I write a lot. But for all of that writing I do, very little of it gets into the hands of readers. So far in my hustle and struggle to create a career for myself out of nouns, verbs, and whatever the other things are called, the most eyes on my prose comes via this website.
Which brings us to THE LINE. It's not the first novel I've written. It won't be the last. But, for the time being, I'm done working on this one. Done writing it, done editing it, and done trying to find it a published home. I've got two new ideas that are currently stoking the ol' creativity fires, and this dark, bloody little novel is taking a backseat.
But not here. Here it gets the star treatment. Because every once in a while I get tired of making stories for just me and my wife. I get tired of writing into the void and typing at windmills.
This writer wants some readers, damn it.
So here we go. THE LINE. All 330 pages of it. There might be a plot hole or two. There's definitely some typos. She's a little rough around the literary edges. But I'm proud of this story and think you will get a kick out of it. I'm posting it a chapter a week right here on my website. You can read it this way, for free, if you're patient.
If you're impatient or just want to throw a little spare change my way as a donation to the Church of the Struggling Writer, you can buy the whole thing for 99 cents right now:
Read it if you want. Share it if you like it. It's available to lend. Hell, I specifically made sure there's no DRM on this puppy so you can pirate it to your heart's content. Anybody who wants to read this, read away. And, if you do, let me (and/or the Amazon community) know what you think. You'll know where to find me.
I'll be the one in front of his laptop till 3 am, trying to come up with a metaphor.
by Andy Bennett
A strange October heat wave rages across the streets of Chicago, and inside Seitz's Deil, 30 customers sweat it out while waiting to order lunch. But things heat up even more when a man enters the deli, locks them all inside, and then sets himself on fire. His final words are a warning; "You have 3 hours." Soon, all hell breaks loose and 6 high school students must work together to stay alive and find a way to escape the deli. If they do, they'll discover a city destroyed and a clock that is still ticking, leading them down streets choked with unspeakable horrors toward a final showdown high above the ruined city of Chicago.
1 HOUR, 35 MINUTES
Reed’s fingers skipped across shards of broken glass, his eyes fixed on the steady drip of blood onto the pavement. Smiling to himself, he began to hum.
He knew the exact moment he’d lost his mind.
It happened back before everything had gone to hell. Back before the gun and the rebar and the rubble and the pen. Maybe, Reed thought as he pulled himself to his feet, it had been going for a while. Maybe all I needed was a little nudge off the cliff.
If that was indeed the case, Reed had been given that nudge just over an hour ago.
The moment the last customer entered Seitz’s Deli.
3 HOURS, 25 MINUTES
“Are you all right?”
“You look a little ... are you all right?”
“Yeah,” Luke said, wiping a slick palm across his even slicker head and doing little beyond smearing the sweat around. “You were saying?”
“Well,” the College Rep from Princeton continued, flipping open an orange and black packet, “I was telling you about our new genetics lab.”
“Uh huh,” Luke said, fumbling a tin of mints from his pocket and shoving one into his mouth. “And you guys are cleared for BSC III?”
“No,” the Princeton Rep said, his lips a tight white line. “You’re probably thinking of Purdue. We’re only a BSC II. But that can change very fast.”
“Right,” Luke said. “Stupid. Sorry.”
“Dr. Halloran, our dean, recently completed a five-year study on the effects ...”
“I’m sorry,” Luke interrupted, staggering back a step and tugging at the tie he had told his mom she’d knotted too tight. “I think I need to ... uh ...”
Luke stumbled away from the table, hunting for an exit. He passed under a sagging banner emblazoned with the words College Fair and felt his chest hitch and his throat slam shut.
He had to get outside. He had to get away from here.
College was supposed to be his chance at a new start, and he had built it up to monolithic proportions in his mind. It was everything to him. He got letter after letter, phone call upon phone call. As a kid who’d spent most of his life wishing someone would pay him some positive attention, want him in any way shape or form, it should have made him feel amazing. But knowing Harvard and Yale and Rutgers and Cornell all wanted to count him among their students just left him feeling sick.
What if he wasn’t ready for it?
What if it was no better than high school?
What if it was worse?
That word had become more terrifying to Luke than just about anything. More terrifying even than the football team after their latest loss, as they stomped down the hall hunting for a target on which to pin their athletic inadequacies. At least when that happened he could duck into the library or cower in the bathroom. But there was no hiding from college.
Next fall he would pack up his movie collection, his hot plate and an embarrassing number of graphic novels and head off to a new school with new people looking for a new punching bag. He would only have one chance to get it right. One shot to pick the right school and to show up as the right person. That first part wasn’t the problem; he had his pick of schools. It was that second part that was giving him trouble. He could arrive next fall as the right person. As Luke 2.0. But it was going to take a lot of work.
So far, he was down 40 pounds. He’d cut down on carbs, cut out processed sugar and taken the stairs over the elevator every chance he could. He’d started doing late-night push-ups and crunches and planks and lunges, all behind his closed bedroom door. He liked to think of this as his prison workout and often imagined he was some kind of bulked-up hard case, wrongfully imprisoned and just waiting for parole when he could get even. After a few months, he thought he saw a little definition staring back at him in the mirror. A real good start, but not enough. Not yet.
“Luke? Are you okay?”
Luke turned to find that hurrying toward him was the only thing that twisted his carb-free gut into more knots than the idea of college.
Class valedictorian. Class President. President of the Math Club, Knowledge Bowl and Yearbook. Founder of the African-American Alliance. Captain of the Volleyball team. And the object of every single one of Luke’s fantasies since he was in the 7th grade. Not that he was alone in that. No, he and his fantasies could get in line. It started back behind every other guy at Lane Tech High School.
Luke was surprised she even knew his name, let alone that he warranted enough of her attention to have her checking to see if he was okay.
And good lord, this was not even close to how he’d imagined their first real conversation. In his mind he was always at his goal weight, back from college where he was crushing it, and he’d run into her in a park mid-jog or next to the organic quinoa at the grocery store. Not at a college fair covered in sweat and 50 pounds shy of fit. Not in the middle of a panic attack.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Luke stammered, still hunting for the doors. “I think I just need a little fresh air. Do you ... where is the exit?”
“Here,” she said, taking him by the arm and leading him toward the glass double doors basically in front of his face. “Let’s get you outside.”
The doors swung wide as they stepped outside the University of Chicago’s Ratner Athletics Center, and Luke was hit by a blast of hot air. It may have been October but Chicago was in the grip of a sweltering heat wave, and he and Jess were apparently the only two people on campus brave enough to venture outside. Still, even the stifling breeze was better than being back in there.
“Here,” Jess said, offering him her bottle of water. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” Luke said, taking a small sip. “Fine, honestly. It’s just so hot in there. And out here. Everywhere, basically.” He tried to hand her back her water bottle, but she waved it away.
“No, you drink it,” Jess said. “Get hydrated. I volunteer at Northwestern Memorial and I swear I saw like a dozen heat stroke cases this weekend. This weather is brutal.”
Of course she volunteers at a hospital, Luke thought, sitting on a bench near the entrance. After a moment, Jess joined him. Her knee brushed his. Luke nearly passed out.
“Is that where you’re going next fall?” Jess asked, nodding at the orange and black Princeton pen still clutched in his fist.
“Oh, no. Just grabbing the free stuff, I guess,” Luke said, shoving the pen into his pocket and taking another sip.
“Too bad,” Jess said. “I think that’s where I’m going. It would’ve been nice to know someone. We could have hung out or something.”
“Well,” Luke stammered, “I mean, I’m considering them. Maybe. I don’t know, yeah, I might apply. Probably.”
Jess smiled. Luke smiled back. They both knew how awkward he was being. She was just too nice to mention it.
“Do you know your major?” Luke asked, wanting this conversation to last as long as possible.
“My parents want me to go pre-med, but I don’t know. I’m thinking I want more of a challenge.”
“More of a challenge than pre-med?” Luke asked.
“Sorry,” Jess said. “Didn’t mean that as uppity as it sounded.”
“I know,” Luke said.
And then they said nothing. For a little bit. Jess looked up at the Ratner Center, chewed on her lower lip. Looked back at Luke.
“It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it?” she asked. “Picking the right school. You screw this up – you screw your life up. Isn’t that what it feels like?”
“Exactly what it feels like,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I know my GPA is stellar and my test scores are excellent and my aptitude for my chosen major is second-to-none. I understand you'd love me to attend your university, to be a whatever Princeton Gecko or whatever their mascot is ...’”
“Tiger,” Jess said.
“Okay, exactly. It’s like; ‘You want me to be a Princeton Tiger, but that’ll all change once you feel how much my palms are sweating.’”
“That’s nothing,” Jess said. “I was in the middle of telling the Yale rep about how I created the African-American Alliance at school, and I swear to God I nearly passed out. Half of my brain hates how much I’m bragging about myself, and the other half doesn’t think I’m doing it well enough.”
“And whose bright idea are all the souvenir pens?” Luke said. “They have to know they’re basically handing a bunch of freaked-out hormone balls potential weapons, right?”
Jess laughed long and loud. After a moment, Luke joined in. He was still sweating like he’d just polished off his fourth plate of ribs, but he had made Jess laugh. And that put today pretty firmly in the ‘Win’ column.
“Ready to march back into the fray?” Jess said, patting Luke on the knee and sending a jolt up his spine.
“Ugh,” Luke groaned. “I guess so. Although, if one more person tells me how great the meal plan is, I’m gonna beat someone to death with a goodie bag.”
Jess laughed again. “How much have you lost, anyway?” she asked, her eyes dipping down to his body.
Luke felt himself blush. Felt the sweat spring up fresh on his forehead.
“Shit,” she said. “I’m sorry, is that ... that was rude. Nevermind. Nevermind.” She waved her hands in front of her face, like she could bat the words out of existence.
“No, no, it’s fine,” Luke said. “Almost 50 pounds. So far.”
“50 pounds?” Jess asked, smiling. “Surely you can’t be serious.”
“I am serious,” Luke said. “And don’t call me Shirley.”
“Airplane,” Jess said. And Luke’s heart tumbled a little further down the rabbit hole.
“You’ve seen Airplane?” Luke said, grinning.
“It’s a good movie,” Jess shrugged. She looked back at the Ratner center, then looked back at Luke. “Well, you look really great.”
Luke’s face felt like it might just erupt and spill his embarrassment all over the bench like a burst balloon. But he managed a smile. “Thanks,” he said “So far, so good. I started this summer and I guess I'd been a little concerned that once school resumed I'd fall back into my old habits.”
“Such as?” Jess asked.
“Spending my lunch breaks eating a small pile of vending machine treats while hunched over the garbage can like a tubby Gollum. You know, stuff like that.”
Jess laughed a third time and Luke felt like taking a victory lap around the Ratner Center lawn.
“Good for you for sticking with it,” Jess said.
“Especially considering the polymorphisms in my genetic code make my appetite large and my metabolism weak.”
“What?” Jess asked.
“I have no willpower,” Luke said. “And a mom who keeps trying to slip me bigger and bigger portions at dinner because the only way she’s ever known how to parent is through the stomach.”
“Luke, I’m telling you,” Jess said, shaking her head and smiling wide. “You have nothing to fear from college.”
There was a moment there. A moment where Luke almost mistook her kindness for something more. Where he almost leaned in, puckered up and made a gigantic ass out of himself. But then, suddenly, gooseflesh erupted across his skin. He shivered – which was a strange sensation with the sun cooking him as much as it was – as a black shadow settled over their bench.
At first, all Luke could see were the deli coupons being held out to them like so many college pens and goodie bags. After a moment of indecision, Luke took one.
Only then did he look up to see the large, misshapen figure towering over them. Only then did he see the Walking Taco.