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Authors: Caleb J. Ross

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Stranger Will

BOOK: Stranger Will
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Praise for

Stranger Will: a novel

“Just like a Palahniuk novel,
Stranger Will
reads volatile: it could go any way. Caleb J. Ross leads you with a wry smile into dark places, but by the time you realize it’s too late. You will follow him anywhere.”
Alan Emmins
, author of
Mop Men: Inside the World of Crime Scene

“As someone who teaches, edits and reads for a living, I’m always looking for the scene, the character, the story I haven’t read a thousand times over and over. Something with the spark of originality and the courage to be different…And, thanks to Caleb J. Ross and his
Stranger Will
, I had those moments of joy repeatedly throughout the book. This is an original—unlike anything you’ve ever read before.”
Rob Roberge
, author of
More than they Could Chew
Backwards from the Worst Moment of my Life

Stranger Will
is a nightmare landscape littered with the carcasses of fatherhood and various social mores. This is one paranoid, challenging, beautiful, and pitch-dark book. I’m a little afraid of this Ross guy now; but I’ll also read anything he writes.”
Paul Tremblay
, author of
The Little Sleep
In the Mean Time

“With ease, Ross seems to dare you to turn the page…His writing is fearless. The courageous reader will not be dissatisfied.”
Kristin Fouquet
, author of
Twenty Stories
Rampart & Toulouse

Stranger Will:
a novel


Caleb J. Ross


Winchester, UK
Washington, USA

First published by Perfect Edge Books, 2013

Perfect Edge Books is an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd., Laurel House, Station Approach, Alresford, Hants, SO24 9JH, UK

[email protected]

For distributor details and how to order please visit the ‘Ordering’ section on our website.

Text copyright: Caleb J. Ross 2012

ISBN: 978 1 78099 806 0

All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publishers.

The rights of Caleb J. Ross as author have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Design: Stuart Davies

Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY

We operate a distinctive and ethical publishing philosophy in all areas of our business, from our global network of authors to production and worldwide distribution.






For Jameson. I couldn’t have written this book with you.


Chapter One

William Lowson had seen a homeless man once before. This was back in Herman Essex, before moving to Brackenwood, before the pregnancy. Even before Julie. William figured him to be just a man with different tastes in clothing, a man like F. Lowson, William’s father, with his thin shirts and pants painted in oil and puddle water. But for that assumption, William was corrected. “That’s not a man,” F. Lowson told his son that day many years ago. “That is a bum.”

The bum hurled a dime, connected with F. Lowson’s neck. The father beat the bum, cursed him as the ambulance drove away, for making his taxes pay the impending hospital bill. Tiny William learned that day that some people are fit for fatherhood, and some aren’t.

An army of homeless claims the streets of Brackenwood.

They march in Salvation Army boots to the tune of secret voices, and chew MREs found in trash bins. They beg for change like their lives are judged at the end of bayonet. But all with white teeth. Clean hair, too. The bums of F. Lowson’s age barely had teeth or hair at all, and here these people were, like catalog model homeless, not an honest stereotype among them.

William had moved his fiancée to Brackenwood just months ago citing its high death rate as promise to a more lucrative life. He removed stains for a living, those left by dead bodies—from roads, from homes, from ditches. From schools, from church pews, from benches. Just the dying homeless alone—encouraged by disease, cold winters, and neglect—William thought would be enough to keep his growing family fed. Though food wasn’t his initial concern after recently learning of Julie’s pregnancy. Instead, he worried about contamination.

The phenyl lacquered into his fingerprint crevasses warps every bite of food into fire. Julie makes a strong goulash, but onion and paprika cannot mask the taste of chemicals used to absolve blood and skin from highways and dashboards. She can ferment a stiff sauerkraut, but even cabbage brine tastes like water when chased with residual Thermo-55 deodorizer.

He’s read every book available at the modest Brackenwood library, searching for a reason to believe that this child could survive beyond these chemicals. The olfactory lobes form as early as six weeks, he’s read. He didn’t know this until week ten when Julie finally revealed her pregnancy. By that time he’d already been inadvertently bathing the fetus in fumes he’d neglect washing from his clothes, instead letting them contaminate the air, fall into Julie’s mouth, down her throat, and into the amniotic fluid flowing through the fetus’s oral and nasal cavities. Biologists used to believe that smell depended on access to air. Now, they could blame William should anything happen. They could blame the bodies he cleans from the road as the source of his child’s imperfections.

“Stay away,” Julie says when William steps into the living room. “You smell like formaldehyde.” He smells chili on the stove, seasoned with the Virex TB cleaner wafting from his shirt.

With each chemical breath William dreams the inhaled fumes
formaldehyde, solidifying his insides, making him capable of just a few more years, a reason to think he could mutate his genes to give any children a few more days than God could.

He loves the baby already. He’s a realist, though. The child, he loves. The idea of a child, he’s beginning to understand, is where everything will go wrong.

He sleeps that night on the living room couch next to the phone. People seem to die a lot in the middle of the night.

Chapter Two

William saunters through the mudroom door, the engine of his bioremediation cleaning van still ticking in the driveway. He flicks a spent cigarette filter deep into the weeds overtaking the house’s north wall. Seen through romantic eyes the abode could be a cottage, but William suffers from universal practicality, a detriment he acknowledges, but only in private. It’s a home, just a building, a refuge maybe, inside which he sleeps and eats.

The cold living room air around him bends by the fumes from his clothes. He removes his shirt, kicks off his shoes, and pulls wet socks from his feet. He tosses the entire bundle into the corner of the living room just feet from Julie’s contorted face. “The bathroom,” she says, needing no other direction. William has dropped his chemical-soaked clothes on the floor enough times to bypass this daily confrontation, but he remains convinced that, yes, changing the routine this late into their pregnancy might subdue guilt, but only for the passing breath. With resentment, he collects the soaked clothes and carries them to the bathroom, his discontent disturbing his already arrhythmic pulse.
Slow breaths
, he tells himself.

He returns to the living room and drops to the couch. The fabric’s imbedded vapors cool his skin, raise goose bumps and a quick shiver. Julie tosses him an accusatory glance, dismissing his drama. He absorbs the look and returns with a cold stare straight into Julie’s womb.

It has no face, no permanent name. No morals, no beliefs. No idea. It exists tucked beneath Julie’s skin, already a malcontent.
, he calls it. The word makes him laugh. Even preconception the child has no chance. Julie pulls a red-threaded needle through a white cloth, humming a dirge lullaby.

Seven months and twenty-six days and already Julie has decided against adoption. Though no child at all was William’s first choice, adoption would at least pass the burden to a capable couple.

“No eyes?” William says. “Or what if it has extra parts?” Needle in. Needle out.

“What if it, within the first few weeks, shows interest in pointed objects and knows how kitchen drawers work?” he asks. “You are a deep sleeper,” he reminds her, but she continues to handle her needle and thread with precision.

Julie is proud of her role as the tough Lowson, always has been. Diets don’t work for William. Pacing himself with indulgences always ends in a countdown:
two weeks and I can eat a brownie
Three days and I have proven to Julie that I don’t
a cigarette
. Once, after an argument over his smoking Julie decided to start only to prove that she could quit. Two years and one ambitious addiction later she stopped mid-cigarette, staring at William for effect as she flattened the butt into an ashtray, knuckles white, her grin stretched. William admires her will power, though he could do without her drive to use it against him.

“What if it’s born with seven fingers?” he asks. “Jutting from its face.”

“Then we’ll love it even more,” is always her answer. Spoken in the collective
, the way a teacher might instruct first grade students on the broader points of morality; love good, indifference bad.

Julie has settled on keeping this child and nothing William could say would convince her to avoid clothes shopping and garage sales. Nothing could close her book of names—Regis for a boy, Sarah for a girl. Once, William asked her about neutral names, hermaphroditic possibilities; her cheeks flexed. William braced himself for contact, hoping to receive a slap hard enough to provoke legal questions regarding his ability to care for a child. In his head, the option gained better traction each day. But, she calmed.

This was after a failed meeting with an adoption agent Julie agreed to only if it would settle William’s concerns. He continued, however, using magazine articles, newspaper headlines, tabloid clippings, medical journals, and bar graphs all supporting his theories regarding the eminent turmoil associated with “bringing a child to term in a world like ours.”

“We can’t do this,” he told her. “Someone else can. We shouldn’t
do this.”

After seven months and twenty-six days, Julie confidently displays her mastery of composure: “We will.”

She was a waitress when they met, well-acquainted through Sunday afternoon buffets and Monday night breakfast platters. He would watch her flirt with truckers. He believed she had a plan. She would fill her apron with tips and phone numbers, filtering the latter into a small wastebasket below the cash register. After weeks of fabricated attempts, he finally managed eye contact like it was accidental. They pretended brief touching didn’t mean anything. They ate meals at rival restaurants. They fell in love. They got pregnant.

“Seven months and twenty-six days,” William says to Julie. She sits in their abused family-heirloom recliner, cross-stitching, the same as her mother and grandmother did before her. “That’s not enough time to make up your mind about something you’ve never seen.” He grabs a clean shirt from a pile at the foot of the couch.

“It wouldn’t make any difference, William.” She starts the final stroke of an ‘M’. “It’s inside me. We’ve bonded.”

This is an every morning routine. Having quit her job in quality assurance along the factory line of Merling Auto Parts, citing the move to Brackenwood and back problems—the combination of her pregnancy and large frame—Julie sits at home and collects money. Not enough, but William’s smoking and her entertainment for the now lax afternoons are covered. They call her disability checks “the vice fund.” One of the few inside jokes they still have, the only they share with equal enthusiasm. “Remember Paul,” William says. “He was in me. I thought I liked him.”

BOOK: Stranger Will
3.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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