Exclusive Chapter 5 reveal: Burntown by Jennifer McMahon

Below is the fifth chapter of Burntown by Jennifer McMahon, out April 25th!

✦ Read the previous chapters here: Ch 1 | Ch2 | Ch3 | Ch4

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BURNTOWN by Jennifer McMahon – Chapter 5

Part Two

After

Necco

 

The Catholic school boys from across the street come looking for her, trolling the waters, sniffing around like skittish dogs in navy blue blazers and red ties.  They believe in Jesus and the Heavenly Father.  They believe that Christ’s body lives in those tasteless paper-thin wafers, his blood is watered down wine you buy by the gallon.  Glory.  Hallelujah.

Necco likes wine.  Sometimes they bring some for her.  Wild Irish Rose.  Thunderbird.  Sweet as Kool Aid.  Sometimes it’s beer they bring.  Warm beer in dented cans that have been riding around in some boy’s pocket all day. When she opens them, they spray, spurting like a geyser, getting all over her and the boys, making them laugh.

“Hey Fire Girl,” they cry.  “You home?”

How long they’ve been coming, she doesn’t know.  She’s not even sure how long she’s lived in the Palace.  Four months?  Six months even?   She moved in just after Mama died, just after she and Hermes got together.  She asks Promise to tell her, but the doll is no good at keeping time. She used to sing, back when Daddy first made her, but at some point she lost her ability to speak; Necco can still recall the funny, too-high voice singing “Rock-a-Bye Baby.”

Promise had another name back then, too.  But just like Necco’s old name, that name was left behind.  She’s tried her best to forget it all.

The Palace is a rusted out, tire-less Pontiac, parked and abandoned in a vacant lot.  There was once a brick building here, a print shop with an old press, but all that remains are the crumbled lengths of wall, no more than six feet high, and covered in ivy..  The lot is full of sumac bushes, bittersweet, chicory, yarrow, milkweed: nature trying to reclaim what was taken.  It’s been a dumping ground over the years, and in addition to the piles of bricks and old rotten timbers, there’s a washer and dryer, a heating oil tank full of bullet holes, a crumpled shopping cart, piles of old tires, and rusted bedsprings.  All of this provides excellent cover and makes the Pontiac blend in, look like just another dumped and ruined thing.

Necco has found things in the lot’s rubble: little metal letters, gears from large machines.   She keeps these things, stashes them away.  They remind her of her father, of his workshop full of gadgets and gears.   She used to visit him there, sit for hours on a stool, watching while he worked on his inventions, passing him tools with lovely names like “crescent wrench” and “needle-nosed pliers.” She’d wind up his creatures, watch them walk and soar, carefully checking them all for secret compartments which might hold a surprise: Bazooka bubblegum, Fireballs, starlight mints.  She stoked the fire in his forge, watched him bend and shape hot metal like it was river clay.  Daddy wore a leather apron, and would whistle while he worked.  Old jazz songs, mostly.

“Fire Girl, Fire Girl, Fire Girl?” the boys cry now, their own improvised song as they come around the brick wall, wind their way through the rubble. They stick their heads through her front door, which is actually a smashed out windshield covered in an old curtain.  The curtain has covered wagons with little cowboys and lassos.  Giddy-up and go.

Resting along the dashboard is part of her ever-growing collection of treasures: a tiny bird skull, the gears and letters from the printing press, the bottom of a bottle she sometimes uses as a magnifying glass to start fire, and the motorcycle goggles Hermes gave her.

“Show us, Fire Girl,” one of the boys orders.  They bring new boys all the time, and she waits in the Pontiac like a queen on her throne.  But she doesn’t show them for nothing, no.  The boys know to come bearing gifts: silver coins, crumpled dollars, jewelry with broken clasps, silk scarves stolen from their mothers, and sweets.  Hermes says she should just take cash, but she enjoys these other tributes.  She loves candy the most: saltwater taffy, chocolate bars with light and fluffy nougat, red and white peppermints that melt on her tongue and taste like Christmas morning.  She rarely speaks to them, so they don’t know her favorite candy.  Necco Wafers.  They were her favorite when she was growing up, in the time Before the Flood.  Afterwards, when she came to soaked in river water and coughing it out of her lungs like a fish-girl just learning to breathe air, her Mama asked if she wanted anything, anything at all, and this was what she wanted. And Mama laughed then, loud and relieved, and started calling her Necco.

Today, the boys have brought a girl, which is strange and changes the feeling of the whole afternoon.  The girls don’t usually come, too scared to walk across the street; too frightened of getting burned or sliced, or of being caught by the nuns with their cruel faces.

This new girl is something of an oddity in and of herself – very tall and thin with dirty blond hair and red lipstick.  She looks older than the bright-eyed boys who crowd around her, more knowing. Tucked around her neck, over the drab school uniform of white shirt, navy blazer, and red tie, she’s got a purple knitted scarf, even though it’s too warm for such a thing and the purple clashes with the school colors. Instead of the black patent-leather Mary Janes the other girls wear, she’s got on a battered pair of Doc Martens, with fuzzy, striped leg warmers in earth-tone colors.  Her long fingers are stained with paint and ink, their nails short and ragged.  They’re the hands of an artist; hands that reminded Necco of her own mother when she’d come out of her painting studio.  This new girl rests her hands on the Pontiac’s hood, drums her fingers like maybe she’s got better things to do, other places to go.  The boys gather round, give her instructions since it’s her first time.

“Hand her a gift and she’ll show you,” says the boy closest to her — an older one whose cocky sureness Necco despises.  He’s called Luke.

“Just don’t let her touch you,” teases a tall boy covered in freckles.  “Cause she can shoot fire from her fingertips.”

Necco smiles at this and stretches out her hands, cracking her knuckles just for show.

“She likes candy best,” another calls.  “Anything sweet.”

“I don’t know what I have,” the girl says as she takes off her school satchel — an Army green canvas bag covered in pins that say things like Question Authority and Normal People Scare Me and I’m Waiting for the Zombie Apocalypse. She starts to dig around, laying the bag out on the hood of the car so she can use both hands to paw through it.

Finally, she pulls out a tattered box of Good and Plentys, the candy pink and white, rattling around in the box like medicine.  “There’s not much left, but you can have it,” she says, thrusting the box in Necco’s direction.  “Wait,” she says.  “Here.”  And she digs in her bag again before pulling out two pink metal knitting needles and a small ball of purple yarn — the color that matches the scarf around her neck.  She seems to hesitate a second before handing them over.  “It’s the best thing I’ve got,” the girl says.

Necco takes the needles and yarn, delighted.  They remind her of something, something from her life Before the Flood – her mother sitting in a corner by the fireplace knitting a long, knobby scarf.  The comforting click-click of the needles.  Her mother’s hair was neatly combed and pulled back in a braid, not the scraggly, barely containable tangle of red it turned into After the Flood.

Errol was there, sitting by her feet, shuffling a deck of cards, smiling up at Mama, teasing her, tugging at the end of the yarn like a playful kitten.  “I want a scarf, too,” he said.  “I want one just like Little E’s.  Or maybe, maybe you could just make it extra long, and she and I can wrap it around both our necks.  We’d be like those twins who are born attached.”

“Conjoined,” said Daddy.  He was hunched over his notebook, scribbling, smoking a pipe stuffed with cherry tobacco.  Necco had smiled then, liking the idea of being tethered to her big brother, an excuse to never leave his side.

Now she blinks, and the memory is gone; unraveled like a bit of yard.  She’s trained herself to do this: to stop the memories before they get to be too much to bear.  It’s dangerous to think about the past, that’s what Mama always said.   So she lets them all go, locks them away before they can do any harm.

Heart thumping, nervous in some new, unexpected way, she pulls up the right leg of her pants, showing the blade and lighter strapped in the custom sheath Hermes made.

The new girl leans in; she looks excited, expectant, but one of the boys pulls her back.

“Careful, she’s dangerous,” the boy named Luke warns.  “I hear she once cut a boy’s spleen out for looking at her the wrong way.”

Necco smiles, doesn’t disagree as she untucks the lighter from the sheath.

The girl smiles back; it’s a conspiratorial sort of smile; an us-against-them smile.

The kids form a rough circle around her; most of them have done this plenty and know the routine.  But it’s a trick for which they never tire.   Reaching into the car, Necco grabs a candle and a small cotton ball from the dash.  She lights the candle, palms the cotton ball, then makes a show of tucking the lighter back in the sheath as everyone eyes the blade, wondering if this might be the time she pulls it.  She’s dangerous, this Fire Girl they’ve come to see.

The trick works best in the dark, but she’s learned to do it quickly in the light, the way her mother taught her.  Necco isn’t a true Fire Eater, not in the sense that mother was, but she’s learned a few parlor tricks.  Enough to earn a little spending money.

She stares at the candle flame, passes her right hand over it, making a grabbing, pulling motion at the flame.  Then, cotton ignited, she’s got a flame of her own between her thumb and index finger.

The new girl watches, eyes wide.  There is sweat on her upper lip.

Necco moves the little ball of flame quickly in a ceremonial circle through the air before opening her mouth and shoving it in.  She closes her mouth, exhales smoke through her nose.

Everyone applauds, hoots and hollers.  Necco gives them a little bow.  The boys shuffle their feet, know it’s time to go, but don’t want it to end.

Then, the girl does what none of them have ever done before: she reaches out and touches Necco’s shoulder, says, “Thank you.  That was amazing.”

The boys laugh, loud and hard.   “Fire Girl’s amazing!” they call, faces flushed.

“Marry me, Fire Girl,” one boy begs, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his neatly ironed school pants. “Have you ever slept in a real bed, Fire Girl?  Huh?  Have you?”

Necco laughs.  He can’t be more than fifteen, this boy.

She doesn’t tell him that once, she slept in a canopy bed covered in brightly colored handmade quilts.  Her room was purple and she had a lamp with a stained glass shade on her bedside table.  Her father had made a circle of dragonflies with paper bodies and tiny lights inside that surrounded her bed, their wings flapping gently in the slightest breeze.

Promise the doll sat perched on the top of bed, her face new and clean, her pink dress crisp.  If you pulled a cord on her back, she’d sing in a song.

“Marry me,” the boy insists, eyes glistening.

Sometimes, the boys ask Necco to do other things.  Dirty things.  The cocky boy, Luke, has done this before.  “Twenty bucks if you blow me, Fire Girl. I’ll throw in an extra five if you’re any good at it.  I bet that mouth of yours can eat more than just fire.”  They offer money, promise to get her anything she wants.  But she always shakes her head.  She rarely speaks to them.  This is part of her power.

If they get too insistent, too rude, she shows them the blade.  One time, a boy got too close, put his hand on her chest, and she hit him in the gut so hard he doubled over.

“Theo loves Fire Girl,” hollers the tall boy with freckles, and the new girl turns and stomps hard on his foot, making him scream.   The other boys laugh harder and Necco actually joins them.  And just like that, for about thirty seconds, she’s a normal girl.

“Show’s over!” a voice booms, shattering the moment.

Hermes is upon them, his shadow long and lean as he whips his backpack around like a heavy weapon. “Go on!  Get!  Unless you all want to pay again,” he yells like they’re a pack of stray dogs begging for scraps.

The kids scatter like bugs.  The girl is last to leave, and gives Necco a little smile and a wave, then turns and runs to join the others, flipping one end of the purple scarf up over her shoulder as she makes her way around the old bedsprings and back through the gaps in the wall to the street.

“Why do you let them stick around so long after the trick?” Hermes asks, tossing his backpack into the Pontiac.  His dark hair falls into his eyes and he pushes it back.  His face is tense, frustrated.  “It’s not like they’re your friends or anything.  They just come to see you do that fire trick over and over like a circus freak.  I hate that that’s what you have to do to get stuff.”

“I like to do the trick.  And I don’t mind them sticking around.  They amuse me,” she confesses.

“I don’t like you doing it when I’m not here,” Hermes says, laying his backpack down and starting to rummage. “I don’t like the way some of those boys look at you.”  He gives a look, part jealousy, part worry.

“I can take care of myself,” she says.  “And it wasn’t just boys today. There was a girl with them.”

She looks down at the knitting needles in her hands, then something catches her eye on the hood of the Pontiac. The girl has left her bag.  Necco looks for the girl, thinking she should call her back, but it’s too late — she’s out of sight.

Hermes looks up from his backpack at her and frowns hard.  “What have you got there?  Another one of their gifts?”

“Nothing special,” she tells him, pulling the satchel to her chest.

He shrugs, goes back to looking in his own backpack.

When Necco peers into the bag, she finds the usual things — a school ID card, pens, notebook, Chemistry text book, a couple of paperbacks including one she recognizes immediately: The Princess and The Elephant by Dr. Miles Sandeski. Heart hammering, holding her breath, she nearly pulls the book out, shouts to Hermes, says, “Look!  It’s my father’s book!” – but it’s too much.  They’re not supposed to talk about their lives before.  Fingers shaking, she tucks the book down at the bottom of the bag, turning it over so that she sees Daddy’s photo on the back: he’s wearing glasses and his favorite corduroy jacket, smiling into the camera, at her mother, who took the photo.  She’s never read her father’s book.  She’ll take it out later maybe, sometime Hermes isn’t around.

At the very bottom of the bag, next to where she’s tucked her father’s book, is a thick envelope held together with a rubber band – she can see it’s stuffed with cash. And next to that, a clear plastic bag full of pills and capsules bright as candy.  She can’t tell how much money is there — it looks like a lot.  She almost pulls it out to show Hermes, but something stops her.  She thinks of the girl’s smile, the way her fingers felt on Necco’s shoulder; of how she’s the first one who hasn’t been afraid to touch the Fire Girl.

Amazing.

Necco stashes the girl’s bag under the front seat.

Then she turns to Hermes, raises a hand, strokes his hair.   When he faces her, she kisses him.

He has a scar over his lip in the place where most people have a slight groove — a faint reminder of the animals we once were.  She knows about evolution: her father taught her, showed her textbooks with pictures of early man; told her that all mammals shared a single, common ancestor.

Hermes’s scar makes it look like his lip is split right down the middle like a rabbit or a squirrel – something small, soft and vulnerable.  She likes to kiss him there, feel the raised skin, the place where there’s no stubble.

She does it now, touching her lips to his skin as delicately as a moth landing.

“Tell me,” she says, not needing to finish the sentence.  He knows what she wants, can read her mind.  Necco believes they were destined for each other.  That if things were different, if they’d met in their lives before rather than out here on the street, they might even have gotten married one day.  Had a whole herd of little babies with beautiful faces.  Maybe send them to Catholic school where they’d learn about the Holy Ghost.

“You know,” he says.  “I’ve told it a thousand times.”

“Tell it again,” she asks, voice cooing.  “Make it a thousand and one.”

“I fell off a horse,” he tells her, irritated, bored.

She pictures him riding a wild stallion through the desert, just like the cowboys on the curtain.  They don’t talk much about their lives before.  Hermes always says, “There is no before.  There is only us.  That’s all that matters.”

Hermes is older than the school boys in their pretty blazers.   He’s all done with high school.  He went to college last fall to study computer science, but he says college is just part of the zombie machine, and his father was on his ass all the time, full of expectations, and so he bailed after his first week of classes. He packed a few things in a backpack and came to live on the streets.  “Screw college.  Screw my dad.  I’m not gonna be one of the sheeple, walking around just doing what everyone else expects.”

He wears combat boots, green fatigue pants, and a long waxed canvas coat. He keeps a huge hunting knife strapped to his belt in a leather sheath, and he carries a flashlight, screwdriver, pry bar, rolls of duct tape and paracord everywhere he goes.  He believes in being prepared.

“Hermes was the messenger of the gods.  He’s also the god of thieves,” he once explained with a wink.  And that’s how her Hermes survives now – he goes into crowded places at lunch time and comes back with a backpack full of wallets, cellphones, laptops, and hundred-dollar fountain pens with ink as blue as the ocean in a kid’s painting.  Sometimes, he gets whole briefcases.  He dissects the electronics, wipes them clean, and sells them. He’s got a guy across town who will pay cash, no questions asked.

“This is where it’s happening, Necco,” he tells her.  “The real world.  All the stuff that matters.”

She knows Hermes is not his real name.  He whispered it to her once, just a few days after they met, the day they found The Palace and moved in.  They were lying curled up together in the back, his fingers wrapped around hers.  “What was your real name?”  he asked.  “Your name before?”

Her body tensed.  “If I tell you mine, you have to tell me yours.”

“Okay. But you gotta promise you won’t ever call me by it.  I’m not that guy anymore.  And I promise I’ll never call you by your other name either.  You’re Necco to me, now and forever.”

So she told him her name.  And he kissed her ear, whispered his own into it, Matthew, and it sounded so lovely when he said it, a glittery golden ball sliding over his tongue, through his lips and teeth.

Matthew.

He’s never told her his last name.  All she knows is that his daddy is someone important.  Someone with more money and power than God, if you go by what Hermes always says.  But Hermes doesn’t want any of dad’s money.  He’s turned his back on the whole thing and his dad has actually hired a private detective to track Hermes down and bring him home.

“Can you believe it?” he asks sometimes.  “My dad actually paying someone to trail my ass around town?”

And Necco doesn’t answer.  The truth is, she can believe it.  If she lost him, she’d pay anything she had to have someone bring him back.

 

 

 

Necco’s story of how she ended up on the street isn’t like Hermes’.  It wasn’t a conscious choice.  It was just what they had to do.  That’s what Mama always said, anyway.  And even though Necco questioned about half of the things Mama said After the Flood, what choice did she have but to go along with it all?  Mama was all she had left and she was all Mama had left — they had to stick together no matter what.

What bothered Necco the most is that she had no memories of the flood itself: the very event that brought them to live the way they did.

Necco is sure it was the bump on the head that did it.  It knocked all the memories of that day out of her.  When her mother found her the morning after the Great Flood, she had a big swollen gash on the back of her head.

“Some things are for the best,” Mama always said when Necco complained about her loss of memory.   Necco would ask Mama, pester her for details about what actually happened on the day of the flood, but Mama always shook her head, told her their own past was not important.

Miss Abigail and the other fire eaters found Necco and her mother a few days after the flood.  She and Mama were trying to start a fire down by the river to heat a can of soup Necco had shoplifted.  They were cold and hungry and Necco wanted, more than anything, to go home.

“Please, Mama,” Necco begged.  “Can’t we go back to the house just once more time?”  She wanted to go back and get more of her things, her own clothes, her books, her favorite purple boots.

“No,” Mama told her in a stern voice.  “We can never go back.  There’s nothing there for us.  The flood took everything.  The house is gone.  Your father and Errol are dead.  And it’s not safe.”

“But Mama–“

“Listen to me, Necco.  There is a bad man looking for us. A very bad man.  And he’ll be watching that spot, hoping we’ll come back to see if anything’s left.  Promise me you will never return,” she said.

A thousand questions filled her head.  About the flood, who the bad man was; about how her father and Errol had died.  “But I just—“

“Promise,” Mama said, digging her fingers into Necco’s arms, her eyes frantic.

“I promise,” Necco said, and Mama released her.  Necco struck another match, setting it to the crumpled soggy newspaper, trying desperately to get it to light.

Half an hour later, Necco looked up from the still unlit fire to see four women coming toward them. The oldest had long, unkempt gray hair knotted with colorful rags, and was in the lead.

“I’m Miss Abigail,” she said.  “My friends and I – Miss F, Miss Coral and Miss Stella–have a camp about a quarter mile downstream, under the Blachly Bridge.  We’ve got a warm fire, shelter and plenty of food.  Will you come join us?”

Mama shook her head.  “We’re fine on our own.”

Miss Abigail looked around. “This spot you’re in, it’s not safe for you.  We can keep you protected.  You and the girl.”

“What makes you think we need protecting?” Mama asked, looking the old woman straight in the eye.

“The Great Mother told us.  She told us you were coming.  To expect you and help you.  She said there were dark forces working against you.”

The women were all dressed in ragged clothing. Clearly homeless and crazy, they were the sort of people Mama would have pulled Necco away from back in their other lives, the kind they would have crossed the street to avoid.

“Great Mother?” Mama said.

Miss Abigail smiled, held out her hand.  “Come with us.  We’ll explain everything.  Just stay one night.  Get warmed up and fed and listen to what we have to say.  If you want to leave in the morning, you’re free to do so.”

They followed the women to their camp, settled in a circle around a blazing fire.  The women lived in shacks cobbled together from shipping pallets, scrap wood, drift wood from the river, and tarps.  They ladled vegetable stew from a cast iron pot into carved wooden bowls.

Necco ate three bowls, studying these strange women in the flickering firelight.  Miss Stella was young, twenty at the most, and Asian American.  Her hair was buzzed on one side, but long enough to wear in a ponytail on the other.  She wore black leggings and a wool poncho, and from what Necco could see of her body, she was decorated, head to toe, with piercings and tattoos.  She took a particular interest in Necco, making sure her bowl was full and draping a blanket around her shoulders so she’d be warmer.

Miss Coral wore thick, black-framed cats-eye glasses and had her dark hair pulled back in a tight bun.  She reminded Necco of a librarian.  Miss F was a tiny woman with dirty-blond hair and fierce eyes.  She looked half-wild, like she was ready to tear your face apart with her teeth and fingers.

“It was fate that brought you to us,” Miss Abigail said once they had finished with dinner.  She was dressed like a strange cartoon character, with colorful shirts layered one on top of the other, and three skirts with striped leggings underneath.  “And fate will decide whether or not you stay.”

Mama’s eyes were fixed on the black water behind the fire.  “I’ve always hated this place.  Ashford.  I can’t believe fate would call on me to stay in such a vile, dirty city.”

Miss Abigail smiled.  “Everyone sees things through their own set of filters,” she said.  “I look around this city and I see life, I see the past and present, I see tiny miracles every day.  This stew we’re eating is made from wild plants gathered around the city.  This place takes care of us, nurtures us, gives us all we need.”

She pulled a small leather pouch from around her neck, opened it and sprinkled some red powder into her palm and snorted it up her nose.  She held out her hand to the other three women and they all inhaled a small bit of the powder up their noses.  In the firelight, Necco could see the red stains under their noses, the way their pupils expanded, and their eyes got glassy like dolls.  Miss Stella smiled at Necco.

Then, Miss Abigail came forward, held the pouch over Mama’s head, watched it swing in a slow, steady circle.  “The snuff has chosen you,” Miss Abigail said.

“Chosen me?” Mama said.

Miss Abigail opened the pouch again, sprinkled more out.

“What is it?” Mama asked.

“The Devil’s Snuff,” Miss Abigail said.

Necco got a chill.  Even though they had never been church-goers or read anything from the bible, Necco knew to stay away from anything with the devil in its name.

“What does it do?” Mama asked.

“It takes the filters away.  It shows you what you need to know.”

“My past?” Mama asked, looking both worried and hopeful.

“Your past, your future, your true purpose.  The snuff shows you that it’s all connected.”

“Will it show me what to do next?

Miss Abigail nodded.  “It will show you everything you need to know.”

Mama looked into the fire.  Necco watched, thinking there was no way Mama would do it.  Mama only had a glass or two of wine a year, never smoked – there was no way she was going to take some weird hallucinogen, even if it had chosen her.

Mama’s eyes stayed fixed on the fire.  At last, she smiled and nodded, leaned forward, covered one nostril and leaned so that her face was over the old woman’s hand.

“Mama, no!” Necco cried.

“It’s okay,” Miss Stella said, putting a tattooed hand on Necco’s arm.

“Child,” Miss Abigail said, smiling at Necco.  “It won’t hurt her.  What’s she’s about to do – this is her destiny.”

With that, Mama snorted the bright red powder up her nose. And, whether she realized it or not, that one action sealed their fates.

Mama closed her eyes for a long time and sat rigid, like her body turned to smooth, pale stone.  Necco watched, stomach tight, heart pounding, waiting to see what might happen.  What if Mama never opened her eyes again – what if it killed her or made her go crazy?

“Mama?” Necco called.  She stood up, started to walk to where her mother sat, but Miss Abigail stopped her, dropping her arm down like a railroad crossing gate.

“Wait, child,” Miss Abigail ordered.

Mama’s eyes popped open and she took in a deep, gasping breath, like a drowning woman desperate for air.  She gazed into the fire, pupils dilated, transfixed, like she was watching a movie no one else could see.

“In the beginning,” Mama said, her voice loud and sure, “the Great Mother laid an egg and that egg became our world.”

The other women cooed, said, “Yes,” in low, droning, sing-song voices.

Miss Abigail snorted more powder, smiled wide at Mama.  “You, Miss Lily, are the one we’ve been waiting for,” she said.   “Our missing piece.  The fifth point of our star.”

And Mama did not question.  She nodded, like she too, believed it was the Great Mother and fate that had pulled them together.

The next morning, she and Necco began work on building their own shack in the camp of the fire eaters. Over the next months and years, Mama learned to inhale the Devil’s Snuff, to tend the secret patch of berries they used to make the snuff, to see visions, eat fire, and talk the snuff talk.  They stayed at the camp by the river most of the year, and when the weather turned cold and the fire eaters scattered, Mama found them shelter in tunnels near the old mill — the Winter House — to hunker down and await spring.

Mama called the city “Burntown,” reinventing it, the way she did so many things.  As if, by giving it a new name, she could turn it into a different place.  And it was a different place.  They were living on a different side of it, anyway; the underside, the fringe, the places most of the city residents didn’t even notice.  Up top, where the college was, where people went to work every day at the paper mill, that was Ashford.  But down here under the bridge where the women did the snuff, saw visions and ate fire, this was Burntown.

In time, Mama started painting again, making pictures of the visions the snuff gave her.  She’d paint on paper shopping bags, plywood scraps, birch bark.  She made her own paints from berries, leaves, roots, clay, sap and even blood.  Necco would watch her paint, see her get totally lost in it, the way she used to in their lives before, and think that in these moments, her mother actually seemed almost happy.

The longer they stayed with the fire eaters in Burntown, the more snuff Mama did, the farther away their old lives became, the more Mama turned into a completely different person.  A woman whose paranoia seemed to creep after her, everywhere she went.  She was sure that they were being watched by librarians, cops, bus drivers.

“The Jujubes are especially bad, Necco,” Mama said, using her own special nickname for the cops (the flashing lights on top of the cruisers looked like candy to her).  “They’re looking for us, too.  If they find us, we’re done for.”  Whenever they saw a cop, they crossed the street, ducked down an alley out of sight.  Necco always thought it made them look more suspicious, but there was no arguing with Mama.

“There is a man, Necco, who can take all the light out of the world.  He’s a walking shadow, a black hole man.  And he has such power, he can do things you can only imagine.  They say he can fly.  He can come spying on you in your dreams. He’s the King of Liars.  A jackal-hearted man.  He goes by many names: the Chicken Man, Snake Eyes . . .  And here’s the worst part of all:  he’s the one responsible for the Great Flood.  Other terrible things, too.  Like what happened to your grandparents.”

“My grandparents died in a car accident,” Necco reminded her mother, irritated.  Sometimes it just exhausted her, trying to sift through her mother’s stories and pick out what was real and what wasn’t.  It was like panning for gold, picking through all the mud and sand, trying to find the nuggets of truth.  “And how can a man be responsible for a flood? It’s not possible.”

“Oh, but it is.  It is for Snake Eyes.  He’s the one who killed your daddy and Errol.  He meant to drown us, too, baby girl, and he’s real unhappy we got away from him.  He’s searching for us even now.  Every day.  Every night.  He’s on our trail like an old hound dog, or a shark that’s tasted blood.  He won’t rest until he finds us.   We have to be on the lookout.  Ever vigilant.  He’s sneaky, this man.  He can change his face, his hair, his clothes.  He can look like a business man or a greasy-haired biker.”

”Right,” Necco said, exasperated.  “And if all that’s true, Mama, if there’s really a human chameleon after us, how are we supposed to even know it’s him?”

“His mark, Necco,” Mama said, sounding just as irritated and frustrated with Necco as Necco had been with her.  “He has a pair of dice tattooed on his left wrist — both with a single dot on top.  You see that mark, that pair of snake eyes staring back at you, you run.  You run as fast and as far as you can.”

Maybe, Necco told herself, it was easier for her mother to have someone to blame; a mythical monster who was responsible for all the bad things that had happened to them, who lurked in the shadows of every alley.  Easier than believing that sometimes truly terrible things happened for no reason.

The events of the flood – losing their home, Daddy and Errol – had broken her mother in some profound way. The snuff just continued to fill what was left of her with tiny hairline cracks, making her fragile as a porcelain doll.

And eventually, that doll shattered.  Mama’s paranoia and frightening snuff-induced visions got the best of her, and she threw herself off the Steel Bridge.  That was back in the spring. It’s been months, but Necco misses her each and every moment; wishes she could turn back the clock and find a way to stop her.

If Necco closes her eyes now, she can picture her mama so clearly, hear her voice as she talked the story-talk down by the river after doing the snuff, the underside of her nose stained red as she told how the world was born like she was right there, seeing it for the first time.  Sometimes, Necco imagined her mama to be the Great Mother, eyes big and bright as planets, greenish-brown ringed in yellow.

“In the beginning, the Great Mother of all laid an egg and that egg became our world.  A bright and blazing orb, spinning through space.” Mama would light the torch: a wad of cotton wrapped at the end of a straightened wire coat hanger, soaked in camping fuel from a red and silver can.  It burned like a newly formed planet.

“Imagine it,” Mama would croon, voice hypnotic, as she waved the torch through the air, swooping, doing careful figure eights.  She’d put her fingers to the flame, pulling at it, teasing it, cupping the fire in her hand, making it jump, do tricks.  She was that good.

Necco would be sitting, cross-legged on the ground watching.  She’d lean closer, smelling the dirty brown river that raced behind Mama, and the thick, fuel-laden smoke that drifted from the torch.  She could hear the cars roaring over the bridge above them.  A whole other life going on above, a life she and her mama were once a part of: a life of trips to the grocery store in the car, going to museums, going to visit her daddy in his office at the college, doctor and dentist appointments.  It all seemed so far away.

Mama would sway in her thin cotton dress. It was one she’d worn in their other life, one with sunflowers on it that Daddy said made her look like Queen of the Garden, and they’d dance as Mama stared into the flames with total focus, in a trance.   There were blisters and scars around her mouth, her ragged red hair was singed, her eyelashes burned off.  And if you looked in just the right place, you could see the outline of the little revolver Mama kept strapped under her dress, just in case.

“Imagine the world as it first was — nothing but fire,” Mama would say, eyes glassy, nostrils red, lips blistered, her voice almost a song.  “Then, things cooled.  The rains came down.  It rained and it rained for days and nights, season after season.  There was water, one great ocean covering the whole planet.  And the creatures!  The creatures had fins, gills — that was life as it was then. Eventually, the Great Mother created land and the creatures learned to suck air into their lungs, to slither and squirm up out of the water onto the muddy banks and shores.  They had webbed feet, damp skin.  They hopped.  They sang.  They were our first ancestors, long before the monkeys with their sticky little fingers.”

This part of the story always reminded Necco of the science lessons her daddy gave she and Errol; how he said all creatures shared one common ancestor once upon a time.  She’d imagined, back then, a creature like her mama described now, part fish, part frog, flopping its way out of the water, getting that first gulp of air.

Mama would raise the torch, continue on.  “Life on earth is constantly evolving.  The Great Mother sees to that.  There is fire and water, water and fire.  Destruction and life.  The flood we lost your daddy and Errol in, that was only the beginning.  The world is changing.  There is danger all around.”  Here, she’d open her eyes, look right at Necco, face serious, tight with panic.  “I have seen him in my dreams, Necco.  I know he’s coming. That’s why we have to stay here, we have to stay hidden.  But one day, he’ll find us.  One day, there will be no more running.  No more hiding.”  At this, she would touch the gun under her dress, just making sure it was still there.

 

 

 

“What’d you bring today?” Necco asks Hermes later that night, following him into the backseat. They’ve filled the space between the backseat and front with cushions, making one large bed.  The nest, Hermes calls it and she likes to cuddle up there with him at night, burrowed deep under the blankets, imagining they’re creatures deep underground; rabbits in a warren, snug and safe.

Necco has added the latest gifts up on the shelf above the backseat with the other treasures gathered there: candy, the jar she uses for making sprouts, pretty rocks, Promise the doll.  The knitting needles and yarn sit next to the one thing of her mother’s she’s kept: a gold locket with her father’s picture inside.  But it’s a funny photo, because it’s Daddy as a little boy.  Back before Mama even met him.  In the photo, her daddy is a scrawny, dark-haired boy dressed in a Robin Hood costume, holding a homemade bow, a quiver of arrows strapped to his back.

“Did you get my necklace fixed?” she asks.  She has a charm she wears around her neck — a little brass elephant that belonged to her father.  He’d given it to her for her fourteenth birthday, just a few months before the Great Flood.  The chain broke last week and Hermes took it saying he’d get it fixed.  He knew a jeweler; someone he took stuff to sell sometimes.  This guy could fix the broken clasp.

“Not yet,” Hermes frowns.

“Well, what did you bring, then?”

“News,” he says, looking away for a second.  “I have something to share with you.  Something big.  And it’s going to change everything, but it’s going to be good in the long run.  I really believe that.”

It almost sounded like he was trying reassure himself as much as her.

“What is it?” she asks, the worry making her throat ache.

“I can’t tell you yet.  Not now.  I have to show you.”

“Show me?  Well, when can you show me?”
“Tomorrow.  I’ll take you tomorrow.”

“Where?”
“You’ll see,” he strokes the hair back away from her face, kisses her forehead and pulling her into an embrace.  “You’ll understand everything then.”

She leans into him, sees there’s a string around his neck.  She reaches for it, pulls out a funny looking key on a string. The shank of the key is a cylinder with little teeth jutting off the sides.  The head is coated in bright orange plastic and has the number 213 engraved on it in black.

“What’s this?”

“It’s part of what I have to show you.”

“But what—“
He puts his fingers to her lips.  “Be patient,” he tells her.  “Tomorrow.  I’ll show you tomorrow.”

She stares at the strange little key, watches him tuck it back inside his shirt.

“I can show you this now, though,” he says, smiling, reaching into the outer pocket of his backpack.  He pulls out a loaf of bread, hunk of cheese and two apples.

Necco is ravenous, but as soon as she gets one whiff of the cheese, her stomach does a flip.

“You okay?”

She nods her head, swallowing down the watery feeling in her mouth, trying not to throw up.  “Fine,” she says.  She takes deep breaths.

She’s been throwing up a lot lately, but hasn’t told Hermes.  Pretty soon she won’t be able to keep her secret from him, though.  She’s been mulling it over for weeks now, trying to figure out how she should tell him.  She looks over at the knitting needles, remembers sitting at her mother’s feet with Errol in the warm living room, the comforting click-click-click sound.  If Mama were here, she’d say those needles the girl brought were a sign, a symbol.  Mama was a big believer in signs and messages. She had been even way back in their lives before the flood, even.

“I have a surprise, too,” Necco says.

“Yeah?” he asks, ripping off a hunk of bread and cutting a piece of cheese to go with it.

“It’s a big one and I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”

“What is it?” he asks, setting down the food.

“Well, the thing is —” she says, stalling like a coward.  But she’s no coward.  She’s the fire girl.  “I’m pregnant.”  She lets the words fly out like sparks, watches the shock of it roll over him.

“Are you. . . . are you sure?” he stammers.

“I wouldn’t tell you if I wasn’t.”

“But we’ve been careful,” Hermes says.

“Not careful enough, I guess,” she tells him.

“Holy shit,” he says, eyes wide.  “A baby?  How long have you known?”

“The past couple of weeks.”

This seems to shock him more than the initial news.  “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“I needed to think.  To figure out what I want to do.”

There’s a pause.  It feels like they’re both holding their breath. “And?”

“I’ve decided I want to keep it,” she tells him.   “But I don’t expect anything from you.  I know the last thing on earth you want to do is be a daddy, especially like this.  I’m thinking that maybe I should check into a shelter, the Lighthouse or someplace like that.  Get off the street, get checked out in a clinic.”

She’s been reading up on pregnancy at the library and thinks of all the things that can go wrong: ectopic pregnancy, miscarriages, various birth defects.  She needs to give this baby a chance to grow and be healthy.  She needs good food.  A safe place to sleep at night.  Vitamins.  She needs to start taking special vitamins with iron and folic acid.  That’s what the books said.

Hermes smiles real wide.  “You’re going to have a baby.”

“Yes,” she says, her head spinning a little, because hearing it out loud like this, hearing someone else say the words, that makes it real.

He puts a hand over her belly.  His hand is warm, the fingertips calloused and rough.

“You’re going to be someone’s Mommy,” he says.  “And I’m going to be a daddy.”

And hearing those words, it’s like a wave crashing over her, carrying her off to a land far, far away.  A land of mommies and daddies and tiny babies and songs and cribs and nursery rhymes.  Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon. But then, another wave of memory comes, one that threatens to destroy anything that might bring her a taste of a normal life.  That’s what the Great Flood has done to her.  She struggles her way back to the surface, her head aching.

“Yes,” she says.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Hermes asks. “Be a mom?”  He says it like she’s been given some mistake disguised as a gift that she might not want any part of — two left shoes, a teacup with a hole at the bottom.

“Yes, I’m sure.  But like I said, you don’t have to be a part of this.  I can do this on my own.”

“But I am a part of it,” Hermes says, pulling her close, “I’m not going anywhere.  I’ll take care of you and the baby, and we’ll be a real family.  You’ll see.  And all this makes what I have to show you tomorrow so much more important.  It’s perfect really.”

A real family.  She’s not even sure what that means. She remembers her own parents tucking her in at night, back before the flood, when she was just a little girl.  Mama would brush and braid her hair, Daddy would read her a story.  How happy and whole she felt with both of them there each night.  Necco closes her eyes, concentrates and the memory is gone.  Banished, like the all others that came before it.   She’s tried so hard to put away all the memories of her own family, of growing up in the time Before the Flood.  She keeps them all locked up in a box inside her, because it’s just too painful to think about how things used to be.  It’s how she survives; how she doesn’t let herself go crazy.  Crazy like Mama went crazy.

She knows it’s not fair, the life that she has right now to offer her baby — living in a car, eating fire for candy and trinkets.  But she’ll change things.  But she’ll turn it around.  She’s got a reason now.  And Mama’s gone.  There’s no reason to keep living like this, like a girl on the run.  The things that Mama said, they were paranoid thoughts from too much snuff.  There was never any bad man after them.  No one watching, lurking.  It’s time to move forward.  To get off the street.

She’ll go to the shelter, ask for help.  And piece by piece, she and Hermes can build a real life together.  Get jobs maybe.  An apartment.  A little crib for the baby.  She’ll learn to knit.  Use the needles she got today to knit little baby booties, a tiny hat.  Click-click-click will go the needles while she knits in a rocking chair, just like her own mama once did.

“It’s going to be okay,” Hermes says.  “Hell, more than okay.  I can make this work.  I can even go to my family if I have to.  My dad’s a complete asshole, but my mom would help us.  We’ll figure it out.”

Hermes rocks her and she closes her eyes, feels the key around his neck press against her back.  She imagines a baby tucked deep inside her, a tiny tadpole breathing fluid; a gilled thing.

She falls asleep and dreams she’s pushing a baby carriage over a bridge. Then her skin gets clammy because she realizes it’s not just any bridge, but the Steel Bridge, the one her mama jumped off, throwing herself into the muddy river fifty feet down.

But Necco’s ripped a hole in time somehow and Mama’s there, alive again, waiting, perched on the edge, looking down into the water.  Her mouth is stained red, her singed hair in tangles.  She’s dripping wet, like she’s just climbed out of the water. She’s got Hermes’ key strapped around her neck.

“Mama?”

Mama turns from the water, studies her.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” Mama says, smiling, showing teeth the color of blood.  “Let me see that grand-baby of mine.”

Necco bends down to pull back the covers on the carriage, but can’t.  She’s afraid of what she might find there.

“Sometimes,” Mama says, her fingers wrapped around the key that dangles from her neck, “the truth isn’t something you want to look in the face.  Sometimes, you’re better off not knowing.”

About Jennifer

I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade. I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction. After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house.

Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness — I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time. In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we’re living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure.

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BURNTOWN by Jennifer McMahon – Chapter 4

MILES

 

April 12, 2011

 

“Miles, I’m worried about the rain.  The radio says the worst is yet to come.  Flood warnings for the whole county.  And if the dam goes… we’ll be underwater in minutes. There won’t be any warning.”

Lily’s wrapped in one of her chunky, hand knit sweaters, and her hair is held back in an untidy ponytail.   She still looks lovely, but there’s a certain light in her green eyes that only comes on when trouble is brewing.  There are dark circles under them now; she’s hasn’t been sleeping well these last few days, not since the rain began.

He takes her hand, kisses her knuckles, which smell of turpentine.    She’s been working in her studio, doing a new series of paintings of the moon on huge canvases.  She’s showing the moon in all its phases in a series she’s calling “Birth, Marriage, Death, Rebirth.”  She’s taken to referring to the moon in her painting as She.  Miles got her a telescope for Christmas and Lily spends hours looking through it, studying the moon and all her craters and shadows, trying to bring the far-off stars into focus.  Miles has suggested that she take an astronomy class at the college, but Lily prefers exploring on her own, giving her own names to things.

“The dam will hold,” he promises her now.  “That dam has seen far worse storms than this.”

m           Their house is miles and miles downstream, on the east side of the river.  Right in the flood plain — as the mortgage company was quick to point out whenever they demanded proof of his flood insurance.  But it’s never flooded.  The dam, originally built by William Jensen to harness the power of the water for his mill back in 1836, has always held.  The river has never crested more than a few feet above the banks, even in the years they’ve had heavy spring melts and ice dams.

He sops up the last of his soup with a hunk of Lily’s homemade bread.  The kids are in the living room with the TV on, some police drama turned up loud, the whole house echoing with sirens and gunshots.  Errol and Eva are on the floor below it playing cribbage on the oval rag rug.  Eva is ahead and is teasing Errol mercilessly about it.

“You’re going to get skunked,” she says.

“Am not,” he says.

“Smell that, Er? That’s the smell of a big old skunk coming your way.”

He gives her a playful shove.  “It ain’t over till it’s over, Little E,” he says.

She pretends that she hates the juvenile nickname, , but Miles knows she secretly likes it.  He’s always amazed at the bond these two have; at how unconditionally they love each other.  At how much Eva worships her older brother.  At how she never seems to remember a time when he wasn’t there; when he wasn’t one of the centers of her universe.

It’s their break time.  After this, they’ll get back to their studies.  The kids are home-schooled, their studies supervised by both parents: he tackles math and science and Lily teaches them art, English, and occasionally, more esoteric subjects like astrology and divination..  But these two kids have little interest in trying to see beyond; they are rooted in the real world, in the here and now, and only go along with the lessons to placate their mother. Both kids are excelling, doing work far beyond their age.  Errol’s been accepted to Two Rivers, starting in the fall.

Lily looks down into her own half-eaten soup.  “It’s just… I’ve had a feeling all day.”  She rubs at the back of her neck.  “A feeling that something terrible is about to happen.”

Miles sets down his spoon and looks hard at his wife.  Lily believes in premonitions; she’s sure that she is hard-wired to predict the future, to have visions about things to come.  And Miles has known her long enough to realize that she’s often right.

“Okay, then.  I’ll go check the river.  I’ve already sandbagged around the workshop, but we can build a barrier around the house.”

He goes into the living room, looks down at the kids playing cards.  There’s candy on the rug next to each of them: root beer barrels for Errol and a roll of Necco wafers for Eva.  There’s a fire in the fireplace, its birch log crackling and popping.  Above it, on the mantle, rests a collection of photographs.   There’s a shot of Miles, Lily and three-year-old Eva standing in front of a giant snowman they’d all built.   Then one taken a little over a year later — all of them camping in the White Mountains, eight-year-old Errol holding a trout he’d just caught.   Next to it is Lily and Miles’s wedding portrait.  Lloyd is to Miles’ left, his arm draped around him, the best man.

Miles can sometimes hear Lloyd’s voice in his ears, asking if he has any idea how lucky he is.  He looks at the kids on the rug, then the bookshelf in the corner which holds a copy of the book that changed his life: the book he’d written based on his PhD dissertation:  The Princess and the Elephant: How we are all trapped inside our own mythology and how we can break free.  Lily had talked him into expanding his dissertation, simplifying parts and publishing it as a pop-psychology, self-help book, something she has always been into, especially if they have a New Age slant.  The shelves in her painting studio are full of books on meditation, dreamwork, and using creativity to get in touch with your spiritual side.  With Lily’s help, Miles found a small publisher in New Hampshire, and to everyone’s surprise, Miles’s book took off.

It wasn’t a bestseller by any means, but it developed a small cult following.  People started showing up at the college to hear his lectures and sign up for his sociology classes.  Enrollment was up.  The college even asked Miles to develop a course based on his book.  The book made him the star professor of Two Rivers College.

“Errol,” Miles says now, taking his eye off the bookshelf and looking down at the kids again.

“Yeah?”  The boy looks up.  At seventeen, he’s tall and gangly, ropy with muscle, his hair dark and too long.  He needs a trim.  But he likes it long to cover the scar on his forehead above his left eye.  They don’t ever talk about the scar and where it had come from, but they both remember all too well.

“Get your slicker on,” Miles tells him.  “We’re going to sandbag around the front of the house.  And we need to see how close the water’s coming to the road down by the bend.”

Errol’s eyes get huge.  “If the road washes out by the bend —“
“I know.  We’ll be stuck here.  But we’ve got a cellar full of food and supplies.  And there’s always the boat if we need to evacuate.”

“Cool—we’ll have our own island!!”  Errol says.  “Totally cut off from the rest of the world.”

Lily has come into the living room.  She pulls her sweater tight around her shoulders and shivers.  “I don’t think that sounds one bit cool.”  Miles puts his arm around her, kisses her cheek.

“Can I help, too?” Eva asks, shoving a chalky pink candy into her mouth.  “I want to go with you to see if the river has washed out the road.”

“You can come help me check the workshop,” he says.  “Make sure that hole in the roof we patched up isn’t leaking and that the sand bags are all in place.”

She jumps up and clomps across the floor in her new purple cowboy boots.  She’d wanted them so badly, these crazy boots, enough that Lily got them for her for her birthday a couple of weeks ago.  Miles had given her a special gift, too: the elephant charm on a long gold chain.  She’d always loved it so much, and Miles decided it was time for him to let go of the past; to let Eva turn the necklace into something positive. She’s been wearing it every day since, the little brass elephant gracing each carefully planned outfit.   His little girl who used to run around in messy pigtails and dirty overalls is now fourteen and has all of a sudden developed a fashion sense: she wears tapered jeans tucked into boots, and she borrows long flowing scarves and dangly earrings from Lily.  Miles has even noticed her wearing makeup every now and then, a hint of Lily’s eyeshadow and lip gloss.  Gone is the girl who had her bed piled high with stuffed animals and dolls; now she’s painted her pink room a deep purple, tacked up posters of bands, and the only doll she keeps out is the one Miles made for her: Mina the talking doll, who used to sing Eva a lullaby each night when she pulled the string on the back of her neck.  “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” recorded in his own voice, singing in a high, doll-like pitch.

“Maybe we should just go,” Lily suggests, with a slight hint of panic.  “Get in the car and go wait out the storm somewhere.”

Miles thinks of his workshop, of what he has tucked under a tarp on his bench.  The Edison invention has been sitting there, wrapped up for years.  Every now and then, he uncovers it, looks at it.  But he’s never turned it on.  Not since that one Halloween eleven years ago.

He’s never told Lily a word about it.  She knows about the machine in his workshop, but he’s never told her what happened the one time he turned it on.  “It doesn’t do anything except hum and crackle,” he told her when she asked  He thinks, sometimes, that he should destroy it, but he’s never been able to bring himself to pick up a hammer.

“No,” he says now.   “We stay. At least for now.”

He kisses Lily again, this time on the forehead, as if his kiss could drive all her dark thoughts and predictions away.  “Don’t worry Mrs. Sandeski,” he says.  “We’ll be fine.”

But her look tells him she’s not buying it.

He pulls on his raincoat and boots and pushes open the front door, Errol and Eva right behind him.  The rain pounds on the hood of Miles’s coat and blows against his face, little droplets covering his glasses which have already started to fog.  Although it’s only two in the afternoon, the sky is so dark it almost looks like nightfall.  Across the yard, the river roars like a great beast longing to be set free.

“Errol,” he says, shouting to be heard over the rain’s percussive din.  “I want you to walk down the road to the bend.  See how high the water is and if it’s covering the road yet.  Eva and I are going to check the workshop.  Then we’ll all start sandbagging the house.”

“Yes, sir,” Errol says, taking off down the driveway, pleased to have a mission.

Eva runs to the workshop, gets there before him and goes in. Two seconds later, she sticks her head out the door.  “Dad!” she calls, her voice panicked.  “Come quick!”

He runs the rest of the way across the yard, his feet slipping on the waterlogged grass.

He gets to the workshop, and Eva looks flushed and frightened.  He glances around, doesn’t see anything out of place.

“What is it?” he asks her.  Eva.  His clever daughter who loves his inventions and mechanical things.  She comes into the workshop and winds up the animals, delights in finding the secret compartments he’s hidden in some, like the raccoon with tiny door in his chest that pops open when you twist one of its ears just so.  Miles sometimes hides pieces of candy or other treasures in these, knowing Eva will find them.  She’s been helping him in the workshop since she could walk, handing him wrenches, fueling the fire for the forge.   Eva always asks to hear the stories about what came before, paying close attention and nodding her head as he fills in each detail:  Tell me about how you met Mama, tell me about what happened to Grandma and Grandpa. 

               “They died,” Miles tells her.  “They were killed in an accident.”  It’s the only lie he’s ever told his daughter, but he just can’t bring himself to tell the truth.

Eva loves the picture of her grandmother that sits above Miles’ workbench.

“Do you think I look like her?” Eva asked once.

“Maybe a little,” he said.  “Mostly, you look like your mother, which is a lucky thing because she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Eva wrinkled her nose.  “Mama’s pretty, but Grandma, she looked like a movie star.”

Now, she points to the machine sitting on the corner of the workbench, still covered with a tarp. “I heard a voice.”

Two clumps of red hair stick out from under her yellow slicker.  Rain is dripping down her face.  Her green eyes are enormous. She’s always been fascinated by the machine, but lately she seems afraid of it.  And right now, downright terrified.

“But what does it do, Daddy?” she’d asked once, when she was younger.

“Well,” he told her, “Edison believed it was a special sort of telephone.  One that would let you speak with the dead.”

“That’s impossible,” she’d said.

“Maybe,” he’d told her.  “But remember, people thought the electric lightbulb was impossible too, once upon a time.  And movies.  And the telegraph.”

He goes to the workbench now, pulls back the tarp and Eva lets out a little muffled cry.

The machine is on, the tubes glowing.

It hums as its needles jump, static crackles through the speaker.  And then a voice emerges — not a random radio signal, some female DJ in New York, but one he recognizes at once.

Danger, his mother says.  You’re in danger.

Miles turns and looks at Eva who has her back pressed against the door, mouth open and panting, frantic with fear.

Then, Elizabeth speaks again, louder this time, more urgent:  He’s here!

The signal fades and there is nothing but a dull hum.

“Who’s here, Daddy?” Eva asks him, her voice strangely dull and quiet.

“I don’t know,” Miles says, fiddling with the dials, grabbing the receiver and speaking into it.  “Hello?  Hello?  Mom?  Are you still there?”

Receiver in hand, he glances up out the window above his workbench, out into the driveway, where Errol is standing by the car looking at the windshield.  There, on the windshield, stuck under the wiper blade, is something that looks like a piece of trash blown in by the storm; something bright and colorful, yellow and red, almost glowing in the washed out gray landscape.  Errol picks it up, and Miles knows what it is in an instant.

“Impossible,” Miles says, as he drops the receiver.  The empty hum of static washes over him.

Through the window, Errol lifts the rubber chicken mask, turns it in his hands.

The Chicken Man is dead.  Miles knows that for a fact.  He knows it because he’s the one who killed him.

“What is it, Daddy?” Eva asks.

He turns to her.  “Sweetie, I need you to run back to the house and lock all the doors.  Do it quickly, but quietly.  Don’t alarm your mother.  And don’t open the door for anyone but me or Errol.”

“But who—“

“Go now!” he orders.   “Hurry.”

She runs out of the workshop toward the house, passing Errol who is hurrying to the workshop, chicken mask in hand. When he bursts through the door, he’s soaking wet and panting..

“Dad—“

Miles gives a sharp nod.  “I know.”

“And the river’s covered the road,” Errol says.  “It’s not too deep yet, but it’s rising fast.  The right shoulder is all washed away.”

Miles takes the rubber mask in his hands and stares down into the two empty eye holes.

“This is all my fault,” Errol says.  He’s crying, his shoulders shaking as he tries to hold back sobs.

“No, it’s not,” Miles tells him.

Miles looks through the open door at the house, then down toward the river.  He lays the mask down on the workbench, then goes to the forge in the corner, grabs his heaviest iron hammer.

“Errol, I want you to destroy everything in this workshop.”

“But you can’t mean—“
“Smash it to pieces.”

“But your machine!”

“I can build it again.  I’ve got the plans someplace safe.”

“Where?” Errol asks.

“Your sister will know how to find them.”

Errol looks at him, puzzled, frightened.  Despite his height and build, he suddenly looks like a boy rather than a young man.

“Destroy it all,” Miles repeats.  “Quickly.  Then, I want you to get the rowboat ready.  Grab the life jackets and paddles from the garage. Make sure there’s gas in the outboard motor.  We’ll meet you down by the dock in fifteen minutes.  If we don’t come, get in the boat and go down to the Miller’s.  Use their phone to call the police.”

“But I—“
“Do as I say,” Miles orders, taking one last look around the workshop.  He opens the door just in time to hear the sound of a house window being smashed, followed by Lily screaming.

Hammer in his hand, Miles starts to run.

Come back to Vilma’s Book Blog tomorrow to read the fifth chapter!!! ✦

About Jennifer

I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade. I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction. After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house.

Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness — I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time. In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we’re living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure.

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Exclusive Chapter 3 reveal: Burntown by Jennifer McMahon

Below is the third chapter of Burntown by Jennifer McMahon, out April 25th!

✦ Read the previous chapters here: Ch 1 | Ch2 ✦

Pre-order Now: AmazonBarnes & Noble | IndieBound | iBooks ✦

BURNTOWN by Jennifer McMahon – Chapter 3

MILES

October 31, 2000

Halloween.  A day for spooks and the spooky.  And the day, he’s heard Lily say, when the veil between the worlds is thin.  “Ghosts walk on Halloween,” his wife told him once with such surety that of course he believed.  Which makes today the perfect day for turning on the invention.

Lily made little Eva a ladybug costume: a red fleece suit with wings and black felt dots sewn on.  She’s taken her to the children’s Halloween parade downtown.  Afterward, there’s a party at the library with  games, a magician, apple bobbing.

So Lily and little three-year old Ladybug Eva are off to see the world of parades full of Barneys, princesses, and pirates.  They’ll bob for apples with vampires and ghosts.  And it gives Miles the whole afternoon and evening to test the machine.

About six months ago, Miles and Lily bought an old farmhouse out at the end of Birchwood Lane, a winding, dead-end dirt road that runs along the east side of the river.  It’s a thirty-five minute commute to the college, but Lily could no longer stand to stay in downtown Ashford, where you could smell the sulfur smoke from the paper mill and see the poisoned film on the two rivers, which  people said you shouldn’t swim in either unless you wanted to grow extra fingers.  They’re full of toxic sludge, ruined from the decades of chemicals and dyes and dioxins that have been dumped by the mills.  The Jensen Mill, machine shop and foundry have been closed forever — Two Rivers College, where Miles has studied and now teaches, is housed in the old foundry building — but there’s a paper company that still runs, still stinks.  The EPA has cracked down, so they’re not dumping as many chemicals into the river these days.  They’re putting their waste in barrels that are carted away and become some other town’s problem.   Lily said she didn’t care — Ashford was filthy and full of poisons.  She wanted to be out in the country in a house with a yard and gardens and space for little Eva to play. Miles built her a sandbox.  Put up a swingset.  His little girl could spend hours swinging.

Miles is in his workshop now, a little aluminum-walled garden shed in the backyard, puffing on his pipe (a joke gift from Lily in honor of his first teaching position). He looks at the brass elephant, which he’s given a new home by a favorite photo of his mother.  In it, she’s on the couch holding a book, and the photographer (his father) has caught her by surprise.  She’s smiling, but slightly startled, her mouth open.

Miles is writing his PhD dissertation about the little brass elephant; not the elephant exactly, but the ideas inspired by the elephant and the story his mother once told him.  The Princess and the Elephant: a sociological study of how personal and cultural stories and myths shape individuals and society.

Miles lets himself believe, at times, that some piece of his mother is trapped inside the charm, as with the princess trapped inside the body of the elephant in the story.  He strokes its tiny brass back, the curve of its trunk, remembering how many times he’d stared at it wishing that it would tell him what he wanted to hear.

But now maybe, just maybe, he’s found something that might.  It’s Halloween, after all.  What better day for a conversation with the dead?

He looks down at the machine laid out on his table: tubes and wires, coils and capacitors, pieces scavenged from old radios or bought from eBay. He has spent the past four months building Thomas Edison’s secret machine,.  He has worked in his shed with the door locked and the plans spread out before him, telling no one what he was doing.  When Lily asks, he tells her he’s just tinkering: building more mechanical animals like the wind-up metal raccoon she loves so much.  He’s thought of telling Lloyd, of showing him the plans and asking for help, but this is something he needs to do on his own.

He knows what his friends and colleagues at the college would think if they could see him now.  He’d be out of a job, probably.  “You can’t be serious, Miles,” they would say.  “You can’t possibly think such a thing would work.”

But, he would argue.  Say, “If you had plans believed to truly be from a secret machine of Thomas Edison’s, wouldn’t you build them?  Wouldn’t you want to see for yourself?”

Now, he’s just making adjustments, fine-tuning things.  But really, there’s nothing left to fine-tune.  The machine is a near perfect replication of the one drawn in the plans.  It has taken months of trial and error to get to this point, but now, at last, everything looks perfect.  So what he’s really doing as he tightens tubes, rechecks connections, is stalling.  He’s not sure what he’s more afraid of — that it won’t work (which is, his rational mind tells him, the most probably result)?  Or that it will?

And what if it does work and actually gets through to her?

He’s run through it a millions times in his mind.  How he’ll finally say what he’s waited all these years to tell her:

I’m sorry.

               I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you.

He closes his eyes and he’s a ten-year-old boy again, dressed up as Robin Hood, feeling the arrow leave the bow, the red feathers brushing against his right cheek, watching it go right into the back of the Chicken Man.

He touches the elephant one more time for luck, flips the on switch, watches the machine glow.  He adjusts knobs, turns the volume all the way up.  He hears the dull crackle of static; the way you do when you’re between radio stations.  Then, he takes the hand-held receiver and speaks into it.

“Hello,” he says tentatively.

The crackling changes, he thinks he hears something behind it: voices, people talking, calling, laughing from far away, as if at a distant party.

“Hello,” he says, louder this time. “Anybody there?  Can you hear me?”

It feels idiotic, pathetic, even: a grown man talking into a cobbled together radio, hoping for a response.

“Elizabeth Sandeski?” he says, voice tentative.  “Are you there?”

All he hears is his own heartbeat.  Then, a crackling from the speaker.

She’s here, a male voice says, clearly.  We’re all here.

Miles flinches back, nearly drops the receiver.  Then, from the machine, he hears someone saying his name.

“Mother?” he says, fearful.  “Are you there?”

Yes, a voice comes back, louder and female, swimming through waves of electrical interference. It’s a voice he recognizes.  A voice he’s heard in his dreams.

His heart jolts, and what he says next isn’t what he’s planned for and rehearsed, but it’s what he most needs to know.

“Who is he, Mother?” Miles says into the machine.  “Who murdered you?”

A dull roar of static.

“Please,” he says.

And then, in a crackling whisper, she tells him.

“No,” he says, voice trembling, stomach churning.  “That’s not possible.”

She repeats the name, and then, she’s gone.  He fiddles with the knobs, calls for her again and again, but there’s only static.

And he knows what he must do.

He turns off the machine, covers it up with a tarp, and, hands and legs shaking, goes to find the man who killed his mother.

Come back to Vilma’s Book Blog tomorrow to read the fourth chapter!!! ✦

About Jennifer

I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade. I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction. After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house.

Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness — I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time. In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we’re living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure.

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Exclusive Chapter 2 reveal: Burntown by Jennifer McMahon

Jennifer McMahon’s Burntown is coming next week, and as promised, I’ll be revealing a chapter a day through Sunday! You can read chapter 1 here, and below is the second chapter!

Pre-order Now: AmazonBarnes & Noble | IndieBound | iBooks ✦

BURNTOWN by Jennifer McMahon – Chapter 2

MILES

1975- 1997

 

Miles carries his mother’s little brass elephant in his pocket the way other boys carry a rabbit’s foot or a good luck stone or the way the old ladies at church carry a rosary.  The elephant charm is his talisman; he rubs its back, worries over it, so much so that sometimes it feels almost alive.  There are moments when he swears he can feel it move, can feel its tiny heart beating.

He reaches in so often that he wears holes in the right pockets of all his pants; Aunt Holly gives them patches, stitching silently and never scolding him.  She understands loss.  She understands longing.

The elephant is with him when Aunt Holly takes Miles back to his house in Broom Hollow one last time to pack up his things. He goes straight for the garage, finds the gas can and pulls out a Ziplock baggie with the rolled-up plans.  Then, he goes into the house, pulls his mother’s copy of David Copperfield from the shelf (the one she used to hide her cigarettes behind) and stuffs that into his knapsack.   He grabs his dad’s trumpet in its case.

Back at his aunt and uncle’s, he follows the instructions in his spy book that teach you how to turn a book into a hiding place.  It goes onto his shelves, blending in with The Adventures of Robin Hood, Treasure Island, The Borrowers, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Wrinkle in Time, and a full set of Encyclopedia Brittanica.  He shoves his dad’s trumpet under his bed.  He gets down on his knees to peek at it each night before going to sleep, the way some kids pray.

The little brass pachyderm is in his pocket on his first day at Ashford Middle School. Ashford’s an old mill town that’s now a dirty little city with a lot of people out of work, struggling to make ends meet.  Even though it’s only twenty minutes away from Broom Hollow, it feels like another universe.  He doesn’t mind, though.  Aunt Holly and Uncle Howie have a nice little ranch house on the outskirts of town, and they painted their spare room blue for Miles, covered it with glow-in-the-dark stars.  They watch over him as he begins to work on his inventions: little clockwork animals made from scraps of wood and metal that wind up, turn their heads, move their paws.  He loves connecting the gears, making the inanimate come to life.  Working with tools reminds him of his father; of all the hours he spent in his dad’s workshop handing him hoses and washers and screwdrivers.

Sometimes, he opens up the book he’s hidden the Edison plans in, lays the papers out on the floor of his room.  The schematics look almost alien to him, full of bulbs, wires, tubes, little words and numbers scrawled all over it. He wishes his father were here to explain it to him.  His father could build this machine.

He’s looking at the plans the day he hears Lily crash her bike on the street outside while trying to do some Evel Knievel jump.  Miles takes in her old football helmet, the crazy red hair sticking out underneath, before running to get a first aid kit for her torn open knee.  They talk while she cleans off the blood, then he helps her put Band-aids on.

“So why do you live with your aunt and uncle anyway?” she asks.  And he tells her, which is weird. He hasn’t talked to anyone about it, but with Lily, the words just come.  Lily says her own mother died, and her dad drinks and is rarely around.  Her brother Lloyd is raising her.  He drives a tow truck and can fix just about anything.

“He’s gifted,” she tells him.  “I’m gifted, too.”  She digs around in the pocket of her cutoff shorts and pulls out a clear blue marble.  “It’s my miniature crystal ball,” she tells him.

“What do you do with it?” he asks.

She holds it her eye and looks through.  “I see things with it.  Things other people can’t.”  She turns towards him, still looking through the marble.

“What do you see?” he asks.

“Sometimes good things, sometimes bad,” she says, tucking the marble back into her pocket and squinting at him in a funny way, like she knows something she isn’t saying.

Miles pulls the elephant out of his pocket and shows it to her.  “It was my mother’s,” he tells her.  “She had it on the day she died.”

He tells her the story of the elephant, the same story his mother told him just days before she died. He’d noticed her new bracelet and asked her about it.  His mother had smiled and said there was a story that went with it.

“Once upon a time,” he tells Lily, recalling each detail of his mother’s story, “in far off India, lived a beautiful golden elephant.  But see, the elephant wasn’t really an elephant: she was a princess who had been turned into an elephant by a sorcerer who had this big fight with the girl’s father, the king.”

Lily’s eyes widen.  “So what happened to the princess?  Did she stay an elephant or did she find a way to break the spell?”

“My mother said that she’s out there still.  Waiting for someone to break the curse. And you know the worst part?” Miles asks.  “The worst of it is that the princess is the only one who can break the spell.  She carries the secret inside her but doesn’t know it.”

Lily smiles.  “That part doesn’t seem sad to me.  It’s like… like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you know?  She had the power to go back home the whole time, but then she wouldn’t have gone on the journey; she wasn’t ready to go home, right?  The princess, she’ll figure out how to break the spell when the time is right.  And then, think of it, what an amazing story she’ll have to tell people.  All about being an elephant.”

She asks him if they caught the man who killed his mother, and he says no, but he’s going to find the killer himself one day.

Lily pulls out her marble again, looks though it.  “You will,” Lily says, “I can see it.”

“What else do you see?” he asks and she only smiles, puts her little crystal ball away.

He has his first kiss with Lily, two years later, and when he starts going over to her house every day after school.   Lily’s brother, Lloyd, turns out to be about the coolest person Miles has ever met, and the three of them eat dinner together all the time. Lily cooks–Kraft macaroni and cheese, tuna casserole, hot dogs and beans.

“Lil told me about what happened to your parents,” Lloyd says one night.  “I’m real sorry.”  Miles isn’t sure what to say, so he only nods, looks down at his empty plate, at the ketchup smeared across it like blood.

Lloyd shows Miles how to solder and build an AM radio receiver; how to take an engine apart and to ride a motorbike.  Also, it’s Lloyd who gives Miles his first beer, a Narraganset, and shows him how to crush the can when he’s done, like Quint did in Jaws.  Lloyd teaches him to drive a stick shift out on the old roads down by the river.

The day Miles gets down on his knee and asks Lily to marry him, he pulls out the ring from his pocket, where it’s been riding around next to the elephant for days.  They’re out at dinner at an Italian place Miles can barely afford.  He’s just finished grad school.  They’ve been living together in a tiny hole-in-the-wall apartment near the paper mill.  When Lily says yes, he kisses her, puts the ring on her finger, then touches the elephant to say thank you.

It’s there, in the pocket of his good khakis the day he’s teaching his Sociology 101 class at the college and Lily calls to say she’s in labor — “The baby’s coming!”  His car is out of commission — needs a new alternator that they just can’t afford — but Lloyd picks him up in the tow truck from the garage he now owns.  They run all the lights on the way to Mercy Hospital.  Miles gets there just in time and when he holds his firstborn.

The elephant is there, listening, as he and Lloyd stand on the slushy sidewalk outside the hospital smoking “It’s a Girl!” cigars that are a little crushed from riding around in Lloyd’s pocket.  Miles thinks of the exploding cigarettes he once made, how back then, he’d thought smoking was the most evil thing in the world.  He knows better now, as he stands, happily puffing his cigar;  knows there are far worse things.   Miles has pulled the elephant out, and is holding it in hand, giving it a thank you rub.

“What’s that?” Lloyd asks, exhaling a puff of smoke.

“My good luck charm,” Miles says.

Lloyd stares at it for a minute, then says, “Do you have any idea how lucky you actually are, Miles?”

And Miles says, “Yes.”

Yes, yes, yes.

And all along, each day, from the time he is ten until he is a grown man, a husband and a father — in spite of how lucky how feels; how he knows in his logical mind that he has everything he’s ever dreamed of — Miles wishes the elephant could speak.  Could tell him where it came from.  Who had given it to his mother.  And what the killer had said that last day that had made her smile.

He knows he should let it go, but he can’t.  And sometimes, after his wife and newborn baby are fast asleep, he slips into his office, pulls the book down from the shelf, takes out the Edison plans and thinks, what if he built the machine and it actually worked?  What if the dead could speak? What if he could finally have the answers he’d been looking for all these years?

Come back to Vilma’s Book Blog tomorrow to read the third chapter!!! ✦

About Jennifer

I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade. I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction. After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house.

Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness — I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time. In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we’re living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure.

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