Writers aren’t just supposed to write. They’re also supposed to put things out there for you to read. It’s been a while since I’ve done that, especially seeing how long it’s taking me to finish work on A Man With A Gun. So today, I thought I’d share a short piece (about 2,000 words) that I wrote a little over two years ago.
Good Guys started life as a writing exercise. I just sat down one day and tasked myself with creating a short scene, the focus of which would be to convey what it’s like at the height of summer here in rural North Carolina. As I wrote, it grew into a bit of a story, although a very short one. Ultimately, I ended up putting it through all the same refinements my other work goes through – it was sent to my beta readers, revised, sent to my editor, Pauline, and revised even more. So, despite its length, it is a “finished” piece.
Something worth noting is the mention of the cicadas. These critters make an endless chattering screech during summer and if you’ve never heard it before, you can’t really appreciate how pervasive it is. Have a listen:
I hope you enjoy this little jaunt, and I further hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments as well as sharing this story with your friends. Without further ado…
Stumbling out of the tangle of honeysuckle vines, he broke into the tobacco field beneath a sky the color of faded denim. The early afternoon sun beat down in waves, and the humid air was like syrup in his lungs. As he trudged forward he looked left and right, the rows of broad-leafed plants stretching away into the hazy distance all around. The cicadas screamed in the still air, their buzzing cry a mirror of the constant rumble of his thoughts.
Dust kicked up around his feet as he continued between the rows and into the field, muttering to himself. “Where is she? You let her get away! NO! You did it, again, dummy! You shut up, you bast-hole!” Despite his withered left arm, the rest of him was formidable. His right hand, a meaty slab, flew up and across his face, leaving a stinging hand print among the rough stubble before it carried on and struck his bony left shoulder. The argument in his head settled back to a distant chatter, and he resumed searching for the girl.
She wasn’t the first to get away. But none had ever gotten this far from the tin-roofed shelter he’d found deep in the woods. None had gotten this close to the houses where the Good Guys lived. Mama had always told him the Good Guys would get him.
“Mama said it. Mama said it, big ’un. Mama said the Good Guys would get you if you didn’t straighten up. You SHUT UP!” The crack of his hand striking his face was a flat sound in the dead air.
The tobacco plants were waist high, and the girl could be anywhere in this field. He knew she was here somewhere, though. Ahead, a curing barn stood, the rows of tobacco planted almost to its cinder block foundation. The tin roof was painted with the deep brown of rust and the black tarpaper sides were a stark counterpoint to the glare of the sun. A silver propane tank sat beside it, like a giant metal pill. He grinned when he saw the door of wooden planks slowly swinging closed.
Briefly, he considered approaching the barn stealthily but quickly dismissed the thought. He could be sneaky, as this girl and the rest had found out. But there was no need now. The barn had one entrance and her hiding place was now a trap. Besides, this field went on for acres and was surrounded by forest. The curing barn would do for what he needed. “That’s right! I tole Mama I needed it! I cain’t help it, Mama! Let’s go, dummy. Oh yeah, let’s go!”
He pushed through the rows of plants and approached the barn. Sweat had now soaked his shirt and stung his eyes before he wiped it away with the back of his good arm. Before him was the door, blackness beyond in the spaces between the planks. Smiling, he yanked the door open and bulled inside, leading with his shoulder to bowl into anyone standing near the opening.
But he struck nothing. He halted and looked around the dark space, perhaps as large as ten or fifteen feet on a side. At first, he could see nothing more than the afterglow of the sun that seemed to float in the air before him. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw the fine dust of the floor. Three metal gas lines lay parallel across the space, their burners removed but their capped fittings jutting up from the dust like great metal nipples. A swatch of burlap lay rotting in the corner, and a few brittle tobacco leaves were scattered in the dust. By the open door, a broken tobacco stick leaned against the wall. Otherwise, the space was empty. The buzz of insects was the only sound in the still, heavy air. He looked up.
Quivering in terror, the girl was at the peak of the tall barn. Her legs were wrapped tightly around the highest of the beams that crossed the space, where sticks heavy with tobacco leaves would be hung to cure. The barn was little more than four walls and a tin roof. There was nothing else in the barn, nowhere to hide. Her thin chest was thrumming with rapid breaths, like a rabbit caught in a snare, and her dark eyes were wide. Streaks ran down her face where her tears and sweat had turned the dust there into mud.
“Come down here, girl. I won’t hurt you,” he lied.
She burst into renewed tears.
Having one good arm hadn’t been much of a handicap to him. In fact, in previous years, he had worked in barns just like this one, climbing among the round beams to hang sticks heavy with tobacco. With practice and his strength, he had managed quite well. It was only his great size that had been a problem, the poles groaning under his weight, the Good Guy farmers who had employed him afraid their precious crop would end up in a pile at the bottom. This was all before he had given in and given up; before he had gone to live in the shed and stopped trying to live with the Good Guys.
Now, he reached up with his right arm and began pulling himself up into the barn. Once his legs were able to reach the poles, he pushed himself higher and continued upward. The girl began edging backward, taking every inch the topmost pole had to offer. By the time she’d reached the end and her feet were pressed against the wall, he was directly below her.
He smiled again as he reached up to grasp her arm. Flinching away, the girl screamed, her voice mostly in tatters from the hours of screaming before. Her balance faltered and she scrabbled at the beam before steadying herself. In desperation, she dove to the side, grabbing the next beam over. His smile didn’t lessen as he pulled himself up even with her.
She screamed again and he couldn’t help laughing as he reached across to her. Having grabbed a handful of her long, matted hair, he began to pull. At first, she resisted, alternating between screams and gasping for breath. Then she suddenly went silent. Something in his raging thoughts drew back at this. Something wasn’t right.
The girl lunged away from him, much of the hair in his fist ripping from her scalp. When she did, he reached for her again, leaning out from the beam he stood on, his left arm draped over the top beam to help anchor him.
But the girl was reaching as well. She strained toward the wall of the barn and he saw her slender hand slide behind a large round object he hadn’t noticed before. With a shout, the girl ripped it from the wall and swung her arm toward his straining face. As it arced toward him, he saw that it was a hornets’ nest. The deep, angry orange of the hornets on the outside of the nest seemed to glow in the dimness of the barn, just before it struck his face.
The shattered nest was a universe of nothing but fury. The buzzing roar that filled his head now seemed to fill the whole world. Then the hornets went to work.
He tried to swat at them, feeling them crush beneath his palms as he beat at his face. But every one that he crushed was replaced by what felt like dozens more. They stung his ears and cheeks, and when he felt an explosion of pain on his tongue, he knew they were in his mouth. Screaming, he fell away, bouncing back and forth among the beams before crashing to the floor in a cloud of dust and hornets.
The girl was laughing, her cackles sounding more than a little mad. Hornets buzzed around her, and she had been stung several times herself, although she seemed only distantly aware of this. Quickly, she began to climb down from the barn, her eyes fixed on the still form below her. Soon, she stood with her bare feet in the cool dust at the bottom.
His bulky form lay face down between her and the door. Hornets still crawled here and there around his head and shoulders, but he didn’t move or cry out when they stung him. The sound of angry hornets was fading now as most of them flew away or thudded about in the upper reaches of the barn, seeking an exit.
Staying by the wall, she edged her way around the building, unwilling to get too close. As the doorway neared, she began stealing glances at the bright field beyond. At last, she bolted for the door.
When something grabbed her ankle, she screamed and fell to the dusty floor. Looking back, she saw a nasty cut across the top of her foot, but croaked more wild laughter upon seeing that she’d only tripped over one of the gas pipes. She was still laughing when his hand enveloped her throat and began to squeeze while pulling her toward him.
Thrashing about, she tried to bring her legs around to kick at him. Twisting in his grip, she turned to see his face and was filled with despair. His nose was crushed and blood ran freely from it. Blood also poured from a gash across his forehead. All of this was surrounded by the swelling of countless hornet stings, turning his hard face into a misshapen, lumpy mass. She tried to scream again, but nothing came from her throat but a faint whistle.
She flailed wildly, striking at his face, his hand, anything she could reach. New pain blossomed in her hand as she struck something nearby. Looking, she saw a long splinter of wood sticking out of her palm. Nearby, the broken tobacco stick lay in the dust. Without hesitation, she grabbed it.
Swinging the stick around, she stabbed at his face.
“That hurts, you bast-hole!” he howled as the stick was driven into his cheek. His voice was slurred by his swollen tongue. She felt his hand tighten on her neck and was beginning to see spots of light dancing in her vision.
Having drawn the stick back, she stabbed at him again. This time, the stick glanced off his ruined nose and slid neatly into his eye. His screams tore at her ears and she did not care. At last, she could breathe again!
She dropped the stick and scrambled away from him as he rose up onto his knees, his hand over his punctured eye. Fluid was running from under his palm and a distant part of her mind noted the spreading darkness at the front of his pants.
Her backward progress had brought her to the wall. She pushed her way to her feet, using the wall for support. Unwilling to take her eyes from the howling monster before her, she backed through the open door. Her final scream was barely a whisper as arms wrapped around her from behind.
Strong hands held her as she beat at them, but a voice in her ear calmed her. “Shhh. It’s okay, I’ve got ya.”
The hands turned her and she was looking up into the face of a man she didn’t know. He wore a ball cap and a kind expression on his weathered face. Looking around, she saw other men running by them, into the barn. They were leaping from the back of a pickup truck, parked between the rows of tobacco. The farmer smiled down at her. “It’s okay now, miss, the good guys are here.”