Sam left Jess at the corner of Water Street and walked the rest of the way home. The bus terminated at the bottom of Walter Hill, right at the inconvenient spot where Water Street turned into Plainview Road – where Sam’s house went east and Jessica’s went west.
They reached the junction and stopped, Sam turning as he shouldered his backpack. “I’d walk you to your door but, you know…”
“Don’t go out of your way or anything.”
“Give me a break, I already ran my quota for today.”
She sighed. “Fine. But I won’t love you if you get fat.”
He laughed. His untucked shirttails flapping around his waist; he wasn’t in danger of that happening any time soon. “Molecular impossibility,” he said.
Then, “You gonna be okay?”
Her smile slipped by degrees; all the way back to the bleachers. She hitched her satchel higher on her shoulder. “You know it. Just… weird stuff happening, right?” She emphasised her point with a shudder bordering on burlesque.
Sam nodded. Weird wasn’t the only word describing today… and not necessarily the one he would use himself. “You’ll call me though, yeah? If anything happens?”
“You got it, Tex.” She started down Water Street, throwing a wave over her shoulder.
He watched her until she passed the rise of the hill. Sam looked at his watch. It was already quarter to five. He turned around and began to walk.
Sam followed the curb up the hill, keeping well to the gravel shoulder. Logger trucks sometimes used Plainview as a shortcut down Green Mountain, and like all loggers, they took it fast. He’d had been walking curbside since he was in the fifth grade, and had only made it to the sixth by learning just as quickly.
On the other side of the road, the gold and green patchwork of National Forest clung to the side of the hill, broken at intervals by gravel driveways winding down to gabled rooftops. The steely reflection of Lewis Pond glistened through glassed balconies and sunroom porches, ordinarily a tranquil green but today as vast and flat as a sheet of grey iron.
Grey like rain-clouds.
Sam turned his eyes skyward. The voluminous fronts he’d seen at the school sat off to the west still, brooding over themselves like bad thoughts. They were closer now, perhaps a county or two away, and gaining. The sky had become overcast, a thin grey canvas stretched across the sky from horizon to horizon. Nothing out of the ordinary there: October skies weren’t famed for their splendour. But it sat wrong with the heat, the last of which still clung to his shirtsleeves, oozed off the asphalt.
Not rain clouds – storm clouds. That’s what they felt like, anyway. They felt like heat lightning - like jagged pennants just waiting to be unfurled. In the distance, he heard what he thought was thunder.
Great. And I left washing on the line.
A whickering sound approached over a rise in the road, the grind of tyre treads crunching over the gravel. Sam was instantly transported to a quarter past six on any given Sunday morning, when the same noise cycled past the curb outside his bedroom window and a copy of the Rutland Herald’s weekend edition smacked unfailingly against the front door.
WHAM! Rise and shine…
Sure enough, a canary yellow pushbike crested the hill, piloted by a kid with a flipped-back baseball cap riding high in the stirrups. His tie-dyed t-shirt fluttered behind him like a cape, and a monstrous pair of aviator glasses perched across the bridge of his nose, the lenses so large they seemed to swallow the entire top of his face. The kid had little fashion sense, but a God-given pitching arm.
Sam raised a hand and waved. “Hey Johnny. What’s the happenin’ word?”
The bike looped towards him and slipped into a controlled skid, the waxed playing cards in the tyre spokes whirring to a stop in a spray of gravel. The kid leaned over the handlebars, dropping one spotless Puma sports pump in place of a kickstand.
“Oh,” he said. “Hey Sam.”
“Where’s the fire?”
Johnny nodded over his shoulder. “The Garland’s. Not just fire, but ambulance and state troopers too.”
Sam stared at him. “Huh?”
“You don’t know?” The kid’s tone suggested the things Sam didn’t know could fill the Grand Canyon. Sam felt this was vaguely unfair; his question had been a purely rhetorical one in the first place.
Johnny seemed to intuit this and turned, pointing back over the rise of the hill. “Look.”
Déjà vu stumbled over him like a step in the dark, and for a moment Sam came untethered, fumbling for a solid handhold. The feeling increased as he traced the line of Johnny’s finger from the asphalt to the crest of the hill, and then to the column of black smoke unfurling slowly into the overcast sky.
“That’s the Garlands’ place?” He’d known Arthur and Toni Garland since he was ten year’s old; had in fact played Scrabble on their sitting room carpet the half-dozen times they’d babysat when his Mom was out of town. Their house was only two doors down from his. The idea that it was on fire struck him as absurd, so removed he’d probably even seen the smoke and dismissed it as low cloud.
“Took it pretty bad that last ’quake - split it right down the middle. It’s like something out of The Day After. You’ve missed most of the action though. Fire’s mostly out now.”
Took it pretty bad that last ’quake. Sam wasn’t sure he knew what ‘bad’ was going for these days. The image of the concrete sidewalk cut through with a gaping, spidery crack returned like a slide projection in his mind; Sam turned it towards the pillar of smoke and shuddered. That was bad… but still didn’t explain the mass of black smoke unfurling to the sky. Even his imagination wouldn’t go that far.
As if reading his thoughts, Johnny explained. “Propane tank ripped right off its anchor. Blew half the basement into the lounge room. Place looks like… like…” He shrugged. There was no adequate point of comparison in his twelve-year-old vernacular. “Well, I guess you’ll see.”
“Saw Mrs Garland sitting in the back of an ambulance, but I dunno. She’s old.” Johnny shrugged, as if that explained the whole sordid mess in not so many words.
Of course, thought Sam.
“I’m headin down to Lewis Wharf,” Johnny announced, kicking off with his sneaker. The playing cards in his wheel spokes whirred as he turned a lazy circle. “Frankie said he saw some geese acting crazy. We’re gonna hurl stones at ’em. Later, Sam.”
Sam waved him off and continued up the hill. He reached the top, and as Plainview Court branched from Plainview Road and snaked its way down the other side (built that way deliberately to deter hooligans from turning the elm-lined lane into a Friday night speedway) he began to see what Johnny had meant: He did see. He saw very well.
How could he not?
Geographically speaking, Plainview Court split from the main road and wound its way to the bottom of a valley between two hills, running along its floor for a half mile before remounting its climb towards Green Mountain and rejoining the main road. A petition in 1978 had effectively banned loggers from traversing the two-mile deviation (and slicing a neat six miles from the hill-rim-clinging Plainview-Mountain ringroad), enforcing a policy of wholesome family values in the then-new housing development. Plainview Court amounted to an unregulated gated community, and was, as the Manchester entry read in the Vermont State Drive Guide, 1992, a “pristine and charming detour along the scenic Lewis drive”, and one of the township’s unofficial bounties.
From the hill at the top of Plainview Court, Sam looked down at a suburb made up of doll-sized houses with soapbox cars - one of which had fallen down. A black-grey inkspot sullied the picture the guidebook painted; red and blue lights flashed brightly through the overcast afternoon. Somewhere in between was the Garlands’ house… or what was left of it.
The end of the block was roped off with yellow tape, theoretically impenetrable to the small group of onlookers gathered there. Sam scanned the crowd as he approached but they were all strangers to him, adults: no one he’d ever seen at a pool party or Superbowl barbecue. No one said anything as he lifted the edge of the tapeline and ducked under; in fact, he made it almost to the other side of the street before he was stopped by a State Trooper.
“Sorry kid, no-go zone.”
“But I live here.”
“Two down.” Sam pointed to a white two-story Dutch Colonial halfway up the hill. “That right by you?”
The Trooper frowned, but waved him through. “Just stick to the sidewalk. Stay clear of the trucks.”
Sam hitched up his backpack and tried not to stare. Two fire engines were parked at right angles in front of the house; one of their cranes was extended, showering the smouldering ruins with a steady stream of foam and water. Two paramedics were closing the doors on their ambulance, presumably to transport Mrs. Garland to Manchester Memorial. Their lights were flashing but the siren was off; Sam wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad.
Now that he was curbside, he could see the Garlands’ house wasn’t gone, not completely: most of the lake-facing north side and a corner gable were more or less intact. The front half of the house, however, was a smoking black ruin: the porch had collapsed in on itself (Propane tank ripped right off its anchor), and the bay windows - what Sam knew to be the living room and Mrs. Garland’s studio, respectively - were hollowed-out shells, the windowpanes gaping mouths with jagged broken teeth. What separated the two extremes (and, presumably, the path of the flames) was almost two yards of empty space rimmed with splintered beams and shingles.
Johnny had not exaggerated. The Garlands’ house hadn’t just been hit hard in the latest quake: it had been ripped clean in two.
* * *
Sam kicked the door behind him and let it slam closed. He stood for a moment in the front hall and listened. Silence. Nothing. Just a big empty house that seemed even emptier these days.
Sam sighed, and kicked off his sneakers. There was a set of keys on the side-table, and a crumpled square of foolscap with a red, official-looking letterhead. Sam picked it up and spread it open: A parking ticket. Great.
At least someone was home.
The hall and front room were unusually gloomy: the blinds were raised but the daylight was second-hand, dull, almost sepia from the unseen afternoon. Sam went down the hall to the kitchen, and found little different in the living room. The north-facing wall was one wide, reticulated window; outside, the view at the end of the elevated porch looked down on Lewis Pond, its grey gunmetal surface streaked with faint orange.
Sam opened the refrigerator and scrutinised the contents; the harsh white light of the internal lamp made everything equally unappetising. He found a can of Dr Pepper between two empty Bud bottles (Just what the Doctor ordered indeed) and made a mental note: he’d have to get some things from work tonight… if he wanted to eat something other than beer for the week.
Sam closed the refrigerator and tore a fresh sheet of paper off the pad magnetised to the door. He scribbled a note in capitals with the accompanying pencil stub, folded it in half, and slipped it in the gap between the refrigerator and the icebox. Feeling a little better, Sam pulled the tab on the can and drank, taking the back stairs two at a time.
His bedroom was the same dusty-coloured yellow as the kitchen downstairs; the thin Venetians over the picture window cast slanting lines across the carpet. Dumping his bag on the floor, Sam crumpled the empty soda can in his fist and fell face-first onto his bed. The thick tangle of bedclothes felt like falling into marshmallow: sweet, silent, and all consuming.
It was also hard to breathe.
He rolled over onto his back, something hard and pointed jabbing into his pelvis. Sam removed it with a grunt. It was his trigonometry textbook, a needlessly thick tome with a glossy splash-jacket, most of which was dominated by a colour photograph of a man dressed as a pantomime wizard. He was the Math Magician, the mascot of the MatheMagic publishing corporation’s brand of high-school textbooks. Numbers whizzed around his head in clouds of sparkling light, emanating from the protractor he clutched, wand-like, in his hand. His grin of insane orgasmic joy suggested his pleasure of teaching kids maths was second only to his enjoyment of pure, uncut cocaine.
Sam thought he looked like an absolute jerkoff.
He tossed the book into a corner of the room and stared at the ceiling. The last thing he wanted was to think about all the chapters he hadn’t done - or more precisely, when they were due.
Instead, he found himself thinking about what had happened earlier at the bleachers. It was like a sinkhole in his mind, tugging his thoughts towards it with gravitational force.
Basketball. The bleachers. Jessica. Everything had started out okay, so routine, average, ordinary… and then turned, like a flipped switch, into something else. What had that been, exactly? The newspaper article, the one by the Vermont professor, claimed that forces were at work, an unbalance in the order of nature. What he called the “Uncanny Earth”.
Sam didn’t know how he felt about that theory; it all felt too weird, too absurd to credit, like fluoride in the drinking water, or the second shooter on another grassy knoll. Too much the ranting of one voice among a lot of questioning silence.
Bullshit, in other words.
But still… The earthquakes; the shooting; the mainline explosion, where that man had died; the accident on the Lowland Bridge, and all those kids who got hurt…
Was it all just… coincidence? Or was there really something else going on? Something people really, truly, couldn’t explain?
The only thing he knew for certain was that this afternoon - in that moment when everything had gone visibly wrong - all he’d felt was a deep and total sense of helplessness. Sam found himself replaying it over in his mind, trying to review it moment for moment. All he could get was images, still snapshots fixed to strong emotions…
The stillness of the basketball players…
The shock of the first tremor…
The brittle crack as the lamp exploded…
Sam rolled over on his side again, and took a deep breath. He was aware that something smelled bad, and that that thing was probably himself. He wasn’t lying when he told Jess he’d run his quota for the day; he’d run more miles this afternoon than he had all week, not to mention the pounds he must have dropped in sweat at the bleachers.
Sitting up on his elbow, Sam pulled off his sweat-stained shirt and threw it in the hamper by the door; it alighted on the peak of dirty laundry and slid slowly to the floor. The Terminator scowled down at him from the poster above his desk, resenting the mess. Sam thought his stern chiselled chin should know him better by now, but agreed nonetheless.
If Sam was sure of anything, you didn’t fuck with Arnie.
Peeling off his sweat socks as well (no doubt: that smell was definitely him), Sam got up, gathered the refuse shirts and underwear, rammed them all back into the hamper, and dragged the whole thing out his door to the laundry across the landing. Dumping the contents in the upright washer, he scanned the shelves for the box of detergent. Finding it (empty) in the wastebasket beneath the sink, he swore, and set the machine to wash anyway, punching the starter with his fist. Detergent or not, it would have to do - it wasn’t like he had an infinite amount of clothes.
Adding “laundry detergent” to his growing mental grocery list, he swiped a fresh (semi-fresh) towel off the counter and recrossed the landing to the bathroom. If he was quick, he’d have just enough time to wash some of the stink off himself before he had to leave. If Amelia was still at home, she might even give him a ride.
The parking ticket on the side-table flashing into his mind, and he amended the thought. If she still had the car, that was… and if she was in any fit state to drive it.
His question was answered as soon as he opened the bathroom door. The smell of vomit hit him in the face like a bag of rotting garbage. He recoiled by reflex, gagging on a mouthful of the stink. Taking a deep breath of fresh air from the landing, he pinched his nose closed and stepped inside. The tiles were cold and blue beneath his bare feet, and as he neared the toilet, he saw the source of the stink: it spread across the floor in quick splashes, thick and congealing. Amelia had hit her target, mostly; most it was inside the bowl. What she hadn’t done was flush it down, which is exactly what Sam did.
The button depressed, but to his surprise, nothing happened. Sam stared a moment, blinking, and then pressed it again. Nothing. He let go of his nose and swore again, tasting the rank smell on the back of his throat. She had flushed it, it seemed – she’d flushed it ‘til it clogged… and then continued to hurl.
Feeling as if he might do the same, Sam made a hasty retreat. Towel dragging on the floor behind him, he walked passed his bedroom to end of the hall. He hesitated for only a moment before he hammered his fist on her closed bedroom door. Hearing no reply, he hammered again.
“Yo, Pink Floyd. Anyone in there?”
No answer. Just more silence in an already silent house. Figured.
“Hey, Stevie Nicks! Anyone home?”
He kicked the door this time, and it bounced back against the jamb with a thud. No good: she’d locked it from the inside. Probably the last thing she’d managed to do before passing out on the bed.
Passing out if she was lucky, Sam thought, fuming as he walking back to his room. Let her deal with things in her own way; he didn’t really care, so long as she cleaned up her own mess. He might feel differently about that locked door if and when she did something regrettable, like drown in her own puke, or hit her head on the nightstand and swallow her tongue. In either event, Sam supposed, the locked door wouldn’t make much difference. He could wait. If either happened, the smell would get worse.
Until then, he’d wait to worry.
Back in his room, Sam sat down on the chair beside his desk, pushing aside the stack of X-Men comics currently residing there, and tried to remember the last time his family had been sober under one roof. After a moment of careful thought, he found he couldn’t. Instead he settled for trying to recall just “under one roof”, and after another moment, still drew a blank. How lame was that?
The room was getting dark; the yellow, rusty afternoon had slipped silently into a gloomy evening. Flicking on the desk lamp, Sam caught the time on his clock radio: almost five.
He stood. No shower, and now he was going to have to catch the bus. Great.
Whatever, he thought, shrugging on a clean work shirt from the wardrobe. He didn’t care. Life was a bitch like that.
Blah blah blah... and then you died.