The following is the prologue for one of my novels, still in progress. Would appreciate any comments, critique, ideas, whatever.
Sennett Lakes - Prologue
The van gasped and choked as she nursed it down the narrow dirt track. She knew it wouldn't run much longer. She accepted this fact with weary resignation. At this point, she'd settle for just pulling over. She could sleep in the van. She'd been cozy enough dozens of times on the foam mattress back there.
The van lurched around a curve, where the woods opened into a level clearing. She squinted through the haze on the windshield, as the wipers slapped back and forth in the downpour. The headlights picked out a small group of people, four or five young men or older boys. Surprised, she stomped on the brake and brought the van to a halt, skidding a little on the streaming gravel. They turned to look at her, blinded by the high beams. One moved away, then another, then they all ran into the black night.
The tapered shafts of her headlights came to rest on three colorless lumps on the ground, one of them large, which they had left behind. She revved the engine to keep it going; the headlights brightened. The lumps looked like gunny sacks.
Vandals, she thought, stealing stuff. What kind of stuff is there to steal, out in this Godforsaken wilderness? Other than meager strands of wire strung beside the road, she hadn't seen anything resembling civilization since she'd come through a crossroads about twenty miles back.
She had been driving forever. She'd followed instructions from a travel guide to find some stupid campground, but dark had come on early as a storm approached. Then the road on the way to some place called Trinity Falls was closed because of construction, so she had had to take a detour on a narrow road, barely more than a cow path, curling around the mountains and lakes. She had thought the detour had come back out onto the main road, not much better than the detour, but she wasn't sure. In the last mile, she had seen no trails or driveways leading off the road at all. Finally, she had spied this dirt drive and turned onto it in an effort to turn around, knowing by then that there wasn't enough gumption left in the van to backtrack to that settlement. She was frustrated and too tired to care about the hunger that gnawed at her. She had about run out of energy to expend on bad cars, bad roads, bad directions, and bad weather. And now, vandals - !
Uneasy that they might return, she thought she'd better get out of there, if she could coax the van along. She took her foot off the brake and the van crept forward. She peered through the rain. The clearing looked wide enough for her to skirt the bags of booty, turn around, and get out. The van had a bigger turning radius than Ringling Brothers Circus. At least the gravel looked hard-packed. The last thing she needed was to sink into soft sand.
Lightning split the sky, thunder crashed with it, and lit the clearing. The unmistakable brilliance revealed the largest of the bundles as a man, lying on his side in the rain, curled tightly into himself.
My God . . . ! She stood on the brake and stared. Prickles rose across her neck. She swallowed hard, her blood racing. Fear dragging her feet, she climbed out of the van and approached the still figure. Heedless of the downpour or the lightning overhead, she studied the still form with horrified fascination. She didn't want to let the idea fix itself in her mind that he could be dead, but it danced around the edges. What if he is?
Finally, she crouched next to him. His arms cradled his head, knees drawn up to protect his belly. She touched his shoulder. He recoiled.
Startled, she jerked her hand away. He's alive! Tentative, she reached out again. He mumbled, his protest weak but anxious.
"It's all right," she said softly. "They're gone." She sure hoped they were.
She pulled his arm carefully away from his face. The man groaned. The skin on his forehead looked badly scraped, but wasn't bleeding much.
The van engine, which had been idling weakly, died with a indecisive sputter. The headlights yellowed.
Bones, check for broken bones. Had they been beating him?
She didn't know what to look for, how to check for broken bones. He wore a light work jacket with a sweater and a shirt. Could she feel anything through those?
She touched the dark bruises on his forehead first, cringing as her fingers met rough flesh. He moved under her hand, his resistance feeble. She hesitated, then kneeled in the mud and held his head still with her knees while she probed gently. He was not conscious, but neither was he far away. He kept muttering "No" and "Get away," as near as she could decipher his slurring.
The skull under the broken skin seemed intact, not giving anywhere she touched. She felt around his scalp and found two or three goose eggs rising where he must have been struck.
She felt each arm, then reached under the open jacket and pressed softly down the ribs. He winced and cried out, his voice ragged and faint. She jumped as her hand came away warm and wet, stained dark in the dim light.
Blood streamed down her wrist in threads with the pelting rain. The storm cracked around her, lighting everything with a clarity she didn't want to see. Ozone singed the wet air. Her throat tightened, her ears ached. No, don't think about it . . . but the blood raised terrible images before her mind's eye . . . No! . . .
"No!" Panic drove her hand hard against the man's jacket, desperate to wipe away the blood. He recoiled and his sharp yelp pulled her back to his need. . . . no . . . She willed herself to a tenuous calm, to create distance from the blood, to ignore her knotted guts, to shove those visions away . . . don't think about that . . . I've got to help him, somehow . . . She steeled herself to continue.
It's got to be a knife wound, she thought, calming herself with the necessity of the situation.
She renewed her search gingerly, cringing as she put her hand back under his jacket into clothes now soaked as much with rain as blood. More than a cut? As she probed, he flinched and gasped. Must be a couple of broken ribs. She felt along his legs, but he gave no notice.
What am I going to do? I don't know this guy, I'm lost, and the van is dead. She knelt in the rain next to the still man. Fear, frustration, and weariness overwhelmed her, and she began to weep. The rain washed over her, mixed with her tears. She bent forward, keening soundlessly as a familiar misery filled her beyond endurance.
Her head settled on the man's shoulder. He stirred at her touch, muttered again.
Oh, my God . . . She came back to herself. I've got to help him . . .
She sat and looked at him, wiping her eyes. She breathed deeply to get herself under control. She straightened with resolve.
Got to get him out of this rain, she thought. She got up out of the mud and went to the van. She got in and turned the key, but the starter only whined as it turned over sluggishly. Finally she gave that up and just let out the clutch, holding her breath until it began to roll. She stopped it a few feet short of the man. She turned on the interior lights, got out again, and opened the side doors. Then she went back to the man and knelt beside him. She touched his face gently with her hand. He jerked away.
"Can you hear me? Please, listen. I need to help you, but you need to help me. I can't lift you alone. If you can get up, I can help you. I have a bed in my van, which is right here. It's warm and dry, with blankets, and you can rest there until I can get some help."
She patted his cheek. "Come on, mister, come around."
He rolled his head a bit.
"Do you hear me? Talk to me. You've got to talk to me."
A raspy murmur rumbled from him, which she took for cognizance, as dim as it was. The storm, moving slowly on, boomed less often, but lashed the clearing with a few parting shots. A bolt of lightning with an immediate crack of thunder must have struck nearby, the report sharpened with the shriek of a blasted tree. The man winced.
She continued to stroke his face, as he approached consciousness, talking him closer. The steady downpour helped to bring him around. His eyes finally opened, dull and unfocused. "Come on, mister. Work with me. It's the only way you'll get help. You can do it. You just have to get on your feet now. I can help you."
At length, he began to move, tried to roll onto his knees, whimpered with pain. She steadied him. She talked him up onto his feet and helped him straighten his legs under him. He was a lot bigger on his feet than he had looked on the ground, and weighed far more than she had thought. Only half conscious, he swayed. She exerted all of her strength in helping him to balance. He swore and held his side.
"Come on, now. It's just a few feet away."
He leaned too heavily on her. I have to do this, she thought, straining to support him. "One step. Move your foot," she grunted. "Now another. It's only a few more steps."
Slowly, the two of them staggered to the van.
"Now, step up . . . into the van . . . " she gasped. "The bed's . . . right in front of you." She leaned down and took his thigh, physically lifting his leg to place his foot into the step well.
"You can reach the bed now . . . come on . . . it's right here in front of you . . . another step up . . . and you're in . . . "
He reached in obediently, but couldn't seem to muster the strength to pull his weight up.
"Come on." She locked her arms around his hips. Her voice racked with her effort. "On the count of three . . . one . . . two . . . three . . ." She heaved as he pulled himself up, straining to lift him inside. He got his other foot in, then his upper body sprawled on the bed. She swung his hips around and he lay on the edge of the mattress, moaning gently. She collapsed in the step well. They both wheezed.
She realized that the rain still pelted her. She got up, knees wobbly from exertion, shut the doors, and went around to the driver's seat to turn off the headlights. She came around again and climbed back in.
Finally . . . in . . . out of the wet . . . Now, got to get him out of those wet things and see to that cut . . .
She took off her own jacket, soaked through, and her old cardigan, which was nearly as soggy. Then she turned to him, and removed his boots and one pair of the two pairs of socks he wore. They were still fairly dry, the only dry things left on him. She unbuckled his belt and opened his trousers, and peeled the wet fabric gently from his legs. She threw them on the floor in the back of the van. The jacket was not difficult to remove while he lay there, but the pullover sweater posed a problem. She didn't think she could or should wake him enough now to have him sit up; that wouldn't do his ribs any good. Getting him on his feet probably hadn't been good for those ribs either, but it was the only way to get him under cover.
She thought for a moment. She'd have to cut the sweater off - with what? Then she remembered the sewing kit under the bed. She dug under the bed frame for a small plastic box with various sewing notions in it, and found a pair of scissors, not very large, but she hoped they would do. They'd have to. She began to cut the sweater. The wet wool balked in the blades. She moved to his back, where the sweater was drier, and continued, but she had blisters before she was done. Fortunately, the sweater was thin. At last, she was able to pull the remains of the sweater away from him. The dark-green plaid flannel shirt just unbuttoned, and soon she had removed it as well. Her breath caught at the sight of his white tee shirt, the fresh blood a broad swath across his torso, almost black in the dim light. She swallowed hard, then cut it away as well and threw the bloody rags to the back of the van with everything else, fighting to throw her fear back there as well.
She pulled a couple of blankets from the blanket rack and covered his legs and hips, then turned her attention to the wound in his side.
Ugly, it stretched diagonally from the right of his naval up his side and along the ribs, about nine inches long. It seemed deep to her. Although it didn't spurt, which would mean a cut artery, it did bleed steadily, showed no signs of slowing down. She found her lantern-shaped flashlight. A closer look at the open lips of the gash revealed that the knife had only cut entirely through the abdominal wall in one place; she couldn't see anything through that rupture. With no experience, she couldn't know for sure if the knife had cut any internal organs, but she thought the small size of the rupture was probably a good sign that it had not. But the wound lay as flat and open as a butterflied fish. Already, blood was pooling under him as it ran down across his belly. Fear built in her as she folded a towel and placed it to soak up the blood.
She didn't want to think about what was next - stitches. The bleeding could not be controlled without them. Even without experience, she knew stitches were necessary here, and soon. Her stomach lurched at the thought of doing this. Though she was adept with needle and thread, she had never applied them to human flesh before. But she could not spend all night just applying pressure, and hoping someone would find them in the morning. She had no idea how far they were from civilization, and could not depend on being found soon. Would someone miss this guy, and come to look for him? Would they know where to look? Had that gang found him here, or had they brought him here?
She braced herself. It's got to be done, or he'll bleed all night.
She hung the lantern from the rack. Digging through the sewing box, she found a small spool of nylon thread and a leather needle. In a make-do measure to sanitize the needle and thread, she wiped them and her hands with mouthwash from her toilet kit. She threaded the needle.
She looked at the man, and drew a deep breath. Bending over his ear, she did not touch his face. She didn't want him any more conscious than he had to be, but she thought he ought to be warned.
"You need stitches," she said in little more than a whisper. "It's going to hurt, but it's got to be done now. Then you can sleep, and I will get help for you."
She sat up and looked at the cut.
Gotta do it.
She cringed as she pushed the needle through one side of the gash. The skin was tough and resistant. He cried out and squirmed, but she leaned over him, pinning him down with her chest across his, her elbow behind him, and continued, nose only a few inches from the wound. She poked the needle through the other side, drew the thread together, tied a knot, and snipped the thread free. The lips at one end met. One down. How many to go?
She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and continued. With each probe of the needle, he resisted her, but was too weak or not awake enough to succeed. She dithered with her mind to take it off the ugly task only inches from her nose, refused to look ahead of each stitch at the length of the gash, not wanting to know how much more lay before her. She made it mechanical, poking the needle through each side, drawing the lips of the wound together with the thread, tying it off, then wiping the skin before moving on. She didn't know how close together the stitches should be, but she thought they would be better closer than farther apart. It came to her that this was not all that different from sewing up the stuffing into a bird for roasting, and the punchy edge of hysteria that hovered in the shadows almost made her laugh - never again would she be able to look at the Thanksgiving turkey the same way.
Finally she sat up and stared, glassy-eyed, at her work. She had made eighteen stitches, a line of knots that wavered a little, but was relatively straight. Her fingers were blistered and bloody, her hands cramped. But the wound was closed and now only oozed slightly. That would probably diminish.
She fetched a face cloth from her bag and, wetting it from a jug of water she had, she carefully wiped the wound clean. Then she washed herself as well.
She cast about for something to use for a bandage. A clean bed sheet on the blanket rack caught her eye. It was soft, nearly rotten with age. She tore a long strip from it, folded it to make a pad, and covered the rough stitching. She tore the remainder of the sheet into wider strips and bound the wound and his whole torso to help secure those ribs she thought were broken. Then she pulled the blankets over him.
Done with the big job, she looked to his forehead. The torn flesh above his right eye looked more like abrasions than cuts, as if he'd run afoul of a concrete block. It wasn't bleeding, but it was raw.
She began to wash his face gently. He stirred, jerking when she first touched him, muttered thickly. The cool wet cloth against the scrapes on his forehead roused him. His eyes opened, as black as the night, opaque with pain. He couldn't see her, his gaze unfixed.
"Get away!" he mumbled with feeble anger. He rolled his head.
"Easy, there," she said. She stroked his forehead. "It's all right. They've gone away. No one is going to hurt you."
"Get away!" he insisted, fretful.
"It's all right." She kept up a low murmur to soothe him while she continued to rinse the cloth and wipe his face and hair, cleaning away some blood but mostly mud. The dense, raven-black hair had a wiry quality that even the soaking rain and mud hadn't subdued. Either he usually wore it long, or he was overdue for a haircut, for the coarse mane cloaked his ears and the nape of his neck.
He calmed under her hand. His eyes slowly closed and the tension drained from his body. She made a small pad from a piece of the leftover sheet, and wrapped his forehead with the last of the cotton strips to hold it in place.
She was finished. She had done what she could for him.
She found herself shivering. Although she'd removed her soaked outer things, most of what she still had on was damp, and her jeans were just plain wet. The storm had long since passed, and the night air flowing in behind the storm had chilled. She dug out dry socks, a fresh jersey, a sweatshirt and some sweat pants from her bag. She eyed her patient, but he remained unaware. Nevertheless, for modesty's sake, she turned her back to him before baring her torso. She pulled the clammy jersey over her head, peeled her jeans away, and threw both in the back of the van with everything else wet. Time enough tomorrow to tend to that stuff. It felt good to put on something dry.
As she rubbed her feet with a towel to warm and dry them, she studied her patient. He looked about thirty. A heavy, unkempt mustache even more wiry than his hair nearly obscured his mouth, curling down around the edges of it. She might have called him horse-faced, but the moustache balanced the long face. The cheeks and chin were evidently shaved regularly, although dark stubble meant he had not done so for a day or two. Even this early in the season, his face was an even tan from evident outside work.
Now that he was comfortably wrapped in warm blankets, she thought about what she'd seen of him while she had treated him. He was lean and tough, his shoulders well developed, evidently from hard physical labor. His hands were big and square, work-thickened, almost leathery in texture, and etched with the kind of working dirt that doesn't wash off, the capable fingers littered with old scars and new, nails by turns trimmed or ragged, all dirty. His skin was smooth and clear, and black hair only lightly covered his chest and abdomen. There had been no need to remove his briefs, but she had noted his maleness; she had to admit to herself that she was relieved that he did wear underwear. At least he wasn't a complete philistine. Sometimes, you just don't want to know too much about a stranger. Not that it really mattered - once he was under profession care, she'd probably never see him again. But she found an odd comfort knowing she was helping out someone who appeared to have been brought up properly.
In the confined space of the van, as the heat of two bodies began to take the edge off the cool night air, she noticed his scent, mingled with the smell of sweat and faintly of animal manure. He must work in a barn, she thought. The masculine essence was distinctly his own, yet somehow familiar. It had been a long time since she had been close enough to a man to notice his scent, unmasked by cologne or aftershave. The smell of the rain and mud had receded, as had the smell of fresh blood which had loaded her senses while she had worked on him.
She watched him for a little while, his breathing now deep, regular, and quiet. He seemed as comfortable as could be expected.
It came to her that she was worn out. She was almost too spent to lay herself down. There was plenty of room on the bed, so she shook out the last blanket from the rack and curled up in it on the bed next to the man. She turned off the dome light and the lantern and settled to sleep.
Although bone-tired, she lay awake for a long time, trembling. Now, without the distraction of this man's needs, cold memories came unbidden and blurred in her mind with fresh images of this man.
After some time, she sat up and turned on the dome light again. She didn't know why it mattered, but she couldn't settle for the night properly until she knew who she was in bed with. If knowing allowed her to get to sleep, so be it . . .
She gritted her teeth, reached over the end of the bed, and pushed aside the wet things on the floor until her hand met with his trousers. She was relieved not to get any more blood on her. She fished in the pockets for a wallet and was surprised to find one, a primitive leather wallet with two pockets. Guess the thugs didn't get that far . . Sitting up, she looked for identification. A twenty and a few ones constituted the cash. She pulled out a driver's license.
Carroll Ginn Westfall III. Birthdate: March 11, 1963. Height: Six feet, one inch. Weight: 190 pounds. Hair: Black. Eyes: Black.
She stared at the picture on the license, and compared it with the man lying on the bed next to her. Of course, he looked like a convict in the picture ID. Everybody did. Hair color was right. She supposed the eye color was right; they had looked black when he had opened them, but in the dim light his eyes would have looked dark anyway. If the right one isn't black now, she thought, it will be by morning. It was puffing up and promised to be one royal shiner.
She studied the license, looking back and forth between it and the man on the bed. Finally she felt satisfied enough to settle for the night. She put the card back and placed the wallet on a shelf where it would not soak up any more dampness, then turned out the light, and snuggled back into the blanket. As deep fatigue overwhelmed her, she began to shake again. She knew not if she shivered from weariness and emotion, or from the April night chill that crept through the single blanket. After a while, only half-conscious, she wormed under the edge of the covers she had laid over the man, and finally eased toward oblivion. The shared warmth of the blankets and of another living soul soothed her.