Fiction

The Manuscript

By: Jack Bristow

     The large van lurched up the snow-capped mountains, higher and higher, farther and farther away from civilization. Scotty Kline, forty-four, scruffy faced, was behind the wheel navigating the many twists, turns and straddling the black ice, deftly. His business associate, Hudson Brown, sat beside him in the passenger seat, peering out the window forlornly, the Eagle Creek suitcase clutched protectively against his chest, like he were guarding a newborn for dear life.

     “Are you sure they aren’t going to find me up here?” asked Hudson.

     “Absolutely,” said Scotty, as he lit up a cigarette, laughing all the while. “We’re twelve thousand feet up, buddy. The closest neighbors are twenty miles down the hill in a little town called Tin Rock. All you have to do is stay here for a few days, keep a low profile: Don’t go out, don’t leave the premises, keep an eye on the manuscripts at all costs, watch a little TV. I don’t have to worry about anyone recognizing you up here in the boonies,” laughed Scotty jovially. “I’ll fly back to Chicago, visit with my parole officer, then meet up with the collector, fly him back here, and we’ll sell the manuscripts to him.”

     “Wait, no car? This is crazy, Scotty,” protested Hudson. “I mean, what if I want to go out for a drink or something–to celebrate our newfound riches, you know?” Hudson grinned broadly, sleazily. “You want me to stay here alone three days, I might go stir-crazy. I already had to do five years in Lewisburg. You want me to be confined again?” scoffed Hudson. “Come on, Scotts. Why can’t I have a car to drive down to Tin Rock? Maybe have a few beers and socialize with the common folk. What’s so wrong with that?”

     The van was now climbing a particularly steep grade of paved roadway leading up the mountain, en route to the cabin, which would be used as a safehouse of sorts. “Hudson, I love you like a brother. I’ve known you since we were young men in juvie. But I don’t trust you, my friend.” Scotty exhaled, as though he didn’t savor what he was about to say. “You’re a blabbermouth. We’re both on parole. I know how you are, when you start drinking heavily, you start acting stupidly, flapping your gums, getting confrontational, picking fights. We don’t need that. You just need to stay holed up, in quiet and peaceful isolation, for two days. Two days, Hudson. Not three.”

     Hudson pouted like a little kid. “But what am I gonna do up here for two days, Scotty? You know me, I hate the isolation. You said there aren’t even any cell towers up here. What am I going to do in case of an emergency? Who am I going to call?” Hudson shook his head sadly, incredulously.

     Scotty stomped his foot down hard on the gas pedal to make it the rest of the way up the bumpy road and terrain. “Don’t worry about that, Hudson. I’ve made arrangements for you, buddy. The cabin is stocked with Southern Comfort, your favorite. There’s a DVD player up there and it’s stacked with every episode of your favorite TV show, Gilligan’s Island. And if you’re worried about your own personal safety, don’t fret, brother: You’ve got your Browning nine millimeter you used on the job to word off any nasties. Two days Hudson, and we’re rich. Have fun, don’t worry. Everything’s going to be wonderful.”

     Ever since they’d met in Juvenile Hall back in 1992, Scotty Kline had always protected his smaller and much stupider friend, Hudson Brown. Scotty was tall and dashing with dark brown hair, a chiseled chest and striking facial features. Hudson was short and unimposing, with rabbit buck teeth and curly blond hair. Scotty had saved Hudson from many a beating in juvie. His grumbling notwithstanding, Hudson always trusted Scotty, never having the gall or gumption to defy any of his decrees.

     Scotty always had the last word.

     Finally the 2002 Dodge Ram was in front of the small, one bedroom cabin. Scotty handed his best friend the keys and bade him farewell. “Don’t be sad, buddy,” grinned Scotty. “Just imagine how rich we’re going to be in a few days. We’re about to become millionaires, brother. Buck up.”        Scotty gave Hudson the thumbs-up gesture as Hudson exited the van, the Eagle Creek suitcase in hand.

     Outside the snowfall was verging on a blizzard. There was white everywhere, covering the cabin, in the trees. The cold wind, which amplified the 20 degrees below temperature, slapped Hudson against the face abrasively. Hudson made his way to the front door, clutching the suitcase to his chest. The suitcase was now even becoming snow-capped, much to Hudson’s chagrin and dismay. He shot Scotty a disapproving glance; Scotty retorted physically with the proverbial shrug of the arms.

     Hudson fidgeted with the keys for a moment and then the cabin door finally creaked open. He looked inside, saw the military style cot, the small kitchen, and the tiny living room equipped with the TV, DVD player and the aforementioned Gilligan’s Island DVDs. He poked his head out the door, returned the thumbs up gesture to Scotty. Scotty smiled, returning the same gesture, and then slowly, carefully drove off.

     Hudson noticed the igloo, which he knew to be stocked with booze and sandwiches, near the Panasonic Smart TV. He opened the Igloo, extracted one of the two quarts of Southern Comfort from the inside, grabbing also a Viva Las Vegas! Elvis Presley shot glass and then immediately filled the miniature glass to the brim. “A toast–to my best bud, Scotty Klein and me, for pulling off the the greatest score of our lives. Down the hatch,” said Hudson before quaffing the bittersweet shot down. What Hudson said was true, it had been no exaggeration: This really was the greatest score of their lives, albeit an unconventional one: Three books, original manuscripts actually, classics, none of which either man had ever read. Ernest Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald. John Steinbeck. These weren’t first editions; these weren’t reissues. These were actually the literal pages upon which the works had been written, formerly property of the Los Angeles Library of the arts. Valued at three million dollars per manuscript, Hudson and Scotty were looking at a nine million dollar payday, all for just a few minutes’ worth of work….

     Hudson pulled a cigar from his London Fog coat pocket. It was made in Spain, not Cuba. He had always wondered what smoking a Cuban was like, and then he smirked to himself, knowingly: Someday soon, Brown, you’ll know: Four and a half million beans can buy you a lot of Montecristos.

      He sat there, puffing, knowing things would be different after he and Scotty sold the manuscripts, moved to Panama, and lived the rest of their days like kings. “We’ve got nothing to worry about there, brother,” said Scotty on the drive up to the cabin. “No taxes, all the coin in the world, no parole officers. We’ll pay off the mayor, the sheriff, the politicos; whoever we have to. They will never find us. It’s easy street once we leave the states.”

     Suddenly Hudson noticed the loud, stirring sound: Hot air, a welcoming sensation, blowing against his face. He felt something sitting there he hadn’t felt in a long time: Content. Theshot of Southern Comfort having warmed his belly, the harsh tobacco smoke warming his throat and lungs, life wasn’t just good; life was wonderful.He looked ahead, noticing the Acucraft fireplace for the first time. He could see two bricksof ashen firewood inside.

     “Once we get to Panama City, things are going to get even better,” Hudson said aloud to himself, relaxing and unwinding from a ridiculously stressful and taxing day, both mentally and physically.

     Hudson was almost ready to stand up, insert Gilligan into the DVD player, and enjoy countless hours of hijinks. But what was the hurry? Scotty wasn’t going to be back for two days. Two days, that’s a lot of slapstick misadventures, a lot of coconut husk built shanties, even for an unrefined and uncultured clown like Hudson Brown to sit through. He felt the nagging desire to do something he had never done before: Read. Just what was in these manuscripts that were going to change both Hudson and Scotty’s lives beyond their wildest dreams? Why were these pieces of paper worth millions of dollars? What kind of a kick would the buyer be getting out of these?

     The heater, once again, lumbered back to life. Hudson refilled the Viva Las Vegas! shot glass thengrabbed the first manuscript his hand touched, indiscriminately, from the suitcase. The front said in big bold lettering “Of Mice and Men.” Hudson read the manuscript in one sitting, completely and utterly transfixed. He had felt an instant connection with the character Lenny.  A good egg, with a good heart, misunderstood by society at large, that Lenny. He was in tears by the end. “Wow, that was way better than Gilligan’s Island,” he said to himself, palming tears from his eyes.

     Shoo, shoo, shoo; the heater this time whirred back to life.

     The next manuscript was a little leaner: Only about 120 pages in total. Hudson had never heard the word novella uttered in his life; it just was never said in his circles. He saw the title on the front in bold lettering, The Old Man and the Sea. Well, it was shorter than Mice.Hewould read this one even quicker. He couldn’t wait. He took another shot of Southern Comfort via the Viva Las Vegas! glass. “Down the hatch,” he said to himself, as he commenced to read the first line.

***

     He woke the next day to bone-drilling cold. Every joint and bone in his body ached and he was shivering, despite the two blankets and sheet he had over himself. What’s going on? he thought to himself. Hudson was even colder than when they’d send him down to the hole in Lewisburg federal penitentiary.

     He lay there for a good while on the cot, feeling groggy, hungover. He thought awhile about Scotty, his best friend. His only friend. He smiled. My good friend, my pal. He had always been there, looking out for him. And he had always had Hudson’s best interests at heart, too, even now — by sending Hudson to this secluded section of the Sierra Nevada mountains. He had even confiscated Hudson’s Iphone, probably figuring, quite astutely, that he’d get soused, call one of his old flames, and boast about the nine million dollar heist that was now, assuredly, international news.

     Hudson stood up with the blanket draped around him, wondering why it was so cold inside; why his fingers were still freezing during morningtime hibernation. He walked over toward the Honeywell Thermostat and saw, to his great shock, that it was stuck at forty degrees. He promptly shuffled over to the living room window and saw snow, snow galore. There must have been at least six feet near the stepping stones. He hobbled as best as he could to the kitchen window and saw about three feet of snow on the deck. He slipped on his London Fog coat and Moccasins, and exited the sliding glass door. He was now knee-deep in the scrunchy white stuff, which would have been beautiful under different circumstances.

     Hudson’s legs and feet were freezing as the snow had dribbled down into his shoes, and his knees ached excruciatingly. He finally located the propane tank on the side of the cabin as he waded, groin deep, into the icy unknown.

     He read the gauge and was astounded by the number: It was well below the yellow “no gas” strip.”

     There wasn’t any propane left.

     Back inside the cabin, Hudson slogged off his moccasins, shivering. Panic immediately set in: What am I going to do? I could freeze to death. His little sojourn to the back of the deck had backfired unexpectedly. Not only was he wet and cold waist-down, but he had let a lot of frigid air inside by opening the sliding glass door.

     For the first time of the day he thought angrily about Scotty. Had he only trusted me, and left me with a car…

     He looked around the small modular cabin frantically. The only furnishings were the cot and four plastic patio chairs.

     Hudson sprinted to the cot, pulled the sheet off. And then he lumbered it over toward the fireplace, jammed the entire five foot long thing inside; the butt of the cot protruding a good three feet. He nearly choked with emotion when he noticed, for the first time, a can of RegalFlame Premium beside the fireplace. He doused it liberally, generously on the cot, and then he fumbled around inside the London Fog coat pocket exasperatedly. “Come on, come on.”

     Bingo. He had located the lighter. Hands shaking, he lit the top of the cot and then dove clear of the ensuing conflagration.

     Before he knew it, Hudson was beginning to cough. And then, he started to choke. The smoke was rancid and ubiquitous, burning his throat and nostrils, a loud, shrill beeping noise pierced his eardrums; the smoke detector. He ran into the kitchen and returned with the five gallon jug of water, pouring it on the still burning cot. It extinguished, though the smell was still overbearing, and would remain the rest of the day.

      Hudson thought about taking the extinguished cot outside and throwing it into the snow, to discard the eyesore. But he had learned his lesson the first time: Don’t open the door. The partially charcoaled cot would have to stay.

     He was seriously cold right now; he remained bundled under the covers, as he paced the cabin, ranting and raving about Scotty, and the perfidy of his leaving him there without any way to connect with the outside world. “That dog, that traitor!” he howled, as he balled his stubby fingers into a fist and punched the mattress. “He’s somewhere with a heater while I’m freezing to death in a cabin twenty miles away from nowhere in the Sierras.” The epiphany had been swift and sudden: Scotty Kline, Hudson’s best friend, his only friend, had set him up, leaving him up here in the boondocks to die so he could keep the nine million for himself.

     He decided to read the final manuscript: The Great Gatsby. He started off at the beginning: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father had given me some advice…” after a few pages, he had become lost in the story. In a strange way he was touched by Jay Gatsby’s undying love and obsession with Daisy Buchanan. He found himself in tears again after reaching the end two hours later. He noticed a glassy feeling on the side of his right eye: A tear had frozen solid.

     It was official: Hudson was a dead man and he knew it. There was no way out of this one. Nightfall was quickly approaching. The sun, obscured by the clouds, was beginning to recede and, once she was totally gone, it would get even colder. Thiswas unthinkable, unfathomable. He wished they had never gone on the heist, that he had never broken the poor elderly security guard’s jaw. What had it all been for? For Scotty. Scotty was the only one who was going to make out on this score: With Hudson gone, Scotty would be reaping the entire nine million dollars for himself.

     And there was nothing Hudson could do about it.

     “Hold on a minute,” Hudson said to himself, teeth clattering. The manuscripts! The manuscripts! Those were paper! If he burned them one by one, sparingly and carefully throughout the night, maybe he’d make it out of this mess alive.

     He pulled The Old Man and the Sea from his suitcase, smothered it in RegalFlame Premium, tapped it with the lighter, then sent it scorching into the fireplace.

     He stood there with the blanket draped around the majority of his body, feeling like Santiago having to relinquish his prized marlin, the heat a temporary refuge from the brutal, bone-drilling cold.

     Hudson knew he would have to throw out the next two books sparingly, to sustain the sporadic heat until daybreak. He had no worries about how he’d handle Scotty, he wouldn’t handle Scotty; his Browning nine millimeter would. His biggest concern was the present, here and now.

     “It’s going to be a long night,” he said to himself, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

The End

###

Jack Bristow’s writing has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, The Huffington Post, the Santa Fe New Mexican, as well as numerous zines, print anthologies and the like. His work typically focuses more on the moment than resolution. He can be followed @JackBristow18

Categories: Fiction

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