As we lurch further and further into a future of danger, chaos and growing uncertainty, has the idea of post-apocalyptic fiction began to feel less and less fictional? And not just because of the continued threat of COVID, but also the panic and cultural upheaval that has accompanied it.
Allow me to move the topic to a selfish place: What does all this mean to fiction writers?
If Amazon’s book charts are any indication, the pandemic’s deadly spread has been a boon to writers of viral apocalypse novels. Apparently, people like reading deadly fictional tales that mirror the real-file horror of our daily lives. Does this make sense?
It’s not usually the case that people like fiction that close to home. I’ve known a few war veterans in my life and none seemed eager to immerse themselves in the fictional accounts of violent conflict. Nor do most abuse survivors relish tales of violence and torture.
Maybe it’s different when the apocalypse is happening generally to the world, but not to you and your family or circle of friends.
It seems to me that people like fiction that hits close to home — but not too close.
Check out this new series of shorts: popular songs from the 70s and 80s (yeah, I’m old) re-invented as hard hitting tales of pulp.
Now let me channel my inner Casey Kasem:
Our number ten tale is How Long Can you Stand the Heat? is a story of betrayal, deceit and excessive gunplay. (Bonus points if you can guess the song that inspired it)
Steve never had a chance. From the second he got off that Greyhound straight from some Nebraska cornfield, it was clear that he’d get swallowed up by the game one way or the other. He was a boy getting mixed up with men and all the gangster movies in the world wouldn’t prepare him for us.
I wasn’t there at the time, but I’m guessing that when the others decided they’d rat me out and split the remaining take eight ways, it wasn’t Steve’s idea. He probably needed persuading, maybe even an easing of his conscience. But in the end, he must have said ‘yes,’ or at least ‘okay,’ so I didn’t waste an ounce of guilt over what happened next. Served his ass right for being so compliant.
For a job like this — late at night, public street — I’d usually go with something quiet and compact. A Sig Sauer maybe or a nine mm. Anything bigger might be a little loud, make too much of a mess.
But in this case, I wanted to make a mess.
I wanted the unlucky fucks who found Steve and the countless rubbernecking assholes who saw his shredded body on the pavement to know what happened when you crossed the wrong guy.
Anybody who mattered in that neighborhood had to know this wasn’t random. They all knew this was my turf, knew I must have had something to do with that misshapen collection of body parts they saw behind the police tape.
I was sending a message. Fuck with me, and you’ll wind up just like the rest. Another one gone. Hey! I was saying to anybody with ears to listen. I’m gonna get you too.
We waited there, crouched behind the door of JB’s, peeping through the mail slot as Steve crept down the street, body cloaked and head covered like he could hide those naive Nebraska eyes under his fedora’s brim.
Soon as he got close enough, the storm came, bullet after bullet finding him, shaking his body into something spastic and crazed. Knees buckling inward while his upper body jerked and twisted and splayed. Like Jerry Lewis making fun of a stroke victim.
The sirens rang out quickly and the rest of the guys took off, leapt into the van. But I had to stoop to his now-empty face to make sure it was over. In once sense it was. In another, it was just beginning.
Jerry was next, the kind of cat whose knife I’d always suspected would find my back. Tall, gawky, heroin-thin and East coast stupid, he looked like a Ramone who had somehow lived into his seventies and still couldn’t be trusted.
He made the mistake of checking his mailbox one morning, ignoring the ’67 Mustang driving past his home way too slowly. Once again, we used fully automatic subs. And once again, we sent just the message we needed to. Another one gone.
The others were trickier, harder to find because they’d gotten the message loud as a roman candle and decided this was a good time for a change of address. But I found them.
I found Gringo Cris at his boat, cramming his stuff into an Uber at nearly two am, hoping he could get to the airport before we got to him. Bad move, Gringo Cris.
I found Bradley at the East Side Market, thinking his six-foot-two Rastafarian ass could blend into a flood of Koreans.
I found Arthur at the train station, figuring it made more sense than the airport and forgetting who he was fucking with. I found Kyle, Orin and Ted on their way somewhere else. It wasn’t easy, but there’s something about getting fucked out of your money by a teammate that gets the gears shifting.
I got home after a busy Thursday, thinking good thing I don’t need to find Kiva. I sifted through our memories, good and bad, happy that she’d still be there. The last person on earth I could trust.
But then I opened the front door and stepped into a nightmare.
The furniture was gone. So was the plasma TV, the pictures, the clothes, the appliances. All Kiva’s now, wherever the fuck she was.
None of this made sense. I had taken her in when the rest of the world couldn’t take her shit anymore. I helped her see that somebody with her tits and her brains her conniving ways didn’t need to beg for anything anymore. I’d taught her to shoot, to sneak into homes, to send a forearm to somebody’s jaw. And this is what happens?
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find Kiva. But the gears were shifting again.
In the end, it wasn’t that hard to find her. Her sister couldn’t keep a secret and it’s not like anybody who’d pissed off that many people would have tons of options.
“You know where Kiva is?” I asked her sister.
“Kiva?” Aura asked. Eyebrows up like a kid with her mitts in the cookie jar.
“Yes, your sister. You remember Kiva, don’t you?”
“Where is she?”
“Kiva?” Voice higher now. I can hear the secret itching to get out.
“She’s not at home?”
“She’s not at home and you know where she is, don’t you?”
“She’s my sister,” Aura said, her voice firm. But she added: “In spite of everything, I gave her my word.” Less firm now.
“You owe her nothing and you know it, Aura. She owes you though. Big time.”
“She’s my sister.” Wavering now, ready to break.
“Your sister who lied to you about your car?”
“She needed help and I gave her help.”
“And two days later, she gave you a Mazda with a dented hood and a bullshit story about how it got that way,” I said. “I repeat. You owe her nothing.”
Aura unloaded a long sigh. “She’s not here with me.”
“Remember what she told the police when they came over?” I asked. “She said, of course, ‘I wasn’t driving. It’s not my car.’” I paused, waited for the granite in Aura’s face to melt away. “She didn’t say in so many words ‘my sister was driving that car. The car that was used in the robbery.’ But she didn’t have to have to. Sometimes you can tell people things without telling them things.” As if my hint wasn’t clear enough, I repeated it: “Sometimes you can tell people things without telling them things.”
The corner of Aura’s mouth lifted a little. She liked my subtle nudge. “She’s not here. As for where she is now, I don’t know? Where would you go when you need protection? Back home maybe?”
I nodded. Aura told me what I needed to hear without saying the words. Her sister was back home in Indigo Valley, an eastern suburb she grew up in years earlier. I did Aura the favor of not telling her what was waiting for her sister, although honestly she may not have cared.
From there, finding Kiva’s place was easy. She was clever, but not clever enough to come up with an alias I wouldn’t recognize. She barely even tried. Gelli Bean? Her cat’s name completed with a stupid pun. Come on, Kiva.
Getting inside was a little tougher. I’d taught her breaking in, so she knew how to protect her place against people as skilled as us. She made good choices for locks, bars on the windows, all of that. But the choices weren’t good enough. I’d taught her everything she knew. But not everything I knew.
The place looked good. Like ours would have looked without my expensive bad taste and clumsy sense of design. A hardwood floor instead of my cigarette burned carpet. The walls cleaner, prettier. She’d covered the Playboy insignia on the coffee table and added a bar in the living room corner.
I sat there, waiting hours, steady hands, emotions on ice. Even her crazy cat’s occasional sprints from under the couch didn’t startle me.
This time I would use the Sig Sauer.
Less noise seemed a good idea. This wasn’t the hood. It was indigo Valley. A quiet place with neighbors who’d call the cops if the dog next door was shitting too loud. Plus there’d be no point in sending a message in the sunny suburbs. So I chose the Sig. And waited.
I kept my gun trained on the front door, ready for her to step inside. But she got me.
By the time I heard anything from behind it was her revolver’s hammer slipping into place.
I turned, but too late. A burn grazed my shoulder, another shot clipped my inner ankle.
Shit! But my arms were fine. I fired twice, missing both times. She jumped behind a couch that could hide her but not stop bullets. I shot twice, then a third time.
A long, soft whimper. I got something.
I stumbled to my legs, hoping to get her trapped there, but no. My ankle gave way and brought me down and she squirted from the couch’s other end, springing loose. She turned to fire again twice before racing to the corner behind the bar, leaving behind a trail a crimson from her ribcage, her arm tucked tight against the wound.
None of her shots connected this time. But the shoulder and ankle were enough to slow me down.
A few shots at the bar gave me nothing but loud clanks. A bulletproof bar. Of course.
She slipped from the side, took more shots.
Then nothing. I heard a metallic clank that told me she was re-loading.
Gun out, I raced to the bar, knowing that if I moved quickly —
But I wasn’t quick enough.
She’d slipped back by then, reappearing at the other end, giving me one to the belly that sent my gun crashing to the floor and turned my breath into incomplete stutters.
Reaching for my gun gave her a chance to spring out of the bar’s top and fire again. Maybe she connected again, maybe not. Everything was going numb now, pulling away from me like the past.
With a tuck and roll, I got the gun and stumbled to the coffee table, turning it on its side. We traded more shots, but when one broke through the table and buried itself in my left elbow, it was time for plan B.
More bullets, buzzing past like insects. Glass breaking, Gelli yowling to the ceiling, echoes of errant shots ending in thuds and thumps.
Silence. For a while. Was she waiting me out? Out of ammo?
Maybe I could get to the hallway, slip behind better cover. My only chance really.
I found my feet, then lost them, lifted myself up with the gun and a lame left arm. With a grunt, I was up, but not for long. She rose up and took more shots, mostly misses, but the one to my leg was all she needed.
Back to the wall, I flipped a chair to its side, fired away while slowly easing myself to unsteady feet. Then nothing. I stood there waiting to see where all this was going.
I guess I thought that after all we’d been through — three years, eleven jobs, trust, fights, intense makeup sex, gun lessons — she wouldn’t have the balls to finish the job.
But she proved me wrong. It only took one more shot.
She strolled out from the bar, arms crossed, back reclined, face split by a slanted grin. Like a painter gazing at the canvas in admiration of her masterpiece.
With the wall barely bracing me up, she must have figured I was done. But not quite. My eyes sparked to life, catching her off-guard. Her mouth swung open as she made a desperate scramble back to the bar. Hands and knees like an infant chasing daddy’s ankles.
I had a bullet left, maybe two. A well-timed shot could get her…
Gun weighing a ton, hand stiff with pain, I gave my trigger a final tug.
But I didn’t get a chance to see what damage I did. Or if my shot even landed.
Instead, my knees gave out and met the hardwood floor with a conclusive thud right as the world cut to black.
Imagine a bunch of top crime fiction writers embarking on a collectively written novel, each taking a chapter at a time without things going horrifically askew.
On paper, the idea didn’t make sense. If anything, it seemed as likely to create life-long grudges between crime fiction scribes as to make for a coherent, compellingly told novel.
But in the end it was stunning. You might even say exquisite. Something about the weaving of all those voices and themes and ideas, with all those characters voiced by people who didn’t create them and may not have even liked them.
I loved the challenge of taking the baton from a previous writer and seeing where I could go with it, then watching others take my characters, my situations, my story arcs to see where they’d go with those things.