18 April 2008

Friday Snippet - Mutagens #2

In case you missed it, the first snippet in this story is here.

This week's snippet below is actually intended to be the first scene of the story, so probably I should have posted it first. But I didn't. :) It needed some work and, since I was hoping to keep my Friday Snippets to around 500 words, it's a whole lot longer than I would have liked. But I couldn't find a good place to break it up, so here it is, out of order and way too long for a snippet, but whatever.


The Landis brothers. What a couple of freaks. Jonathan wished to God he’d never met them. Their five-gallon jug of water sat heavy on his dining room table, and he was just about done being polite about it.

He gave the jug of water another shove in their direction and tried – for about the third time – to explain why they needed to take it and leave.

“Like I told you,” he said, trying to sound testy. “I’m not interested.”

They had stopped by late in the afternoon, Colin and Jack, to see if he wanted the job. Now they were sitting there like they thought they were a couple of little kings whose word was law. The shitty thing was that it might as well be.

Colin, tall and thin, slouched regally at the opposite end of the of the dark oval table and said nothing. His angular face was placid under a deliberately unkempt crown of dark hair. Only his eyes betrayed any irritation. The washed out blue seemed to frown down the length of the table, though his mouth didn’t move.

Colin’s brother Jack sat closer, with his chair kicked out to face Jonathan. The exact opposite of Colin, except for the eyes, Jack was short, round and never shut up. A close-crop of thinning peach fuzz did little to hide the sheen of sweat on his skull and he was constantly grinning as if it amused him that his own ears stuck out almost ninety degrees from his head.

“Consider it society’s payment for riding the world of that wolf-man,” Jack said in a voice that reminded Jonathan of thick, dirty motor oil.

“I don’t want it,” Jonathan replied stubbornly. And who did they think they were kidding, anyway? There was no such thing as ‘society’ anymore.

Jack sighed. There was a pause and then Colin rose to his feet.

“Keep it,” Colin’s deep voice rumbled. “Just in case.”

“In case what,” Jonathan asked.

“In case you change your mind,” Colin replied. Then he nodded at Jack and showed himself out. The screen door clattered behind him.

Jack rose, too. But instead of making for the door, he stood there as if torn by indecision, which Jonathan doubted. Jack flashed another one of his weird grins that squinched his eyes nearly shut and seemed to show most of the inside of his mouth but hardly any teeth.

“We could use you, Jonny,” he said, his voice lilting with casual regret. “We’re gonna put some order back in the world around here, kid. The mutants – we gotta get rid of ‘em. That’s the first step. To do that, we need a good shot.”

“Good luck finding one,” Jonathan replied, folding his arms over his chest and not returning the smile. He hated being called Jonny by anyone other than his mother, and his mother was dead.

Jack’s grin faded and something that Jonathan figured was supposed to be a sober frown replaced it. Jack shook his head and drew his eyebrows together.

“The bitch laid that old woman out,” Jack said, his washed-out blue eyes going wide in apparent consternation. “She went through her pockets and then cut her open stem to stern, Jonny! I saw it with my own eyes. Who knows what else she woulda done, if she hadn’t caught sight of us and run off! Probably sat there and ate her up! We can’t have monsters like than running around, can we?”

Jonathan didn’t reply. What was he supposed to say to that? Of course, you couldn’t have monsters running around. But he wasn’t convinced he wanted it to be his job to take them out. Not when every one of the ‘monsters’ had been a perfectly normal person once. When he didn’t reply, Jack shook his shiny head again and went on with the air of a second-hand car dealer making a show of compromising with an unwilling customer.

“Look, Jonny,” Jack said. “I know right now it seems like we’re asking you to hunt someone down in cold blood. But she not human anymore. It’s no different than stalking a deer through the woods. You’ve done plenty of that, right?”

Jonathan shrugged, not willing to see the similarities. “Am I supposed to mount her head on my wall afterwards?”

He was being sarcastic, but Jack took it as some kind of joke. He guffawed loudly and slapped his thigh.

“Just give it some thought, kid,” he said, and then he pulled two bottles out of his coat and put them on the table. Not water this time, but beer – beer – and some kind of micro-brew, no less. In spite of himself, Jonathan’s mouth watered. He had to concentrate hard to cover the shock of seeing actual beer on his table.

“These are on the house, kid,” Jack said with a wink. “And listen, you remember what Colin said: really long black hair and unnatural pale skin. You can’t miss this chick. She’s somewhere in our district. A bunch of people have seen her ‘round here, so you might too. Now, I’m not saying you got to shoot her right off, but you might follow her – track her, you know. Just see what she’s up to. What do you think? “

Jonathan shrugged and did his best to glare. He hated to admit it, but that almost sounded like a good idea. There were monsters out there, after all. It didn’t hurt to know where they were.

“Listen, Jonny, I’ll make a deal with you,” Jack said, lowering his voice and glancing at the door as if he were about to impart some great secret that he wanted to keep from Colin. “I’ll throw in another jug of water just like this one. Just keep an eye out for her. If you see her, you tell me where and when, and you’ll see another one of these on your table."
He tapped the jug, then went on, "Can you do that much for us?”

Jonathan realized he was grinding his teeth and made himself stop. The impression of Jack as a used car salesman morphed into a televangelist asking for money.

But, shit. Another jug of clean water. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and rainwater was the only water you could trust. Jonathan’s rain buckets were almost dry. And his mouth was watering again.

He shrugged again and glared at the jug on his table. “I’ll keep my eyes open, sure,” he said. Then he added, “but I’m not shooting anybody.”

“OK, man, that’s great! That’s all we ask,” Jack said, as if that’s all he’d ever wanted in the first place. “Flag us down if you see anything. Colin and me, we’ll be around.”

Colin and Jack were around all right. Their big black SUV was hard to miss – it was the only damn thing on the road.

Jack flashed another inside-out grin, then he let himself out like his brother had.

Jonathan sat there for ten minutes, staring – and then glaring – at the bottled fortune on the table. Water. Clean water that he didn’t have to worry about turning his insides into a jellified, tumorous mass.

And beer.

He hadn’t even seen beer in over eighteen months. Not since somebody – terrorists was the going theory, these days – had
put some kind of mutagenic poison in the water that had killed half the people on the damn planet. And they were the lucky ones.

Jonathan would have died himself, if he hadn’t been off in the woods hunting that weekend. His family hadn’t fared so well – his dad, his mom, his little brother, the dogs, his grandparents, everybody. They were all buried in the backyard.

While he sat here at the dining room table.

By himself.

With a big jug of clean water that was either going to keep him alive another couple of weeks or get thrown at Jack’s head to crush that grin right off his face the next time Jonathan saw him.




Miss Crabby Pants said...

Ooooooh. I like this snippet a lot. Better than the first (post, that is, since this is apparently the first in terms of story-line). The other snippet was too Portsmouth-y - I know those streets and those views and those names (and for a while assumed Einstein was one of the swans rather than a raven). The real was co-mingling and distracting from the essence of the story (for me, a fellow Portsmouthian).
This snippet, though, rocks! And makes me appreciate beer!

(More thorough and practical and readerly editorial advice is available should you want it - comments don't seem the place. I wish I were a writer, but I'm not. You are! But I am an avid and enthusiastic and discerning reader and am happy to offer my services as such).

cherylp said...

You did a great job setting up the conflict and launching the plot. We know who we're dealing with--and Jonathon seems very real and very human.

Bethanie said...

Well, Miss CP, you have my email address, right? Fire away with the 'more thorough and practical and readerly editorial advice'! I'll take anything I can get in the way of constructive criticism. :)

I agree about the Portsmouthy-ness of the first snippet. I was really, really homesick when I wrote it, can you tell?

cherylp - Thanks for the comments! It's good to know I actually managed to accomplish what I set out to do. :)

Joely Sue Burkhart said...

I loved the description "inside out" smile. Looking forward to more!

Gabriele C. said...

Eeek, there are some creepy guys around, and I don't mean the mutants. ;) And a world almost without water and beer ... makes me thirsty just reading about it.

Jonathan seems a likeable character who's probably going to get himself into trouble.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I like your premise and the world-building. I did in the last snippet, too.

I'd rethink the character names -- it's common advice that readers will confuse two characters whose names start with the same initial. But otherwise, I'm totally with you!

Bethanie said...

Thanks, y'all, for the comments!

Susan - I've heard that too and I'm usually really careful not to do things that confuse readers. I actually TRIED to change Jonathan's name to Nathan before I posted the snippet, but he wasn't impressed. And while I'm scared to change Jack's name (he's mean when he's mad), I think I'll have to risk it. Thanks for bringing that up! :)