Wednesday, 3 October 2012
Book Spotlight: On the Edge of Twilight: 22 Tales to Follow You Home
by Gregory Miller
Short Story Collection
Gregory Miller writes: "...time fades old frights." A clever line yet not quite true, if one is to believe these stories, many of which feature the departed and their undiminished entanglement with the living. Miller walks an undulating line between the creepy and nostalgic, the macabre and sweet, the malevolent and innocent - a provocative blend that leaves the reader wistful for many who have passed, but also relieved to leave some of the more vindictive spirits behind. In short, this collection, his third, is a tapestry of diverse tales that resonate in surprising and unusual ways.
You can read an interview with the author here:
A sample short story from the collection is after the jump:
© Gregory Miller
From the collection: On the Edge of Twilight: 22 Tales to Follow You Home
Their car broke down thirty miles from Bedford, the nearest town with a gas station. Mabel and Tony Palmer sat for a moment in the softly ticking Oldsmobile Cutlass, the rapidly warming air thick with mutual disbelief.
“Shit,” said Tony, simply.
“There go our plans with Adam and Kathy.”
He sighed, she sighed, and they both got out, slamming the doors shut behind them. Immediately the strong, cliff-side wind whipped at their hair, their clothes, bringing with it the salty tang of the sea and making them blink rapidly. On the driver’s side a guardrail marked the edge of the road. Just beyond it the cliff descended, all sheer drop and red stone, for three hundred feet to meet the crashing waves.
“No reception,” Tony muttered, sliding the useless phone back in his pocket. “This must be the last place in America that doesn’t have it.”
“There’s a house up there,” said Mabel, pointing to the top of the hill that rose steeply across the street. “We can ask for help.”
“I hate asking help from strangers,” said Tony.
“Then start pushing.”
The seashell-paved driveway was steep and uneven. At the top, sweating and out of breath, they found themselves standing on a green, closely-manicured lawn. A small wooden windmill spun frantically in the wind. Glass and metal chimes clinked and rang from the porch of a small, neat cottage that seemed within inches of sliding down the hill, back end first, onto the road far below.
“It’s quaint,” said Mabel.
“In Big Sur, with a cliff-side view of the ocean, it’s probably worth a million,” said Tony.
“More than that,” said a voice behind them.
Mabel let out a tiny yelp. They turned.
An old man of perhaps seventy was smiling at them beneath a frayed straw hat. The sleeves of his denim shirt were rolled up, his browned skin slick with sweat. He held a mud-encrusted shovel over one shoulder.
“Sorry,” he added, holding out his free hand. “I was working yonder, in the field over the lip of the hill, and took the side path around when I saw you coming up.”
The next thing he said was unexpected: “You need saved? They don’t usually come up to the house if they need saved. Usually I got to go down to them.”
Mabel and Tony cast a quick glance at each other and locked eyes. A holy roller, Tony thought. Just great. Thick as flies everywhere.
“Um, no, we don’t need saved,” Mabel said politely. “Our car broke down and we don’t have cell phone reception. We need to call for a tow. That’s all.”
“Oh, hey, why didn’t you say so?” The old man swung the shovel off his shoulder and impaled it with surprising force in the packed, shell-strewn drive. It stuck there, quivering, then stilled. “You can use my phone, and we can sit a bit on the back porch and have some lemonade while you wait for your tow. It’ll take a little time. Name’s Carl Budren. Pleased to meet you and come on in.”
They followed him into the prim, tidy cottage. Dozens of seashells, stones, sea glass, and starfish, carefully glued into patterns, adorned the wood-stained walls in driftwood frames. The wicker furniture, worn but not dilapidated, was simple and inviting – a perfect fit. Mr. Budren dug a phonebook out of a drawer in his kitchenette, licked a calloused finger, found a page, found a number, and soon the local towing service was on its way.
Minutes later they found themselves sitting on the rickety, whitewashed porch overlooking a dizzying drop to the road below, and beyond the road the cliffs, and beyond the cliffs the dark, crashing waves.
Mr. Burden joined them, a cold, sweating glass of lemonade in each hand.
“An hour ‘til the truck comes, huh? Well, it’s nice to have some company, even if you don’t need saved.” He sat down in a spare chair, sighing as his knee joints popped.
“No, sir,” said Mabel. “We aren’t the religious type. I’m afraid converting us is a battle you just won’t win, if you’ll excuse me saying so.”
The old man’s eyebrows narrowed, then he smiled and chuckled. The sound was faint, like a distant motor. “No, no, ma’am, you misunderstand me.” He nodded down toward the Cliffside road, where their car sat like a squat, injured beetle. “You don’t know this spot, I take it. Just a random place your vehicle happened to break down.”
“That’s right,” said Tony, bemused.
The old man reached into his pocket and pulled out a battered pack of cigarettes. “You mind?”
“No,” said Tony and Mabel in unison, though both did.
Mr. Budren lit up. “Across the highway by the cliff, and about twenty feet further down the road from your car, there’s a little jut of rock. An outcropping, like. On the other side of the guardrails. See it?”
They looked. They saw.
“For about forty years now, that’s been known as ‘End Point.’ Don’t know why, but there’s been more suicides there over the years than anywhere along this coast for two hundred miles in either direction. Hell, you’d have to drive down to ‘Frisco’s bridge to find a hotter spot.”
They both looked again, longer this time.
“How many have jumped?” Tony asked, chewing a piece of ice from his lemonade.
Mr. Budren stroked his chin.
“In the last twenty years or so, I’d put the number somewhere around forty, maybe a few more. There was more before that, but I don’t have the exact numbers.”
Both Mabel and Tony started. Tony’s mouth worked a little, but he said nothing.
“No one knows why?” Mabel finally asked.
“Well, I guess it’s a couple things.” Mr. Budren took a drag off his cigarette. The smoke plumed out his nostrils like the exhalation of a geriatric dragon. “First, it’s a good view. Of course, there’s plenty of those, but I guess that’s something. I reckon the dying like a good view before they go. Second, all it takes is one or two jumpers before word gets out about a place. Then others copy the first. I don’t know why, except maybe the desperate like being part of something, too. Something they can share with like-minded souls.”
“Like a club,” murmured Tony.
Mr. Budren nodded. “That’s right, Mr. Palmer. An exclusive club.”
He took another drag off his cigarette, and a far-away look palled his face. “An exclusive club,” he repeated, voice little more than a murmur.
“Mr. Budren? What does that have to do with saving?”
Mr. Budren turned to Mabel, and in that quick moment his eyes focused again. “Ah! Yes, oh yes. Well, my daddy owned this cliff-side property for going on half a century but never did nothing with it. When he died I was about retirement age. I’d heard of End Point, so since I got the rights I thought I’d build a little house up here. Figured I could save some people if I spotted anyone who came by and looked ready to jump.”
Mabel leaned forward. “That’s the reason you moved here and built this house? To save people?”
Mr. Budren nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Tony shifted, his wicker chair creaking. “So how does it work?”
Mr. Budren smiled widely. “It’s real simple, mostly. I keep an eye out, you see. When I spot a car parked near End Point, or a motorbike, or whatever else, I head on down the drive to the road and see what’s what. Usually someone’ll be sitting in the car, or on the bike, or even standing on the point, sometimes on one side of the guard rail, sometimes on t’other. If I get there in time, that is. And if I do, I go on down and have a talk with them.”
“You don’t call the police?”
“No time for that, son. Not if they’re settling in to jump. No. I just go down and have a talk with them. It’s what works. It’s what the moment needs.”
Mabel took a small sip of lemonade. The ice clinked against her teeth. “But what do you say? I couldn’t imagine being put in a situation like that, with a life on the line and everything riding on what words you choose.”
Mr. Budren grunted. “Well, miss, you do have a point. It’s a mighty tight spot, sometimes. But I knew it would be when I moved here. And that stress is worth it, when you save someone. To know they’re safe. That’s the payoff.
“But as to what I say…” He paused, thinking. “It depends, but usually I ask them what their favorite thing to do is in all the world. I keep ‘em talking, have them tell me all about it. Everyone has something they love to do. So if I’m lucky they start talking, and I listen, and prod, and ask more questions, and finally I get around to saying, ‘Now don’t you want to do that again? Because you sure as hell can’t if you’re fish food in the Pacific.’ Or something to that effect.”
Tony raised his eyebrows. “That’s it?”
Mabel jabbed him in the ribs, scowling. But Mr. Budren just smiled again. “One time it took five hours. Another, I made dinner for a woman and brought it out to her because she got hungry after talking so long. It was just the two of us sitting there, on the edge of that cliff, with Death circling round and round us. But she ate, and she came to, and she was saved.”
He stubbed out his cigarette in a stained seashell ashtray and sat back in his creaking wicker chair.
“That’s really something,” Tony admitted.
“It really is, Mr. Budren,” added Mabel. “That’s incredible.”
“Well,” said the old man, sighing, “it soothes me, to do something. But I can’t save ‘em all. When I come down some mornings and find an empty car by End Point, I know I failed because I can’t be there all the time. Then I call the police and they call a tow, and sometimes a body washes up down the coast, carried far on the current. Most often it’s never found.”
He brightened. “But it’s worth all that. And I’m very content. Now, unless I’m mistaken, that’s your tow truck! So I won’t keep you any longer.”
They looked. It was.
As they reached the front door, Mabel turned back and gave the old man a quick hug. “You’re an amazing man, Mr. Budren. I’m glad we met you.”
“Well thank you, darling,” he replied, flashing a final warm smile.
Tony held out his hand. “Yeah, those are lucky people, Mr. Budren. The ones you saved. Glad we could meet.”
The couple walked quickly down the hillside drive, Mr. Budren watching from the top. Faintly, he could hear Tony hailing the tow truck driver. He watched them for another ten minutes until the car was latched to the truck, and both truck and car were nothing more than glints of reflected sun, far away and receding, on the winding, cliff-side road.
Then he turned, retrieved his shovel, and walked purposefully across the well-tended yard and over the crest of a small rise. Beyond, a long, sunken field of scrub grass stretched away into the distance, just out of sight of the house.
“Lucky people,” he repeated.
He picked his way carefully down the other side of the rise and stopped beside a half-filled pit. Next to it was a small mound of dirt. Whistling tunelessly, he smiled as he resumed shoveling – the young couple’s interruption already all but forgotten.
A pale, thin hand stuck up from the pit like a wilted, diseased plant. Moments later, dirt covered it.
“Lucky people,” he said a final time. He stopped to rest, wiping his brow and looking out at the dozens and dozens of faint, rectangular depressions in the earth that even the tall grass could not completely obscure.
“I sure did save them.”
Want to read more? On the Edge of Twilight is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble
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