PRE-MORTOM

FOR BETTER OR WORSE, A LOT OF MORTOM WAS LEFT ON THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR. HERE ARE SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS.

ORIGINAL INTRO

Author’s note: I always liked this intro and (often) wonder why I cut it. It’s some good banter between Andy and Kate.

 

The guy in the road was an asshole.

Andy Crowl didn’t possess this information first-hand, but nonetheless—he knew. Only an asshole would be strolling down the middle of the road with his shirt slung over one shoulder and a bottle of beer dangling from his hand. The guy held up a sweaty thumb as Andy passed.

“Whatever, buddy.”

The woman in the passenger seat looked up from her notebook. “Hmmm?”

“Some jerk in the road.” His eyes moved to the rearview mirror in time to see the thumb replaced by a middle finger. “Scruffy and dirty. You would have liked him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Sorry to say, sis, but some of your men lately have been pretty seedy-looking.”

Kate laughed. “Seedy? Does anyone use that word anymore?”

“Who was that last guy . . . Trent? Todd?”

Travis was a construction worker who had just left the job site when you met him. Besides, you’re pretty scruffy-looking yourself lately.”

Andy raked back his hair. “Too broke for haircuts. At least I don’t look like I belong in a library.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Why the short hair after all these years? Put some glasses on your nose and you’d look like an old maid.”

“I’m only two years older than you,” she replied smartly. “And if I were you, I’d go back to short yourself. Hides the gray better.”

      “Gray at thirty,” he said with an exaggerated sigh. “Soon I’ll be dying my hair like—”

“Not listening,” Kate said, continuing to write.

He nodded at her notebook. “How’s your stuff coming? Missing the little monsters yet?”

“I believe the term you’re searching for is ‘five-year olds.’ And I have to say this trip was a good excuse to go over next year’s school agenda. It feels like the summers get shorter and shorter every year.”

“Speaking of which, why don’t you be my special helper and check the directions again.”

She took the map from the dashboard and ran her finger up the middle. “Milligan’s Road, just like it should be. This will take us straight into town—”

“—and past some dead guys?”

She followed his gaze out the window. The cemetery passed in a blur, giving them no more than a quick preview.

Kate said, “Do you think Craig . . .”

She didn’t finish and Andy didn’t ask. He brought the truck to a stop by a large wooden sign violated by several shotgun holes.

“Mortom, population 986,” he read. “The cemetery probably has more residents than the town.”

“Do you think Mom and Dad are still here?” Kate asked. “I’ve never seen Mom so upset.”

“Dad said they were leaving today,” Andy replied shortly. “I have my own business here now. It has nothing to do with them.”

He pulled forward in a lurch, oblivious to the troubled look on his sister’s face.

 

ORIGINAL ANDY AT GAS STATION

Author’s Note: To give you an idea how drastically story drafts can change: Nate was originally named Devin; Carol and Andy were still married; and it was Andy’s brother (not cousin) who died.


“Don’t forget to ask where Aber Drive is,” Carol called after him as he crossed the parking lot.

Andy gave a ‘thumbs up’ over his shoulder as he entered the gas station. The inside was small and cramped and looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in years. A glass cooler filled the back wall, and the shelves were made of wood. Behind the counter was a gray-haired man with a mustache, holding a section of newspaper.

“Well, good morning,” he said amiably, setting the paper on the counter. He was doing a crossword puzzle without much luck—only a few of the rows were filled in.

“I had twenty-eight in gas,” Andy said, fumbling out his wallet.

“For heaven’s sakes . . . I didn’t even realize someone was out there.” He peered out the window. “We don’t do too much business around here on Sunday. Twenty, you say?”

“Twenty-eight,” Andy corrected, handing over twenties.

“Tell me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing you’re David Crowl’s brother?”

“Guilty.”

“You look like him. Anyone ever tell you that?”

Andy shrugged. “Sometimes.”

“I’m Devin Spector,” the man said, passing back his change. “Such a shame, his passing. Here one day and gone the next.”

Andy nodded, unsure what to say.

“Any trouble finding our town?” Devin asked.

“Let’s just say this place is practically a flyspeck on the map. We probably stopped half a dozen times to ask for directions.”

“I believe it. But it’s kind of nice to be hidden away from the world. I find the older a person gets, the simpler he likes things. And living in a small town is about as simple as one can get.”

“Speaking of simple,” Andy said, “where is the church?”

“Saint Joseph’s?”

“No. The church my brother worked at.”

A frown crossed Devin’s lips. “Mortom church, you mean.”

“How many churches does this town have?” Andy asked with a chuckle.

“Two,” Devin replied solemnly. “Saint Joseph’s is the church church. Mortom church is just . . .”

“Just what?”

“Just an old building,” Devin finished quickly. He ran his fingers through his mustache. “I’m not a God-fearing man, but I put money in the basket when they pass it at church, and if someone gets sick I say a prayer for them before going to sleep. And the one thing I do know is that a death at a church is not a good thing. Specially at that church.”

Andy opened his mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean, but Devin spoke again quickly.

“Just talk, that’s all. Don’t pay me no mind.” Devin cleared this throat and mustered a wan smile. “Stop back in and see us if you need anything else.”

“Sure,” Andy said, already moving away. “Thanks.”

The door slammed behind him as an icy finger traced his back. Just like some Grade B horror movie, he thought. Come to a creepy small town and find the natives are restless, warning you away.

“Everything okay?” Carol asked as he returned.

“Peachy-keeny.”

         She reached out and squeezed his hand. “Sorry if I’ve been . . . bitchy during the drive down.”

         “No worries,” he said. “It’s been a long couple days.”

         “Everything will work out,” she said. He was unsure if she was trying to convince him or herself. “We’ll be back home tomorrow night at the latest. You’ll see.”

         He nodded absently as he drove off, realizing he had forgotten to ask where to find Aber Avenue.

 

KATE MEETING DEBBIE

Author’s note: Kate and Debbie originally met in downtown Mortom, but it was a lot of exposition—very near to the beginning—and I thought it slowed the story. So it was cut.

 

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Kate grumbled.

Anywhere else in the world it would have seemed like a bad joke: the grocery store was closed on Sundays. Baking cookies and run out of sugar? Sorry, wait until tomorrow. Forgot to pick up milk for Monday morning cereal? Go bother a neighbor.

She let out a dramatic sigh and looked down the street. The business district of Mortom was little more than a handful of stores, and half of them looked abandoned. The girl from earlier was hiding between two buildings across the street. Twice now Kate had caught her following, and both times the girl had changed directions after being spotted.

“Hey!” Kate hollered.

The girl shrank behind a tree but didn’t run. That was a good sign, anyway. She was obviously shy, and the last thing Kate wanted to do was frighten her.

“I’ll buy you a soda if you tell me where I can get one in this town!”

The girl slipped out of sight and Kate thought she had outsmarted herself. She turned to leave and heard: “Foster’s gas station!”

“Is it close?”

The girl’s head poked out. “A couple blocks over.”

“Can you show me?”

The girl shrugged but started moving forward.

“What’s your name?” Kate asked.

“Debbie. I saw you at the house. Are you the new owners now? Was that your husband with you?”

“That was Andy, my brother. I guess he’s kind of the owner now. Craig . . . he was our cousin. Andy and I came here to take care of a few things.”

“Oh.”

“I’m Kate,” said Kate. “You say you saw us at the house?”

“I stay across the street with my grandpa during the summers. I started coming here after my grandma died. My folks don’t come here too much, so they make me come and stay. I think they do it so they don’t feel so guilty about never visiting. Is that horrible to say?”

Kate smiled, unable to help herself. It was one of the many things she loved about kids: the gift of honesty.

“I think that’s very kind of you,” Kate said. “Your grandpa is lucky to have such a considerate granddaughter.”

Debbie shrugged. “I guess. But . . .”

Kate waited for her to finish, then realized the girl was staring past her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw an old battered station wagon speeding toward them.

“Mrs. Clifton,” Debbie said, taking a shuffling step backward.

“Who?”

The wagon jerked to a stop in the road between them. The woman behind the wheel was wrapped in a blue, tattered nightgown that matched the rollers in her hair. She favored Kate with a brief look of disdain before whipping her head toward Debbie.

“You don’t want to be crossin the road in front of me, you hear me, girlie? Do it again and I’ll run you over like a cardboard box.”

Kate’s mouth dropped. “Hey—”

The wagon lurched forward, leaving a cloud of black smoke in the air.

“What’s her problem?” Kate asked angrily.

“Her husband died a few months ago. He had a heart attack. She’s awful scared now, I bet.”

“Scared?”

“Grandpa told me she was going to lose her house and probably be out on the street. She doesn’t mean it, calling me names and that. She’s just scared and probably lonely. Can you imagine how it must be, knowing you could be without a home someday?”

Kate found herself slightly taken aback. “How old are you, Debbie?”

“My mom says I have the soul of a fifty-year old. But I’m fourteen. People say I look young for my age. It kind of sucks now, but Mom says it will be good when I get older. She says that when I’m fifty, I’ll look like I’m forty.”

“Fifty-year old soul or not, you shouldn’t be subjected to people calling you names. Even my kids know better than to bully people, and they’re only five.”

“What are their names?”

“Names?”

“Of your kids.”

“Sorry . . . bad choice of words. Students, is what I meant to say. I teach kindergarten. I don’t have any children.”

“Mrs. Clifton doesn’t have any kids either. Maybe if she did she’d be nicer.”

Kate looked down the road with a frown. “That’s still no excuse. I mean, it’s not like you’ve ever done anything to her.” She raised her eyebrows. “You haven’t, right?”

“She doesn’t like my grandpa. He used to do odd jobs around town, and they had a disagreement about some work he did. Isn’t that horrible? To be mad at someone just because they’re related to someone else?”

A pickup drove past, and Kate was relieved when a hand shot out the window in a friendly wave.

“Mr. Davis. He’s a nice man. He and my grandpa don’t get along either, but he doesn’t hold it against me. Grandpa makes lots of people mad . . .”

Kate said nothing, unsure if she was supposed to ask.

“Are you going back home soon?” Debbie asked. And then in a brighter voice: “Do you live far from here?”

“Luther. It’s about six hours away.”

“Oh.”

“Where do you live Debbie?”

“In Keota.”

Kate smiled. “That’s where my mom and Craig’s mom are from.”

“Really?” Debbie’s face became more alert. “We live over by Lincoln School. Do you know where that is?”

“Actually, I never lived there. My mother moved to Luther for college and met my father. They liked it so much they decided to stay there, and that’s where Andy and I grew up. Aunt Mary, on the other hand, also moved to Luther for college, but didn’t like it there. So she ended up here in Mortom. This is the first time I’ve been here. I only wish it were under better circumstances. Craig . . .”

She trailed off, unsure how to finish.

“It’s lonely here with him gone,” Debbie said.

“Were you . . . friends with Craig?”

“Sometimes we would sit on his deck and read,” Debbie said vaguely. “We both really liked books. Sometimes he’d read out loud and we’d laugh at his funny voice . . . I better go now. Grandpa might be worried.”

“Okay,” Kate said, a bit apprehensively. The abrupt end of the conversation was almost as unsettling as the idea of Craig befriending a fourteen-year-old girl. “Would you like some company on the walk back?”

Debbie was already across the street. “No thanks.”

“We could talk more,” Kate said. “It’s—”

Her words tarried into a sigh as Andy’s pickup turned the corner. She crossed her arms and continued to look after Debbie as he brought the truck to a stop beside her.

“You lose something?” he asked.

“Yeah, my patience.”

“Look, I’m a jerk. I’ll make it up to you with dinner. My treat.”

It was the closest thing to an apology she was going to get. Any other time it wouldn’t have been good enough, but today it would have to do. She was tired and frustrated and ready to call it a day.

“I’m getting two deserts,” she said peevishly.

She swung open the passenger door and gave the horizon a final glance. The girl was out of sight, swallowed up by the trees overlooking the river.

 

ANDY VISITING CEMETERY

Author’s note: In a very early (and very rough) draft, Andy goes to the cemetery after leaving Nate’s station. There was no real reason for the scene, and it was slightly out of character for Andy, so I cut it.

 

Andy drove into the cemetery, the truck bouncing over the uneven hills. Up ahead he saw an elderly couple hovering over a headstone, and he groaned when they waved him down. He slowed the truck to a stop and leaned out the window with a pained smile.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“It’s Colby,” the woman said, delighted. “Mabel Wert’s boy.”

“Uh, I’m not—”

“My, you’ve grown. Are you here to visit? I thought you moved away years ago.”

“The bait business,” the man chimed in. “Moved up north to sell that fish cheese, if I remember correctly.”

Andy forced another smile. “Did you need some help?”

“Yes,” the man said gruffly. “I’m trying to unscrew that darn metal vase-thingy where you put the flowers, but it won’t budge.”

The woman was shaking her finger. “No . . . you’re thinking of Jeffrey—the one who went off to college.”

“Jeffrey went to fight those terrorists,” the man countered. “He’s not wasting time with books.”

Andy slid out with a sigh and made a break for the headstone. With any luck they would forget he was there. He untwisted the cup and dumped out the rocks and leaves. His eyes moved to the headstone. It read 1809, but the stone looked new. The surrounding headstones were ancient with dates too faded to read.

“Such a nice young man,” said the woman. “I bet you’re here to visit your granddad, aren’t you? Do you like our new headstone? We all chipped in—”

The old man snickered.

“—and had it redone. My, was it ever expensive.”

“My wife,” said the man, patting her shoulder. “Master of the pun.”

“What’s that?” she asked. “What did you say?”

“Where are the newer graves?” Andy asked.

“Newer?” The man’s face wrinkled. “You mean the fresh ones?”

“Um, yeah.”

“That’s the other cemetery. Other side of town.”

“Be sure to tell your mother hello for me,” the woman said. “And come by for pie later if you’d like. Cletus doesn’t like my pies anymore, so they’re always plenty.”

“Come on,” said the man, taking her arm and leading her away. “Let the poor boy go.”

“Have a good day,” Andy said.

He wandered to the adjoining hill and did a quick scan of the headstones. They were as prehistoric as the rest. Wherever the other cemetery was, it would have to wait for another time.

A branch snapped and he turned his head. The elderly couple was out of sight, but he couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. A person would definitely not want to be there after dark.

 

KATE & DEBBIE

Author’s Note: Some additional dialogue between Kate & Debbie. Nothing earth-shattering here: It was cut to trim the scene.

 

“Debbie, sometimes it’s hard to lose someone we know. Is Craig the first person you’ve known who has died?”

“I’m not supposed to talk about it,” Debbie said quietly. “But I wish you wouldn’t call anybody. Grandpa doesn’t really mean it. He just doesn’t know . . .”

“Know what?”

She was quiet for a long time, her hands clasped between her legs with her head dipped forward. Kate began to think she hadn’t heard the question, but before she could ask again Debbie spoke up.

“Do you believe in God?”

Kate straightened up, a small alarm going off inside her. Debbie was looking at her gravely, her eyes almost pleading with her. Kate was almost afraid to hear what was coming.

“Do you believe,” Debbie whispered, “that a person will go to hell for doing something bad?”

There it was then—out there for the taking. And all at once Kate didn’t think she wanted to take it.

“No,” Kate replied cautiously, “I don’t think that at all. What would you ask that?”

“But isn’t that what cathal . . . cathalism—”

“Catholicism,” Kate said.

“Isn’t that what they believe? And grandpa says we’re catholic.”

Kate leaned back, unsure how to proceed. Debbie was still hunched forward, waiting for an answer. She had expected something along the lines of do you think Craig is in Heaven? But this . . . this was something else. Andy always warned her about meddling in other people’s affairs, but Kate knew she was already stuck. She wasn’t like Andy—she wanted to help others if she could. But she hadn’t expected this from a fifteen-year-old girl.

Kate began slowly, pausing to clear her throat. “Some people believe that Catholicism is based in guilt, and that’s what stops people from doing ‘bad’ things. It’s the fear of God—”

“And if you do bad then you’ll go to hell,” Debbie said hoarsely.

But, they also believe that if you ask for forgiveness you’ll be saved. But Debbie, what could possibly make you think that?”

Debbie said nothing. Kate desperately wanted to help, but found herself in unfamiliar territory. At school, God only came up when someone asked ‘who made people’ or why the sky was blue.

 

KATE GIVES VIRGIL A RIDE

Author’s Note: In the original draft, Harlan was named Virgil, much younger, and friends with Debbie. This is the original scene where Kate gets kidnapped.

 

Kate folded the letter in half, pinned it inside the screen door, and let out a sigh. Ricky would probably find it before Debbie returned home, but it was the best she could do.

“Kate?”

She whirled with a startled cry. It was Virgil—the boy who had been with Debbie earlier. He looked worried.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I need to talk to you.”

“I’m sort of on my way out of town—”

“It’s important.” He shot a nervous glance over his shoulder. “Believe me.”

“Is it about Debbie?”

“No, it’s . . . it’s about Craig.”

Kate frowned. “What about him?”

“I know some things. Important things. If you could give me a ride back to Keota I could tell you.”

“Can’t you just—”

“No,” he snapped. His eyes danced back and forth between her and Debbie’s house. “It has to be somewhere else. We don’t know who is watching.”

Kate looked over her shoulder, now at a total loss. “Who—”

“It’s about Craig’s death,” Virgil said, lowering his voice.

“What about his death?” Kate asked carefully.

“A ride,” he said again. “That’s all I’m asking. And then you’ll know everything.”

Kate shot a glance at the house. If Andy was watching, she couldn’t see him.

“Please,” said Virgil.

She looked at him carefully. It wasn’t like he was dangerous—he was practically just a kid. And he was friends with Debbie.

“Sure,” she said with a nod. “Okay.”

She went to the truck and climbed inside. Virgil settled in beside her. “You’re gonna die when you hear this,” he told her, his eyes glistening. “Sincerely.”

She hesitated a moment before driving off, unaware Virgil was grinning.

 

 

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