Lightning , it is widely held, comes from the sky. And though it's genesis does lie in those stratus, cumulus, or cumulonimbus clouds, some form of cosmic help is required to properly vent the frustration of several hundred thousand volts. This precursor, called a 'leader,' is a positively charged path that will rise from terra firma to meet an invisible, negatively charged counterpart coming down from above.
Now, we have trouble. A micro-second finger of direction created, if you will, allowing the skies their fury. Without this earthly, esoteric phenomenon, we might not so often hear from the heavens.
"Spurs Off." Kelly Risen watched the electric sign flicker twice then die as a huge thunderbolt stitched it's supremacy across an oil-black Texas sky, the final bow of a waning, evening summer storm. The sign sprang back to life, reached out, and seemed almost to slap him back to the here and now. Barbed wire might have been more suitable than elegant, royal blue neon letters laced across the facade. He wondered whether he'd dressed appropriately. Not with a name like that, he told himself. Then again, with any luck, maybe they'd reject him at the door. He wore a faded navy colored sport shirt that was moving closer to gray-black by the day, jeans and boots. They would have to do. There was no turning back now.
He was a little self-conscious of the boots. Especially, here in Texas. Nobody likes a phony. Though a close look would have determined he'd been wearing them long before they had become de rigueur. He got a coat of polish on them now and then. He looked down. They were way past the time for another.
Dinner was guaranteed to be a pain in the ass with this many people. Coupled with the likelihood that the hired help were dressed to go square-dancing, dropped everything they were doing every damned ten minutes and broke into some cheesy song and dance routine. Jesus! Get out of this mind set, for Christ's sake! It's a reunion.
Three years had passed since the last time his family had visited this part of the country. Perhaps the reason for such a gathering tonight. Ought to be a whoop-de-do time.
His thoughts were nearly blotched out by the banter in the back of the van. He checked to see if any were killing one another and noticed Phillip, cousin David's youngest, studying him with an expression that bordered on sympathy. Risen quickly grinned and winked at the boy.
I need a swift kick in the ass. Maybe it wouldn't be that bad. Right.
He turned back to the window and saw something about as ironic as the marquee. A couple walked toward the front door. The man was rigged with goatee, khakis, cardigan sweater, and a pair of Armadillo-skinned boots. An abominable combination, at least by Risen's idea of a dress code. He dropped his chin to an open palm and tried not to scowl. Boots should be worn with pants holding the same distinction of character, and there was only one; denim.
The woman wore a floral patterned, white sun dress. Sandals on her feet, thank goodness. Risen decided she was outstanding after taking a second look. "There's a pretty little thing... 'cept for that red hair. Bet you done wrote them off," uncle Bob said with a drawl thick enough to suffocate in and a devious chuckle. "You keep your eyes open for a parking spot," aunt Josie chided. She'd always liked Risen's ex-wife. Even her damned hair. "I'd just give anything to have hair like that -- it might even do something for you, you old fart," she admonished and turned to her nephew in the backseat. "Just never mind him, Sugar."
Risen put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed, letting her know he was not so easily offended. Josie was a sweetie. If she'd only known what Christine had done, she might not--- no, she'd still manage to say something nice, Risen recalled from Texas hospitality.
He'd told no one the whole story. It was history now and wouldn't buy anything back, any how.
Uncle Bob, like most of the clan, was stout with forearms evident of years behind a tractor. Hardened by a way of living that built strength in body and character, whether that was the plan or not. Something Risen reflected on, days he found himself dragging ass to an air-conditioned office. His uncle was still a tough codger. Earlier days, the toughest in Johnson County. A tobacco chewing, leathery cuss for the most part, as most of the Risen men had a reputation for being. Kelly was first generation city-dweller.
Risen thought he'd seen a space at one end of the lot earlier, but said nothing and regretted that honor of silence. The kids were restless and he just wanted to get this damned thing over. He saw a lone man sitting in a parked car and thought nothing of it as Uncle Bob finally dropped everyone off at the entrance. Josie's eyebrow flared, but she made no other fuss.
Risen got in the front seat after the exodus, just like he used to do with his own father. His uncle wasted no time in pulling right into the space Risen had seen earlier. Risen watched the parking lot's lazy amber light bounce off the stainless-steel flask reflecting between thick fingers and stifled a snicker. Old uncle Bob liked his bourbon. Taking a sip without Josie around had to make it that much sweeter.
Both took a swig, then uncle Bob pulled out a can of snuff and turned serious.
"How you been getting along, Son?" he asked and packed a small pinch.
"All right," Kelly (Risen's real name) tried.
The older man frowned and looked off. "Your aunt Josie and me, we been together for so long, I wouldn't know what to do without her. But I swear they're like gauging the weather. Nuthin' easy about 'em -- hell, the first time I heard they named a hurricane Robert---" he chuckled disgustedly. "I didn't know whether to laugh or spit. We know why they started out naming them goddamned things after women -- especially us that's been married."
Risen knew his uncle was trying to make him feel better. It wasn't working. Besides, he'd known a few men deserving of such notoriety and wondered why it had taken so long to put them on the list.
"How them kids holding up?" his uncle asked.
The uneasiness returned and he now felt to burn of Wild Turkey laying on the bottom of an empty stomach as he recalled that night, almost a year ago. They were crying and hanging onto his leg, pleading for him not to go. But he had prolonged the deal for a year by that time. He had to go.
He remembered telling Christie two days before that, that he was done. Done with the lies, the cheating and the running around. Done with the feelings of being a fool that he was living every miserable day. He was going to get his soul back, somehow. It had to be around somewhere.
She seemed all right with it then, which should have been the tip-off. There weren't too many things all right with Christie. D-Day came and she obliterated the planned, smooth exit -- if that was ever a possibility to begin with. Proving once again that he could qualify as the biggest chump on the planet.
The nightmare was ruthlessly orchestrated. Marching the children into the bedroom, while he packed, and telling them he was walking out of their lives for good. A lie. He would never do that. He'd planned to take them to the apartment and show them where he was going to live, like he told her, after he got packed, after he had the bags tucked away in the back of the truck. It would have been better that way, he felt. Yes, her timing was perfect as ever, knowing his actions would speak louder behind her words. Took seven years to know she was a dark soul.
She held no concern for the effect it would have on them, tearing their concept of security to shreds in the process of punishing him. Denying him from taking them to his new place to settle nerves and allay fears greater than adults remember were possible. She countered his every effort, for spite, if nothing else. He could still see her saying in that prissy tone with that sick, twisted smile, "Say good-bye to Daddy, say good-bye to Daddy," threatening to call the police if need be.
The red-headed terror knew he'd bring them back, knew how weak he was and exploited it, making sure he'd bleed tears for his declaration of independence from the insanity of their marriage. He'd never make that mistake again.
He was torn, almost, from follow-through, just as she had intended.
But if I stayed, how good could that be for them, or me? The shitty ride would just start all over again and they'd learn all the wrong things about how a marriage is supposed to work.
At least that's what he told himself, while she stood there with that smug-ass look for the accomplishment of ripping everyone's heart out, watching them crumble at her feet. After all the shameless lies, all the self-indulgences of a person consumed by their ego.
The first time he ever wanted to kill someone. Really kill someone. Not punch, or beat, or kick. He ached to see veins popping out of that smug forehead, wretched brown eyes bulging with helplessness as he strangled the living shit out of her. Naturally, he wouldn't do that. She knew that, too. And he damned sure wasn't going to cause more disruption by having the cops show up for a shouting match that he would lose, this day in time. All he could do was bend down, cry, and console. Telling them he would be back again, and again, and hope that promise would be strong enough to stand on it's own.
So he left. And it cost him dearly.
A single, serrated thread nearly kept him sojourned. Troy, his youngest, was wrapped around his leg the tightest. Lisa and Kevin, he would have expected. Not Troy. Only four at the time, but he carried a will that defied merit of description. He never cried. Never.
Risen remembered the day he came home from work and Troy was standing too close to the door. He caught him solidly in the cheek with the handle, knocking him for a loop to tile floor. Troy jumped up and worked like a demon to keep from crying. He succeeded even, but pulled away when Risen tried to comfort the boy.
He was Risen's biggest worry and yet, a perplexing prize--the antithesis of himself. Careful to let no one get too close. How could his sense of self-preservation have been so advanced? Risen never quite figured that out. For some glorious reason, his youngest son had been endowed with the understanding that physical pain would pay homage to emotional pain, any day of the week.
When Troy cried, it was unbearable. Christie's last ace, which made Risen hate her even more. A son's supposed ultimate protector, and she stripped him clean of his most precious defense for the sake of punishing a husband that had every right to leave. The second worst day of his life. The worst followed too close behind.
The anger swelled and consumed his thoughts, too many moments having passed for the chance of answering his uncle with a response that could gloss over real feelings.
The warm, good feeling of alcohol had vanished as quickly as it had come.
"Get ready for the best barbecue in Dallas, next to your aunt's," uncle Bob diverted. He reached across the seat and put a big paw on Risen's shoulder. "I'm real sorry, son. You just take care of them kids -- everything else can go to hell."
Risen's earlier notion of how the evening would go was right on time.
They were already seated. Risen didn't think they had been gone that long, but made quiet pledge to move into a better frame of mind, somehow.
Josie's eyebrow seemed to have known what her husband had been up to. She didn't push it. Maybe because Kelly looked like hell, and everyone noticed. She knew Bob meant well, but had likely dredged up something better left alone. David threw out a smartass remark to lighten things up. He was real good at that.
"You fellas look like you could use a drink," he said and winked, causing Uncle Bob to feign drunkenness. The patriarch grabbed the back of his chair and teetered convincingly. They all laughed -- even Josie. As often as Kelly had seen his uncle take a swig of that bourbon, he'd never seen him drunk. Risen wished he'd been born that tough.
Risen took a hardbacked chair next to Phillip and the boy proceeded to fill him in on little league baseball. A good thing. He needed to talk to a child, someone who wouldn't ask the kind of questions he couldn't answer.
She was seated close by, facing his direction. Fortuitous, or a cruel prank of fate, he could not determine. She had soft brown eyes and a killer smile that seemed to help his pledge. The redhead looked his way every so often with a discreet smile. He answered by looking away. Later, her hand brushed his shoulder. He thought it was an accident, being there was virtually no room between his damned chair and the corner of the salad bar. A poor location, but that's what he gets for showing up late. He brushed off Cousin David's dubious look.
"Dad says you played little league. We're you any good?"
"Hellll, they almost forced us into high school ball," Risen said with the best drawl he could muster for his conscience. The boy's look turned from suspicion to embarrassed incredulity as everyone around laughed. "We did win two city championships, back-to-back," he confided in a serious voice. Phillip smiled and nodded, letting him off the hook.
"Who's this fuck?"
Risen turned to see a man in a weathered army jacket towering over the redhead, holding her by the hair as she struggled to the balls of her feet. He remembered him. The guy by himself in the parked car. He wondered how he missed him coming in. There was no missing him now. The man's right arm remained rigid and by his side, as if disabled.
The scene was getting uglier by the moment. Risen watched the illusion unfold. The man raised it, and out of the baggy sleeve came a gun.
A nine millimeter semi-auto. Cantraz owned one just like it, so Risen knew what it was. Reality being they were about as automatic as needed to do a hell of a lot of damage, capable of seventeen rounds under five seconds. Of course, you couldn't hit anything unless you had a target in every direction. Risen squinted at the possibilities. Designed to 'pop' in a new clip, after emptying the first, without having to re-chamber. He'd practically have to count his shots for that feat, but he looked like the kind of guy that would. And could be carrying God knows how many magazines in that jacket.
Full panic erupted, accompanied by the throaty screech of chair legs raking sawdust covered floors, dishes crashing everywhere, and square-dancing employees screaming instead of singing. Risen glared at some of the women screaming pathetic, out-of-control, beg-for-more-why-don't-you type screams. Exactly what he thought any psycho bastard wanted to hear.
The redhead was not company to those and held onto the salad plate and some composure. Her pseudo-cowboy moved a half-step towards the lunatic. Risen watched, not too convinced that was such a good idea. The madman reached out and touched the man's forehead with the barrel.
"Hey, man. Let's talk this---"
Deafening as it was succinct. Risen watched fragments of blood, skull and hair blow across the sneeze guard. In that instant, moving from a hopeful world where this could have just been a grand, tasteless, ugly gag...into a surreal world. This is not happening.But it was. Risen shouted for everyone to move toward the emergency exit doors. Phillip was still sitting, frozen in terror. Risen grabbed him and shoved him under the table.
"Stay down, go with your dad."
Son-of-a-bitch! Risen stood up. He killed the redhead! Risen pleaded against that possibility and looked up for an explanation, disillusioned again, before forcing himself to inspect her more closely. She was still fighting. He looked to the crowd. They were still moving away. The crazy bastard had probably put two more in the air to let everyone know who was calling the shots, as if all the screaming hadn't done that.
Most scrambled to the front doors. Bad move, Risen felt. A foresight that punished him as the lunatic fire into the bottle-necked crowd, rushing away like a mindless stampede.
Risen's jaw slackened again as the boy slammed against his mother's hips, then slid down to her ankles. She turned in horror, ignoring her husband's pull, and watched a dark spot gradually consume the stenciled number on his soccer shirt.
He couldn't hear her scream. A force started at his sternum and moved up, freezing his rib cage in place, then locking it into a solid mass that forbid more oxygen. He tried to inhale, but managed only small, forced pants. It gripped him inside-out, halting his ability to breathe, to act. A whiteness began to overshadow the room, consuming light and sound as it moved from the perimeter and erased everything real. They hadn't stopped screaming. He knew that. Mouths were open and frantic, caught in the unforgiving reality.
But something told him to give up--there were too many to save this time. The only clarity in the chaos was Troy's voice.
Without warning, without knowing why, the noise and screams and panic came roaring back to full volume and color. He turned to the killer. A familiar blood pumped through his veins with a clear purpose, forcing rib cage to expand and fill lungs with a deep full breath of rage.
He looked back to see David pulling on his leg with all he had.
"Kelly! Let's get the hell out of Dodge, son!"
Risen responded with a violent yank, then crawled on all fours around one end of the salad bar. He could hear the gunman still yelling obscenities. But in those precious few seconds came a sense of urgency. Do something! After rounding the opposite end of the bar he stood fully up. She was still fending, but it wasn't going her way. Arms and legs fought for twice their worth as the man pressed her head mercilessly against the rim of the pot, singeing her skull like a brand.
He looked bigger now. Or maybe it was just the gun. It didn't matter.
Risen studied her face, bright pink and etched with lines, veins, tears and fear. Now, he knew. He cringed. She had one arm lodged against the man's throat in a fierce battle while her hair fell down and became drenched in the cannister.
Risen grabbed the soup at his end, ignored the sensation racing through his fingers and strode up behind the killer. He poured it full over the flack jacket, making sure a good portion ran behind the collar.
The gunman caught him at the last second.
"Too fucking late, Pal," he said as the man let out a guttural scream in the midst of steam. The man buckled, gasped, but still. . .held onto the gun.
Risen had no backup plan as the killer's agony converted to insane fury. A fury with a new target. The man let go of her and rotated toward the second would-be hero of the night.
He did know it was now or never to do something. He advanced with an empty pot in the air. That drew deranged eyes away for a moment. Risen's left hand gripped the gun hand and locked it, then swung his right knee up and deep into the gunman's crotch, connecting fully.
That ought to do it, he thought. The killer exhaled and let the gun fall as eyes lost focus and filled with crimson--like only a man could know.
Now it was just a matter of him falling to the ground, Risen hoped, but hovered near.
Impossibly, he wasn't moving in any direction, especially not downward, where he should have been. The killer just stood, mostly straight up, staring back, still holding onto the gun.
Everything slowed down. Risen could barely hear the noise now. He controlled all of that. He had all the time in the world. If that man moved an inch, he would be on him. Anywhere on him. Anywhere he chose.
He carefully looked over to the lifeless child being rocked hopelessly in a mother's arms, and kept the killer in the periphery of that ugly picture.
An unforgiving force turned attention back to the big man still holding onto the gun, within finger's reach. Risen darted a glance at the gun hand, then his expression. Confused pain was the only way to describe it. Risen knew that look. The killer moved... forward. Or was he falling? There was not the luxury of time to make the distinction.
Patty watched the stranger standing there, as if he controlled all form of matter. He didn't look scared, which didn't make sense. A solidly built man, but with a celerity that belied that image. He moved fast -- sinfully fast.
She looked back to Paul. His face was wrenched in pain, but he was still holding the goddamned gun. She knew he was done. She thought he was done. Then Paul inched forward and started to bring the gun up. Or was he falling?
They all looked back to the stranger. By that time an eon had passed and the distance closed.
Jesus, Mister! Give him a chance! With not one earthly concept of why she thought that thought. He already had a clamp on Paul's gun hand, a handful of scalp, and was still in motion. You don't have to move anymore. Just hold him. But God, he was just too fast. She watched Paul's hand struggle. Quit fighting him, Paul! Can't you see what he is? She watched cold, cognizant blue eyes monitoring every move Paul made. She watched Paul's head forced down to a knee driven viciously upward, while Paul's only chance -- his gun -- was kept at bay. She heard the grunt as the stranger plowed through Paul's face, then watched him release Paul's head to allow it to snap back and away. She heard the crack of bones or cartilage or something awful as a mist of blood spurted from the corners of Paul's eyes. She watched Paul's body fling back, arms spread wide, with all the anger he'd carried into the restaurant gone from his face. Eyes open but drowsy, as his body pitched to the floor in puff of sawdust. The gun finally came flinging upward -- spinning, taunting, teasing -- and seemed almost to linger in air in front of her. So close she could have grabbed it...but she didn't. It somersaulted into the soup kettle where she was almost drowned.
It was quiet now with only the heaving of her breath to be heard. It was over. She stood dazed and wrecked over two dead men, somehow, feeling sorry for both. She didn't get much time to address that emotion. She searched his face and got nothing. He put a hand on her shoulder and swiped her to the floor to land between her dead cowboy and her dead ex-husband.
She looked up at a nightmare that wouldn't end. He showed no sign of pain, emotion, or of being human. Simply plunged his hand into the pot, with no indication he could tell tepid from scalding, pulled back the slide with thumb and index finger--as if he had done it a million times -- and released crisply. Brass ejected and a sharp clack echoed throughout the restaurant -- indicating a clean round had been chambered, and the night was not yet over.
He descended onto the limp figure, drilling a knee hard into Paul's chest. The quiet rage owned him, coaxed him, told him to pull the trigger. It had taken him this far.
"Your turn, son-of-a-bitch," he said and crammed the gun into the opening, clipping off teeth in the process.
He recognized the voice, finger halfway home on the trigger.
"Listen, Son. He's dead. He's real, real dead," cousin David said with that familiar southern drawl soaked in resolve. That wasn't working. "Goddamnit! It's over!" David yelled into the blank face, waiting, waiting, for a moment to go by that could change all moments there forward.
Risen sputtered back through the haze and the shouting as he looked down to see -- as if in someone else's hand--a gun. Both covered in the reddish-brown muck of vegetable soup. He allowed David to pull him away, having never felt so totally exhausted. He could have laid down right beside the corpses and slept. But he turned to see the redhead staring back like he was some kind of freak.
She finally moved to her cowboy. "I warned you, Roger...I told you!" she clenched and scolded, then laid her head on his blood covered chest and sobbed.
He watched the crumpled pair for a moment, but passed on consoling her. He stood and walked numbly toward the small figure. Uncle Bob stopped him before he butted into that misery.
"Hold on there, Son. The little fella's gone."
He could have broke free, but something inside shrank from the task. He sank into a hard chair instead, with that sick, burning pang returning to his stomach as Uncle Bob pulled on his hand. Risen looked down lethargically to see him prying the iron out of it. He let him take it and finally felt something. Throbbing pain. Wet, pink and burning, now reminding of the deed. He gulped, ignored it and stared off into the oblivion of the blue sign that tried to warn him.
The restaurant was mostly quiet. Muffled sobs scattered about, with people comforting one another between their own sorrow. But they were doing something else, too. They were all staring at him. The stranger in dark clothes sittin' slumped in a chair. Confusion weaved its way back.
What did you want me to do, people? He took a heated breath and almost stood to protest that collective, unspoken opinion. But a bald-headed with a large handlebar mustache, holding a Stetson hat next to his side yelled at him.
"God bless you, young man -- Ever'body, that's a real hero."
And then, as if the evening could get any stranger, someone started to clap. Then another. And another until it seemed everyone joined the wave of self-serving appreciation. His anger gave way to astonishment, then back to sorrow as he turned to the group of people huddled over the small boy. Is this really happening? He turned hopelessly for solace in the blue neon sign.
People clapping, people crying, people confounding him.
The child's mother looked around in anger and desperation, and Risen saw it coming and prayed that ultimate frustration would not seek him out.
"Stop! Stop it! My baby's dead! Can't ya'll see that?" her voice rose with a vengeance into the crowd as she scanned the room, then set sights on the man slumped in the chair. "What took you so damned long! Huh? So goddamned long-g-g..."
He froze as her last word trailed off into a convulsion. She heaved uncontrollably and collapsed to cradle her dead son again, rocking him gently while everyone stopped and murmured their foolish regrets. He knew that look, too. Having seen shades of it in the mirror many times. He closed eyes and dropped chin to chest. She was right. It shouldn't have taken him so long. But his body wouldn't let him at first. Then it came on like a tornado cut loose from an angry sky. And he didn't even know why. But that hesitation held the highest cost.
He wanted to tell her how sorry he was. How he knew that pain. But it wouldn't matter now. The paper would mention it tomorrow, where it would be gasped at and talked about in melodramatic tones over a cup of coffee. Tones about how cruel the world was getting to be. But they didn't really know. He didn't think they really wanted to know. They'd live in that distant land of feigned concern and styrofoam cups until it came up and bit them in their melodramatic ass. But he knew. He knew a family had been shattered. A lineage maligned. He knew all about that before tonight.
In the light of that strange inexplicable moment, he felt grateful for what he had. He needed to hear their voices, desperately.
Kelly Risen stood abruptly and strode through the sawdust. He hit the double glass doors hard, palms open, arms determined. Past all the spectators, all the misery, all the confusion, and some of the guilt. That determination came face to barrel with a Mosberg riot shot gun held firmly by a stout, barking black man in a dark canvas SWAT jumpsuit.
The phone call would have to wait.
© 1999 Kevin Davis, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
I have labored over a fictional novel for quite a few years and because I consider myself a perfectionist (or chicken), have not finished revising (can you really revise too many times?). The work I submit is the first chapter. I have never been published and the book is an action adventure that turns high-concept, running about 500 pages. But readers only have to endure about 4900 words in the first chapter. The story unfolds with a man happening upon a nasty scene in a restaurant and forced into action. Protagonists are reluctant, like I've read they're supposed to be.
"...(can you really revise too many times?)...": sounds like an
essay on creative writing, to me. How 'bout it, Kevin?