Finishing my first novel, Scarla, was a great feeling, partly because up until then, I’d never really intended to write a book. As it turned out, the journey was more rewarding than I anticipated. Being brand new to the medium, I had my doubts about gaining entry into the publishing world with the first arrow slung. After all, who was I but some indie film guy anyway? Throw a stone, you’ll hit one – and if you need help aiming, I know a few who deserve to be hit. But I digress. Forging ahead with a completed manuscript, I decided to skip the brouhaha and do what far too many are doing these days: self-publishing. What was there to lose? I wasn’t supposed to be sitting on a book anyway, it was more of a creative personal exercise. Or exorcism. Scarla had been on the shelf for a while, in screenplay form, and while it was rocking boats, it was a risky endeavour. Her story straddled the fence, so to speak, and rode the line. Hard.
So, after a lot of restructuring and a quick c-section, a novel was born. Before marching her right out on Amazon Kindle, I figured eh, what the hell?, and found three solid small press publishers whose rosters and presentations were impressive. One or two others looked very cool, but weren’t open to submissions, so que sera, sera. Wouldn’t hurt to lob a prime cut to the dogs on our way to the butcher counter, right? Besides, I was curious, having never splashed in the publishing pond. As fate would have it, shortly after e-release, Comet Press got in touch with an offer to go to trade paperback before the year’s end. In my mind, of the few submissions made, Comet owned the badass award. For that reason, I figured there was no chance of coming out of the blue and making their roster. Little did I know, we were right up their blood-splattered alley. Props to Cheryl Mullenax for the foot in the door, and for doing it up right, as only Comet Press can.
On a short signing tour last year, where I was fortunate to meet a lot of super cool readers – and a few twisted mo’ fo’s – I was asked if another Scarla entry might one day stain the canvas behind readers’ eyelids as they struggle to mute the carnage enough to sleep (okay, it wasn’t phrased quite that way). At the time, I rejected the notion. Scarla’s story had been told, I said, with no punches pulled and no wounds stitched. It is what it is. But that was before she opened her eyes down there. Now, with fair warning, here we are. Welcome back, champ.
Exclusive excerpt from Scarla sequel
Consciousness faded in. Breathing. In… out. It was dark, warm, moist. Like the womb. Maybe it was the womb. She’d get to start over, do better next time. She was enveloped in a muted quiet, like when you held a pillow tight over your ears. Or your head underwater. She tried to move, but her limbs didn’t obey. An uncomfortable pressure gripped her abdomen. She opened her eyes, but the world stayed black. Death, she thought. Or birth. The line between end and beginning wasn’t just thin, it was blown to hell. Was it nothing more than a seamless transition? Break the finish tape and roll back to one – ready, set, go again? She’d do a lot of things differently, provided she was lucky enough to get another go. She wriggled, swiveled her wrists and ankles, flexed her fingers and toes, opened her mouth wide. The air felt strange. Thicker somehow. Her lips were numb, a burnt metallic taste in her mouth. She’d tasted it before, but couldn’t quite place where or when. Her mind was cloudy, her own name escaped her, her throat felt slick, like the sensation of chugging a drink, only she could breathe. In… out. She swept her tongue around, jabbing sludgy gums, finding no teeth. Forming again, everything from scratch, clean and new. Her heart surged and felt strong. Forged of iron. Thump, THUMP… Thump, THUMP… She could only hear the steady hiss that kept whatever chaos was outside her carrier’s belly at bay. And she felt safe. For the first time in a lifetime – in forever – she felt safe. Some things, though, never changed and she wanted out. With all the strength she could muster, she thrust an arm out and felt a tear, followed by a flush of warm liquid that made her skin tingle. She arched her back and uncoiled, her body lifting from its fetal position. Felt like floating. Was she traversing the birth canal? She twisted around and around until she was even more disoriented, scissoring her legs, moving faster. Rising. Her closed eyelids sensed warmth. She opened them to see a blurry white blob growing steadily brighter. She went for it, kicking harder and faster.
Her clawing fingers broke the water’s surface, sunshine hot on her pruned blue hand. A group of dabbling ducks scattered, fearing a predator. Their instincts were correct. Her head emerged, mouth agape, eyes wide. She looked around, seeing her surroundings for the first time all over again – the lake, the dock, the rowboat, the sprawling grounds, the house that seemed impossibly far atop the hill. All familiar, but she recalled nothing of why she was there or what had transpired. A pair of blood-stained pillows bobbed on the surface behind her. The light stung her eyes, so she slipped back underwater where she could see. Where she could breathe. She sank to the bottom, passing a ghostly blood-stained blanket that hung frozen, inviting her back into its tight embrace. Her toes dug into the lake bed, a murky cloud blooming around her knees. She blinked, eyes focusing. Dozens of fish surrounded her, staring. They seemed to wonder if she planned to stay. If she was one of them. She had no idea what she was. She looked up. The white sun shimmered light years away behind the silent wall of water, not a raging fireball from where she stood, just an impotent and shapeless nothing presiding over a dirty little world full of noise and filth and pointlessness. She rolled her head on her shoulders, felt weightless and unreal, took a step and started walking. The fish parted to let her pass. They knew they were losing her. They also knew she’d return.
She stubbed her toes on a barbell that hid in the murk, kept walking and reached two mossy dock posts. She touched one, looked up and lifted off, effortlessly gliding back to the surface. Her hands grasped the platform’s edge and she hauled herself up, every muscle in her body pulling tight. She was nude, her flesh a lifeless shade of white, fingers, toes, ears, nipples, labia, all blue. She slumped on her hands and knees, shivering uncontrollably, vision slipping in and out of focus on the dock’s wood grain. Mucous oozed from her nose and mouth. Her front teeth were gone, bloody gums and a shredded tongue the souvenirs of a slug that blasted through the back of her head, just a few hours earlier. A half-inch of difference would’ve destroyed her brain stem and cut the lights for good, but she remembered none of it. She only wanted to get up the hill and into the house to clean up. To get on with it. To keep moving, even if she didn’t know why. She stood on unsteady legs, staggering up the hill like a mangled marionette with a snipped string. She fell again and again, crawling until she could stand, always pressing forward. The house seemed to recede the more she plodded toward it, making her wonder if it was there at all. When she reached the back patio, it felt like hours had passed. Cobblestones burned her feet as she moved to a window. Her reflection shocked her and she froze, not recognizing herself. She stared for a moment, tried to jog her memory, drew a blank. She tried the back doorknob. Locked. Without hesitation, she punched out a pane of glass, reached in, flipped the deadbolt. The door swung open. She paused, listening. Silence. She entered and scanned the room, padding across the kitchen tile. Deja vu. She knew she’d been there, just been there, but the details were lost. Her feet sank into plush carpeting as she moved down a narrow hallway lined with framed photos of people she didn’t know, to the bathroom. She flipped the light switch and squinted in the bright fluorescence, her pupils pinning to dots.
She stared at the mirror, cocking her head. She couldn’t remember what she looked like before, but was pretty sure it wasn’t what was she was looking at now. She eyed her grisly grill, stuck out her tongue and saw it split down the middle, forked like a snake’s. When she flicked it, both sides wagged in unison. The shower loomed behind her in the mirror and she turned, pulling the curtain. A man in an expensive suit stood in the tub, palms raised like he was about to do a magic trick, pants around his ankles, feet lost in fetid red slime. Her heart jolted in her chest. They’d met before, but she couldn’t remember that either. He was the one who’d finally given her the last push and unleashed the beast that had grown inside her. An enormous, discolored cock writhed between his legs. It reared back and aimed at her, its meatus curling into a sleazy smile. Then it spoke. “Hallo, Scarla…” The room spun and she staggered. The floor dropped like an elevator car.
She woke some time later on the bathroom floor, a pool of dark blood ringing her head like a halo. Again, she didn’t know where she was. She recalled nothing of the man in the expensive suit, nor his menacing cock. She pried her matted hair off the tiles, dragged herself into the shower and twisted the faucet after thinking about it for a moment, not reacting to the scalding water that blasted her. Steam fogged the room. She watched her blood spiral down the drain, digging through coagulated blood to find the bullet hole in the base of her skull. Its circumference surprised her. There’s a hole in your head. She fingered it, felt bone, dropped her hand. Her chest was lobster-red, but she didn’t care. She stood, cut the water and grabbed a towel, wrapped it around her head and went to find something soft to rest on for what wouldn’t be long enough, all things considered. Threading back down the narrow hallway, she spotted a queen size bed in a small room and ducked in. The sheets were made with military precision, not a crease in sight, and no blanket. She flashed back to the one floating in the lake – the one that held her like the womb not long ago. She let the question hang and stretched out. Weeeeeee. Her ears rang louder until she wiggled a finger in them. Weeeeeeee. No good. She cracked her neck. Pop! WEEEEEEEEEEEE! The noise was unbearable. She rose up on her knees, ass in the air, and felt a familiar tingle. She realized she was wet, and not from the shower. As she felt between her legs, it hit her with force and insistence. Before she knew what was happening, she came.
His hands grasped her hips as he slid into her from behind. He’d wanted her for what felt like a lifetime, but it wasn’t how he imagined it. Not even close. The gun sat on the pillow beside her head, easier for her to grab than him, but he knew she wouldn’t. It wasn’t in the plan and she wasn’t even looking at it, her eyes shut tight, mouth agape, fists clenching the sheets, totally submissive. It was their moment and it would be their last. He leaned down to kiss his way up her back to her shoulder, up her neck to her ear, turning her head so he could taste her lips. She wasn’t really with him and he knew it, but it was as close as he’d ever get, so he projected her old self into the shell he’d been offered and it was good enough, if only for the moment. Her body was soft, warm. He didn’t know about the stiffening or the sudden cold, and how would he? He hadn’t done what she had, hadn’t spent every last drop of himself in a fixed game, for a hollow cause. Even at that moment, he was getting the sanitized, safety-netted version of the hell she’d lived every night for too long, and he knew it. But it was ending. Finally ending for them both. He leaned back to study her profile, slowing his thrusts. He could see her eyes rolling rapidly behind closed lids, as if in a fever dream. He noted her tensed neck muscles, the twitching in the corner of her mouth. He didn’t want to see any more, so turned her away and eased her head back to the pillow. The soft slap of flesh filled the room, hypnotic in rhythm. Her shoulders tightened and flexed. He knew what was happening and didn’t want it to. Wishful thinking. Stupid, too. In the end, she’d do her job and he’d do his. It was who they were and people didn’t change. Inside, anyway. He almost laughed at the thought, erupting inside her for what felt like an eternity, her muscles seizing and releasing him, holding him in her clutches until he was completely drained. But it wasn’t over by a long shot. The cold snapped him to attention, shocking his nerves. He tried to pull out, but couldn’t. Her back hunched in lupine posture, her spine’s vertebrae so pronounced it seemed they might burst from her skin and shred him like shrapnel. He watched the veins flush blue down the length of her body. Momentarily transfixed, he went for the gun late. A near-fatal mistake. As his fingers closed around the handle, she lashed out with her teeth, slashing his wrist. Blood spritzed her face, the pillows, the wall. Her mouth had elongated into a snout that seemed to sneer with too many teeth. He yanked his arm back, clipping her face with the gun butt. Her head dropped. He put the barrel to the base of her skull and pulled the trigger. POP! The wall went red. She crashed facedown on the pillows. Rest in peace, if there’s peace to be found, sweet lady.
Her orgasm gave way to nausea and she vomited on the clean pillows. They’d been found in a closet and swapped with the pair she was shot on, the pair floating in the lake, but she wouldn’t know that. She flipped the soiled pillow over onto its partner and pushed them away. One puke sandwich on cotton. Staring at the wall, she saw a faint smear where blood splatter had been cleaned and knew it was hers. She pulled the sheets back, eyed the bare mattress. No blood. She stood, upending the bed. Vindication. A huge brown stain smiled back at her. In its outline, she could make out the shape of her own head and shoulders. She’d bled a lot. That much blood loss would kill a person. Maybe, she thought, it killed her too.
Still nude, she stepped outside and surveyed the lake. The two pillows floated silently, yards apart. She heard a caw, looked up, saw a crow perched on a tree branch. It cocked its head, eyeing her curiously. Don’t you want to fly away with me? You can do it, you know. But she didn’t. She didn’t know what she could do or what she was, how she’d gotten there or where she’d been, what was happening or what to do next. She was running on pure instinct, fight or flight, and for it she felt thankful. It cut baggage, eliminated bullshit, kept things clear. As clear as they could be for her, anyway. A straight crooked line. She headed back to the lake, footsteps slow and deliberate.
He cradled her limp body in his arms and plodded to the lake. She was still warm in the blanket he’d rolled her in, her dead weight made heavier by the 35lb barbell plate on her stomach. She had to sink and stay down. He tried not to think about it, his eyes fixed on the small rowboat tied to the dock. He took some solace in knowing it was where she wanted to be, but mostly he just felt numb. He laid her on the boards, caught his breath and eyed the boat, bobbing silently. He climbed in and almost capsized, grabbing the post to steady himself. The blanket suddenly thrashed and he jumped, almost tipping again. He stared hard. She was still. Must’ve been a peripheral trick. It was mercy, not murder. A monster, not her. Sink the remains and be done with it. Get in the car and go back to the city. If there’s a city to go back to…
A city to go back to. She looked up, eyed the horizon. What would be lost if it was burned to the ground? If all that remained was rubble? If they were all dead, whoever they were. The thought slipped away before an answer came. She stood on the dock, staring at the boat, knowing he’d rowed her out and dropped her in. The mystery man whose name she couldn’t remember and whose face was slightly different every time her mind drew him. He was a complete stranger, though she clearly recalled the feeling of him inside her, still tasted him in her mouth. Underneath the gunpowder. Would they ever meet again? And if so, what would be more appropriate, fuck you or thank you? Something in the water caught her eye. The fish had gathered near the surface, still staring. She turned away to raid the house for clothes. She was also hungry, but what she craved wouldn’t be found in the refrigerator. It was time to go.
Coming…soon. Note to the editor: Kept it pretty clean, eh?
NEW PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ESSI ZIMM
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