After five years and half a million words I finally felt as though I was satisfied with what I wrote in this book. Like anything in life that is worth doing, writing takes repetition and willingness to change. By the time that I got the idea for this book I finally understood the ideas of tonality, a character’s place in his world, and the big one, “show don’t tell”.
I don’t really remember exactly how or when I came up with the idea for my sixth full novel, but Jones Island has something to with it. Eastern North Carolina is the place that my family and I have adopted as our home. The town of Swansboro in Onslow County has been a special place for me from the minute that I crossed the bridge at Cedar Point. If you look off to our right you can see a small island buoyed in the middle of the White Oak River there. It isn’t nearly as large as I make it out to be in the story, but it has its own magic none the less.
At the time I was looking for a piece that would capture someone’s attention right away and the idea of a town on an island that is totally populated with serial killers seemed to have some appeal. I am not as egotistical to believe that everything that I write will be a completely new idea, but I wanted to take something that has been done and put a different spin on it. This is perhaps my most commercial work to date, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t put my heart and soul into it. I am satisfied with the outcome, and I hope that you will be too.
Excerpt from Their Town
I wasn’t always afraid of the dark. I sat there alone in my bed at night after lights out, my legs scrunched to my chest and my arms folded around them. It was the most protective pose that I could muster, and in seconds I could be on the floor in a ball with my hands covering my head like they teach you at school when a tornado was coming. Of course, the windstorm wasn’t real, but if it would have been I would have been prepared for it. The conflagration inside of me was what they should have been preparing for. If the world had known what cataclysms were housed inside of my head they would have sounded the warning horn long ago.
As it was no one could have known the thing that was bred just next door to them. I wish that I had someone to blame besides myself, but I can find no one to point the finger at except yours truly. There was an animal born inside of me, a unstoppably visceral machine that was fueled by anger and fed by hate. Where the unbridled rage came from I have an idea, but I was not going to stop it. The feeling that I got from giving into the urge to do unbelievably evil acts of depravity was exhilarating.
I didn’t intend to hurt anyone in the beginning. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have done anything to anyone but myself if I hadn’t thought so little of humanity. I was so much more powerful than they were and they stood there before me like lambs among wolves. The real trick was culling the herd and still being able to walk among them. Charlie always said that was where real power comes from. The shepherd eats the spring lambs, but they still run to him for protection. Maybe that was why it was so easy to evade capture, that and the fact that most law enforcement focuses too much on semantics and bureaucracy to see past the end of their noses. I can’t really blame them for their ineptitude since I didn’t even know what I was doing or why most of the time. In crime fighting school they teach the idea of getting inside the mind of the perpetrator and take a walk in his shoes, but I guarantee that they would not last an hour inside of my shoes, and certainly not in my head.
Charlie was the only one that I loved. He was the only one that really knew me and was able to understand why it was that I took life so cheaply. He never judged me, not once. Sometimes he would turn around and silently voice his displeasure when my actions went too far, and later he would be pensive for a few hours after I let myself get out of control. You see it was never really about the actual acts with Charlie, it was more that he hated the loss of calculation. The riverboat gambler in him always wanted to have an edge, and even better, an ace in the hole that I could slap down when things turned bleak. If only the police had known how close they were to hooking me, they would have lost their minds. Charlie was the one that kept me out of their clutches for so long.
I really don’t know if anyone besides my grandfather saw my potential in the early days. I loved Grand Pop so much. He was a true gentleman in every sense of the word. Well I don’t know if love is what I would call it since I have no earthly idea what that term even implies. To me there is lust and self-preservation and not much else. The whole idea of love is as foreign to me as eating squid brains in oyster sauce. Do squid even have brains? I couldn’t tell you.
Anyways, the old man was something else. He had that kind of eye that could see right through you and I should have found that unnerving somehow, but I instead thought it somehow comforting. I never had to hide my true self from Grand Pop, and even though he was fearful of what I would inevitably become, he never told anyone about it. I could always count on him to keep his mouth shut.
Even when he caught me choking my puppy Ralph to death behind the garage that time, he simply took the lifeless body from me and strolled into the back yard with a spade in his hand. The old man didn’t scold me or anything, he just stalked along, stopped, dug a little hole and chunked that Beagle dog into of it. The simple things in life have always been the most fulfilling. Feeling that little bastard squirm and squeak as I squeezed harder and harder was a sensation that you can really only feel once. Even when his tiny claws shredded my forearms and warm blood oozed down my skin, it didn’t dampen the moment. If anything that deep, gorgeous red heightened the experience for me.
I sure wish that I could have known Grand Pop better, but he wasn’t really around much after that. Mom was always given one excuse or another as to why he didn’t want to come sit with me or take me fishing or to the movies. To his credit though, he always made up some plausible excuse, and she never pressed the issue.
None of that matters anymore though. All that matters on The Island is the endless nights, the sweltering days, and the indomitable plague of mosquitoes. I swear that I have never seen the like of the bloodsuckers. Sometimes in the late summer, the sky will be just thick with them. Worse than that are the creepy black flies that hatch out in the spring and invade every inch of the place. Doctor Lipton insisted that mosquito nets be issued to all of the inmates because life without them was most certainly cruel and unusual punishment.
Except for those couple of inconveniences, this place is the most wonderful experience that I have had in my life thus far. I couldn’t have asked for more comfortable surroundings to live out the rest of my life. I certainly don’t deserve any of it, but I won’t complain about it. In fact, if I had felt as safe and secure growing up I probably wouldn’t have done what I did, and I most certainly wouldn’t have become the monster that I am with the support that I receive here. “Water under the bridge”, my father used to say. That meant that it was time to end the discussion. There was also something about crying about spilled milk, but I always hated that expression for some reason. I think it may have reminded me of a mess on the floor that needed cleaning. Charlie reminds me about that mess every now and again.
I always have mixed emotions when I think of the day that my best friend first came to me. It happened to coincide with the first time that I took another human life. It felt wonderful, that power of life and death, and it made me tingle all of the way to my toes, but at the same time it was something completely new and a bit scary. I don’t think that I can remember my first kiss, but I sure as hell remember the first time that I took another life. Sometimes it’s all that I can think about. You never forget your first love, or so they tell me.
For some reason all of the real earthmoving things that happened to me in my life happened in the summer time. Maybe I just always put myself into the uncomfortable heat in my mind because it suited my discomfort. Doctor Lipton would probably know more about that than I do. It couldn’t have been in the summer now that I think about it because the coal stove was going full steam that day. His name was Roy something or other and he and my mother had been having some kind of fling or something, and he was hanging around the house all of the time. He fashioned himself some kind of motorcycle dude and I could always hear him coming because of the chains that tinkled on his crappy denim jacket. The goober had crudely drawn some half-baked animal on the back of his uniform, but I have no idea to this day what it was supposed to be.
I remember hiding when I heard his combat boots first hit the stairs. A footfall on a wooden surface still chills me to this day. At first, it was because of the funny noises that came from my mother’s room when he went in there. I always thought that he was hurting her until I got brave enough to see what was going on. I still don’t really understand why they were doing what they were doing, but to this day it makes me feel sick to my stomach.
The first time that he visited my room was a different story. The things that he did to a child fill me with rage and I would rather not talk about them. Doctor Lipton told me that I was brave for telling him, but I don’t think that I can repeat it. Let’s just say that Ole Roy got what he deserved. Anyhow, like I said, it must have been cold out because I can remember the smell of the coal smoke. It is an unmistakable aroma and it stinks of sulfur and burning oil, but there is no better heat in the world. The kind of coal that we used to get wasn’t like the pure product of the east, but a sulfur rich brand that grew around southern Indiana. It doesn’t really matter. The only reason that I even mention it is because I needed that insatiable heat to finish the job.
Roy fancied himself some kind of mechanical genius and he was out in my daddy’s garage up to his elbows in grease, swearing away at whatever it was that he was trying to fix. He used to smoke those Tiparillo cigars, you know the cheap kind that they sold at the super market checkout back in the day. It seemed like the disgusting thing was always half burned out and a solid column of ash defied gravity as he refused to tend to it.
“Hey kid, come over here and hold this for me while I try to get this off of here,” he always called me “kid” because he knew that I hated it. I didn’t want to get that close to him, but I thought that it was better than causing a big scene, so I grabbed hold of the greasy ratchet steadily.
“Naw, not that. I want you to hold this for me,” he said grabbing his crotch and laughing right in my face. His breath could have choked a maggot. To my surprise, I started laughing as well. Pretty soon I was practically falling down in hysterics and that was when he hit me.
“Think you’re pretty smart don’t you? I’ll teach you to mock me you little bitch,” he snarled. He raised his grimy hand to hit me again.
There are some things in life that mean so much more later than they did at the time, and this particular instance was one of those times. I could have easily forgotten Roy Whatshisname since there has been so many more of his kind since then, but he was special for one reason. As the would-be biker’s hand hovered in the air I readied myself for the painful crunch of his blow, but it never came. Instead of the inevitable wicked smile that normally was splayed across his ugly face as his fist collided with my jaw there was a look of utter surprise upon his uneven features. As he tipped forward and hit the floor with a terrific thud, I began to understand why. There standing behind him, a ball peen hammer cocked and ready for another blow, was Charlie.
At first, I couldn’t really make out his mood from the way that he was looking at me. It was almost like an artist with a blank canvass. The anger that must have moved him to action was not present; instead, there was serenity and a willful purpose that was palpable. A lump formed heavily in my throat, and I moved toward him for comfort, but he stopped me with his gaze.
“Here take this and finish him off,” he said evenly, holding out the hammer toward me.
“He deserves it for what he did,” Charlie assured me, as I gripped the cold wooden handle tightly.
My beaten soul received its resurrection as the shiny steel struck home and the wonderful thud of death echoed in my ears for the first time. I can still feel the exhilaration of holding the power of life in my hand and taking everything from another human being. Charlie finally grabbed my hand as I raised the hammer for the final of a dozen blows.
“That’s enough. Do you have any idea what a Sawsall is?” he asked me coolly.
I thought that I knew what he was talking about, and I fetched a reciprocating saw from the bottom cabinet and brought it to him. He praised me, and then thanked me, as he plugged it into a wall socket and handed it to me. The weight of the tool felt good in my hands, and when I pulled the trigger, I had to hold it tighter than I figured in order to control the vibration. Charlie pointed at various places on Roy’s body where it would be easiest to cut it into pieces, and con mucho gusto, I went to work. It was pretty much the same process as a butcher went through every day, well besides the moral implications, of which I cared very little.
With the butchery completed, Charlie strolled over to the fire and threw a half a bucket full of coal on it and five or six pieces of hardwood for good measure. By the time that I picked up the first scraps of flesh and flung them into the inferno, it was blazing red-hot. Charlie fetched the garden hose while I pitched the rest of Roy into the fire. Pretty soon my antagonist was swirling down the drain and burning to ash. In a half hour there was nothing more for us to do but light up one of our victim’s Tiparillos that we had liberated before burning his clothes. I can say that I enjoyed ending Roy more after smoking that victory cigar for the first time, and ever since then I have refused to pollute my body with tobacco.
After the fire died down, Charlie and I collected the charred bones and stuck them in a gunnysack. The only things left of my mother’s boyfriend were a few bits of bone, a clean-as-a- whistle skull, and a handful of chain. We went behind the drug store around the block and tossed the remains into the dumpster there. I guess Roy wasn’t missed too much because I never heard anyone ask about him. The best thing about it all was that Charlie was with me every step of the way, and he has been with me every day since.
I sincerely wish that things had not had to change, but change is part of growing up. I may not have made the same choices that I did had I known that our relationship would suffer so much, but like the old man used to say, “it’s water under the bridge”. I have to admit that I miss the old days sometimes, especially at night alone in the dark.