After being robbed in a parking lot one night, Kyle Manning decides he wants to head elsewhere. He puts in a request to transfer out to California. On his way, he comes across a small town nestled in a swamp in Arkansas, Keegan’s End.
The people of Keegan’s End are cordial and generous, but there’s something strange about their standoffish behavior. Even more odd, is a population sign that’s written in chalk. And then there’s the ever looming feeling of being watched. There’s something in the swamp–something that has a hold on the citizens of Keegan’s End.
Read my post on Keegan’s End here.
Author’s Note: Keegan’s End would best be classified as horror. But there are also mystery elements that Kyle has to choke down his own cowardice to discover. I chose to write it in a style of short, concise sentences, much like I wrote for Snaps (though not as dialogue heavy).
Keegan’s End is due to come out in e-book format September 2, 2013. Here’s the first chapter:
He never had dreams, only goals. But even those ended on a chill night in the parking lot of Cranby’s Smokehouse. He met the man once. He didn’t get a name or even see a face, but that one encounter changed his life indelibly–then, in turn, the lives of the citizens of Keegan’s End.
It had been a hard night. A flu had ransacked the staff, taking out three servers, two busboys and a dishwasher. It had been an especially busy day and Kyle had been running nonstop to make up for the lack of staff. When Jeremy, the night shift manager, called in sick, Kyle felt his legs would give out on the spot.
“You know there’s no one to cover for you,” Kyle said. His grip was tight around the phone handset. “Darcy’s in Cancun.”
“I know,” Jeremy said. He let out a soft cough. “But I’m down for the count.” Kyle rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. Jeremy continued, “You know I’d come in if there was any way I could.”
Kyle doubted it. “Yeah.”
“Thanks, buddy, I appreciate it.” Kyle doubted that, too. Jeremy was far more interested in his late-night partying than his job. “Besides, just think how good this’ll look on the company record.”
Kyle agreed with him on that. That still didn’t make Jeremy’s appreciation any less hollow.
“Yeah, no problem,” Kyle said. He hung up the phone wondering where he would dredge up the energy for another seven hours. But he would cover the shift, because that’s what a good manager would do. And good managers get noticed and promoted. That’s what Kyle liked about a national chain like Cranby’s: lots of headroom.
He reached for the employee phone numbers. He would have to call in people to fill in for the missing staff. But he had little hope. He was running a bare crew as it was.
A figure stepped into the the office. It was Sally: short, rotund, blonde hair spiraling over her head in a frayed mass. “You wanted to see me?” She was nibbling on gum as usual.
“Yeah, you know we’re short tonight. You think you could work tonight?”
“I work days,” she said.
“I know. But if you pick this up, I’ll make sure you’re the first one off after the rush.”
“I can’t,” she said.
Kyle picked up a pencil, leaned back in his chair and rolled the pencil in his fingers. He had seen Hornsby do the same on several occasions. It was his getting-down-to-business technique, like a politician rolling up his sleeves when talking to blue collar workers. “I understand your hesitation. You have things to do, a social life, and you already did your time for the day. But you know, this is your job. You have to realize that you sometimes have to make sacrifices for the good of the restaurant. It shows your dedication and your willingness to go that extra mile. And it shows your value.”
Sally’s eyebrows raised slightly. Her mouth opened and the snapping of her gum filled the small office. “I said I can’t do it.”
“I don’t think you understand Sally–”
“I got to watch my kid.”
“Can’t you get someone to babysit? Maybe the father…”
“His dad ain’t around. And I already miss out enough time with my boy trying to pay my rent. Is the restaurant going to show its dedication to me and have his father stop hanging out at a crack house and explain to my two-year-old why he can’t see his mama tonight?”
Kyle stopped rolling the pencil. Sally was a world beyond him. Even if not in years, she was older than him. “Alright…” he said. “I understand.”
“I thought so.” She turned to leave, then said over her shoulder, “By the way, the kitchen says the fridge ain’t working.”
Kyle squinted and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The night was getting longer by the moment.
* * *
The repairman said he wouldn’t be there for a few hours. There would be an extra charge for the emergency service, of course. But it had to be fixed, so with a throaty sigh, Kyle agreed. The repairman showed up ten minutes after they closed and when he was finally done, Kyle was the only employee left. First one in, last one out. That had to look good to some corporate bird-watcher somewhere. He would make sure he let his show of dedication slip out to Hornsby–not bragging, of course, just as a matter-of-fact statement.
He gave the restaurant a final once-over and turned off the lights. As he locked the front door, he envisioned his bed: waiting, warm and comfortable. He would no doubt collapse into an instant, glorious sleep.
The night was starless. Heavy skies loomed overhead, threatening to snow. The wind cut through him as he crossed the parking lot. He crossed his arms and bore through it. His car was parked in the back–three spots away from the dumpster. Employees were ordered to park in the back so that the customers would get the front spaces. The parking place three spots from the dumpster was the furthest from the building. A good manager leads by example.
He was reaching for his key ring with numbing fingers when he heard a shuffling noise from the area of the dumpster. He looked up to see a man approaching and hoped, if for only an instant, the man was just walking by. But then there was no doubt he was headed straight for Kyle.
The man wore a trench coat and a brimmed hat. Even in the poorly lit corner of the parking lot, Kyle could make out the stains and frayed edges of fabric on the man’s clothing. The wind carried the foul aroma of the dumpster, or the man–perhaps a bit of both. Even in the chill, the smell was rancid. It smelled of decay, staleness and…yes, a bit of cigar. Homeless, Kyle thought.
But that couldn’t be right. The clothes made sense; the fact that the man was stowed away behind the dumpster fit. But there was something about the way the man walked. He had a sureness in his gait, like he could walk through concrete walls. Homeless people limped or shuffled. Homeless people had the shallow steps of someone with no direction. This man had intent. It felt wrong.
The man stopped several feet away. “Got change?” His voice was gruff, low.
The smell of cigar smoke was strong. Kyle saw a faint glow of red in the area of the man’s face, which was a mere shadow. “No,” Kyle said. He thumbed through his keys.
“Come on,” the man said. “You gotta have something.”
“I don’t,” Kyle said. “I just got off. I don’t carry cash to work.” He worked through his key ring, feeling the man’s stare on him–piercing him. Did the key have a round or square head? Must’ve used it a hundred times. Should know my own damn key by now.
The man’s voice raised. “Hey.” The red glow became brighter. He exhaled, streams of smoke shot out in jets on either side of his head and dispersed like panicked ghosts as they caught the wind. “That supposed to be some kind of jab?”
“I only said I don’t have any change.”
“Had to get in a crack about work, didn’t you?”
Kyle could barely feel the keys in his hand. “I was just saying that I don’t carry cash to work.” His tone felt apologetic. And that was no place to be. Apologetic people look weak. The weak get walked over and harassed and mugged. He firmed his voice, dropped it down half an octave. “There’s no point to it. What the hell am I going to buy at work?”
“Judgment. That’s the thing about people. You see someone and you put ‘em on a pedestal, dig a hole for them to stand in or look ‘em in the eye on even ground. People can’t help themselves. It’s part of their plumbing. But here’s the thing…” The man paused, the space between him and Kyle became a vacuum. “I don’t like being judged.”
Kyle’s heart rate doubled. “I’m tired, I have to go.” He looked down at his keys again. They all looked the same. His fingers trembled. Do something, he told them. Just pick one and try it. Do something. Do anything.
“You know, I could kill you,” the man said.
Kyle froze. He heard the tingle of his key ring as it hit the ground. The man took a step closer. Kyle saw his shoes, ragged work boots with the laces untied, curled, writhing. “I could slit your throat or wring your neck with my bare hands. That’s the way the animals do it. They kill and move on. No judgment, no feeling of superiority. Just the way it is.”
Kyle looked up. The red glow stared back at him. Kyle felt something warm between his legs that chilled instantly in the biting wind. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and held it out. The man reached for it, grubby fingers pulling it out of Kyle’s hand. He pulled the cash out of it, stuffed the money into his pocket and let the wallet fall to the ground.
“Animals…” the man said. “They got it right.”
* * *
Kyle awoke the next morning. It was a dream, he told himself. The whole encounter in the parking lot was a nightmare induced by sheer exhaustion. But his clothes betrayed him. The crotch of his pants had the stain from his urine, his shirt stank of cigar smoke.
He reached for the phone and for the first time in his career at Cranby’s Smokehouse, called in sick.