The Stranger was the first novella I published on the Amazon Kindle store. It’s currently for sale at a whopping $.99. I’ve decided to post it here, on my blog, in it’s entirety, for free. I am passionate about writing posts that demonstrate the love and grace of Jesus and what He’s doing in my life, but I also love writing fiction.
Here’s the plan. For the next ten weeks, I will post a chapter each Friday. Let’s call it Fiction Friday. Feel free to hashtag the crap out of that. I hope you enjoy the story. If you like this one, I have a couple more on Amazon. You can find them here: Author Page
The human brain is an extraordinary organ. Not only is it the center, mechanical hub of our nervous system, it also houses billions of neurons. It controls our feelings, emotions, and physical movements. Similar to the CPU nestled inside a computer, it is the central processing unit over everything we say or do.
The brain also controls fear, or in my case, sorely lacks in controlling that emotion. I stared into the eyes of Lance Puckett, unable to believe who I saw. My sense of vision argued that it was indeed the man we all thought would never return, but the three pound glob of mystery inside my skull refused to believe it.
I tried to speak, but my tongue wouldn’t function, immobilized with an invisible vice. When I was younger, I would eat so much peanut butter at one time, my tongue would stick to the roof of my mouth. It felt like that, but with an added helping of pure terror.
“Hello, Dillon. Surprised to see me?” He smiled, but not in the normal, friendly way I would greet Jimmy or Mel. The look dripped with an evil that made my skin crawl.
If ever there had been a candidate for understatement of the century, Lance Puckett nailed it. Even as I stared into the face that had terrorized my dreams for years, I still couldn’t grasp the reality of the situation. Instinct urged me to reach out and touch him so I could prove he wasn’t the ghost of Halloween past coming back to haunt us.
I have a fantastic imagination, but I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the paranormal. I have no interest in the shows on TV, where a group of people go into “haunted” places and hook up their equipment to capture spirits. Most everything they record on video appears iffy to me. No real evidence.
Apparently, I would need to revisit my beliefs on UFOs, ghosts, and little green men.
I didn’t realize I had seated myself until I felt the hard surface of the table pressed against my palms. At first I thought it might be a dream, some shadowy nightmare surfacing from the depths of deep memories. Still unwilling to accept what I was seeing with my own eyes, I struggled to produce a logical explanation.
Lance shifted in his seat and leaned forward. “Something wrong? Did you forget how to speak since I last saw you?”
“This isn’t possible. You’re not actually here.”
“I kind of thought you would find all of this a little hard to swallow.” He leaned back with a smirk. “I was hoping for more of a homecoming, but I understand. I’m not so sure I would want to see myself back in town either.”
“They wouldn’t have released you. You’re scheduled for the chair. You must have escaped.” I barely recognized my own voice. It was somewhere between a whisper and a croak.
“It’s true what they say about no place like home. It doesn’t look like much has changed since I’ve been gone.”
“What do you want?”
“What do I want? I just want to have my life back. You know, deep sea fishing, Friday night parties, and maybe even a date with Summer.” He smiled at my reaction.
I gritted my teeth so tightly together, I was surprised the enamel didn’t crack. I knew it was futile to try and disguise my anger, so I decided against it. “You’ve got no business coming back here. If fact, that was a stupid move. This will be the first place they look for you.”
Lance slowly shook his head. “Well, my friend, it might be the first place they’ll look, but since they have no idea I’m gone, we’ve got plenty of time to catch up.”
“How did you get here?”
“Stood on the side of the road and stuck my thumb out. It’s surprising what kind of people will pick up a stranger these days. I’m not talking about the usual truck driver who would stop for anyone. This was a woman with two kids.”
I could feel eyes boring into my skull and figured Dena, Jimmy, and maybe even Summer lurked around the corner watching our conversation. I didn’t want to break the stare battle between myself and Lance, so I refrained from turning around to look.
“Have you ever killed anyone, Dillon?”
I frowned. It wasn’t everyday someone asked that question. Most people would instantly reply that they have, in fact, never killed anyone. My story was a little more complicated. I wasn’t sure how much Lance actually knew. “Did you hurt them?” I asked. “The woman or her children.”
Lance chuckled. “What kind of monster do you think I am? Oh wait, that’s right, you still think I killed all those girls here in our lovely little town.”
“I don’t think, Lance. I know. There was never any doubt.”
Lance leaned forward once again, nearly climbing onto the table. “You don’t have all the facts.”
“Why don’t we call Sam and let him get this straightened out for you. If you didn’t do anything wrong, then you won’t mind talking to him.”
“They released me early for good behavior.”
“Somehow, I doubt that. You were locked up for murdering innocent young girls. You acted crazy when you left the trial. It would take more than eight years to have a chance at an appeal.”
The smug expression on Lance’s face dissolved into something I couldn’t describe. He didn’t turn red with anger or shoot me a glance of hatred. As hard as it was for me to believe, his look conveyed a vulnerable, child-like insecurity. It flashed briefly and was gone. “I’m not crazy.”
I shook my head. “Showing up like this doesn’t exactly make you appear normal. What’s actually going on, Lance? Why did you come back?”
The familiar smirk returned, and it chilled my blood. An overwhelming desire to run as far away as possible consumed me, but uncertainty glued me to the seat. Like a cold fog drifting in from the bay, a sense of impending doom clutched me so tight I feared my breathing would stop.
I firmly believe there are pivotal moments in life when our fate rests solely on the decisions we make. I realized in that moment, I was at such a crossroads. As I mentioned before, I am no hero, and the thought of taking any action, other than fleeing for my life and never looking back, frightened me beyond belief.
On the other hand, Lance hadn’t left me with many options. Reasoning with him had proven to be about as productive as cutting water with a knife. As I made a move to slide out of the booth, he pulled something from underneath his jacket.
I harbor no love for weapons of any kind. Swords, bombs, clubs, and especially guns. An experience in my youth left an everlasting scar tattooed on the canvas of my memory. In the Marines, I learned to use them, but since turning that page in my life, I hadn’t touched one. I was so opposed to violence, I wouldn’t’ go fishing with live bait. Spearing a worm with the sharpened end of a hook just wasn’t in my nature.
I stared down the barrel of a menacing .357 Magnum and swallowed the lump of dread that nearly forced its way out of my throat. I can’t remember ever being scared enough to throw up, but there was always a first time for everything. I would have been worried had I remained perfectly calm.
Just because I don’t like guns doesn’t mean I can’t identify them. Despite the events in my childhood, I have a fascination with firearms that perplexes me. Maybe somewhere deep in my subconscious, I believe that a knowledge and understanding of the weapons will bring closure to the fears of the past. It hasn’t worked yet.
I lifted my hands in what I prayed was a non-threatening position. “Whoa, wait a minute.”
“I don’t wanna kill you, Dillon.”
“That’s excellent news. I don’t want you to kill me either.”
“I just want to talk.”
“I’m all ears.”
“What came out in my trial, what all the newspapers said about me, none of it’s true. I had nothing to do with what happened that night. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Then why didn’t you say something at trial? Why wasn’t there some evidence or at least some reasonable doubt that would have proved your innocence? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“The defense attorney said there was nothing we could do,” Lance replied. The gun pointed directly at my forehead. “It wasn’t as if I could spend millions and get the best lawyer on the planet. I had to work with what I got, and that wasn’t much.”
“Just put the gun down so we can talk. You’re making me nervous.”
Lance looked at the firearm in his hand. “This was in the glove box of the car I took from the woman who picked me up. I was surprised to find it in there. She didn’t seem like the type.” A tear slipped down his cheek and dripped onto the table. “You never answered me earlier when I asked if you had ever killed anyone. As a matter of fact, you avoided the question completely.”
I watched in horror as he cocked the hammer back and the cylinder rotated. One gentle pull and it would be the last thing I witnessed. “Lance, come on. You don’t need the gun. Please.”
“Just answer the question. Have you ever killed anyone?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t matter right now. We’re talking about you. You said you didn’t kill those girls. I believe you. Let’s talk this out.”
His eyes grew dark, almost black. “You don’t believe me at all. You never have. You’re just like all the rest. This town needed someone to blame, and they chose me. Well, I’ve come back to make things right. You can’t stop me, Dillon. No one can.”
“Lance, wait a min-”
Commotion erupted near the front of Mel’s, startling us both. Thankfully, Lance’s trigger finger didn’t twitch causing him to blow my head off. The pounding inside both my ears reached a roar as adrenaline and fear collided. Ducking under the table was my first instinct, but any sudden movement might have an adverse effect on the situation.
I heard a voice yell out. “Dillon?!” It was Sam. He had served as Sheriff over Seal Bay for ten years. With only two deputies on his payroll, he was the extent of our law enforcement. Small, quiet towns have little need for an overbearing presence of armed men patrolling the streets.
We were a modern day version of Mayberry, with one Andy Griffith and a couple Barney Fife’s. Charlie, the three-legged mutt that may or may not have earned some pages in a California magazine, was the glue holding us all together.
It wasn’t every day an armed man walked into the cafe and threatened to kill someone. In fact, the eight years following the murders had been uneventful. My confidence level in Sam handling a hostage situation was not full.
When Lance heard Sam yell my name, his shoulders slumped, and I knew something had suddenly changed. No longer did I see a man intent on proving his innocence. I wasn’t looking into the eyes of someone searching for a way out.
I stared into the face of a person poised on the brink of defeat. My heart sank. “Lance, we can talk this out. Come on, buddy. Just lower the gun and everything will be fine. You can tell your side of the story and get things cleared up. What do you say?”
Lance looked up with an empty expression, as if he hadn’t heard anything I said. More tears had formed and slowly trailed down his face. He shook his head. “Sorry, Dillon. I can’t go back.”
With those words, Lance Puckett pulled the trigger.