Riley Haig is a mild-mannered wage slave returning to his hometown following a decade-long absence. From the moment he arrives, everything feels off by a degree or two. Dark secrets lurk behind every corner, long-forgotten figures re-emerge from his murky past, and he is haunted by the eerie notion that something terrible could happen at any given moment. Then the bodies begin piling up. Langdon Pryce is a bestselling novelist in creative freefall, in the middle of writing a story about a mild-mannered wage slave returning to his hometown following a decade-long absence. A crisis of confidence forces him to re-examine his own life and values, spurring him on to produce what he hopes could be his greatest work to date. Then things get weird.
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Copyright 2021 Nathan Allen
Cover design by [email protected]
Thank you for downloading this ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends, family, frenemies and foes. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. Thank you for your support.
Hazard by Richard Marxcopyright 1992 Capitol Records. No permission given but Richard Marx seems like a cool guy who wouldn’t sue.
This novel is mostly a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s psychosis. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely regrettable.
The immoral right of Nathan Allen to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Statement from Langdon Pryce
Statement from Nathan Allen
Also by the authors
In my bestselling seventh novel,Black Tongue, the hero Derrick Galton is forced to defend his neighborhood from an invading horde of alien shapeshifters that look, sound and act like normal human beings, but are in fact giant leech-like organisms that have taken humanoid form. The choice of hirudinean worms as the insidious force was deliberate, as it was inspired by the sheer number of leeches that I have had to contend with in the years since I first began to enjoy success as a writer. Fighting off bloodsucking parasites is a sad but inevitable part of the job, whether that be deluded cyber-stalkers spreading unfounded allegations on social media that I have stolen their idea, to long-lost family members emerging from the woodwork to ask for a handout, to Hollywood studios cooking the books to avoid having to pay royalties owed.
Nathan Allen, a failed “writer” whose career achievements to date could be listed on the back of a postage stamp, is possibly the biggest leech of all. Despite the fact that he and I have never met, he has still managed to plunder my work and shamelessly pass it off as his own in what I can only assume is a ludicrous attempt at jumpstarting his own career. While I can’t pretend to be surprised that someone would sink so low and behave so unethically in the shameless pursuit of fame and financial gain, it still saddens me to see a writer treat a fellow scribe in such a way.
As I write this, the battle for theHorrorshowcredits is still before the courts, however I am confident the final outcome will rule in my favor and state unequivocally that I am the sole author of the work you are about to read.
The story of howHorrorshowcame to be in its current form is a long and at times complex tale. It is one that I will attempt to clarify in the limited space I have here.
As I understand it, Langdon Pryce authored the original manuscript during one week of frantic writing activity in June 2015. According to my sources, when he re-read what he had written several weeks later, he was dismayed at the poor quality of his own work. The manuscript was tossed into the proverbial bottom drawer, where it remained for two years.
In 2017,ownership of the manuscript was transferred to a third party (who has requested anonymity) in exchange for the canceling of an outstanding gambling debt. That person then approached me in late 2019 to ask if I would be interested in purchasing said manuscript from him. After negotiating an agreed-upon sum, the requisite paperwork was drawn up andHorrorshowlegally became my property.
Despite Mr. Pryce’s claims, the story has not been “stolen” from him. It is impossible in this day and age for one writer to steal the work of another and pass it off as their own. The chain of title documentation clearly states that I have obtained this work through legal means. Mr. Pryce was acting on his own free will when he relinquished the rights, he was of sound mind, and was in no way coerced. This appears to be nothing more than a case of seller’s remorse.
Once I became aware of Mr. Pryce’s dissatisfaction I was more than happy to resolve the issue through mediation, however Mr. Pryce appears to havea sue first, ask questions later disposition.
Another falsehood perpetrated is that I have contributed “zero work” to the story you are about to read. This could not be further from the truth. The manuscript was in no way publishable when I first took possession of it, a fact confirmed by the previous owner, who spent two years unsuccessfully shopping it around to various publishers before approaching me. The original document was purported to have been written in one week, and, to put it bluntly, it shows. The copy I received was barely readable. An entire year was spent rewriting the story and shaping the confused stream-of-consciousness ramblings into something resembling a coherent narrative. Numerous spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors were corrected. Several outdated terms were removed or replaced with more acceptable alternatives (“mulatto” changed to “biracial”, “Chinaman” to “person of Asian origin”, and so on). The fictional automobile manufacturer Vektehr was created to avoid potential libel suits, and several inflammatory references to the Israel/Palestine conflict were excised completely.
Despite our disagreements, I have magnanimously agreed to a compromise allowing co-authorship of this work. The title will nowreadLangdon Pryce’s“Horrorshow”by Nathan Allen, in order to accurately reflect the contributions made by both writers. I have also agreed to include a statement from Mr. Pryce, as shown on the previous page. I was under no obligation to do either of these, however this is my attempt at meeting Mr. Pryce halfway. It is my hope that we can resolve this matter without needlessly clogging up the courts with further legal action.
Ultimately, it will be up to the reader to decide which writer deserves the lion’s share of credit. I encourage everyone to read both my own work and Langdon Pryce’s to draw their own conclusions.
Riley Haig hated his job. For the best part of two years he had worked for Xakli Insurance – pronounced“exactly”, as in, “No one knew exactly who came up with a name as stupid as Xakli”. This was by far the longest he had ever held down regular employment.
For the past six weeks he had been a claims assessor. He was part of the sales team prior to that, cold-calling civilians at random and guilting them into taking out overpriced policies that they probably didn’t need. He was offered a promotion after his boss informed him that he was one of the team’s top performers, and that his work ethic suggested he had the potential to thrive if he was presented with a greater challenge. As far as Riley could tell, the only thing he had done to earn this praise was not quit.
Riley Haig hated his boss. Stefan Asher had slicked-back bleached blonde hair, and he wore heavy gold jewelry around his neck, wrists and fingers. He engaged in the infuriating habit of foot-tapping and desk-drumming when others were trying to work. At twenty-three, Stefan was six years younger than he was. To have become regional manager so early in his career meant that Stefan was either prodigiously talented or the beneficiary of nepotism. As it so happened, Stefan was the son of the company’s senior vice president.
Riley was in no position to pass judgement, though. His older sister Shelley was the director of operations at Xakli’s head office. This was a fact he went to great lengths to hide from his co-workers. She had given him the sales job because she wanted to keep tabs on him.
He had been summoned to Stefan’s office on this Friday afternoon. Stefan began with small talk, or his idea of what small talk was. Rather than asking anything about Riley’s life – how his day had been, how he was finding the change in duties, what his plans were for the weekend, etc. – he talked exclusively about himself. Riley soon heard all about the Tesla Model S he had recently purchased, and his upcoming two-week vacation to Ko Pha Ngan.
Finally, after thirteen soul-destroying minutes: “I’ve brought you in here today to discuss the Marjory Taylor case,” Stefan said. “What can you tell me about that?”
This was a life insurance claim that Riley had assessed earlier in the week. He took a moment to recall the specifics.
Marjory Leanne Taylor died in October of the previous year, aged fifty-six. Her third husband was Norman John Taylor, aged sixty-three, also deceased. Their marriage was tumultuous from the beginning. Norman had a volatile temper and a decades-long criminal history, and he was known to have been violent with his previous wives. He was a manic-depressive who had recently stopped taking his medication, as well as a firearms enthusiast whose drinking had increased substantially since losing his job three months earlier. In simple terms, he was a tragedy waiting to happen.
On that fateful day in October, the husband and wife engaged in a vicious screaming match that lasted hours. This in itself was nothing out of the ordinary; police had conducted several welfare checks at their address in recent months following reports of a domestic disturbance. But this one escalated faster and further than most. At one point, Norman locked himself in the bathroom with a bottle of 100 proof gin and a loaded revolver for company. When Marjory located the spare key and stormed in to continue their quarreling, she found him in the tub with the gun between his teeth.
Neighbors reported hearing the gunshot just after four p.m.
So far so tragic, and a story that had played out too many times before. But it didn’t end there.
Norman was facing away from Marjory when the trigger waspulled. The gun was a Smith & Wesson Model 29 Classic; a weapon so powerful that the back of Norman’s skull offered barely any resistance to the bullet as it was propelled from the chamber. It continued on and struck Marjory in the shoulder, rupturing her right subclavian artery. She tried crawling for help, but the blood loss was too severe. Four minutes later, husband and wife were both dead from the same bullet. It was the freakiest of freak accidents, a one in a million occurrence.
Marjory had taken outa life insurance policy with Xakli earlier that year. The claim landed on Riley’s desk for assessment. After reviewing all the facts, he decided that it was fairly straightforward: Marjory’s death was an accident, and her policy covered accidental death. He approved the payout to her two adult children.
Stefan half-listened as this was explained to him, and half-texted like a tween who had just received a new iPhone for Christmas. When Riley had finished, Stefan slid a sheet of paper across the desk.
“Read out that section,” Stefan said, tapping it with his finger.
Riley leaned forward to glance at the document. It was page eleven of the product disclosure statement for Xakli’s life insurance policy. One sentence had been marked with yellow highlighter. “The policy will be declared null and void in the event of a suicide within the first twenty-four months,” he said.
“So what does that tell you?” Stefan said.
“It means we can reject the claim if the claimant takes their own life in that period.” Riley finished speaking, hoping what he said was self-evident and required no further elaboration.
Stefan looked at him like he was expecting more.
“But ... she didn’t die by suicide,” he continued. “Her husband did, but the coroner ruled Marjory’s death was accidental.”
“Yes, but pay attention to the wording – ‘in the event ofasuicide’.Asuicide was directly responsible for Marjory Taylor’s death. It doesn’t say anywhere in the T’s and C’s that it has to behersuicide.”
Stefan grinned like a child who had successfully tied his shoelaces for the first time. It took Riley a few seconds to catch on to what was being suggested here.
“Are you telling me you want to deny the beneficiaries their payout due to a technicality – aliteralreading of the terms and conditions?”
“Riley, please. Xakli is a business, not a charity.” Stefan was using his most patronizing voice. “Making a profit always has and always will be our primary concern. We’re not here to provide a community service.”
“The family are not going to be happy.” He wanted to voice his objection in more expressive terms, but that was all he could come up with.
“No. I imagine they won’t.” Stefan recommenced texting.
“It might even end up in court.” Riley felt a tremendous urge to force-feed him that phone.
“And? You really think these people have the resources to take us on?”
“But what if the media get involved? Will all the negative publicity really be worth it, just to avoid having to pay out a few hundred thousand dollars?”
“Riley, relax. That’s a tomorrow problem. Or a next week problem, or next month. Whatever it is, it’s notyourproblem. Just worry about doing your own job properly.”
Stefan continued talking, or monologuizing, for several more minutes, which segued into one of his interminable pep talks. Riley had heard this speech many times before, or some variation of it. This was the one where Stefan told him that he had the potential to succeed, and with hard work, determination and the right attitude he could one day be sitting where he was, “on the power side of the desk”, but he needed to keep his eyes peeled and his ears open at all times, think outside the box, and be aware of what was going on around him. Meaningless platitudes and bromides regurgitated straight from whatever TED talk he happened to watch earlier that day.
“That’s how you move up the hierarchy,” Stefan said. “That’s how I got to where I am today.”
That, and being the son of the senior vice president. Riley battered away the sarcastic comment in his head. “I’ll just have to try harder in future,” he said instead.
Stefan smiled again. It almost caused Riley physical pain to return the gesture.
The longer he stayed here, the more he hated his job.
Xakli Insurance first came into existence eight years ago. Despite its relatively short history, it was one of the fastest-growing firms in the financial services industry. Its popularity was due in part to its now-infamous life insurance products, stating that policies could be taken out on anyone, anywhere, regardless of whether the policyholder had an existing relationship with the insured person. This generated a great deal of controversy when it was first launched. It was claimed that insuring total strangers and benefiting financially from their death was immoral, in poor taste, and could potentially lead to exploitation and murder. The company was quick to dismiss these concerns, insisting the scenarios suggested by critics belonged to the realm of fantasy, and would never occur in the real world.
Many believed the “anyone, anywhere” productwas little more than a marketing gimmick, and by Xakli’s own admission very few individuals had taken out policies to insure someone they did not know. Those that had were mostly people participating in celebrity death pools, or sports fans insuring their team’s most important player.
That night, skulls invaded Riley’s sleep. Not the hard-boned type seen in books on archaeology or human anatomy. These skulls were ghoulish caricatures, their mouths contorted into demonic grins, with gaping black holes wheretheir nose and eyes should be. Disembodied heads floating atop amorphous bodies, following his every step. They were everywhere he turned.
He tried to run and he tried to hide, but the skulls were never more than a few paces behind, tethered to him by an invisible cord, taunting him and letting him know there was no escape. They were demons that could not be outrun.
A pounding on his front door brought an end to the torment.
He was surprised to see daylight creeping in from behind the curtains. It felt like his head had just hit the pillow.
He stayed where he was for a minute. Like most people, he had experienced anxiety dreams from time to time, but this one seemed different. More vivid, and much more intense. Ominous, like it was loaded with greater significance. Like his subconscious was trying to tell him something – or trying to warn him.
Furtherpounding on the door. Ignoring it did nothing to make it stop. It only became more persistent, the visitor knocking with greater determination and ringing the bell with increased fervor. Whoever it was, they wanted him to know they were not leaving until he answered.
He threw off his damp sheets and stumbled out of the bedroom.
He flung the door open, bleary-eyed and bed-headed, expectingto see an old lady shaking a charity tin or an old man holding a bible and promising to save his eternal soul. Instead, he was confronted with a sight much worse. Something he was definitely not prepared to face this early in the morning. It was his sister Shelley.
“You’re not ready?” she said.
Herspeaking and shrieking voices were more or less indistinguishable. She held a takeaway coffee in each hand. One was thrust in Riley’s general direction.
“Ready for what?” he said. He accepted the hot beverage, against his better judgement.
“Don’t waste my time, Riley. I’m really not in the mood.” She pushed her way inside without waiting for an invitation. “The wedding’s at two, and we have a long drive ahead of us. I want to be in fone.ONE by midday. Hurry up and get dressed.”
A feverish chill passed through him. The wedding. Oh god. That was today.
Shelley’s husband Doug trailed wordlessly a few steps behind. He was wearing his one suit – the one he dusted off for every formal occasion for as long as Riley had known him. Doug wasa creature of habit, and a man of few words and simple tastes. Someone who, despite earning a doctor’s salary, saw no reason to throw away good money on something that would only be worn a handful of times in any given year.
By contrast, Shelley had squeezed her Pilates-toned, juice-cleansed figure into a brand-new Chanel outfit; one that probably cost as much as a small car and would most likely never be worn again. Her hair had been styled by some flamboyant Euro coiffure artiste, and her freshly-Botoxed face was as smooth and as cold as a frozen lake. As well as being nine years older than Riley, Shelley had inherited their parents’ curse of premature aging – grey hairs at twenty-seven, crow’s feet at thirty. A small fortune had been lost in the years since trying to reverse the process.
“Shelley, I’m not going to the wedding,” Riley said. “I thought I’d made that perfectly clear.”
He dropped into his recliner chair. It was the only seat in his cramped apartment, leaving Shelley and Doug no choice but to remain standing. Aside from the low rent, the size of the place was its most attractive quality. It was too small for hosting visitors, which suited him just fine.
Doug busied himself by flicking through a dog-eared paperback sitting on the TV cabinet. It was aLangdon Pryce potboiler, left behind by the ex-girlfriend Riley was currently trying to erase from his memory.
“I don’t have time for your games,” Shelley said. She cast a critical eye over the unwashed dishes piled up in the sink, the dust lining the shelves, and the carpet that had gone months without seeing a vacuum cleaner. “You’re coming to the wedding today. End of story.”
“And if I refuse? It’s not like you can force me to go.”
“Do you really want to find out?” Her eyelids twitched a little. Riley got the impression she was trying to raise her eyebrows, something she was incapable of doing so soon after her last Botox appointment. “There’s two of us and one of you. I think we’d have a pretty good shot of getting you into the car.”
He rubbed his eyes. It was too early in the morning for this. His brain was still half asleep. This felt like a continuation of the previous night’s bad dream.
The coffee in his hands was smelling pretty good right about now. He was tempted to take a sip, but he resisted. Hedidn’t want to give Shelley the satisfaction.
Incredibly and improbably, the fact that his twin sister Izzy was getting married today had slipped his mind. For some reason he thought it was next weekend. He had put the invitation up on the fridge whenhe first received it, only to toss it out a few days later. He wouldn’t be attending, and all it did was remind him of his own failures. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go; he would love nothing more than to be able to. It was just that he couldn’t return to his hometown of Krumbleton. That was out of the question. Too many traumatic memories.
He had skipped his father’s funeral seven years ago, and his mother’s four years after that. Izzy’s wedding would be one more important event he would miss out on,resulting in months of self-loathing and further alienation from his family.
“I thought we both agreed you were coming today,” Shelley said.
“How did you possibly arrive at that conclusion after I said no the first twelve times?” he said. “At no point did I say I was going. I told you right from the start that I wasnotgoing. But, as usual, you invented your own narrative in your head, and you only heard what you wanted to hear.”
For weeks she had badgered him after the invitations were sent out. At firsthe was non-committal, trying to delay giving an answer, and then he said no outright. When this failed to end the discussion, he stopped taking her calls and replying to her texts. That was a short-term solution to their incessant arguing, but also his biggest error in judgement. Being unresponsive was never going to be a deterrent for Shelley. She was going to do as she pleased, with or without his permission. Ordering him around was second nature, and something she’d spent most of her life doing. She had become much worse after their mother’s passing. Shelley had seamlessly stepped into that role to provide him with all the nagging, shaming and guilt-tripping he could ever hope for.
She arranged the job for him at Xakli Insurance just so she could keep an eye on him. He only accepted because he had no other prospects.
“Honestly Riley, I’ve had just about enough of this,” she said, planting her hands on her hips. “I don’t know why you refuse to come back to fone.ONE.”
“Would youpleasestop calling it fone.ONE?”
“That’s the official name of the town. It’s been known as fone.ONE for several years now.”
“I know, and it’s ridiculous and I refuse to acknowledge it.”
“Well Krumbleton, fone.ONE, whatever you want to call it. I just don’t understand what your problem is. I understood – Isort ofunderstood – why you didn’t want to return for the funerals. That was an emotional time for everyone, and grief takes different forms. But this is different. This is your sister’s wedding, and one of the most important days of her life. It should be the most joyous. She wants nothing more than for you to be there. If you don’t come today ...” She shook her head, and she trailed off. “We’ve tolerated a lot from you. Alot. You’ve tested our patience, you really have. But this is too much, I’m afraid.”
Doug stood by and observed from the opposite side of the room without comment. His body language was a wordless apology. Riley had always got along fine with Doug, and it was clear he had no say in any of this. This was more or less how their marriage operated. Shelley did whatever she wanted, and it was easier for Doug to go along with it.
“Shelley, you can lecture me all you want.” Riley finally gave in to temptation by taking a sip of the coffee. “You can get angry with me, and you can try to coerce me, but I’ve made up my mind. I’m not coming to the wedding, and I’m not going back to Krumbleton. End of story. And guess what? There’s nothing you can say or do that will get me in that car.”
As it so happened, there was one thing Shelley could say to get Riley into the car.
“Riley, I RSVP’d on your behalf three weeks ago. I’ve told Isabelle you’re coming today. She expects you to be there. Words cannot express how overjoyed she was to hear that her brother would be returning for her wedding. Now, of course I can’t force you to come. Only you can make that decision. But you must know that if you don’t, Izzy will be heartbroken.Youwill be responsible for ruining her day, and that’s something she will never forget. Do you really want that weighing on your conscience?”
She may have been bluffing. There was a strong chance everything she said was untrue. The only problem was he had no way of knowing, other than by calling Izzy himself.
Shelley was a top-level manager in the corporate world, and nobody ascends to such a position without learning a thing or two about mind games and emotional manipulation. As much as it pained him to admit it, he had been thoroughly outplayed. He was going back to Krumbleton.
For years, he hadavoided his hometown. Friendships had been burned and familial relations strained along the way, but Izzy was the one person he could never let down. Not turning up today would destroy her, and he would never be able to forgive himself. Worse, she might never forgive him. This could be the straw that broke the camel’s back, the one betrayal there was no coming back from.
The journey to the town now known as fone.ONE was a three-hour drive that felt five times as long. Shelley bought him two more coffees along the way, but instead of making him feel more alert, they only gave him a weird sickly feeling in his stomach. Possibly a psychosomatic reaction, or a harbinger of things to come. He was in the wrong frame of mind from the start.
Ten minutes into the trip, herealized he had left his phone behind. He didn’t bother asking Shelley to turn around. He knew what the answer would be.
They arrived just before noon.
The town he grew up in was called Krumbleton, the name that had adorned it ever since it was founded in the mid-nineteenth century. Three years ago, it was changed to fone.ONE. Centuries of heritage and tradition was cast aside when fone.ONE, a global telecommunications giant, relocated its center of operations to the district and purchased the naming rights. The elected officials sold the town’s soul for an annual seven-figure sum and cheaper long-distance calls. Marketing gurus applauded this innovative arrangement for alternative revenue streams and declared that municipality sponsorship was the future of branding and product recognition. The councilors behind the push were rewarded with generous bonuses, and the name Krumbleton was expunged from all public records.
Whatever it was called, it all looked the same to Riley. Same drab streets. Same crumblingbuildings. Same listless residents. Same guy who motored around town in a chunky mobility scooter despite having a perfectly functional pair of legs. The whole place was drenched in dullness, like a thirty-year-old CRT television that was losing its picture. Nothing of any interest or excitement had ever happened here. It was one of those towns where ambition and vitality went to die.
They were booked to stay at the Giacobbe Hotel, the town’s most prestigious and luxurious accommodation option. This was notconsidered a high achievement with the bar set so low.
He was at least grateful that Shelley had arranged separate rooms. For a few horrifying minutes he feared she was going to make him share with her and Doug. He became less appreciative when she handed him a slip of paper with her bank details and requested that he reimburse her the full amount at his earliest convenience. She may have been pulling in a mid-six figure salary, but that didn’t mean she was about to be overcome by a sudden burst of generosity.
He showered andchanged into his wedding attire. He didn’t have anything formal in his wardrobe, but what he managed to pull together before he left would suffice – a pair of business pants, a light blue shirt, a red tie, his scuffed work shoes, and a suit jacket borrowed from Doug. He wouldn’t be winning any best dressed awards, but he doubted anyone would be paying too much attention to him.
He hoped no one would be paying attention to him.
He was dressed and ready to go an hour and a half before the ceremony was due to commence. He was left alone and fidgety, with nothing but his own thoughts to keep him company. He turned the TV on, hoping to find something to occupy his mind for a while. He flicked through the channels and landed on a movie. It wasGirl With One Eye, a hokey horror-thriller based on an early Langdon Pryce novel. He tried watching it, but that only made him feel worse. He switched the TV off after about three minutes. He glanced at the room service menu, but he had no appetite.
Thesilence soon became too much. He wanted to leave, but there was nowhere to go. He was stuck in this town for at least the next day.
He could feel the walls closing in. The room was suffocating. He had to get out of there.
Two minutes of walking the eerily quiet Krumbleton streets was about much as he could tolerate. It wasn’t anything he could really articulate; just an overwhelming sense of consternation and crushing anxiety, followed by a sudden and inexplicable nicotine craving. He had no idea where that urge had come from. It had been years since he last smoked. Even when he did, it was only an irregular thing, just doing it to fit in with the crowd. But that was the Pavlovian effect this town had on him. Every street and every landmark dredged up memories and feelings and fears that he would prefer to keep repressed.
He ducked into the first gas station he came across.
Like so many other businesses in Krumbleton, this one was unimpeded by progress and the modern world. Stepping inside was like travelingback in time thirty years.
A young redheaded woman stood behind the counter, fighting off boredom by flipping through a fashion magazine. He muttered his request for cigarettes, limiting opportunities for conversation by keeping his head low and avoiding eye contact. Rural folk were notoriously chatty, especially with strangers passing through.
The place was empty, for which he was grateful. The last thing he wanted was for anyone to recognize him.
“Riley?” the cashier said after she removed the pack from the cigarette case.
He cringed inwardly but didn’t respond, neither confirming nor denying his identity.
“You’re Riley Haig, aren’t you?” she said.
He shifted his gaze to look at her properly. She didn’t look like anyone he knew. They weren’t in school together; she was probably four or five years younger than he was. He didn’t pay too much attention when he came in, but now that he was looking at her he could see that she was quite attractive, in a simple, small-town-girl kind of way. She had a heart-shaped face framed with waves of auburn hair. Her skin was the color of a China doll’s, which accentuated her cherry-red lips and deep blue eyes.
He strained for a memory, but his mind delivered nothing.
“That is you!” she said. “I thought it was.”
He blinked and tried again, this time picturing how she might have looked ten years ago. An image formed of a pale, awkward, violin-playing adolescent; a bookish girl with metal teeth, coke bottle glasses and a head of frizzy curls.
“Um, yeah,” he said. “You’re Nicola, right?”
The name only came to him a fraction of a second before he said it. She was Nicola Blackman, the younger sister of Laura Blackman, a friend of his since the fourth grade.
He noticed that she wore a name tag. Maybe he’d caught a glimpse of that, and this was what prodded the memory from his subconscious.
“That’s right!” Nicola broke into a wide smile. The braces were long gone, her teeth now a perfect row of white. “I can’t believe you remembered.”
“I didn’t know you worked here,” he said.
He knewwhat an odd thing this was to say as soon as the words left his mouth. Why would he know that Nicola worked here? It had been ten years since he last set foot in Krumbleton, and almost that long since he’d given Laura Blackman’s nerdy kid sister a moment’s thought.
“Oh yeah, I do this part-time,” she said. “My parents bought the place about five years ago, and I help out whenever they need me. I actually work at fone.ONE. Well, me and half the town work at fone.ONE now. Laura too, or she used to, but she’s on maternity leave. She’s due to give birth any day now.”
A sustained effort was required for Riley to keep his astonishment from showing. “Laura’s going to be a mother?”
“She’s going to be a motheragain. This is baby number four. She already has two girls and a little boy.”
“Whoa. That’s incredible.”
He knew there would be changes upon returning home, but this was almost like stepping into another dimension. The idea of Laura Blackman being a mother – impulse-chasing, authority-disrespecting, responsibility-avoiding Laura Blackman – was about as likely as her becoming a Nobel prize winner. The idea of her raising four children even more so. There were so many questions. At the top of the list was whether all four children were from the same father. It was a question that remained unasked, since he couldn’t think of a polite way to phrase it.
“Tell her I said hi,” he said instead.
“So where have you been all this time?” Nicola said. She pushed a stray copper lock behind her ear. “We haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Oh, you know. Here and there. Moving around, doing stuff.”
He was deliberate with his vagueness, careful to avoid specifics. He just wanted to pay for his purchase and get out of there. Small talk often led to conversations, which inevitably involved questions. That was the one thing he was not prepared to deal with just yet.
“Traveling, seeing the world,” he continued. “Working different jobs. Just living life, basically.”
He remembered what it was like when he was younger, and someone returned to Krumbleton after a prolonged absence. He and his friends would look at that person with uninhibited awe and admiration, as if they had somehow defied the odds to escape the town and were now making a triumphant return with stories of their adventures from the outside world. Kind of the way Nicola looked at him now. She probably had dreams of her own of leaving; dreams hampered by her responsibilities back here helping out with the family business, or simply due to the psychological hold a small town can have on its native population.
Right then, he couldn’t help but feel like a failure. He hadn’t embarked on any big adventure. A decade of his life had been wasted avoiding responsibility and running away from his problems. He only left town because he had been forced out.
“So, um, can I get some coins with my change?” He slid a crumpled fifty across the counter, hoping to hurry the encounter along. “I might need to make a few calls later on.”
“Coins?” Nicola’s eyebrows went up. “Wow, it really has been a long time since you were last here.”
She reached beneath the counter and brought out a new cell phone – a fone.ONE T-1000 Ultra, still in shrink wrap. Recommended retail price: $600.
“No one uses payphones anymore,” she said.
“Oh no, I don’t need to buy a new phone. I just left mine at home.”
He didn’t want to admit it, but being without his phone was giving him separation anxiety. He wasn’t one of those lobotomized zombies with subatomic attention spans who couldn’t go two minutes without poking at a digital screen– he couldn’t stand those people – but he still felt lost without it. He never realized how much he relied on it until he didn’t have it anymore.
“You don’t have to pay for this,” she said with a laugh. “These are free. They’re part of the town’s sponsorship deal. fone.ONE, the company I mean, they get the naming rights and the tax breaks for relocating here. In return, the locals are given free phones with unlimited calls and data. As long as you’re within the district, that is.”
A sign behind the counteradvertised the business as an authorized fone.ONE retail outlet. He had seen similar signs in the windows of other businesses, such as the post office and the newsagent.
“I’m not sure I qualify as a local, since I haven’t lived here for ten years,” he said.
“Oh, you know what this town is like,” Nicola said, peeling off the plastic wrapping and sliding the box open. “Once you’re a local, you stay a local. No matter how long you’ve been gone.”
She smiled again, and Riley tried not to grimace. It may have been an innocent statement, but there was more truth to it than he’d like to admit. Krumbleton was the kind of town that would sink its claws into you and never let go.
She gave a brief demonstration of the phone’s many features. He was confident that hewould never use most of them.
He lit up a cigarette shortly after stepping out of the gas station. His airways almost closed up in revolt after his first attempt at inhaling. It was like sucking on an exhaust pipe. His eyes watered, and he endured a savage coughing fit. He made it a third of the way through before he realized it was doing nothing for him except making him sick, and he stubbed it out on the pavement.
The packet was tossed into the next trash receptacle he came across, and he wondered why heever thought that was a good idea.
He arrived at the wedding a few minutes before proceedings were scheduled to commence. He tiptoed into the church and slipped into the pew second from the back. The backs of Shelley’s and Doug’s heads were visible from where he sat; they were seated somewhere up near the front. Having some distance between them came as a welcome relief, however temporary it might be.
The ceremony dragged but passed without incident. The groom appeared nervous but excited.The bride looked radiant. Both choked up as vows were exchanged. None of the guests voiced their objection. No one got cold feet and attempted to make a run for it.
They were married by Father Hyden, a priest they had known their whole lives. He had baptized them when they were babies and taught religious instruction at their Sunday school. He kind of droned on, as he had a tendency to do, and he lost his place several times. He was getting on in years – he would have been well into his seventies by now.
Riley enjoyed the ceremony for the most part. More than anything, he enjoyed seeing his sister looking as happy as he had ever seen her. It allowed him to temporarily forget about where he was, and the unfortunate circumstances in which he was forced to be there.
But the congenial mood couldn’t last. The bride and groom were pronounced man and wife, and the guests filed out of the church once the ceremony drew to a close. The feeling of apprehension soon resurfaced.
As was the case with many fraternal twins,Riley and Izzy could be both exactly alike and complete opposites, depending on the situation. They had the same interests growing up, a similar offbeat sense of humor, and shared so many in-jokes it often seemed as if they communicated in their own language. But for every trait they had in common, there was another where they occupied opposite ends of the spectrum. When Riley was getting into trouble at school, Izzy was achieving straight As. When she was participating in voluntary work with a local community group, he was getting nabbed for petty vandalism. Parent-teacher nights were an exasperating affair for their parents. Their teachers were constantly puzzled as to how the class’s model student could possibly share DNA with its biggest disruption. She was the good twin, he the black sheep.
But despite Izzy being the high-achieving golden child of the family, there was never any animosity on Riley’s part. They squabbled the way all siblings did, but they were still as much best friends as they were brother and sister – unlike Shelley, with whom he always seemed to be in some sort of conflict. The moment anything exciting or interesting happened in Riley’s life, his first thought was that he had to share it with Izzy.
It had been two years since they last saw each other in person. This wasn’t the result of any great falling out or argument; it was just the way their respective lives had panned out. For the first nineteen years, they were together almost every day. Then, in the last ten, they only saw each other intermittently. That happened when Izzy came to visit him, and never the other way around. He had yet to meet Wade, his new brother-in-law, and he knew nothing about him other than he worked alongside Izzy in the Haig family business. He didn’t know what to expect, or how she would react to him being here. If she was a bit standoffish, he could hardly blame her.
But as soon as Izzy saw that he had arrived, she rushed over and threw her arms around him, not caring how many wrinkles this put in her dress.
“I can’t believe you’re here!” she said. “Thank yousomuch for coming.”
“You didn’t think I’d miss something as important as this, did you?” he said, making an effort to appear genuine, even if he didn’t quite stick the landing.
“Shelley said you would try to make it today, but, you know ...”
“But you didn’t believe it until you saw it with your own eyes?”
She laughed. “It’s just that it’s been so long, that’s all. Some of the locals were starting to take it personally.”
He wondered what Shelley had toldher, and whether she had in fact RSVP’d on his behalf. He now assumed she was bluffing with her earlier threats, as suspected.
Izzy beckoned Wade over, and Riley met his brother-in-law for the first time: a lanky haircut wearing pants two inches too short withwhite shoes and no socks.
“Riley, this is my husband, Wade.” Her smile grew as she said this. It was probably the first time she had referred to him as her husband. “Wade, this is the long-lost big brother you’ve heard so much about. I told you he was real.” She gave Riley a punch in the arm.
“Ah, return of the prodigal son.” Wade shook Riley’s hand while flashing a tooth-baring grin that was either an exaggerated display of friendliness or an attempt to ward off a predator.
Riley’s first impressions of his new brother-in-law: handsome, charming, confident. Possibly a little too sure of himself. Neither the smile nor the handshake came across as sincere. He also seemed quite young. For some reason he had assumed Wade was in his early to mid thirties, but he actually looked younger than Riley was. He would have guessed twenty-six. He couldn’t say for sure that he trusted him either, even if he didn’t know why. It was just one of those instinctive things.
They engaged in a few minutes of polite small talk. Hefound this tolerable enough, until Wade mentioned that if Riley was considering a move back to fone.ONE he was sure he could find a job for him within the company. Somehow, that comment rubbed him the wrong way. Wade may have been the assistant division manager at Haig’s Transport, but Rileywasa Haig. His grandfather had started the company, and his father had built it up over the years. It was his surname on the side of all those trucks. He could have been the one running the company, if that was what he wanted.
He couldn’texplain why that particular comment needled him the way it did. Wade was only offering to help, and it wasn’t as if he planned on moving back here anyway.
“We should catch up some more later on,” Izzy said, smiling but with a slight wistfulness in her voice. She knew, as Riley did, that she would be inundated with well-wishers throughout the day and night, and they would be lucky to spend another two minutes in each other’s company.
“Hey, what are you doing tomorrow?” Riley said. “Maybe we can all hang out after everyone has left.”
“Oh ...” Izzy held onto her smile, despite her obvious disappointment. “We’re actually driving straight to the airport for our honeymoon. Our flight leaves at ten, so we’ll be checking out of the hotel around seven a.m.”
“Sure, I understand.” Riley nodded and tried to make it seem like this wasn’t a big deal. Privately, he felt foolish for even suggesting it.
“Maybe we could postpone it a day?” Wade said. “Or even catch a later flight?”
Izzy’s eyes immediatelylit up. “I’ll call the airline. I know it’s last minute, but they might be able to make the arrangements.”
“Oh no, don’t do that,” Riley said. “Don’t change your plans because of me. Go and enjoy your honeymoon. We can see each other when you get back.”
That may have been just another empty promise, something said in the moment and forgotten about a day or two later. He was only here due to emotional blackmail, and he was counting the minutes until it was time to leave. Izzy probably knew this as well, but she put on a happy face. Or perhaps, just for today, she wanted to believe he wasn’t lying.
“We’re flying out to Fiji,” Wade said, just as the silence threatened to become uncomfortable. “Isabelle’s arranged it all. You know how much she loves to plan things. I’m just going along with it, as well as paying for it.”
“You should see the place we’re staying at,” Izzy said, brightening again. “It looks incredible. The beaches are so white, and the photos of the nature reserves look like something out of a painting. Wade wants to try scuba diving, so he’ll probably spend most of his time in the ocean.”
“While Isabelle will be spending most of her time as far away from the water as possible,” Wade said with a laugh.
Riley thought it was odd the way that Wade kept calling her Isabelle. She was Izzy to pretty much anyone who had known her for any length of time. He also thought his laugh sounded forced.
“Don’t tell me you’re still afraid of sharks,” he said.
“Yes Riley, I still hate sharks,” Izzy said. “All thanks to you. Ever since you forced me to watchJawswhen we were nine.”
“I can’t believe you still refuse to go in the water. Even lakes and rivers. You know, places you’re not likely to encounter sharks.”
“I was traumatized! No child should be made to watch that. I think in one way or another you’re responsible for most of my adult neuroses.”
“It wasJaws 2, by the way, which is not even scary. And you know that even in the ocean, shark attacks are rare.” Riley smiled; it was funny how easily they slipped back into their old routines, like they were teenagers again.
“I know they’re rare, but phobias aren’t logical. When you’re in the water you’re not thinking about that. You’re imagining your legs being turned into dog food by a twelve hundred pound killing machine.”
“But the odds of that happening are basically zero. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a shark.”
“Now that can’t possibly be true.”
“I know that sounds made up, but it’s not. People shake them and stick their arms inside trying to get free food, and they sometimes fall on top of them. You come across all sorts of interesting facts working in insurance.”
He had learned thisfact at work, although he came across it when he was wasting time on the internet rather than through the course of his duties. Still, what he said was technically correct.
“We’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Wade said, sliding an arm around his new wife. “I’ll keep Isabelle away from sharksandvending machines, just to be extra safe.”
Their conversationwas cut short when the wedding photographer intervened to drag the bride and groom away, insisting his shots had to be done right this very moment when the natural light was at its most luminescent. His manner was more dramatic than it needed to be. Riley thought the groom’s exposed ankles would be more detrimental to the photos than the lighting.
Izzy hugged him one more time, and they promised to catch up later in the night.
She left with Wade and he found himself alone, with no one totalk to and no idea of what to do with himself. It occurred to him that this was the first wedding he’d ever been to for someone his own age. He’d attended family weddings as a kid, but his exile from Krumbleton meant he’d missed out on seeing his own friends get married.
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