An excerpt from Blackbirds, a paranormal thriller, by Chuck Wendig (available April 24, 2012).
Miriam Black knows when you will die.
Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.
Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.
The Death of Del Amico
Car lights strobe through busted motel blinds.
When the lights come in, Miriam regards herself in the dirty mirror.
I look like something blown in off a dusty highway, she thinks. Dirty, torn jeans. Tight white tee. Bleach blonde hair, the roots coming up, those dark, earthen roots.
She puts her hands on her hips and cocks them this way, then that. With the back of her hand, she wipes away a smear of lipstick from where Del kissed her.
“The lights need to be on,” she says to nobody, foretelling the future.
She clicks the lamp by the bed. Piss-yellow light illumines the ratty room.
A roach sits paralyzed in the middle of the floor.
“Shoo,” she says. “Fuck off. You’re free to go.”
The roach does as it’s told. It boogies under the pull-down bed, relieved.
Back to the mirror, then.
“They always said you were an old soul,” she mutters. Tonight she’s really feeling it.
In the bathroom, the shower hisses. It’s almost time now. She sits down on the side of the bed and rubs her eyes, yawns.
She hears the squeaking of the shower knobs. The pipes in the walls groan and stutter like a train is passing. Miriam balls up her monkeys toes and flexes them tight. The toe-knuckles pop.In the bathroom, Del is humming. Some Podunk fuckwit country tune. She hates country. That music is the dull, throbbing pulse-beat of the Heartland. Wait. This is North Carolina, right? Is North Carolina the Heartland? Whatever. The Heartland. The Confederacy. The Wide Open Nowhere. Did it matter?
The bathroom door opens, and Del Amico steps out, wreathed in ghosts of steam.
He might have been attractive once. Still is, maybe, in this light. He’s middle-aged, lean as a drinking straw. Ropy arms, hard calves. Cheap, generic boxer-briefs pulled tight on bony hips. He’s got a good jaw, a nice chin, she thinks, and the stubble doesn’t hurt. He smiles big and broad at her and licks his teeth – bright pearly whites, the tongue snaking over them with a squeak.
She smells mint.
“Mouthwash,” he says, smacking his lips and breathing hot fresh breath in her direction. He rubs a scummy towel up over his head. “Found some under the sink.”
“Super,” she says. “Hey, I have a new idea for a crayon color: cockroach brown.”
Del peers out from the hood formed from his towel.
“What? Crayon? The hell you going on about?”
“Crayola makes all kinds of crazy colors. You know. Burnt umber. Burnt sienna. Blanched almond. Baby shit yellow. And so on, and so forth. I’m just saying, cockroaches have their own color. It’s distinct. Crayola should get on that. The kids’ll love it.”
Del laughs, but he’s obviously a little confused. He continues toweling off, and then stops. He squints at her, like he’s trying to see the dolphin in one of those Magic Eye paintings.He looks her up and down.
“I thought you said you were gonna be out here… getting comfortable,” he says.
She shrugs. “Ooh. No. Truth be told, I’m never really that comfortable. Sorry.”
“But…” His voice trails off. He wants to say it. His mouth forms the words before he speaks them, but finally: “You’re not naked.”
“Very observant,” she says, giving him a thumbs-up and a wink. “I got bad news, Del. I am not actually a truck stop prostitute, and therefore we shall not be fucking on this good eve. Or morning. I guess it’s morning? Either way, no fucking. No ticky, no laundry.”
That jaws of his tightens. “But you offered. You owe me.”
“Considering you haven’t actually paid me yet, and further considering that prostitution is not exactly legal in this state—though, far be it for me to legislate morality; frankly, I think what people do is their business—I don’t think I owe you dick, Del.”
“Goddamn,” he says. “You love to hear yourself talk, don’t you?”
“I do.” She does.
“You’re a liar. A liar with a foul little mouth.”
“My mother always said I had a mouth like a sailor. Not in an arr, matey way, but in a fuck this and shit that way. And yes, I am a big fat liar. My dirty, torn-up jeans on fire.”
It’s like he doesn’t know what to do. She sees it; she’s really steaming his bun. His nostrils are flaring like he’s a bull about to charge.
“A lady should be respectful,” is all he manages through gritted teeth. He pitches the towel in the corner.
Miriam snorts. “That’s me. My fair fuckin’ lady.”
Del takes a deep breath, moves over to the dresser, then slides a grungy, ain’t-worth-nothing Timex over his bony wrist. It isn’t long before he sees what she’s laid out for him next to the watch.
He holds up photos, picks them up as a bunch, flips through them. A woman and two young girls at a Sears portfolio special. The same kids on the playground. The woman at someone’s wedding.
“I found those in your car,” Miriam explains. “Your family, right? I thought it kind of interesting, what with you bringing a prostitute—er, supposed prostitute—back to a motel room. Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a good husband or daddy would do, but what do I know? Then again, maybe that’s why you hide them all the way in the glove compartment. It’s like a mirror—if you can’t see them, they can’t see you.”
He pivots, heel to toe, the wallet photos in a quaking grip.
“Who are you to judge?” he seethes.
She waves him off. “Oh, hush, I’m not judging. I’m just waiting. Since we’re waiting, I should probably also tell you that I’ve been following you for a couple weeks now.” His gaze narrows again, and he’s looking at her like maybe he recognizes her, or is trying to. She keeps talking. “I know you like hookers. Pros and hos. All kinds, too! You’re the kind of fellow who’ll eat every candy out of the chocolate box. Variety is the spice of life, good for you. I also happen to know that, outside of some relatively boring sexual proclivities, you like to hit women. Four prostitutes. Two with black eyes, one with a cut chin, the fourth with a busted lower lip—”
Del moves fast.
Bam. A tight coiled fist hits her right in the eye and knocks her back on the bed. Capillaries burst. Fireworks on a black background. Gasping, she scrambles backward, thinking he’s going to advance and try to beat her or choke her, but by the time she’s in a crouch and ready to kick, bite, or collapse his throat with a forearm, she sees he hasn’t moved one inch.
He’s just standing there. Shaking. Angry, sad, confused; she can’t tell.
She waits it out. He doesn’t move toward her. He isn’t even looking at her now—Del’s staring off at a nowhere point a thousand miles from here.
Gingerly, Miriam reaches over to the nightstand and turns the alarm clock so she can read it. It’s an old-ass clock, the kind with the numbers that turn like Vanna White’s flipping them. Each with a click.
“It’s 12.40,” she says. “That means you have three minutes.”
“Three minutes?” He narrows his gaze, trying to suss out her game.
“That’s right, Del, three minutes. Now’s the time to ask yourself: Any thoughts you want to share? Grandma’s cornbread recipe? Location of a buried pirate treasure? Any poetic last words? You know, either the wallpaper goes, or I do?” She waves him off. “I know, an Oscar Wilde reference. I reached too far for that one. My bad.”
He doesn’t move, but he tightens up. Every muscle pulled taut to bone.“You think you’re going to kill me?” he asks. “That what you think?”
She clucks her tongue. “No, sir, I do not think that. I’m not the killer type. I’m more passive aggressive than aggressive. I’m a wait and see kind of girl. More vulture than falcon.”
They stare at each other. She feels scared and sick and a little excited.
The 0 flips to 1.
“You want to hit me again,” she says.
“I just might.”
“You think, I’ll hit her again, and then I’ll fuck her like she deserves—that’s of course provided you can get Little Dale Junior to race. I saw the dick pills in your glove compartment. Next to the OxyContin.”
“You shut the hell up.”
She holds up a finger. “Let me ask you one question, though. You hit your wife and daughters?”
He hesitates. She’s not sure what that means. Does it mean he feels guilty about it? Or that he’d never consider touching a hair on their pretty little heads and would die if they found out?
“At this point,” she says, “it’s not like it matters. I’m mostly just curious. You bang hookers and punch them in their faces, so we’ve already established that you’re not gonna win Father of the Year. I’m just trying to feel out the depth of your character—”
He lets out a frustrated whoop and swings at her—a clumsy, wide throw, telegraphed loud and clear like his body was using a bullhorn. Miriam leans back. The fist catches the air in front of her nose, whiff.
She stabs a heel out and catches him in the balls.
He staggers backward, buttbone thunking against the wall, moaning, grabbing.
“You only get one freebie with me,” she hisses. “Swing and a miss, asshole.”
The time is now 12.42.
“One minute,” she says, easing off the bed.
He still doesn’t get it. They never do.
“Shut up,” he whimpers. “You fuckin’ whore.”
“This is how it’s going to go. Any second now, we’re going to hear a car honking out in the parking lot—”
A car honks outside. Once, then twice, then a third time when the driver lays on the horn just to get the message across.
Del looks from Miriam to the window, then back again. She’s seen the look before. It’s the look of a caged animal. He doesn’t know where to go, where to run, but the truth is, he can’t run anywhere. He’s trapped. What he can’t understand is how, or why.
“What comes next, you ask?” She snaps her fingers. “Somewhere, outside, someone starts yelling. Maybe it’s the car honking guy. Maybe it’s the dude the car honking guy was honking at. Who cares? Because…”
She lets her words trail off, only to be replaced by someone yelling out in the parking lot. The words were indecipherable, just a muted, Neanderthal rant. Del’s eyes go wide.
Miriam forms her thumb and forefinger into a gun, and points it at the alarm clock. She lets the hammer—her thumb—fall.
“Boom,” she says, and—
The time is now 12.43.
“You have epilepsy, Del?”
The question registers, and she knows now that he does. It explains what’s about to happen. A moment of calm strikes him, a kind of serene confusion, and then—
His body tightens.
“And here it is,” Miriam says. “The kicker, the game ball, the season ender.”
The seizure hits him like a crashing wave.
Del Amico’s body goes rigid, and he drops backward, his head narrowly missing the corner of the motel dresser. He makes a strangled sound. He sits upright on his knees, but then his back arches and his shoulder blades press hard against the matted Berber.
Miriam rubs her eye.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she says as Del’s eyes start to bulge like champagne corks ready to pop. “Jeez, why doesn’t this broad stick a wallet under my tongue? Couldn’t she do me a solid? Or maybe you’re thinking, hey, I’ve had seizures before, and none of them killed me. A guy can’t actually swallow his own tongue, right? That’s just a myth? Or maybe, just maybe, you think I’m some kind of batshit highway witch with magical powers.”
He gurgles. His cheeks go red. Then purple.
Miriam shrugs, wincing, watching it unfold with grim fascination. Not that this is the first time she’s seen it.
“Not so, my friendly neighborhood whore-puncher. This is your destiny, to choke on your own mouth meats, to expire here in this God-fucked motel in the middle of Hell’s half-acre. I’d do something if I could, but I can’t. Were I to put the wallet under your tongue, I’d probably only push the tongue in deeper. See, my mother used to say, ‘Miriam, it is what it is.’ And this, Del Amico, is that.”
Froth bubbles out over Del’s ashen lips. The blood vessels in his eyes burst.
Just like she remembers it.
His rigid body goes limp. All the fight goes out of him. His wiry frame slackens, his head tilts at a bad angle, his cheek hits the floor.
Then, insult to injury, the cockroach runs out from under the bed. It uses Del’s twisted upper lip as a step ladder, and squeezes its fat little body up into his nostril before disappearing.
Miriam takes a deep breath and shudders.
She tries to speak, tries to say she’s sorry, but—
She can’t stop it. She runs to the bathroom and pukes in the toilet.
Miriam kneels like that for a while, her head leaning up against the base of the sink. The porcelain feels cool, calming. She smells mint. The clean scent of cheap mouthwash. It often hits her like this. Like some part of her is dying along with them, some part that she has to gag on and purge and flush away.
And, as always, she knows what will really make her feel better.
She crawls out of the bathroom, over Del’s cooling body, and fetches her messenger bag from the far side of the bed. Fishing around, she finds what she’s looking for, and pulls out a crumpled pack of Marlboro Lights. She taps one out, plugs it between her lips, and lights it.
Miriam exhales smoke, a jet from each nostril. Like steam from a dragon’s nose.
The nausea recedes, a septic tide washing the poison back to sea.
“Much better,” she says to whoever is listening. Del’s ghost, maybe. Or the cockroach.
Then she goes back into the bag to find Item Number Two: a black notebook with a red pen tucked in the spiral. The notebook is almost at its end. Just ten more pages left. Ten blank pages, a great gulf of awful potential: an unwritten future that’s already been written.
“Oh, wait,” she says. “I’m getting sloppy over here. Can’t forget this –”
Miriam goes and grabs Del’s pants and digs in for his wallet. Inside, she finds just shy of fifty bucks and a MasterCard. Enough to get her on the road, put a meal in her belly, move her on to the next town.
“Thanks for the donation, Del.”
Miriam props up some pillows against the bed’s headboard and leans back. She flips open the notebook, and she writes:
I did it again.
Of Scavengers and Predators
I-40. Quarter past one in the morning.
It’s just finished raining. The highway glistens.The air smells of wet asphalt, which is an odor Miriam associates with fat nightcrawlers stretched across moist macadam.
Car tires shoosh and hiss by. Everything is a smear of headlights in one direction and brake lights in the other.
Miriam’s been out here now for twenty minutes, and she wonders why this isn’t easier. Here she is, tight white T-shirt—a tight, white, wet t-shirt with no bra in sight—and her thumb out for a ride. Prime, Grade-A Road Trash, she thinks. And yet, nobody stops.
A Lexus speeds past.
“You’re a dick,” she says.
A white SUV rumbles by.
“You’re a super-dick.”
A rust-fucked pickup approaches, and she thinks, this is it. Whoever’s driving this junk-bucket is sure to think he can score with this thin slip of road pussy. The truck slows; the driver wants a looky-loo. But then it speeds up again. The trunk’s horn honks. An empty Chick-Fil-A cup pirouettes through open air and narrowly misses her head. Hillbilly guffaws Doppler past. Miriam turns her hitchhiker’s thumb into a middle finger, and she yells out, “Eat a dick and die, fuckpie!”
She expects them to keep going.
But: red flash. Brake lights. The truck stops hard, then reverses onto the shoulder.
“Shit,” Miriam says. Just what she needs. She half-expects the identical twin of the dearly departed Del Amico to step out of the truck, scratching his gut through his wife-beater. What she gets instead is a pair of frat boys.
One’s got that fireman’s build and a pair of clear, mean eyes beneath a mop of blond. The other’s shorter—squat, really. Fat, freckled cheeks. Tarheels cap overlooking a pair of puckered butthole eyes. Clean suburban white-boy clothes.
Miriam nods. “Nice truck. The Tetanus Express.”
“It’s my dad’s,” Blondie says, coming right up on her as cars continue to pass. Squats—that’s how she thinks of the other one—trundles up behind her.
“It’s a real nice ride,” she says.
“You need a ride?” Squats asks from behind her. His tone isn’t friendly.
“Nah,” she says. “I’m just out here flippin’ the bird to pass the time.”
“You’re a Yankee,” Blondie says. Ironic, because he doesn’t have much of the Southern pluck to his voice. Those icy eyes roam all over her. “A cute Yankee.”
Miriam massages her temples. She thinks for a moment about indulging these two frat-tards in some clever roadside banter, but the truth is, she’s damp, she’s tired, and the blacked eye is really starting to pound.
“Listen. I know how this goes. You two boys think you’re going to ‘get some.’ Maybe tag me at both ends, maybe just push me around, maybe see if I have any money. I get it. Like any good scavenger, I know predators when I see them. You know what, though? I just don’t have the time. I’m fucking tired, for real. So. Get back in your lockjaw jalopy, and head back to the highway from whence you came.”
Blondie steps up on her. He doesn’t touch her, but he’s nose-to-nose.
“I like the way you use your mouth,” he leers.
“Last warning,” she says. “You see the black eye, and you think I’m good to go, but sometimes a girl lets herself get hit for all kinds of complicated reasons. I won’t let that happen again tonight. You picking up what I’m putting down?”
Apparently not, because Squats puts his sausage fingers on her hips.
Her head snaps back, pops Squats’s nose—
Squats is in his fifties now, fatter than ever, his nose one big gin blossom, and he’s yelling at some woman in a yellow dress, and sweat is beading on his brow, and flecks of spit are flying out of his mouth, and suddenly he plants his fat hand on the kitchen counter as the heart attack tightens the left half of his body and turns his every nerve ending into a roadmap of pain.
—and he howls, and Miriam thinks to turn up the volume by reaching back and gripping his crotch in a crushing claw. Blondie’s taken aback, but she knows she doesn’t have long. She spits in his eye, which buys her another second, so she uses her free hand to punch him once, then twice in the throat—
The cancer is eating him up, juicing his bowels into a tumor-squeezed mess, but he’s old, at least in his late seventies, and he lies there surrounded by the boops and beeps and blips of hospital equipment, and he’s got his family there. A young boy grips his hand. An old woman bends down to kiss his forehead. A woman in her forties with her blonde hair pulled tight and a peaceful look on her face pats him on the chest once, then twice, and that’s it – the old man cries out, shits blood, and dies.
Squats tries to slap at her, a clumsy grizzly bear move, but she steps out of the way and his meaty palm swishes through air. Miriam’s elbow catches him hard in his already-busted, already-bleeding nose, and Squats goes down.
Blondie, face red, still choking, rushes at her with all the finesse of a tumbling boulder. She pulls her upper torso back to dodge him, but lets her knee hang out there and catch him right in the bread basket. Blondie grunts, a hard oof of air, and slips on some gravel. He goes down.
“You think I come out here and I don’t know how to protect myself?” she screams at them. She picks up a handful of gravel and pitches it at Blondie, who moans and protects his head. Miriam hawks up another lugey and spits it in his hair. For good measure, she grabs the Tarheel hat off Squats and pitches it onto the highway. “Assholes.”
Then: harsh white. Headlights. Big shadow grumbling.
The hiss of hydraulic brakes. A bobtail—the truck-part of an eighteen-wheeler, this one without its trailer—pulls up onto the shoulder, gravel popping underneath its massive tires.
Miriam shields her eyes, sees the driver’s silhouette. Jesus, she thinks, it’s a goddamn Frankenstein. Where are the torches and pitchforks when you need them?
The Frankenstein is holding a crowbar.
“Everything okay here?” Frankenstein asks. The voice booms, even over the rumble of the idling truck.
“We’re just having a little friendly tussle,” Miriam yells over the truck’s engine.
She can’t see his face, but she sees that Frankenstein pivots his cinder-block head, getting a good luck at Squats and Blondie. He shrugs. “You need a ride?”
“Me, or the two moaning assholes?”
“What the hell,” she mumbles, then heads over to the cab to get in.
Miriam takes a drink from her water bottle. Nope, still not vodka, she thinks.
Above her head, sparrows rustle their wings in the eaves of the warehouse – dark shapes, stirring.
She lights another Marlboro. Bats the ashtray back and forth the way a cat might play with a mouse. Blows smoke rings. Drums her fingers so her nails—some chewed to the cuticle, some left long—click on the top of the card table.
Finally, the door opens.
The kid comes in, a notebook and pages tucked under his arm, a laptop bag hanging at his side, a digital recorder dangling from a cord around his neck. His hair is a mess.
He pulls up a chair.
“Sorry,” he says.
Miriam shrugs. “Whatever. Paul, right?”
“Paul. Yeah.” He offers to shake her hand. She stares at the hand like it has a dick and balls attached to it. He doesn’t get it at first, but then it dawns on him. “Oh. Ah. Right.”
“Do you really want to know?” she asks.
Paul pulls his hand back and gently shakes his head no. He sits down without saying another word. He gets out the notebook, a couple copies of his ’zine (headlines like ransom notes, printed on pages of fluorescent fuchsia, eye-punching lemon, nuclear lime), and delicately places the digital recorder in the center of the table.
“Thanks for the interview,” he says. The kid sounds nervous.
“Sure thing.” She sucks on the cigarette. After an exhale of smoke in his direction, she adds, “I don’t mind talking about it. It’s not a secret. It’s just that nobody listens.”
“I know. You bring me what I asked?”
He pulls a crumpled brown bag, sets it down in front of her with a thunk.
She snaps her fingers. “It isn’t gonna unwrap itself, is it?”
Paul hurries to pull the bottle of scotch—Johnny Walker red label—from the bag.
“For me?” she asks, waving him off. “You shouldn’t have.”
She unscrews the cap and takes a swig.“Our ’zine—it’s called Rebel Base—gets, like, a hundred readers or something. And soon we’re going to be on the internet.”
“Welcome to the future, right?” She fingers the moist rim of the scotch bottle. “I don’t really care, by the way. I’m just happy to talk. I like to talk.”
They sit there, staring at each other.
“You’re not a very good interviewer,” she says.
“I’m sorry. You’re just not who I expected.”
“And who did you expect?”
He pauses. Looks her over. At first, Miriam wonders if maybe he’s hot for her, wants to jump her bones maybe. But that isn’t it. On his face is the same look one might have while marveling at a two-headed lamb or a picture of the Virgin Mary burned into a slice of toast.
“My Uncle Joe said you’re the real deal,” he explains.
“Your Uncle Joe. I would ask how he’s doing, but…”
“It happened like you said.”
Miriam isn’t surprised.
“I haven’t been wrong yet. For the record, I liked Joe. I met him in a bar. I was drunk. He bumped me. I saw the stroke that’d kill him. Fuck it, I thought, and I told him. Every detail—that’s where the devil lives, you know, right there in the goddamn details. I said, Joe, you’re going to be out fishing. It’s going to be a year from now—well, technically, 377 days, and it took me some noodling around on a napkin to get the number and the date. I said, you’ll be out there in your hip-waders. You’re gonna catch a big one. Not the biggest, not the best, but a big one. I didn’t know what kind of fish, because, fuck, I’m not a fishologist—”
“I think it’s an ichthyologist.”
“I’m also not an English major, nor do I care to become one. He said it would probably be a trout. A rainbow. Or a largemouth bass. He asked me what kind of bait he had on the line, and I said it looked like a shiny penny, one flatted by a train so it makes a smooshed oval. He called it a spinner, said that’s what he used to catch trout. Again, I’m not an ick, uhhh, ithky, a fishologist.”
She taps the cigarette into the ashtray, crushing it.
“I said, Joe, you’ll be standing there with this fish in your hand, and you’ll be smiling and whistling even though nobody’s around, holding it up for God and all the other fish to see, and that’s when it’ll hit you. A blood clot will loosen and fire through your arteries like a bullet down a rifled barrel. Boom! Right into the brain. You’ll lose cognitive function, I said. You’ll drop into the water. Nobody’ll be there for you. You’ll die, and the fish swims on.”
Paul is quiet. He worries at his lip with the too-white teeth of a teenager.
“That’s how they found him,” Paul says. “Pole in hand.”
Miriam chuckles. “Pole in hand.”
“Get it? Pole? In hand? You know, like, his dick?” She waves him off, and pulls out another Marlboro. “Well, screw you, then. Joe would’ve liked it. Joe appreciated the finer points of a double entendre.”
“Did you sleep with him?” Paul asks.
Miriam feigns shock. She fans herself like a wounded Southern debutante.
“Why, Paul, what do you think of me? I am the very model of chastity.” He isn’t buying it. She lights the cigarette and waves him off. “Dude, I discarded the key to my virginity belt long ago—just up and tossed it into a river, I did. That being said—no, Paul, I did not bang your uncle. We just drank together. Closed out the bar. And then he went on his way and I went mine. I wasn’t sure he really believed me until you found me.”
“He told me about it a month or so before he died,” Paul says, running his fingers through his unkempt hair. Paul stares off at a distant point, remembering. “He totally believed it. I said, just don’t go fishing that day. And he shrugged and just said, but he really wanted to go fishing, and if that’s how he was going to die, then so be it. He got a thrill out of it, I think.”
Paul reaches over and turns on the digital recorder. He watches her carefully. Is he looking for her approval? Does he think she’ll reach over and bite him?
“So,” he asks. “How does it work?”
Miriam takes a deep breath. “This thing that I have?”
“Yes. Yeah. That.”
“Well, Paul, this thing? It’s got rules.”
Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He is the
author of Double Dead and Blackbirds, and co-writer of the film, HiM
(currently in development). He currently lives in Pennsylvania with
wife, dog, and newborn son. You can find him at his website,
terribleminds.com, where he is busy dispensing dubious wisdom regarding
writing and storytelling.