Miles from the nearest town, Kenneth McCaul gave Alana Long permission to pull over, park his car, and climb out. His friends called him Kenny, but he’d been coming around to the noble ring of his given name, the way it would look printed on a thousand spines. At the top of the manuscript he’d been reading from for the past two hours, though, it said Kenny, and so that was the name Alana had used when she’d claimed she had to pee and begged him to put his gun down long enough for her to do so.
If Kenny were a madman, he’d have called her bluff, told her no fucking way, baby, keep driving, keep listening—I mean, we’re almost to the bank heist part, for God’s sake—maybe wag his weapon around, cuss. But Kenny wasn’t mad. He was just a guy—an author—with a novel he’d worked his tail off to write but couldn’t get a big-city agent to give a hoot about. He’d tried everything. Submitted query after query, including a bio (Raleigh-based fiction writer, father of two, solar panel sales rep), comps (a gritty noirish thriller; think American Detective meets Ozark), publications (none yet, but one journal took a shine to a story of Kenny’s enough to reply Strong, send more, which Kenny did, only to get a form rejection back). Even sprung for a conference last year. In Pittsburgh. Slept two nights in a motor inn, the kind you’d rather not see in blacklight, and wore the shirt and slacks his daughter had helped him press nice. There he’d met an agent, Alana Long, the only one whose ear he bent enough to convince to read his book—or so she’d promised. But when twelve months came and went and still Kenny hadn’t heard a peep, he looked up this year’s conference, saw Alana Long listed on a panel of “industry insiders,” and decided to pay her a visit. He had a hunch she’d be surprised to see him again.
She sure was. Oh, hey! she’d started to say, her voice rising like a balloon, but Kenny had seen in her eyes as she’d clickety-clacked to her fancy car that his presence wasn’t what she’d had in mind when she rolled out of bed that morning. Remember me? Kenny McCaul?
So sorry, super busy, moved agencies, death in the family—she ticked them off like recipe ingredients. Kenny was real kind about it: he listened, nodded, and waited until she was finished to show her his gun and tell her to get her behind the wheel of his car.
He said, I’m a family man; I get it. Spare time’s hard to find. That’s why I thought we’d go for a ride, me and you.
And that’s what they did. They drove around while Kenny read. She didn’t enjoy it, though. Shook, cried, tried to run a time or two but the gun kept her put. That was another clue she hadn’t read his manuscript: Kenny’s hero, a bank robber, had a rough exterior, sure, but deep down had a good heart. Kenny put a lot of himself into that character. Alana would’ve known that had she read it.
As he waited on her to come back to the car, though, he got to thinking he’d gone about this all wrong. Part of it was that two-thirds through the novel, as he’d heard himself read, he’d picked up on a plot hole, a couple details that didn’t add up, and he wondered if that’s why Alana had ghosted him. Some of the talking parts sounded stiff too. When Kenny started feeling this way he’d get big blackout sledgehammer headaches, and one of them was coming on fierce now.
He slid into the driver’s seat and turned over the engine. Into a patch of chicory he tossed Alana’s purse and drove home with his head pounding. With his kids at his ex’s for the weekend, he entered a dark house. He dropped the manuscript in the trash and returned the rubber gun to his son’s toybox. Then from the cabinet above the stove Kenny McCaul grabbed his pistol, stuck the barrel in his mouth, and squeezed his eyes shut.