throwing stones — chapter five

Ron watched the woman in the yellow suit as she talked to the soldiers. She was tall and thin like Jan, but Ron couldn't see her face to find out whether there was a resemblance. She held a cane, and Ron figured that this must be the "Tammy" who her father had mentioned before, who had borrowed Jan's cane and who had got them through the roadblocks on their way to the city.

The soldiers were listening to Tammy as she talked. Ron couldn't really follow what she was saying, but she had the idea that the exact words didn't matter anyway.

"Gentlemen," Tammy said finally, "please accompany me outside."

They left in a group, and Vicki sighed. "We need the eggs," she said quietly.

Jan peered at her sister dubiously. "Eggs? What eggs?" she demanded.

"It's like the old joke my grandfather used to tell. 'My uncle thinks he's a chicken.' 'Well, why don't you take him to a psychiatrist?' 'Because we need the eggs.'" She shook her head, smiling. "Our mother has insane delusions that she's a successful and persuasive lawyer. But we can't try to cure her; we need the eggs." She turned to Ray. "What do you think of all this?"

He ran his hands through his long, stringy hair, which was wet. With that and the robe he was wearing, it appeared that Vicki and Jan had hauled him out of the shower. Ron thought she knew what had really happened.

"I think two things," Ray said. "One is that I am very curious about how she did that. Which I expect you won't tell me. But, more important, I think this may not be isolated. We need to cover the bridges and set up some sort of security. Right away."

Vicki nodded. "I agree."

"This wasn't an invasion," Ray said. "If they were going to invade for real, they wouldn't send a few men with just a sergeant in charge. I suspect this was a group of soldiers who got cut off and decided to do their own thing. I hope she interrogates them when she has them." He frowned. "I didn't think to suggest it before they left. But there may be others, and a real invasion may come, too. We're going to have to wait on everything else for a bit. We need to get somebody to cover the entrances, the bridges, before–"

Tammy came back in and closed the door behind her. She smiled. "All taken care of. They're headed for the bridge. We won't see them again." Ray made a face, but he didn't say anything.

Tammy sat down and Marshall looked around. "Where did Sam go?" he asked. Ron noticed that the Black man with the beard was gone, so she guessed that was "Sam."

"He's gone," Tammy said idly. "It was never really going to work with he and I, you know." She smiled. "It was fun, but I intimidate men like that. I'm very successful in everything I do, I make a lot of money, and I'm fantastic in bed. That makes men uneasy, unless they're really self-confident. Sam's a nice guy, but he doesn't bring a lot to the table."

The others were speechless for a moment, until Sam opened the door and came in with two cups of tea. He placed one in front of Tammy, and she smiled. "Why, thank you, dear," she said. "That was very thoughtful."

As they sat down around the table again, Sam glanced quickly at Ron, obviously wondering who she was. He leaned over to whisper something to Tammy, who shrugged without turning around.

So, Terry knew who Ron was, but apparently Tammy didn't know and didn't care. The room was gloomy and everybody was somewhat grimy and dirty, except for Tammy who was spotlessly clean, including her long red hair, and she seemed to glow as if she could have lit the room herself if the candles had blown out. She looked less like Jan than Terry did, but that could have been because Terry wore glasses and Tammy didn't.

Marshall had remained standing. "I can coordinate the bridges," he said. "Let me go and see what I can set up."

"Ask Pat to come in," Vicki said. He nodded and left.

Ron was not looking forward to being stuck on this sofa until somebody got around to moving her, but she was looking forward to being there for the meeting, since she was sure she would learn more about what was going on. Marshall had told Terry that he didn't know, but somebody must have learned something by now.

She did wonder what time it was. Usually when she came in to deliver the mail the room was quite bright, with the the sun coming in through the two windows. Then, when the sun was high, they turned on the overhead lights.

But now the windows were dark, and there was no power. There were two candles on the meeting table in the center of the room, and they flickered and blew occasionally, throwing odd shadows on the walls.

The big table had twelve chairs. They were seldom all used, as far as Ron had ever seen, but so many of them were empty now that it made Ron think of the people who were missing, who should have been there for a meeting like this.

Jan took out her cigarette case. She lit a cigarette and then held the case out to Ray, who took one also.

Ray Stone was a drunk. Nobody had ever told Ron that, but she was very familiar with the signs. Her birth father had always said, "Never rely on a drunk. In an emergency, he'll just crawl into the nearest bottle." Of course, Ron's birth father was an asshole, so she didn't want to take his word for anything. But she thought that this was pretty much what Ray had done when things had exploded. He looked like he'd been drinking, and then Vicki had tossed him into the shower to sober him up before dragging him down to the meeting room.

Ron was never going to drink. There was a whole list of things that Ron was never going to do, but that was at the top of the list. Well, almost at the top.

Pat came in, and Vicki motioned for her to sit down. "I need to find out everything we know about what's happened." She gestured at Sam and Tammy. "This is Sam and Tammy. They're going to try to help us." She jumped up on the table and sat cross-legged. "Tell us everything you can, and take your time," she said to Pat. "Start with the big picture. We can get updated on specific people later.

"It was awful," Pat said. "At first we didn't know what had happened. I guess we still don't know, not really. The explosion happened first thing in the morning. You could hear it all over, it was very loud."

"Were a lot of people injured?" Jan asked.

"A lot of people were killed," Ray said. "And many more were injured. And the hospital is pretty close to the river so it was basically ruined, though I think most of the patients got out. Like many buildings near the river, it was flooded in addition to everything else, since we're so close to sea level. It's still standing, but it's no place you'd want to bring someone who needed medical help."

"People came here," Pat said, "just like we've always told them to in an emergency. Well, here or the hospital, but if they went there first, they came here anyway. We sent runners to the bridge, but mostly we sent teams around to look for people who were hurt. We were bringing them here at first because I didn't know what else to do, but there's no medicine or anything here. The hotel had some first aid kits, with bandages and a few other things, but we used them up pretty quick. Then somebody thought to send people to the school, because they have an infirmary there, and all the supplies for the First Aid classes. That wasn't my idea, but it was a good one, so we started doing that."

Ray looked at Pat. "Are we sending teams into the city, or just around U-town?"

"U-town. We still have injured people of our own–"

"We need to start sending people to the city, too. Soon. Not instead of around here, but some need to do both. For two reasons. Right now, people are concentrating, and correctly so, on the immediate needs. People missing, people injured, people trapped. But, not very long from now, they're going to start askng questions and expecting answers. From us. About what the hell happened–"

"And is any more of it going to happen," Vicki added.

"Exactly. So, we need to be finding out what can." He turned to Tammy, but he obviously couldn't figure out what to say. Or, Ron reflected, she was preventing him from speaking. She was looking at him as though he was an excaped mental patient, which was pretty much what he looked like.

Marshall smiled at Tammy. "If we do get into communication with any other soldiers, counselor, it would be good to learn what we can from them."

She nodded. "That should be no problem."

Sam turned to Ray. "Excuse me, but what's your other idea about the teams going to the city? And what type of teams are you talking about?"

"Medical teams," Ray said. "A lot of how we work around here is going out to people with medical help, rather than expecting sick and injured people all to come to us. As for going to the city, I agree that our first priority has to be our own citizens, but this can't turn into us-versus-them. Who knows at this point what kind of mess we're in, how bad it will be, how long it will last? Not me, that's for sure.

"But I have a more practical reason for saying we have to go over the bridge. That's where the medicine is. Most of our supplies were in the basement of the hospital, and they're ruined. Depending on how things are over in the city, there may be abandoned drugstores and doctor's offices all over the place. We need what they contain, both for our people and for theirs. We're suffering because we centered so much on the hospital." He shrugged. "Something to learn from, if we live long enough."

Ron was wondering about what wasn't being said. What about Doc Morse and Jack Longstreet? Where were they?

U-town had been Ray's idea. She didn't need a Civics class to tell her that; she'd learned it from her parents. But it had been Doc Morse that had made it happen. She had realized that Ray's idea, that a combination of factors had made it possible for U-town to secede from the United States, could actually work. Ron's parents had told her about this, about the local factors, and the national and international ones, but it was clear that there had been one more factor as well, which they didn't tell her about.

Jack had been their voice, she knew, a big, handsome guy with a big voice and a talent for words. Ron had never liked him. She thought he was an idiot. He had sometimes clapped her on the back when she delivered the mail, and then he'd laughed when she kicked him.

Sometimes she threw out his mail, figuring that no mail for him could possibly be important anyway.


"Ron..."

"Fuck. What?" Ron opened her eyes. She'd dozed off, obviously. She hoped she hadn't been making noise. Her parents told her that sometimes she ground her teeth in her sleep.

"Sorry to wake you," Vicki said, "but I need you to understand something."

Vicki was standing next to the sofa. Ron glanced around. Tammy and Sam were gone. Jan, Marshall, Pat, and Ray were still there.

"What?"

"We're going to talk about Doc and Jack now. I need to know what happened to them, and I can tell from Ray's expression that I'm not going to like the answer. So, whatever we're about to learn, let's keep it just between us. Okay?"

"I'm not a blabbermouth," Ron said.

Vicki smiled and squeezed her shoulder. "I know you're not. But I had to say it." She turned to Pat and nodded, resuming her seat on the table.

"I was asleep when the explosion happened," Pat began, "or whatever it was. I woke up and the room was full of smoke and junk, and I didn't feel you in the bed with me. For a moment I panicked and thought something had happened to you, but then I remembered that you were away. I came downstairs, and Jack was here in the meeting room. Everything outside on the street was a mess, windows were blown out and everything, but the hotel was okay.

"I asked Jack what had happened, and he said he didn't know. Doc had gone over to the hospital to help with the wounded." She shook her head. "Then a runner came in and told us that he'd seen a wall collapse on Doc, or someone who looked like her, between here and the hospital."

"I went to look, and it was her," Ray said quietly. "That's when I started my little... toot. Without her and Jack, and with you two away, I couldn't imagine what I could do."

"I was glad you weren't here," Pat said quietly to Vicki.

"You were here, and I should have been." Vicki smiled and shook her head. "I'm pretty hard to damage. But what happened to Jack?"

Pat shrugged. "I have no idea."

Vicki was about to say something, but Ray said, "What do you think happened to him?"

She turned and saw his expression. "What do you mean?" she asked.

He sighed. "He's gone, obviously," he said. "Left, split, flew the coop." He shook his head. "Take off those rose-colored glasses and think about Jackson Longstreet for a minute, just think about him. Do you really think he was going to stick around when things got tough?" Pat looked upset, but Vicki was not reacting at all. "When you were cleaning me up, you said that I'd been around for the better so now I had to help with the worse. Well, I guess I'm not as cynical as I thought, because I'm still here. But if we're going to survive this, and do more than survive it, we'd damn well better be seeing and thinking clearly. About everything, even each other."

Jan took off her glasses and wiped her eyes. "I think he's right," she said. "Damn it."

Vicki looked around the table. "For now, at least, this doesn't go any further than this room. Not even to Sam and Tammy. Jack is missing and presumed dead. We will have a service, I have no idea what kind, but we'll invent something, for both of them, for Jack and Doc."

Ray started to speak, but she continued, "You want to talk about seeing and thinking clearly? Okay, think about this. Are the people out there in better or worse shape with us trying to help figure this out? Well, they know that when the trouble came, two of us weren't here, one went on a bender, and two others vanished." She placed her hands flat on the table and leaned forward. "Whatever trust we've lost, rightly or wrongly, we've got to win back, and telling people that Jack split town because it wasn't going to be so much fun anymore, whether or not that's true, is only going to make things worse." She looked around the table. "Any questions?"

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About Anthony Lee Collins

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6 Responses to throwing stones — chapter five

  1. Maggie says:

    If U-town was Ray’s idea and Ray is supposedly a drunk, then how good of an idea could U-town possibly be? Perhaps he’s one of those brilliant drunks like Hemingway. His intelligence comes out in this chapter and it seems like he cares about the town lot more than Jack does.

    “Sometimes she threw out his mail, figuring that no mail for him could possibly be important anyway.” – That’s interesting. What if she accidentally threw out something important and because Jack never got it, another problem came up somewhere down the line? Either way, he sounds like a pretty fascinating person… but now he’s gone. I’m wondering if he’ll come back. He doesn’t seem like a guy who’s really accountable, based on what the other characters are saying about him. Maybe he’s got charisma like a politician, but isn’t very reliable in hard times.

    I’d like Vicki to tell the citizens of U-town the truth about Jack’s disappearance and Doc’s death. She seems to be a capable leader who genuinely wants to be honest.

    I’m still trying to immerse myself in the world and figure out what’s going on and what everyone’s powers are. I’m a little confused on the Terri/Tammy/Alex phenomenon… are they all different versions of the same person?

  2. Most of these will be addressed. Definitely Ray’s alcoholism (about which different people have different opinions, as they do in real life), and Vicki’s decision (I think she’s right to withhold the info about Jack — I almost said “the truth,” but of course they don’t know the truth — at least at that moment).

    I’m sure Ron never threw out any mail that looked official. BTW, I got the idea for Ron tossing mail from Truman Capote. When he worked in the mail room at the New Yorker, when he first got to NY, he read all the short story submissions himself, and the ones he disliked got dropped down behind his desk, never to be seen again. Nobody knew this until many years later, when they happpened to move the desk.

    Alex/Terry/Tammy are indeed all one person with multiple personalities, and one special ability. We will definitely see Alex as herself at least once.

    Thanks for the comments, as always. I look forward to your thoughts on Chapter Six.

  3. Tiyana says:

    Hey, Anthony.

    I’m liking that we’re getting more answers to what’s going on in U-town and how it came about. Now we have to wonder why, exactly, these people wanted to secede from the states.

    I was actually a bit taken aback by Tammy’s forthrightness and brash display of confidence when she was talking about Sam, but that’s just my impression of her.

    One minor thing about the paragraph that starts off, “Pat came in, and Vicki motioned for her to sit down”: I was a little confused as to who was doing the talking after this. When you say, “She gestured at Sam and Tammy,” it might help to replace “She” with “Vicki” so it makes more sense.

    My overall impression of this chapter was that it exists to provide explanations because there wasn’t a whole lot else going on, as far as actions go. Particularly when Ron realized she’d dozed off during the meeting… I kind of took this as a sign that there needs to be something else happening to break up all the dialogue. Ron was kind of just a fly on the wall in this chapter, I think.

    However, I like how you left the question open about what was on the top of Ron’s list of “things she was never going to do.” I wasn’t sure if you were going to answer this later, but having read the next chapter, I know this gets resolved. :)

  4. Tammy is indeed very confident, but the main purpose of that was to show that, confidence aside, she’s not 100% connected to reality. After all, Sam is there, and they are still together, so that was just a stray thought on her part. (I have to reveal that her statement was a direct quote, from a lawyer I know, and couldn’t resist putting it in the mouth of a woman who is convinced that she’s a lawyer but really isn’t.)

    Thanks for the suggestions about the attributions. That’s always helpful.

    Yes, this is the chapter with the exposition, at least for the moment. I’m hoping that it’s answering some questions that readers have been asking, so it’s not too tedious. I don’t want to break it up with action or something. There’s plenty of that coming. And, yes, Ron is a fly on the wall in this chapter, and she hates it, which is part of why she makes the decision she makes in the next chapter, though it really scares her. In fact, even so, in the next chapter she nearly said no anyway, but then it came down to being useful. I’ll bring this out more at some point, but when she was growing up she was never valued for herself, just for what she could do, and that’s pretty much how she sees herself. She has to do things, and do them well, to feel that she’s worth anything.

  5. sonje says:

    I’m having trouble keeping track of all the characters–there’s quite a few of them at this point. The problem might be the way I’m reading it: a few thousand words here, a few thousand words there. Or it could be indicative of an “assumption problem” from you being so familiar with all of the characters from writing them in other books: it’s easy for you to differentiate them so it should be for the reader too. Like I said, I’m not sure which it is.

    Now the question becomes: how do you want people to read this? Like they would read a book, i.e. read as much as they want to at one time? Or like a serial, the way we have been reading it?

    If you want the former, then I feel like we might be close to the end of this exercise. It seems like a complicated plot is unfolding which requires one to remember what came before (and who all the characters are). This can be accomplished when you can read large chunks at a time and therefore stay with the characters and get to know them. If you want it to be read as a serial, you’ll likely have to invest some words into repeating yourself so that people can stay up to speed without having to go back to re-read.

    One thing I think might be a consistency issue is “Ron was not looking forward to being stuck on this sofa until somebody got around to moving her…” I thought she was “magically” healed by her grandmother, so why would she be stuck on the sofa until somebody moved her?

  6. What I’ve done with the other books is post them serially, giving people the option of reading it as it comes, or waiting and reading it all at once.

    This is similar to how comic books work these days. Some people buy each issue as it comes out, many others wait until the issues are collected into volumes (usually called “graphic novels,” though they mostly aren’t) and buy them that way.

    And, ultimately, I see it as being available as a book. Now that print-on-demand exists, I think it’s sort of too bad that U-town is so large and unwieldy and (in parts) hypertexty that it really can’t be read in paper book form.

    So, in answer to your question, I would intend it to be read primarily as a book. Which would (I hope) make it possible for people to read longer chunks and keep the characters straight. I could also insert more cues to remind the reader who’s who (physical description, etc.).

    As for the exercise as a whole, it’s definitely not going to go much longer. I’ve answered the main question to my satisfaction: it is possible to write this as a standalone novel. I’ll probably go a bit further, but there are two major problems that I need to solve before I can write a full draft.

    1) With the Ron-centric POV, I’m losing a lot of good stuff from the first draft, and I need to figure out how to deal with that. Or, if I’m going to toss all of that, maybe this could be more streamlined than it is.

    2) I know who the antagonist is, or who I want him to be, but I still have no idea how to get him into the story. Obviously that need to be solved.

    So, I’d say I’ll go a couple more chapters, then I think I’ll put this on hold and try to answer those two questions, and meanwhile start to assemble my new book (a collection of some of the mystery stories, strung into a longer narrative).

    (I’ll be looking for readers for that, too, but it will come all at once, in book form.)

    Oh, and Terry didn’t fix Ron’s leg, she just made the pain go away.

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