Excerpt From “World Without Music” by J. Conrad Guest

a world without musicReagan returns home from the first Gulf War horrified by the discovery of the mutilated remains of Tom Wallach, a marine he and his squad find a Kuwaiti desert. Suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he often carries on discussions with Tom in his dreams… at least, that’s what he tells himself they are: dreams.

***

Excerpt from A World Without Music:

“I have a daughter, you know,” Tom Wallach said from beside Reagan.

“I know.”

“She’s twenty-one now.”

“I’m sure she’s grown into a beautiful young woman.” Reagan took a sip from his glass of bourbon.

“Mind if I ask you to look in on her?”

“Why? Aren’t you able to do that?”

“Sure, and I have. She’s a smart kid. Takes after her mother. Enrolled in the law program at U of M. I’m proud of her. You’re right, she’s beautiful. But I’m partial.”

Reagan waited. It was his dream, but he had no control of the conversation.

“When you get in touch with her,” Wallach said, the conclusion forgone, “tell her about me, will you?”

“I hardly knew you, Tom.”

“You don’t have to tell her much,” Wallach said, as if he hadn’t heard Reagan. “Tell her that I liked to laugh, liked to pull a practi­cal joke, but that I had my serious side, too.”

Did you? Reagan asked himself. He was certain his subconscious was simply filling in fictitious details of Wallach’s life for him. Dreams were funny that way.

“I wouldn’t tell you if it weren’t so. Tell her I was a good marine.” Wallach held up his empty shot glass; a moment later, the bartender topped it off with Maker’s Mark.

After the bartender left, Wallach added, “You can tell her I liked bourbon—don’t all marines? But always in moderation.” He held up his shot glass to the light, to admire the caramel color of its contents. “God, I miss this stuff.”

Reagan thought about pinching himself to see if he would wake up.

“It’s tough, isn’t it?” Wallach said. “Losing your innocence. Your first drinking binge, your first woman, the first time you kill a man. The first time you see a dead body, mutilated. You spend the rest of your life trying to get that innocence back.”

Reagan took a sip from the second bourbon he couldn’t remember ordering. Such were dreams.

“It wasn’t your fault, you know?” Wallach said. “They came out of nowhere, while I was running a message from our position to the unit on our right flank. The area was supposed to be secure.” Wallach paused. “They gagged me and put a sack over my head. They marched me for a while. I don’t know, maybe an hour, maybe it was two. Funny how the passage of time is more difficult to measure without eyesight.”

Reagan nodded.

“They worked me over pretty good, once we stopped. But you know that.”

Reagan nodded again.

“It hurt, what they did. The torture. Funny thing about pain though. At some point everything hurts so much that each new pain they inflict, you don’t feel it. Maybe it’s because you’re on overload.”

“Maybe it’s because you were in shock,” Reagan said.

“Yeah, maybe. I never thought of that. Makes sense.” And then: “That last thing they did to me? It was almost a relief, because I knew they were done with me.”

“Jeesus.”

“I was a good marine, right to the end. Never cried, never begged for mercy. Wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.”

“That’s good, Tom. I’m proud of you.” Because he didn’t know what else to say.

“So you’ll look in on her?”

“I don’t know, Tom.”

“Her name is Mimi. Believe it or not, it’s a popular Arabic name. Gretchen and I wanted to give her a connection to that area of the world, as if we could somehow bridge cultures, bring a little peace to the planet.” Wallach allowed himself the luxury of a chuckle. “We later learned its meaning is ‘uncertain, maybe bitter.’ I guess it was apropos after all.”

“I’m sure she’s anything but bitter, Tom.”

“No, she’s not,” Wallach said, and Reagan wondered how he knew. “So what do you say, buddy?” Wallach added.

Reagan cringed. They were never buddies while Wallach was alive.

But we’re drinking buddies now , he thought. In my dreams.

“I don’t know, Tom,” Reagan said a second time. He wondered if Mimi would care, if she even thought about the daddy she never knew.

“She cares,” Wallach said. “She thinks of me more than she should. I don’t have to tell you how that makes me feel.”

“How would I even find her?”

“You won’t have to look too hard,” Wallach said, knowingly. “Remember, she’s in Ann Arbor. One more thing I want you to tell her,” he added.

“What’s that?”

“Tell her that my last thoughts were of her.”

Reagan nodded yet again thinking, Funny, how when I’m awake I’m never at a loss for words. But in my dreams, I got nothing to say.

“Reagan.” Wallach put his arm around Reagan.

“Yeah?”

“You’ve been a good friend. But you’ve got to let go. For your own good. For your future happiness.”

Tom Wallach held up the shot glass again and, after a moment, he downed the Maker’s in a single gulp.

“God, that’s good,” he said. Then he looked at Reagan and said, “Semper fi.”

Reagan grappled with that. Before he could voice his confusion, Wallach told him, “You can remain loyal, and still let go.”

***

Author Bio

Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, available from Second Wind Publishing. Nominated as a Michigan Notable Book in 2010, the Illinois Institute of Technology adopted Backstopas required reading for their spring 2011 course, “Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime.” He is also the author of a science fiction diptych—One Hot Januaryand January’s Thaw—a time travel, alternate reality tale in which Germany wins World War II, his tribute to Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective genre, and its prequel, January’s ParadigmA Retrospect in Death, Guest’s sixth novel, explores the meaning of life: prewired at birth, or a product of our environment? His seventh novel, 500 Miles to Go, is a tale about the importance of, and the risks associated with, the pursuit of dreams.

For a peek into J. Conrad’s literary world, visit www.jconradguest.com.

See also: Interview With J. Conrad Guest, Author of “A World Without Music”

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Excerpt From “500 Miles to Go” by J. Conrad Guest

500 Miles to GoGail had been Alex Krol’s girl since high school. She fell for him before she learned that he risked his life on dirt tracks during the summer months to the delight of the fans who paid to see cars crash—the more spectacular the wreck, the taller they stood on their toes and craned their necks to see the carnage. When Alex makes his dream to drive in the Indy 500 come true and he witnesses the death of two drivers in his first start, he must ask himself if his quest to win the world’s greatest race is worth not only the physical risk, but also losing the woman he loves.

EXCERPT:

“I’ve never danced with a boy before,” Gail whispered in my ear as the band played “Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite,” a Spaniels song that was popular. I couldn’t believe how wonderful Gail felt in my embrace.

“That’s okay,” I said, “I haven’t either.”

Gail laughed, the sound tuneful.

“You’re funny,” she said.

“Well, looks aren’t everything.”

“No, they’re not.”

“Although I have to say, you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.”

“Thank you.”

When the song came to an end, we made our way to the punch bowl.

“You know,” Gail said after taking a sip, “you’re my first date.”

“Ever?”

“Ever.”

“Not to call you a liar, but I find that hard to believe.”

“Oh, I’ve been asked once or twice.”

“Only once or twice?”

“Okay, several times. But I’m very choosy.”

“Huh,”I said, with a grin. “And here I thought I’d done the choosing.”

“I could’ve chosen to turn you down, you know.”

“True enough. So how come you said ‘yes’?”

Gail blushed and looked down.

“Oh, my… Be still, my beating heart,” I said. “Do you do that of­ten?”

“What?”she asked, looking up at me again.

“Blush.”

She rolled her eyes and said, “Unfortunately, yes.”

“Well, I think it suits you. I hope it’s something you’ll do only for me.”

Gail smiled and blushed a deeper shade. I came to her rescue – that’s who I was in my youth, a rescuer.

“So why did you say ‘yes’?”

“Promise me you won’t laugh?”

“Scout’s honor,” I said, holding up my right hand, palm out.

“I liked the way you looked at me yesterday when you asked.”

“How was I supposed to look at you?”

“I’m not expressing myself well.”

“That’s okay; I have that effect on people.”

Gail laughed. “I imagine you do.” And then, “It was obvious when you looked at me that y’all liked what you saw. But you were respect­ful.”

“Why wouldn’t I be respectful?”

“You didn’t leer at me.”

“Oh. My turn to apologize. Sometimes I’m slow on the uptake.”

“Telling me I looked like Gail Russell didn’t hurt your cause.”

“I’m very honest,” I said.

“And…”

“Uh-oh…, there’s an ‘and’?”

“I’ve seen you around school, and you seem one of the better boys.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“What, that you’re one of the better boys?”

“No, that you’ve seen me around school. That would mean I’ve missed seeing you, and I can’t believe that.”

“Do you always flirt so outrageously?”

“Only with you.”

“Good answer.”

Just then, the band segued into “Honey Hush,” a Joe Turner song that had been popular in 1953.

“Come on,” I said, taking Gail’s hand. “Let’s dance.”

The evening came to an end all too soon. We danced and talked and got to know each other, and we liked what we learned.

We held hands as we made our way across the parking lot to where her dad sat behind the wheel of his idling car, a 1950 Ford Zephyr Six.

We stopped about ten feet from the Zephyr Six to look at each other; I held both Gail’s hands in mine.

“What I wouldn’t give to kiss you,” I said.

“Why, Alex Król, what kind of girl do you take me for?” Gail said with a smile.

“The kind I’d like to kiss.”

Gail grew serious. “I know,” she said, glancing at her father, who was seated in the car with his hands firmly gripping the steering wheel. Perhaps he knew this day had been coming, when his little girl would grow up to meet the young man who might take his place.

Gail rose up on her toes to kiss me on the cheek.

“Another time, I promise,” she whispered. Then she gave me a quick hug, her breasts feeling firm against me, and made her way toward her father’s car.

***

J. Conrad Guest, author of: Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Paradigm, One Hot January, January’s ThawA Retrospect In Death, and 500 Miles To Go has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to write stories of action, love, mystery and morality; tales that cross genres, seizing the imagination of the reader. Though his novels are varied and original, the reader will find that each is full of life’s lessons—full of pain and humor, full of insight and triumph.