One and Only, Chapter 1

I’m doing something a little different today. One of my current books in progress is called ONE AND ONLY. It’s a horror story with a strong romantic element at its core. Think RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 or FRANKENHOOKER. My first book FLESH AND FIRE is about a guy who unintentionally brings his lover back from the dead. This project explores similar themes, but the main character’s actions are far more intentional (he’s an amateur necromancer) and they don’t yield the results he hopes for.

I’m posting the first chapter of ONE AND ONLY here. This afternoon on my Twitch channel, I will do a deep-dive into this chapter, breaking down my process sentence-by-sentence, and answering any questions you may have about the story, my currently available books, wrestling, or writing in general. Festivities start at 2 pm, central time.

After chatting with my friend J. David Osborne, I’ve been obsessing about the idea of early access to art (a common practice in video games, but very new in the world of fiction) and the growing interest in the meta-narrative behind creative content.

I’m a few chapters into this book. The goal is to post a new chapter each Monday and do a corresponding Twitch stream about each chapter. I hope you’ll join me.

ONE: MASON

1

“Nothing lasts forever, son,” Dad said and clapped me on the shoulder like he was imparting some great wisdom on a child, not a seventeen-year-old.

We were standing graveside. Marybeth’s casket had just been lowered into the earth. I could no longer see my reflection in its black surface. Everyone else was gone, even the preacher and the undertaker, even her parents and sisters. The sun felt warm on my back. It didn’t feel like the right day for a funeral. There should’ve been gray skies, some rain. This was the first funeral I’d gone to for someone who wasn’t an aging, ailing relative. Marybeth was my fucking girlfriend. Nature should have detected the storm inside me and taken its cue. She deserved something far more poetic than this. That is, if I didn’t know she’d be coming back on this very same night.

Nothing lasts forever, son, my dad’s words echoed in my mind.

“Yeah, we’ll just see about that,” I said.

I could feel him turning to gawk at me.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” I said.

He kept staring at me. I could feel him trying to make sense of my words, trying to make sense of me. He never would. No one ever did. No one except for her.

I hadn’t spent the last week eating dog meat just to let her die.

2

“Is this seat taken?” MaryBeth asked that day at the diner.

Considering the sheer magnitude of how she would impact my life, you’d think her opening line would be something far less cliché, but what do you want? We were just kids. I looked up from my notes and steaming, black coffee and saw her standing over me. By far, the most stunning girl I’d ever seen, mainly because she was giving me attention. Girls mostly ignored me. I knew the score. Dorks like me only ever got rejected, humiliated, emasculated. Yet, here she was, all legs and golden hair and fuck-me blue eyes, asking if the seat across from me was taken.

I was at a diner called Katrina’s. I usually came here after school to study spells when I should’ve been studying trig.

When she looked down at my notes, which contained a crude sketch of the Tree of Life, I instinctively covered them.

“Why are you so afraid of letting people see who you are?”

Not what you like, who you are. I had to admit that was an even more compelling opening line and perhaps one more befitting of what we would become.

“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s just … do you really want to sit with me?”

She made a funny face then. Her lips smirked, but her eyes told a different story. I thought she was sizing me up, seeing a challenge, wanting to take it on.

“Why else would I have asked?” she said.

“I dunno.”

She laughed. I laughed a little, too.

“So, can I?”

My gaze flicked to the empty booth across from me, as if some ghost were sitting there and would be offended if I let her slide in beside it. Then, I looked back up at her. She raised her eyebrows. They were the most interesting eyebrows I’d ever seen. Meticulously plucked. Darker than her hair.

“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”

She smiled again, less a cool smirk this time. It was warm. It made me feel warm in my chest.

3

On the way home from the funeral, I looked out the window of my Dad’s Ford pickup. Most of the roads around us were densely wooded, broken only by old colonial homes and ranchers. Intersections reminded us that we didn’t really live out in the country. Strip malls and Walgreen’s pharmacies, and banks and fast-food joints awaited us at nearly every traffic light. I loathed those little glimpses of the real world. Those breaks in the landscape of my dreamland.

I fantasized about driving these roads again at night after all the shops went dark. I fantasized about forbidden magic and waking the dead.

We picked up little Sheila from the Warren place. Dad made me get out of the car with him, and I groaned but did it anyway, shuffling after him like I was much older than seventeen and suffering from a near-crippling case of arthritis.

But when the door opened, and little Sheila came running out, screaming my name and bypassing Dad to throw her arms around my waist, I felt myself smiling, felt my eyes brimming with tears that wouldn’t come during the funeral. I hugged my little sister back. Dad watched us embrace and smiled, too.

Mrs. Warren came out and he handed her a check and thanked her. I helped Sheila get buckled in her car seat, then entered the passenger door.

“I pick a card!” she yelped.

I grimaced.

“No, I’m not feeling up for it,” I said.

“Please, Mason? Please?”

Dad cocked an eyebrow at me. I sighed.

“Okay,” I said and produced my worn deck of cards from my coat pocket.

She chose a Jack of Clubs and I guessed it correctly. She beamed at me and asked how I knew. I told her I was a magician, but it wasn’t magic at all, really. Just a trick I learned from watching videos on YouTube. I’d never done any real magic, but I would. I was determined to try it that night. And it would be big and beautiful and terrible, and by the time it was all said and done, Marybeth and I would be together again.

4

“Have you ever tried any spells?” Marybeth asked me that day at the diner.

My cheeks got hot and I looked off to the side, out the window, into the near-empty parking lot.

“Oh, so you have?” she said. “I bet it’s something good. Tell me.”

“It’s embarrassing.”

She giggled and took my hand across the table. “You can tell me.”

“I once tried astral projection.”

“And? What’s so embarrassing about that?”

“I did it so I could visit a girl I had a crush on. Like, at her house.”

She laughed, but it didn’t hurt. It didn’t seem mean.

“Tell me about her,” she said.

I told her about Caroline. A cheerleader. Way out of my league. Talked to me sometimes but only because she didn’t see me as a threat. Short, but full of huge energy. Single, but only interested in flings with guys who played on the sports teams.

“I know. So typical, right?” I said.

“If she’s hot, she’s hot. Do you still like her?”

“No. That was freshman year. It wasn’t meant to be. I made peace with that a long time ago. Besides, she’s not very smart.”

“Why not? Because she didn’t know such a nice boy like you was crushing on her?”

“No, nothing like that, but come on. Stupidity’s a big turnoff, right?”

She laughed again and it was like a classical suite played by the reincarnation of Mozart.

“Yes,” she said. “I would say that stupidity is a huge turnoff. Thankfully, you seem pretty bright.”

Her eyes twinkled like Christmas lights.

“Thankfully?” I asked.

5

When I got home with Dad and Sheila, I went to my room, but I could hardly sit still, let alone sleep. I took out my notes and books on magic, studying the spell I intended to cast that night. Dad knocked on the door, and I stuffed everything under my blanket, taking out my trig book and school notebook.

“Come in,” I said.

He opened the door and looked me over.

“You don’t have to study,” he said. “You’ve had a tough day.”

I fumbled for something to say.

“Want to play some video games with Sheila and me?”

“Maybe later,” I said, forcing a smile.

He sighed and looked at his shoes. When he looked at me again, he wore a grimace, like he’d just taken a pull of strong whiskey.

“You know, it’s okay to cry,” he said. “It’s not … un-manly or anything.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“If you need to … if you need anything, just let me know.”

I looked down at my trig book and all the sigils I’d drawn in the margins.

“I think I need to study,” I said. “It will help take my mind off things.”

He straightened and looked me over again. I wondered what he was looking for. Some tell I was lying? I really needed him to leave but lacked the heart to say it. He gave me a curt nod and granted my wish. I stuffed my trig book back in my backpack and took my spell book and notes from under the blanket.

I began reading again from the beginning. I could leave no margin for error.

6

“How do I know you didn’t use some kind of love magic on me?” Marybeth asked with a devious glint in her eyes.

We had just finished making love and were sitting on the roof outside my bedroom window. She had her head in my lap. My head was in the clouds. I was sure it was she, not I, who’d cast a spell. I’d never properly been with a girl before. In the moments it lasted, all the noise in my head—the voices who said I wasn’t good enough, the images of my mother’s wasted figure in the hospital bed in those final days, memories from times I lay in the dark and begged to leave my body and see forbidden things—fell silent. Intangible things fell into place. We moved together with the rhythm of the universe. I was sure of it.

Perhaps we’d cast spells on each other, with each stroke of my hand across parts of her flesh, each kiss, bite, scratch, and rock of our hips, we came to own each other, because it was meant to be. We were divorced parts of a whole, finally reunited.

I’d closed my eyes when I climaxed but saw so much light. When we came apart, I’d felt so cold.

On the roof, I considered her words. How do I know

I guessed she didn’t. How could she? But maybe she needed some reassurance.

“I wouldn’t do that to you,” I said. “I’m not even sure I’d know how.”

She sat up and stared into my eyes.

“What if I died? Would you use necromancy to bring me back?”

“Yes,” I said, and kissed her before she could say anything else.

7

I tried to pry the padlocked cemetery gates apart wide enough for me to climb through. Their hinges groaned, but the gates hardly budged. I cursed and went to the wall beside it. If I got a running start, I could probably scale it. I looked around to make sure the houses on the nearby street were still dark and listened to be sure no cars were coming. I threw my backpack over the wall, backed up and ran and jumped. My arms found purchase on the top of the wall, but the momentum and my weight caused my elbows to skin on the surface. I winced but did not loosen my grip. It took tremendous effort to lift myself over the wall. I had to keep reminding myself that I was doing this for Marybeth. That she was worth it. That we’d be together again before the night was over.

I climbed over the top of the wall and jumped down, landing beside my bag. I took another look around and listened to ensure I was alone. Save for some crickets, I was the only one out here. I shouldered my backpack and went on.

I was afraid a flashlight would draw unwanted attention, so I had to rely on moonlight to guide me. All the headstones looked the same: gray buoys in a dark sea. I had to get close to each one to read the engraved names. When I found hers, I knelt in the freshly turned earth and pressed my forehead to the cool stone.

“Don’t worry, my love,” I said. “We’ll be together again soon.”

8

“Do you ever dream about flying?” Marybeth asked.

We were holding hands and standing on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. It was sunset, and a cool breeze raised gooseflesh on my arms. Or maybe it had been her question.

“Sure,” I said. “As a kid.”

We met each other’s gaze and I kissed her, but it was brief, and I got the impression she was somewhere else despite her corporeal form standing beside me, despite her hand in mine. She stared across the sea.

“The horizon always made me sad,” she said. “Like there’s something more, something beautiful, just out of sight.”

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Have I ever been?”

I imagined her releasing my hand and walking over the edge of the cliff, magenta fire rising in her wake.

9

I started at one in the morning, digging with my hands because it needed to be intimate. I made a circle in the dirt around the grave, yanking up clumps of grass and soil.

The panic didn’t start until I took the kerosene from my backpack. I’d stolen it from Dad’s garage. He’d miss it and probably blame me, ask if I was a pyro, setting woods on fire and that kind of shit. He had no idea. After pouring the liquid into the moat I dug, I sparked a utility lighter and lowered its flame to the combustible liquid. When the fire encircled me, my panic died. My heart thudded rapidly with anticipation.

I began to dig again. This time, I use a spade.

I worked through pain. Through exhaustion and panic. Through fire I had to reignite more than once. When I exposed the coffin, the moonlight shone in such a way that I saw my reflection in its lid. I took it as a good sign.

The lid fought hard to stay shut. I used a crowbar and pried so hard that I shed tears of exertion. When the lid finally broke open, I collapsed against the dirt, regaining my breath, one ragged inhalation after another. I made myself stand, closed my eyes, and took a slow, calm breath before looking upon her.

Marybeth, my love, was still perfectly preserved. It was still so soon after her burial.

No worms would taste her flesh.

I embraced her and lifted her out of the grave, positioned her like Christ, and I began to chant for her to wake, glancing down to her closed eyes, willing them to reopen.

Someone strong grabbed me by the back of my neck. Whoever it was, they pulled me out of the grave and flung me, over the fire, to my back. I looked up to see my father glaring down at me.

“Dad, I…”

“I don’t even want to imagine what you were doing.”

“Where’s Sheila?”

“She’s in the car.” I looked behind me. His car was idling in front of the cemetery gates. Right next to mine. His was a big, luxury SUV, mine a hooptie I’d bought for less than a grand. A grand I’d gotten with his help. “And you’re lucky she’s with me, otherwise I’d make you clean this mess up, even if it took until morning.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked, fighting back tears with every ounce of willpower that I had.

You’re going to get in your car and drive home. I’m going to follow you. Once we’re on the road, I’m telling the police I saw someone messing around up there. If you pull over or try to run from me, I’m calling them back and telling them it was you.”

“But Dad…”

“Get in the car now.”

I opened my mouth to protest. I felt hot all over. I wanted to kill him right then. Smack him over the head with the spade. Decapitate him while he was down and out.

But I’d already made a big enough mess of things.

Marybeth wasn’t coming back. She wasn’t coming back, because…

Because nothing lasts forever.

“Yes, sir,” I said, getting to my feet and following Dad out of the cemetery.

10

“Did you fuck him?” I asked Marybeth, the last time I saw her alive.

“No,” she said, looking down at the waves, splashing the base of the cliff.

The sun was nearly all the way down.

“Well, then maybe we can still…”

She shook her head.

“Why not? I forgive you. It was just a kiss.”

“Maybe I’m not ready to forgive myself.”

“Come on, that’s stupid.”

She met my gaze.

“So, I’m stupid now?”

“No, just … you hurt me, but I’m not mad at you, so you don’t need to be mad at yourself.”

“You don’t understand,” she said.

“Sounds like you think I’m stupid.”

“I don’t. We’re just seeing things differently and I don’t know.”

I tried to make sense of what was happening. I tried to make sense of how everything that had transpired between us previously could lead to such an unceremonious end. Things made sense when I was with her. She said things made sense when she was with me. If only I hadn’t started talking to Caroline again. Yeah, we were just friends and always would be, but it bothered Marybeth for some reason. Probably because she remembered my astral projection story. Instead of listening to her, I told her she was controlling. We had a big fight. Our only fight. We hung up on each other, and now here we were. At least she had the decency to tell me to my face.

I wanted to apologize and offer to take her home. Lick my wounds and move on. I really did. Honestly, I really did.

Instead, I tried to kiss her. She’d told me my kisses made her crazy.

Maybe they could change her mind. Work some magical spell.

She turned her face away, not giving me the chance to try.

And then I pushed her. Without so much as a second thought, I pushed her.

As she screamed on the way down, I feared I’d hear that scream for the rest of my life. The silence after her fall was even worse.

I fell to my knees at the cliff’s edge, but before any tears could fall, something shifted within me. A powerful notion inside urged me not to cry. Not to mourn. This was the best thing that could have ever happened to us.

It was an accident. Yes. I hadn’t pushed her. It was an accident. And then I’d bring her back, just like I’d told her I would do. I’d bring her back, and she’d have no choice but to give herself to me forever. She would be mine once again. For the first time in the near twenty-four hours since our fight, I felt hopeful for the future. Darkness had fallen upon the isolated cliff, but I was full of light.

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