This is the beginning of a new set of stories. These have been published before in one form or another, but I wrote each of them while in the “strainge-fiction” persona of Eric Stringer. Enjoy.
Sitting on the top step of the broad front porch, Boyd Spencer leaned back against a four by four upright. His new friend, Jim Hayright, was sitting on the opposite end of the same step, leaning back against another upright. Jim took a slug from bottle, then passed it to Boyd. A muffled thump came from inside the house. Jim cocked his head and listened for a moment.
Boyd said, “Oh, that’s Miss Janie. She’s all right. Just gotta sleep it off.”
Jim shrugged. “Now where was I?” He frowned. “Oh… oh yeah. As I was sayin’, I seen it many times as I traveled around this country. Man dies, like as not he’s suprised it came up on him. Didn’t have a notion his time was up. I seen ‘em shot an’ I seen ‘em knifed. I seen ‘em pass slow an’ fast. I seen one guy jumped off a train an’ straight into a tree trunk.” He frowned. “Never did figure that one out. Wasn’t all that dark. Almost had to be he killed hisself, but he had that surprised look on his face too… well, on what was left. But I seen an old guy too… he wasn’t asleep, but he was close to it, an’ even he looked surprised. You prob’ly seen ‘em yourself, them shocked faces.”
Boyd nodded as he tipped the bottle, pouring two fingers into a tin cup, then handed the bottle back to Jim. “Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em, but that don’t really prove anything. Just shows maybe the guy was pissed off that he was gonna die, or maybe he was confused and screaming ‘why me’ in his mind or something. Maybe the suicide guy changed his mind in mid-air or remembered when he caught his woman with another man or somethin’. Lots of things—lots of thoughts or emotions—could cause what you’re callin’ a shocked expression.”
He sampled the contents of the cup as he glanced across the fields. Heavy thunderheads were building rapidly on the other side of the highway. “Storm’ll be here soon.” He gestured with the cup toward a green speck moving along the edge of the highway. “Looks like ol’ Harley Johnson. He’s Miss Janie’s pa. That looks like a new tractor.”
Jim leaned forward and squinted. “He ain’t lookin’ for her is he? How old a girl is she?” He set the bottle down and got up. “Y’know, I’ve enjoyed this an’ you’re real hospitable, but maybe I ought’a be moseyin’ along.”
Boyd laughed. “It ain’t no big deal, and it ain’t nothin’ like you’re thinkin’. Miss Janie does her own thinkin’ and she’s of age.” He wagged one hand, indicating he wanted the bottle again. “Ain’t nothin’ like that.” He drained the contents of the cup.
Jim passed him the bottle and sat down again. “Well, if you’re sure. Wouldn’t wanna overstay my welcome, that’s all.”
Boyd tipped the bottle over the cup again. “Nah, it nothin’ like that. Miss Janie, she collects bugs an’ stuff. He pa don’t like it so she keeps ‘em in my basement.” He shrugged. “Sometimes while she’s here, she takes a little nip or two, an’ well… you know how it is.” He grinned and winked at Jim. “But what we was talkin’ about… thing is, I don’t think it’s anything like that shock and surprise deal. I think it’s like goin’ to sleep.” He handed the bottle back to Jim. “I think a fella just feels tired, prob’ly more tired than he’s ever felt before. Then it just kind’a settles over him an’ he decides it’s time. I think he knows, see, an’ I think he thinks it’s all right.”
Jim took another slug, then wiped his lips with the back of his right hand. He nodded. “I can see that, ‘least part way. I can say you’re right for sure when you’re talkin’ about a guy goin’ to bed one night in his own house where he’s safe an’ havin’ a heart attack or somethin’… ‘specially if it comes up on him easy. But if that same guy’s sleeping in the woods an’ don’t know if maybe big cats or wolves or bears are about… well, I’m tellin’ you, no matter how he gets it, when it’s like that he’s scared goin’ in, an’ when a guy ain’t expectin’ it, it’s a shock to him. Gotta be.” He looked at Boyd. “Think about it, Boyd.
“What if a fella’s just parked down at the Walmart an’ he just got out of his pickup an’ he’s walkin’ across the parkin’ lot an’ over his shoulder he’s lockin’ his truck with one’a them remote clicky deals. Say one’a them crazy-ass teenagers is drunk an’ speedin’ through the Walmart parkin’ lot an’ hits him. Bam!” He pounded the air with his fist. “Jus’ like that, he’s gone. See? Then he ain’t got no time to think about things an’ feel tired an’ decide an’ all ‘at stuff. One second he’s lockin’ his truck an’ takin’ a step an’ the next second he’s a bag a’rattly bones.”
Boyd took a sip. “Not if he’s Jeff.” He grinned. “We got this one big ol’ boy, name’s Jeff. That teenager hits him he’d still be a bag a’jelly an’ the teenager’s car’d be totaled.” He laughed and tipped the cup again. “Ol’ Jeff’s a big’un, that’s for sure. I don’t know that he wouldn’t flat walk away from a deal like that. That teenager’s drivin’ a Mustang or somethin’ little like that, he’s just lost a car. Plus ol’ Jeff’d probably sue his ass. Can’t you just see that?” He slapped his leg and laughed again, then remembered his point. “But I’m bein’ serious here now, or tryin’. Let’s take ol’ Jeff. Say he’s way off out in the piney woods huntin’ whitetails. You been out there, right? You can relate?”
“Well, say he’s got one broadside in his sights an’ just as he’s about to draw down on ‘im, a big ol’ brown bare rears up mebbe ten feet away off to one side. He rears up an’ roars.” Boyd snapped his fingers. “Jus’ that quick, ol’ Jeff knows he ain’t gonna outrun that bear. ‘Course he’ll try to bring his gun around but even while he’s doin’ that he knows he’s too late ‘cause he seen that bear twitch an’ he seen the look in that bear’s eye. An’ the thing is, both him an’ the bear know the bear’s gonna win. An’ ol’ Jeff just freezes stock still, maybe crouches down, makes hisself as little as he can an’—”
Jim laughed. “Yeah, an’ that ain’t much fer ol’ Jeff if he’s as big as you say he is!”
Boyd wagged one hand at him. “Yeah yeah, Jeff’s a big’un, but lemme finish.” He took two long slugs of whiskey. “Lemme finish now.” He passed the bottle back to Jim. “See, ol’ Jeff makes hisself just as little as he can an’ he’s thinkin’ maybe that bear’ll just skip right over ‘im or lose sight of ‘im or somethin’. Only he don’t.
“Quicker’n you can say ‘Two dead drunks dawdled into Daisy’s Darlin’ Parlor with nary a twenty between ‘em’ that bear’d be on ol’ Jeff. An’ that’s when it’d happen. Remember now, Jeff already figgered he was gonna lose the whole deal. He already knew that. All that crouchin’ at the last second was just one’a them last-ditch deals. So he already knew his time was at hand. An’ th’instant ol’ Jeff feels that bear’s breath on ‘im, prob’ly before a drop a’that bear spit can fall on ‘im, he just checks out, just like that. In that little split piece of a second, Jeff feels more tired than he ever felt before. He slams the breaks on ‘is heart an’ goes to sleep ‘fore that bear can go to chewin’. That’s what I think happens.”
Jim frowned. “That can’t be right all the time. What about if he was huntin’ an’ some other ol’ boy—”
“Shot him by accident? Same deal. In the time it took ol’ Jeff to figger out he’s done for, he’d make the decision on his own. Look here—” He held up his left hand, fingers extended, then ticked them off one by one. “Same deal if you get shot in Vietnam. Same deal if—”
Jim wagged a hand. “C’mon man, that shit was a long time ago.”
Boyd mumbled, “Not to me.” Then he said more loudly, “But that ain’t the point. Same deal in Iraq an’ Iran an’ all them places over there, ‘specially with that idiot in the White House changin’ the Rules of Engagement so they favor his brothers.” He resumed ticking off fingers. “Same deal if you fall off a tall buildin’ or get hit by a train. Same deal no matter how you go. It happens in stages: one, you realize yer screwed; two, you accept it an’ settle into yerself an’ get tired an’ satisfied… kind’a resolved; an’ three, you make yourself go to sleep.” He snapped his fingers. “An’ that’s all there is to it. Only difference is the length of the stages… an’ that depends on how much time you have.”
“Okay… okay, that’s fine I guess. I mean, when you’re right, you’re right. Thing is, you can’t prove it or not prove it for sure ‘til it happens to you. I mean it ain’t like something you can see.”
“Well now… that ain’t exactly true.”
“Well, I mean, what if you’re watching someone who don’t know it’s gonna happen to ‘em, but you know it’s gonna happen to ‘em? They wouldn’t know it’s comin’ so their reaction would be untainted. But you’d know it’s comin’ so you’d know not to blink. An’ if they knew it was comin’ and they had enough time to let it settle over ‘em, I bet you could even see the individual stages.”
Jim frowned. “What’re you talkin’ about?”
Boyd grinned and jerked one thumb over his shoulder. “Well, just for example, take Miss Janie in there.”
Jim leaned back against the post, then strugged to his feet. “Oh no no.” He raised one finger. “No, Boyd. That ain’t gonna happen, now. Miss Janie, she ain’t never—”
Boyd raised one hand. “Settle, now. I didn’t say anything was gonna happen to her. I was just sayin’… well, there’s just things about Miss Janie you don’t know.”
Jim looked at him for a long moment. “Like what?”
Boyd leaned over and whispered something in his ear.
Jim grinned and leaned back, his eyes wide. “You’re kiddin’!”
Boyd shook his head. “Nope. No I ain’t.” He drained his cup, then stood. “Tell you what… you wanna see?”
Jim looked up at him, then stood unsteadily. “You sure it’s all right?”
“Sure I’m sure.” Boyd put one arm around Jim’s back, guiding him toward the screen door. “Quiet now.” Just inside the door, he gestured to the left toward the back of an old floral-pattern couch. A small television on the other side of it was turned down quiet. The channel was mostly snow. A couple of grey-shade figures were reading the news. Boyd whispered, “She’s over there on the couch. Quiet.”
Jim peered across the room. “I don’t see her.”
“She’s lying down. Quiet and you can go look.”
They moved quietly across the room. When Jim got to the couch, he glanced back at Boyd and smiled, then turned and put his hands on the back of the couch. He leaned forward.
Janie sat up. “Well hello there.” She smiled and caressed his cheeks, then leaned forward to kiss him. As her lips brushed his, she whispered, “You’ll make a fine addition to the collection.”
Behind him, Boyd slipped an ice pick from his coveralls. He raised his fist.
Electricity surged through Jim’s body and just as quickly released. Damn… he was right all along. “I’ll be damn. I’ll be da—”
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