“The Time Behind Dying” by Peter Ryan

The incredible Peter Ryan contributes a tense and moody short story for all of you to enjoy.

Peter Ryan is an Australian-born author living in Seoul, South Korea, and his is a young career worth watching. He has just released his debut novel, Sync City, which is available for purchase and download here, and his second novel, Destiny Imperfect, is available for preorder here.

I personally reviewed Sync City, giving it five stars on Amazon:

It’s only appropriate that a world that created its own apocalypse would need a character like Jack to save it. Jack is a fantastically written reluctant hero. He would not be involved in any of this if the path weren’t paved in heavy artillery and booze. Sync City reads like a gripping serial, following Jack and his journeys through fractured timelines in a dystopian future. He doesn’t look for trouble, but trouble seems to be seeking him out specifically, and Jack is not one to back away from a fight. This is an excellent read.

Peter Ryan’s debut is gritty, fearless, and complex. His writing style keeps you moving through the pages like Jack through a bottle of soju. Part Mad Max part Terminator with a dash of Quantum Leap. It’s dark with a good sense of humor interspersed. I’ve never read a sci-fi adventure like it.

Peter Ryan wanted to contribute a never-before released short story of his exclusively on Tall Tales Told, and I am honored to be able to share it. Please read, share, and enjoy.

(Small warning of graphic themes, but you might be learning that you might not wish to be faint of heart to enjoy the content here.)

desert sunset

The Time Behind Dying

It’s night. The air is cool, but the day’s heat still radiates from the desert floor. Twin headlights pierce the gloom. The rental car ticks as the warmth bleeds from the engine block. The rear of the car sits heavy on its springs. There’s a body in the trunk.

I know.

I put it there.

The shovel’s handle is slick with blood. The desert floor beneath me is iron-hard, baked barren by an eternity of suns. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Sounded like bullshit when I first heard it. Not so much now as I’m digging a grave.

I wipe the sweat off my brow and shiver. I’m doing this alone. But I’m not doing it for my own reasons.

I remove my undershirt.

You can see my lurid scars in the headlights. Stark against the pale flesh of my belly. They pucker like carp sucking food from the surface of a pond. The wounds are the result of a prison shiv attack.

You can see my primitive tattoos in the headlights. Ratty jailhouse outlines of Haitian divinities dance along my neck and spine. Savage sketches spiral out over my rib cage and hips like a crude external skeleton.

You can see my pouring sweat in the headlights. Coursing down my face and chest, running over the pink, ridged scars. Flowing through the rough drawn tattoos, bringing them to life and making them grin.

I lean on the shovel and check my watch. It’s ticking down. The timer creeps under 60. Fewer than sixty minutes left – four feet of grave to go. I raise the shovel, hold it high above my head and swing it axe-like at the earth. It clangs, skittering off a shard of buried rock and wrenches from my hands.

I can see the image.

One woman. One girl. One man. One knife. Four feet of grave to go.

My wrists ache. Bleeding hands that were once hard. Hard hands that killed. Hands that will be responsible for two more deaths if the grave doesn’t get deeper.

Who are these women holding me hostage? I don’t know. Then why am I doing this? This I do know. I owe Him. And everyone pays. No exceptions.

I pick up the shovel and place a cowboy-booted foot against the cross section of the blade. I drive it into the desert sand. This time it’s easier. The unyielding surface is giving way to looser subsoil. But I need to go deep.

Six feet deep, He said. Two hours to do it. And if I don’t, the women die. Why do I care? I don’t know them. But I do. I know of them. They are the wife and daughter of the body in the trunk. They are the wife and daughter of every man I’ve ever killed. The innocent. I toss out another shovel load.

The headlights flicker.

I frown.

The rental’s brand new. The battery’s fully charged. The clicking from the cooling engine stops.

There’s a clunk. The trunk lid rises. There’s an easing of suspension springs and a murmur. I peer into the lights. Despite the ground heat a mist rolls across the desert floor. I can’t see much. I don’t need to. Whoever was in the trunk is now standing against the backdrop of the desert night – framed by a smattering of stars.

He stands on twisted limbs. He was a big man. His corpse was tough to get into the trunk. I had to break his legs and force him in. He shouldn’t be alive. But I’ve been dead before. And the dead don’t always stay that way. A trickle of sweat crawls down my spine. I shiver. The jailhouse tattoos dance and grin. A wave of dread washes over me.

This is not his grave I’m digging.

He shuffles over to me – a warped, drunken gait. There’s a hole in both his temples. One small, the other massive. There’s blood and brain smeared on one side of his face. He looks down at me with blank, dead eyes, into the grave I have yet to finish. He’s huge. But he’s not Him.

“Dig,” he commands.

I nod. It’s my time. Insects of dread burrow into my flesh. This is my grave. All six feet of it. It needs to be deep. I know this. It was He who told me a lifetime ago. I need to dig beyond my past.

“Why?” he asks after a few minutes.

I don’t stop. I need to dig beneath my sins. A cool breezes blows. I shudder. The man shuffles again and lays a heavy hand on my shoulder.

“Why?” he repeats.

I empty another shovel load. He’s a big man. Bigger than me.

“You know why,” I tell him.

I heave out more dirt.

“Tell me why you came back,” he orders. “I need to know.”

The thin prison knife that shredded my gut finished my first life. I bled out. In jail. On the floor. My life pooling around me. I deserved it.

But He wasn’t finished. He hungered for me. He brought me back. Sharp Haitian bones as needles. My own blood as ink. An ancient curse. Tattoos to resurrect the fallen. But it was a onetime deal. And I was willing. Now that I know what I know.

And I can’t die again.

I can’t return to the time behind dying. I know what happens to men like me. They wait: the specters, the vengeful spirits, the innocent dead. When He made His dark offer of resurrection, I said yes. Anything to delay the reckoning of a career of killing. Because the murdered innocent never really die. They wait. They’re patient.

“You’ve been there,” I tell him. “You know why.”

In the bottom of the pit a low mist roils at my feet. It sucks the warmth from my calves and thighs. The man steps forward and tugs the shovel from my hand. He clasps my forearm to pull me from the hole. I grab back without thinking. We share the twin grips of gladiators. I realize my mistake. He smiles as I try to jerk away. Too late. He yanks me up out of the pit and onto the desert floor. He doesn’t let go.

My tattoos grin and dance. I feel them, pinprick-sharp, as they jag themselves from my flesh. I sense their malice and glee. They skip down my arm and glide onto his skin. They conga around his hand and forearm, disappearing under a sleeve and moving up and over his torso. I see the material of his jacket jerk and become dotted with the blood of my dancing tattoos. His warped body straightens. He smiles.

My old wounds crease open and seep. He lets go, and I slip to the ground. Blood weeps through clenched fingers as I clutch at my stomach. I lie at the edge of my grave. I feel cold. I hear voices. Voices of people not here. Voices of the patient. Their time of waiting is done. I pull my hands tight, willing the blood to stop. It’s no use. These wounds are old. They never really healed. I could just never see them.

I roll over and gaze into the pit. Instead of desert sand and rock, there are now gray, putrid mouths. Mouths with rotted, angular teeth. Some with vacant gums and open maws. Mouths that belong to adults. And some that belong to children. Between the mouths are grasping fingers. Torn nails, wedding rings, scabrous flesh. The pieces of people I’ve killed.

Waiting for retribution.

The man drops into the pit. He lands in among the broken and the dead. He doesn’t see them. All he sees is desert sand and a job unfinished. Now his job. Now my grave.

“You need to go deeper,” I tell him.

“Deeper, why?”

Dark blood, dead blood, oozes between my fingers. It’s sticky and has the metallic stench of old coins. My heart continues to pump the life from my body. I need to know what awaits. The innocent dead don’t die.

“Deeper,” I tell him. “Now”

Already the wounds in his temple are closing. The grinning childlike sketches dance and twirl around the torn flesh. The man strikes with the shovel. The edge pierces a mouth. A partial skull swings from the end of the blade. Sliced diagonally. Dark hair hangs lank off the bone. A pair of black-rimmed glasses half-dangle from a shattered eye socket. He was the first of the innocent dead. My wife’s lover. The huge man flings it out of the pit. It lands among a pile of splintered bones. The Haitian tattoos no longer insulate me from my part in the dead reality. The pile of earth I’d exhumed now writhes with the limbs, the torsos and the skulls of the innocent.

“Deeper,” I say again.

He digs. This time the shovel blade bites into the desiccated body of a woman. I recognize the dress. It was summer. The dress was white with a patterning of tiny sunflowers. It’s now stained with blood and dirt. Her skin is pulled tight across her ribcage. Her once full breasts are now flapping flesh revealed through the ripped material. The man effortlessly heaves the half torso onto the pile. It squirms among the battered limbs. My wife’s body again entwined with her lover.

My stomach wounds pulse. Not an urgent pulse, but one in tune with my decaying heart. The sweat I’d worked up is now a crust on my forehead. I watch as the man carves another chunk out of the earth. More limbs. This time the arms of children. One with a baseball mitt. The other clutching a teddy bear.

My heart quickens. The blood from my gut flows more freely. The man notices my discomfort and flings the pile at me. I flinch as the arms spasm in my lap. The mitt closing and opening, waiting for a summer that never came. The hand holding the toy clenching and unclenching, waiting for a life that never really started.

Part of the limbs have been consumed. Bite marks show clearly against exposed bone. They were buried shallow in a desert like this one. Their parents failed to pay the ransom. The kids had seen my face. A shot to the back of the head for each. I had no choice. I grab both thin arms in one fist. I can feel the shriveled muscles and tendons moving. I fling them away. They’re waiting for me. Small insistent hands. Hands that will never stop grasping and pulling at my wounds.

“Deeper,” I command.

The man’s blank eyes look at me and he smiles. His legs have straightened. He’s standing tall. He’s a big man. The pit must be at least four feet deep now, yet his chest and shoulders tower above the grave’s ragged lip. My legs now dangle into the empty space as I sit staring into its depths. My cowboy boots kick at the air. Across from me I see the chunks of bodies moving against each other. The older ones dusty and dry; the newer ones glistening with gore.

“Deeper,” I tell the man.

He thrusts the blade into the loose earth. Mouths and fingers bite and clutch. Limbs twitch and skulls chatter. He sees none of this. He sees me. Blood leaking from between my fingers. Dried sweat caking my chest and shoulders. My skin devoid of markings. The tattoos shield him.

“How many?” he asks.

The question is obvious. The answer is not. I don’t know. I started killing in my 20s. My first two were my first innocents. The lover, then my wife. The heavy-framed glasses. The sunflower dress. She said it was a mistake. I agreed. What I did next was not. It was deliberate. It was brutal. No remorse. Not for him. Not for her.

“Too many,” I answer.

He rests on the shovel’s handle. One hand clasped on top of the other. Leaning. Like he’s peering over a neighbor’s fence. He wants to know more. My present is his future. It’s the sole reason he’s digging.

“It was your job,” he says. “To kill.”

“Yours, too.”

He half nods. This day was always coming. This man was always coming. I’d wanted more time. I can’t go back. Not to the grasping hands and the sucking mouths. Not to the time behind dying.

I shiver. I see the bodies. The years of death. The waste. The kills.

“Keep digging,” I tell him.

He grips the handle and pushes deep, slicing decomposed flesh and bone. His boots are sinking into the rotting dead.

“What do you see?” he asks.

“Your future,” I tell him. “My past.”

“It’s a grave, man. There’s no past there. Just dirt.”

Another shovelful of the dead joins the pile. I see the mutilated torso of a fit young man clad in torn running shorts and shoes. I remember him. Another innocent I couldn’t leave alive. The legs convulse and turn. On the back, pressed into the rancid flesh, are tire marks. He went down hard. But he didn’t go down dead. That took a knife.

I study the big man’s hands. I see the dancing tattoos. Figures made from my blood imbued with the power of life. Now, just not my life.

“Why you?” I ask.

He shrugs. “It’s your time.”

“Were you chosen?”

He ignores me, takes another shovel load and heaves it high. He’s getting deep now. Around the five foot mark. Not long to go. The wounds in my stomach are no longer weeping. They’re spurting. There’s no pain. There’s plenty of time for that later. The body parts surrounding me continue to writhe. Pulling at each other. Twisting hair and limbs. All moving towards me.

I pull my legs up from the pit, wrap my arms around my shins and rock back and forth. My bloodied fingers interlock around the top of my dirt-caked cowboy boots. The man heaves another shovel-load of putrefying flesh onto the pile. It’s the shoulder and ribcage of a man I killed. Jonathan. I thought he was guilty. I was wrong. Only the innocent get retribution.

“What do you see?” asks the man again.

I shake my head and clutch my legs tighter. Rivulets of blood flow down my pale torso, over my pants and onto the desert dirt. The dirt that contains my future. I need him to dig deeper. To get beyond my past. To get to the quiet place where I don’t exist. To where I never was. He told me this. The Man who brought me back. The Man with the needle-sharp bones. It’s my one chance for peace.

“What do you see?” he tries. “I was told you have the answers.”

“Answers?”

“Yes. As to what happens next. To me. To what I become.”

Now I shrug. The grave’s deep. But I still see the remains of the dead. Crushed and bruised pieces of humanity wriggling and writhing. All reaching for me. Dead grasping hands. Toothless sucking mouths. Feet that kick. Nails that scratch. Handless arms looking for the everlasting embrace. Seeking me. Wanting me. They plead to me from the pit. I look at my watch.

“You’re on the clock,” he says.

“Yes.”

“How long?”

“Eternity if you don’t go deeper.”

I look into his eyes. They are the blank, black disks of the ignorant. The tattoos continue to dance across the flesh of his hands. Grinning and scornful. My own blood mocking me as my time slips away.

“And if I do?” he checks.

“I get nothing,” I murmur. “Nothing at all.”

“Nothing?”

I nod. He takes the shovel and digs. I watch while he hauls another load of body parts and dumps them on the waist-high pile. Then he turns and stares.

“Do you think you deserve nothing?” he growls.

His eyes are no longer dead. Instead they flare and gleam. His grin widens and the tattoos shriek.

It’s Him.

I see the skull beneath the flesh, the teeth, the sharp cheek bones, the outline of the eye sockets pressing through the drab human flesh. The handle of the shovel now butts against the fleshy part of His underarm. He crosses one leg over the other. The stars begin to fade. I pull my legs tighter to me, like a child folding itself in fear. His face glows. My skin itches with the echo of the prison tattoos.

“So tell me,” the Man asks again. “Do you think you deserve nothing?”

The alarm on my wrist bleeps. A tiny sound against the background of the cosmos. Time’s up. I unwrap my arms and stand. My blood no longer flows. My heart no longer beats. Lumps of humanity squirm at my feet.

The Man in the pit grins. “So?” He repeats. “Do you think you deserve nothing?”

I lean in and look deeper. Into my eternal resting place. Into my grave. The pit’s deep. But is it enough? And then I see it. Under His feet. Lying in the desert soil. A full body. And at the bottom of the legs are a pair of cowboy boots.

And next to the body are feet. And they are kicking.

And next to the body are hands. And they are grabbing.

And next to the body are mouths. And they are sucking.

Not deep enough.

You can find Peter Ryan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/peterryanauthor/ or at www.synccityjack.com
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