I’m catching a train to the airport in a couple hours, to catch my flight back home–for good–from Korea. While I’m incommunicado for the next 24 hours or so, I thought you might enjoy reading chapter one of Skinjumper, my debut novel coming this fall from Ragnarok Publishing. This is unproofed copy, of course; there may be minor differences when the book hits the shelves. Feel free to disseminate the link to this post far and wide. And, if you’d like a chance to win a free copy when it drops, check this out.
Five Years Ago
The sun reflecting off the melted-and-refrozen snow carpeting Jake’s front yard was blinding. Terry could barely see the white clouds of breath billowing from his mouth, let alone the wriggling dog in his arms, held as far away from Terry’s half-numb face as possible to keep its lapping tongue at bay. Weasel squirmed and nipped in Terry’s hands as his nails scraped against the nylon outer shell of Terry’s winter coat. Terry hardly felt the pressure of the dog’s teeth through his thick leather gloves, let alone their sharpness.
He slipped on the ice outside Jake’s garage and nearly broke his fall with Weasel, which probably would have killed the dumb mutt. Terry regained his footing just in time and skidded on the dry cement floor inside. Jake crouched atop an ancient oil-stain, in the middle of a roughly six-foot wide clearing surrounded by tools, paint cans, rags, jugs and rusted, forgotten shop projects and car parts.
“Easy, bro,” Jake said. His hand trembled as he took the dog from Terry’s hands and tied its dangling leash to the handle of a heavy-looking toolbox. “We’d have to kill another person to bring you back.” Weasel yipped at the end of his rope, stopping only when Terry bent down to make a half-hearted attempt at smacking it. Jake looked both ways down the street before slamming the flimsy garage door back down. Terry felt warmer the second he heard the simple aluminum barrier strike ground.
“No one saw you?” Jake said. Terry shook his head. “Man, I hope this wasn’t a dumb idea, stealing the next door neighbor’s pet.”
“That’s what they get for leaving their dog in the backyard all week while they’re on vacation,” Terry said. “Anything could happen to it. By tomorrow morning, half the neighborhood would be ready to kill his yapping ass anyhow, right? We’re doing him a favor, as far as I’m concerned. His food and water bowls are already empty, and the Brocks won’t be back for another five days.” Behind him, at the rear of the garage, he heard a doorknob rattle as someone kicked the door loose from its frame, inviting winter’s full force back inside. Even though it was still early in the day, even for a weekend, Terry was pretty sure he smelled marijuana, too.
“Oh, good, you got him,” Alex said, busting through with a faded, olive-drab Army duffel bag over one shoulder. “Jake, unroll some of these garbage bags.” He tossed a battered cardboard box in Jake’s general direction and paused to watch him fumble for control of the package before easing the duffel to the floor at his feet. When the thick, black plastic bags were spread out, Alex opened the duffel.
“Help me. He’s heavy,” Alex said. He held the flaps open, revealing a pair of furry, thick-toed dog feet.
“Shit!” Being told what he was coming over to do wasn’t anything like actually looking at and touching stiff, bristle-haired dog remains.
“Careful with Adam’s dog, man. Nothing to be scared of. You played with Chesty all the time when he was alive.”
Terry resisted the urge to tell Alex that was half the fucking problem, and bent to grip the bag, this time by the bottom. He pulled until the animal’s shaggy head appeared, then the two boys slid him onto the plastic, straining in order to offer the canine corpse a great deal more respect than had been afforded poor Weasel. Chesty was a German Shepherd mix, not quite a year old, but still a good, stout, sixty pounds at least. He’d have been a monster, fully-grown, but that would never happen now, no matter what Alex said.
“Where’s the book?” Jake asked as he helped them center Chesty on the garbage bags. Terry looked away to hide his involuntary grimace. Good weed was by far the least pervasive of Alex’s interests. He’d found the book a few weeks back in a junk store, but hadn’t talked much about it after the initial gloating period. The book was written mostly in Latin, except for the incantations, which Alex said were written in the language of Hell. Or something like that. Alex had taken a couple years of Latin in middle school, but even he had admitted to Jake and Terry that he couldn’t read all of it. Not that he’d have ever admitted such a thing to their high school’s general population. Latin? Shit, he had half of them thinking he could read their thoughts. Dude was weird, but no one messed with him, and hanging out with him meant no one messed with you, either.
Alex patted his back pocket and pulled a brown paper bag from the bottom of the duffel. He slid a glass bottle of amber liquid into his free hand like a magician unveiling the finale of his greatest trick, only twice as proud. Only Alex would toss a bottle of booze into a sack with an animal body without thinking twice. Still, whiskey was whiskey.
“Good ol’ Jack.” Terry whistled his appreciation.
“Just what the doctor ordered.” Alex grinned as he unscrewed the cap. “Got another bottle under my bed for when Adam gets home.” Adam was Alex’s brother, and Chesty was Adam’s dog. Adam was a Marine, and had spent the last six months in Afghanistan. He’d bought Chesty from a guy on Craigslist two months before his unit was given orders to deploy, and flat-out told Alex he trusted him to take care of Chesty while he was gone. The same night Adam called to tell Alex and their parents he was coming home, Alex found Chesty plowing into a bar of baking chocolate.
Adam was the only person in the world Alex gave a shit about, and when Chesty died, he’d immediately called Terry babbling about the crazy book he’d bought and ritual sacrifice and dogs coming back from the dead. Terry had called Jake, of course. No way was he dealing with Alex’s shit by himself, and dealing with Alex’s shit—whether it was selling baggies of oregano to middle-schoolers for cigarette money or reading an old book of fake, ancient witchcraft—was the price Terry had to pay for what passed for Alex’s friendship.
Alex’s goodwill was important to Terry. Kids didn’t exactly respect Alex, but they kept their distance. Most of them seemed to think he was cool and mysterious in a way they could never hope to achieve—possibly in a way they wouldn’t want to be even if they found a way. Terry, by dint of his association with Alex, was treated much the same way; like someone who’d flown to the sun and made it back alive. Jake had even more reason to cling to Alex like a shipwrecked sailor adrift in the middle of a storm. At least Terry always had clean clothes that fit right and knew how to throw a punch if it came down to it. Getting in with Alex was a preventative measure for Terry. For Jake, it was a fucking necessity.
Alex didn’t scare Terry for the same reason Terry didn’t mind spending his Saturday killing a dog for no real reason—he simply didn’t give a fuck. His mother had forsaken him a year ago, moved to Florida with another guy, and his father was considering a similar abandonment by sending him to live with her. Since no one else gave a shit, Terry himself saw little reason to do so.
He grinned at the sight of Jake taking the proffered bottle of Jack from Alex and passing it without taking a sip. Whatever was wrong with his own life, Jake seemed to give a bit too much of a shit sometimes, and that seemed worse to Terry. They didn’t really talk about Jake’s home life—neither Terry or Alex cared that much about the guy, and Jake himself was happy to think about anything but his parents while they were hanging out—but Terry was willing to bet it wasn’t all that great. Playing the game, acting right, even when it wasn’t getting you what it got other people? That was just letting society win. No sense in letting them get what they needed out of you and give you nothing in return.
Weasel, no longer distracted by the hustle and bustle, started barking again. “Bro, can you shut that thing up?” Alex said. Terry reached out and wrapped his gloved hand around Weasel’s struggling muzzle, silencing the dog until he pulled out of Terry’s grasp and nipped at him some more. He punched the dog in the flank. Weasel flattened his ears and bared his teeth, but lay down with his tail between his legs despite his initial bravado.
“Not for long, man.” Terry gulped some whiskey and passed it back, skipping Jake. “Read the book so we can hurry up and kill it.” Alex sipped from the bottle, then coughed Jack Daniels all over himself while he thumbed through the pages. After a moment he wiped his mouth and flipped through the book again, staring intently as if daring it to say something about his recent encounter with the whiskey.
“All right, I’m ready. Grab that dumb mutt and hold him down next to Chesty. I’ll tell you when to kill him.”
Jake and Terry nodded, and Alex began reading from the book. Nothing he said made sense. Terry tuned it out as he held Weasel’s struggling body down beside Chesty’s corpse. He could feel the dog’s heartbeat beneath its brittle, winter tree-branch ribcage. Jake, kneeling across from Terry, was pale and trembling. A thin layer of sweat coated his upper lip, despite the chill air in the uninsulated garage. He should never have gotten involved in this business and judging from the look on his face, he damn well knew it.
“Go!” Alex shouted, nodding at Jake. Jake froze, looking down at Weasel, who was still nipping and whining. Disgust flooded Terry as he noticed the tear in his friend’s eye.
“Fucking kill it, Jake!” Terry said.
“I can’t do it, man,” Jake said.
“Goddammit,” Alex said, throwing down the book.
“I got it,” Terry said, shifting his grip from the dog’s belly and chest to wrap his hands around Weasel’s neck. He squeezed, heard the crunch of cartilage and the dog’s hollow windpipe collapsing beneath his fingers, felt the throb of the animal’s blood in its veins and arteries, saw the fear in its eyes. Weasel sprayed piss all over the front of Terry’s pants, but he hardly noticed. He was lost in the low, gurgling noise the dog made in the back of its broken throat, the glaze beginning to coat its soft, brown retinas. Terry’s dick bulged against the damp denim as the dog’s struggles ceased.
Terry barely felt his head hit the cement when he blacked out.
“Fuck,” Terry said, picking himself up. Jake sat a few feet away, watching Alex manhandle Chesty back into the duffel. He rubbed his temples, but it didn’t help. His head hurt like hell. “How long was I out?”
“Just a couple minutes,” Alex said. “It didn’t work. If douchebag over there hadn’t hesitated…” He jabbed a thumb in Jake’s direction.
“Fuck you,” Jake mumbled. “It was your idea. You should have done this shit your damn self.”
“Book said three people. I may as well have done it myself for all the good it did. At least this guy has a pair.” Alex stood the duffel on its end and thumped Chesty’s carcass to the bottom. “Here you go, bro.” He passed Terry the bottle of Jack. “You earned it.”
“You,” Alex said to Jake as Terry swigged the caustic booze, “Throw that mutt in a garbage bag and dump it in the creek or something.”
“Why the Hell do I have to do it?” Jake said.
“Because me and Terry did everything else. Now I have to bury my brother’s dog. If you fuck this up, I’ll kill you.”