Preston Lang is a freelance writer, living and working in New York City. The Carrier is his debut novel.
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Once I read something in the news that was nearly identical to what I was writing at the time—scams involving parrots. I had to change some details around so it wouldn’t seem so obviously pilfered. It ended up not making sense and I junked the whole thing.
It’s a bad idea for a drug courier to pick up strange women in roadside bars. Cyril learns this lesson when the girl he brings back to his motel room points a gun at him.
But Willow isn’t the only one after the goods that Cyril’s been hired to pick up. A fast talking sex-offender and his oversized neighbor are also on the trail, as is Cyril’s sinister brother, Duane.
Willow and Cyril soon form an uneasy alliance based on necessity, lust, and the desire for a quick payday. But with so many dangerous players giving chase, will they nab their package?
Cyril hadn’t given another thought to the boy in the baseball hat. He assumed the kid had gone back to play pool with his friends or drink beer directly from the pitcher. Cyril turned to the bar and tried to read the scrambled captioning for Monday Night Football. The players hit each other too hard, so he decided to go back to his motel room. He was halfway to the door when the girl stopped him.
“Do you have a second?” she asked.
She was dark-haired with quick, vital eyes, and she had a voice—low and tangy.
“What’s on your mind?” asked Cyril.
“That frat boy and two of his brothers are waiting for you outside.”
“The frat boy?”
“I just thought you should know.”
They stood for a moment together, neither one ready to end the conversation.
“Why did you call him a fuck monkey?” the girl asked.
“He was acting… like a fuck monkey.”
“I’m sure you’re right, but what do you gain from pointing it out?”
“It may have been a mistake,” he said.
The frat boy had banged on the bar with a spoon and made two loud yips at a shampoo commercial on the TV screen. Cyril hadn’t raised his voice; he’d politely told the boy to stop acting like a fuck monkey. He thought the boy had taken his suggestion and that all was well.
“So what do you think I should do?” Cyril asked the girl.
“Well, if you really want to impress me, you’ll go out the front and kick all three of their asses with a really cool expression on your face. But if I were you I would probably go out the back way.”
“Where’s the back way?”
“You have to go through the kitchen. Just walk straight through. The dishwashers will probably yell at you; by that time you’ll be out the back door.”
“I’ve got a third option.”
“We could sit down and you could tell me your life’s story. By the time you’re done, the boys will probably have called it an evening.”
“Don’t you have somewhere to go?” she asked.
“You were leaving.”
“I was just going to go back to my motel room, maybe watch TV, maybe steal some soap.”
“You shouldn’t do that.”
“They find you and they make you pay.”
“Tell me more about this,” Cyril said, motioning to a table.
The girl sat facing the bar, and Cyril sat across from her. He had a view of the door in case angry frat boys charged in, tired of waiting out in the chilly Iowa night. She told him her name was Willow and that she wasn’t with anybody.
“Is there a college nearby?” asked Cyril.
“Graham College. It’s not exactly Princeton. If you can pay tuition, they’ll probably let you in… I go there.”
“What do you study?”
“I’m undeclared,” she said, “You know, I could have told you that Graham College is the best school in the country. Then you would have thought that I was a genius.”
“Well, I have met some of your classmates,” he said, gesturing out towards the open room.
“That’s true. Did you go to college?”
“I’ve taken a few pottery courses.”
Students drank with young energy and bounced around the room; townies sat at the bar and corner tables. Willow and Cyril drank slowly and talked about themselves for an hour.
“It’s getting late,” she said.
“You have an early class tomorrow?”
“You have a motel room?”
“I think that I would like to see it.”
“It’s about a 15 minute walk.”
“You didn’t bring a car?”
“I don’t drink and drive.”
“You’re a really good example.”
They had been walking almost a minute when they saw the Fuck Monkey approach with two of his frat brothers.
“Hey, you. Asshole, you,” he slurred his words, but he seemed reasonably steady on his feet. His brothers were bigger than he was. Cyril was average-sized and a few years older than an undergraduate.
“Go home,” said Willow to the boys.
“Okay, darlem. You just step back. I’m going to tear up your boyfriend here.”
“What’s darlem?” asked Cyril.
“I think he meant darling,” said Willow.
“I don’t need you to get hurt,” the boy said, still to Willow.
He stepped closer to Cyril. His brothers moved in a bit, but it looked like they were going to let the Monkey do what he could on his own before they stepped in. Cyril did a quick check of the two big guys, and the Monkey shoved him backwards.
“Come on, Les,” said one of the brothers, “Don’t play. Bring the warrior to him.”
“Warrior,” said the other brother in his deepest bass. It wasn’t clear that he respected Les.
Les came at Cyril with a big wild punch. Cyril stepped aside, and Les cursed and spun. Cyril grabbed a hold of Willow and tried to hurry her away, but the brothers blocked their path.
“Fight me,” cried Les.
“Look guys,” said Cyril, “This doesn’t make any sense. You’re all going to get thrown out of school. Think of—“ Suddenly the brothers began to edge away, holding up their hands and stepping backwards. Cyril watched, puzzled, and then he turned to see that Willow had drawn a gun.
“Go home,” she said.
“Bitch is crazy,” said a brother, but they had now turned and were leaving at a jog.
That left Les.
“Go home, Les,” said Willow.
Cyril was not without sympathy for Les’s evening: the unavenged insult, the traitorous brothers. Les’s eyes were drunk and scheming. He hadn’t given up yet.
“If he rushes you, don’t shoot him,” said Cyril.
“I might shoot him,” said Willow.
“Please, go home,” said Cyril.
“You don’t know who you’re messing with,” said Les.
“Do you understand that right now, she can shoot you and not go to jail for it?”
Les said nothing. The insane idea that had careened through his head seemed to have moved on.
“We’re going to walk away now. Please, don’t follow,” said Cyril.
And that’s what they did. Les slumped against the side of a building.
“Is it normal at your school for a coed to walk around with a handgun?” Cyril asked about five minutes later.
“A coed? What is that?
“A female college student?”
“Why is that a coed?”
“I guess when female college students were not all that common, the girls at coeducational schools were called coeds.”
“Well, that’s stupid. These days there’s a lot more girls than boys in school. They should call the boys coeds. Seriously, this place is like 70/30 girls. It’s horrible. And dicks like those guys can get women left and right, because what choice do we have?”
“And that’s why you carry a gun?”
“I’ve got a gun. I mean, aren’t you glad?”
“What were you going to do, make a little speech to the fraternity—You’re going to get in soooo much trouble.”
“There might have been more to my plan than that.”
“Well, I didn’t want to risk your pretty face.”
They kept walking, past the main business district and into the darker residential streets. Cyril’s motel was off a side road somewhere close by. He hoped he could find it in the dark, but everything looked very much alike. First he led Willow down the wrong street that ended at an empty lot.
“This is where you’re staying?” she asked.
“I think I’m on the next street.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were leading me down a dark alley on purpose.”
“Why, so you could shoot me?”
Willow smiled. They found his motel, a cheap little two-story chain: the Firstway Inn. He led her to his door, and she watched calmly while he opened it and turned on the light. The room smelled flat and dusty, and only one of the three overhead light bulbs worked.
Willow jumped on Cyril, wrapping her legs around him, toppling him onto the bed. She kissed his face and his neck then worked inside his mouth, biting his inner lip. They tore off their clothes quickly and tumbled off the bed, fucking like they were the only humans left in a world full of zombies. It was a fantasy Willow had sometimes—there’s nothing else out there except mindless death, and we are probably infecting each other. Cyril seemed to get it.
She felt a little lost afterwards—a base note of pleasure under a single shot of panic. Jesus, she thought, I could fall for a guy like this. And then she put on her clothes. When she got to her shoes, Cyril sat up.
“Where are you going?”
Cyril started to get dressed.
“You don’t have to get dressed,” she said, “I just like to have clothes on.”
“That’s too bad.”
Willow put on her jacket, and then she pointed her gun at Cyril.
“I’m going to need all the money,” she said.
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