My new novel, The Girl at the End of the World, is now available in ebook and paperback form. To celebrate I’m offering a sneak peak here as well as a Giveaway.
Would you like to win a signed copy of the paperback? Just leave a comment at the end of this post. The deadline to enter is midnight on December 7th. On Sunday, December 8th, I will use Random.org to select two winners to receive a signed copy of the book. This giveaway is limited to US addresses only.
So, here’s Chapter One. Thanks for reading!
The world ended the day I turned 15.
I don’t know who you are or when you’re reading this, but if you’re anything like me and remember how things used to be, I suppose
that first sentence might remind you of the kinds of things teenagers used to read—things filled with angst and drama, lots of hand-wringing and butterflies in the stomach. Or maybe you’re from a long ways into the future and stories have gone back to being about that sort of thing; maybe people in your time have the luxury of being able to worry about heartbreak and loneliness and first kisses. That’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about.
I don’t mean to say my world ended the day I turned 15. I don’t mean that it was turned upside down by something that happened to me.
I mean it when I say it: the world ended.
It’s kind of strange to think back on it now. The old world, I mean. The whole thing seems like it was a dream I woke up from that day. Or maybe a dream someone else had. A dream where you had family and friends and where you laughed at stupid things and couldn’t explain later why they were so funny. Or where you argued with people you loved and said mean, hateful things and tried to make up for it later. It was a dream world where people went to work and drove on freeways and got married and had kids and grew old and died. Some people had everything they needed and some people had so little they couldn’t even imagine all the luxuries they’d never know.
And it mattered so much.
It all mattered so much.
The littlest thing that went wrong would put such a kink in your day and you’d cry about it or fight about it or find a way to try and fix it. And the next day it would be something different, and all those things that had mattered so much the day before were just forgotten…blown away like dust or pollen. Or spores.
I knew a thing or two about things being blown away. My family, for one thing. We’d all been together when I was little: my mom and dad, my older sister Anna, and me—Scarlett. But then had come the divorce and my dad’s new house and new wife, and before long I had new brothers. I remember it had all felt so weird, like my family—my real family—had died, and this new, split-up version had stepped in to take their place. By the time I was 14, I was done being sad and done being angry, done acting out and done trying to make my parents feel bad for not being able to fake it for Anna and me. I guess I’d come to accept it without really meaning to, my sister and I realizing somewhere along the way that our mom was going to fall apart if we didn’t step up and make the best of things. There were times when it felt like we were the parents watching out for her rather than the other way around.
So when my mom told me I’d be spending my fifteenth birthday with my dad and his family, I didn’t put up a fight. Mom hadn’t planned a party, and I hadn’t begged for one—had just assumed she’d let me hang with my friends and that they’d spoil me for an evening. That was what I really wanted anyway, so it was kind of disappointing to know I’d be going to a Dodger game with my dad and his new family. Still, I went along with the plan, knowing that my dad was at least trying, in his own way, and that fussing about it would just give my mom another reason to say she had a migraine and retreat to her room.
The day came—a Friday. I went to school, and my friends did spoil me with little presents and promises to do all sorts of things in the weeks to come. And at times during that day I forgot about the game coming up in the evening, forgot that I had to go rather than do what I wanted.
But the school day ended, and I went home and then it was get ready and go.
“Happy birthday, Scarlett,” my dad said as I climbed into his Jeep. He leaned over to kiss the top of my head.
“Thanks,” I said and hugged him for a second before putting on the seat belt.
We drove to his new house—bigger and fancier than the one my mom and sister and I were able to live in—and we switched over to my step-mom’s car. Angie, my dad’s wife, was nice enough to me and Anna, but I always had the feeling we made her uncomfortable, like she was faking her smiles for my dad’s sake. She wished me a happy birthday and made sure her little boys did, too, but it didn’t seem sincere, and I felt like my dad was the only one in the car who truly wanted to be there.
Dodger Stadium was this huge place—maybe still is—built into the sides of a ravine right next to downtown Los Angeles. I’d been there maybe ten times before this, so it was nothing special. It had been a hot day, and the sun was still high in the sky but dipping down in its arc toward the west when we got our seats. I wished for shade and knew the heat would turn tolerable once the sun dropped a little lower. For now, though, I sat uncomfortably in the plastic seat and looked down at the field far below.
The crowd filled in. It was all so ordinary. So sad to think about now. All those people, none of them with any idea what was about to happen. To them, it was just another game, another evening in Los Angeles, a little diversion from the everyday things they wouldn’t be able to get away from the next day. That’s what they thought, anyway. If they’d only known, I wonder if they would have traded what was to come for just one more average day filled with things they didn’t really want to do. Actually, I don’t wonder about that—I know it for sure. They’d have traded anything and everything for just one more day. I know I would have.
Two rows down from us sat a big man wearing a Dodgers shirt and hat. I noticed him only because he was such a big guy—probably six feet five inches and kind of overweight. I just remember thinking I was glad he wasn’t right in front of me or beside me. He didn’t appear to be there with anyone else. Later, that’s what they said on the news, and I remember thinking I’d been right about him. Not that it mattered.
The game went the way games did: some activity, some excitement, and lots of waiting in between for something else to happen. My dad bought me a hot dog and soda. My half-brothers argued and had to be separated. The sun slid toward the horizon and the lights came on in the stadium. And every once in a while I’d catch my dad looking at me with a smile or a wink and I’d smile back. It was like we were having a little secret, just the two of us among all those thousands of people. I couldn’t tell you now what the secret was or what it was supposed to mean. I suppose it was just that we were there, together, and that it was all right, or at least the best that it could be under the circumstances with me and him having to be apart so much and that for just this one evening we could act like it was all okay, like we were in a real family again.
The seventh inning came around. The other team was up and the batter hit a high fly that was just barely foul and the crowd got all excited for a few seconds and then settled down again. All except the big man two rows down.
“Foul ball!” he shouted, and I looked down at him. He was nodding his head vigorously, like he was signaling impassioned agreement with something more important than baseball.
“Foul ball!” he shouted again a few seconds later even though no other ball had been hit down on the field. This time, just about everyone else around him turned, giving him looks of annoyance.
I couldn’t see his face, couldn’t see how he responded. He just kept nodding.
“Foul ball!” he shouted a third time, even louder than before, and I saw the man next to him turn and say something, but quieter so I couldn’t tell what he said from two rows away.
And then the big man shouted again, far louder than before. “FOUL!! BALL!!”
People from several rows began yelling at him to shut up and calm down, but the big man was oblivious.
I glanced at my dad and saw that he wasn’t watching the game anymore either. His eyes were on the big man and the people around him. He looked worried, and I saw him shoot a glance at my step-mom. He caught me looking, and his expression turned from concerned to fake happy. The smile he gave me was supposed to make me feel like everything was all right, but I knew he was expecting trouble.
Like just about every other uninvolved observer, my dad was probably trying to decide if he should call security before things got bad. He even had his phone out. I saw maybe a dozen other people with phones in their hands, too, but none of them were calling anyone. They were shooting video, probably thinking they could upload to the Internet and go viral if a fight broke out.
Now, with all eyes on him, the big man seemed to notice the attention he had drawn. He turned and scanned the faces, and when he looked at me two rows above, I knew there was something seriously wrong with him. His eyes were bouncing in their sockets and his lips twitched. He looked like he was fighting back the urge to laugh or cry; I couldn’t tell which.
“You never paid me!” he yelled, his voice erupting without warning. “Never!”
The shouts were directed at no one now. He seemed to be imagining people around him who weren’t there.
“Sit down!” and “Shut up!” and shouts of far worse things came from the people all around us, people who had been happily enjoying the game just a minute or two before. I don’t know what was scarier—seeing this man have his mental breakdown right in front of me or watching everyone else around us getting angrier and angrier at the sight of him.
To be honest, I was angry, too. I know now that I should have felt compassion for the man, and I think when I replay that day in my mind I make myself out to be worried about what was going to happen—to the shouting man and to the people nearby who wouldn’t have fared well if he’d started swinging those big fists. But I don’t think I was really feeling that way, not in the moment. Before I figured out that there was something wrong with the man, I thought he was just acting like an idiot. And when I did see his face and saw that something bigger was going on, it was too late; I was already upset and scared, and the anger of the crowd swept me up so I wanted to shout, too.
“Darryl, do something,” Angie said from two seats away, me and one of the boys in between her and my dad.
He glanced at her and then back at the raving man.
“You never paid me! I’m owed! I’m owed big!” he shouted at no one in particular.
I suppose it wouldn’t have been long before the scene got ugly, but two of the stadium’s security men showed up in the aisle just then, and the rest of the crowd stopped shouting when they saw the uniformed officers approaching. Not the big man, though. He kept raving as the officers got the nearby fans to leave the row. One of them shouted at him to calm down, and seconds later he doused the big man with pepper spray.
I winced as the man screamed louder, put his hands over his face and fell straight into the security officer, both of them hitting the concrete floor between the rows of seats. Shouts rose from the crowd, some frightened and others just surprised.
In seconds, the other security officer had joined the struggle, pulling the big man off the one he’d fallen on. Now he was screaming incomprehensibly, flailing his arms. At first I thought it was from the pepper spray, but the screams got worse.
“Killing me! Killing me!”
He was no longer yelling, but screaming in a high-pitched, frantic voice, desperate to be saved.
Four more security guards and two Los Angeles police officers had arrived by then, but before any of them could drag the man into the main aisle, he suddenly went quiet.
Passed out, I thought. And then, with a chill up my back and neck, another thought: Or dead.
My heart was pounding, and again I looked to my dad. This time he didn’t catch my glance. His eyes were fixed on the spectacle, and it drew mine back as well.
And that was when it happened.
It’s a moment that I’ll never forget till the day I die, a sequence that’s practically burned into the backs of my eyes.
One of the security officers was talking on his radio, probably calling for medical help. People in the crowd just stared. Several still had their cameras pointed at the afflicted man. I remember looking at one woman who stood right behind one of the crouched security officers. She was blonde, probably in her twenties, and she held a beer with one hand and her purse with the other. Her blouse was white cotton.
And then there was a popping sound. Not loud. Kind of a muffled cracking noise. I wasn’t even sure I’d heard it.
And the woman’s blouse, so bright and white and standing out from the darker clothes of the people around her, and the black uniforms of the security guards—that white blouse was spattered with red. The same was true of her face and her hair.
And the people around her.
All of them screaming, shouting. Unintelligibly.
Some turned their heads away.
Some tried to shield their faces, but it was too late.
Two of the security officers who’d been crouched over the prone man now fell back into the legs of the people around them, knocking some over. I saw their faces covered in blood.
I didn’t want to know what had happened, but at the same time I did.
People began stumbling over themselves to get away from the scene they’d just been crowding into seconds before.
And in between the chaos of panicking bodies, I glimpsed the man who’d been so loud and seemed so dangerous just a minute before. I’m sure much of his face was gone, but it was all just blood, and I couldn’t make out anything in the second or two that I had a clear view of him.
But in that second, I did see the other things, the things everyone would be talking about for the rest of the night. Two small white stalks stuck out of the opening in the man’s face, maybe four inches high. I didn’t need to know what they were; it was clear enough that whatever they were, they’d pushed their way out of his skull, breaking him open like an eggshell. I can’t say for sure if I saw the little bulbs at the tip of each stalk, the little caps that were the real problem, but I saw enough of them later, and it all kind of blends together in my memory.
We were in a car wreck once, before the divorce. I was maybe six. All four of us were in the car, passing through an intersection. Another car ran the red light and slammed right into the side of our car, spinning us around before we stopped against the curb. I remember how everything seemed to happen so slowly even though it could only have been a few seconds from the impact to when we stopped and my dad started asking if we were okay. But in those seconds, everything seemed so clear. I knew what had happened. I knew we were spinning out of control. I had time to think about how loud the crash had been, to feel the seatbelt grab onto my shoulder like it was some kind of monster that would never let go, to smell the burnt sulfur as the airbags deployed. I didn’t know if I was hurt or if anyone else in the car was, but I seemed aware of everything else. I had only a few seconds to process the accident, and I did, cramming more information into those seconds than seems possible when I think back on it. Maybe it’s just a trick of memory, but I don’t think so.
That day at Dodger Stadium, I felt the same kind of thing. Everything slowed down as I saw those stalks sticking out of the man’s head. All the yelling and screaming seemed like it was coming from much farther away than ten feet in front of me. I couldn’t really even feel my body. It was like I was nothing more than eyes and ears taking it all in.
And then the illusion of slowed time shattered.
Someone blocked my view of the man, and all the sounds and the chaos rushed back into place as though a floodgate had just been opened and water was pouring through the channels it had been kept from.
A second or two later, there was another popping sound and I expected to see more blood, but there was nothing. People gasped. And then what appeared to be a cloud of dust rose into the air around the stricken man. Some people nearby knocked others down to get away from the scene. More people turned away. More people yelled.
As for me, I think I was in shock. I could say or do nothing. I just stared.
And then I was moving, my feet shuffling forward without my thinking about it. My dad had grabbed me by the shoulders and started pulling me toward the aisle. Confused, I looked past him, wondering what had happened to my brothers and step-mom. They were already in the aisle. Angie was hustling them away, trying to shield the boys from looking back at the spectacle of the dead man in the aisle.
My dad’s grip on my shoulders felt as tight as that seatbelt had in the accident. He wouldn’t let me slow down, wouldn’t let me turn to get another look. I wanted to tell him I was okay, but words wouldn’t come—like in a dream where you want to scream, where you have to scream, and no sound at all will rise from your throat.
I felt numb as he pulled me up the steps and toward an exit, barely noticing the people running past us, some in uniforms, others not. And all the shouting. Maybe something else had happened down on the field. I don’t know. I never found out.
I think I came close to passing out then. I found out later that a lot of people had fainted at the sight of the dying man and what happened to him there in the aisle. I felt all the blood leave my head, and for a few seconds I was dizzy and nauseous. I stumbled, but my dad had me so tight that I didn’t come close to hitting the ground. He just held me, half pulling and half dragging me.
I don’t remember leaving the stadium. It’s funny that I’d remember everything but that. Maybe I did pass out. Maybe my dad had to carry me part of the way.
All I know is that when we got to the car and I piled into the back seat with my brothers, I put on the safety belt and then started crying inconsolably. My tears were contagious, or maybe frightening. At any rate, my brothers were crying too. My step-mom hit the gas, and we left Dodger Stadium behind forever.
That’s all for now. If you’d like to read more, the book is now available on Amazon.
In the meantime, if you’d like to be entered for the Giveaway, just leave a comment at the end of this post. The deadline to enter is midnight on December 7th. On Sunday, December 8th, I will use Random.org to select two winners to receive a signed copy of the paperback edition. This giveaway is limited to US addresses only.