You'll find out, in a haunting new story by Tim Pratt, "The Cold Corner." Pratt has a new spin on a classic Henry James story, "The Jolly Corner," and it might just make you nervous about returning to your old hometown. We've got an exclusive excerpt, right here.
Top image: Anoldent/Flickr.
Pratt's reimagining of Henry James is just one of many rethinkings of classic stories in the new anthology Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales, out Oct. 22. The book includes stories by Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, Rick Yancey, Kelley Armstrong, Kami Garcia, Garth Nix, Carrie Ryan, Margaret Stohl, Saladin Ahmed, Gene Wolfe, Tim Pratt and Melissa Marr, with illustrations by Charles Vess. But you don't have to wait until Oct. 22 to read the rest of Pratt's story — you can read the whole thing right now for 99 cents on Kindle and Nook, among other formats.
Check out our exclusive excerpt below, to find out how the nightmare begins:
by Tim Pratt
I left home five years ago, and haven’t been back since— so why do I still think of it as home at all?
After almost a week spent driving across the country on I‑40 East, I cut north on Highway 202, and within an hour reached the outskirts of my hometown, Cold Corners. The only corners are in the endless rectangular fields of soybeans and tobacco, and with triple-digit heat and 90 percent humidity in summer, it’s hardly “cold,” so I don’t know where it got the name. (Local wisdom contends the name is a corruption of some Cherokee word meaning “fertile land,” but I’m willing to bet that’s pure Carolina invention.)
I thought about pulling off to the gravel shoulder and calling David to let him know I’d arrived safely, but decided against it. When he threw all my clothes, my best saucepan, and my knife bag out the window of our— technically his— condo in Oakland, that was probably his way of saying “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” His flair for the dramatic was one of the things I’d loved about him, when he wasn’t being dramatic at me. David was my first real boyfriend after culinary school, and I’d been dumb enough to think it was forever. Dumb enough to think I could go more than a couple of years without screwing it up, anyway.
The closer I got to Cold Corners, the less eager I was to finish the trip. I decided not to go up to the “big house”— once owned by my grandparents, now home to my older brother, Jimmy, his wife, and nephews and nieces I hadn’t seen in years— right away. I wonder, if I had gone to their house first, taken my place as the younger child, slipped into those old patterns, put up with the teasing and sympathy for my televised failure for a few days, then slunk back to California . . . would I have ever truly found my way home again?
I tell people the only thing I miss about home is the food, and that much is true. I got to town at lunchtime, more or less, and thought I’d be able to face the prospect of Jimmy, Mom, Dad, and the extended F if I got a bite to eat first. After a week of greased‑up fast food and limp pizza delivered to motel rooms, I was hungry for something real— being picky is an occupational hazard of being a chef— and the prospect of Eastern Carolina barbecue sounded like a gateway to heaven.
You can’t get it on the West Coast. Oh, there are places that serve “Carolina-style” barbecue, but at best it’s an approximation, carob when you want chocolate. In North Carolina alone, there are two distinct styles of barbecue, though both start with slow-cooking a pig in a pit full of burning hickory chips: there’s the One True Barbecue, with vinegar-and-red-pepper sauce, favored in Eastern North Carolina, and the heretical Lexington-style barbecue more common in the western half of the state, with its hideous gloppy tomato-based sauce.
I pulled up in the weedy gravel parking lot outside Willard’s B‑B‑Q, a Cold Corners institution renowned far and wide for the lightness and perfection of its hush puppies and the skill of its pitmaster. What a great title for a cook— the best I’ve ever had is “executive chef,” and that doesn’t come close. (Of course, just then, I didn’t have any job title at all, unless you count “recently fired for trying to punch a customer.”)
There were no cars or pickups in the lot, which was beyond bizarre— it should have been packed, even on a Tuesday. For a heart-stopping moment I looked up at the faded sign (depicting the inevitable smiling pig wearing a chef’s toque) and worried that Willard’s had closed . . . but then I saw movement inside the greasy windows and climbed out of my car.
Summer in North Carolina. Stepping out of the air-conditioning was like having a sheet sopping with warm water wrapped around my face. A sudden, brutal pang of homesickness for the EastBay hit me. I remembered the place in the hills where David and I used to sit and watch the cool fog roll in over the bay below, but I couldn’t see a way back there that ended in anything but pity or pain.
I hit the button on my key chain to lock the car, then felt stupid. When I was a kid, people barely locked their houses here, let alone their cars. Then I remembered some of my brother’s recent e‑mails complaining about tweakers and thieves, and left it locked. My friends in Oakland used to joke about how I was a simple country boy too trusting to make it in the big city, but I bet meth heads made up a bigger percentage of the population in my hometown than they did in the EastBay. I’d lost at least two of my innumerable second cousins in home meth-lab accidents.
I pushed through the front door of Willard’s into a dim space full of empty square tables draped in red-and-white-checked plastic tablecloths. A couple of ceiling fans whirred away like the propellers of ancient planes, swirling the hot air around.
"You driving one of them hybrids?” the brassy blonde leaning on the counter said, and I braced myself for contempt and sneers as I nodded, but she just said, “The way gas prices are going, I oughta get one of those myself. The pitmaster drives a van rigged to run on biodiesel, and he ain’t bought gas in years— just strains out the hush puppy and french fry oil and uses that. What can I getcha?”
The menu was chalked up on a board behind the counter, and looked like it hadn’t been changed since the last time I’d been there, at least half a decade before. “I’ll take the number two plate and an iced tea.” No need to specify sweet tea; that was the only way they did it at Willard’s.
“Sit down anywhere. It’ll be right out.” She sauntered back to the kitchen.
I took a table near the counter, and like all the other tables, it held a glass bottle of hot sauce, a squeeze bottle of sweeter barbecue sauce, a cage of sugar packets in case your tea wasn’t sweet enough (hard to imagine), and a roll of paper towels in lieu of napkins, the latter an innovation I considered suggesting to the owner of my restaurant back home, before I remembered he’d fired me. It seems unfair to get fired for something you did when you were so drunk you barely remember it, but that’s life.
I pulled out my phone— I’d finally turned off the keyword alert that told me every time my name was mentioned online, but I still occasionally, morbidly, checked the social media sites to see what people were saying about me— but there was no signal. I didn’t have time to be annoyed before the waitress was back with a red plastic oval tray that held a heaping scoop of barbecue (“pulled pork” as the rest of the world calls it), a white bread roll, and a wax-paper-lined basket of hush puppies.
The food was . . . well, I’m a cook, not a food writer, but it was like eating my own childhood memories. The barbecue was cooked to perfection, seasoned just right, spicy and vinegar-astringent sauce combining ideally with the meltingly delicious fat in the pork. The hush puppies were perfect, too: oblongs of deep-fried cornbread, just a little crunchy on the outside, sweet and fluffy inside. The tea was sweet enough to make me want to schedule a cleaning at the dentist, but even that tasted like home.
I ate with single-minded intensity, then leaned back in my chair and belched quietly to myself. The waitress squinted at me from the cash register. “You look real familiar to me,” she said. “You always had blond hair?”
“Oh. No, but if you recognize me it’s probably because— I’ve been on TV lately. That reality cooking show, Stand the Heat.”
She did not seem awed by my fleeting celebrity. She frowned, and I revised my estimate of her age from thirties to forties. “Had to cancel the cable a while back,” she said. “Never seen it. Did you win?”
I shook my head. “Came in fourth. Got cut right before the finale. That episode just aired last week.” I think I kept all the bitterness out of my voice. There were three finalists. Even the two who didn’t win would get perks: money, bragging rights, invites back for a future all-star show. They were good chefs, and one of them had even been a friend— a summer-camp kind of friend, though, and we hadn’t kept in touch since we stopped living in the same New York town house— but I didn’t believe any of them were better than me. I’d been a front-runner, and I knew it, winning lots of the weekly competitions . . . but one fish bone in one fillet served to one flamboyantly vicious guest judge had ended my run.
“Too bad,” she said. “Still, fourth place ain’t bad. I never came in fourth place at anything. Maybe I saw you in a magazine or something, though I swear . . . Huh. I’ve always wondered about those shows— is it all real, or is it fake, like pro wrestling?”
I hesitated, unsure how to answer the question, even though I’d been asked its equivalent many times. “It’s . . . the contests are real, the games and competitions, though they cut out a lot of the boring stuff to make it seem more fast-paced and exciting. But when you watch the shows, the stuff you see people say, a lot of that’s encouraged, if not exactly scripted. And . . .” I tried to think of a way to say what I meant. “The me on‑screen isn’t the real me. I don’t think I’m that cocky, for one thing, and they really tried to play up the fact that I come from the South— I swear they showed every time I said ‘y’all,’ four or five times at least. The producers turn you into a character.”
In fact, the bizarre falseness of reality TV had knocked me off balance in my own life, causing me to question all sorts of assumed truths— was I the person my friends thought I was, hotshot chef and grinning joker, or was that just another character I was playing, or a character they needed me to play? Who was the real real me? My anxiety over that question had led me to make some lousy decisions and burn way too many bridges. This road trip was supposed to help me settle the question of who I was and what I wanted, but it wasn’t working so far.
I could tell I’d lost the waitress— at least, I thought so, until she said, “I reckon we all have to play different parts for different people. Sometimes I think the only time we can really be ourselves is when we’re all alone with nobody to disappoint.”
I laughed and said that was true. I left a generous tip on the table, then went up to the counter and paid the bill— I was stuffed, and the whole meal cost less than a happy-hour cocktail at a decent restaurant back in Oakland. “Is Junior out back?” I asked, leaning on the counter across from her.
She raised an eyebrow. “You know Junior?”
“I used to live around here. Even worked here at the restaurant one summer in high school, just running the fryer. My first real cooking job.” Junior was the owner and pitmaster, and he’d been in his fifties back then, a big man who got up long before dawn to start cooking the day’s pigs, and who always smelled of fragrant smoke.
“Well, ain’t that something!” she said. “We should hang your picture on the wall, you being on TV and all. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, honey . . . but Junior passed on last year. Wasn’t a heart attack, either— everybody always thinks it was the food— it was cancer.” She pronounced it almost like “CAIN-sir,” and I wondered if I’d pick up my old accent again while I was in town, the way unwrapped butter will pick up the flavor of onions or garlic sitting next to it on the counter.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. He was . . .” Kind of a son‑of‑a‑bitch, really, bossy and short-tempered and a perfectionist, but then, lots of chefs were like that, and he was a chef, even if a very specialized one. “He was something else,” I said at last.
“He left the restaurant to his assistant,” she went on. “None of his kids wanted to get into the family business, and he knew they’d just sell the place, so he gave it to TJ instead. Lord, there was a fuss about that! But it’s all settled down now. Did you know TJ?”
“No, I don’t think so, but that’s funny— I’m a TJ too.” Terrence James Brydon, and even though everyone called me Terry nowadays, to my family I’d always be TJ.
“Small world. Where you living now?”
“Oakland, California.” Even though, on the show, they always put “San Francisco, CA” underneath my name on the screen. Irritated the shit out of me. Some of the best, most innovative cooking is happening in the EastBay, where newer chefs can actually afford to open restaurants— some of them, anyway. I couldn’t afford it, hence my attempt to make money by going on the show, my brush with temporary fame, and all the unpleasantness that followed. And also hence my decision to accept this year’s invitation to the family reunion, because three thousand miles away from my new life seemed like a good place to be.
“California,” she said, and didn’t add the perfunctory “land of fruits and nuts.” For which I was grateful, since I was just the kind of fruit and nut people thought of when they said that. Part of why I’d gotten on the show was because the producers liked the idea of a six-foot-three, former-high-school-football- playing, Southern-food-specializing gay chef. (I’m not even gay— I’m bi, but reality show producers like bisexual contestants only when they’re cute women.) “What brings you back here?” she asked, and seemed genuinely interested.
“Family reunion.” I dredged up a grin. “You can’t get good banana pudding on the West Coast.” The closest I’d come was a gourmet small-batch banana-pudding-flavored ice pop.
“I believe it. Have a good day, now, and come back and see us before you head west.”
“I’ll do my best.” I didn’t tell her I’d walk across the surface of Mercury for another meal at Willard’s. After all, people who lived here could come by anytime they wanted. Barbecue was as everyday here as good burritos are back on the West Coast. I just thanked her and went outside, the bell over the door jingling above me.
I paused for a moment, the heat enfolding me like a monster’s embrace. The air seemed wavy, distorted like flawed glass— like the heat shimmers you see over blacktop. I wiped sweat out of my eyes. Though the idea of my air-conditioned car was tempting, I decided to trudge around back to see the pit. Open-pit barbecuing is an endangered species even in North Carolina, with old restaurants closing down and not many new ones opening, and even though I was sure nothing had changed since my brief stint as a fry cook, I wanted to take a look at the setup while I still could.
Before I made it around the corner, though, I saw something that made me stop dead. A man wearing soot-stained overalls came toward me from behind the restaurant, mopping at his neck and brow with a filthy white cloth.
I stared at him, because he was me. Same mole just below the right eye. Same crooked nose from when it got broken and set not quite right during a game back in high school. He was wearing smudged glasses, and he outweighed me by twenty or thirty pounds (most of it beer belly), but the only other real difference was his greasy flyaway brown hair— and mine had looked the same until I buzzed it short and dyed it blond.
I took a step backward, but he didn’t look a bit surprised at meeting his doppelganger. “Huh,” he said. “Never thought we’d see you around here again.” His accent was thick, far more so than mine, which had mellowed a lot after a few years out of state. My native Californian (ex) boyfriend David used to laugh whenever my dad or brother called and asked for me, because he could barely even understand their hellos.
What do you do when you’re faced with yourself, or at least some version of yourself? David was doing a lit degree in grad school (on his rich parents’ dime), and he told me once that the writer Jorge Luis Borges claimed to have met a younger version of himself in a park, and had a pleasant conversation with his counterpart while sitting on a bench.
But I’m no Borges. And this other Terry — this TJ— wasn't a younger me, some fry cook unstuck in time, but a me my own age, early twenties, but living another life. Time travel, I could just about comprehend, but this?
I ran, faster than I ever ran in an attempt to score a touchdown or catch a bus. I jumped into my car and tore out of the parking lot, watching myself diminish in the rearview mirror.