Shotgun Gravy: An Excerpt

I’m told by many that they’re really enjoying the book and they didn’t know what to expect and, hey, maybe an excerpt would be wise. Here, then, is an excerpt of SHOTGUN GRAVY, the first Atlanta Burns novella. It’s taken not from the beginning of the book but is 2,000 words from the first third. Check it out. If you like it:

Kindle (US): Buy Here

Kindle (UK): Buy Here

Nook: Buy Here

PDF (Direct): Buy Here

* * *

It’s gone dim by the time Atlanta gets home. Sky the color of a bruised cheek.

Mom’s in the garage, face lit by the little TV she’s got sitting on a cooler. The cigarette between her two fingers has a long, crumbly ash hanging there, smoldering like a snake made of cinders.

When she sees her daughter her face lights up. “We got our check today.” She fishes underneath her butt sitting there on the cot and pulls out an envelope and waggles it around. Then she notices: “Oh, shoot, this is the power bill. Gosh-dang PP&L, they didn’t even read the meter last month. They just estimated a bunch of nonsense. Thieves, I’m telling you. And it’s legal. But we did get our check.”

“Super,” Atlanta says, not meaning it. She moves to head inside.

“It’s funny,” Mom says a little too loudly. “I remember we’d go to the bank, you and I, and you were obsessed with the lollipops they had in a fishbowl by the counter. You wanted the blue ones, always the blue ones. I don’t even know what they tastes like. Wasn’t blueberry. I don’t think anything in nature tastes like that so I called ‘em ‘Windex Pops,’ but Lords-a-mercy, if they didn’t have any Windex Pops in the bowl you would go unhinged, so one time—“

“Great story but I don’t care,” Atlanta says.

Her mother’s face falls like a ruined soufflé. “I’m just saying, I need to go to the bank to cash this. I thought you and me could hop in the Oldsmobile and go into town. Maybe checkout the consignment store. Been wantin’ a new mixer.”

“Here’s an idea. Get a job instead and then we don’t need to rely on you getting money from the state for doing nothing at all. What a crazy idea.”

Then Atlanta goes inside, ignoring her mother’s stunned, stung face.

She slams the door and goes and pops two Adderall soon as she’s inside.

 

* * *

 

The Adderall is good. Real good. The high has no jagged edges. And it does the opposite of those anti-whatevers they gave her at Emerald Lakes. Those little pills, each the shape of a baseball home plate, each the color of Pepto Bismol, softened everything. Life through a Vaseline-smeared lens. It took the pain and smothered it under a downy mattress.

The Adderall takes the pain and straight up ignores it. It makes all the other shit going on so much more interesting, diminishing the pain by removing its bite. That night, she doesn’t sleep because she doesn’t have to. She cleans her room. She takes a walk down the driveway under the midnight moon, notices the windows of light still coming from the cat lady’s house next door, she goes back inside and writes that seven-page paper demanded by that hag, Mrs. Lewis. (Of course, it’s a seven-paged hate-fueled screed written in bold strokes with permanent marker.)

Atlanta even cleans the shotgun. She doesn’t have gun oil so she uses WD-40 and olive oil. She doesn’t have a barrel brush, but she does have a wire clothing hanger that she bends and breaks and corkscrews into a wad of paper towel.

She even pulls back the hammer and goes to clean it, but next thing she knows her heart feels like a jar of moths and it’s like she’s standing on the edge of a building teetering on the balls of her feet—the vertigo threatens to overwhelm her, to eat her the way a bullfrog eats a mayfly.

The shotgun has to go. She slides it under her bed.

For the rest of the night she lays above it, staring at her ceiling with wide open eyes, willing her heart to stop flipping and fluttering.

 

* * *

 

“Psst!”

Whatever that is, Atlanta assumes it has nothing to do with her.

She’s got her locker open and going through the motions—pulling books down off the shelf and letting them tumble into her bag even though at class-time she’ll instead just sit in the back and read her Stephen King novel du jour (today it’s The Stand), collecting that sweet B+—and she’s thinking too about how she didn’t sleep one wink last night and doesn’t feel tired. Sure, the Adderall’s blissful ignorance failed her eventually, but really, that was her fault. C’mon. Getting out the shotgun? It’d be like juggling a couple of hornet’s nests and wondering how you got stung.

Then: “Psst! Tsst! Fsst!”

Again, ignorance is bliss.

She slams her locker shut, takes a long slurp from a Diet Coke.

Motion catches her attention at the corner of her eye.

“Atlanta! Hey!”

It’s Shane Lafluco. That squat little tamale. Shit, is that racist? Dang. Whatever. Shane’s well put together again: Polo shirt, khakis, wingtips, not a hair out of place (so much so it calls to mind the plastic hair-helmets you snap onto LEGO figures, she thinks). He’s hiding behind the water fountain which nobody uses because the water tastes like weed-killer. He waves her over and then ducks into the alcove behind him.

Yeah, no. She walks the other way.

But it isn’t long before she hears the clop-clop-clop of his feet behind her, his little legs pinwheeling to catch up. “Wait. Wait.”

She spins. “Dude. C’mon. Just trying to go to class here.”

“I need your help.”

“Oh,” she says. “Here.” Then she musses up his hair. “High school makeover, complete. Now you don’t look like some kind of rocket scientist golf champion. We’ll call that one a freebie. See you.”

She turns, but he steps in front of her, desperately trying to put his hair back in its well-ordered place.

“No,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I need you for something else.”

“Because me helping you the other day wasn’t good enough?”

“You’ll get paid,” he says.

Through her teeth, she hisses: “What is it you think I’ll do for money, exactly? Just because—“

“Oh! No. No.” A genuine look of panic hits his face like a bucket of ice water. Flustered, he holds up both hands and looks embarrassed. “I wouldn’t—I don’t—no, no, that’s not what I mean—“

“Calm down,” she says, voice low. Others are starting to look as Shane continues babbling. She says it louder: “I said, calm down. Just go. I’ll follow. I said, go!”

 

* * *

 

She recognizes the boy waiting for her at the alcove’s end, sitting there on the lip of a planter where a plastic tree “grows.” Chris Coyne. One of the school’s self-proclaimed “Gay Mafia.” Each of them gayer and more fabulous than the last. She knows a few of them—or, knew them once, since nobody seems all that inclined to talk to her anymore—and they seemed nice enough, though gossipy.

Coyne’s got his legs crossed. His hands steepled in front of him. His chin is up like he don’t give a fuck.

But when he sees her, that veneer of disaffected pomposity vanishes in a powder flash. His face lights up when she enters the alcove, trailed by Shane. Atlanta’s not used to this kind of attention.

She is, of course, immediately suspicious.

“Oh, God,” she says. “What?”

Coyne leaps up, beaming. He starts to move in for a hug but she recoils as if he’s coming at her with a pair of gory stumps instead of hands. He retreats, but the beaming doesn’t quit.

“It’s the Get-Shit-Done Girl,” Coyne says. An eager, excited little clap follows.

“The who?” she asks, incredulous. “The hell does that mean?”

“I told him what you did for me,” Shane says.

“And we all know what you did before that,” Coyne says, laying it out there bold and bright as day, putting it on the table the way someone might drop a microphone and walk off stage. As if she doesn’t understand, he goes above and beyond to clarify: “The thing you did to your step-father.”

Ugh. Was that the story that was going around? Step-father? Jesus.

“It wasn’t my—“ she begins but then says, “You know what, fuck this. I gotta go.”

But before she again turns to escape this situation, Shane is exhorting her to stay and begging Coyne to lift his shirt and “show her, show her what you showed me.”

Coyne takes a deep breath and turns around. He undoes his black-knit sweater vest, and then begins to unbutton his shirt which is an orange so bright she wonders if he’s going hunting later in some kind of gay nature preserve.

When he lets the shirt fall, her breath catches.

Dotting up from his lower back and trailing up his spine are a series of small circular wounds. Burns, she thinks. Each the size of a pencil eraser. They’re still crusty and enflamed. One weeps clear fluid as the scab cracks. The burns go up to the base of his neck—around the point of his collar—but not beyond. Like the attacker didn’t want to show off his handiwork. Like it was a message just for Chris Coyne.

“Cigarette burns,” Coyne says over his shoulder. “They’re particularly, ahh, pesky given the ingredients list in your average cigarette. They don’t heal easy. Did you know in England they call cigarettes fags? Here I am: a fag burned by a fag. Go figure, huh?” His words are glib, brave, but his tone  doesn’t match: his voice shakes a little. He’s trying to cork that bottle, keep the fear from coming out.

It’s a familiar feeling.

He puts his shirt back on. “They went further. They took my pants off. Shoved a bunch of hot peppers up my butt, spackled it over with peanut butter so it held the peppers up in there. Sounds funny, I know, and if it didn’t happen to me I’d laugh, too.”

Atlanta’s not laughing. She says as much. In fact, she’s pretty horrified.

“I pooped blood for a week,” Coyne says, matter-of-factly. Now she sees it: the tears at the edges of his eyes, glistening, filling up, but never falling down his cheeks. He blinks them back, and massages underneath his eyes for some reason. “When they did it, they said… they said that this will teach me that it’s an exit, not an entrance. Ironic given that they were sticking things in my ass, but I don’t suspect that any of these fine upstanding citizens are in line for the Nobel this year.”

“There was more than one, then,” she says.

He nods. “Four of them.”

“And you know who they are?”

Another nod.

“And what is it you want me to do about this, exactly? Against four pissed off gay basher bullies?”

“You took down three bullies the other day.”

Shane grins. “She did. You did. It was pretty sweet.”

“You want me to scare them? Hurt them? Get revenge? That what this is about? Revenge?”

“Maybe,” Chris says. “Yes. I don’t know. What I really want is I want them not to do it again. They told me they would. If I didn’t ‘stop being gay.’ As if that was an option I could select on the menu.” He stares off at a distant point. “Even if they don’t hurt me again they’ll hurt somebody.”

She’s chewing on her lip. This is a bad idea. No good can come of this. Is this who she is? Is this who people think she is, now, or who she should be? Still. Coyne’s face is back to his untouchable, unfazed façade—any sign of tears are long gone. But his hands are still shaking.

Her hands shake too, sometimes.

“I’ll give you five hundred dollars,” he says, finally.

Wow.

She lets that pickle.

She owes Guy $100 for the pills. The other four would be nice to have.

“Fine. Meet me at my house. Today. After school.”

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