On this very special A. LEE MARTINEZ APPRECIATION DAY!!, I’m sharing the first chapter of my new work in progress. The working title is Unbearable, but I’ll probably change that at some point. In fact, I’ll probably change a lot of things. Thats what the In-Progress for Work-In-Progress means.
And thanks for caring. I only get paid because you do.
You find the strangest stuff when digging your own grave.
The spade broke the soft earth easily. I’d dug out a shallow trench and wasn’t even tired. And I’d worried I’d meet my end sweaty and out of breath.
@Roger sat on a tree stump, watching me with a pistol across his lap. I liked Roger. He was a good guy. Despite the situation, I still thought of us as friends.
“How deep do we want this?” I asked, tossing more dirt to the side.
“Deep enough that we don’t have any arms or legs sticking out,” he said.
“What about dogs?” I said. “Probably have to be fairly deep to avoid having dogs find me.”
“What would dogs be doing out here?” he said.
“You never know. The road’s just over that ridge. Someone ditches a dog at the edge of the woods. The poor thing is hungry and confused. Finds a tasty corpse to dig up.”
Roger frowned. “Who would abandon a dog out here?”
“People do bad things.”
“Yeah.” He took a puff of his cigarette and scowled at the universe. “Fucking people. Just keep digging. I’ll tell you when to stop.”
He had the gun, so I kept digging. As long as I was digging, there was always a chance things might change. I’d always been an optimist. Optimism had not been kind enough to return the favor. But I wasn’t dead yet, and I had been meaning to get more exercise, and it was a nice night. Things could have been worse.
Irish luck, as my dad was fond of saying, though he wasn’t Irish and never had an ounce of good fortune in his life.
“Was she worth it?” asked Roger.
I paused digging, rolled the question around in my head.
He cracked a grin under the pale light of the full moon. “That’s a shame.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, returning to digging. “A real shame.”
The shovel hit something hard. There was a little clang. I worked the soil loose. It crumbled easily between my fingers as I wrapped my hands around something, pulling it from the earth.
“Is that a sword?” asked Roger.
A few bits of dirt clung to the weapon, but it was otherwise as shiny and new as the day it was made.
“Who buries a sword?” said Roger.
I brushed some dirt off it It wasn’t much. I didn’t know a lot about swords, but I knew enough to recognize a no frills model when I saw it.
“Let me see that,” said Roger.
I said it without thinking. The sword felt right in my hands. Like it was meant for me right now at this moment. Like it had been waiting all this time, under the earth, for me to come along.
He pointed the gun at me.
“I’m not through digging,” I said.
“Eh, I can finish it up. Good-bye, Ortiz.”
Before he could pull the trigger, the ground rumbled. A tall, thick tree uprooted itself, toppling over. It crushed Roger beneath it.
I climbed out of the hole and checked on him. His legs stuck out from under it like the Wicked Witch of the East. I couldn’t see the rest of him.
“Hey, Roger,” I said. “You okay down there?”
He didn’t respond. His legs didn’t even twitch.
“He was unworthy,” said someone behind me.
I turned to see a tall woman sitting on the stump he’d been occupying not long ago. She had long red hair and deep green eyes and sparkling blue skin. She wore jeans and a frilly shirt and was barefoot.
She spoke quietly, but with purpose. She spoke, and the world quieted to listen to every word.
“One cannot make demands of destiny without consequence.”
“Is he dead?” I don’t know why I asked her. Just struggling to make conversation.
“Does it matter?” she replied. “If he lives, he learns. If he dies . . . . ” She shrugged. “You, on the other hand, have become very important. You bear a boon.”
I’d left the sword in the trench. Or so I thought. I had it in my hand.
“There are those born for greatness. There are those who forge greatness through will and determination.” She moved toward me. Her eyes changed from green to brown to gold to red, shifting with each step. “And then there are those of us who make the decision for them, Ortiz.”
“How do you know my name?”
She nodded to the fallen tree. “Overheard him.”
“How long have you been here?”
“What is time to such as us?” She said,“I was once where you were. For me, it was a chalice. The first one, at least. You never forget the first one.”
She eyed the sword.
“You can’t have it,” I said.
She chuckled. “Never said I wanted it. All I want is to say hello. When a new bearer is made, there’s always a witness. Just the way it works. I’m Gwen. Walk with me.”
We walked toward the ridge. We weren’t that far out of town, but this road led nowhere in particular, so there wasn’t much traffic at this time of night.
“You are now a man of purpose,” she said. “The universe has given you a responsibility.”
“That seems like a bad idea.”
“Nobody said the universe was smart.”
My car was parked nearby. I searched my pockets for the keys, only now remember then that they were in Roger’s pockets. And Roger was under a bigass tree. It was discouraging, but considering how my night could have gone, I tried to look on the bright side.
“So this is a magic sword?” I asked.
“Sort of.” She leaned against the car. “But most of its magic is locked away until you put it in the right hands.”
“Whose,” she corrected. “I’m hungry. Do want to get some pancakes or something?”
“I don’t have my keys,” I said.
“Try the door. Maybe your friend forgot to lock his side.”
I pulled the handle, and the door opened. I could’ve sworn I saw Roger lock it, but maybe not.
I put the sword in the backseat. I debated whether it was safer to put the pointy side up or down deciding to lay it across the floorboard. After we climbed into the car, I said, “Still don’t have the keys.”
“Try the visor.”
I pulled down the visor. Keys fell into my lap.
“But I saw him take these and put them in his pocket,” I said.
“Did you?” She nodded toward the road. “Drive.”
The road eventually hit the freeway and from there it was only a short drive to the edge of town. I had a questions, but I didn’t ask them. I was alive. I allowed myself to enjoy that for a while.
She pointed to a Denny’s. “Pancakes.”
I worried the person in charge of seating would give me a hard time about the sword, but I couldn’t leave it behind. I hadn’t even realized I’d picked it back up until she came to greet us. Grabbing it was just a reflex.
There are TV shows and movies where people are able to walk around with swords by hiding them under long coats or behind their back or some bullshit like that. This, unsurprisingly, was not possible for me. I didn’t have a long coat, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have worked.
The woman in charge of seating looked at us, a sparkling blue woman and a guy covered in dirt, carrying a sword.
“Table or booth?”
“Surprise us,” said Gwen.
The woman smiled politely enough to feign amusement, but also with cold eyes that said she was not genuinely amused. Soon we were sitting at a booth, perusing through the menu while the server got our drinks. I sat the sword beside me, point up to keep from poking holes in the upholstery.
“Who buried this?” I asked.
“Perhaps it wasn’t buried,” she replied. “Perhaps it was formed when the world was young, forged from the primal forces of creation itself, pushed forth through the crust until you came across it.”
“That seems unlikely.”
“Unlikely things happen every day,” she said. “Strawberry or banana?”
“What’s your preference?”
“I like blueberry.”
She stuck out her tongue. “Hard to believe the universe would trust you as a bearer, but who am I to question it?”
The server returned, took our orders. After she was gone, Gwen said, “Why isn’t she making a big deal about the sword? That’s what you’re wondering, right.”
“Had crossed my mind.”
“People see what they want to see, what they’re ready to see. She’s not ready.”
“So I’m not supposed to give the sword to her?” I asked.
Gwen said, “Do you want to give it to her?”
“Well, then you shouldn’t give it to her.”
“But I could, if I wanted to?” I said.
“It’s your boon to offer. You can give it to whomever you want. Put as much or as little thought into it as you desire.” She took a sip of her Diet Coke. “I gave the chalice to a beggar because he had kind eyes. Gave a pen to a woman because I just didn’t feel like carrying it anymore. Every bearer sets their own standards. You’ve heard of the Lady of the Lake, I assume.”
I studied the plain sword. “This is Excalibur?”
I felt it then, the burden she’d been talking about. I carried a sword of destiny, a maker of kings and legends, a blade forged–
“Oh, please,” Gwen said. “Like the universe would hand that over to a new bearer. I’m just using her as an example. The Lady was very particular. Held onto Excalibur for ages. Took it back when Arthur pissed her off. Never taken anything back myself, but Arthur was kind of a douche. Not like you imagine. Legend is a murky pool of shit green water. Little bits of gunk float to the surface that mortals write down and call history. Most of it sinks to the bottom, never to be dredged up again. Only people who really know are people like us who stand on the sidelines and give out the boons.”
She laughed. “I used to care a lot more, but after a while, you see how little it matters. Humans are humans. Magic swords and enchanted hats don’t change that. Easy to get disillusioned. Probably why the Lady has kept Excalibur to herself all these centuries. I wouldn’t choose to sit sulking in a lake all that time, but I get it.
“But you have plenty of time to get bitter, and it’s not all bad. Your boon isn’t all burden. While you carry it you no longer age. And the universe watches over you. No mortal may stand between a bearer and their burden.”
“So I don’t age. Does that mean I’m immortal?”
She said, “By mortal hand, fang of beast, or nature’s wrath, a bearer will not perish. Age falls under the nature’s wrath category, I guess. Nothing of this world can harm a hair on your head. The universe won’t usually drop a tree on anyone who tries. I think it was just showing off on that one.”
The server came over with our food. Gwen poured syrup on her tall stack of pancakes. When I started to ask another question, she held up a hand.
“Can’t talk. Eating.”
We ate instead of talking, and my BLT tasted pretty good, considering I could’ve been dead. After she pushed away her plate, she continued.
“Most importantly, while you carry that boon, you are a favored child of the universe.” She held out her hand. “Let me see your wallet.”
She pulled out all the cash and credit cards. She tore up all the money and twisted the cards into pieces. When I tried to say something, she just winked at me.
She said, “Trust me. Have any other money on you?”
“Turn out your pockets. Just to be sure.”
“Great. Let’s pay the bill now.”
She walked up to our server at the cashier. “It’s on him.” She handed me my empty wallet, aside from a sandwich club frequent buyer card.
The server gave me the check as I absently reached into my pocket, but I had nothing. I was about to explain that when I spotted something under my dirty sneaker. I moved my foot aside to see several folded bills. I handed it to the cashier.
“The question you’re asking is was that always there or did the universe conjure it up just now?” said Gwen. She handed me a yellowed envelope. “A gift from me to you.”
I opened it, spilling the contents onto my hand. The small key didn’t look like anything special, but neither did my sword.
“Your boon?” I asked.
“We don’t give boons to each other,” she replied. “Just a little something you’ll need. Use it when the time is right. You’ll know when. Bueno suerte, Ortiz.”
“I don’t speak Spanish,” I said.
That amused her. “It means good luck.” She stepped outside with a nod and smile.
The cashier tried to give me back my change, but I waved it away. It wasn’t my money. Or maybe it was, but I figured she was having a bad day of her own, so why not share my fortune.
Outside, Gwen was gone.
I stood there, holding the sword. It wasn’t mine to keep, but it was mine. And while it was, the world was on my side for once. It was too good to be true, but maybe I was due some good luck for once.
With a song in my heart and a smile on my face, I stepped off the curb. It was my fault that I wasn’t paying attention, even if the car was going way too fast for a parking lot. The headlights blinded me for a moment before the car hit a pothole, bouncing just to one side, colliding with a lamppost embedded in concrete, hitting hard enough to put a sizeable dent and trigger the airbags.
The passenger door opened, and a big guy fell out, stumbling around on shaky legs. Blood trickled down his nose. His nose might have been broken. Or maybe it was just like that.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he slurred.
“Sorry,” I said.
He didn’t take the apology in the spirit it was offered, and if he could see the sword, he didn’t care. He reached for me with his meaty hands.
A truck plowed into him, missing me by inches. The guy was launched a dozen feet as the truck came to a screeching stop. Its driver stuck his head out the window.
“Oh, shit, dude.” He looked at the crumpled guy, then at me. “Shit, dude. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good.” I pulled the sword closer, holding it in two hands. “I’m great.”