So, you guys, if you follow my blog you know that I started writing a companion book to Ashes, Ashes. It was a plan, and then a fervent hope that it would be published. That hope seems a little forlorn now, but I am over it and onto writing the next thing.
However I was thinking that it might be fun for you to see the first couple of chapters so at least you’ll be able to read where I was trying to go with Aidan, Del and Sammy’s stories.
I’d love to hear what you think!
So without further ado (to-do) here’s the first chapter of Pocketful of Posies:
POCKETFUL OF POSIES
Aidan Finn leaned on the crumbling mortar and brick of the wall and peered down to the street below. He was higher up than he’d expected. The jump to the next rooftop would be tough. He struggled to catch his breath. No sign of pursuit. And Sammy was probably still a block behind him. His younger brother was faster on the streets, knowing where the cut-throughs were, the dead ends, the fissures like snaking paths between mounds of rubble and collapsed masonry. It was as if he held an adaptable map of the city in his head, but up here on the roofs, Aidan was still the king.
The stolen can of peach slices dragged at his sweatshirt pocket. He wished now that he hadn’t stopped to grab it but that was all part of the game. Plus it had been a long time since any of them had tasted fruit or sugar. It was the reason why he wasn’t back home already. He’d gone out of his way to hit a grocery store well outside the neighborhood. Somewhere he wasn’t known, and then he’d gotten a bit lost in the unfamiliar streets which wound around and backtracked and sometimes just fell away into the weird sinkholes that happened after an earth shift. It was only when he’d climbed a drainpipe and then a fire ladder barely clinging to the side of a dilapidated old brownstone that he’d been able to truly see where he was.
He breathed in, calculating the jumps he’d have to make, identifying the warped boards he could use as a bridge across two almost level roofs, seeing all the way down to the dusty street where he lived with Sammy and their foster family. If he could make it in a straight shot, he’d be home in minutes.
His nostrils prickled with the sour odor of black mold. He smelled the promise of more rain- they were at the start of the Long Wet, but right now it was humid. The sun was just dropping behind the jagged skyline. Bright orange and bloated like a huge beach ball. Blazingly hot still, as it had been for pretty much the last six months. Even up here where he could usually feel a breath of wind blowing away the stink of ripe garbage, the thick air was like a wet blanket against his skin, the bricks slimy under his palms.
He wiped his sweaty face against his sleeve and planned his next move. Above the trash-strewn streets, he felt free. More in control of himself and his surroundings than usual but he knew that a foot placed wrong could spell disaster. Quick, sure, he plotted his course and held it in his mind’s eye. It was almost as if he could see a trail marked out, meandering, choppy but showing him the best way, the right way to go.
”Hey!” Came the shout from below. He looked down to see his brother waving to him. He wore a red sweatshirt too. A splash of bright color standing out against the few passersby in their drab plastic rain-gear. In the last couple of years Sammy had started copying everything Aidan did. He even grew his dirty blonde hair out so that the thick bangs hung over his eyes, and adopted the same way Aidan had of leaning against walls while he was talking. They looked a lot alike although Sammy’s eyes were hazel rather than green and at fifteen he hadn’t finished growing. At the moment he was mostly legs and long arms.
A chain of garlic was slung around his neck. Aidan couldn’t help grinning. The rules of the game were broad; the list of items, like in a treasure hunt, was diverse. Everything was assigned a point value. They spent hours coming up with stuff. Garlic—fifty points– was one of the weirder things and it was just like Sammy to go for it. At least he wasn’t lugging a watermelon (two hundred points) home with him. Fresh fruit was almost impossible to find these days even the kind that flourished in poor soil and drought interspersed by pounding rains.
Of course, thought Aidan, if Sammy had been hauling a watermelon behind him, then he’d be going a lot slower.
He waved back and then set his eyes ahead on the ten foot gap he was going to have to clear. He slowed his breathing, clenched and unclenched his fists, shifted from one worn sneaker to the other, feeling the tar paper and grit of the roof through the thin sole. He prepared himself. A trickle of sweat ran down his back.
Sammy wolf-whistled and it was then that Aidan noticed that his brother held his right arm stiffly behind his back. He brought it forward, into sight. Aidan swore. Somewhere Sammy had found a collapsible scooter. Lightweight aluminum, flexible, thick wheels for uneven terrain, spongy shock absorbers, hydraulics. More like a skateboard. Aidan had seen kids over by the old sewage treatment plant really get air when they rode them through the huge concrete pipes.
After the fourth major earthquake to rock Manhattan had destroyed the streets to the point that cars were useless, the mayor had brought in a boat- load of free-use bikes, adult trikes, scooters and skateboards. They were painted a lurid yellow, distributed in every neighborhood, left on every corner. The idea was you picked one up when you had to travel somewhere and then left it for the next person, but most of them had been re-appropriated, repainted and sold on the Black Market. It was hard to hold onto anything these days unless you brought it into the house and unless your house had big locks and secure windows.
Supply and demand. Supply was low and demand was at an all-time high.
On a scooter Sammy might just win the race. Aidan groaned. He remembered too well what the stakes were this time. His brother’s homework for a month and even worse, the loser would have to sleep in the bed next to Malcolm and his stinky feet.
He weighed his options: falling to his death versus Malcolm the Pong.
Aidan ran. He jumped.
He felt that brief moment of fear followed immediately by exhilaration. The ground seemed to be coming up to meet him fast. He flung his arms out, his legs pedaling, his fingers clawing the air as he fell towards the next roof like a stone. In his brain he was seeing geometric diagrams outlined against the sky, dotted lines matching up point A to point B on a trajectory C. Time seemed to freeze, and then accelerate again as he landed on the edge of the next roof, his momentum pushing him forward, his feet slipping and sliding on loose rubble and then he was down on his knees, hands thrown out. And he felt the bite of rock and broken glass against his palms and the hot friction as his knees took the brunt of the fall before he rolled into a somersault, taking most of the impact on his shoulder.
He struggled to his feet and spared a look at his jeans. Two new ragged holes—he’d probably catch hell for that. His skin was shredded and blackened with dirt. He dug a sharp rock out of his leg, and he was up and running for the next roof. He felt a burst of fierce energy. There was no way he was going to lose, even if he had to half-kill himself with the effort.
Malcolm was a pretty good kid as far as Aidan’s foster brothers and sister went. He was good-natured, always up for a prank. But in a crowded house where bathroom time was severely limited, sharing a bed with anyone was a drag and Malcolm’s feet were like cheese factories. It was as if he exuded odor. On top of that he was a sleep-hugger. A limpet, their foster-mother who’d spent some time at an English university said. From what Aidan had figured out, a limpet was a shellfish which clung to the rocks and was almost impossible to shift. Malcolm was the same way. He’d fling his beefy arms over you and it was like being trapped under a couple of logs.
The next few buildings were crowded together. Loosened in their foundations by the shifting ground, they leaned against one another. He could walk across the spaces, barely widening his stride, but he took them at a run. He couldn’t see his brother now but in his mind he pictured him wheeling around debris and taking flight on the long hill which led from Hudson Street to 8th Avenue. He’d be picking up serious speed, unless luck was with Aidan and another tenement building had crumbled into the road forcing a detour. It was too early in the season for the big roads to be flooded out.
He flew down a fire escape ladder to a lower level, picking his feet up, locking his elbows and sliding most of the way supported on his hands. His path lay across a roof crowded with reclaimed tents and flimsy lean-tos. He could see feet in battered shoes sticking out from the door flaps of some of them. Broken glass glittered on the tar paper. Close by a dog growled, a low menacing warning like thunder and he felt invisible eyes rake across his back. He zigzagged around the structures, moving quickly. Sometimes people guarded these makeshift villages as if they were a matter of life and death. Barely taking the time to think about it he jumped a gap, reaching for and catching hold of a balcony. His feet scrabbled and clung to the wood siding. He dug his toes in, then pulled himself up to the top edge, balancing for a second, and from there hopped to the roof. He felt the adrenaline pump through him. He was covered in bruises and scratches, some old, some new, but there was a point he reached sometimes where his muscles just seemed to know what to do. He could reach out, almost casually, and the ledge or the wall would be there waiting for the grip of his strong fingers, he could let go, and know that his legs, his feet would carry him safely forward. And once he got to that point he could move like a shadow.
He was past the row of apartment buildings now, entering the old neighborhood where people lived in family homes or split levels, set apart by thin strips of brown, dusty grass. He remembered how it had been before the climate had changed so violently. The care lavished on those tiny lawns. The flower borders and tall cedar bushes, the brightly colored pinwheels and garden gnomes, and the shiny black painted gates. His foster mother had liked those pink and white blooms. He couldn’t remember what they were called but her window boxes had spilled over with them and they’d made the old paintwork look brighter. Now the flowers and shrubs were withered, and nothing much grew except the black mold spread across the brittle foundations like a stain, turning the wood siding to mush. The houses were run-down, derelict, two- storied with crumbly cement stoops and barred windows. People kept their curtains drawn and the yards were fouled with garbage and cat shit.
And no one hung out on the streets unless they had business to attend to. A lot of buying and selling went on and Aidan was aware of it but he didn’t want to get caught up in that whole deal and he pretended ignorance. It was amazing how effective avoiding eye contact and turning a shoulder was. The recruiters had learned to pass him over, go for the younger kids, the ones who saw glamor, a way out, a strength in numbers offered by the gangs.
He crossed the last ruined building, swinging across the fire ladder which straddled the narrow alley, hand over hand as if he was a kid on the jungle gym and not hanging forty feet above the ground. At the end he pulled himself up and perched on the last rung. The view from here was dazzling, and frightening all at the same time. He took a moment to catch his breath and looked over a skyline of wrecked buildings like a mouthful of rotten teeth. Ahead another series of roofs rose sharp against the red-streaked sky. It reminded Aidan of bruising, an angry welt of color. The memory of soft sunlit days was dim. This was a harsh sun, glaring, even as it hung low over the Hudson Sea. To the north of him was the mountain of destruction that had been the Empire State, the Chrysler Building, any structure over ten stories tall. No one had expected earthquakes so none of the buildings had the reinforcement necessary to withstand the magnitudes that seemed to batter them every couple of months or so. Out on the west coast where they could handle it, the skyscrapers still stood but their coastline was crumbling into the sea. As far as Aidan was concerned, they were all at the mercy of the weather and there was nothing any of them could do about it.
He looked past the dirty gray water to the scrubby shore, followed the line of the waves along the mudflats and the immense dyke built to keep the ocean back, and wondered, as he always did what lay beyond it now.
He gave himself a shake. Daydreaming was a sure way to lose the race.
Aidan landed on the roof of his house with a thump. It was sharply slanted. He crawled over to the brittle wooden gingerbread framing the front peak. Sammy was just scooting around the corner. He had maybe thirty feet to go. It was going to be close. Aidan considered. The fastest way down was over the front edge. Even if he could trust the old worm eaten wood to hold his weight, he’d practically have to free-fall to the ground, grasping window sills on his way down in a vain attempt to slow the plunge and he probably still wouldn’t get there in time. Even if he didn’t break his neck.
Aidan was confident. He was strong. His body obeyed him. But that didn’t mean that he meant to fling himself over the edge without considering the outcome. Sammy was twenty feet away now, pushing off hard from the ground with his right foot. He looked up and saw his brother. His face was reddened with exertion but he looked triumphant. The garlic necklace swung with every jerk of his body. Aidan bunched his fists. Think he told himself. There was a dumpster just round the side of the building. He could jump into that. He cast a quick look at it. It was maybe twenty-five feet down, overflowing with split garbage bags. He could smell the ripe smell of spoiled food even from where he was crouched. Was it worth it? His own odor would probably overpower the worst of Malcolm’s feet. Or how about the drainpipe to his left? It was nailed on in just a few places and it would force him to slow way down. If he was going to lose he’d rather stay where he was. Maybe he’d just grab his sleeping bag and bed down outside in the narrow angle between the gutter and the gabled windows.
Then a thought occurred to him and he sat back on his heels, and waited.
Sammy came to a sliding stop, squeezing the brakes and spinning the back tire out in a slide which raised a cloud of dust behind him. A grin, growing bigger by the second, spread across his face. He carefully leaned the scooter against the side of the house. He punched his fist in the air. He whooped. Aidan tossed a pebble down. It landed next to Sammy’s foot. He kicked it into the road, and turned to face his brother.
“Did I beat you?”
“First one home, right?” Aidan said, climbing hand over hand down the drainpipe. It creaked alarmingly and a nail pulled out of the wood with a squeal. He jumped the last five feet and wiped his filthy hands on his ragged jeans. He pointed to the roof. “We didn’t specify that it had to be the front door. We just said whoever got to the house first, right?”
Sammy‘s face fell. He pulled his sweatshirt over his head and used it to scrub the sweat from his forehead and the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess,” he said slowly. “That’s fair.”
Aidan felt a twinge. He should just have given it up to Sammy but there was a competitive streak in him that he had a hard time suppressing.
“It was close though,” he said. “Maybe even a tie. And the garlic is worth fifty points towards the high reward.” They kept track of their points and whoever reached five hundred first got off chore duty for a week. Since their chores included jobs like cleaning the toilet and sorting and hauling the trash a family of seven accumulated every week, the points were valuable. He pulled a can of peaches out from his pocket. “Look what I got for you. Only ten points but I know they’re your favorite. Last one on the shelf. I had to dodge a fish-faced old lady who screamed at me in Italian.”
“Peaches,” Sammy said, turning the can over in his fingers. “Do we have to share with Malcolm and the other kids?”
Aidan knew they were his favorite.
“Naww. We can sit down right here and eat them.” Aidan hunkered down on the edge of the sidewalk and pulled a penknife from his pocket and found the can opener. He removed the lid, slipping the disc of jagged metal into his sweatshirt pouch. He handed the can over. Sammy hooked out a couple of slices and gave it back. The peaches were swimming in syrup, slippery and sweet. They shared them and then Aidan let Sammy drink the juice.
His brother was a good sport. And his mood was never dampened for long. “So,” he said wiping stickiness from his chin and then licking his fingers, “Did you come over the roofs the whole way?”
“As soon as I hit west 13th.”
Sammy shook his head. “Man… You must have been flying.” A wrinkle appeared between his hazel eyes and then cleared. “Hey,” he said, jumping to his feet and running to the side of the house. He came right back with the scooter. It was new; the treads mostly clean, painted with a black paint so shiny it looked wet. The handle was retractable and lay flat against the board. “Check it out! Whatta steal, ehh? Someone just left it lying around on the sidewalk. I think I was doing maybe twenty miles an hour on the clear sections.” Aidan knew Sammy got a thrill from speed. The same kind of intense—he didn’t know what to call it exactly, only that he never felt so alive as when he was running and jumping, pushing his body. Joy, he guessed it was. He grinned at his brother and put out his hand to ruffle his hair, then pulled back. Sometimes he forgot that his brother was nearly grown, and weirdly dignified sometimes.
Sammy squatted down and flipped the scooter over in his hands. Painted on the bottom was a small triangle in red and black. At each point an open eye was drawn. The pupils were red. “I didn’t notice that before,” Sammy said tracing the vivid design. His voice shook.
Aidan grabbed it and held it tight against his chest. He was on his feet in an instant.
“Are you nuts?” he said in a hoarse whisper. “Stealing from the Eyes?”
He looked around. He’d thought the street deserted. Heat haze shimmered the air but the doorways were in shadow. The houses so tightly clustered on the narrow street that the sun never made it all the way down to the ground. He hadn’t noticed them before but now it seemed that there were kids, not much older than he was, leaning against every wall, smoking or just staring with squint-y, closed expressions. He saw the black denim jackets, with the bold design on the back. In the dim light, the painted eyes blazed with suspicious rage.