This is the opening from Fast food at the Centre of the World – it’s a speculative novel, with a fair amount of silliness and seriousness tangled up in each other.
Across the road in a vacant parking lot, a man was down on his knees. Arms spread wide like he’d just been shot. As he didn’t fall over, it rapidly looked more like theatrical praying. Hazel couldn’t see anyone else around. She stopped at a safe distance to take a look. It might be a surrender. No sense running into a gang war. There were no shots, no warning sounds. If anything, the lot was too quiet. Still the man hadn’t moved. No blood pooled. He didn’t fall down. The situation no longer struck her as dangerous, so long as she moved on. There were packages in her pockets that needed delivering.
The man on his knees raised his head, and even at this distance, locked her gaze with his. Straggly hair fluttered around a narrow face. He had the emaciated build of a druggy, and being here, like this… did not bode well for him. Still she lingered, fascinated by the scene. Her first take on him was ‘trouble’, but ‘nutter’ came a close second. Substances seemed likely. Rapture maybe, or delirium. He could have picked a better place. Maybe he’d done a blend. That could fry your mind no trouble. Whatever he’d taken it didn’t look clever and staying around dumb people wasn’t her style. Dumb people turned into dead people so very easily. This nutter looked interesting, because he made no immediate sense. Curiosity remained one of Hazel’s big weaknesses. That, and being a soft touch. He might be in trouble.
She moved in closer, keeping to the buildings and alert for signs of possible threats. It might be quiet now, but there were no guarantees the street would stay that way, the disused car parks and empty buildings sometimes got themselves inhabited. Currently this dead zone made a good short cut on her rounds, but it never paid to get over confident. The overconfident people were usually second in line behind the dumb ones, when it came to getting dead at short notice. Or worse. Hazel had spent nineteen years successfully not becoming dead, and meant to continue that way.
Mister crazy car park man dropped right down, hands on the cracked tarmac, long hair falling around his face. He looked thin and odd, but not like he was street. Too clean. Too unshredded in the clothes department. So what was he doing? Hazel had watched people in the throes of all kinds of insanity, from just about every mad making chemical a body could take. Not one of them had ever done anything quite like this before. He seemed too still and quiet to be off his face. However, straight, clean, normal guys did not, in her experience, lie face down in empty parking lots, unless someone killed them first.
She knew it would be sensible to walk away and forget all about it. Spending her whole life running along the edges between sensible and insane to make a living, Hazel trusted her instincts. They kept her alive. Stupid risks were not part of her plan. Not very often. Hardly at all really. And after all, it wasn’t a huge risk, just a lone nut job in a big empty place with no one else around. What could possibly go wrong?
Getting closer, Hazel saw the man was crying. Not your regular understated bloke with leaky face scenario either. This looked serious. His whole body shook with it, low, agonised sounds coming out of his mouth in short bursts. Hazel revised her opinion of the whole setup. Less likely a drug fiend, more likely he was sick or injured.
“Hey mister, you in some kind of trouble there?” Hazel asked.
He straightened up, wiping a sleeve across his tear-streaked face. The intensity of his gaze startled her. He didn’t look hurt or wasted. Which left the possibility of him being just plain loopy. Hazel took a step back, very casually.
“I’m fine, thank you for your concern.”
That sounded coherent, if weird.
“You appear confused,” he continued.
“Oh yeah, well, I saw you…. wondered… though you might need some help.” She took another step back just to be on the safe side and well out of arm’s reach.
The man said nothing for what seemed like a long time. He just kept staring at her. Hazel had the uncomfortable feeling he was looking a lot deeper than her mop of tangled hair, piercings, war-paint and tatty clothing. Lifting her chin, she returned that searching glare as best she could. Looking down on him was a plus, but not a big one. The weird man could have been in his thirties, plus or minus a bit. Gaunt, and fierce looking, but not, she decided, mean. There was something about his mouth that struck her as generous. Not a man who smiled much though.
“You’ve a good head and a decent heart,” he observed. “You know the area? Live round here?”
“Round about.” She offered no details. “Here and there, you know how it is.”
“I don’t, but I mean to learn. I get the feeling that you’d like to help me.”
A warm feeling pooled in her stomach. The man’s lips were still moving, but no sound reached her ears. She had the vague feeling there were words, somewhere beyond the reach of her perceptions. Dancing, joyful words full of good things to come. Words that promised safety and a home. For a moment, Hazel became aware of all the many things she wanted and didn’t have. The moving lips said so many things, but through and between the words, she heard, “I will give you the world if you help me out here.”
“Yes. I’m a helpful sort of person,” she said. “What is it that you need?”
The guy wiped his eyes again and frowned. “Still working on that one. Stick around, yes?”
Again that warm, melting feeling caught her, the need to say ‘yes’ stronger than her usual good sense. It seemed like he couldn’t possible ask anything bad. “What, around here? This parking lot?”
“That’s the one. I need to fetch a few things, but I should move in tonight, before anyone else does.”
“Move in here?” She looked around, reassuring herself that there were absolutely no habitable buildings. Not even by her low standards. At the very least you needed a door to bar.
If you’d like the rest of the book, you can listen to it for free on bandcamp or download it from there. Here’s the first episode – https://nimuebrown.bandcamp.com/track/fast-food-at-the-centre-of-the-world-part-one