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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Read the 1st chapter of "A Dark and Sure Descent"

This is the full 1st chapter of

A Dark and Sure Descent
Being a Chronicle of the Long Island Outbreak

(expected publication May/June 2014)

The dried bundle of fur, bones, and leaf litter in the gutter wrenched at six-year-old Cassie Stemple’s guts, but she wasn’t actually that surprised by it. Not really. She knew about road kill, knew what it was and how it was made. She’d been in the car that one time they ran over a possum up near Riverhead. The mewling, bloody thing seemed to be vibrating, like electricity was passing through its broken body. And as her mother dragged it off the road by its tail she was shaking too. She fretted for a minute, waving her hands about and saying they needed to put it out of its suffering. “I know, I know,” she kept repeating to herself, her eyes overflowing with tears. “Breaking its neck is the merciful thing to do.” And Cassie, watching in silence, her eyes wide with horror and her hands plastered against the window, wanted so badly to look away.

But her mother couldn’t do it, couldn’t wrap her too-big hands around its too-small neck. Couldn’t snap the delicate bones. Instead, she’d had to bash its head in with a brick.

Six or seven blows, that’s how many it took to do the job. She was shaking that badly.

Cassie shivered at the memory, but didn’t draw her eyes away from the barely recognizable thing. She wondered what it had been when it was alive. A cat, maybe. Or a dog. Although a raccoon seemed just as likely. There had been more of them around the house lately, raccoons, scavenging through the trash, making trouble, bearing diseases. That’s what her neighbor said, Mister Sam. “Hen killers,” he’d said. Lots of raccoons.

And rats too, come to think of it.

The sight of the poor dead creature made her stomach hurt and her heart feel heavy with sadness, but it was better than the view that waited for her a few feet to beyond, so she stared fixedly at the ragged furry thing and whispered a silent prayer and pretended the shadow hovering over it wasn’t there.

The car nudged forward a few feet. Her mother uttered impatiently under her breath, cursing and saying something about the constant delays lately and wishing she’d taken the long way around to her father’s place. “Another damn tower,” she said to herself. Cassie knew better than to reply.

Her eyes flicked to the work crew beside them in their fluorescent green coveralls, their faces hidden behind plastic masks. On their backs was printed in black letters: PROPERTY OF THE US GOVERNMENT. Cassie didn’t like the way those people looked. She didn’t like the stiff, shuffling way they moved and the mute way they went about their work, never once speaking or acknowledging anyone, not their team members or the strangers who gawped at them as they walked past. Once, while in the car with her father, Cassie had waved at them, said hello in a tiny, timid voice. But it was like they didn’t even see her. “Don’t talk to them,” Daddy had told her. “They’re not nice people. They’re convicts, murderers. At least like this they can give something back to the society they stole from.”

She didn’t know what a convict was and hadn’t bothered to ask, but she did know what it meant to be a murderer. Looking at them after that, she couldn’t understand how they could do something so terrible. They seemed incapable of doing anything so violent.

The dead raccoon — she was thoroughly convinced by now that that’s what it was — was now hidden by the bumper of the car behind them. Why didn’t killing animals make them murderers?

On the periphery of her sight, there on the sidewalk adjacent to the curb where the carcass had come to rest during the last rainfall, too large to slip through the gaps in the drain, was the object which terrified her. It was closer now.

She wrenched her head back around to the front and scrunched down in her seat and looked forward. She became aware of her mother’s eyes fixed on her in the mirror. “Everything okay back there, honey?”

Cassie nodded stiffly, biting her lip so the whimper threatening to crawl out of her chest would stay there.

Her mother’s pained eyes lifted away from her, refocused on the scene out the back window.

“Can we go?” Cassie pleaded.

Her mother frowned but didn’t answer. The car inched forward, then jerked to a sudden stop. Behind them, someone honked.

Cassie closed her eyes. She wished she were home instead of in the car. She wished her father lived with them instead of across town. She wished Ben Nicholas were here with her. And Shinji.

And her brother.

She wondered: Was he a flattened mass of skin and bone too, now, inside of his tiny coffin?

She tried to push the memories away, both the happiness her parents had worn like cloaks in the days leading up to the day her brother Remy was supposed to come. The happiness of the drive to the hospital to pick him up. But also the sadness which smothered them when they returned a week later without him. The deep, vile sadness.

She had only gotten to see him the one time, at the hospital, behind glass. She’d sensed something was wrong even then. But the feeling had passed, washed away by her parents’ excitement. Her own heart had swelled with love for the tiny baby, if only for the happiness he had brought to her parents.

If it were possible to keep only the good memories, she would’ve. Keep the good and get rid of the bad. But they were all so intertwined with each other that it was impossible to separate them. Which is why they all had to go.

“Come on!” her mother snapped, startling Cassie. She jerked her head up, her eyes flying open and slamming shut the box which held those memories . The sound of the horn filled the car. “Damn it! Your father’s going to be angry that we’re late.”

Cassie watched her mother lean forward to call him on the dashboard phone. She heard the series of beeps which she had come to recognize as her father’s cell phone. Then the rings which meant the call had gone through.

“Lyssa?” she heard him say through the speaker. And he didn’t sound upset. “Was just going to call you. Where are you? Everything all right?”

“We’re stuck in the car at one of the construction sites. They’ve got the road dug up. They’re letting people through, but only one at a time. And we haven’t moved in, like, ten minutes.” She huffed in exasperation. “I don’t know why they have to do this all at once.”

“It’s the new mobile technology,” her father replied. “I heard that iTech— excuse me, iArc, or whatever they’re called now — wants to get everyone converted to the new devices by the end of the summer.”

Her mother growled. “Yeah, but why Long Island?”

“Hey, I agree. It would’ve been better to launch in the City. Anyway, listen, when do you think you’re going to get here? Because I have some paperwork I can do before—”

“I don’t want you working,” her mother interrupted. “Cassie needs your full attention when she’s there.”

Her father sighed. “Is that what she told you, that I ignore her? Because if she—”

“She doesn’t have to tell me anything. I know you. You’ve been too wrapped up with work lately.”

There was nothing but silence from the speaker for a long time. Outside the windows Cassie could hear the low rattle of the workmen’s tools and the muffled shouts of the men in charge, the ones wearing the yellow hardhats and the fat goggles with the black lenses and the funny-looking gloves on their hands.

She remembered the statue and wondered if it was still there.

“No doubt we’ve had a hard time dealing with all . . . this, honey,” her father said at last. “And maybe not in the best way, either. I was thinking that it might be time for us both to get some help.”

“I’m dealing with it just fine!”

Cassie cringed at the harshness in her mother’s voice and thrust her feet against the back of the seat. If she could melt into the cushion, she would. If she could push her mother hard enough to sense her frustration, then maybe they’d finally stop fighting.

They’d never argued before Remy, only once they came back from the hospital. Mom had asked her father to leave, but the fighting continued. The arguments made her father sad and her mother bitter. But worst of all, they made Cassie miss them all the more.

“Stop pushing on the seat, Cass!”

Cassie sighed and twisted her head around slowly. Maybe it would be easier to look at the scary statue if she did it little by little, like sneaking up on it. But a glint of bright sunlight thrown by the hood of the car behind them caught her eyes, blinded her. She squinted against it and turned even more.

The dancing statue wasn’t there.

“I just need time,” her mother said.

Cassie’s attention was no longer on the fight. It was elsewhere, on the sidewalk behind — not the gutter with the dead raccoon, but the sidewalk itself where the statue had been standing — so that her parents’ voices were beginning to sound far away.

Where did it go? Why was it dancing?

She turned quickly back and stared down at her lap. But she hated not knowing.

Quietly, she unlatched her seatbelt. Then, slowly, carefully, she moved to her knees. She didn’t want to see it, but what was even worse was not knowing where it had gotten to.

“I agree, honey, but I think it’s going to take more than just time to fix things. And we’d be better off trying it togeth—”

“Time and space. That’s what I need.”

“Honey, we—”

“Look, I just called to let you know we’re going to be late. And to ask you to pay attention to Cassie while she’s there. Not to fight. Just promise me: No paperwork. Or phone calls. It’s Sunday, for Christ’s sake.”

“I wasn’t—”

The call disconnected.

Cassie shielded her eyes from the glare. Where did it go?

She put her hands on the seatback and pulled herself fully up onto her knees again. The car shifted beneath her, pressing her against the seatback as they slid forward another ten feet. The motor revved. The tires crunched over something. It sounded like bones.

She kept expecting her mother to yell at her for getting out of her seatbelt. But if she could just see where the statue had gone.

The woman in the car behind them waved and smiled at her. She was an older woman, white-haired, but the car she was driving was brand new and like something a teenager might drive. sporty. A tiny dog sat on the woman’s lap, hair just as white and curly. It yapped silently at her through the windshield. Cassie returned the wave, then quickly swung her eyes back to the empty sidewalk.

She knew the intersection they were stuck in. There was the sandwich shop her father had taken her to the first time she’d come to visit him in his apartment. A couple offices in the corner. A print shop. The parking lot was nearly empty— only a couple cars. Probably because of the construction. A man stood outside the print shop and watched the workers. Cassie couldn’t tell by the look on his face what he might be thinking. It looked like nothing.

“Cassie, why are you—? Get back in your seat, young lady!”

“Why? We’re not moving.”

“Because I told you to.”

Cassie tilted her head to the side to see past the white-haired lady’s car, but a truck blocked her view.

Maybe it went back inside. It’s too hot to be dancing on the sidewalk.

She wondered why there would be a tiny Statue of Liberty here, why it would be dancing like that as people walked past. Of course she knew it was just a person in a costume, but that only raised more questions. Halloween was still months away.

Normally, things like costumes didn’t scare her. Ghosts and monsters — the costumed kind — were just dressed up people looking for candy. But it was the pale green of the statue’s face that had scared her, like the pale green of the shirts the hospital workers wore. And there’d also been something menacing in its bloodshot eyes, she was sure of it, something dark and mesmerizing in the way it stared at her, as if it were trying to look straight inside of her head. She shivered again, despite the sun baking her arms.

And she really hadn’t liked the way it was dancing like that over the mangled body of that poor dead animal in the gutter.

But it was gone now, which was only a tiny relief. Whatever it had been or meant to be, whatever reasons it had had for dancing there on the hot sidewalk, it was gone now.

But to where?

She heard her mother open her window, heard the rattle of the machines and the engines and voices outside grow louder behind her. She felt the sweep of hot air on the back of her neck and her bare legs, felt the brush of its thick fingers on her hair. With a sigh, she turned back around to get back into her seatbelt. But as her head swept toward the side of the car, toward the side she was sitting closest to, she became aware of a pale green presence filling her window. A cry rose in her throat as the terrifying stature bent down and grinned at her just inches away. She fell back, away from it, her cry coming out in a single dry, stifled gasp.

The dancing statue reached through her mother’s open window. “We’re protesting the new tax laws,” it said, and extended a printed sheet of paper. Cassie could see that it was just makeup now.

A voice yelled at them from further out on the street and gestured at them to go. The white-haired old lady behind them honked.

“Thanks,” her mother mumbled at the green man in the statue costume. “I have to go.” She took the paper and placed it on the seat next to her, rolled the window back up, and threaded the car through the gap.

As they passed, the statue man’s blood-red eyes met Cassie’s one last time. But this time, he didn’t wave or smile at her. He just nodded once, knowingly, and started to dance.