In the forest, leaf sweet darkness, a woman pleaded.

‘Jesus,’ she cried. Then quiet.

Against instinct, Aiden headed to the silence, afraid and alert. Old mute woods, deep night, oak and ash chromed with moon. Fennel spiced his nostrils. Soothed his dusty throat. He tasted the scent and scouted on, sleek and slow in the scrub.

On a dell bank, the woman lay limp and torn. A girl curled in the brackenfern. Aiden approached her, twig breaking steps, and her arm rose.

‘No more,’ she said, her eyes buried under foul swelling.

‘It’s all right.’ Aiden knelt and lifted her head on his thigh. ‘I’m here.’

‘My teeth hurt.’

‘You’re a brave lady.’

‘Still hurts.’

‘Tooth fairy will fix it.’

‘Funny,’ she said, and her last breath spent on his arm.

A far ridge, a man loped black against the moon, a curved utensil in his hand, swinging with his stride. ‘Beast,’ said Aiden. He parted congealed hair from the girl’s cheek. Laid her down. Stained and slack in the dirt.

Back at the tent, he retched in his sleeping bag. Sacrilege scenarios breaking his rest. Daybreak, the rain clawed, breezeless on the door mesh. Birdsong and ripe June smells. Aiden rose naked. Peed on a shrub. Squatted at a brook and shaved in the humid downpour. He towel pat his face and lit the single burner. Brewed up coffee. He poured a cupful and filled a flask. Spread jam on a raisin scone and ate it with his brew. He had planned to list his provisions but decided against an inventory in the wet. There was plenty, he was sure. Maybe a healthy week’s worth. He dressed, topped a water flask, packed his rucksack, and continued up country.

Mid afternoon the rain died and the sun hurt and birds piped high on summer.

Near dusk, he picked up on a trail. A rut of trodden stems bending off through dense woods. He dropped the rucksack and studied his map and compass. The ordnance showed forestry and rivers and hills. The odd farm. Nearest town was nineteen miles west. He knelt and unclipped the rucksack. Frisked out a can of pilchards, a tin opener and fork.

Dusk cast. Sun sunk and moon thin in a lilac sky. He fastened up and followed the track. Fatigue hurting. He had been thinking of pitching for the night but felt exposed now in open plain. The path seemed recently flattened and he thought it prudent to trail it for a bit, see where it led, if anywhere.

In woodland dark he parted hickory and scanned the log cabin. A glacial moon varnished the roof in a polar hue. Smoke wicked from a brick chimney. There was a chair on the porch. A low fence squared a garden. Aiden sat under the bush and watched. The cabin looked warm, serene, a home. A candlelit window ghosted with shadow. He imagined people. Well people.

Family.

He glanced at his watch, the luminous dials at eleven. Normally he’d be camped now. He fetched a flask from his khaki trousers hip pocket. Uncorked it and swigged a nod of whiskey. Resumed his surveillance. Another swig, the alcohol hit. He sank in cushion leaves. Wished his wife’s presence. Exhaustion crept and his eyes closed and the flask spilled.

The shotgun nozzle bunt Aiden’s chest. Moonlight on his face. ‘Fart and you’re weed feed.’ The old man wagged the single barrel and held up a rope. ‘On your belly.’

‘I was passing.’ Aiden fumbled at his rucksack. ‘I’m heading for Vinton.’

The gun cocked. ‘My twelve-gauge says belly.’

‘I didn’t do anything.’

‘Your diseased ass is on my land.’

‘No.’ Aiden slapped his chest. ‘I’m a negative.’

The old man sniggered and stooped over him. ‘You’re a snake, son. Sneaking and peeping on my home. Waiting for bedtime.’

‘I’m immune. I swear.’

‘Sure you are. One in fifty thousand. Don’t insult me, son.’

‘There are six hundred negatives in Ohio. My brother told me. He was a doctor.’

‘And you happen to be one of them.’

‘I am.’

‘That would make two on my doorstep.’

‘You’re immune.’

‘What are the chances? Two here in the middle of nowhere.’

‘Slim.’ Aiden dusted nettles from his elbow. ‘Say I was a virant. Doesn’t make me a snake. Most are decent people.’

‘Who rots decent, son?’

‘Those that pass with family in their homes.’

‘Hmm. It’s the creepers I hate. Crawlers like you. Gutting anything that moves.’

‘I’ve seen it.’

‘Spite, that’s what it is. Thrill kills before they reek.’

‘I tried to help.’

‘Truth is I can’t tell a snake from a saint in this light.’ The old man lowered the barrel at Aiden’s crotch and waved the rope. ‘On your guts and hands behind your back.’

‘My eyes are clear.’

‘Belly or buckshot.’

Aiden rolled onto his stomach, his face in the dirt. ‘I’m a damned negative.’

The old man crouched, a knee on the spine, shotgun tucked under his arm. He bound Aiden’s wrists. ‘We’ll see in the morning. A spit of pus and you’re in the grave.’

(This is the opening of my novel EDEN DUST. The remainder of Chapter One and Chapter Two is published in Unthology 4 by Unthank Books. You can order Unthology 4 from Amazon. Or the Unthankbooks website)

‘Ass mutts,’ said Rees.

Dung mucked his boots. Coyote scat. He hacked the soles through grass and stamped and scraped, rucksack tight on his back, rifle lowered. The big sun roast and crust his bald scalp. Peeled his bubble sweat face. He squint over the plain. Fit lime grassland. Hills blistered pink. Far trees embraced and waltzed, heat haze trickery. ‘Pop a berry,’ he said, kicking a shrub airborne. He crossed a field and vault a fence and headed into town. Swore on his balls to find a hat.

At a main junction, near a derelict bus, he unstrapped his gear and dropped his dungarees and squat. Along the road, past shuttered shops and tomb appartment blocks, dogs barked. No sight of them. Sounded like a pack in flight. Masterless. Orderless. ‘Bow fucky wow,’ he said.

He shat and blew his nose. Snot into red bikini pants. Done with them, sniffed out. His abuse on the fabric. He considered the woman who had worn them. ‘Cockle darlin,’ he said, and wiped his anus with the silk crotch. He dumped them on the shit and rose hoisting his denim shoulder straps.

A vehicle’s engine turned over. Stammered up littered streets. The starter shook, coughing and dying, quieter with each ignition switch. It choked dead.

Rifle raised, Rees ripped six rounds, aimed at a cloud, a solitary pearl in the lagoon sky. ‘Pickle yir cockles,’ he shouted and jigged around his mess hysterical.

Outside a gun store he sat his rucksack on the sidewalk and unclipped a pouch and drew a crowbar. He knelt and jemmied the shutter base, grunting and jabbing and bending. Locks sprang broken and he rose lifting the cage, willling the dead alarm to squeal. He easy burst the entrance door and pouched the crowbar. The shop was heavy stocked. He tinkered with rifles and shotguns. Loaded a pistol big as his fourteen-size boots and posed at a full-length mirror. He holstered the gun in his thigh pocket and pulled and fired. ‘Howdy, pilgrim,’ he roared, grinning to his eyebrows, his reflect other felled to glints. Felt like the floor cracked.

He snatched his crotch and cat about the shop fiddling an erection. Liked it jumpy against the zip. He pillaged under-counter drawers. Opened boxes of bullets and cases of gun-cleaning kit. Dropped them soon as he’d touched and seen and sniffed. He sat on a swirl chair and twirled. Imagined the gunsmith proprietor everyday loving the joyride. Knew him surely dead.

Metal tastes stuck his mouth. Dried his tongue clothy. He spat and hoist his heels and slammed the proofed counter glass. Helled on smashing it. The casing trembled unbreakable. He hammered harder. Cramp flood and sogged his calves and he stood and hopped and bawled, ‘Stick my hole,’ and muscles flexed true. He hobble-sat and sneezed and his ears popped and he heard his presence louder about. Rigid on the chair he unzipped and bat thinking a priest choking a nun. He thinked her hogtied, pants split, death-dizzy gurgling a psalm. His joy built and spate and waned and he wore to sleep grinning.

A creature chewed him. His popped eye saw his body shred sinewy between serpent teeth. A saliva mud washed his eye-him down the gullet into an amonia pond. Buoyant in the urine stink, he saw his pale heart sink, beating bleeding.

Stewed awake he yelled, ‘Maw,’ and leapt and grabbed his rifle and blasted the shop window, an erratic salvo, maybe ten shots. A smoke blind lifted. Glass fangs root from the square timber framework. He supposed the space a demon mouth. Jittered sober, he burped and farted and pissed on the floor and zipped up.

He stashed away bullets. Four fat boxes tucked into his rucksack. He yanked the till and swiped a rag of bills. On his way out, shoulder-ramming the door, he tossed the notes overhead, and not a glance back shouted, ‘That ought’n cover it.’

Top 25, December 2012 Fiction Open: Top 25 http://t.co/IyYiEgFf — Glimmer Train (@glimmertrain)

Twitter: @michelcrossan

Email: michaelcrossann@gmail.com

I am a writer. I live in Scotland.

In the past I was an industrial photographer.

Summertime, I like open water swimming. I’m a member of a team who swim in lochs and rivers and the sea.

I like cycling. I have a tourer bicycle. There are mornings I load the panniers and tail the coastline. Pass the day on the bike. Fat miles. I’ve done my share of 100 milers. Cycling is a favourite spring/summer passtime.

Wintertime I write and read and play chess and swim at a health club.

My parents and grandparents were readers.

My mother and gran and grandpa were serious readers. Read the big novels.

Mother read the Russian and Asian and South American authors. She loved Scots and English and Welsh and Irish authors. And the poets. She cherished James Joyce and Joan Didion.

There wasn’t a crossword she couldn’t solve. She was a cryptic specialist.

Boyhood, I liked folklore stories. The dark ones. Black deeds of connivers, pot stirrers, forest peddlers and child-hater witches.

Memorable childhood books –

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.

Watership Down by Richard Adams.

The Narnia books by C.S. Lewis.

The Just William books by Richmal Crompton.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

Roald Dahl.

The Brothers Grimm Tales.

On my tenth birthday, grandpa’s gift was a Jack London anthology.

Jack London lit my life.

Bedtime, I lived Alaska. I heard midnight wolves call at the moon. I saw gold prospectors, the good and sourhearted, gibber crazed and beaten in the white wild.

Reading Jack London, my want to write overwhelmed me. Within a month of reading him I had written a notebook of stories. Tucked in bed I read the stories aloud to my brothers and sisters.

I have written many stories. Enough to fill a dozen books. And perhaps a dozen stories that would make one good book.

Up the lane I joined a writers group. I learned about the craft and read more books. Past and contemporary authors. After six years I left the group.

I read and read and reread.

In 2011, I was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. And The Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.

December 2012, my short story – Bone Dirt – was a Top 25 Finalist in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Prize.

I was happy.

Glimmer Train and The Paris Review and The New Yorker are the world’s top three literary journals. I think so.

The Fiction Open is Glimmer Train’s top prize. Unpublished writers take on established published authors.

My short story ‘Gomorrah Shade’ is a winner in the Fish Short Story Prize. The story will be in the Fish Anthology 2014. I’m delighted and honoured. The Fish Anthology is literary gold. Worldwide revered.

I’ll read ‘Gomorrah Shade’ at the West Cork Literary Festival. July word-days by the sea.

My novel – Eden Dust – is written. Three years work. Ninety thousand words.

My story combines naturalism – the way people talk and behave – and big unnatural, dehumanising situations.

How I describe my novel – Think esoteric Twin Peaks.

I’m near done with editing. I plan to submit the novel in September 2014.

My novel extract – First two chapters of Eden Dust – is published in Unthology 4 by Unthank Books. A prestigious short story anthology.

It was a proud day for me when my novel extract was selected by the editors in Cambridge. I am among fine authors in Unthology 4. I read at the book launch in November 2013.

I’ve posted an extract of Eden Dust here on my blog. The opening of Chapter One. It would be nice if you read it.

Unthank Books editor, Ashley Stokes, is a fine author of literary fiction.

There are authors I return to. Rereading them I remember the first time I read them. My age and place when I found them.

Novelists I return to…

Joseph Conrad; Leo Tolstoy; James Joyce; Ernest Hemingway; Samuel Beckett; Christina Stead; Carson McCullers; Carol Shields; John Steinbeck; Saul Bellow; Haruki Murakami; John Banville; William Gay; Colm Toibin; David Mitchell; Denise Johnson; Cormac McCarthy.

Short story authors I return to…

Anton Chekhov; Jack London; Flannery O’Connor; Shirley Jackson; Sherwood Anderson; Ernest Hemingway; Katherine Mansfield; John Cheever; Edna O’Brien; Annie Proulx; Alice Munro; David Vann; George Saunders; Denis Johnson.

Hemingway was a fine novelist. But I think his master work is his Nick Adams short stories. And I’d say The Old Man and the Sea is a fat short story.

Poets; Emily Dickinson; Elizabeth Bishop; Robert Frost; Robert Tannahill; Robert Burns; Sorley MacLean; Seamus Heaney.

My favourite writer is Cormac McCarthy. I think his novel, Suttree, is a masterpiece.

I love Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a precious read.

Margaret Atwood deserves every accolade.

Two books I often dip into…

Kilvert’s Diary.

And…

A Life in Letters by John Steinbeck.

I like John Fante. I recommend his book, Ask the Dust.

Presently discovering Knausgaard.

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