Yep. 25,000 words. Right on schedule. This weekend was kind of hectic, so I spent most of today doing what the kids call, "Catching the F*@K Up!" And I made it. My brain's utter mush right now, so much so that I found this sweet Ma Fratelli painting and wanted to make all these cool Goonies references, but now I just wanna go to bed. But first, I need a glass of water. Wait, this isn't water. "It's wet, ain't it? Now, drink it!" Okay, a weak one, but kiss off.
Oh, don't kiss off until you read this excerpt. Not sure how many more of these I got in me, we'll see. This one's kinda self-explanatory, but Stanley received something in the mail, and something oddly coincidental happened after he opened it. Enjoy!
Stanley had always loved Ashtonville in the autumn, the fiery reds and oranges and yellows in the trees that made them look like a glowing fire. When he and Esther had made the decision to move back to Minnesota from Chicago to raise their family and bury Stanley’s old life as a writer, it was the finest decision they ever made. There was something about the smell, a swirling concoction of crumbled leaves, wet grass, and the faintest hint of bonfire, as if somewhere, someone was perpetually warming themselves by a small flame.
He walked every day; it was part of his cardiovascular routine that kept him mobile while others his age wiled away their golden years being tended to by a young person in a nursing home who was always checking his watch to see if it was time to break free from the smell of death and loneliness. It kept him fit. Though no one saw under his baggy flannel shirt and khaki slacks, he still had a bit of muscle wrapped around his wiry frame. He still had moxie.
His route would vary. Sometimes, he would take the hilly path through Ashtonville that led him past the main strip of town, where small businesses toiled away the day, diners and liquor stores and bars. Past them, an ancient white brick building housed the police department and fire department, all in one. Ashtonville was by no means a large town, and it knew its roots. Since things had been working without a hitch for many years, they avoided change. He’d see Harry Westerman, the police chief, a stout man whose paunch strained the uniform he wore and whose mustache was always perfectly combed. He’d see Cindy Marble, the wide-eyed proprietor of the town’s oldest gas station, her glasses the size of small dinner plates and her red hair frizzed and on end, as if she’d touched a live wire in the cooler while refilling the soda bottles. He knew these people, had known their families, their histories, and it comforted him. Their presence was a warm blanket.
His other route was more somber. His modest rambler home rested near the edge of town, where houses became farms and were separated by acres of land, some sprouting beans, others corn. Just outside of town, a small gravel road with a faded sign naming it County Road 17 cut through farmland and up into a large outcropping of trees, poplars and elms and birch, a splash of color that came upon him like an impressionistic painting. The gravel road wound downhill then, through the trees, and came out at the Ashtonville Memorial Cemetery, fenced-in hillocks covered with sentinel headstones and watched over by a chiseled Christ on the cross, a vibrant white marble set against the blue of a cloudless sky.
It was this second route Stanley chose to take this day. Even if there were nothing rolling around in his mind that needed sorting out, he’d have taken it anyway. Hell, it was that time of year. And the colors were almost peak.
He flipped the collar on his tweed jacket up to protect his neck from the stiff and cool breeze of the morning, and tugged his herringbone wool cap down over his wispy hair. Minnesota winter’s coming soon, he could smell it in the air and feel it creeping its rust into the hinges of his skeleton.
He buried his hands in the pockets of the tweed jacket as he continued his walk along the gravel road, listened to its rhythmic crunch with each step. In his right pocket, he fingered the folded paper on which the number 29 was typed. Small, simple type. Profound meaning.
Sleep had not come back to him after he discovered the connection between the note and the book. He lay in bed and thought about who possibly could have sent this to him, who here in Ashtonville was as familiar with his work, even more familiar it seemed, than he himself. He’d risen out of bed, the Sherlock Holmes in him coming out, as he rummaged through a junk drawer in the kitchen until he found amongst the pencils and golf tees and take out menus a small magnifying glass used for reading. Esther had had bad eyes.
He’d held the envelope under the lamp in his office and studied the postmark with the magnifying glass, hoping a minute detail, a couple of connecting letters in the city name that he could piece together, would be visible under scrutiny. Alas, it was too faded, too poorly stamped, to read.
Before him, the winding path took its ‘ess’ turn down the slope, and a pick-up, a beat up old thing, rumbled past. Dennis Haefner, out on what could be a last minute run before the harvest began. It was getting to be that time of year.
Dennis raised two fingers off the steering wheel as Stanley sidestepped out of the vehicle’s way, kicked up a small plume of dust as it headed away towards town. Another day in the life for everyone in this town except for Stanley, and the poor lady who had been killed by an Alestair Snyde copycat.
The awe inspired by the statue of Christ in the center of the cemetery never ceased to amaze Stanley. It was more of an architectural thing than a spiritual thing, he supposed. He was never a church-going soul, not like Esther. No, he had always thought that going to church on Sunday made him a Christian about as much as standing in a garage made him a Cadillac. But whoever had constructed the statue had done a damn fine job.
Esther’s headstone was toward the back, tucked in under a copse of pine and shaded for the better part of the day. Shortly after her death, Roger and Marilyn, Stanley’s daughter, a CPA in Boston, had purchased and placed an old pine bench under the trees in honor of their mother. Had a plaque on it and all. Stanley sat here, quite often, actually, if he had something to mull over. And this sure did qualify as mulling material.
“Hey darlin’,” he spoke aloud, comforted to hear his voice.
And then nothing.
After a time, he collected his thoughts, and spoke.
“Roger’s been harping on me about needin’ help, just like we thought. Told him I’d never see the inside of no nursing home. Old age has made me stubborn, dear. Got something in the mail, not sure what to make of it. Not yet. Poor lady’s been killed in town, saddest thing, and I think I got a warning. Just didn’t realize it at the time. They’ve been reading my books, whoever done this, and they killed her by choking her with neckties, like that old story Charlie and you told me I was crazy to write, but I done it anyway.
“Gonna take some time before I tell anyone. Just what they want, a crazy old coot rambling on about how he’s being haunted by his work. Golly. Golly golly, Miss Molly.
“I miss you, girl.”
He sat there taking in the fall colors, watched a squirrel scurry across a headstone and bound into a tree, humming the old Crimson Avenger theme. It was all coming back to him. That old life. Those days of dreaming up the most shocking story and seeing who could top one another, he and Charlie and Eugene and sometimes even Joey Kramer, the kid who ran his pages to the editor and took his suits to the cleaner.
He smiled and closed his eyes, lifting his head to the sky. The sun poked through between some of the swaying branches, creating dancing light on the inside of his eyelids.
He dozed for a bit, then woke for the walk home.