Excerpt from To Ride The Sky
In the distance, a flurry of movement caught Anina's eye. Suspicious, she squinted at it for a few minutes before sliding toward it through the muck. It didn't look like a dump rat, but she didn't want to take any chances. Night-crawlers, the rats made no distinction between rotting garbage and live human.
Anina had a triangular divot in the flesh above her left knee to prove the point.
She shuddered. She had never even seen the nasty thing coming at her.
Her steps slowed. Not a rat. No. Way, way too big to be a rat.
As she watched from a safe distance, small hooves shredded what was left of the burlap surrounding them. A young female horse, brown flank scored with bloody furrows and punctures, lay shivering on her side.
Kir slid up behind Anina so fast that he nearly knocked her down. "Anina. What the hell are you doing? You don't go off by yourself, not here, you know that--"
"I see it," he said, grabbing Anina's arm. "You're too close--"
"Think she's one of the hybrids?" Anina took a step forward. She had never been this close to a horse before.
Growling and flattening her ears, the horse lifted her head and peeled back her lips, exposing two sharp elongated canines that jutted down amid her regular teeth.
"There's your answer." Kir studied the animal. "She's not big enough to be much of a fighter. Looks like they used her to blood the others for the Pit."
Anina's stomach roiled. Several rotations ago, on one of her clandestine trips over the wall, she'd crept under the bleachers in the Pit to see what all of the cheering was about.
What she saw had sickened her for days. Horses, their ribcages jutting through starved flesh, fighting each other to death in the Pit. Hooves and genetically engineered fangs flashing, slashing, tearing each other apart. Blood staining the sand and dripping from their bodies, their mouths. And all the while, the Tohar, packed cheek to cheek in the bleachers, roaring their drunken approval.
Her brief show of defiance over, the little horse dropped her head and wheezed, eyes wide, her wounded flanks twitching with every breath. Defeated. And dead in a few hours, once the sun came up in earnest and began cooking the dump.
Mingled pity and rage tightened Anina's jaw. Poor little thing. If only--
A sudden wind gust blew something sticky and noxious-smelling into her face. She flinched and clawed at the substance, which adhered to her skin just above the edge of her breathing mask. Most of it came off on her glove, creating fresh stains of decaying filth. A thin residue slicked her cheek, its acrid odor making her eyes water. She sneezed.
For a moment, the excess liquid in her eyes created a fishbowl effect, curving the planes of her vision so that her immediate surroundings appeared to be very far away. Anina caught her breath as an unaccustomed feeling of peace wrapped around her.
She blinked, and reality crowded back: Kir, clutching a bulging satchel that smelled of early rot, his eyes dull with fatigue; the horse shuddering in what would soon be her death throes; and Sour Mountain, looming over all like a giant festering blister on the landscape.
Anina began to shake, her back arching and her neck retreating down into her shoulders like a tamah preparing to lunge.
"Anina? Anina, what's wrong?" Kir said.
She didn't respond, but stared down at the horse instead, her hands clenching and unclenching in spasms, her blood gathering hot in her face and pulsing in her forehead. Streams of sweat crawled down her neck and pooled in the pockets of her collarbones.
Kir touched her arm, and Anina jerked away from him, hard enough to make him stumble. "No," she said. "No."
Saliva gathered in her mouth, carrying with it the tang of rancid metal, and she realized that she had bitten open the inside of her cheek.
"Get up," she said to the horse, her voice barely audible. The animal shut its eyes, its sides still heaving.
Anina bent forward, closer. "Get. Up. Get up. Getupgetupgetupgetupgetup..." Her voice became louder and more insistent with each repetition.
"What are you doing? Anina—-"
"No." She rounded on Kir. "She has to get up. She has to."
Anina refocused on the horse. Eyes now open, the animal stared back at Anina, one front hoof twitching.
"Please." Anina could barely choke out the word. Kir would think that she'd been heat struck. But she didn't care.
Please, just this once.
Let something, anything, put up a fight.
"Please," she whispered. "Don't die."
Long minutes passed. Anina didn't move, and Kir did not attempt to speak to her again, but stood quiet by her side.
Inching its way up in the sky by degrees, the sun began to emerge from the shadow of Sour Mountain, rays of hot light lancing into Anina's face and triggering her second eyelids to drop. Time and past time for them to be leaving.
The horse shut her eyes again and sighed.
Anina's shoulders drooped. That was it, then.
She'd been foolish to hope.
"We should go," she said, grabbing the satchel from Kir and slinging it over her shoulder.
"I can carry it," Kir said, as he tried to pull the bag back.
"You could barely carry yourself onto the dump this morning, forget it, I've got it--"
"Anina. I'm not a fucking weakling. Give me the stupid bag."
"Don't yell at me—-"
With a sudden burst of energy, the horse rocked up on her knees and stumbled to a standing position, legs splayed, unsteady as a newborn. She lowered her head and nickered.
"Well," Anina said, after a few seconds. "Well." A sound bubbled up in her throat, part laugh, part sob. She tried to stifle it, but it came out her nose as a honking bray. She laughed in earnest then, clinging to Kir for balance as the satchel slipped off her shoulder.
"Sun-touched, that's what you are," Kir said, rocking back on his heels in his efforts to keep upright.
"No," Anina said. She yanked some pock-marked celery out of the bag. "Maybe."
Excerpt from The Mystery of Perdu Island
The boys picked their way around the pond, their sneakers squelching in the muck, and headed up the north path. They hopped up over the crest of the hill and stumbled down the steep slope to the valley below.
In the center of the valley, the Tree spread its limbs in every direction, reaching up high into the sky.
Everybody just called it the Tree. People knew what you were talking about, if they'd seen it once. the Tree was an old oak, thousands of years old, with roots that some said extended all the way into the next county, and branches so big and heavy that over the years, the low-lying ones had dug down and grown beneath the ground, only to pop up yards away, standing tall as any island pines.
Twenty men stretching their arms out all the way couldn't reach around the trunk, it was so big. Beneath it, the air was all cool and shaded with green leaves the size of bear paws, except for one section. That part had been hit by a lightning bolt about five years back. It was all dead, bleached silver white by the sun, and hollow inside.
Bits of snuffed-out candle and dried herbs littered the ground beneath, leftovers from the ceremonies that folks held there. Everybody praying to one power or another. Some of them probably even prayed to the Tree itself, although Billy thought that might be a stretch. Much as he didn't like all the strange stuff that people got up to in Fairfield, there did seem to be some kind of logic to what they did.
Not that he cared. He was gonna leave Fairfield, just as soon as he was able.
Billy peeled some bark strips off the dead section and rubbed them between his fingers as Chance slid down the trunk and plopped to a seat on top of a moss-covered root, slurping on the last of his milkshake. After the lightning bolt hit, someone had jammed a long steel rod next to the trunk that extended up past the highest branch of the oak, hoping to channel the lightning down that, if it should come again. It hadn't, as far as Billy knew.
As he stood there, feeling the cool breeze dry the sweat off the back of his neck, Billy got the funny feeling that he and Chance were being watched. He turned around, looking out over the fields in every direction, but didn't see anyone.
"What you up to?" Chance said, cocking his head.
"Nothing," Billy said. "Only...Chance, you feel like maybe someone's eyeing us?"
Chance shrugged. "Your Spidey sense tell you that?"
"Don't make fun," Billy said, getting mad. He frowned. "There's someone spying on us, I know it." He looked around some more, and circled the tree, staring up into the branches. Didn't see anything except another old crow blinking down at him, but that wasn't anything unusual. Crows were everywhere. Though it did seem as if they were taking a special interest in him lately.
"You're starting to freak me out a little," Chance said, shoving up to a standing position. He peered into the grasses and shook his head. "I don't know if it's just because you said something, but now I feel it too. Except I don't see anybody..."
Billy shook his head. "I admit it. I'm spooked. Let's get out of here."
Chance nodded in agreement. The two of them circled around the trunk to get to the path home, and stopped cold.
The skinniest girl that Billy had ever seen stood in front of them, her hands clasped in front of her. "Hey," she said in a soft voice.
Billy yelped, and pulled himself together. "Uh...hey." He turned on Chance. "I told you we were being watched," he muttered.
Chance nodded and said "Hey. Uh...I'm Chance, and this is Billy."
The girl nodded.
When it didn't seem like she was going to say anything else, Billy said, "What's your name?"
"Odile," she answered, after a pause. Her voice was scratchy, like maybe she hadn't used it in a while. "Everybody just calls me Odie, though." She squinted at both of the boys, giving them the up and down.
Billy gave her the up and down right back. One of her shoulders was higher than the other, making her look kinda lopsided. Her dress hung on her like a potato sack. Probably one of them Appalachian kids who lived up the mountain. They kept to themselves, mostly, and didn't come down into Fairfield very often.
Chance made a funny sound in his throat. "Odile...Odie, where did you find that?" He pointed to her hands.
For the first time, Billy noticed that Odie was holding a small carved bird.
"This?" she said, holding the bird out on one palm.
Chance took a step forward and reached for it. "Yes, this, it's my Daddy's and--"
"I knew it," Odie said, taking a step back, her mouth tightening to a thin white line.
"What?" Chance said, still reaching for the bird.
Odie shook her head and backed up another step, reaching into one of the front pockets of her dress. "I knew it. It has your smell all over it."
"Odie, what are you talking about--" Chance said.
"You didn't ask. You didn't ask permission, you just took, just like your Daddy did, just like he's doing now--"
Chance's eyes got big. "Wait. How do you know my Daddy? Do you know where he is? Please, I've been looking for him--"
"Y'all stay back from me," Odie said, jutting her chin out.
Billy held up his hands. "Odie, we don't mean you any harm, I swear--"
Quicker than thought, Odie yanked her hand out of her pocket and blew a cloud of red dust off her palm into Chance and Billy's faces.
The last thing that Billy remembered thinking was that he sure was sleepy.
Excerpt from Project Catchstar
Rehashing this stuff always made me depressed. I glanced down the bar for distraction and found it in Tiny Tim.
Tiny, who at 6'8" and 300 pounds was anything but, chewed his lower lip between his teeth as he put the final touches on a six-inch high ziggurat of wooden matches. With careful fingers, he plucked the flattened carcass of an orange and black Assassin bug off the bar and laid it on the top-most tier.
Tiny had great respect for the Assassin bug, of which there were dozens of different varieties along the coast. The bugs were pure predators, tiny beetle vampires that lived off the life juices of animals and other insects. Humans, too, when they could find one to chomp. Tiny had been bitten countless times by the creatures, but was so impressed with their fighting spirit that he deemed it a crime to simply "crush 'em and flush 'em", as Joe said. Instead, he opted to give them a true hero's send-off in the form of a matchstick funeral pyre. Over time, his constructions had become so elaborate that they took hours to complete.
Joe narrowed his eyes. "Tiny, you'd better have a plate or something under that damn thing," he said, thumping the counter for emphasis. "I ain't having you burn another hole in my bar."
Without taking his eyes off the pyre, Tiny nodded and held up one hand. "S'cool. I gotta slab underneath." He struck a match and lit the lower section of the ziggurat. Seconds later, with a whoosh of flame and smoke that sent Tiny into a coughing fit, the rest of the pyre lit up.
Cheers emanated from around the bar. "Good one, Tiny. That was the best yet."
Tiny beamed and brushed the ash out of his hair.
Joe snorted. "Another warrior, off to Odin." He pulled open a trap door at his feet and disappeared into the nether regions of the bar, emerging shortly thereafter with fistfuls of whisky bottles. "Gonna be a busy one tonight." He moved down the bar, plopping the bottles on the back shelves at strategic intervals.
Uninterested in the contents of the bottle in front of me, I occupied myself by attempting to peel the label off in one piece. I'd almost succeeded, when a plummy British-accented voice rang out somewhere near my right shoulder. "Well, hello there."
Startled, I tore the label. Damn it. Without even looking up, I said, "Fuck. Off." Jesus. Did I look like I wanted to get hit on? Just what I needed, some dopey British tourist to roll up on me when all I wanted was--
A large hand thumped something down on the counter in front of me. I blinked. It was the gold figurine, the one that I'd found--and lost--in the cavern that morning. I froze, new fear making my stomach churn.
Joe drifted down the bar to me, same smile still in place, his arms crossed. "Problem?" he said.
And just like that, the temperature around us dropped by twenty degrees.
I jerked around on my stool and came nose to sternum with speargun guy. He was just as big as I remembered. Minus the speargun, now, which didn't do much to make me feel better.
"I believe," he said, his accent making my teeth itch, "that we got off on the wrong foot--"
"You pompous jackass. You pulled a gun on her, Theo." A red-faced girl, not much bigger than me, stomped in front of speargun guy--Theo--and glared up at him. Sounded Southern. American, then.
"What?" Joe said. For the first time since I'd known him, the smile left his face.
Theo said, "Johnnie. It was a speargun--"
Johnnie cut him off. "A gun's a gun, brother-man."
"You told me she was dangerous," Theo said in an aggrieved tone.
"No, fool. All I said was for you to be careful around her so as not to--"
Joe’s hands shot by the side of my face and pinned Theo against the bar, thumbs pressing against his windpipe. Johnnie lunged toward them both and found herself wrapped in a bear hug provided by Tiny Tim.
"You relax," Tiny said.
Theo grabbed Joe’s wrists and shoved, to no avail. Joe didn't budge and didn’t look like he was breaking a sweat, although the veins and tendons in his arms stood out in sharp relief.
Again I wondered who or what Joe had been in his previous life. And again, I resolved never to ask.
Excerpt from Dreams and Shadows
I brace myself, and push open the screen door, blinking as my eyes adjust to the dark interior. In Ray's, you can buy anything from a pack of Juicy Fruit gum to a John Deere tractor. Paint thinner, Avon lotions, tool kits, tackle boxes, diapers, pruning shears and dusty cans of corned beef hash jockey for position on the overcrowded shelves. But it's what's behind the front counter that interests me. A giant wall of booze, in everything from airplane size bottles to gallon jugs and boxes.
Boxed wine. This is a thing that I have never understood. One of the joys of wine drinking is the ritual involved: uncorking the pretty bottle, pouring the wine into a nice glass, swirling it around, holding it up to the light. I suppose you could pour the boxed wine into a glass too, but it's just not the same.
Doesn't matter, at the moment. I'm not here for wine, boxed or not.
I'm here for that gallon jug of Jim Beam. That'll tide me over for a few days before I have to decide whether I want to keep drinking or not.
Happily, most of the shoppers in Ray's seem preoccupied, so I avoid having to mouth false pleasantries to anyone as I stalk up to the counter. One woman is ahead of me in the line. I get within mere feet of her before I recognize the tense set of shoulders and the nervous skirt-plucking. If I hadn't been so fixated on the wall o' booze, I'd have spotted her sooner and been able to hide down another aisle.
No such luck. She turns as I approach, still fussing with her skirt. Gray eyes lock on mine and narrow in distaste. My big sister, Grace, is nothing if not consistent in her opinion of me.
"Tessa," she says. "I didn't know that you were home." She puts special emphasis on the word, 'home'. She knows damn well that this place has never felt like home to me, not even when I was a little girl.
"I came back last week," I say, keeping my voice neutral.
"You didn't call me," she says in an accusatory tone.
And that's all it takes for me to lose patience and abandon all pretense of neutrality. "I never call you, Grace. Why would I?"
She flushes. "I'm your sister. We're family--"
"You don't know the meaning of that word." I turn from her and nod at Ray behind the counter, who is watching my sister and I trade verbal blows with a very interested look on his face. Ah yes. The gossips will be active tonight. "Hey Ray. Could you grab me that gallon of Beam back there?" I gesture to the jug.
Ray's eyes widen. He grabs the jug and thumps it up on the counter. "You havin' a party, Tessa?"
"No," I say, earning myself a raised eyebrow.
I decide to try to be civil to her in front of Ray. I don't give a shit about what anyone here thinks of me, but I know that she cares what they think about her. Too much. Always did. So I turn back to her, paste some semblance of a smile on my mouth, and say, "How's Bobby doing?"
Her face crumples. Tears well up in her eyes.
I am so confounded by this that I freeze in place. Grace never cries, certainly not in public. She frowns upon outward displays of emotion. Considers them unseemly.
"Bobby left," she manages between gulps. She jams her hand into her old-lady snap purse, yanks out a balled up tissue and scrubs at her tear-streaked face. Now her makeup is all screwed up, rouge and foundation clumping together in hash marks across her cheeks.
I am confounded by this as well. My sister won't attend a ball game without a full face of perfectly applied makeup and her hair curled. That she has so little regard for her personal appearance at the moment is troubling, to say the least.
It means that something is really wrong.
The hair prickles on the back of my neck. "Left? Where'd he go?" I say.
Grace glares at me and stuffs the tissue back in her handbag. "Left left, Tessa. As in walked out on me, our marriage, our life. He left."
I can't keep my jaw from unhinging. "God. I'm so sorry, Grace--"
"No you're not. You never liked him. You thought he was stuffy and pompous. Remember?" She bites off the words as she thrusts her credit card across the counter to Ray. "Ring me up please."
Ray stands there, clearly dumbfounded, clutching her card in one of his meaty paws. "Grace. I...never would have expected--"
Grace throws her hands into the air. "Yes. It's a big surprise to all of us, who would have thought it, he was such an upstanding man and a man of the church as well, blah blah blah. Well, all of that noble character he had was evidently no match for the charms of his nineteen-year-old Swedish assistant. With whom he has run off, to where I do not know. Now that I have provided you with your dinner table conversation for this evening, Ray, would you kindly ring me up? Now?" Her voice is shaking as badly as her hands.
I don't know what to say, and it's evident that Ray doesn't either. He rings up my sister's groceries and bags them in silence. She signs on the electronic screen, gathers up her purchases and leaves, without so much as a backward glance at me.
Ray makes change for the fifty that I give him, his eyes fixed on the counter, his cheeks and the tops of his ears pink with embarrassment. "Never would have dreamed..." He sighs and looks up. "You need a bag for that, or you just going to carry it out that way?"
"No bag, thanks," I say. I sling the heavy jug over my shoulder like I'm carrying a hobo pack and lurch my way out the door.
Ray's old Labrador retriever, Bo, greets me outside with a wagging tail and a questing moist nose before retreating to his accustomed spot beneath the gardenia bushes. Over the years, there have been several Bo's, with a few Sis's thrown in for variety, depending on the dog's gender. Ray never could be bothered to get creative with names.
His store is situated at the junction of two highways. Although to call them highways is overstating it. Aside from local traffic, which is sparse, and the occasional 18-wheeler on a night run, the roads are usually as deserted as they are right now. Above the tarmac, the heated air shimmers and dances. Swarms of flies undulate like a living carpet on top of something sticky in the parking lot.
I wipe the sweat from my upper lip and swallow my fresh nausea as I unlock my car and sling the Beam into my back seat. I'm sliding into the driver's seat when Bo erupts from under the bushes, barking his head off. Seconds later, I hear the throaty growl of an approaching motorcycle.
It's a cop. He pulls into the parking lot and idles his bike as a deliriously happy Bo tries to climb into his lap.
Wrestling his helmet off with one hand while using the other stave off Bo, the cop shakes sandy blond hair out of a pair of familiar brown eyes and grins at me.
I am suddenly very glad that I showered.