawled with ivy and cocks and big hairy balls along the edges of the inside cover, and he flips through Sirens, admiring the paragraphs on the dog-eared pages and wondering about the blood-stained cover. I say it was an unfortunate accident, and he doesn’t press it.
“I remember liking this one,” he says, returning Sirens to me. “Humanity is pointless, right? We’re just some useless civilization used for alien communication. Just an elaborate telephone to say hi.”
“Not exactly, more like an elaborate telephone to say greetings,” I say.
I find that innocent little giggle of his far more charming than Butcher’s guttural guffaw. Plus, I don’t have to work for Blue’s attention, and when I have it, it’s refreshingly sweet, not festering as it probes my innards like a vulture.
“What about the crash on Mercury?” I ask. “Do you remember that?”
“Oh, the spaceship?!” He takes a swig of wine and laughs again, “When they can’t figure out how to flip the spaceship so they just bust out of the caves upside down–”
“And the Martian war?” I’m chuckling just remembering that bloody pointless battle when Blue snatches the book from my hand and starts flipping through it in a desperate search for something.
“Here, here!” he laughs, then reads in his sweet mid-western voice, “The off button was connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of Martian mental-health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off!”
We’re both laughing like drunkards when Butcher finally pipes up. “Are you going to cackle all night?”
Blue covers his wine-stained lips.
“Don’t listen to him. He’s mad because he doesn’t understand this.” I tap Cat’s Cradle, and Blue suppresses another giggle.
“Turn off the light,” he snaps from the front seat.
“The dark lord can’t sleep with any light …,” I whisper.
Blue smirks and rolls his eyes, and I suddenly realize I’m not the crazy one in need of discipline and a solid moral code. Butcher is, in fact, a giant child, and Blue, the literal giant child agrees with me.
I can hear him angrily shifting in his seat, but ignore him. I finally found someone who’s normal – just an average Joe who likes to read and go fishing, and Butcher would be eating him right now if he didn’t have curly brown hair and a taste for sweet red wines.
Well, not today, dear Butcher. I’m finally having a nice time, and no one’s going to ruin it for the sake of destroying my joy.
I partake of the seemingly endless wine again and ask, in a slightly lowered tone to avoid waking the dear babe up front, “So what’s your story, Blueboy? Who were your chump less-than-admirers in the Chevelle back there?”
He takes another swig and a deep breath. “They promised me a ride about thirty miles before you picked me up. Said I could party with them and that I wouldn’t have to keep my half of the bargain until we hit the state line. Then they reneged on that promise because they were a bunch of jerks. When I said no deal, they kicked me out.”
“I wonder what your half of the bargain was.”
Another gulp. “Twenty bucks just to ride along.”
“Whew! That must have been quite a taxi service.”
“They were drunk and up for some fun, what can I say? I like to party.”
Must have been one hell of a party to shell out twenty bucks for it. “Do you always pay to party? Doesn’t seem like finding a good time would be that hard for a young man like yourself.”
“Depends on the party and the company, I guess. I like to get people drunk. Makes them talk. Lots of people means lots of drinks.” He gulps another long swig and the bobbing at his throat makes my skin break out in a prickly heat. The bottle drops and he shifts around until he can look up at me from where his head drunkenly rocks on his folded arms. “There is no serum better at finding those deep dark truths,” he says. “And I kind of like that. People are funny, misguided and sometimes cruel, but I find that interesting.”
“Sometimes people are a little too interesting for my taste.”
He hums a little and licks his foxy lips. “You’re interesting,” he says.
“You always such a bad judge of character?” I say. “I’m not that interesting and those party boys were pretty rough with you.”
It’s been all day since either of us last ate, and as much as I wish it could, a bottle of wine doesn’t make a meal. That fact is already bringing sweat to my brow and rosying Blueboy’s cherubic face.
“Sometimes the need to talk,” he says, “the need be around other people makes me sort of forget how much of a fuck up I am. I overlook a lot of stuff … like those guys. They were assholes – even said so to my face. They took my other bag of weed and kept calling me names … I look past it because at their hearts, people don’t mean to be assholes. They just live in a world that rewards that kind of behavior. You can’t blame a scared dog for biting you. It’s what they do.”
“People are scared dogs then?”
“People are animals, whether they want to think it or not,” he says, “But that’s not a bad thing. Animals are pure. Animals want to survive, sure, but what sets people apart is our desire to have fun while while doing it.”
“I guess that’s Blue then: the boy who wants to have fun.”
“I just don’t want to dissolve from this mortal coil having not enjoyed anything. That seems like such a waste, and I figure, If I’m going to all this trouble to grow and learn and carve a nice place for myself, I might as well invite a few friends to join me. Party ‘til we piss ourselves.”
Well, that’s sad and yet hopeful, mainly because he’s right. And I hear him loud and clear, from understanding fully that painful need to be seen and spoken to, to wanting not to die a useless mass of meat.
“I actually like being around people,” he admits, and I found our first divisive trait, “but I guess I take things to an extreme. That why I’m out here, lost. Supposed to be soul searching, you know? Gather myself and maybe a few new friends on the road.”
Eighteen years old and he’s been caught by the misrepresented romance of the road, paying for the company of strangers. Oh, the admonitions I could share with this young buck. We’ll do some pretty damning things to find ourselves.
“All that aside,” I say, “where’d a boy like you get such expendable income? Traveling the good ol’ US of A and buying friends seems expensive, not to mention both nefarious and dangerous.”
“Old money,” he says with a purple grin.
Now, I like a good mystery as much as the next Nero Wolfe, but I’m starting to sense that uneasiness Butcher was bitching about. Something’s not adding up here.
“So you promised the Chevelle boys cash you didn’t have … yet you have old money. And you also said you have nothing to give our dear chauffeur up there … Come to think of it, Blue-eyes, I’ve never heard of old money being stashed in a cattle farm.”
“We bury it in coffee cans,” he jokes. Then he bites his wine-stained lip and plays with the shaggy hair at the nape of his neck like a little preening is going to distract me the mountain of untruths he’s building. It wouldn’t take a genius to realize this kid’s hiding more than just a few white lies.
But what of it? I have my own secrets I don’t plan to divulge.
He, however, suddenly shrugs and starts spilling his guts. “The ranch is my aunt and uncle’s,” he starts. Might be a lie, might not be. “I worked it to earn my keep since they hated my mom … there was an orchard, but it’s dead now. I can’t stand it there. It’s all work and no one to talk to. Nothing to do all winter but wither and die like everything else. I hate the cold …”
My pause has him anxious for some reason.
“My mom slept around,” he continues spilling, “my dad didn’t stick around after I was born, blah, blah, blah– I’m not a charity case or a sobstory, though.”
“Never said you were–”
“Even though I’ve never met him,” he blathers, unprompted I might add, “my dad made sure I was always comfortable. Drove my uncle crazy because he almost lost the farm once while I was sitting on a gold mine. Didn’t make him treat me any better though.”
“Why didn’t you help him out?”
“Dad sent me a letter. Said the money was for my future, not his ex’s POS brother. His words not mine.” Then he taps the wine. “He told me he wanted me to spend that money however I chose to, so I choose to spend it on the road.”
“A boy your age should see the world, but don’t you think you should go to school?”
“School is for the fools who can’t take care of themselves,” he claims. “They need to be taught how to think because they can’t do it on their own.”
Is that right?
I shake my head and glance at Butcher to see if he heard that. “You and I do not share that school of thought.”
When I look back at Blue, his grin’s just a weak smile and his eyes have gone soft and boozy. “College couldn’t teach me anything a guy like you couldn’t.”
Now he’s just fishing for a slap.
He falteringly points at the dome light. “Should we turn off the–”
Butcher sounds asleep, but you can never tell with him.
But Blue’s right, it’s late, we’re tired, and the long, snowy road stretches under us so I flick off the light and lay back down on the messy bed.
I can barely make out his face in the darkness, but he doesn’t seem bothered by the night we’ve been plunged into. With that darkness comes the cold leaking through the window seals and somehow burrowing up from the chassis. I hear his teeth chatter, then he shakes.
The bed’s a wild twist of sheets from Garm tearing up front, so I take a minute to straighten what I can, covering Blue with the blanket so he stops shivering.
He’s still bleary eyed, not as tired as he is contemplative.
I lower my voice again, “If you feel so inclined after the morning crests, I have Dante’s Inferno and a French copy of Le Petit Prince–” He doesn’t respond except to wiggle around until his cold belly’s pressed against mine. “And, uh, for some reason, Butch has Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and Treatise of Light, if you’re into that–,” I continue.
He sighs – not bored or ticked off, just calm – and I note how cold his breath feels against my face. I wrap my arm around him. “It’s a small library,” I whisper, tucking the blanket under his back, “but the road to self discovery is long if you want something new to read.”
I’m not certain he’s still listening to me. He’s staring at my lips, his eyes half-closed and his smile completely gone now. It’s not until I watch him gently bite his tongue that I realize what the hell’s going on between our bodies.
I clear my throat just enough to say stop it now and pick up the books still stacked between our faces, tossing them into my empty seat. They flop over Garm.
Butch huffs at her growl, but I brush it off because I’m much more interested in finding out what Blue’s fingers are doing messing with the zipper on my jeans.
I slowly shake my head but his eyes do not seem willing to listen.
If there was a scenario for which Butcher might dool out a “go straight to jail” card, this would be it. No one would get to pass Go and you sure as hell wouldn’t collect $200. If he heard us doing anything, Butcher would mercilessly destroy this kid in ways that have yet to be imagined by even the most heinous of criminals. Someone in Dallas kissed me during a pretty grotesque and sweat-stained gathering at a factory warehouse club downtown. I punched the asshole in retaliation – knocked the drink out of his hand and broke his nose – but Butcher … Butcher and his Buck found him behind the building taking a piss and took his jaw – the whole damn bone – but thankfully, let the nice man watch us walk away.
Tooth for a tooth, I guess.
For some reason, though, despite my better judgment, my fingers decide to work their way under Blue’s shirt anyway. Maybe I’m just curious, maybe I’m drunk, maybe it feels nice to look into a pair of eyes I feel like getting lost in, rather than a pair I can’t help but feel trapped by.
Blue’s still cold, and gasps when my hand slides up his smooth back, so I stop and retreat, shaking my head again, my finger meeting my lips.
He can’t be loud; that’s a surefire way to get himself gored.
Of course, he doesn’t know any of that, but I have a feeling if I divulge this information prematurely, he might just stop pressing his groin against my leg, and I’m fairly certain neither of us wants that …
Now, I’m not a pervert, let’s get that cleared up right now. I’m also not a kiddie diddler.
I have my wants and needs like any red-blooded man, and thankfully, this beautiful country of ours has set boundaries and limitations to protect our youth from predators. That boundary just happens to be fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years of age or what have you depending on your whereabouts, so you can rest assured that Baby Boy Blue is not a baby anymore. He’s an adult, free to make his own bad choices like the rest of us, and at the present time, he’s choosing to hump my knee like the teenager his nearly isn’t.
My suggestion to stay quiet finally reaches his inebriated brain and he nods as he swallows back another sigh.
I fear my admonition might not be fully understood, so I lean into him and brush his cheek with mine until my lips hover over his ear. “You’ll be quiet,” I whisper, “or there will be hell to pay.”
He nods against the stubble on my cheek, then goes silent and still like a white bunny with a hawk overhead.
An older man would’ve taken that threat and fled, choosing to live another day to fuck someone else. Young bucks like this kid like to live a little more dangerously, thinking they’re capable of sneaking some tail right out from underneath fate’s nose.
Hell, I guess I’m counting on that myself.
When I unbutton his pants, his hormones surge again and suddenly he’s fearless, grabbing a fistful of my hair. He jerks back my head as he hugs his chest against mine. It’s only when I reach up and do the same to him, that I realize what the hell Butcher was mouthing off about.
He has my hair.
It feels identical between my fingers, though his isn’t nearly as coarse, nor is his scalp covered in healing wounds from cracking his head against tools and truck doors in the dark.
He lets go and slides his hand down my neck, his eager little mouth searching for my lips, and when it finds them, he lets out a whimper.
It’s a sound I don’t think I could forget – a little excited, a little overwhelmed, a bit rushed and hungry. It’s almost like those lips are restless and nervous, panicking about what comes next – am I going to bite him? Am I going to let him invade my mouth with his? Or am I going to tut tut this poor boy and kick him out, telling him desperation looks good on no one?
The truth is that desperation looks good on everyone in the right light – moonlight specifically – and the late hour and the buzz in my head makes his youthful excitement that much more intoxicating. It feels good to be able to make another person this aroused for doing absolutely nothing to them.
I make him work a little more – I’m no slut – taking a swig of his sickeningly sweet wine and teasing his mouth with a brush of my wet lips. He makes more of those whimpering noises when my mustache nuzzle his cheek and they huff cinnamon-tinged puffs of air across my chin. I want to gobble this little boy up.
The booze has loosened his courage enough that it finally breaks free, and his tongue pries open my lips.
I get to taste him: honey and beeswax, red wine and fireballs … a dreamy, creamy palette of youth and lust and inexperience.
He has soft wet lips, not rough and chapped from months of self-inflicted starvation. He’s also unconcerned with pretense, slobbering all over me in his haste. But the excitement in his hands and grinding hips seem to make up for it. Younger guys are all bumbling fingers and hungry tongues and it’s what makes them so much more endearing.
He doesn’t seem to falter with the zipper on my pants and after tugging open my fly, works them down my thighs with ease. Despite Butcher’s best efforts, he can’t keep fat on my bones so my clothes barely fit anymore. Blue on the other hand, like all these young kids, wears jeans that are practically painted on his body. I can pull them open but that’s where my access stops. If I didn’t know better, I might assume these little tests of my patience were to help guide me back to my moral highground, but I don’t believe in that nonsense anymore.
I wrench on his jeans so hard his lips are yanked from mine, and he finally gets the hint, squirming around until they’re halfway to his knees. After a couple tugs, The Mangy Moose is yanked over his head and forgotten at our feet. Now I’m faced with an expanse of white skin – mostly nude from the knee up – and he’s staring back at me, chewing on his lip. This egregious abuse of power he wields over me cannot stand, so I shove him onto his back.
It’s only with him splayed out below me that I finally open my eyes and see. He’s got my scrawny ribs and pale skin, but his upper arms are covered in bruises, deep and long. He has my smooth chest and neck, brown hair under his arms, and long fingers that can’t stop tracing the seams over my shoulders.
I don’t think he sees what I see, at least not yet. If he did, he’d be hightailing it out of here, freaked by my paternal looking chin and eyes. But he’s too busy trying to keep his breath under control and bumbling with the buttons on my flannel.
While he’s pulling it off my shoulders, I attack that perfect skin of his chest, tasting all the undamaged parts of his body.
His ribs are tender and sweet, and the ticklish little shit squirms under me while I bite each one. I’m starting to understand Butcher’s draw to my stomach now. This kid’s belly is soft too, and I trail my lips and tongue all the way down to the waist of his underwear which he’s still struggling to peel off.
I finally hook the waistband myself, but as I’m pulling them down, I realize a red creature’s gaze is staring back at me from his waist: Spiderman’s big black eyes.
I glance judgingly up at him, he said eighteen, but Blue’s not embarrassed or even fazed by my discovery. It’s not a discovery to him. He’s sweaty and breathless, not ashamed. His only concern is feeling himself be freed.
His pelvis is so close to my face, I know he’s anxious enough to not notice my hesitation, so I smile and ignore the adolescence of him not yet buying his own underwear.
He’s starting to get antsy – gulping more wine and shoving it in my face, and when I knock back another endless chug, he touches my throat and moans a breathy bellow.
I do tut him this time, with a drizzle of wine to the face. He gasps and stifles a cough, then stifles a laugh so I bite to his lip to keep him muffled. He can moan or giggle into my mouth all he wants, but if he can’t take me kissing his belly, I’ve got no hope of teasing whatever’s between his legs.
I come up for air. He chews my ear, still groping the bed for the bottle. Everything’s wet, his lips, the bed, my cheeks, his nose, stained pink in the bright moonlight bouncing off the snow outside.
This being, writhing and squirming like a worm on a hook, is either way too drunk to be doing this or severely starved for attention. Each time I pull away to go for his neck, his eyes damn near scream his undying adoration, and it’s making my heart skip – I can almost hear it when he exhales.
We share another tip of the bottle, wine dripping down my throat and his unconcerned chin, and his pale eyes go glassy again. He keeps tugging, pulling, gripping my back like he’s terrified he’ll fall if he lets go.
I know that feeling he’s grappling with; I’ve lived with it for years, so I strip off my shirt and worm my arm under his neck, holding him for a bit while we kiss.
He’s warm now, alcohol burning through his skin, lust burning through his groin, his little whimpers now heartbreaking, and when I kiss his wine-ruddied face, I realize he’s crying. But what gets me like a knife to the gut is when he pulls away and holds my face in his hands.
“Will you make love with me?” he whispers, and I feel like a thief – a cretin – a devil who doesn’t deserve to walk this earth.
I want to laugh – the kind of nervous, sick laughter that only the guilt-stricken can muster – but I don’t. I just stare at him, now having to make the hardest decision. Do I give this lovesick kid what he wants right now, or do I stop all this before I do something far worse to him?
The side of my face is suddenly hot, burning with indignation, and I recognize immediately where that heat’s coming from. I turn to see Butch staring at us with those empty wells, his gaze igniting my face from his perch, straddling the console between the seats.
His cigarette glows like a red-eyed cyclops lurking in the darkness and his head’s tipped back, looking down his nose at me, just waiting for my response.
I was expecting his hand to be fingering his knife, moments from ripping the kid out of bed – but it’s not. His hand’s laying over his lap, occasionally trailing down the inner seam of his jeans.
When I meet his eyes, his face is shrouded in a puff of moonlit smoke, then he nods to the kid.
Blue sees him and recoils from that red eye, trying to scramble into the corner of the cab.
“You’re fine,” I say, pinning him back to the mattress. His eyes dart between me and Butch. “You keep looking at me now.”
He hesitates, then nods, but when I continue kissing his neck, I can tell his eyes – his attention – his worry and fear is still focused on Butcher. And why wouldn’t it? He is a sight to behold.
This won’t do, all of us waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it might be considered cruel in hindsight, but I whisper it anyway, “I want to make love with you, Blueboy. Kiss you, touch you, revel in your sweet breath.”
He moans out the saddest, wine-soaked groan, and yanks me back to him.
We’ll deal with all this in the morning. Right now, this sad and lonely boy is far more important to me than that future, heartbroken one, or whatever one Butcher intends to turn him into – an example, a stew, maybe a folded paper heart.
It might be wrong, but as history has shown, I’m rarely, if ever, right.
Another swig. Sweet and fresh. The bottle rolls out of my fingers into his. Slurping and sucking, his sweaty hair clings to his temples like a leafy, autumnal crown. He smiles again, not nervous but jovial, that fearless youth returning with every mind-numbing swig, then the bottle’s passed to someone else.
While I nibble away, enjoying my fill of Blueboy’s giggles, that someone flicks the radio to life and we’re joined by a tender female voice, filling the cab, our stuffy heads, and aching chests – a guitar gently plucked by a melodic, lyrical voice that somehow further sweetens the oversaturated air. You are in my blood, my holy wine, she says. So bitter … so sweet … part of you pours out of me.
My head drops to Blue’s shoulder, dazed and dizzy as he squirms out of his jeans and underwear, kicking them to the foot of the bed. His hands are on me, all over me. They’re thumbing my cheeks as we kiss when I feel my pants being dragged down my legs.
Butcher’s tugging them off, huffing clouds over us until he’s satisfied and sits back on the console, eyeing our naked bodies as we consume each other in the back of his darkened cab.
“Have you done this before?” I whisper, not for privacy, but to allow that female voice to drift unmarred for just a little longer.
He nods, thankfully, so I don’t have to be a total creep, teaching him anything new. But when his fingers immediately pop to his wet mouth, I shake my head. “You don’t have to do it to yourself.” He stops and nods again, wiping his wet fingers on the sheet.
He leans into my ear, barely audible, “Can I have another drink?”
“You don’t have to stay quiet anymore, either,” I say against his cheek. “And don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
He’s smiling when he proclaims, “There’s never enough.”
“It’s not an analgesic,” I say. “And I won’t hurt you anyway. I’ve lived though enough bad experiences with older–”
“He didn’t ask for your life story, Hopper.” Butcher whacks my arm with the heel of the bottle. “Give the boy his goddamn wine.”
I rip the bottle out of his disrespectful hand and pass it to Blue.
He’s sheepishly ignoring the exchange and takes a meager sip – there can’t be anything but the dregs left – then he yanks my lips to his and passes the warm mouthful to me. Sweet honey and grapes then suddenly a bitter crunch.
I chew through more grit, and pull away, “What is the hell is this?!”
Butcher’s laughing to himself.
Blue’s smiling and gawking up at me. “Wine diamonds. You like ’em?”
“No. You just spit a bunch of sour rocks in my mouth.”
Butch’s red eye is still bobbing in the dark as he laughs. “Won’t hurt you.”
Regardless of whatever secretive-bullshit hilarious exchange they’re having, I’m still running this damn show.
I bite Blue’s nipple and he squawks through a drunken snort, but it seems like the whole truck relaxes a bit. No one’s brandishing knives or sharp tongues at anyone but me, so I go back to the task at hand and kiss a snaking line down Blue’s chest. We were about to upgrade this little tryst from sweetness to sinful and I’d hate to lose that immoral momentum.
Blue’s eyes close as he sinks into the mattress with another exhausted sigh. He’s as peaceful and picturesque as a painted Roman youth – reclined and relaxing on a gilded bed, draped in a white cloth as he fingers his lover’s skin.
I don’t want to disturb him and wreck this fruitful composition, so I glance at Butcher to see if he happens to be catching the same glorious view I’m witnessing.
His cigarette is still pulsing with every breath and beat of his heart and despite the soft tunes still floating around us, I can hear the faint rhythmic sound of skin on skin.
Maybe Butcher’s fly’s open. Maybe he’s shuffling cards. Maybe he’s oiling up the leather sheath on his knife, one can never know.
He drops whatever he’s clutching and grabs my wrist, drawing my hand to his mouth. Out pops his smoke and he licks two of my fingers, tonguing and sucking, thoroughly soaking them from the tip to the knuckle.
I smell a heat in the air, spices. It burns my nose and the cuts around my nails.
“Are you eating a fireball?” I ask, and Blue’s eye snap open.
“I borrowed one,” says Butch.
“Borrowing implies that you’re going to give it back.”
He nods to my spitty hand, “I intend to.”
The man exudes the charm of a pit viper.
I yank my hand away and suck his spit off my fingers until I can taste nothing but the wine we’ve been marinating in, then I return to Blue who’s nervously staring at my hand, probably hoping to not be penetrated by Butcher’s spicy retributive spit.
I know Butcher’s not taken with the kid, not like I am anyway. He’s not warming up or enjoying this in jest or with an open and welcoming mind; he’s tolerating my whims for the sake of the blue eyes and brown hair that are apparently tugging at his sense of personal commitment. Inconvenient compassion, he called it once right before abandoning me in the Arizona desert to sleep off my audacity for a few very hot then very cold days. He tells me it’s his inconvenient compassion that keeps getting him in trouble, yet I’m always the warm body that ends up both inconvenienced and troubled by it.
The young and delicate version of myself is still spread like a map under me and gleefully impatient now, using the leverage of his grip on my hips to buck his groin against mine. I’m not in a rush here, though; I like to take my time, especially when we have nowhere to go and my coordination is so sweetly compromised.
I bend his knee, kissing down his burning hot thigh, a gentleman who intends to enjoy every inch, but the impatiently handsy Butcher, wrenches up Blue’s other leg, unnecessarily urging me on.
The kid hisses at Butcher’s touch, and I refuse to allow him to suffer a second manhandling in a day.
“Would you not touch him?” I snap, and Butcher, still somehow shocked when I bark at him, hesitates, then holds up his hands. “You can ogle and grope me to your meager heart’s content,” I say, “but not him. No debate. That’s the rule. This is not Omaha. This is not Cleveland, thank God. We are not under a bridge fucking up the townies like goddamn trolls. This is a good kid who deserves respect and to be doted on, not roughed up and left like trash on the side of the road.”
Butcher finds my diatribe humorous in some way. I do not. “You’re the boss, Hop,” he chuckles, then looks down at Blue. “Do I make you nervous, son?”
Blue’s grin is back, as is that damn bottle. “I was nervous,” he bravely admits, taking another swig, “but I think I just earned a little of that reverence Hop’s been reserving just for you, so I’m not worried in the least anymore.”
I laugh at that. Blue takes another drink.
Butcher laughs, too. I imbibe a little.
Even Blue drunkenly giggles, but something tells me we are not all laughing at the same thing.
Refusing to allow this conversation to steal another second of our time, I crawl up Blue’s body and kiss him, drawing out those long, unforgettable whimpers until I’m sure we’re all on the same page again, then I happily return to his soft white thighs.
I find it inordinately pleasurable to be licking skin and tasting flesh that’s been washed in the last week. And he smells good, too – bold like woodsmoke and cedar – that feeling you get when you’re alone in the woods. It makes me want to bury my face in him until he promises to take me to that magical place.
When I finally do bury my face, pressing my mouth against his groin, Butcher’s gruff exhale at the sight overwhelms the radio and the sound of Blue’s blissful moans.
I work my way between his legs until I can tongue my intention since my wet fingers dried minutes ago. His whole body relaxes, his panting growing thicker with every flick of my tongue.
I rewet my fingers and play with him, my eyes locked on Butcher’s suddenly serious face. His eyes are black, though his mouth and cheeks periodically glow pink when he inhales through his fresh smoke.
The kid’s growing more and more excited, and I’m enjoying his hips pushing hard against my cheek. His ass is something else – not just a nice mouthful you want to smack on occasion, but a creamy white idol you want to worship. If Butcher wasn’t gawking only a few feet from us, I’d flip him over to get a better look.
When Blue’s eyes close again, his whimpers starting to uptick and his hands pawing at nothing, I slide my belly back over him and tease him a little.
Like me, this kid likes to kiss, I will say that. He likes to chew on ears and rub his nose against my cheek like a puppy, and it’s the most adorable and addicting sensation. When that impatience comes back and he starts humping my belly, I slide into him and wait for that inevitable hiss that gives me a chill of sympathetic pain and yet an ungodly amount of pleasure.
I’m a little shocked that I get all the way in without any hesitation on his part, and I smile. “Not your first time at all,” I say.
“Not tight enough for you?” he snickers as he rocks his stomach into mine.
“Vonnegut, a bag full of candy and wine, your very accepting ass,” I say as I reach back to grope his thigh. “I’m suddenly finding you more than just very interesting.”
His fingers comb through my hair and his face relaxes the more I thrust.
“I think I want to know the rest of Blue’s story,” I say, and he barely cracks his eyelids. “Why are you heading back to your much-hated hometown?”
“My money’s tied up in a bank back home,” he says through a coy grin, “and it’s getting too cold … gotta keep moving, go home, or die in a snowbank.” He shivers at the thought, so I kiss his cheek making him huff out more of that wine-soaked pleasure. “And you gotta do what you gotta do, right? Even if you don’t like it,” he nervously snickers. “Fuck or freeze. My pockets are empty, so it’s this until Billings.”
I stop moving.
Fuck or freeze?
His smile falls away.
This until he gets to Billings? That can’t be what he means. He’s a good kid … nobody would use him like that, especially not me – not for a damn ride home when the world is a frozen, barren wasteland.
“I need a break from the road,” he continues, and I think he’s trying to placate me, “you know, rest my sorry ass.” He’s snickering like that makes it better. “So I have to go home, even if I don’t like being trapped there either.” With that, his lips return to my neck.
No, not this kid. Not this good kid. The world wouldn’t be that cruel to this kid, making him surrender his dignity just to get where he needs to go … This boy’s too much like me and it’s disgusting …
“Why’re you stopping?” he whispers.
I take a breath, and I feel his sweet voice get caught in my chest, swirling around like it’s lost.
I rehear every word he’s already said to me, replaying like a record on an endless loop, and I watch flickering images of him in my mind – getting thrown down in the parking lot, refusing to go into the strip joint, that look of pained relief when a stranger agrees to touch him like this and not with a bruising smack.
I feel sick.
He looks worried, and I realize he’s returned to pawing my back, trying to draw me out of my own head and back to the apparent reverie.
“Hopper?” he asks, then he gropes the bed until he finds the bottle. “You don’t have to stop. I want to keep going. Have another drink.”
He can’t know what he wants, and I don’t need anymore alcohol making a monster out of me.
“Please don’t stop,” he mumbles, and there is such a twinge of hopelessness in his voice, even Butcher shifts uncomfortably like his moral compass might have unexpectedly twitched at the sorry sound.
“I’m not stopping,” I finally say, and bury my face into his hair. I will continue exploring his insides as requested … He’s a man, after all … he can make his own choices … he’s not a victim, here … he’s not a kid.
He’s going to drop out of this cab in Billings, Montana – no better or worse than he is right now. He’s going to wave goodbye. He’s going to turn around, bottle in hand, bag on his shoulder, and hoof it up the long dirt path to his home as God intended, safe and sound, and I have to remember that.
He’ll be fine.
He’s a good boy.
He’ll be fine …
His nails dig into my shoulders, and he blows against my cheek with every push. The longer we stay together, the more heated tension builds between our rubbing chests, and I don’t know if it’s my anger, or frustration, or just the newness of occupying the same space as a person so different from our red-eyed sentinel.
He nudges my temple again, and I go back to letting him sloppily kiss me with his overly ambitious tongue.
He pulls away, sweaty and still red-cheeked. “You can come whenever you want,” he huffs. Then he flinches when a drop lands on his cheek. I reach up to thumb it off his face, but I’m wiping the wrong face.
I sniff my nose and look away, but all I see are the dark patches on his upper arms.
Blue seems unfazed by it all, though, his hand still lazily wandering up and down my back. He wipes my face for me and kisses me again, then barely arcs his back, a new angle to speed me along.
I’m torn. So torn that I stop again, hell-bent on convincing myself not to take advantage of this lost and lonely child.
He recognizes my hesitation and leans to my ear. “The worst thing that could happen to anybody,” he whispers, “would be to not be used for anything by anybody.”
His wet lips meet mine again, his fingers gripping my hair, and he tightly hugs me until I finally do come, tangled and wrapped up in this sweet, sweaty, younger me.
A deeper, hungrier moan escapes him when I pull out and now I get to enjoy a little more freedom to do to him what I’ve been trying to do since I hopped in the bed: show him a proper good time …
Down I kiss, teasing his nipples with the tip of my tongue and blowing my cool breath over his wet skin until the truck is filled with his infectious giggle. His beaming face, however, is too precious to leave alone, so I’m drawn back to it to taste his syrupy laughter instead.
My hand is strumming his ribs, drawing more sweet sounds from him when I hear, “For the love of God, Hopper, if you don’t finish him, I will.”
Blue and I both glare at Butcher who’s still silently waiting on the console, probably holding himself and the wine bottle now, having polished off the rotgut just to get through this.
“Hey, I’m the one doing all the goddamn work,” I argue.
“You’re also the only one with a limp dick,” he replies.
And I am the barbaric rube.
He gets no say in this, so I go back to chewing on Blue’s delicious ear, making him snicker again, but then – since I am still a gentleman and want to satisfy both my tenuous and my tactless lovers – as requested, I slide down Blue’s body to take him in my mouth again.
That clean, drifting, woodsy smell of his body fills my nose and mouth and I’m dropped back to the forest floor like a skipped stone.
Glistening leaf litter and spongy moss, damp with fog. Mushrooms and long trails that open breathlessly into a valley of sky blue lakes at the foot of ancient, greying mountain.
He tastes like the Montana skyline – a Rocky Mountain sunset – a clear night filled with the smell of woodsmoke and sweet breath.
His hands are tangled in my hair – rubbing, gripping, tugging me with his rocking hips – and he moans when he pushes himself against my lips.
After only a few minutes of this, I hear another breath – low and deep this time – catch and release … It’s not my young lover, not my Rocky Mountain sunset …
A twinge of guilt pipes up from a well deep inside me. It shakes it’s finger and reminds me of another damp forest floor, muddy and vicious, bloody and cold, hotter skin, a booming voice that gave me purpose as it coaxed me into a different yet similarly warm and eager den …
I forfeit a moment of bliss with my Blueboy, because I know that’s all it will take, and crawl back to the center console, back to the lap of my lonely devil. He drops the bottle and drinks my skin with his hands, taking my Blue-tinged lips with his own, then finishes his solitary conquest over my devoted tongue.
The bottle tips as Blue calls me back to him with another plunk, another slosh, another gulp, and his hand draws my chin to his body.
He’s so close, so deliciously teetering on the very edge, I can smell him.
My tongue follows the inside of his thigh, then I sit up to check on his pretty little face.
He’s still smiling – angelic and half asleep – peeking down at me and waiting so sweetly for my return to him, so I quicken just slightly, my fingers wandering again. I play with him a little until his thighs stiffen, and he comes, thrusting into my mouth.
My lips meanders over his belly, and my mustache gets him laughing again which is a chorus to my ears.
He’s hot but satisfied, and I have to push him aside to lie down next to him. He rolls over, cuddling up close and draped over my body, and rests his head on my chest. It feels so unexpectedly gratifying to hold him, give him a little peace of mind, safety, and comfort all wrapped up with me.
The grinding pop of Butcher’s zippo echoes through the cab, then his hand reaches behind his seat to offer me a lit cigarette. Before I can even chastise him for not offering our guest a smoke, he hands him one, and Blue accepts it with an embarrassed grin.
I don’t know what to make of this either.
With a click and a whack, Butcher cracks the tiny window over us, letting a rush of winter blanket our red, wet faces.
I haven’t felt pleasure like this in a long time. Our chests finally stop heaving, and Blue cuddles into my side as the closeness and the breeze across our wet skin makes us both shiver.
Butcher’s door creaks and his feet crunch in hard packed snow. Then slam, and we’re alone.
I now get to enjoy the peace and solitude of the empty cab with a kid who seems to look, talk, and think just like me.
“Home is Billings,” I say again, and he nods, taking a long drag, then ashing out the chilly crack above us. “How long have you been on the road?”
“Three years,” he says, blowing smoke over our heads.
Since he was fifteen.
“Where’s home to you?” he asks.
“You’re lying in it.”
He takes a moment to survey the truck cab, though you can’t see much by the light of two cigarettes and the moon.
“Do you get lonely?” he asks.
“I have Butcher,” I say.
“Is that his name?”
“Nope,” I say. “Is Blue yours?”
“Do you get lonely out here?”
We both take long, contemplative drags.
“Yes,” he admits, and it makes my heart ache in places it has no business aching. “What’s going to happen when we get to the state line?”
Another drag as we think.
“You’re going to tell me where you need to go, and we’ll take you all the way to the Blue family front door.”
“I meant when I have to leave the truck,” he says.
I settle back onto the pillow and reach down to pull his thigh over my legs and he nuzzles my chest like a puppy getting comfortable.
“When we get there, you’re going to be happy to be in a place that’s familiar to you, even if you secretly know it’s going to be boring and disappointing for a while. For the last thirty minutes of the drive, you’re going to be all smiles and telling us who used to live in what rundown shack, and how the whole town’s changed in the last three years.”
“Oh yeah?” he wonders, peeking up at me.
“Without a doubt. Then we’re going to park on a muddy street near your house, probably a crossroad at the end of your lane. Barren, snow-covered fields in every direction.”
“Then you’re going to pet Garm and call her a good girl.”
“She is a good girl.”
“I agree,” I snicker. “Butcher won’t say a word, but I’ll hop out of the truck with you.”
“I don’t think I’m going to like this next part.”
“It won’t be too bad, I don’t think. You’ll give me a hug and a sloppy wet kiss,” I say.
He chuckles and kisses my chest. “That’s not so bad.”
“This is the tricky part, though, at least it will be for me,” I say. “I think I’m going to tell you something stupid, something I’ve only ever said to my ex-wife, and even then, I didn’t mean it.”
He hesitates and drops his cigarette butt out the window, worry drifting over his face. “Not even Butcher? I thought he was like your sin-wat or something. Beyond buddies … like your heart’s personal sentry.”
I chuckle because that’s not untrue …
“Oh he is,” I say, “But we’ve seen a lot … done a lot, he’s as much me as I am him at this point. When you find someone like that, it’s kind of like talking to a mirror … nothing said is all that shocking anymore, no confession is unexpected. You just know.”
“You don’t seem anything like him.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” I say. “He’s out in the cold right now, probably freezing his nuts off just so I can talk to you.”
“That was nice of him …,” he says.
The hour’s catching up so we roll over to face each other, his running nose nearly touching the tip of mine.
He sniffs, then yawns. “So after you say the thing, do you want me to say it back?”
“You say whatever you want to say, Blueboy. I just have a feeling you probably don’t hear those words enough.”
I can only feel his breath on my chin when I’m suddenly overtaken by my own desperation for more of him, so I run my hand up his naked back, memorizing this moment and his skin under my fingertips. Then I swallow back any and all hesitation so I can muster the strength to say, “Then I’m going to give you Sirens.”
His eyes widen. He’s speechless but not because of my gift to him. “I don’t think I can give you Cat’s,” he worries.
That’s even sweeter than his breath.
“I don’t need it,” I say, kissing his hair. “You keep ‘em both.”
The next day, we woke up at a truck stop where Butcher treated the kid to a hot breakfast – biscuits and gravy, toast and jelly, juice, eggs, bacon, and anything else he wanted, unnecessarily delaying our trip by a few hours, for which I silently thanked him.
We rolled into Billings around noon and Butch and I got a first-hand account of who used to live by the railroad tracks and whose daughter used to sleep with the principal of the old high school. We found out which family bred hunting dogs and where Blue’s very first puppy came from. He told us how many kids fell off the water tower when he was in high school – three – and that if we really wanted to do some fly fishing we needed to keep heading west until we got to Depuy Spring Creek.
Everything happened just as I said it would. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy; maybe it was meant to be.
The road was icy, not muddy like I thought, but the lane up to the farm house off in the distance was long and lonely.
Blue took Sirens, hugged me, and patted my back like an old friend after a long and sloppy kiss.
He waited for a while, waving from the end of his driveway until we were out of sight.
We drove on forever – a thousands of miles of road, hundreds of years flying under the truck – in utter silence.
We had nowhere in mind as always, just a mutual understanding that wherever we went would be where we needed to be … as always.
It wasn’t until we hit the Washington state line that Cat’s Cradle lands in my lap.
“He said to give it to you after we left Montana,” says Butch. “He was afraid you’d try to give it back.”
I smile and hide the mist in my eyes.
Its pages are still loose, still yellowing. It smells like spicy dirt. It makes me want to laugh, but I can’t.
I was about to lay it to rest in the box at my feet – my box, in Siren’s old familiar home among the trappings of another life – but I open it instead.
Inside the cover, surrounded by doodles of cocks and twisted sticks wrapped in squiggles of ivy, it says: I love you too, Hopper. Truly yours, Bluebird
Thanks for reading!
A few notes:
Joni Mitchell’s song A Case of You is what’s playing on the radio when Butcher turns it on. It’s from her most famous album, Blue, produced in 1971. 🙂
Lyrics for A Case of You
Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star and I said,
Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
With your face sketched on it twice
Oh you are in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter
And so sweet oh
I could drink a case of you darling and I would
Still be on my feet
Oh I would still be on my feet
Oh I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid
I remember that time that you told me, you said
“Love is touching souls”
Surely you touched mine ’cause
Part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time
Oh you are in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter
And so sweet oh
I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
I would still be on my feet
I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours, she knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds and she said
“Go to him
stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed”
Oh but you are in my blood you’re my holy wine
You’re so bitter
bitter and so sweet oh
I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
I would still be on my feet
Blue whispers to Hopper, “The worst thing that could happen to anybody, would be to not be used for anything by anybody,” which is a line from Sirens of Titan, if you all remember chapter 10 of Unhitched.
A sin-wat is a person who wants all of somebody’s love for him/herself. Its a Vonnegutism from Cat’s Cradle.
If you aren’t into American Gods, this is where we part ways. Thanks for reading and I hope you comment if you liked it!
If you are familiar with American Gods I have a little more to say …
Little Boy Blue is clearly an iteration of the Greek god Dionysus. I mean, I can’t make it more glaringly obvious with all the wine. As the god of wine and merriment, he relies on people worshiping him with drunken parties and orgies to stay relevant, since all the gods require some sort of reverence to continue existing. Dionysus is celebrated in the summer and fall (growth and harvest seasons for grapes) but dies back and becomes sullen in the winter. This is why Blue’s ending his long journey across the US by heading home for the winter (already forced to pay or sleep with people just to get them to drink with him) which is when he’s picked up by Hop and Butcher.
There are a lot of Dionysus origin stories, so I won’t get into them, but essentially he’s the son of Zeus and a mortal, and never lived on Mount Olympus. He was secretly raised by an aunt and uncle (avoiding Hera’s constant wrath). He was a wanderer, a lover of humans, of drinking, and a maker of music, and he bestowed the gift of wine and the knowledge of its production to the people. He often made humans go “mad” and was followed by a procession of the marginalized folks of society – criminals and women – as well as perpetually erect satyrs, the wild women of the woods called maenads, and other woodland creatures.
He’s also a god associated with rebirth as he was nearly killed in utero by Zeus’ perpetually pissed wife, Hera. He was saved by Zeus who delivered the fetus from Dionysus’ dead mother, then stitched the baby into his own scrotum (or thigh), only to “give birth” to him when Dionysus was fully developed. So he was born twice, and this “rebirth” created a cult following. There’s more to that story, but it will all probably come up later when I continue Blue’s story in future fics … and yes, those future fics include Santa Claus and the god of big Pharma.
“You ever kill a man, Blue?”
“Just last Saturday,” he says. “I normally take the weekends off, ‘cause of the sacrament and all, but the man was asking for it bogarting the blunt like that; it’s unconscionable not to mention rude …”
In the above quote, Blue refers to Saturday as a holy day because it’s named after the Roman god Saturn, who in Greek mythology was Cronus, Dionysus’ grandfather. In one myth, Dionysus defeats Cronus in battle, yada, yada, but then is killed, blah, blah, and his father, Zeus, inherits all the lands.
In the AG universe, I made him the feminine male youth he was claimed to be in folklore. His genitals are ambiguous (no cock or balls mentioned) because I’m the writer here and also because it’s Hugh Dancy. Feel free to imagine Blue with whatever genitals you see fit, since all are welcome here. I might give him a cock later, or I might dress him in a fancy strap-on harness. I haven’t decided yet.
The Dionysian symbolism is damn near obnoxious, sorry about that. I got carried away. Blue’s magical wine bottle holds the dregs of his draining influence over his followers, by the way. Never empty, always sweet, it contains the last vestiges of his summertime glory to get him through the winter until the following spring.
I hope you enjoyed and thanks for reading! I still can’t bring myself to put this on AO3 – it just doesn’t feel right – but feel free to let me know if you liked it!
While cleaning out my Google Docs, I found my original chapter one of Unhitched. It was in a file called trucker!Hannibal and titled Rest Stop, and was a whopping 712 word. It was created on Mar 1, 2017, whereas chapter one of Unhitched was published on August 6 of that same year after I had about eight chapters written and lined up in the queue.
If you want to see how someone’s writing ability and style can vastly change over a couple months (and then years), read on. I warn you, though. It’s rough – so rough. I left every error for posterity, but I think it makes me even prouder of what Unhitched is turning into.
“Excuse me, ma’am! Hey!” he snapped, gritting his teeth. The waitress tensed her shoulders, slowly turning to stare down at the middle-aged mustached man in the booth. “Um, these eggs,” he said, pointing at his plate, “are they supposed to be ice cold?”
Her face reflected each regretful minute of the twelve hours she’d been at the diner. “Yes, sir. Ice cold,” she barked. “Says so on the menu.”
He hesitated, his voice growing soft as he stared back at her blank expression, “Okay then. Uh, thank you.” He averted his eyes from the woman as he scanned his area of the diner for any potential eavesdroppers. Satisfied that his exchange went unnoticed he began cutting up his cold fried eggs. The waitress had meandered away and now stood behind the bar, rolling her eyes at the crazy man in her section. Will, of course, noticed this, but returned his attention to his slimy eggs.
“Ice cold,” he mumbled to himself. “Supposed to be ice cold. Menu says so,” he mocked. “Why bother to cook them at all then?” His agitated voice was elevating as he spoke. “Should have just given me a couple eggs right out of the damn refrigerator!” he emphasized with a scream. Several other diners looked up from their breakfasts and gawked at the man clearly losing his mind.
“What are you looking at?!” he angrily questioned, his eyes darting around the restaurant. Women were whispering and glancing away and a few men were simply ignoring his outburst – save one. Will glared at the bearded man at the far end of the bar. The man’s piercing eyes bore holes through his skull. Will’s gaze aggressively locked on him until his mind finally buckled under the pressure, his eyes returning to his rubbery breakfast.
“Ice cold,” he whispered, keeping his voice low. “Tastes like shit,” he sneered throwing his fork down. He violently pushed away his plate and cradled his face in his hands, sighing deeply as his anxiety began percolating behind his eyes.
He was suddenly no longer alone. He dropped his hands and stared at the face across from him at the table. The bearded man had invaded his booth and was now intensely eyeing him. The man leaned on his fist and continued to stare at Will.
Will incredulously stared back, unappreciative of this blatant disregard for his privacy. The man across from him pulled a toothpick out of nowhere and slowly worked it between his teeth as his gaze remained fixed on Will.
“Can I help you?” Will finally snapped.
The man pointed at him with the toothpick, “You’re a rude little man,” he mumbled matter-of-factly. His voice was low and gruff and accented in a way that one couldn’t quite place his origin or discern his level of education.
Will scoffed, his face contorting with disgust at the insult. “Is it not also rude to be served shitty eggs?” His voice was tense and emphatic. “I’m paying money for warm eggs, just like everyone else.”
The gruff man smiled and sat back in the booth. “You’re twitchy,” he snickered.
“And you’re dirty,” he retorted, unsure as to why he was resorting to name calling. This was all ridiculous. “And who-who’s rude now? Calling me twitchy …” He scoffed again and leaned back, crossing his arms.
“Where’re you headed?” asked the mysterious man.
Will’s voice remained agitated. “Yeah, I’m not discussing anything with you,” he hissed. His eyes darted around the room, searching for his waitress to refill his now ice cold coffee.
“Why not?” the man wondered. He was quiet and placid, not even particularly threatening.
“Do I seem interested in talking to you?”
Will shook his head in disgust, “They why are you continuing to bother me?”
“Curious.” The man continued to chew his toothpick, occasionally clicking his tongue.
Will furrowed his brows. “Curious about what? About me?” He glared at him. “Buddy, I’m not into whatever you’re looking for, so move on.”
The man chuckled at Will’s assumption. “I think you’re exactly what I’m looking for.”
“Oh … wonderful,” he mocked. “And what the hell would that be?”
The man slowly leaned on the table, a menacing smile creeping across his face, “A man with nothing to lose.”
Notice how it’s in third person and past tense? I think that was the first thing to go on draft two. If you want to compare, here’s chapter one of the final version. It’s 2742 words, if you’re curious.
Oh, the magic and majesty of a little patience and a lot of practice.
I wanted to talk about the authors’ feedback and how important it is for the reader either. It is often discussed how crucial are comments for the author and their desire to invest their effort into their new works. But authors’ replies to the readers’ comments are also important and they influence readers’ commitment and willingness to leave comments. Dear authors,please don’t ignore,please acknowledge us and our comments on your works with replies,bc it goes both ways. Please and thank you!
ao3commentoftheday left a fairly standard response stating that “everyone has reasons why they do/don’t leave comments and do/don’t reply to comments,” but it opened up that age-old discussion as to what readers feel owed when they comment and what writers are obligated to do if and when comments start rolling in.
There is one camp of that states, “I wrote the fic and charitably gave it to my fandom. If I am expected to respond to the gratitude my readers have for my gift, is it really gratitude they are sharing with me or just attention-seeking bait?” It does end up being more work for authors in addition to the laborious task of writing.
The other camp is, “Of course I will show my gratitude to readers by responding to every comment!” And those authors take time out of writing to reply.
Unhitched has over 800 comments.
If 1-10 or so comments are left per reader, assuming they comment on multiple chapters (most do not), that leaves 400 comments to be written by me, which is, of course, in addition to the (current) 171,852 words of the actual fic. That’s a lot of writing!
I’m not complaining. I’m just stating that expecting a reply is sometimes not physically possible, especially if the author has multiple fics in a very active fandom, and I’m not sure I like the idea that readers will only comment if they think they will get a reply. I have heard that elsewhere and it rubs me the wrong way. Refusing to acknowledge the fact that you consumed something the author produced simply because you don’t get the added bonus of being thrilled when the author responds, seems a little greedy … or maybe a lot greedy.
If readers knew how much time goes into the free entertainment they so quickly and happily consume, they would never again ask for a reply. It is a hellish amount of work to keep up with.
That said, I applied all these thoughts I was mulling over to Hannigram, of course, because it makes for a fun writing challenge.
Hannibal Lecter invites you to dinner and serves a delicious human leg all done up nicely with assorted fruits and nuts. You partake of the leg and find it unquestionably rich – divine – your mouth has never tasted anything so decedent. Without hesitation, you thank him for the invitation to dinner.
Being a man with ample time, skill, and a love of both compliments and fine dining, Hannibal Lecter would probably serve you dessert for your politeness. Sanguinaccio dolce. You could consider it a “thank you” for joining him and fawning over his leg.
Will Graham, by contrast, is nervous around new people, but he doesn’t want to appear standoffish, so he invites you fishing one afternoon. The stream is beautiful, the sun-dappled ground peaceful, and Will shares anecdotes about the flora and fauna. You are enraptured. After a few hours, you sit by a fire along the bank of the quiet stream and he plates some pan-fried trout caught by his own rod and reel. The fish flakes like nothing else. It’s light and fresh and melts in your mouth. You thank him, which he wholeheartedly appreciated, but given his demeanor, doesn’t even nod in reply.
Will didn’t bring dessert, unless you count the smashed granola bar under the seat of his car. He brought a tackle box and wants to get back to fishing. You are free to sit on the shore and watch, but if you only went fishing with Will Graham so that he would serve you pudding, then you had no business agreeing to join him. Will Graham is not Hannibal Lecter.
One man is about the sharing of a meal – the give and take – watching you eat human flesh while you give praise and adoration of his efforts; the other is about sharing a single experience that means something profound to him and that is all.
Hannibal appreciates thank-you notes, fine wine, and long-winded conversation where he can preen. He will gladly play that game; he has the time, the patience, and the desire to do so.
Will Graham will give you what he can, but that’s it. The trip was what he offered, nothing more than a nice view, a tin plate with fish, and a thermos of coffee.
Some authors can offer a five-course meal with all the trappings, including replies to comments.
Others pour their time into the fic itself and are drained by the end of it, unable to scrounge up even a granola bar.
In the end, authors range in their abilities to cook, fish, and socialize. Some look at writing as a smorgasbord – a buffet of delight – and reply to all comments without question. Other’s took you fishing and shared a warm afternoon with you, and that is where the lovely day ended.
In the end, writers are all adorable cannibalistic murderers, but since a reader can never tell which kind, it is best not to expect things. A simple “thank you” after a nice day out or a fine meal is all that is needed. To expect anything else might just be considered rude, and rudeness is not looked at favorably by certain someones.
Books I would like to read or reread this year for personal reasons or because of upcoming writing challenges. I’m not following this list of 100 Modern Must-Read Classics, but I am pulling a few titles from it.
Books I’ve Finished:
Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – 1/15
Bagombo Snuff Box* by Kurt Vonnegut – 1/22
Alices Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – 1/28
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn – 1/29
Trigger Warnings* by Neil Gaiman – 2/6
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – 2/10
Armageddon in Retrospect* by Kurt Vonnegut – 2/18
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – 2/19
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson – 2/21
1984 by George Orwell – 2/26
A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut – 2/27
To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee – 3/1
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – 3/4
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – 3/6
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button & Other Stories* by F. Scott Fitzgerald – 3/8
Minority Report and Other Short Stories* by Philip K Dick – 3/12
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs – 3/19
Slaughter-house Five by Kurt Vonnegut – 3/27
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells – 3/30
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – 3/30
The Country of the Blind* by H. G. Wells – 4/1
On the Road by Jack Kerouac – 4/3
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells – 4/5
The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes* by H. G. Wells – 4/6
Tales from Edgar Allan Poe Vol 1* (L&LA) – 4/7
Tales from Edgar Allan Poe: Vol 2* (L&LA) – 4/7
I am Legend by Richard Matheson – 4/9
The Metamorphosis* by Franz Kafka – 4/12
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells – 4/15
The Dark Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft Vol 4* – 4/18
Anthem by Ayn Rand – 4/19
Welcome to the Monkey House* by Kurt Vonnegut – 4/27
The Road Virus Heads North* by Stephen King – 4/27
The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson – 4/27
The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell – 4/27
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris – 4/28
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – 5/3
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – 5/7
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen – 5/9
Mr. Spaceship by Philip K. Dick – 5/11
Lord of the Flies by William Golding – 5/13
The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H. P. Lovecraft – 5/16
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – 5/19
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – 5/21
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – 5/22
The Dunwich Horror by H. P. Lovecraft – 5/23
Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne – 5/25
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – 6/7
Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx – 6/11
Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
I’m not particularly proud of this story as I don’t find it particularly enticing. It is merely a prompt fill for a challenge I partook in. It is my first attempt at anything fantasy oriented and not Hannibal related at all. It is just here for posterity at this point.
I realize now what kinds of voices I prefer in stories. As I write novels like Charm City and Scarwood, I’m beginning to appreciate a slightly different kind of world-building.
Original short story challenge from Writers Write:
Prompt: Desperate times | Word Count: 1000
For three thousand years, the little girl’s ancestors had housed a wyrm nestled in a small box, clutching a gold coin. They had called the wyrm a maðkur, but the little girl refused to think of it as a maggot, so her father proposed she name their family talisman herself. At seven, though she had never seen the creature, she named it Sváfnir.
She was a quiet girl, sickly and friendless, but a lover of flora and fauna. She fed the elk that wandered by their farm and set out bones for the serpents at night.
She’d been told that their wyrm had remained locked in its box for years – her family unwilling to be bitten or poisoned by its tail. Over generations, its kind had morphed into beasts the size of wild dogs.
No longer tucked in caves, hoarding treasure, they now dug through piles of refuse and bothered farmers when they swooped from the sky to pluck lambs from the fields.
Long ago, men had dug gold from the earth and pressed it. The wyrms had a taste for the soft yellow ore. They waited patiently until smiths and kings had filled the villages with currency, then slaughtered the men and hoarded that gold, consuming troves which gilded their backs and bellies. With their newfound strength and splendor, they burned fields and poisoned lakes. And when the creatures grew tired from their glut, they wallowed with each other and laid hundreds of eggs before they slept.
With great feasts comes great famine, and after that age, men grew wise. They bartered and coins were no longer pressed. Those old serpents died, refusing to eat anything but gold. Their offspring had grown dull and listless, scattering to the mountainside to hoard what measly coins they could find, until the creatures starved.
The remaining wyrms adapted, turning brown and feeding on scraps, not treasure. The creatures remained gaunt and manageable – their clutches small in number – and the villagers paid them no mind.
Coins became unheard of. If they were uncovered, they were buried or tossed into rivers. The mystical men, however, protected what few remained as there was something magical about the control they had over the wyrms.
It was well-meaning of the girl’s father to show her Sváfnir one night. It was cold, she was lonely, motherless, and he had nothing else to offer.
That night, under the cover of darkness, her father brought the box to her bedside and opened it. The little wyrm hissed, the girl jumped, and her father almost clapped the lid. She stopped him, however, her eyes fixed upon the blue beads staring back.
The creature clutched the chewed coin and its head twisted to view the curious gaze which faced it after hundreds of years of solitude. She smiled and called it by its new name. It hissed and she giggled. It then rolled, showing off it’s diamond-crusted belly, hissing again. She laughed and felt its jagged scales, her father holding his breath as he watched. Her father told her of a time when gold had once filled their family’s pockets, food had toppled from plates, and their forge had never grown cold. The wyrm was thought to protect their family, so they were charged with protecting him in kind. Her father closed the box and put it away, happy to see a smile on his daughter’s once somber face.
Her curiosity over Sváfnir did not flounder. Her father was shocked to find the wyrm in her apron pocket one morning. He was furious to see her in the fields with him, tossing and catching the mangled coin, but over time, the pair became inseparable. He was kept hidden in her dress or at the nape of her neck for years. They grew a fierce and tangible love, never apart and no longer alone.
The girl had become a woman when a bitter wind swept the valley. Crops failed and the feral wyrms chewed the wool off the sheep and the flesh from the remaining elk. Sváfnir spent his days gripping his coin while the weak woman grew white and lame.
With neither food in storage nor goods to trade, her father feared for her life. He sought help from a mystical man and a tonic of herbs and milk brought color to his ill daughter’s cheeks. Weeks passed and she asked of Sváfnir. She was told that he was sleeping soundly on his treasure. When she was able to walk again, she was eager to see her dear companion and retrieved the box to peer inside.
She opened the lid and found her friend waiting – his eyes and body weak. He hissed and crawled to rest in the woman’s cool palm. His coin was gone, now lining the pocket of a mystic, and with it went his gilded scales and gem-encrusted belly. His eyes had yellowed and skin browned, but when she spoke his name – her voice sullen and heartbroken – he hissed as he always had.
Wyrms don’t live through the ages as they did when the mines were open and prosperous. Without gold, Sváfnir’s bones grew brittle and his wings sagged. When he became too sickly to move, the girl spent weeks keeping him warm until the spring thaw brought lamb and fish to their table. The wyrm’s taste for gold never wavered, however, and he refused all the food she offered.
By the summer, she’d lost her precious Sváfnir and laid him to rest in the fields where they’d played when she was just a girl. The next winter took her father, and the next her home when she could no longer care for her land.
On her deathbed, still alone and frail, the women remembered those year spent with her sweet Sváfnir. She had loved her family’s treasured protector, been comforted by his enduring companionship, and that friendship had been worth far more to her than all the gold in the land.