A sneak peek at what I’m working on …

Filed under: Story Excerpts Nov 29, 2012

So you’ve heard me talk about my Court and Ronnie story. I’m up to chapter 7, yay me, and I’m shooting for a release in early 2013 if I can stay on track with the story.

But what’s this story all about?

Let me give you a sneak peek. Here is a little snippet of chapter 1 (Ronnie doesn’t quite make an appearance here, but you get a good look at the main character, John Courtland a.k.a. Court).

Court and Ronnie, Chapter 1
Copyright © 2012 J.M. Snyder

The battered shopping cart muttered with a squeaky rattle as John Courtland pushed it down the center line of Interstate 95. Beneath his hands, the cracked plastic wrapper around the handle that once read Welcome to Martin’s! now scratched against his palms. Faded advertisements flashed up at him blindly from the flap in the basket’s upper seat. Sunlight winked off the parts of the cart’s steel grid which hadn’t yet begun to rust.

Inside the basket, an old battered baseball bat stood up against the back of the seat, handle up as if waiting to be held and swung. A ball-peen hammer clattered against the basket seat as the cart bumped along the asphalt road, and a pair of long-handled wire cutters resting in the basket’s belly joined in the chorus. If Court had to listen to the cacophony for too long, he was pretty sure it’d drive him crazy.

Too late for that, kid, his mind whispered. After the summer you’ve had, if you ain’t crazy yet, there’s something seriously wrong with you.

True that. It was late September now, the summer long tucked into the past, where Court would leave it if he could. But the sun beating down on him still held a summery heat, warming the top of his head and making his scalp itch. Already a fine sheen of sweat coated his back, making his T-shirt stick to his skin, though it couldn’t be much later than ten in the morning. Virginia heat was the worst, Court thought, wiping a forearm against his brow. With a slight twinge of annoyance in his voice, he asked, “Hot enough for you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Beside Court, Adam Allison trudged along with one hand held up over his wireframe glasses to shield his eyes from the sun. The man was in his late thirties, same as Court, and still built like a college linebacker. It wasn’t diet or exercise — it was genetics, plain and simple. The guy never tossed a pigskin in his life. In his previous life, the one before this past summer. When he shrugged, his shoulders moved like boulders beneath his T-shirt. “I mean, really. What if I said no?”

“I’d say you’re crazy,” Court replied. If he could call it, that meant he wasn’t crazy himself, right? Wrong — takes one to know one, a voice inside his head replied. It sounded suspiciously like his mother. The shopping cart jittered against the asphalt, noisy as he pushed it along the empty stretch of highway. Court pushed his mother out of his mind. “How hot do you want it to be?”

Adam sighed and mopped away the sweat beading on his cheeks. “I don’t have much say in the matter, do I?”

Suddenly Court raised his face up to the sky and shouted, “Hey! You! Dial it back a little, will you? We’re roasting here!”

He felt Adam elbow him in the ribs. “Hush,” he warned, as if afraid someone up there might decide to answer Court after all.

“I’m just saying,” Court started, but the shopping cart struck a small stone and jerked hard to the left. He struggled to keep it from overturning or getting away from him. “Fuck.”

“See what I mean?” Adam asked.

“Why do I always have to get the one with the bad wheel?” Court muttered. “Piece of shit …”

Alan grunted, but Court couldn’t tell if he agreed or what. Before Court could ask, a hot hand touched his arm, just below where the sleeve of his T-shirt brushed his elbow. “Hold up. I see something.

He looked ahead of them where the interstate curved away around a blind corner, one of those narrow switchback roads the mountains in this part of the state were famous for. He squinted and thought he saw a flash of light up ahead — could’ve been anything, really — but he knew what it. Sunlight off a chrome fender. Bingo.

“I see it. What do you think we’ve got?”

As usual, Adam answered Court’s question with one of his own. “Ronnie said two cars, didn’t he?”

“I know what Ronnie said,” Court started, but he bit back the rest of the words before they could tumble free. I was the one he said it to, remember? Earlier that morning, Court had woken to find his tentmate, Ronnie Densch, sitting Indian-style on his sleeping bag. Ronnie’d been fully dressed despite the early hour, and snacked on a granola or energy bar as he watched Court. The thought that Ronnie had nothing better to do — or rather, wanted nothing better to do — than watch Court wake in the morning made his heart ache. When Court asked how long he’d been up, Ronnie just shrugged. To the question of what was he eating, Ronnie handed the last few bites of the bar to his friend, who chewed slowly, as if savoring the taste Ronnie’s lips and teeth and tongue had left behind.

Then Ronnie had mentioned the cars, two of them, out here on Interstate 95, and he suggested Court take Adam out to have a look. Of course Court agreed — Ronnie could’ve told him to go alone, and as much as he would’ve hated to do so, he wouldn’t have been able to refuse. This was Ronnie. They met in elementary school all those years ago and remained close friends throughout their teen years. Roomed together in college, married a few months apart, and lived next door to each other well into their thirties. Would’ve grown old together and died together, too, Court had been sure, until the summertime came, bringing disease and sickness and death. Now they camped together, and Court would follow Ronnie to the end of the world if it came to that.

Some mornings, he was afraid it would.

As the two men came around the bend in the road, the accident slowly slid into view. Two vehicles stretched across the interstate, blocking both lanes of traffic with a tangled heap of twisted metal. Shattered glass twinkled everywhere. The vehicle closest to them was an older station wagon, whose chrome fender flashed its Morse code message in the morning sun. It hung off the back of the station wagon like a wry grin. Dark patches underneath it hinted at a sprung oil leak, but the viscous liquid had long since turned to tar.

The wagon’s rear tire that Court could see was shredded, a retread that had blown, most likely the cause of the accident. He could almost imagine it, playing out in slow motion inside the movie theater of his mind — the tire wobbles and shakes, protesting the station wagon’s speed. The driver, unable or unwilling to stop, floors the gas pedal, hoping to make it around the curve and away from the sickness he’s trying to outrun. What he doesn’t know — or, if he listens to the news, what he knows and doesn’t want to admit — is that the sickness isn’t contained to his little bum-fucked down. No. It’s spread to every inch of the planet, killing indiscriminately, jumping from host to host without rhyme or reason. It isn’t just his little town dying out here in the middle of nowhere; it’s all the little towns, and the big ones, too. It isn’t just the good ol’ U.S. of A. but the entire world dying. How can one possibly hope to outlive that?

So the tire blows, the station wagon skids, and the dark blue minivan barreling from the opposite direction — also trying to outrun the sickness, not realizing it’s running right smack-dab into the very thing it’s trying so hard to get away from — the minivan doesn’t see or, worse, does see but can’t stop in time. The van T-bones the station wagon so hard, skid marks burn into the gray asphalt, leaving smears similar to those the dried up oil left behind.

Court could see where the impact crumpled the van’s hood and shattered the windshield. Through the broken glass, the body of the van’s long-dead driver sprawled across the accordion of crumpled metal and lay, face down on the hood, as if taking a snooze in the sun. If it weren’t for the polished bone poking out of the driver’s clothes, Court might have almost believed the man or woman really was sleeping.

Almost.

The windows in the station wagon were rolled up. Whatever remained of the occupants inside the car had to smell ripe, sweltering in the last vestiges of the summer sun. Court saw a body slumped over the steering wheel — had the driver been killed by the accident? Or had the virus done the job first? As he neared the vehicle, he saw more bodies in the middle seat, rags now, one strapped into a child’s seat. His heart lurched in his chest at the thought of children dying trapped inside the car.

This might get ugly.

He felt a dizzying silliness drape over his thoughts — he tended to act stupid to buffer himself from the worst life had to offer. A few months ago, at the worst of the epidemic, he’d been borderline manic for most of the time. The last thing Jeanine said to him before she died was, “Can’t you be serious just this once?” As if she were scolding a particularly rambunctious child. The cough rattled inside her chest and bloodied her lips. Court remembered holding her hand as she slipped away.

Can’t you be serious just this once?

The short answer? No. He couldn’t. Not as she lay dying, and not here, where death had already staked its claim.

TO BE CONTINUED …



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