Manuscript, chapter 5

From the unedited manuscript, herein lies the fifth chapter from The Breaking of Worlds I: The Wedge in the Doorway, my first novel.  (Reformatted for web presentation).  This is posted as much for your review as it is for your comment—good or bad.

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Since convenience supplies available inside Perenson’s fulfill my shopping requirements, The Food Bin won’t receive my business this day. Sweets will subdue my craving while I finish the novel. Approaching the end of a new book holds no promise of success if not powered by vices. That’s true for me and I believe it’s true for any artist.

Sugary foods happen to embody my weak spot. For the last pages of the text my mind spews, Twinkies, Hostess CupCakes, Mrs. Baird’s Apple Pies—Or was the name changed to Fruity Apple Pies?—and a short list of other goodies must remain on hand. This custom doesn’t change.

As my agent and my publisher know, my writing habits allow me to finish my novels without blathering mindlessly through the last few chapters, although they don’t concern themselves with the specific mechanisms involved. With thirteen published novels and a munificent advance pocketed for the latest, I need no additional proof that the sweets work. Brody Wojtaszek, my literary agent, and his counterpart at Penguin give not a single thought to what it takes; they know the process works and makes the cash register bells ring, and they have no interest in knowing more.

But empty calories need assistance seeing me through the end of my fourteenth book. Additional aid comes in the form of beer. Essential to feeling accomplished, a drunken exploration of everything that follows the last word of a novel must take place. Call it a celebratory revel that begins prior to THE END hitting the final page. I can’t send the manuscript to Brody in the morning without first waking with a hangover. While illicit drugs aside from marijuana rarely involve themselves lest I ramble aimlessly and ruin the tale, sugar and alcohol must participate.

Of course, prior to Beth’s accident the process didn’t include as much drink and drugs since THE END led directly to the beatific rapture of passionate lovemaking. We got our workouts those nights—sometimes through to the following afternoon. When I finally climbed out of bed or off the couch or up from the floor—wherever we finally ended our romp—I would shake off postcoital distraction and rush to the computer to Hail Mary the electronic document to Brody. He would receive it with some cheap explanation for why he obtained the text a day late. Each excuse involved its own original fiction. I take pride in that creativity.

He cares little for my pretexts and equally cares little about taking delivery of the work a day late. It always arrives a day late. And it always makes a profit. He cares only about getting his mitts on it so he can begin the editorial-to-publication process.


Bronze and battered from years of abuse, the trusty cowbell above the door clangs its declaration that someone has entered Perenson’s. Adding to the ringing announcement, I toss a wave across the store and peal, “Good afternoon, Eli.”

“Howdy, Mr. Crichton,” he responds from behind the counter.

“I wish you’d call me Dave.” I don’t look at him as I head toward the beer coolers at the rear of the store.

“That ain’t right proper seein’ as you’re a customer. Outside you’re Dave but in here you’re Mr. Crichton. Hell, son, even your ma is Mrs. Crichton when she rings that bell.”

I smile. The same old conversation. Inside, he easily becomes Eli Perenson, purveyor of convenience items and gasoline, yet he can step outside and become Eli, neighbor and friend. The world could use more of that service attitude.

Labels in his beer cooler have the appeal of a drought-ridden Midwest field—bleak. Little of the hops-and-malt crop behind the glass doors tempts me. The sucking noise I hear while trying to find the adult beverage most suitable to the occasion comes from the cash register draining my pockets of currency willingly exchanged for second-best alcohol.

Gazing at the sparsely populated refrigerator makes clear Eli has little interest in procuring anything besides what already sells. American swill crowds the coolers, the kind of drinks I think of as reconstituted camel piss. Though I lack firsthand knowledge for the comparison, I’ve tasted many American beers and consider them no better than how processed and bottled dromedary urine must taste.

When it comes to beer, I drink something complementary to my meal. Chinese food requires Tsingtao, Japanese means Saporro, Italian demands Moretti, and Mexican deserves Negra Modelo, though Sol or Corona will do in a pinch.

If it needs not match the repast, I seek the embrace of my beloved Negra Modelo, a heavy dark ale with strength that tells you it means business. I now search for that darling drink in Eli’s less than stellar selection. He didn’t sell it when I relocated to King’s Hope and began shopping in his fine establishment. But he sells it now. Produced by the same company that makes Corona, which he carries, it didn’t trouble him to start ordering it.

I never asked him to stock it though. After buying Corona a time or two due to lack of interest in driving to the liquor store at the other end of town, Eli asked me what I wanted. He could see disappointment on my face.

Despite protestations that he need not worry, that Corona was a fine beer indeed, he pestered me into admitting that Negra Modelo would make a pretty good choice and, oh by the way, the same company makes it that makes Corona. On my next visit I found it in the cooler. He has since told me no one else buys it. “Hell, son, they don’t know what it is,” he explains. But he keeps a supply available and I buy it when I visit.

At first I suspected terribly shallow reasoning behind the move. You know, as a lure to bring the famous rich author coming back repeatedly since it provides bragging rights. Eli has no superficial tendencies however. He orders it because he’s being friendly and is keeping in mind a commendable service attitude.

And there it is!

The cooler opens by its timeworn handle and cold air spills out as I grab a twelve-pack. The glass door swings shut as I head for the register where Eli stands. Though he watches as I hoist the beer and settle it atop the counter, he doesn’t move like a man with a job to do. Instead he waits.

With momentarily empty hands, I realize twelve beers won’t suffice. Several beers end most days for me, a nightly habit sometimes started by noon despite calling it a nightly habit. When one lives “in the sticks,” one takes advantage of the chemical supplements one can find.

Twelve beers suffice for several routine days, but at end-of-book-and-in-a-writing-crunch time? No, twelve won’t cut it. With that realization I perform a quick 180 and wander back to the beer cooler. I can feel Eli’s knowing smirk though I don’t see it.

I grab the other twelve-pack with a crooked grin. He might be friends with my parents—Of those I regularly encounter, who isn’t?—but Eli is old school and respects a person’s right to live a life free of prying eyes. Perhaps he’ll give me that look that says I drink too much, but he’ll keep that opinion to himself when it comes to other people.

The second twelve-pack placed on the counter next to the first, fully cognizant of his stare and his lack of motion, I tell him before roaming away from the cash register, “I need a few more things.”

You know, you sly codger. Don’t think I miss the significance of a second twelve-pack already in the cooler. That and you knowing I haven’t finished shopping.

Like convenience stores around the country, Perenson’s comes replete with a double-aisle display of confectioneries, from cookies and cupcakes to pies and donuts, lodes of sugary mayhem, not one bit of it healthy. I grab several pies, some donuts, some cupcakes, something that resembles flattened dog droppings but identifies itself as a bear claw, and a couple honey buns. A cloud of crinkling cellophane and plastic wrappers surrounds me on the way back to the register. Thankfully none of the junk food leaps from my full hands before I dump it next to the beer.

Finally he moves. Eli rummages through the exuberant collection of confections as he pushes aside the beer. His fingers tap various keys on the cash register and it responds with little beeps and clicks, spitting out a tongue of paper as he rings up my purchases.

“You knew I was finishing a novel, didn’t you? You had two twelve-packs in the cooler.”

He gives a look of shock so fake it makes me chuckle. Through his mocking affectation he responds, “Just ’cause a chicken’s got wings don’t mean it can fly.” His Texas drawl comes straight from a Louis L’Amour tale.

“Play coy if you want.” His country bumpkin façade makes his sly fox personality too delightful for words.

He sure as hell knew I was nearing the end of the novel, otherwise he wouldn’t have made the second twelve-pack so easy to grab. And he wouldn’t have waited for the sweets.

I add, “Then I confirmed it for you. Yes, I’m finishing another novel.”

“It ain’t my first rodeo, son.” Ah, he confirms it. He knew. Of course he knew.

With my own affected look of concern I ask, “You’re going to carry it, right?”

Pulling a plastic bag from under the counter and placing edibles inside it, he smiles and nods. “You betcha. Them books sell here, y’know? People’re happier than pigs in shit havin’ a famous writin’ fella in town, and you and your folks are right good neighbors ’round these parts. Bein’ fine townfolk and all makes you kin.”

Heat rises in my cheeks as I flush at the sentiment. Small towns wear their makeup thin, for what you see as an insider often differs from what you see as an outsider as long as you don’t look too closely. Lean in and open your eyes and you find the thin veneer washes away. It provides a dose of realism that cities too often lack. If you want to know where you stand with the world, go ask a small town.

That he called me kin—family&mdadsh;makes me blush. That embodies the life I want, the simple out-of-the-way existence where I can write books and sell them whilst maintaining a sense of community. Out there in the big bad world I want to be David A. Crichton, Mr. Crichton if I say so, master storyteller to the literary unwashed; here in town I want to be Dave, neighbor and friend, no different from Jim Bob up the street or Billy Jean out the way a bit. It feels good to hear some confirmation that I’ve neared my goal.

“That’ll be forty-eight and forty-two cents,” he announces while placing the sack of sweets atop one of the twelve-packs of beer. Then he takes the three twenty-dollar bills offered.

“I appreciate that you carry my books.” My words sound puerile. How propitiating they must sound to him. The sentiment comes from the heart though. He’ll hear as much.

“Don’t go frettin’ ’bout it,” he responds with a smile that reveals a mouth occupied by yellow teeth. Tobacco and alcohol have robbed him of a white grin.

The Perensons have owned this establishment for four generations, nurturing it from its life as a general store built of wood and stone warmed by a single stove until it became a convenience store with central heat and air and electronic gas pumps that manage themselves. That stained smile cutting through his wrinkled craggy face implies his carnal dependencies will kill him long before he reaches his eightieth birthday. He looks much older than fifty-seven.

Proof of a hard life, I’m sure. But who am I to talk given the way I live?

As he hands over my change he continues, “Them books sell like hotcakes, y’know? Folks ’round here like readin’ whatcha got to say given you’re a famous local and all.”

With not too small a pinch of pride I note he called me a local, a noteworthy accomplishment. First kin, then local. Today has turned out to be a fine day indeed.

“Some of ’em get conniptions ’bout the violence and evil and all, even goin’ s’far as to say there’s somethin’ devilish in ’em, somethin’ un-Christian-like.” His contemptuous smirk shows disregard for such an idea, as if speaking about voodoo practitioners spooking at the sight of a pin-poked doll. “But you’re famous and you’re local and you and your folks are right good people, so it don’t matter none. They’re gonna read you come hell or high water.”


Not that Perenson’s has a library for sale, but Eli keeps a few racks of trade paperbacks near the door, a hit list of current bestsellers. Though I release novels in hardback first then some time later in paperback, he never fails to order a case of the hardcovers so he can display them on the counter with the requisite handwritten announcement declaring them the newest work of “famous local author David A. Crichton.” They sell, too, rather quickly. Later he orders the paperbacks and adds them to the revolving metal cages that give people a chance to grab a bit of entertainment along with their gasoline, bottled water or beer.

His eyes grow wide as he gapes over my shoulder, his features mixing reverence with agitation. Ominous gloom settles inside the shop, a sense of grave danger, the impression of peril at hand. And a smell wafts into the atmosphere, peculiar and slight, neither malodorous nor pleasant, the mixed aromas of dead flies gathered on a musty windowsill and canopic jars unearthed and opened and heady spices both ancient and new.

Before I fully realize how severely the mood changed, someone behind observes, “A dark day ahead, Mr. Crichton, yes?”


The voice startles me because it emanates from right behind me, right over my shoulder. The store had no other shoppers and the telltale cowbell didn’t announce someone entering while I collected my bounty. So I swing around as much with interest as with surprise.

“Mr. Hat! I didn’t see you in here.”

“What people look for determines what they see, Mr. Crichton, yes?”

“That or they see what gets through the filters of preoccupation.”

“You are a clever man.”

Breathtaking gray eyes stare beyond me toward the counter where too much beer and too much junk food remain stacked. I remember his initial statement—his initial question rather, since he seems inclined to add an interrogative to the end of his declaratives, a forceful means of asking a question while making an observation. I deem it a belittling practice since it implies you should respond to what otherwise represents a statement of fact. I hate it when people do that.

Understanding what he looks at I clumsily respond, “Oh. Dark day. No, it’s not what you think.” I find myself a touch shamefaced by the sudden tremble in my voice. His words hit me where it counts given my nightmares. “No, uh, not a dark day, but I am finishing a novel and I do have my rituals.”

“Of course, Mr. Crichton.”

His intense look causes a flinch. I meet his direct gaze and wait a moment. For reasons beyond my immediate ken, he holds my rapt attention as I anticipate something needful only he can provide. The sensation washing over me feels uncomfortable yet necessary.

Eli stands motionless behind the counter, the cash register silent and the rattling bag stilled while the remainder of my unhealthy haul rests in place. I hear the wee bit of traffic moving along Main Street and the occasional car veering down Allen Camp Road. The sounds of my heart beating and blood coursing through my veins pound in my ears. For some reason I note these sounds in the split second before Mr. Hat looks toward Eli and speaks once more.

“Heed my counsel regarding the wacani, Mr. Perenson.”

Without further ado he turns with a flourish of his long coat and walks to the entrance. We watch Mr. Hat with the pensive consideration—perhaps fascination—of children witnessing the performance of a master magician.

He intrigues me beyond measure. And he casts a similar spell on everyone else in town.

I call after him as he opens the door, the cowbell ringing above his head. “Mr. Hat, would you consider—”

“Things are not always what they seem, Mr. Crichton,” he interrupts.
My mouth snaps shut with the force of a bear trap, the clack of slamming teeth making a noise too audible to ignore. His stare mesmerizes and disturbs. Somehow he appears both real and unreal.

“You are a visionary, Mr. Crichton, yes? A visionary dreams in the light and shares those revelations with those who dream only in the dark. And darkness cannot stand against darkness.” Without pausing he says to Eli, “Tend to the wacani, Mr. Perenson, yes?”

I no longer breathe, my mind unable to assimilate what he said and my mouth unable to produce words. Visionary? Dream? Darkness? What the hell? Where does that come from? How? Why? My mind stumbles over itself trying to navigate the situation.

Before I can speak Eli responds, “You betcha.”

Then Mr. Hat looks at me afresh with heavy bluntness that could unarm the most brutal tyrant. In ways I cannot comprehend I suddenly know Mr. Hat is more than an oddity or curiosity, more than he seems. Something unseen lurks within, something hidden, something nameless, something formless. He is not a man and he is beautiful and he is terrible. He reminds me of my dreams, of the disembodied voice and the flipping coin and words spoken as Beth and as something other.

Yes, tell me. You know. Somehow you know. So tell me already!

His eyes burning holes in me, Mr. Hat continues, “Those who dream only in darkness dream vainly, Mr. Crichton, for at night their eyes are blind. Those who dream in the light with their eyes open wield visionary strength, and visionary strength is potent strength, yes?”

My body trembles. His focus could slice through the thickest armor. His stare blazes in a way I have never seen.

With the door held ajar he adds, “All men do not dream equally, Mr. Crichton.”

With that he turns and leaves Perenson’s, the cowbell offering forth its tinkling declaration of ingress or egress, you decide which. I cannot steal my eyes from the wall of glass that fronts the store. Mr. Hat strolls away, moving west toward Main Street. Both Eli and I watch him until he vanishes around the corner of the building.

Trembling—No, not trembling but shaking, a rabbit under the wolf’s paws, I look at the store’s owner. His eyes slowly drift from the windows until they meet mine. I see something there, whether humility or fear or worship or what I cannot say. No matter what Mr. Hat brings to the table, Eli knows something.

Such an odd encounter. Such strange words. And the feeling—The smell!—that came and went with Mr. Hat. Yes, he is something else, a mystery.

“Wacani?” I mumble, an attempted echo of what Mr. Hat said. The word rolls from my lips quietly, under my breath to myself, although I say it loud enough for Eli to hear. I hope he thinks I contemplate the word internally with confusion, thus he will feel compelled to explain it.

He ignores it. Sans elaboration Eli inquires, “What’re you gettin’ up to tomorrow, Mr. Crichton?”

Taken aback by this sudden change in topics and moods, I rearrange thoughts. The uncanny presence of Mr. Hat gets swept away by Eli’s words and tone, the whole experience already forgotten in light of the day’s continuing business.

I cast off the spell of weirdness that drapes me and stammer, “Uh, tomorrow …” Then my mind clears enough to think about it and I reply, “Tomorrow’s cleaning and cutting day, so the boys will be over to do the yard work and the girls will be over to do the chores, which means probably a group lunch.” I place one hand on the beer resting on the counter before adding, “And I’ll be nursing a hangover assuming I get the book finished tonight.”

His smile tells me any such hangover can be our little secret and no one else need know, but beneath his easy humor something else lurks, worry perhaps, or maybe real fear, something resting just below the surface and struggling to rise up through the placid waters of normalcy. The Eli standing before me represents an Eli with whom I have no familiarity, a distressed and concentrated man. My mind turns back to Mr. Hat. Wacani?

“Mayhap the missus and me’ll head on out to the lake for a spell. Might stop up to your place for a little visitin’ if that’s all right.”

A beam arrives on my face unbidden and rife with real warmth. Enthusiastically I invite, “I’d love to see you both, and you’re welcome at Carr Beholden, Eli. Please feel free to visit, tomorrow or whenever you like.”

Mentally I chastise myself for having ulterior motives. After today’s encounter with Mr. Hat, hunger for information about the town’s mysterious visitor and about the word wacani might feed itself a bit on a visit with Eli and Svetlana Perenson.


Before additional words can manifest, a car pulling up to the gas pumps diverts our attention. We both look out the windows in response.

Old Stu arrives—Stuart McCreary for non-locals. Not once have I felt grateful to see him, but after the strangeness of the past few minutes his appearance and the swift kick in reality’s ass it represents please me.

His ’83 Cadillac Sedan DeVille screeches to a stop between the store and the petrol with a dusty skid on concrete. Stu exits the rusted black car before it stops rocking.

How can anyone in Texas own a black car? It must absorb a great deal of heat.

But Old Stu can handle anything, or so he boasts. He can give the devil a run for his money when it comes to who can tolerate the most heat. Stu McCreary is King’s Hope’s most popular and successful politician. That means a lot of heat.

The McCrearys have lived in this small town since they settled the area in the mid 1800s. King’s Hope does not require a city council or aldermen. It also has no interest in calling its chief elected official a mayor. As an alternative, we have a town manager, along with a sheriff and a handful of deputies, one bank, three churches, one library, and no schools—the kids travel to Marshall for their educational needs, a thirty-minute commute for the lads and lasses.

Elections for the town manager position occur at Town Hall, which represents not so much the seat of government but rather the community meeting house, an emergency shelter, the town’s records vault, the town’s courtroom, and the place where civil services are administered. Being from one of the oldest families in King’s Hope, the one representing its historical administrators, Old Stu McCreary scarcely needs campaign every four years to ensure his election victory. A McCreary has held the position of town manager throughout King’s Hope’s history. It falls to them with ease regardless of competition.

The McCreary clan moved here on the heels of Joseph King for whom they were administrators and lackeys and gophers. When the town came to official life, the McCrearys found themselves pushed into managing the busywork, holding the town manager position where they could shuffle paper and respond to inquiries and conduct affairs that keep a town running; meanwhile real authority—real power—stayed with the King, Carr and Camp families. But over time those families shrank from the spotlight and stopped running the show, so it fell upon the shoulders of Stu McCreary’s forefathers.

Since then, whether from habit or respect for a name that kept the town afloat for so long, the McCrearys have held the town manager position. That makes Stu the most important politician in town, a fact he thinks also makes him the most important guy in town. That reference enters most of his conversations.

Since his administrative station pays a pittance in such a small hamlet, Stu’s wife runs a cleaning business for homes and commercial properties alike, and Stu owns the bait and tackle shop and the canoe rental facility at Lake Potisesse in addition to the hunting supply store at the corner of Pine Street and Carr Avenue—Carr as in the Carr dynasty and Carr Beholden. In addition, the McCrearys live on a working farm. They raise and sell donkeys, cows and pigs, along with some chickens and rabbits thrown in for good measure.

As Stu slams the car door and plods around its ebony bulk toward the store entrance, Eli says, “Always runnin’ like the dogs was after him. He’ll be plowin’ townfolk under before too long.”

I chuckle at his contrariness. Eli definitely fits my father’s description of him—full of piss and vinegar. The old bloke possesses a surprising and delightful reservoir of character.

Besides, the importunate Stu makes for a worrisome driver, fueling much derisive talk in town. Even if Stu himself participates in the conversation! General ribbing insists he aims his Cadillac and punches the accelerator, God help those who get in his way. His near-screeching slide to a stop in front of Perenson’s confirms that impression.

Stu approaches the doors as Eli grabs a cigarette, puts it in his mouth, lights it with the unconscious skill of an addict, then flips his lighter back on the counter near the register. Knowing he holds my surreptitious gaze, the proprietor of this little shop offers the briefest and sincerest of smiles before turning from the windows. He steps away from the cash register and finds a place where he can rest against the counter and look disinterested.

Smart man, I opine to myself while grabbing the bag of teeth rot and tucking a twelve-pack under my arm. I grab the other with my free hand. My indirect stare remains on Eli as his lips purse around the filter and drag on the cancer stick as though it offers fresh oxygen. His eyes shift toward the back of the store with the look of a man watching something wonderful, a miracle happening right there in his coolers.

Very smart man indeed.

The glass door clangs open with the predictable cowbell noise. Stu lumbers in on his monolithic frame, though he glides effortlessly as though built of air.

Stuart McCreary is a large man. Standing six-feet-seven-inches tall and weighing a good two hundred forty pounds, I would not call him fat so much as bulky. People sometimes refer to him as a “big boned man.” How unfair that term sounds when used for women. With Stu it produces a chortle, but any King’s Hope lady worth her weight would respond with dismay and a quick backhand for such insolence.

Unwavering friendship bridges my parents with the McCreary family. Old Stu has seen Mom and Dad through some rough times and characterizes the kind of neighbor people dream of having when they live in the middle of nowhere. He helps them and they help him, and both families keep tabs on each other to make sure no one wallows in need.

Not a metropolis, King’s Hope’s population hovers around 2,000 souls. The town lies hidden a short distance from the Texas-Louisiana border and nestles between Caddo Lake to the south and east, Clinton Lake to the west, and Lake Potisesse to the north. While one might assume residents of towns this small know and befriend each other, the majority actually live rather lonely lives because they reside so far apart. About half the population dwells in King’s Hope proper—where the streets have names—and the other half lives on farms and ranches and other remote properties surrounding the barely-passes-for-downtown area. While some—Eli and Stu for example—make for known quantities, most have less than passing familiarity with the majority of their fellow citizens.

The senior Crichtons live on a farm where reaching Glen Boskey, their nearest neighbor, requires three dirt roads and one paved road. When you live in the sticks, that equates to a long drive. So sure, most denizens can name a respectable number of other locals since that signifies part of the essence of small town life, yet they know only cursory facts about the majority of other citizens.

Due to his ongoing and close friendship with my parents, I try to think of Stu in avuncular terms. Inescapably that leads to two possibilities: (a) the kind of uncle nieces and nephews shy away from because he touches them in that funny way, though no one believes or suspects Stu engages in pedophilia, but he has a violative personality that declares your business is his business because it’s town business; or (b) the kind of uncle nieces and nephews shy away from because he’s a popinjay, never wrong and forever imperious and perpetually finding ways to demean you so you don’t forget your place.

This means I maintain a love-hate relationship with Old Stu. I cherish him for the friendship he gives and for the close relationship the Crichtons and McCrearys maintain with each other. And I detest him for his conceit and assumed superiority. Mostly I put my dislike aside though. My parents matter more than my umbrage.


Standing just inside the store, a human-shaped wall of granite, Stu asks, “How’re you likin’ it out this way, Davey? Findin’ plenty of time for writin’?” His Texas drawl lacks the molasses thickness of Eli’s, but it still oozes with viscous regional clarity.

“I find King’s Hope relaxing and marvelous, Stu, and it affords me plentiful time to write.”

And don’t call me Davey!

“Glad to hear it. So what’re you scratchin’ up now? It ain’t another one like that fella up from Maine, is it? You know who I’m on about, don’t you? That somethin’-or-other King fella up from Castle Rock?”

A giggle bubbles up but I pop it before humiliating myself by deriding the town manager for appearing a tad unknowledgeable. “You must mean Stephen King, right? I thought so. It’s a funny thing that people think he’s from Castle Rock, Maine, because he often writes about it.” Playing politics seems wise—share knowledge without making him look dumb. Besides, literature is my world and I prefer to keep it neat and tidy. “But the place doesn’t exist. He invented that town as a fictional locale where his stories can take place. I once considered doing the same thing. Maybe I will in the future if I empty my font of ideas that fit the real world.”

His broadening smile betrays a hint of irritation at the correction, but that denotes normality for Stu. In the town manager’s world, he never falters and anyone correcting him commits sedition or worse. Yet in the end he appreciates not looking foolish, so my gentle correction and earnest desire to help him learn come across as intended—to smooth feathers while assisting him with a realignment of facts. He will not repeat the error.

“Right you are, Davey, that there’s the fella. Irregardless of where he’s stayin’ at, I hope you ain’t writin’ another story like he writes. I can’t say as I cared much for your last one, though I gotta admit Margaret done ate it up like cows on molasses.”

Cringing at use of irregardless as a word—one of my linguistic pet peeves—I wonder if he read my last book or if he relied on his wife’s review, perhaps even comments from others. Eli reads my books, that way potential buyers get an earful of facts. Having a “famous author” in town does oblige one to partial familiarity with his works. Besides, a good salesman knows his goods.

Of course Mom repeatedly explains that having the parents of said “famous author” living in said town for many years practically cements a reading requirement into the town charter. Though her joke delights, the premise doesn’t escape me. Living in King’s Hope has given me about 2,000 new readers.

“As for my new book, it’s different, with a bit of science fiction and not akin to my last one.” Knowing how the book will end makes me feel less than candid. It should confront every Christian soul in town. “But keep in mind I enjoy being edgy in my writing.” This makes me feel somewhat better about my blatant dishonesty. Not much, but a wee bit better.

“If you say so, Davey. I’m just concerned, y’know. Folks ’round town talk about such things. They like havin’ you here, a famous writin’ fella and all, don’t you think otherwise. You bring good business to town and give us a mighty fine claim to fame. And don’t let folks kid you about what you done with Carr Beholden. People’re happy to see it alive instead of that fallin’-down disaster on the shore. Still, some of your writin’ comes across a mite bit dark and folks talk about it is all.”

“I understand. You can let them know the new book is science fiction and has no devils or demons in it. There are plenty of aliens, though.”

It seems implausible that Compassion in Annihilation’s Caress will enjoy any more popularity here than did my last novel. I doubt Twilight Insurrection can boast as King’s Hope’s favorite since it spotlighted a small town where fiendish residents lured in unsuspecting newcomers and ate them, especially savoring children, handling the cannibalistic containment, cooking and conveyance tasks in a local baking factory. Think Hansel and Gretel meets Mrs. Baird’s.

Then again perhaps more than a few did appreciate it. Entertainment need not represent a person’s life view. Reasonable people don’t think it unacceptable for a Bible-thumping conservative Christian to enjoy the beautiful images and moving poetry in the Qur’an, and doing so doesn’t lessen that person’s Christian zealotry. People around the globe of varying faiths and ideologies and moralities spend hard-earned greenbacks to watch murderers and rapists, carnage and mayhem, vampires and werewolves, and devilry and destruction on television and in movies, not to mention in the books they read. Why should my novels not entertain irrespective of the readers’ spiritual lives?

Two twelve-packs of beer and the bag of empty sugar calories begin feeling heavy. My arms have become lead weights dangling from shoulders ready to discard the abusive limbs. Remembering this morning’s workout, my chest thanks me for not having to hold the loot.

Nevertheless the fatigued sensation reminds me that I must go, so I excuse myself by saying, “If you’ll pardon me, Stu, I should head home. I have a book to finish, you understand. Take care of yourself.” Then turning toward the store counter where Eli stands coddling his lit cigarette as it burns nearer the filter I add, “Thanks, Eli. I hope to see you and Svetlana tomorrow.”

With the store owner nodding and Stu offering a simple “Yep” in response to my farewell while holding the door open for me, I step into acute Texas heat, the feel of its blistering humidity quickly blanketing my skin.

Prior to beating a hasty retreat toward my car, I spin on my heels and ask, “By the way, Stu, did you see which way Mr. Hat went?”

In the moment after I spoke, I take mental note of Stu’s reaction because it strikes me as disproportionate to my inquiry—and as important. His eyebrows lower enough to give him a look of either intense deliberation or sudden worry, his body straightens abruptly as a heretofore unseen rigidity spears through his spine, his mouth purses into a sour expression, and his face flashes the quickest indication of anxiety. The town manager looks as though I slapped him.

Then in the blink of an eye everything about him returns to the characteristic visage of a jovial bear ready to pat you on the back, kiss the baby in your arms, and promise you the world on a silver platter. His political dexterity reasserts itself.

“Uh … Well now, Davey, um …” he mumbles, then in a voice that sounds more sure of itself, “No, I can’t right say as I seen Mr. Hat. Sorry, young fella, can’t help you.”

“No problem. I’ll catch him around town.”

“Mayhap you will.”

“Thanks again, Eli. I’ll see you fine gentlemen later.”

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