Southwestern Wisconsin is known as the driftless area because the glaciers didn't cover it. The terrain is very hilly and not very populated. Crane Maddox and his brother in law spend their off time at Crane's cabin. Nearby is a farm owned by Ray Olsen. Ray has a new friend, and an unhealthy alliance is formed.
Around 100,000 words.
Beth was upstairs in bed with her book and chocolates. She heard her husband swearing and what sounded like the couch being dragged across her nice oak floor. He had searched every room in the house, scattering piles of newspapers, looking in drawers and even under the pile of laundry before finally making it to the third level and their bedroom. He stood in the doorway and looked at his wife, all cares forgotten.
Beth smiled and cooed, â€śItâ€™s about time you got home. Working on a case, were you?â€ť
Crane loved to tease his wife. He took the few steps to the foot of the bed, lifted the covers and held one of her little feet and made tickling motions with a finger that moved ever closer to the sole, â€śCome on, do you know where my gun is?â€ť
Beth put her book face down on the bed. The answer was always the same, â€śItâ€™s wherever you left it dear. I havenâ€™t seen it.â€ť
Crane put her foot back on the mattress and started to pull the covers over it. Beth had been anticipating the small torture and wanted it. â€śI liked it better when you used to lock up the gun as soon as you got homeâ€”at least then you knew where it was. I hope you didnâ€™t make a mess downstairs.â€ť
Crane visualized the lower levels and thought he might have. He decided against the tickling and gave a nice foot massage instead. â€śIâ€™m supposed to go to the range for practice.â€ť
She kicked away the sheet and proffered the other foot. â€śYou always tell me how youâ€™re the best shot in the department. Why do they make you practice so much?â€ť Beth knew full well what the requirements were, but decided to play along.
Crane took a deep breath and sat on the bed, putting Bethâ€™s hand in his. â€śWell, kitten, maybe thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m so good. If it comes down to it, wouldnâ€™t you want me to be the better shot?â€ť
Beth wanted to get back to her book, â€śWhatever floats your boatâ€”I know you like to shoot your gun. Are you picking up something for dinner?â€ť
Crane said, â€śI could, how does Lasagna from Ginoâ€™s sound?â€ť
Beth answered with her eyes on her husbandâ€™s midsection. â€śThatâ€™s fine, but you better skip the garlic bread. Your washboard stomach has all but disappeared.â€ť
Crane lifted his shirt and took his usual position under the ceiling fan. â€śLook, if I stand under the light and bend over like this, you can still see my abs, and a little bread never hurt anybody.â€ť
Crane was rightfully proud of his physique; it had changed little in the last forty years partly due to a consistent forty-five minutes a week at the gym. The other part was probably genetics; his father could still hang from a bar by his toes into his late seventies, though it did make him a little dizzy.
Beth looked at the display and commented, â€śIt would be even better if you could get both sides to show at the same time.â€ť
She grabbed his belt and pulled him close, and tried to smooth his moustache but to no avail. â€śIt might be time to try shaving this off again, or get some gel or something. You always have four or five really wild ones jutting out here and there, it can be a distraction.â€ť
Crane tried smoothing the unruly ones that he could see when he put his lip up. â€śMaybe it is time to shave it, but you know I look like a chimp without it.â€ť
â€śI know what youâ€™re saying about the chimp thing, but donâ€™t shave it, itâ€™s fine. Mustaches are coming back in style anyway.
Crane was back in front of the mirror trying to get both rows of his abs to show.
He plopped onto the bed putting his head on Bethâ€™s lap, hoping to be stroked. Beth tried to get a look at the next page a hint that it wasnâ€™t going to happen. Crane hopped out of bed and left the room.
â€śWhere are you goingâ€ť, she called.
Half way down the hall he answered, â€śI remembered where my gun was.â€ť
Beth raised her voice, â€śYou used to take better care of your things.â€ť She smiled, raised her knees to re-cover her feet and reached for the journal she kept in her bedside drawer. She wrote, â€śI love Crane so much, but I canâ€™t figure out how someone who is supposed to be depressed can be so egotistical. He never seems sad and always tells jokes. Iâ€™m not a hundred per cent sure it really is depression.â€ť She threw the journal back in the drawer and picked up her book.
Crane located his gun and stowed it along with the other shooting equipment already in his workout bag, then left through the door to the attached garage. He had to squeeze between his truck and the â€śGoddamned Poleâ€ť to get the driverâ€™s-side door open. He started the engine and backed out, making a reverse y-turn into the horseshoe drive in front of the house. Then, facing the street portion of the driveway, turned left, headed downhill to the circle and out to the main highway.
The shooting range was in the basement of central police headquarters in downtown Madison. Crane usually took the straight shot from his house on the west side which was University Avenue, but today he went by way of Mineral Point Road to Regent Street just for a change. He had NPR on the radio and listened to Science Friday with Ira Flatow.
The truck passed Randall stadium, and with traffic backed up, he could take a good look at the football-encrusted obelisk. Crane also dabbled in sculpture and even had a website to showcase his creations. With retirement on the horizon, he hoped to devote more time to getting more hits and then possibly a sale.
Crane liked the football sculpture, although some people didnâ€™t. There was a man at a Badgerâ€™s game circulating fliers to raise money to restore it. The joke was that it was supposed to look like parts of the obelisk had crumbled away to reveal a core made out of footballs. Crane figured it was the best of the public sculptures sparsely distributed around town. He couldnâ€™t think of a better one.
For the most part, Crane was proud of the city he lived in. It was fairly liberal politically and there were only a few small neighborhoods with crime problems. What bothered him was not the occasional purple house or poor choice for a storefront remodel. It was one big mistake that never should have happened and there it wasâ€”the ugly glass dome on the roof of the Civic Center. It reminded him of cheap costume jewelry with its steep sides and large panes of glass, like a huge diamond with only a few facets.
Otherwise, for the most part, Crane was very happy with the way his city looked. He continued to scan the buildings he passed, looking for design flaws and appreciating the direction the city planners were going. Architectural critic was just one on a long list of occupations that Crane believed he could have excelled at had he chosen to go that route.
Crane drove around the outer ring of the square, admiring the Capitol building when he could see it up one of the many spokes. Central MPD appeared over the hill and Crane made the hard right into the drive that disappeared under the building. The ramp was nearly empty and the long spiral down to B4 produced an almost continuous high-pitched squeal. At the bottom, he parked diagonally across two spaces just for the luxury of it. Hard shoes echoed off the cement walls as he walked. Thinking this would be a good place to shoot a dramatic scene in a movie, he paused to watch it unfold. After a minute, he turned his back on the flying bullets and spurting blood to swipe his key card, unlocking the heavy metal door to the range.
Two large rats werenâ€™t disturbed by the movie or by the doorâ€™s chain and counterweight creaking and rattling in the sheet metal housing. They continued to circle the trashcan and lick their paws.
Just inside, Ted was manning the check-in desk. He looked up from his magazine. â€śHi ya, Crane. How you doing? Howâ€™s the wife? Sheâ€™s such a doll, you have to be the luckiest guy I know. I wish my wife were as nice and as much fun as Beth. I love hearing her laugh. You know Linda, my daughter? She was wondering what happened to Ms. Maddox, because she hasnâ€™t been at school.â€ť
Crane hated the chitchat. â€śDid you drink a lot of coffee? Youâ€™re right about Beth though, everyone seems to like her. We have a lot of laughs.â€ť
â€śCoffee? No. What about Beth? Did she retire, or is she still at the elementary school? How many targets do you need?â€ť
â€śGive me six sheets and twelve boxes of forty-fives. No, she got a job as a library media specialist in a different district. Itâ€™s a high school. Sheâ€™s still getting used to it.â€ť
Shots echoed from the range.
â€śWho else is here?â€ť Crane asked.
Ted looked in the direction of the range. â€śThatâ€™s Brian Anderson. Sign here. Say hi to Beth for me.â€ť
Crane walked down the narrow hallway to his favorite center station and found it occupied by a young man in uniform. Crane waited patiently as the officer took forever to finish his clip, and then said, â€śNice shooting Brian. Maybe try giving it a little wider stance, you know, for stability.â€ť
â€śOh, hi Crane. Iâ€™ll move over a few spots. I know you like this one.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m not anal about it. I wasnâ€™t going to ask you to move, but thanks,â€ť said Crane, secretly relieved.
Brian was already gathering his equipment and soon overlapping shots could be heard, one slow and deliberate and the other flying through full clips in seconds. After finishing his practice, Crane took the elevator up to the ground floor because walking to Gino's was faster than trying to find another parking spot. He waited at the bar and had a quick beer while his order was cooked. He finished the garlic toast on the way back to the truck.
Beth and Crane ate on the couch in front of the TV. Beth considered herself an amateur sleuth and decided not to say anything about the bread. Beth remembered something and had to wait to swallow before speaking, â€śI gave Murali some tapes of The Beverly Hillbillies. They were in the attic. Do you careâ€ť?
Murali was the eastern Indian man that owned the house across the street.
â€śWhy would I care, Iâ€™ve wanted to throw that shit out for a long time. â€ś
Chapter Two: First Contact
Alphonse Bumen drove his brown 1978 Dodge Aspen down HWY 14 west out of Madison. Al was a tall man with a protruding Adamâ€™s apple and the body of a polar bear. He was dressed in his favorite giant black shoes, white socks, long shorts and brown plaid shirt. From appearances, you might have guessed computer geek or gamer, but Alphonse could not be classified by external appearance aloneâ€“most of what defined him never made it to the outside world.
His car passed fields of newly sprouted corn and soybeans in every direction, with a house here and there or small clumps of still-living elm trees. With the window open, the air smelled like wet soil, welcome after the long winter.
Alâ€™s paws gripped the wheel, desperately trying to keep from turning inside out. There was a private battle going on, and for the last ten miles or so Al had considered stopping the car to run or bang his head on something to rid himself of the poisonous energy. The sensations werenâ€™t new; he had had them before and knew what the progression was. He fumbled in the glove box, hoping to find a handful of aspirins. Sometimes that helped when an alternate reality tried to lure him in.
He was on his own, new to the area, and had no doctor he could trust for relief. The thought of medical help didnâ€™t come up. Slipping farther away from himself, he kept driving, barely aware of his surroundings. It was definitely going to happen now. He knew what was coming next. A panic attack would follow, accompanied by an acrid smellâ€“a by-product of his chemical imbalance.
Alphonse shook his head to loosen the crystals that grew on diseased synapses. Aware that no physical danger was imminent, he knew feeling this way was irrational, but chemicals couldnâ€™t be reasoned with. Usually the spells didnâ€™t last more than five or ten minutes, but they were very unpleasant experiences to have to live through. Understanding what was happening should have helped to make it easier. Knowing from experience that the episodes eventually came to an end was small comfort.
This was a bad one and so intense that his vision blurred. Al was balanced on the edge, on the verge of either crossing the threshold and leaving his mind forever, or falling back safely into this world. It was like being held by the shirttail and leaning out over the roof of a tall building.
An oak leaf started to rattle in the vent, then words came out and Al fell into space. A high-pitched screeching was interfering but even that faded to the background when he concentrated on the words. The negative energy ceased, and he found himself floating in the oneness and able to see everything from a new perspective. Maybe it wasnâ€™t a new realityâ€“it could have always been thereâ€“but it was new to Al. This was the way the real, physical world was connected down to the smallest atom. Looking in every direction, Al saw an infinite and multidimensional soup that worked; there wasnâ€™t one thing out of place. Every thing was one thing. To stay there would mean a total loss of control, and it could go either way.