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Ryan Whittaker (RDM Whittaker) was born very early in his life and now lives, works and writes in Manchester with his wife and several cats.

After studying Media, Writing and Production at the University of Bolton, he worked as a business intelligence analyst for several years until he was overcome by an intense need to return to writing.

His first novel, Meat Wagon, is a southern gothic tale of masculinity, murder, redemption and cosmic horror in the deep south. His other works in progress include a fantasy series and short stories. He is also a musician, artist and colossal nerd.

Extract from the novel Meat Wagon

1. Raymond Herrera

The ambulance rolled along a thin black strip of cracked asphalt that divided nothingness and red rocks from red rocks and nothingness.

Raymond Herrera prayed. He prayed for the dark, the cold, the stars. He prayed that they would get there in time. He prayed that he’d save one more patient’s life, and he prayed for the heroic recognition he deserved. He kissed the dangling gold crucifix and placed it under the folds of his shirt, next to his heart. His fingers came out musky and sticky, and his lips curled back in disgust.

‘Estimated time of arrival?’ he asked Burnett, the ambulance driver. Burnett did not respond, as usual. Asshole.

Ray looked to the arid desolation racing by the window and shielded his eyes. The sun raged near the horizon, scorching the jagged mountains that waited patiently to stab and bury it.

Let the fire die, Ray thought, moving the sweat around his five o’ clock shadow with his thumb and forefinger.

The landscape oppressed him from the other side of the glass. It was more than the heat; the dryness shredded the skin between his fingers, and the dust turned his nose to sandpaper. Brush and rock toiled against extinction at the side of the road, while lonely cacti and pockets of razor-grass clumped in exposed cracks across the wide expanses of shifting dust. The landscape had been impressive at first, imposing and awesome, but lately he’d found it dull, brown and corrosive. Now it promised death and collapse and regret, just like the shifts with Burnett. Just like dealing with Dad.

Ray risked a glance at Burnett’s reflection in the windshield. Burnett was an emaciated, aviators-wearing hollow man, prone to icy silence and weird haptic jerks. Burnett was what Ray’s mom would’ve called, ‘a man with ‘faulty wiring’.

‘What kind of fuckin’ single-digit-IQ incest baby has an accident out here, anyhow?’ Burnett mused, leaving the noxious comment to hang in the air. ‘Fucking Cedar. There is no town in more dire need of chlorine in its genepool.’

What makes this naco think he’s so superior? Ray wondered. His thoughts drifted back to the paramedics in the food hall. What if they were telling the truth, and it wasn’t some newbie hazing ritual? Burnett was wound tight, no doubt. His methodical movements when he reacted to the imperceptible changes in the road surface seemed more like the reflexes of a getaway driver than ambulance driver.

‘Hey Burnett, how far is it now?’ Ray asked.

Burnett was focused on the road, disregarding the glitchy GPS as usual. Silence spread like poison and Ray became unsure if he’d even asked the question. He glanced at the tattoo on Burnett’s forearm as he navigated the gearbox. It was a knife, blade pointed towards his wrist, wreathed in barbed wire. It was the kind of thing you’d expect a high schooler to draw.

Was he in the military, maybe? Maybe he has PTSD. If he has PTSD, what could set him off? Am I safe?

Ray ignored the questions circling his mind and turned back to the window. He figured that if Burnett was unsuitable for work, someone higher up would’ve caught it already. The foliage and ground blinked shivers of blue in time with the lights on the top of the cabin. He looked beyond blurring vegetation close to the cabin and fixated on the distance, on the ancient ash and basalt mountains, the dusty mesas. Their skin was heat-blasted and cracked, and deeper shadows pooled in their cavities as sunset approached. They looked like the teeth of the Earth.

What would happen, he asked himself, if Arizona just swallowed this goddamned ambulance? How long would it be before we were missed? He was surprised at the thought. But such gloomy contemplations were less stressful than dealing with Burnett, or the looming responsibilities that waited for them further down the road. Ray drew on his experience to banish the thoughts – he had found that he had a solid grip on his emotions, on his sanity, so long as he was invested in the job. He ignored the threat of failure and enjoyed the work under pressure where others couldn’t. He knew the endorphins that followed a hard night’s work would reward him with deep, gratifying sleep.

There were bad times on the job, of course; you saw the extremes of human life and physical and mental degradation, but you braced yourself for it. His secret childhood fascination with the grotesque also provided a protective layer against the nightmares of all the bleeding, poisoned, crushed and burnt patients who never made it. You could force yourself onwards if you failed, knowing you did as well as anyone could.

The patients needed him for a few extra moments of life, not the entire recovery. To give them those moments, to get them to hospital and give them a real chance, that was a miracle. The injured and the sick were mostly thankful, hopeful and pleased. They felt God’s plan more keenly than anyone, he reckoned, and were a safer audience compared to healthy people. Healthy human beings tend to be the ones with no time for each other, no empathy. They were the source of the real problems in the world, in turns failing to appreciate what they’d been given and making things worse for egotistical reasons.

Is Burnett rubbing off on me?

He remembered his mother’s wisdom: The highs have to have lows to balance them out Raymond; God has a plan for everything, including you! He smiled at the warmth of the memory, must’ve been just after Mom got sick. His mind revolted. And where was Dad? In jail. He drifted back. He was staring into his kit bag, his gut teeming with worms of frost. All the scalpels, thermometers and defibrillators in the world couldn’t fix a sickness like his father’s.

Muffled sirens wailed in the distance, creeping towards them from somewhere beyond the bend. As the ambulance followed the road around a wide, rocky pile, multiple sirens blared and the surroundings strobed with frantic light. Red and blue and white bathed them as two patrol cars punched past, their urgency rocking the ambulance.

‘What’s going on?’ Ray asked.

Burnett didn’t answer.

‘All available units please respond,’ crackled a harsh, distorted voice under the radio’s digital warble. The signal clipped and spiked.

‘That’s not for us,’ Burnett said, holding his arm over the radio receiver.

‘I know,’ Ray said, frustrated by the insinuation he didn’t.

The dispatcher continued, the signal clearing as they put road between them and the nearby mesa: ‘Highway officers report multiple collisions and fires on US Route ninety-three north-east of Yarnell, west of Cedar. Fuel tanker overturned, multiple casualties. All active units expect reduced services coverage in outlying areas.’

‘What does that mean?’ Ray asked.

‘It means that there’s a clusterfuck on ninety-three, on the other side of Cedar. Which means that the police, fire and ambulance crews will be drawn to ninety-three like flies on shit. We’re on our own out here, buddy, goin’ to our priority call. No support.’

‘Okay.’

‘I got us covered,’ Burnett said, reaching under his seat, making the ambulance swerve to the right and then overcompensate to the left. Ray sucked in a lungful of air and gripped his armrest with his fingernails. A heavy chrome handgun slid into the space between them. The ambulance gently rolled in the correct position like nothing had happened.

Ray recoiled like Burnett had just pulled a snake from under his seat.

‘What the Hell?’ Ray asked.

‘Desert Eagle, mark nineteen, fifty cal. Israeli. It holds the largest centre-fire cartridge of any magazine-fed, self-loading pistol. Solid gun,’ Burnett said. Ray stared at it in silence. Burnett held it by the barrel and offered the grip to Ray. ‘Want to hold it? It’s loaded, so don’t shoot me.’

‘No, I do not want a loaded gun! Watch the goddamned road! Are you serious right now?’

Burnett shrugged and replaced the heavy handgun under his seat like nothing had happened. ‘Anything can happen out here, Raymond. Anything. Never know who you’re gonna meet. Crackheads call from the middle of nowhere, ambush you, steal your van, steal the drugs. Crews like us get stabbed, get killed. Show the freaks a Desert Eagle and they all shit their pants, just like you did.’

‘Please, just watch the goddamned road, Burnett,” Ray said. He wiped the sweat from his face with a big sigh, his fingers trembling. He needed to be anywhere else. Anywhere but with this guy. Moments passed slow and thick, turning to minutes like treacle. Finally, he added, ‘I’m going to log this when we get back to the hospital, I hope you get that.’

‘Where’s your accent from, Herrera?’ Burnett asked.

‘Michigan.’

‘That why you ain’t no good with the heat? I thought Hispanics were supposed to be good with heat?’

‘That’s an urban myth, you racist dick.’

‘Hey, I ain’t racist, just asking the question. Human races all have the same problem.’

‘Oh yeah? What’s that?’

‘They’re human. All-too-fucking human. Black, white, gay, straight, transsexual. They’re all circling the same drain, making the same mistakes, generation after generation. Consuming until the planet can’t sustain them. Crapping out kids. Global goddamned warming. Narcissists making the homeless eat shit for clicks. Ask me, skin colour don’t matter, we all come out ‘tween shit and piss. We’re all genetic waste, shit onto a conveyer belt of cruelty and harm, destined to do it to others, and for what?’ Burnett asked. Then he threw a curveball: ‘Why’d you come to Cedar, Herrera?’

Dad.

Now it was Herrera’s time to be silent.

‘Suit yourself.’

Ray shook his head and performed his pre-incident pat-down, a habit he picked up from his first ride-along, up in the cold north, near the University of Michigan. EMT work pants are inspired by military and law-enforcement designs, with upwards of twenty pockets, he remembered from his supervisor. He’d never bothered to count the number of items he carried, or the number of pockets, but he’d memorised his inventory in sequence. It felt better to feel that they were there.

Bandages, stethoscope, syringes, cellphone, gloves, sharpie, penlight, penlight backup—

‘They’re all there,’ Burnett said. ‘No need to check.’

‘Uh-huh. And how do you know?’ Ray asked. Burnett ignored the question and let silence fill the gap. Ray started to pat himself down again, unsure of what he’d already counted.

Bandages, stethoscope, syringes, cell—

‘The way you move, the way you sound, the way you smell. I know. It’s all there. I knew it before you got in. Trust in your shit.’

‘Lost my place again, thanks,’ he said. ‘And what do you mean by the way I smell?’

‘Quiet,’ Burnett said, holding his fist up. He pointed at the shapes beyond the windshield. They approached a Ford flatbed truck stopped in the oncoming lane with some people in front of it, a man and a woman, him sat on the floor, her pacing. In the distance, an SUV was pulled over, its hazards blinking yellow in the fading light. ‘Call said a kid came off of a donorcycle. Bring your flashlight. Out here, it gets dark fast. I’ll go ahead and scout the kid; you spot check these and come find me.’

End of Extract.
You can reach Ryan at rdmwhittaker@gmail.com

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