Time for the next chapter of my serial novel, THE LINE. But first, a reminder that I'll be posting a chapter or two or three here on my blog each week until all 330 pages are up here and available to read for free. Or you can spend 99 cents and download the whole thing on your favorite e-reader right now by going:
If you're new to this and want to get caught up on the chapters I've already posted:
Okay. Back to the deli we go ....
3 HOURS, 3 MINUTES
“What the fuck are you guys talking about?” Reed said, grabbing Ciaran’s shoulder. Bad move. Ciaran spun like a top and shoved Reed back, knocking him to the floor.
Reed hit the floor hard, his back slamming against the linoleum. He winced, a memory flashing through his itchy, itchy brain. He opened his eyes and saw his father standing ... no, it was Ciaran. Saw Ciaran standing over him. Fists clenched. Reed tried to pull the covers up ... no, he was on the floor. He wasn’t in bed.
God how Reed’s brain itched.
“Watch yerself, mate,” Ciaran said.
“Secrets secrets are no fun,” Reed said, grinning, his eyes darting from Ciaran to Al to Luke to Jess. “Secrets secrets hurt someone.”
Miller stepped forward, his big bald head gleaming under the fluorescents. “How about you try that shit with me?” he said, stepping closer to Ciaran.
“Put yer fecking hands on me and I’ll be happy to,” Ciaran said, smiling.
“Grow up, children,” Jess said.
“You heard the lass,” Ciaran said to Miller.
“I’m talking to you too, Ciaran,” Jess said. “Try using your words like an adult next time, huh?”
Miller turned to help Reed up. Reed slapped Miller’s hand away and scrambled to his feet, still grinning the whole time.
“You think you’re the first person to push me around?” Reed asked.
“I could be the last, if’n you’d like,” Ciaran said, stepping forward again.
“Knock it off!” Jess said.
And then the man stepped inside the deli and a fistfight became the last thing on anyone’s mind.
The first thing Reed heard was the faint rattle and clang coming from the messenger bag strapped across the last customer’s chest as he stepped inside Seitz's Deli.
"Take a number," bellowed an employee from her perch behind the cash register. "Take a number, sir," she said again. And then, for emphasis, "Sir."
It was that second 'sir' that made Reed turn around. That, and the sour smell. The customer smelled of batteries and rust, pennies and sulphur. Reed recognized that smell in an instant. It brought the fleeting memory from moments ago crushing back, fully formed. It was a memory he’d spent most of the past decade trying to keep tucked away, but now here it was, all over again.
Reed closed his eyes and was suddenly back in a dark bedroom. Someone was screaming and cursing and coming down the hall toward him. Reed remembered the feel of fists hammering him, remembered that the thing cutting through every other sensation – cutting through the screams and the cursing and the pain – was this sour smell. Back then it was coming off of ten-year-old Reed. Now it was all but oozing out of the customer, and suddenly Reed’s heart was racing and his brain was itching like there were thousands of termites gnawing away at his gray matter. Reed could feel the adrenaline pouring into him like someone had turned on a tap. Reed noticed things. Reed paid attention to details. And Reed had only one word to describe this smell.
"Please," Reed said. "Don't."
Reed’s mouth had taken control without checking in with his brain. The words sounded distant and detached even to him - like his ears and mouth were at opposite ends of a long dark tunnel. A long, dark bedroom. An echo of what he’d said that night a decade ago. Right before the fists.
Reed rubbed his eyes, trying to replace that dark bedroom with this deli, his father with the man standing before him right now. The memory flickered in and out of focus, flashing like a strobe light in front of his eyes. His brain was itching so bad he wanted to pry his skull apart and dig his fingers in.
The customer turned away from the line and stepped up to the control panel for the overhead garage door. He pressed a button on the control panel and the massive metal garage door chugged down from the ceiling and slammed into the floor. Sturdy steel eyelets fit home into recessed slots in the concrete with a clang.
"If you wanna eat, you goin' have to take a number, sir," the waitress spat from her spot behind the counter.
Reed’s mind felt brittle. Like old newspaper or dead leaves. And things were happening so fast now. So fast.
The customer pulled a screwdriver from his pocket and stabbed it into the control panel. There was a spray of sparks and then he pulled a length of chain out of the messenger bag strapped across his sweaty chest. He fed it through the eyelets, pinning the door to the floor. He joined the chain ends together and snapped a solid-steel padlock shut around them.
The world blurred and melted around Reed. He felt like he might faint. He didn’t faint.
The customer turned to face them, the padlock key dangling from his hand held high above his head. He drifted his hand back and forth in front of his eyes for a moment. And then he popped the key into his mouth and swallowed it down in one firm gulp. He coughed. Once. Then again.
Reed’s brain was wet, rotten wood. It was sagging and flaking away.
The customer, moving faster now, reached back into his messenger bag and pulled out a water bottle, dousing himself in a foul-smelling, oily liquid.
Someone screamed. And that one scream became a choir.
And with a snap, the wet, rotten wood in Reed’s brain broke clean in two.