serial fiction

Death Takes the Highway by David McLain – Part 6

My apologies for this being the only post this week. I’m just recovering from a short illness. As always, you can find part 1 of this short story here. Or if you like David McLain’s style, please consider his hilarious time travel fantasy, The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum

Then, keep reading… 

They stopped for dinner in Gary, Indiana, at a place that specialized in Fried Chicken. William felt better than he had in weeks. Checking his reflection in the bathroom mirror, he noticed that his eyes were clearer looking, and that his shoulders looked a little broader. His hands were distinctly less gnarled, and his fingernails didn’t have that yellow quality that they’d had in recent years. He looked like a man of seventy, maybe sixty five. Death looked better too. They looked less like two men at the end of their lives, and more like two guys in their golden years who were enjoying life. There was no doubt about it, the car might be going forward, but the miles were rolling back.

“Where are we staying tonight?” William asked.

“We’re near the city,” Death said. “I thought we’d find someplace nice.”

They stayed in a beautiful hotel in Downtown Chicago, where their room had a giant flat screened television and a little kitchen. They had a few drinks and some dessert in the hotel restaurant before heading upstairs. A young waitress with crooked teeth took their order, and was very nice to them. William found himself in a good mood.

“You’re a good guy,” he said to Death after his second drink.

“Thanks,” Death said.

“Most people don’t like you,” he added. He probably shouldn’t have said this, but it seemed like a fairly obvious point.

“It’s never a good day when I come around,” Death said. “But that isn’t my fault.”

“Is this just what we do now?” William asked. “Drive around from place to place, having a good time?”

“No,” Death said, and he had a serious look on his face. “This is merely the journey.”

This sobered William up a little. “Then what comes next?” he asked.

“You’ll see,” Death said.

In the morning William was pleased to see that some of the hair had filled in on the top of his head. It wasn’t so much that you’d notice, or really care, but it was nice to see. Some of it, he noticed, was brown instead of gray. The veins which had seemed so close to the surface in his hands and his feet seemed more subdued.  Death was still getting younger too. They got up early, had breakfast in the hotel, and headed for downtown Chicago.

Death was clear that they didn’t have a lot of time to waste, but Chicago is a beautiful city, so they stopped and went to the art museum. William had never been there before, and he enjoyed wandering around, looking at priceless works of art. Somewhere in between an Edward Hopper painting and a Suerat, William thought of something.

“All these painters,” he whispered so that only Death could hear. “They’re all dead?”

“Yes,” Death said, “I suppose that they are.”

“So you met them all?”

“At one point or another,” Death reflected.

“How’d they take it?” William asked.

Death considered this. “Most came quietly. A few fought tooth and nail. One or two grinned at me like I was a long lost relative. I tell you one thing though- none of them seemed surprised.”

“Is that so?”

“Not even the ones I had to drag out of bars,” Death said. “Although I suppose if you spent that much time in bars, you shouldn’t be surprised.”

They spent the morning looking at paintings, then had lunch at a tapas restaurant downtown. William had never had tapas before. It was nice. After that, they headed south, toward Saint Louis.

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Death takes the Highway by David McLain – Part 5

Find Part One here. Find David McLain here. Find his novel, The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum here.

Then keep reading…

The room they stayed in had been a smoking room at one point, and still smelled faintly of cigarettes. They watched an old movie on television, and went to bed relatively early. At two AM, William woke up. He noticed that Death snored like a chainsaw. ‘I could just run away,’  he thought. ‘What would happen then? Maybe I’d be a ghost.’

There is nothing better for a person than a good night’s sleep. William woke up around eight o’clock. He’d been dreaming about the town he’d grown up in. ‘I guess you still dream after your dead,’ he thought. ‘Good to know.’

Death was in the shower while he woke up. He came out wearing a towel. “Good night’s sleep?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Will said.

“You look better,” Death pointed out.

“I died yesterday,” Will said.

“Anything is better than that,” Death said. “Take a shower, I’d like to make it to Chicago today, and we should stop and get you some clothes, maybe a toothbrush if you’d like.”

Will went and took a shower. The water felt delicious. He dried off with a white fluffy towel. It wasn’t until he got out of the shower that he saw it.

He didn’t notice it at first, since the effect was subtle. The mirror was foggy, and Will was a little out of the habit of paying close attention to his physical appearance. As he dried his hair though, he noticed it- you could see it around his eyes. The skin was just a little bit tighter, and his eyes were a little less watery. His hands didn’t seem quite as arthritic as they usually were, and his back hurt less than usual. He smiled. His teeth looked better than he remembered.

“I look better,” William said, astonished, as he came back into the room.

“Sure,” Death said, which was when Will noticed the second thing. Death was a little thinner today around the middle, and there was just the slightest wisp of black hair. There was no doubt about it- they were younger.

“Does this happen to everyone?” William asked.

“It’s different every time,” Death admitted.

“What now?” William asked.

“I’m pretty sure that the diner we ate at last night will sell pancakes,” Death said. “Why don’t we get some?”

So they got pancakes, which were delicious. The same waitress who had waited on them the night before took their order. Afterwards, they found a cheap department store, where they bought some clothes. Will had no idea where they were headed, or how long they should pack for, but he tried to keep it light, since the MG had a trunk roughly the size of a bread basket. He wondered if maybe he was supposed to buy funeral attire, but Death didn’t seem to care. He settled on a few T-shirts, a couple of pairs of jeans, and a few other necessities, including a small dufflebag. They got back on the road and headed west again. By the end of the day, they’d be in Illinois.

They cut quickly through Northern Pennsylvania and went straight on to Ohio, which had always struck William as little more than an endless suburb. The ride went well, although after three or four hours on the road, William would find that his back got stiff and he needed a break, so they would find a spot to get out and stand up, maybe grab a meal or at least a drink, before getting back out on the road. The car had the radio that it had rolled off the production line with, which meant there was little to listen to other than the occasional AM talk radio station, so Death bought a little transistor job at a truck stop, so at least they could listen to the news as they headed from town to town. The country was flat, and the road was straight, which meant that there wasn’t much to look at, but it was a little warmer than it was yesterday, and the sky was blue. They were near downtown Cleveland when William caught a glimpse of the gray waters of Lake Erie stretching out to the north.

“Can we stop?” he asked Death.

“For a few minutes,” Death said.

They got off the highway and took a look. It was relaxing to sit there and stare at the water, neither the man nor the supernatural figure said much, they just stood and stared. “Somewhere out there my daughter is making arrangements for my funeral,” William thought. “She’s probably picked out some sort of funeral home. I hate those places. I should call her and tell her to have me cremated.” Somehow he knew that Death would think that was a bad idea. He tried to put his daughter out of his mind.

Death takes the Highway by David McLain – Part 4

The story continues… (You can find Part 1 here if you missed it.)

It was an Indian Casino. Not a very big one, nor very prosperous, but it was big enough to have a nice buffet restaurant attached to it, where a waitress sat William and Death down at a table in the corner, and invited them to help themselves to fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese. She didn’t seem to know or care that William was dead, or that he was being accompanied by Death itself. In fact, they seem to fit in pretty well with the casino’s clientèle. Most of the gamblers looked like they were in their late sixties and early seventies- some even looked older than William was. They ate mostly in silence. Death didn’t seem like much of a talker.

“How do you feel?” Death asked.

“Better than I have in weeks, maybe months,” William admitted.

“That’s usually the way,” Death said. “Once you get used to it, most people feel better.”

“They feel better dead?” William asked.

“I’m not saying you won’t miss things,” Death said. “There’s a lot you’re leaving behind. Usually though, at some point, most people say to themselves ‘O.K. I’ve had enough.’ That’s when it’s time to move on.

“It doesn’t feel real,” William admitted.

“It won’t,” Death said. “Not at first,” he paid the bill with a credit card. William wondered if it would be an all black Mastercard or have ‘666’ as the card number or something, but it was a perfectly ordinary bank card. So far, Death seemed almost pedestrian.

“Let’s go,” Death said.

They got back in the car, heading west again. It was still colder than blazes, although William had gotten used to the stick shift. It was strange, driving such a tiny car. In another life William might have expressed concern about driving something so small on the highway, but what did it matter now? It wasn’t like being jack-knifed by an eighteen wheeler would kill him. (In fact, he wasn’t sure what it would do. Leave him like some sort of zombie maybe? He didn’t want to ask.) He drove cautiously, in the left lane, till a little after dark, when Death finally told him to pull over.

“Right here? By the side of the road?” William asked.

“No, no. At the next exit. There’s a Super 8 just off the highway. We’ll get a room. I don’t like driving at night in the winter, unless I have to.”

They pulled over and parked in front of the motel. They were somewhere near the Pennsylvania border, but where exactly William wasn’t sure. The hotel was manned by an enormous man in a polyester shirt, who looked simultaneously tired and dull, as if being forced to wear a polo with his company logo on it and having to smile at strangers was a form of brain death. They took a double room on the first floor with a window facing the dumpster of a neglected Chinese food restaurant.

“You want Chinese for dinner?” Death asked.

William thought about it. Then he did something that he thought he would never do again- he made a choice. “I saw a diner down the road a little bit. Let’s go there.”

So they did. William ordered the turkey club, and Death had a steak, extra rare. The waitress, like everyone else, didn’t seem to think there was anything strange about them, although come to think of it, she didn’t give them much of a look either. It was shortly after they ate their food that William started asking questions.

“So I’m dead?” he asked. He looked around as he said it, like he was talking about committing a crime. The diner was almost empty and the waitress didn’t seem like she would care if he lit his pants on fire. Still, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing you wanted to announce to just anyone.

“Yes,” Death said.

“I don’t feel different,” Will admitted, although on reflection, that wasn’t true. He definitely didn’t feel like he did when he was dying. That was awful.

“You won’t, at first,” Death said. “It’s a lot to take in all at once.”

“There were a lot of things I wanted to do before I died,” William said. “Things I wanted to do, and say.”

“I know,” Death said. “There always are.”

“I guess that’s the way things work,” Will said. Truth be told, he usually had a hundred different things that he wanted to on a weekend that didn’t get done, there didn’t seem to be any reason that dying wasn’t going to be any different. “It’s just hard to believe,” he added.

“I’m sure,” Death said.

“I worked hard, all my life,” Will said. “Some years were good. Some were bad. I left my daughter a little bit of money. That was good, right?”

Death said “That was good,” but he didn’t look like he felt anything about it, one way or the other.

“If my life was about work, and progress, and family,” William said. “Then what is this about?”

“Moving on,” Death said.

Death Takes the Highway by David McLain – Part One

You may recall us featuring some short stories. Here’s a quick list to where you can find them:

The Hunting Dog by Rita Monette
The Queen’s Intent by Justine Alley Dowsett
The Arranged Marriage by Justine Alley Dowsett
The Eye of the Storm by Justine Dowsett

And now, we bring you Death takes the Highway by David McLain, author of The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

-Emily Dickinson

Although no one knew it, William Hershel was going to die at three fifty-eight on January the thirteenth, at Wilson Hospital in Johnson City, New York, just after his daughter stepped out of the room for a minute to go to the bathroom and freshen up a little. The hospice nurse would tell her that this was very common. In as much as people had a choice, and it wasn’t really clear that they did, they seemed to choose to die when their relatives were out of the room, even if there had been someone with them all day, and they had only been left alone for a few seconds. It wasn’t clear why they did that, but the nurse said she had seen it time and time again.

If anyone had asked William Hershel, at say, three fifty four on that same day, why people choose to die during that one moment when they were alone, he would have been glad to tell them. It was for the same reason that you closed the door when you were going to the bathroom, or taking a shower, or making love. When we are forced to show our biological side, we prefer to be alone. Since the age of fourteen, William Hershel’s daughter had closed the door while brushing her teeth, she could hardly expect William to shuffle off his mortal coil while she watched, for goodness sake. If his wife had been there, that might have been different, but William Hershel had no wife. He’d been married once, but that had been over for almost a decade, and his ex-wife had declined to visit him, which was just as well. That left him dying, at three fifty-fifty eight on January the Thirteenth, exactly two weeks shy of his eighty-first birthday.

To look at him was less like looking at a man, and more like staring at an empty husk. His body was broken, his bones were gnarled, his hair was gone. His teeth were rotten, and his organs were failing quickly. There were tubes coming out of every conceivable part of him, and he smelled terrible. Dignity had been the last thing to go, but when it had gone, it had left completely. All you had to do was take one look at him, and you knew it was time. He had heard his daughter making the sorts of plans that you didn’t want to here being made about yourself. He knew that she had been in touch with a funeral home, that she’d talked to the hospice nurse about what would happen next. He’d heard her say something about how he’d worked hard, so very hard, all his life.  He knew that she had her own life and she wanted to get back to it. He felt bad that he had taken up so much of her time these past few years.

In real life, last words are rarely significant in any way whatsoever. In fact, in modern medical terms, just being able to say last words often meant that you were not really ready to die just yet. The closest thing William Hershel had to last words was an unheard gurgle at roughly three fifty-five. It was indicative of a small amount of air leaving his lungs as his organs shut down.     

     ‘I’m still here,’ William thought. ‘I’m still here.’

It is, or at any rate, it should be, a great privilege to be coherent during the last few minutes of your life, and, technically, William Hershel was. He hadn’t opened his eyes for three days, but nonetheless, his thoughts were still there. When his daughter had held his hand and cried earlier that day, he’d felt it and he’d heard it and he knew what was happening. Three fifty-six came and went without as much as a flicker. That left three fifty-seven. What do you do with your penultimate minute on earth? It turned out William Hershel celebrated by feeling his heart stop beating. It was the strangest feeling, a little bit like holding your breath, only much, much worse. His daughter would be on her way back to the room in just another minute or so, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to wait that long.

William Hershel, born in San Clemente, California, died at three fifty-eight, almost exactly, but this was just the beginning.

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Join us next week, or subscribe for the rest of this short serial fiction!!

David McLain is the author of the novel Dragonbait and The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum. He grew up New York, California,  Transylvania, and France. He studied writing at The University of Massachusetts and at Purchase College, where he also directed a production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He lives in New York with a female painter and a small dog.

The Arranged Marriage – Part 5

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. The novels: Unintended and Uncharted.

***

In the end, the Lord’s room was easy enough to find. It was the largest and highest room in the castle, except for maybe a small tower or two, there was nothing above it. Extra careful not to make too much noise in case of a stray servant or guard, Cielle let herself in through the massive double doors, and shut them softly behind her.

The room was garishly decorated in reds and golds with accents of green. She fought back a wave of nausea that was either caused by the effect of the colours on her senses or the fear caused by what she was about to do. I have to do something! Cielle affirmed silently. I know Larissa doesn’t want to be married to this old man, no matter how rich he is… The Arbors are forcing her because it’s the only way they can keep people thinking that their House is still as strong as it once was. She shouldn’t have to suffer for her family’s greed and ambition, it’s not fair!

Feeling determined now, Cielle set about setting up her plan and then slid herself underneath the gigantic four-poster bed, making sure to position herself so that she could see out a slit in the bed skirt. She managed to lay there motionless for a time, but eventually the boredom, or the long day she’d had, began to take its toll on her and she drifted off to thoughts of Larissa floating on a cloud, draped in white lace and nothing else.  

She awoke with a start to the sound of many slippered feet sweeping from the room. Peering into the now dim light of the bedroom, Cielle could just make out a billow of white fabric where it lay draped over the dressing screen and though the many pairs of slippered feet she’d heard were now gone, there was still one pair of feet in the room and those were bare.

I’d recognize those feet anywhere! Cielle’s mind jolted even more firmly awake as she saw the opportunity she’d been waiting for. She began to wriggle herself free from her hiding place when the double doors opened without warning admitting a very large, very muscular and very drunk Lord.

Cielle immediately retreated back into the dark confines of the underside of the bed, feeling her heartbeat quicken with fear and dread combined. No, no, no!

“Larissa!” The Lord slurred loudly, looking over his new bride. Cielle could just make out Branton’s upper body from her vantage point. His shirt was mostly open revealing a thick coat of dark curly hair and his arms were spread wide as if he expected Larissa to run straight into them.

“My lord husband,” Cielle heard her friend intone without much inflection and the dainty nude feet stayed exactly where they were. She’s saying that because he expects her to. Her heart went out to Larissa. She must be so scared right now.

Cielle fought her desire to run out in defence of her friend. If I expose myself now, I’ll just get kicked out and then I’ll lose the only chance I have to stop this marriage from being consummated. She gagged on the word. And I must do that at all costs!

***

Thanks for reading! Leave your thoughts below and subscribe or check back for parts 6 and 7!

The Arranged Marriage – Part 4

Find Part 1, 2, and 3 here. Or check out the novels set in the same world; Unintended and Uncharted. Otherwise, read on!

***

There was no more time to dwell on the issue of the dagger though. At that very moment, the musicians began to play the wedding march and Cielle twirled in her seat to look back at the start of the aisle. Sure enough, there was a bride there, radiantly dressed in the widest white dress Cielle had ever seen.

Cielle’s breath caught in her throat as her best friend drifted closer as if she was walking on a cloud. The white fabric billowed around her, flowing like the waves in the bay and the intricate lace of the bodice creeped upwards and gently caressed her soft curves. Cielle swallowed with some difficulty and forced herself to breathe as normally as she could.

Damn, she’s beautiful.

Her gaze followed Larissa as she made her way up the length of the aisle until she came to stand beside Lord Branton. Cielle’s expression shifted rapidly from awestruck to livid within seconds. The flush in her cheeks remained the same, though, so outwardly there was nothing to alarm Cyril or anyone else.

Halfway through the ceremony, Cielle finished solidifying her plan in her mind. It was difficult from that point onward to remain seated and to keep the determined grimace from her face.

“Whoa there,” Cyril commented sometime later, after dinner had been served. “You look like you’re going to run someone through with that fork. Are you that hungry?”

Cielle had to force herself to lower the fork slowly back to its place on the table. “Yeah, actually, I’m starved,” she lied. “They look about done now… I’m going to go see if I can find some appetizers.”

“Yeah, ok,” Cyril agreed, oblivious to her true intentions. “Grab me a few of those pastries I smelled on the way in, would you?”

She plastered the most convincing smile she could onto her face. “Sure thing, bro. Be right back!”

She made her way to the hors d’oeuvres table before she banked sharply to the right and scooted into the kitchen. Weaving between bustling servants preparing to haul the feast out to hungry guests, Cielle made quick work of crossing unfamiliar territory until she found herself in a silent hallway. Whew… She allowed herself a moment to catch her breath as she looked first down one long hallway and then another. I should have thought to ask someone where the Lord’s bedchamber was! She cursed her lack of foresight. But then I might have raised suspicion… No, better to find it on my own. Besides, I should have plenty of time before the Lord and his new Lady ‘retire’ for the evening.

The thought of Lord Branton Wilkes putting his hands on Larissa was almost enough to make her gag. He won’t touch her! Cielle avowed. Not if I have anything to do with it!

***

As usual, please leave your thoughts and comments below and subscribe or check back for parts 5 through 7!

The Arranged Marriage – Part 2

If you missed Part 1, find it here. Also, this story is set in the world of Ismera, the same as both of my latest novels, Unintended and Uncharted, which you can find in our bookstore.  Cyril’s even a character in Unintended!

***

Cielle was not going to miss her best friend’s wedding, not for anything. Even if that fat lord paid me a thousand gold Wellish ingots, he couldn’t get me to stay away! And the Arbors don’t even have the money to bribe me with….

Hey, there’s a plan! I bet the Arbors don’t want it getting out that they need this marriage for financial reasons. They’re supposed to be an old and powerful house with lots of money to back it up. All I have to do is…

“Hey, grasshopper, look alive!” Her brother elbowed her more sharply than he probably intended, causing her to wince and rub the part of her arm he’d struck while shooting daggers at him out of her piercing blue eyes.

I hate when he calls me that! She fumed silently. We’re not kids anymore, Cyril…

Identical blue eyes looked guilelessly back at her, before Cyril grinned, knowing just how to get under her skin. “What?” He demanded. “I thought you wouldn’t want to miss your first glance at the fat lord. Get in all your jibes while we’re still far enough away that he can’t hear you.”

From her vantage point at the small ship’s rail, Cielle scanned the port for which the land they were going to was named, trying to follow Cyril’s gaze. After a moment of searching she gave it up. “Okay, which one is he?”

“Uh, there,” Cyril gestured, “third noble in from the left. The one with all the gold tassels on his sleeves.”

Sure enough, Cielle spotted him and as her eyes locked on her new arch nemesis, she instantly felt one of her infamous pouts coming on. He’s not fat at all! Rich, yes, and a terrible dresser, but he’s actually kind of regal looking… Damn him!

“There, there.” Inexplicably she felt her twin’s hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay to feel jealous.”

Cielle’s jaw fell open as she rounded on Cyril. “Jealous? Jealous of…. of that?! Never!”

Cyril’s returning grin was full of mischief. Cielle felt a number of sets of eyes on her before she felt her fair skin heat to an uncomfortable shade of red. “He’s looking at me, isn’t he?” She questioned of Cyril through clenched teeth.

“They all are,” he answered mercilessly. “Nice first impression, Sis.”

***

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts, which you can leave in the comments below! Subscribe to this blog or check back next week for part 3~7!

The Arranged Marriage – Part 1

If you haven’t read my first serial fiction, you can find The Eye of the Storm, here.  Whereas The Eye of the Storm was a science-fiction/horror, The Arranged Marriage is fantasy/romance story told in seven parts and set in the world of Ismera, like my novels Unintended and Uncharted. 

Without further ado:

Larissa,

How dare they! Her letter began. I’ll never forgive your family for this! You know, I have half a mind to write to the D’Arbonne House to see if they will intercede on your behalf. It’s not right what the Arbors are doing and I won’t stand for it and neither should you! This is an outrage! It’s practically criminal!

Cielle continued in the same vein for a few paragraphs, making sure she got her point across. Eventually she ran out of ways to say she was angry about the arranged marriage and subsequently she felt her anger fade until only sadness remained in its place.

It’s just… It’s just not fair, that’s all. Marrying this stuffy Lord means you’re going to be all the way in Welland! I know what you’re going to say; ‘It’s just across the bay.” But that’s not the point! I’m sure once you’re married and tucked away in ‘Lord Branton’s’ castle that we’ll hardly ever see each other anymore. It’s not like you’ll be able to join your family when they come this way, you’ll be stuck in Wilkesport fulfilling your duty as ‘Lady Wilkes’… whatever that means!

I hate this! She admitted finally. You’re worth so much more than that fat man’s gold. (I bet he’s fat. You just know those rich lazy lords are all fat. Probably drinks too much Wellish Red too.) He doesn’t deserve you and your family should know better than to sell you off. If you were a Doucet, or even a D’Arbonne, this would never have happened.

I miss you already and I’m angry and sad enough that I’m not even able to look forward to coming to your wedding in a couple of weeks. Cielle paused, pouting. She knew how to put on a good pout when the mood struck her.

Either way, I’ll still be there. She avowed. And when I do, we’ll need to put our heads together and see if we can’t find a way for you to escape this! It’s just got to be possible!

Your Friend Forever,

Cielle Doucet.

Cielle fought back tears as she folded the thick parchment and sealed it with her family’s crest. I mean it, she added silently promising her best friend. I’m coming for you and we will find a way out of this… together.

****

Check back next week or subscribe for parts 2 through 7!  Leave a comment below to let me know what you think of the story so far!