Read An Excerpt

PURGATORY CHASM
by Steve Ulfelder

Genre: Mystery, Amateur Sleuth, Hardboiled, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

 | Read Book Review

In this flashback scene, protagonist Conway Sax (a boy of 13 here) has been taken to Purgatory Chasm by his drunk father, Fred, to learn what it takes to be a race driver. 

My father squatted to set his face level with mine. He teetered some, but held the squat. “When you’re racing,” he said, “things come at you every second. You got to think big and think small at the same time, see? ‘Can I beat that prick into the corner? If I do, will he get a better run off it than I will? Is his car heavier? Whose tires are better?’ Like that. You wanna know what it’s like, making decisions like that?”

I nodded.

“Run, then.”

I said nothing.

“Run!” he said, pointing. “Down the hill. Best way I know to build the reflexes, what they call the muscle memory.”

I cut my eyes down the slope, wondering if he was trying to kill me, or at least make me break a leg. You’d want to be careful walking down that slope, those rocks, most of them jagged, some of them loose – and no way to tell which until you put weight on them.

Run?  Maybe a mountain goat could do it.

“Run, Mister Quick-Hands!” my father said, his smile torqued, his breath Rolling Rock. “Test yourself! Run!”

I hopped down slope to a rock that looked like it wouldn’t move. Then to another, then another.

My father laughed. “You call that running? Looks more like a bunny hop.”

I spun. “Why don’t you do it then?”

His smile went even tighter, and I thought he’d come down and hit me. He had a couple times before.

But instead he shook out his arms, limbering up, and tightened his belt one notch. “Watch this.” He slipped the last Rolling Rock from his pants pocket, bit the cap off, spit it out, and drank.

And he took off.

And he was beautiful. Weightless, fearless, doing what he was born to do. The mean drunk in blue Dickies disappeared, replaced by something that was half dancer and half gazelle. I watched him dab from rock to rock, barely touching each. By the time the less steady chunks of granite shifted, my father was already gone two strides. He disappeared behind a stand of trees faster than I could have run the same distance on the middle-school track.

I waited, thinking if this was a test of race-driver reflexes, my father must have been a damn good racer.

Five minutes later he strode around the corner with a near-empty beer in one hand and sweat beneath his armpits. 

“You still here?” he said. “Didn’t try it yet?”

“I can’t believe how fast you went.”

He tried to hard-ass his way past the compliment, but his mouth twitched. “The key,” he said, pointing down the hill with his bottle, “you don’t think about the moves. Your brain needs to trust your feet to find the right spots. Get it right, you’ll be surprised how fast you can go.”

I looked down the slope and tried not to feel dizzy.

“Three,” my father said, and drained his beer.

“Two,” he said, and belched.

“One,” he said, and lobbed the green bottle over his shoulder. The moment it smashed on a rock he said, “Go!”

And I did. Three paces in, my head figured out what he’d meant about trusting your feet. Another three paces and I felt my shoulders loosen up as I bounced from rock to rock. Three paces after that, my feet got the message. 

I flew.

I didn’t even look at the rocks my feet were touching. Instead I looked far down the hill, picking the path I’d be following in the next five seconds or so. My feet acted on their own, touching, adapting, springing, my ankles always rolling just right.

Before I reached the bottom I knew I looked just like my father, that this was what I was born to do: reacting, skimming, adapting, moving. Moving fast. Faster than anybody. Maybe faster than my father.

When the stones petered to swampy grass I slowed in three choppy steps, cool beneath oaks now. I trotted uphill smiling. I wanted to do it again.