World Fantasy Award-winning author Jeffrey Ford is acclaimed for his novels and series—we’ll tell anyone who asks (and plenty who don’t) that the Well-Built City trilogy is an under-read classic of dark fantasy—but he is just as adept working at shorter lengths.
Recently, we loved his haunting Tor.com Publishing novella The Twilight Pariah, a haunted house story that approached the tropes of the genre from a whole new angle, so we’re pleased that the publisher has given us the chance to reveal the cover and share an excerpt from his next novella, Out of Body, due out next May.
Find the excerpt below the full cover, designed by Fort.
Owen sat with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table and stared out the glass door that offered a view of his tiny backyard. It was surrounded at its boundary by tall fir trees, and, at its center, there was a bird feeder hanging on a Shepherd’s crook, leaning easterly in the wind and wet mud. The sparrows swarmed what was left of the seed he’d put out two days earlier. While his visitors fluttered and pecked, his thoughts were of Sleeping Beauty, virulent thorns, and a turreted castle in the distance. She was dressed in azure robes, he noted, like the Virgin Mary, and her trailing golden hair had stars in it. In the background, there was a night sky with a crescent moon and stars of its own.
The scene Owen envisioned was painted on the wall of the children’s section at the local library where he was and had been the head and only librarian for the past ten years. The painting, nearly as old as the one-story stucco building that held it, had seen better days. In the last five years the picture had become “ill” and was said by those who tend to the upkeep of murals that the paint was in structural peril. He had a professional in to assess the damage and the fellow told him what it would cost to restore it. Thousands more than the library budget. Its particular illness was a kind of paint separation that began with cracks and advanced into the curling away and dropping off of paint chips. Like a plague, the problem was spreading, creeping up Sleeping Beauty’s neck toward her serene face.
He continuously pondered how he might raise the money, but knew full well that in two years his library on the back road, nestled at the edge of the forest next to the train tracks, would be closed. Five local, small town libraries would be gathered into one larger one, sharing a budget and a new location. Owen’s place had been built in 1948 and served the small suburban town since then. He went as a child and was enchanted by the mural above the children’s books, as was his father. For the past twenty years the town had kept the library operating out of a sense of nostalgia more than anything else.
There were regular customers, mostly retirees, who came for books and to sit in the afternoon quiet and stare out the plate glass window on the adult side. It offered the view of a field of weeds, then a tree line of tall oaks, and not quite obscured by the shadow of the forest, abandoned train tracks. In the evenings, in autumn, just before he’d lock up, deer would appear in the field. The town of Westwend, on the edge of the pine barrens, moved at a radically slow pace.
This was about as far as he got in his calculations every morning while watching the birds. It was time to wash out his coffee cup and dress for work. That day it was the blue-gray suit, white shirt, no tie. The only alternative was the brown suit, white shirt, no tie. Locking the door behind him, he walked to the corner and turned left, making for town along a tree-lined sidewalk. The rain had stopped overnight but the wind was raging and the new leaves on the spring trees made a rushing noise like a rain-swollen creek.
If Owen was anything, he was a man of habit. At 7:05 every morning, he would arrive at the Busy Bee convenience store on the corner of Voss and Green. There, he always purchased a large coffee and a buttered roll. And as always, upon entering, he waved to Helen Roan, the owner’s daughter, working behind the counter. She was just out of high school and saving money to attend a state college by the following fall. She had her sights set on being an English Major. Owen admired the Quixotic nature of her plan, its blatant impracticality, its vow of poverty. He’d known her since she was seven and first came to the library with her mother.
“How are your folks?” he asked on the way to the coffee station. He took one sugar, one dollop of half and half (he never used a stirrer but let it slosh together on the remainder of his walk).
“They’re good. You know, my dad’s living a life of quiet desperation; my mom, loud desperation.”
Owen laughed. He was energized by her smile and intelligence.
Helen held the buttered role wrapped in wax paper. As he headed toward her, she asked, “Cigarettes today?” He shuddered. “Don’t tempt me,” he said. “I’m trying to lay off.” She put the roll on the counter and turned to the cash register. As it rang its tally, the bell on the front door also jingled. Someone entered the store and swept in between Helen and Owen. The interloper was dressed in a black jacket, pants, and boots, and nearly knocked the cup out of Owen’s hand.
The librarian took a step back, absolutely fine with this customer being served before him. Owen never looking for a fight. He’d been in one in grade school and lost badly. Even a loud argument now was more than he cared to deal with. He heard Helen say, “Mister, you’ll have to get in line. This customer was here before you.”
“It’s OK,” said Owen. “I’m fine.” And then something happened. He couldn’t see what it was, he just saw the expression of sick surprise on Helen’s face. Only when she backed away and put her hands out in front of her, did he see the stranger’s arm come up and follow her movement. In his hand was a black revolver. Owen froze. He heard the man say, “Open the register and give me the money.” It became immediately evident Helen was in a similar state of paralysis.
“I’m not fucking around,” said the man.
Owen meant to jump the gunman from behind, but instead of his arms and legs moving, his mouth opened slightly and a short, strangled cry escaped. In response, the man swung his arm without turning completely around, and smashed the librarian in the jaw with the butt of the gun. The attack came in a blur. The next Owen knew, he was reeling backward into a stand of snacks, and lights in his head were blinking. He staggered, tripped and fell to the floor, snacks flying in all directions, bags popping beneath him. As he tumbled into darkness, he heard a gun shot in the distance.