One of the best days of a novelist's year is the one we print out the finished book. It's great fun the first time you finish, but it's all the sweeter after you've revised it, sent it to your editor and agent, listened to their notes, wrestled with the changes they suggest--which always improve the quality of the work, but that's not the same as saying they're fun--revised it again, and, finally, printed it again.
For me, yesterday was that day. Book the Fifth, tentatively titled FADE OUT, is sitting on my kitchen table, markered up with polishes and minor changes and notes. I've got a couple more days of work on it, and then I'll send it off.
In celebration, I thought I'd post the first few pages. I've not shared it publicly before--hope you enjoy.
He was naked and cold, stiff with it, his veins ice and frost. Muscles carved hard, skin rippled with goosebumps, tendons drawn tight, body scraped and shivering. Something rolled over his legs, velvet soft and shocking. He gasped and pulled seawater into his lungs, the salt scouring his throat. Gagging, he pushed forward, scrabbling at dark stones. The ocean tugged, but he fought the last ragged feet crawling like a child.
As the wave receded it drew pebbles rattling across each other like bones, like dice, like static. A seagull shrieked its loneliness.
His lungs burned, and he leaned on his elbows and retched, face down, liquid pouring in ropes from open mouth, salt water and stomach acid. A lot, and then less, and finally he could spit the last drops, suck in quick shallow lungfuls of air that smelled of rotting fish.
In. Cough it out. In. Out. There. There.
His hands weren’t his. Paler than milk and trembling with a panicky violence. He couldn’t make them stop. He couldn’t remember ever being so cold.
What was he doing here?
Like waking from sleepwalking, he couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. The cold was filling him, killing him, and if he wanted to live he had to move.
He rolled onto his side. An apocalyptic beach, water frothing beneath a shivering sky, wind a steady howl over the shoals, whipping the sawgrass to strain its roots. Not another person as far as he could see.
Had to move. His muscles screamed. He staggered upright and tried a tentative step. His thoughts were signals banged down frozen wires; after an eon, his legs responded. His feet were bloody.
One step. Another. The wind a lash against his dripping skin. The beach sloped hard upward. Each step brought muscles a little more under his control. The motion warming them, oh god, warming them to razors and nails, his blood gone acid. He concentrated on breathing, each inhale a marker. Make it to the next one. Five more. Don’t quit until twenty. Goddamn you, breathe.
The boulders the ocean had broken to pebbles gave way to those it hadn’t yet, broad stones with moss marking the leeward side spaced with pools of dark water where spiny things waited. He stumbled from one rock to the next until he reached the top.
As lonely and blasted a stretch of earth as any he’d seen. Black rocks and foaming sea and sky marked only by the passage of birds. Only. Wait.
He blinked, tried to focus. Two thin dirt tracks led to a splotch of color, a boxy shape, a car. A car!
Legs cramping. Breath shallow. He couldn’t force his lungs to take. To draw enough. Air. The shivering easing. Bad sign. His feet tangled and he fell. Inches from his eyes, pale grass spotted and marked by the appetite of insects. The ground wasn’t so bad. Almost soft. Easy now. Easy to go.
Crawl. Elbows scraping. Knees. Forearms going blue. Blue berries, blue water, blue eyes.
He reached the trunk, pulled himself up, the metal burning cold. Slouched his way to the door and bent stiff fingers around the handle.
The door opened. He maneuvered around it and fell into the smell of leather. His legs wouldn’t move. It took both arms to pull them in, one at a time. Gripping the burnished handle, he yanked the door shut. The wind’s laughter died.
There were keys in the ignition. He fumbled for them. They danced away, jingling. Come on, come on, come—
The engine roared to life.
The man turned the heat all the way up and collapsed against the seat.
A soft time. Warm air making his body ache and tingle and finally ease. For awhile the man stared at the ceiling, head lolled back. Content to watch the drifting spots in his eyes. Tiny floating things that he could only see when he didn’t try to look at them. He didn’t think about where he was, or why, or who the car belonged to and when they might return, or whether they would be happy to find a naked man dripping on the leather seats.
Just cowered like an animal in his den, the doors locked and the heat blasting.
After a long time—how long he had no idea—he felt himself coming back. Surfacing like he was waking from a nap. Words and questions swirling like leaves blown from an October tree, tossed and swirling and never touching the ground.
Gasoline. That was one. Gasoline. What did…
Oh. He straightened, rubbed at his eyes. His muscles weak and languid. The fuel gauge read almost empty. He switched off the ignition.
So. Where was he?
The car was nice. A BMW, according to the logo in the steering wheel, and well-outfitted, supple leather and wood-grain inlays. A pair of Nikes rested on the floorboards on his side. The passenger seat was buried in maps and takeout bags and a soda cup and empty blister packs of ephedrine and gas station receipts and a worn
He opened the whiskey, swallowed half the remainder in a gulp. It burned all the way down in the best possible way.
Now that it wasn’t killing him, the world outside the glass had a kind of desolate beauty. Lonely, though. Other than the narrow two-track the car was parked on, there was no sign of people in either direction. And while he hadn’t been fully conscious the whole time, he hadn’t seen anyone since he’d climbed in the car.
How had he gotten here?
Where the fuck was here and what was he doing in it?
Easy. Don’t panic. The worst is over. You’re safe. Just think about what happened. How you ended up here. You…you…
He closed his eyes, jammed them shut. Opened them again. Nothing had changed. Had he been drinking? Drugged? Maybe. So retrace your steps.
It was like that terrible moment he sometimes had waking up in a strange environment, in the dark of a friend’s living room, or in a hotel somewhere, that period where his brain hadn’t come online yet and everything was automatic, just panic and readiness and fear, the tension of waiting for certainty to click, for normalcy to fall like a warm blanket. That moment always passed. It passed, and he remembered where he we was and what he was doing there.
He set the whiskey down, gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Focus. Focus!
Outside, the wind whistled. The trees looked like they’d been on fire, dark black trunks spreading to broad limbs marked by a handful of stubborn orange and yellow leaves, the last embers.
Okay. Easy. Something must have happened. An after-effect of hypothermia, maybe, some kind of shock. Don’t try to force it. Tease it, coax it out. Like the floaters in your eyes, you can’t drag this front and center. Come at it sideways.
Your brain seems to work. Use it. Where are you?
A rocky beach. Cold. He could taste the salt on his lips, knew this was an ocean. Which one?
The question was crazy, but he ignored that, just focused on answering it. Let one thing lead to the next. The dashboard clock read 7:42. The sun was only a brighter shade of gray above the waves, but it was higher than before. Which made it morning, which made that east, which made this the
Why not. Roll with that. “This is
His eyes fell on a bank envelope curled in the cup-holder. Inside was a stack of twenties, a couple hundred dollars. Under the envelope there was something silver that turned out to be a stainless steel Rolex Daytona. Nice watch. Very nice watch.
What else. He leaned over to open the glove box. There was an owner’s manual, three pens, a pack of Altoids, a sealed box of No-Doz, and a large black gun.
He stared. An owner’s manual, three pens, a pack of Altoids, a sealed box of No-Doz, and a large black gun. A semiautomatic, he noticed, then wondered how he could know that and not remember where he had been before he woke up on the beach. Or worse, even his own—
Stop. Don’t go there. If you don’t face it, maybe it’s not true.
He stepped out. The wind whipped his naked body, and his skin tightened into goosebumps. His balls tried to retract into his belly. He stepped gingerly to the back of the car on bloody toes.
Would there be a body in there? Handcuffed and shot in the head, maybe, or rolled in a carpet, hair and boots spilling out.
No: it held only a set of jumper cables and a plastic shopping bag with a red bulls-eye on it. He opened the bag. A pair of designer jeans, a white undershirt with pits stained yellow, crumpled boxer-briefs, wadded-up socks. Someone’s laundry.
He looked around again. In for a penny.
He shook out the underwear, stepped into it. The jeans were soft and worn, expensive-looking. Too fancy for Target, and dirty to boot. Maybe the Target purchases had been a change of clothes. He wriggled into the shirt then slammed the trunk. Climbed back in the car, the air inside wonderful, stiflingly warm. The sour smell of feet rose as he wriggled into the sneakers.
Then he sat and stared out the window.
How had he known that red bulls-eye was the Target logo? How had he known the watch was a Rolex? Or that Jack Daniels was whiskey, and that he liked whiskey?
How was it that he had been able to count the money, knew
He reached for the owner’s manual in the glovebox, careful not to touch the gun. The manual was bound in black leather. Inside the front cover was a registration card and proof of insurance. Both in the name of David Hayden, resident of
He climbed out of the car, walked to the back.
Who wandered away from a sixty-thousand dollar car, unlocked, keys in the ignition? Where would they go in the middle of nowhere?
And the clothes. The shoes fit. The jeans felt familiar.
Calling yourself David Hayden is a start. Try it on, just like the jeans.
David got back in the car, put on his watch, then cranked the ignition and pulled away.