In November I wrote a novel, and for a while I sort of forgot about it. Going back and reading it now, I realized that I think it's actually pretty cool and deserves the time and effort to be edited and maybe even released. Or maybe I've lost my marbles and it should stay in the drawer. Either way, good or bad, let me know what you think!
The story was heavily inspired by both The Dark Tower cycle and Letterkenny, which I think will be pretty (maybe even a bit too?) apparent.
This is the first ten or twelve(ish) pages of that novel.
Through a Field of Stones:
The Stonepicker Saga
A Novel By
1. The Hick
The field was littered with stones, and the sun had just barely begun to rise.
“Well, time to get fuckin’ picking, I suppose,” Gus said, leaning his back against the knuckles of both his fists and releasing a series of pops up his spine. Walter sat beside him in the neatly cut grass running up the sides of the gravel driveway, looking up with his big dumb grin. The dog would watch his master work for almost an hour from this very spot before wandering back to the house for a drink of water and a nap on the porch.
On a summer morning like this, when the evening chill had yet to be broken by the warm sunshine of the day, it was always best to get working early on. By noon that old thermometer which had been nailed to the porch on the day it was built would be pushing past 35 degrees Celsius, and Gus’s plaid poplin shirt would have sweat spots spreading quickly under the arms and down the back.
“See you for lunch, Wally,” Gus said to the dog, giving his ears an affectionate flop back and forth on his big head and setting out in to the field with the wheelbarrow. He’d walk the seven acres of land under the possession of his sister and himself in a grid, filling the wheelbarrow with the rocks he found and dumping it in two piles. One would begin back here, by the house. The other would be out at the edge of their land, just before the barbed wire fence that lay between the Mears acreage and the Toorin’s.
Ruby was just setting out for the day, truck keys dangling loosely in her right hand, old jeans riddled with holes that had been earned from hard wear rather than purchased that way. She taught a third-grade class in town along with her friend Rebecca. The two of them, with Gus peripherally taking part when the conversation didn’t devolve to gossip about the other teachers, polished off a forty-ounce bottle of rye the previous night. None of them were too bothered about it this morning.
“Have a good day, big brother. Call up Clay and Marv if your back starts hurtin’, will ya? Doesn’t make you weak to ask for help once in a while,” she shouted over to Gus as his right boot struck the first stone.
“Should be able to handle it just fine, Roob. Have a good day with the little ones,” he hollered back.
Ruby had inherited her name from their great grandmother. Dad said she was just about the meanest old broad he ever met and that she never hesitated to leave a welt on his ass with her thick redwood cane. He was drunk when he bestowed the name on Gus’ sister. His claim was that the name deserved some redemption, and that if his daughter ended up half as tough as his grandmother had been, she’d be taking care of Gus rather than the other way around.
He wasn’t exactly wrong on that front, either. Ruby had always been tougher than hell. There was never the briefest of hesitations to put her hands to work on one of the bigger kids that tried to rough Gus up in school. As girls around the eighth grade tend to, she shot up early, and towered over most of his peers regardless of their two-year advantage.
She’d always hated their dad for giving her that horrible name, though.
The truck pulled away slowly, so as not to send gravel spraying like a shotgun blast, with Ruby inside. Gus set back to work. He walked the field slowly, scanning the ground with his eyes, and picked up rocks big and small. Every stone made the wheelbarrow heavier and the work harder. He was grateful when he reached the end of their land and emptied his load, starting the first stone pile. The sun had already breached the horizon and sweat had already begun to bead on his brow. He took a moment to wipe the moisture away with the arm of his shirt before setting back towards the house.
2. The Farm
The Mears’ house had been built by Gus and Ruby’s grandfather Bill, along with his father Bob, sometime in the 1930s. Their grandfather Bill remembered it as 1937, but his father Bob (as told by Gus and Ruby’s dad Al) argued it had been 1935 until the day he died. Grandpa Bill, on his increasingly seldom visits, would always make a point of standing at the bottom of the porch stairs and saying, ‘she looks pretty good, for something built in ‘37’, with a wink to Gus or Ruby, whoever stood nearest by to him. The kids got a kick out of it. Al had grown tired of the debate.
The porch faced out towards Range Road 37, a dusty old thing that ran a few kilometres off the highway until its dead end out by the reservoir. Three farms split off that road, the Mears’ being the first and smallest of them. Gus had replaced the three wooden steps up to the porch two summers ago. The rest of the structure was all original. He’d been meaning to rebuild the deck since he turned eighteen and his father started hounding him about it, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
“She’s holding up just fine,” Gus had told Al as he picked splinters out of his heel ten years ago. This was when their parents had been moving out, leaving the farm to the kids and moving in to the city where there was ‘less work and more play’, as they phrased it. Al only shook his head and told his son it was his problem now.
Inside, the house had two stories, with a staircase leading up on the far back wall. The front door opened on to a living room. It was furnished with an old, rarely turned on television that could have weighed anywhere between a hundred and three thousand pounds, and a couch upholstered with floral print that had no business existing anywhere past 1983. Past this and separated by a wall was the kitchen and a circular dining table surrounded by four handmade chairs older than Ruby or Gus.
The staircase creaked something fierce, but the steps themselves were sturdy. At the top, you would turn left and walk a short hallway that ended with a bathroom and split off to a bedroom on each side.
Growing up, Gus and Ruby shared a room until their teenage years, when their fights were no longer broken up by times of calm. Gus took to the couch in the living room and merely treated the bedroom as somewhere his clothes were kept.
Mom would cry sometimes when they were eating breakfast.
“Annie, it’s too early for that much emotion,” Al would say, stern but not unkind.
“I know it, Al. I just wish this old house had one more room. Our boy sleeps on the couch like an unwelcome house guest. It’s been more than a year of it now.”
“I don’t mind a bit, mom. Every night’s like a sleepover. Besides, it beats sleeping in the same room as Roob,” he’d shot a stiff elbow in to his sister’s side then, “you fart in your sleep, you know that sis?” He laughed. They all laughed.
Quickly, Ruby had his head under her arm and was squeezing until the pressure built behind his eyeballs.
“One day it’ll be better, kids, I promise,” their mom said absently, going back to her toast and coffee and ignoring the headlock taking place just behind her back.
“Don’t knock him out before breakfast is done, Ruby,” Al said, “I need him out in the field today.”
She released her brother, brushed his shoulders off, and gave him a good smack on the back.
Eventually, Gus did tire of sleeping on the couch. Soon after that, when the sibling rivalry started again, but with an edge of adultish reality, their parents decided to leave the house to them.
3. The field
He’d never minded picking stones. It was the sort of mindless work that seemed to get done quickly, whether you paid it much attention or not. Gus could get his thoughts straight out there. At the end of the day, when his muscles ached, he would sit out on their porch with a cold beer and a hot cigarette and know he’d done something useful. The world didn’t hold many feelings better than that.
As he finished his fourth pass, dumping the stones out of the wheelbarrow on to the pile, Gus took a moment to go inside and fill a glass with ice cold water from the tap. Walter sat just outside the screen door, looking in at the couch longingly, and let out a small grumble. Gus drained the richly mineral tasting water in one go and refilled it, looking out at his furry friend and giving in much quicker than he used to.
He opened the door, mumbling out, “c’mon, then,” and let Walter inside.
The dog didn’t hesitate to hop on the couch and curl up with his big head on one of the armrests.
“You’re pampered, y’know that?” Gus asked him, again wiping the sweat from his head with his sleeve. He returned to the kitchen and checked the clock over the old gas stove.
Quarter to ten already. He wasn’t even a third of the way through with stone-picking yet. It could be a very long day ahead of him. Gus left the glass by the sink, knowing he’d be coming back for it soon, and made for the front door.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” he told Wally, “we’re headin’ back outside, boy.”
The dog got up slowly, stretching his back legs and dragging them behind him a bit as he followed out the door.
Lighting a smoke, Gus gave his dog a good scratch down his back and on his haunches. His tail whipped back and forth happily, thwapping against the leg of Gus’ jeans.
“You’re a good boy, Wally. Now go lay down while I get back to work.”
He finished his smoke and put it out on the side of a deep glass ashtray kept on a small plastic table by the front door.
Noon was coming quickly, and the work wouldn’t do itself. Gus made his way back to the field speckled with stones and began to push his empty wheelbarrow through it, bending down every few steps to pick a rock out of the soil. When it was done, it wouldn’t seem like it took all that long. He’d feel better at the end of the day. He always did.
4. The Ritual
With a clear field, a clear head, and a dull ache in nearly every muscle running through his body, Gus leaned back on the steps of the porch, tilted his neck to each side, and elicited two stiff cracks from his spine. He lit a smoke, inhaled deeply, and looked up at the bright blue sky as he returned the rather crumpled cigarette pack to his chest pocket.
Behind him the porch door creaked open. Something cold came to rest on his forehead. He opened his eyes to find Ruby standing over him, holding an ice-cold beer bottle.
“I thought something was missing,” she said as Gus accepted it from her graciously, taking a long swallow.
“Thank you, sister,” he said.
Ruby left her brother to his peaceful post-work ritual, taking Walter inside with her to take up his place on the old couch. Of the three of them, he most certainly got the most use out of it. Ruby had been home for an hour or so. Her and Rebecca traded off teaching mornings and afternoons. Today, Ruby had been on the morning duty. Thankful for Rebecca, who strolled in to the classroom sporting sunglasses and a disturbingly healthy-looking green drink. The rye had clearly been less gentle on her.
The sun was only just surpassing its highest and hottest point in the day. Gus would enjoy his time of quiet with a clear head, a cold beer, and a strong smoke before going inside to shower and put something together for dinner. ‘Every hard day deserves a soft night’, was sometimes his mantra. Others, he would replace that one with ‘every hard day deserves a harder night’. The latter was usually the product of a shitty day. Often, those ones ended with something more than a nice cold beer and at least two dozen more smokes.
It had been a good day, though. The work was hard, but rewarding, and the sun had shone on his back without roasting him alive.
Hard to complain, and Gus wasn’t the type to anyhow.
He drained the rest of his beer, stood from the steps, and crushed his cigarette on the glass ash tray.
“Who’s a good boy?” Gus asked Walter as he went inside.
Walter knew who. His tail whacked against the god-awful floral sofa to prove it.
Outside, the bright blue sky filled with rays of beautiful sunshine rippled like a pond in the breeze.
5. Ripple in the Sky
From outside the house, off of the land, above the earth, over the sky, outside of space and through all of time, a being named Cero watched Gus carefully. It didn’t often choose to take a physical form, but when it did, its skin had a deep olive tone with an underlying glint of oceanic blue that could only be caught out of the corner of your eye. Its eyes were turquoise, and its ears were too big for its head. It looked at and through all at once. It stood seven feet tall and wore a charcoal grey suit with three-inch lapels. The tie was also blue, knotted neatly over a white shirt.
Cero had been observing Gus for some time.
Cero needed somebody to help him.
6. An evening
Gus and Ruby sat at the kitchen table with four cards fanned out in their hands.
Walter snored loudly from the couch.
“I’m on the afternoon tomorrow. I can help you ‘round the house in the morning,” Ruby said, laying down an 8 of hearts.
“Can you?” Gus asked, grinning widely and laying down a 7, placing his red peg two spots ahead on the cribbage board.
“That I can,” Ruby lay down a 6, and moved her own blue peg three spots ahead.
Gus furrowed his brow at this. Then he put down a ten and pushed ahead two more spaces. They continued playing quietly, the only sounds in the house being Walter’s floor rattling snores.
“I’ve got the field clear of stones,” Gus said.
“Do you? Did you call Clay and Marv down to help?”
“And how’s your back, then?”
“Bit sore. Should be fine by tomorrow.”
“If you say so, brother.”
Their plates sat off to the side. After their game, Ruby would clean up the mess from dinner. Gus had thrown steaks from the Toorin’s on the grill and boiled a few potatoes from out of the cellar. A simple meal, but it filled their bellies just fine.
“If you’re not gonna call Clay to come down and lend a hand tomorrow, I will. If only to say thanks for the steaks,” Ruby said, “you know he admires you. Likes working for you.”
“He’s a good kid. But he’s still a kid.”
Ruby lay down her finished hand, counting points on her fingers before pegging ahead twelve spaces.
“Good hand,” Gus said, eyeballing his six points and huffing gently as he fell behind in their game.
She nodded, flipping over her crib and beginning to count up her extra points. “Fifteen two and the rest won’t do,” Ruby took her lead with a thinly veiled arrogance.
“Have a beer?” Gus asked, getting up from the table to grab one from the fridge.
“Not for me. Too full,” she said.
They finished their game quickly. Ruby kept her lead until the last two hands, which Gus outwardly wanted to think were a result of skill, but they both knew were just the luck of the cards. The siblings put the board and its cards back in its spot in the junk drawer of the kitchen, where it would sit until tomorrow night. Ruby sulked a little as she piled the dishes in to the sink. Losing didn’t come easy to her. Gus went upstairs to take a shower, taking another beer along with him.
7. A Day on the Mears Farm
Gus didn’t argue when Ruby picked up the phone to call Clay Toorin from the next farm over. She thanked his mom, Trudy, for the steaks before asking if Clay was available to come down and give them a hand preparing the produce for sale.
“He’ll be ‘round in an hour,” she said, putting the phone down on the counter and pulling a pot full of bouncing, boiling eggs from the stove.
“Good stuff,” Gus said, sitting on the stairs and lacing up his boots.
Walter yawned from the couch, sliding off of it to come greet his pal. Gus allowed his face to be licked precisely once before giving Wally’s ears a good scratching and taking him out front for a pee.
Ruby ran the eggs (a full dozen of them) under ice cold water from the tap. She let them sit in their cold-water bath while she chopped up cucumbers and celery that she’d taken that morning before sunrise from their small personal garden back behind the house. A loaf of fresh bread was out on the counter just begging to be sliced. Gus loved when she baked bread. He’d never ask her to do it. But when she did, it was uncommon for it to last longer than a day or two.
There was a steaming hot cup of black coffee waiting on the table for Gus when he brought Walter back inside. He’d poured a generous scoop of kibble in to the dog’s bowl before he noticed.
“Thank you kindly, Ruby,” he said, taking a tentative sip and burning his lips.
“Very welcome. Breakfast will be up soon.”
He took a seat at the table. Wally crunched mouthfuls of kibble happily behind him. The coffee cooled, the bread was sliced, and generous scoops of egg salad were placed between thick cuts of that heavenly, lightly toasted joy.
Gus ate slowly, savoring every bite and the quiet of the morning. It would soon be broken by the arrival of Clay Toorin. A good kid, willing to help and learn along the way, but still a kid. Ruby could put up with the chit chat. She taught kids. Gus had never been one for too many words. His patience would be tested after breakfast.
8. Back to Work
“I gotta say, Ruby, that may be some of the finest bread you’ve ever baked,” Gus said, wiping egg salad from the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin and draining his third cup of coffee.
“You say that every time I bake bread. It can’t all be the finest, you know,” she said, cutting off one more thin slice and spreading a thick layer of their homemade apricot jam over it.
“That’s where we dis—” Gus’ grin dropped from his face like a sack or bricks as the screen door creaked open and Walter let out one low woof to alert them of their visitor’s presence. Clay Toorin strolled in to the house.
His jeans were a few sizes too big, cinched tightly around his waist with a thick leather belt and bagging out below it. The legs were tucked in to knee high gum boots. In contrast, the hoodie he wore was one he’d outgrown last year, and its hem hovered just around his belly button. His voice cracked as he spoke, “Hellooooo, Mears family. I hear through the grapevine that I can be of some assistance today?”
“Take a seat, Clay,” Ruby said patiently, “have you had breakfast?”
“I… have. But that bread smells mighty enticing. May I bother you for a slice?”
Gus kept his eyes squeezed firmly shut for the duration of this interaction, until he was forced to open them and greet the kid whose scrawny fingers squeezed a bit too hard in to Gus’ shoulder.
“Clay. Morning,” was all Gus said.
“Morning to you too, Gus. What’s on the docket for this lovely day?”
Ruby handed Clay a slice of toast with some apricot jam. He sniffed it enthusiastically as the siblings met eyes. Gus rolled his.
“You’ll be packing up the spring produce for sale. Gus was out picking stones all of yesterday, so him and I will be out tilling the soil.”
“I coulda came n’ picked stones with you yesterday, buddy! I never minded picking stones. Soothing work.”
This was a sentence Gus had said to Clay, word for word, last summer. He remembered it clearly.
“Got it done just fine myself,” Gus said, though his lower back did throb with a dull ache today.
“Course ya did, big fella like you,” Clay reached to squeeze Gus’ arm, but quickly pulled his hand back when Gus gave him a look.
“Work’s not gonna get itself done, you two,” Ruby said, snapping the tension and pushing in her chair, “you can clean up after breakfast when we break for lunch. Sound good, Gus?”
He nodded his head, tucking his own chair back under the table and stretching his arms high up in to the air. Ruby led Clay out the door and past the back of the house to the barn. He had a lot of work ahead of him, washing and bagging vegetables, and Gus was glad he’d be doing it on his own. It was good practice for a young man to do some work on his own, in the peace and quiet with his own thoughts. Surely his parents knew this, and that’s why they so willingly offer the boy’s help.
Walter followed Gus down to the edge of the field, sitting loyally beside him as he gazed out over the land. The sun had risen already, day time already ebbing away, but Gus wasn’t concerning himself with it. Work would get done, and much quicker today, with the extra hands.
“Shall we?” Ruby prodded an elbow in to her brother’s side.
“We shall,” he said, and they made for the barn.
Walter held his post for a while, as he always did, but eventually the porch’s call to him became too strong and he sauntered over that way for a snooze.
9. Cero Approaches
An odd thing, he thought, for a species so intelligent to work so hard.
Cero had seen the birth and death of many intelligent species, across many different planets and dimensions in the multiverse. All of them a blip in existence that would be remembered only by those whose duty it was to remember. He was glad it wasn’t his duty. It sounded awfully boring, really, watching everything everywhere all the time, jotting it down in some ephemeral notebook.
Though, he did find himself drawn to this one human, for some reason. Perhaps his attention had grown less valuable over the millennia. Perhaps he was just bored with his own immortality.
He did need someone, though. A mortal with real appreciation for life could be the proper candidate. Who else could it fall on, to save existence itself, besides another blip in the timeline of the multiverse? Certainly, this man; spending his miniscule amount of time before his death turning over dirt to better grow vegetables, could appreciate the drastic impact of the end of all things.
Undoubtedly, he would want to prevent it.
Cero gazed down at the man, sweat already wetting his shirt and stinking up the air around him, and thought who better to serve as our hero?
Who am I?
I'm Mark Karsten. I'm from a city called Lethbridge in Southern Alberta, Canada. I read, I write, and I snuggle puppies at every given opportunity. It's lovely to meet you.