Ashes, Ashes (Scholastic Press, 2011; Ars Edition, 2011)
A thrilling tale of adventure, romance, and one girl’s unyielding courage through the darkest of nightmares.
Epidemics, floods, droughts–for sixteen-year-old Lucy, the end of the world came and went, taking 99% of the population with it. As the weather continues to rage out of control, and Sweepers clean the streets of plague victims, Lucy survives alone in the wilds of Central Park. But when she’s rescued from a pack of hunting dogs by a mysterious boy named Aidan, she reluctantly realizes she can’t continue on her own. She joins his band of survivors, yet, a new danger awaits her: the Sweepers are looking for her. There’s something special about Lucy, and they will stop at nothing to have her.
*Ontario Library Association, White Pine nominee
*Snow Willow nominee (Saskatchewan)
*Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2012
*American Booksellers Association Best Books of 2011
“Ashes, Ashes is a compelling, fast-paced read…The story never flags, and the reader’s attention never wavers. There is something here for just about everyone- romance, survival drama, action, mystery.”
(Quill & Quire, Starred Review)
“(Treggiari) hits a post-apocalyptic trifecta: environmental disasters, plague, and amoral scientists…a fast gripping read…this thriller reads like a love letter to wilderness survival guides and disaster movies.” (Publisher’s Weekly)
“The end of the world happened and Lucy survived. Somehow, when disease and natural disasters hit New York City in waves—she survived. Survival, however, has its downside. Now that the world she knew is gone and with it the people she loved, Lucy is on her own. She survives primordially in a cave, hunting and gathering what she can. She does not know, nor does she care, how many other people are out there as she ticks off the days in solitude. Then comes Aidan. He appears out of nowhere, he is semi-clean, he has eaten real food, and he offers her a chance to join him in his camp. Lucy refuses, but circumstances quickly change and she finds herself seeking him out and joining his small community of survivors. They are not completely safe, however, as the Sweepers from the city find them, even in their hideout. No one the Sweepers takes ever returns and no one is sure who or what they are searching for, but Lucy has a feeling that it is her. In this thrilling sci-fi reality created by Jo Treggiari, many current nightmares are brought to fruition as the current world trends toward end-of- the world predictions. The return of the plague via bird infection, government secrecy over the devastating realities, and the ever impending melting of the ice caps all play out in this page turner. Readers will love rooting for Lucy as she struggles to save herself, protect her new friends, and find romance: after the world ends.” (Children’s Literature Review)
“…Treggiari’s debut dystopian novel describes a post-apocalyptic world that reeks with ash and putrid waste. The high waters cannot cleanse this terror-filled place. Compelling characters stand against the dismal horizon with bravery, even though some wear disguises of evil and are not what they profess to be.
Lucy, Aidan and Del’s story is a page-turner, embellished with sensory descriptions that add to the riveting pace. Young readers who enjoyed “Hunger Games” will find equal suspense in “Ashes, Ashes,” hoping for a sequel to bring resolution to Lucy’s world.”
“In Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari, Lucy is prepared to acknowledge that ninety-nine percent of the population is gone and that her choices are few. What she isn’t ready to accept, and what makes this novel so complex, is that she is apparently the only immune person left on Earth, and she could best help the planet’s survival by giving her blood—all her blood—for medical use. The pace is superb, and the vivid descriptions of the new attempts at society are well crafted, but it is the choices the amoral but brilliant scientists make that push Lucy to define herself as martyr or survivor. The fact that the key scientist still feels like the kindest person Lucy has recently encountered complicates things all the more, as it lays bare how intensely vulnerable and alone she is in this ravaged world.”
(The Horn Book, What Makes A Good YA Dystopian Novel)
“…with a female protagonist and urban setting, the focus here is on action rather than introspection. Treggiari’s writing is smooth and even vivid at times—the turtle-soup-preparation scene may make some folks a little queasy—but it isn’t gratuitous. Meshed well into the main narrative are well-incorporated subplots about the acceptance of difference (of folks who were ravaged by the plague), romance, and loyalty.”
(Cindy Welch/ Booklist)
“…The action starts immediately and in a realistically grim spot, with Lucy contemplating the butchery of a turtle she killed, and ends in what is a hopeful (and rather romantically mushy) but still quite uncertain moment where Lucy is left contemplating the nature of love, life, and sacrifice in a post-apocalyptic world. The relatively straightforward plot, smaller cast of characters, and cool “girl in the wild” vibe will appeal to adventure and survival fans, even while the plagues, underwater geography, and slightly futuristic tones will grab sci-fi readers. A map orients readers to the new watery, tree-filled New York.”
(Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books)
“…Ashes, Ashes is a truly realistic post-apocalyptic novel that takes readers through a young lady’s story of survival against horrible odds. The book grabs readers right away with Lucy’s struggles from finding food that is not contaminated to escaping wild dogs. One surprising aspect of the novel is the twist about half way through that takes this post-apocalyptic novel and transforms it into a dystopia.”(ALAN’s picks/ October 2011)
“After surviving alone following climate disasters and a global plague that wiped out everyone she knows, Lucy must confront her prejudice against the diseased when she stumbles upon a ragtag community-including love interest Aidan. Rich backstory aligns readers with Lucy while the vivid post-apocalyptic New York setting draws them along.” (Horn Book Guide Jan-June 2011)
“…The world of the novel is detailed, carefully imagined, realistically bleak, but with flashes of beauty. Lucy and Aidan feel like real people – ordinary teenagers caught up in something terrible, whose resilience comes out in humour, wisecracks, and ultimately in the sort of selfless courage it’s good to be reminded young people – or any people – are capable of.”(Katherine Langrish/An Awfully Big Blog Adventure)
“…This book is vivid and taut, a grim portrait of our world as it could so easily be in a not-too-difficult-to-imagine future. And yet it is a story of hope and survival and of friendship and love. Lucy’s character is the heart of this story as she learns to see that there is more to people than meets the eye, and she faces large questions of right and wrong, questions that have no easy answers for (her) or the reader.
Treggiari has created a starkly compelling rendering of this dystopian world and among the few people who have managed to cling to life she has given us a cast of intriguing characters. People we earnestly hope will continue to flourish in the face of these terrible losses. Urgent and intense, it is an arresting tale.”
(Lisa Doucet/ Atlantic Books Today)
I began writing a companion book to Ashes, Ashes to give a little more back-story on Del, Aidan and Sammy. It covers the period of time when the first plague cases begin to appear. You can read the first 3 chapters here or read it on wattpad:
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.
Aidan got to his feet, still holding the scooter and pulled his brother up. The empty peach can fell to the ground with a clatter.
“Get in the house,” he whispered and pushed Sammy hard between the shoulders.
“I could put it back,” Sammy said. “Or leave it out here. Someone else will snag it. End of problem.”
There was a pleading note in his voice.
Aidan shook his head. “Too late for that. They’ve seen you with it already.” One of them must have been tracking him through the streets before calling in his cronies. They might even have planted it to trap some poor sucker. He knew that kids were often tricked or blackmailed into joining the gangs.
There weren’t rules like in the old days. There were still cops, and, he guessed, government people but none of that stuff seemed to filter down to regular day-to-day life. There was more crime. Incidents, the TV news guys called them. As in, an unfortunate incident occurred today. Usually that meant someone had gotten hurt. You had to watch your back out on the streets. People took stuff if they wanted it. But there were repercussions. And there was a new set of rules. Sometime it reminded Aidan of a zoo. But a zoo where the hyenas and the lions shared the same enclosure as the antelopes and zebra. Actually it was kind of like high school, brought to the streets.
He closed the door, slamming all three of the dead bolts home. The locks were strong but one good kick would bust the door. He squinted through the peep-hole at the street outside. He wasn’t sure but it looked like one of the groups of people had gotten bigger. They stood in the shadows of an overhanging porch about twenty yards away. He caught the gleam of cigarette ends glowing.
It was hard to believe that they were gathering just because Sammy had swiped a board, but he couldn’t discount it. The Eyes were the predominant authority around here. People used to say that a leaf couldn’t fall without Boss Flowers okaying it first. Aidan remembered hearing about the man a couple of years ago when the climate first turned strange. Back then he’d been pretty innocent about how things worked around the neighborhood. He’d laughed at his name, made some wisecrack, loud enough that everyone in the corner store had heard it. Gail had clapped her hand over his mouth and with her other hand she’d gripped his upper arm with so much force he’d carried the imprint of her fingers on his skin for about a week. Then she’d hustled him inside the house. Gail was their foster mom but he’d been almost 9 when he came to her and they’d both decided it made more sense to call each other by their first names. Sammy, almost two years younger than him, had made the switch recently as well but most of the time he still slipped and called her mom. Sammy and Aidan were brothers for real but neither of them really recalled their blood parents. There was some blurry sense in his memory of his mother’s tilted blue eyes and his dad’s coffee breath and baggy cardigans but nothing detailed he could swoop in on. Traumatic amnesia was what they called it. For as long as he could remember there had only been Gail and her husband, George.
George was a big, tall man but hunched from spending so much time at his workshop fixing broken things. Everyone in the neighborhood brought him their appliances, and mechanicals and he could take a wreck and make it work. He was short-sighted from long hours and close work and his eyes were always blood-shot. Aidan knew he could tell him anything but wished he were around more.
He squinted trying to see along the periphery. There was a narrow alleyway directly across the street that cut all the way down to Chelsea Park. People called it the walk and it was one of the places to avoid. The view through the scuffed peephole was distorted but there was definitely a group congregating over there. He counted cigarette glows—six.
He straightened up and thought. He could maybe brazen his way through. Some of the kids went to his school. They knew him from way back, remembered when he led the basketball team to the quarter-finals. Or he could just wait and see how things played out. Talk to George later tonight when he got back from work.
He stared at the board and tried to decide if he should shove it out the door or hold on to it as a precaution.
The hallway was cramped and smelled like mouse shit and boiled potatoes and garlic from the chain Sammy still wore around his neck.
Sammy slumped against the wall chewing his ragged thumb nail. Aidan looked at him and straightened his shoulders. “I’ll deal with it,” he promised. He concealed the board under a bundled pile of newspapers by the door, and gave his brother’s shoulder a squeeze.
“Aidan, is that you?” a voice called from the kitchen.
Aidan exchanged a glance with Sammy. “Don’t say anything to her,” he whispered. Sammy nodded. Basically their agreement was never to upset Gail with anything.
“Yeah, Gail,” he called back. They walked down the narrow hallway with its water stained walls and drooping wallpaper. From somewhere up above their heads they heard muffled shouts and thumps. Malcolm and Freddie must be home. Their favorite activity was reenacting wrestling matches.
Gail was in the kitchen, by the stove, tilting a pan with a slick of oil. Their little sister, Hannah, sat at the table, surrounded by scratch paper and stubs of crayon. She was drawing orange stripes on one chubby hand, and singing a nursery rhyme under her breath.
Her head lifted. Aidan stifled a laugh. There were curls of paper and colored wax around her mouth. Hannah wasn’t a baby anymore but she still ate her art supplies. Crayons and white glue were among her favorites.
“We’re having pancakes for dinner,” she said in an excited voice. She scrambled over to Sammy’s legs and raised her arms to him. He picked her up. She buried her nose in his shoulder and snuffled. “You smell stinky,” she told him. Aidan saw his brother smile a little. He removed the string of garlic from his neck and slung it over the back of a chair.
She nuzzled closer. “You’re still stinky.”
“Pancakes, huh?” Sammy said, “Must be a special day.”
“Yeah,” she said, and then her face fell.
“But no syrup.”
“No jam either,” Gail said.
Aidan shot her a quick look. She sounded really tired, and her shoulders were slumped as if she was weary just standing. Gail worked as an ER nurse at the hospital. Her shifts were usually ten or twelve hours long, most of them spent on her feet. He walked over to her and gently took the pan from her hand. She smiled at him gratefully and pulled out a chair. “Long day”, she muttered. “Seems like we just finished with flu season and it’s back again with a vengeance.”
“What about the shots?” Immunizations were mandatory at school now. For avian flu, swine flu, and a bunch of other stuff he had no inclination to remember. Sometimes he felt like a pin-cushion.
She shrugged and rubbed a hand over her eyes. “Different strain, maybe? I’m thinking it’s just this city. The rains and the heat just cultivate all kinds of weird bacteria.”
“Germies and nasties?” Hannah said, making a face. She spread her fingers wide and wiggled them. “Wash your hands!”
“That’s right, sweetie,” Gail said, leaning over and dropping a kiss on the top of her head.
Aidan poured puddles of batter into the hot pan. The good smell of pancakes filled the kitchen. How could something made out of just flour and water smell so amazing?
“I’ve got this,” he told Gail, noticing that she had slumped even more. “Why don’t you go up and rest?” She looked awful. Pale with a ring of whiter skin around her mouth, and dark circles pitting her eyes.
“Just for a little while,” she said, ruffling his hair as she passed by. She had to reach up to do it now. Aidan wondered when she had become so small. He listened to her heavy, slow tread on the stairs. The creak of her bedroom door. If Malcolm and Freddie kept up the rough-housing he’d send Sammy up to shut them down, but Gail could sleep through pretty anything.
He flipped the pancakes and turned the heat off.
Sammy was sketching, Hannah on his lap. “Put a sunflower there,” she said. “Right by the front door.” It was exactly what a kid’s picture should look like—blue sky, fluffy clouds, sun-rays and flowers. Hannah was only four. The first major earthquakes had hit New York a little over a year ago. Then the floods and tidal waves had followed and most of the Upper Eastside, chunks of New Jersey and all of Coney Island was covered in water from the rising rivers and sea. Aidan wondered if some part of Hannah’s subconscious remembered the time before or if it was just something she’d picked up in daycare.
“And an ephelant right here,” she ordered, pointing to the tree. Sammy sighed but he started drawing a lumpy elephant. Hannah might be the littlest but she pretty much bossed everyone in the house around.
Aidan pulled a stack of plates from the cupboard, jostling a half empty jar of white sugar. He knew Hannah liked sweetness on her food. His hand wavered as he tried to recall the last time she’d had fresh fruit or any kind of a treat. The thought of her happy face decided him. He’d sprinkle her pancakes with just a little. The rest of them could do with nothing.
The memory of those canned peaches stung his conscience just a bit. He should have shared them with everyone but at the time he just wanted to console Sammy.
He tipped a couple of pancakes onto a plate and added the coating of sugar. The other four pancakes he split between two plates; one for him and one for Sammy, and then balancing them on his arms, brought them to the table.
“Can you grab forks and a glass of milk for Hannah?” he asked Sammy. “If there is any?”
“Powdered,” Sammy grunted, getting to his feet and putting Hannah back into the chair. She was busy coloring her elephant yellow. Her face was a little sweaty and her hair clung to the back of her neck.
Aidan thought about opening the window to let some of the heat out but then he remembered the Eyes. Home invasions had become pretty common. Gail and George had discussed getting a dog for a while, but they were so expensive to feed.
He didn’t think the Eyes would approach the house. Even if they got the order they’d still wait until Sammy was alone somewhere. On the way to or back from school most probably; waylay him along the walk. Would they just intimidate him or would they beat him up? Sammy had a sarcastic sense of humor and a big mouth and some people just didn’t get it. Aidan had spent so much time protecting his younger brother, fighting the fights for him or more often talking him out of any perceived slights. It had probably been the wrong decision he admitted now. Sammy had gotten resentful. He’d gone out looking for trouble. It was only recently that Aidan felt he’d gotten back his brother’s respect.
He noticed Hannah wasn’t eating and she’d climbed back onto Sammy’s lap, tucked under one lanky arm. His brother shoveled his pancakes into his mouth, barely stopping to breathe. In the last 6 months he’d shot up half a foot. All of his jeans hovered around his ankles and the sleeves of his jacket barely covered his wrists.
Aidan pushed his food from one side of the plate to the other. Pancakes were filling but they sat like a lead weight in his stomach and they didn’t give him any energy.
“What’s wrong, little egg?” he asked Hannah. “I made them special for you.”
Her mouth twisted. “They taste funny.”
“Drink your milk then.”
Sammy lifted the glass to her lips. “Come on,” he coaxed her. She took a tiny mouthful and then batted his hand away. Her lower lip was beginning to jut.
Aidan forced himself to eat his food. Up above the roofs, a patrol plane did a couple of laps, out scrutinizing the city edges for flash floods and breakout fires. Thunder grumbled in the air. He watched his brother, his mind whirling. Sammy’s face had relaxed back into its usual good-natured expression; nothing phased him for long. They were unalike in that way. Aidan couldn’t help imagining different worst-case scenarios. It meant he was always prepared. He could pretty much bet the Eyes were still out there, watching, waiting. He just wasn’t sure what their move would be. Part of the problem was there was no clear leader at the street level. They were like a loose group of vigilantes. Boss Flowers controlled them but for something like simple theft, any one of them could choose to act, and maybe just to impress the Boss and rise up in the hierarchy. People in the neighborhood went out of their way to avoid trouble and yet here it was; practically at their front door. He felt a spurt of anger at his brother. How many times had he told him just to keep his head down and not make waves? He hoped George would come home early for once but he couldn’t count on it.
Upstairs someone ran down the hall. Aidan heard the sound of retching and then the toilet flush. And at the same time he realized that the Malcolm and Freddie’s thumps and thuds had ceased. Frowning he turned to face his brother who cradled Hannah in his arms. Her face was flushed and pale at the same time. Her eyes half closed so the blue irises peeped out from under her lids.
“She’s burning up,” Sammy said, moving his palm to her forehead.
“Could you move over there?” Del asked, snapping her eyes at him. She was striving for a calm tone but as usual her emotions betrayed her.
She never knew exactly how Dominic would respond. Most often he ignored her requests, sometimes he laughed at her, and sometimes he refused.
“You know I need to stay within striking range, Delfina,” he said arranging his long legs more comfortably. He was sprawled out on the steps with his face pointed towards the sun. The mirror sunglasses he affected, glinted; his black hair had that whole messy, but perfectly groomed thing going on. She wondered where he got his product.
“Don’t call me that!”
“Del, then,” he said mildly. “I don’t work for you, remember. If something happened, it would be my life.”
“You make me uncomfortable. And you don’t want me complaining to my dad.”
He shrugged and stretched like a cat. “I’ll take my chances with Boss Flowers.”
She stared at her lunch sandwich. They’d put mayo on it even though she’d told Dom to get it without, and in the heat of the sun it had gotten gloopy and translucent. She thought she might puke.
Dom had already eaten his sandwich; something thick with slabs of meat and crusty home-style bread, just to prove he could afford it, and now he was looking around at the small clusters of students dotting the quad. He seemed relaxed, bored even, but Del knew he was assessing each and every one of them; figuring out their danger quotient. She suppressed a snort of annoyance. She hardly knew anyone at this school, not even by sight, but she doubted any of them were capable of kidnapping or torture.
Transferring in halfway through term was difficult enough, even without all the other stuff that set her apart.
And Dom was just about the most suspicious person around. He was only a couple of years older than her and was supposed to be passing as a slightly delinquent under-achieving senior, but there was no way. He gave off total predator vibes. Del wondered how much her dad had had to pay the school to overlook the fact that he never attended classes and just lounged in the hallways waiting for her to come out. And then shadowed her like a dog.
After a few long seconds of her shooting daggers at him with her eyes and him steadfastly ignoring her, he shifted over to the opposite end of the cold stone steps, and resumed cleaning his nails. His thick hair swept across his forehead. A couple of sophomores walked past him whispering and giggling but he paid them no mind.
Jeez thought Del impatiently. Everything was such a show with him.
She glared at the knife. It was small, maybe five inches, but wide and sharp with a double edge. He used it for everything; kept it in a small sheaf strapped above his ankle. Right now it was removing grime from under his fingernails. A few moments ago he’d peeled an apple with it in one long continuous strip and then eaten chunks of fruit off the blade point. She’d tried to ignore the flash of his white teeth and the muscles bunching along his firm jaw. One of her problems with Dom- and there were many- was that he thought he was God’s gift and there were enough stupid girls in the world to ensure he kept thinking like that, no matter how many times she put him in his place.
Like those ones staring at him from behind their lashes and sticking their chests out. She glowered at them until they turned away, tossing their hair and throwing her mean glances. They probably thought she was jealous; girls like that only operated on one level.
More kids were collecting in the quad. Most of them in groups, tossing Frisbees and hacky sacks around, chattering, laughing. Del wondered what it felt like to always move around in a pack.
She could have gone to the library as usual, but the heat made the room almost unbearable and she’d discovered that all the windows were welded shut. Yesterday, it had been impossible to concentrate on her reading with all the coughing and sneezing going on around her. It had sounded like a tuberculosis ward. Despite the recent hot weather, it did seem like a lot of students were fighting colds, slouching in the halls, all peaked and tired-looking.
“You make any friends yet?” Dom asked. Sometimes he almost seemed to read her mind.
“Oh sure,” she said sarcastically.
“Your dad doesn’t mind if you do.”
“Basically your presence here ensures that everyone thinks I am a total freak. And a bitch.”
He looked at her appraisingly, but the usual mocking smirk was absent.
“There’s ways you could sort of downplay the situation, you know. But you act like I’m your muscle. It sets you apart. And your clothes—”
She whipped her long hair out of her face and stared at him. “What about my clothes?”
“It’s pretty casual here. You might want to not wear everything from the Italian designer house all at the same time.”
She brushed imaginary lint from her sleeve. “This was expensive.”
“Exactly,” he said lazily, sprawling even more. “You stick out, like an orchid among daisies.”
“So you’re saying I should blend in? Start right now, you mean? Join the band or the drama club? I have less in common with these kids than you do.”
“You’re unapproachable.” He waved to a couple of girls and they simpered and waved back. “You could try and be friendlier.”
“At least I give it a shot.” He raked his eyes over one girl’s body. She was wearing a very brief skirt and her legs were long and tanned. He smiled. “They’re not that hard to please. Just give them a little attention.”
“You talk like they’re a different species.”
He turned to face her. “They are.”
She sneered at him.
“They’re sheep. Most of them anyway,” he continued.
“And you’re a wolf, I suppose.”
“Of course.” He admired his nails, and slid the knife back in its sheaf.
“Or some other kind of canine,” she said.
“You and me are the same, Del.”
She frowned, tired of this conversation already.
“You gonna eat your sandwich?” he asked.
“I told you I hate mayonnaise.”
“Can’t really make egg salad without it. Those are real eggs. Cost me twenty.”
You couldn’t buy eggs in the corner shop anymore. He must have got them on the black market.
“Dollars or posies?” she asked. Posies were a form of money used to pay for illegal or hard-to-find items like meat, cow’s milk, cigarettes, fresh produce, alcohol, guns, Italian fashion. Her dad had come up with the system, then made sure that his money retained value, and encouraged people to use it exclusively. For that favor, someone had started calling the bills ‘posies’, as in a clever twist on their last name.
“Posies. Some day your dad’ll be running everything. He’s diversifying. Looking ahead.”
“That’s the plan anyway.” She knew her dad had been taking meetings with different pharmaceutical and medical companies, and upping his Eyes on the street. He talked with her about it sometimes over dinner; just the two of them, like in the old days.
Something in Dom’s voice made her wonder what his own plan for the future was. Did he think he was the heir to the Flowers’s empire? He’d been around ever since she could remember. First, just as a kid runner low down in the ranks, but lately glued by her dad’s side, unless he was assigned to her, of course. But he was just the bastard son of some Jersey lieutenant. It didn’t matter how ambitious or smart he was, her dad would hand everything over to her one day.
She noticed that Dom was checking out each kid carefully. No, not all the kids now. Just the boys.
“What are you doing?”
“Boss asked me to keep a look out for someone. Collect on a debt.”
Del shook her head. There was no way she’d ever fit in here if Dom was going to combine business with school. Plenty of kids from the neighborhoods joined up, of course, starting in the Eyes and working their way up, but school property was supposed to be out of bounds. Even the dealers knew her dad would string them up by their ankles if they plied their trade here.
“We’re supposed to be keeping a low profile. You’re supposed to listen to what I say.”
“Don’t worry, Lady Del, I won’t embarrass you,” he said with an arrogant grin.
So cocky! She racked her brain for some way to blast his ego.
He got to his feet without a rush. If you didn’t know him you’d think he was relaxed but Del could see that his muscles were primed to spring into action. The long leather jacket was a little tighter across his shoulders. His right hand hovered near his pocket. She knew he kept a snub-nosed gun there. And on the other side, a short club made out of a length of iron pipe. He probably wouldn’t draw either but he liked to check his weapons just in case.
Del followed his eyes. A tall, athletic boy with a mop of blonde hair was approaching the steps. His head was down, his hands shoved into his jeans’ pockets. He looked like he was in deep thought but there was a nervy alertness about him as well.
Dom stepped right up to him.
“You Sammy Finn?” he asked in a deceptively mild voice.
The boy stared at him, casting a quick look over his shoulder at the students standing around. A flash of fear moved across his face but so quick it was like a shadow. For a minute Del thought he was going to run for it and part of her wanted to warn him not to. There was nothing Dom liked more than a chase. After a long moment though, the boy squared his shoulders and drew himself up to his full height.
“You live over off of Tenth? The semi-detached. Your mom is a nurse?”
“Who the hell are you?”
“That’s hardly important.”
The two boys stood really close together, fair head next to dark, as if they were good friends, but Del was expert at gauging tension. It was something she’d had to master before the age of six, living with her dad.
This Sammy looked like he was ready to jump out of skin but he had unconsciously flexed his fists too, and she thought he’d be willing to fight if it came to that. Dom had noticed as well. He leaned in closer and his hand went casually to the inside pocket, which held his club. They were facing off like a couple of cats, all bristle and spine.
Dom looked him over carefully, reassessing him. “You know who I represent?”
“The Eyes. Boss Flowers.”
“Know why I’m here?”
“Yeah.” Without relaxing his muscles, the Sammy guy took a step backwards. There was maybe two feet between them now.
“What do I have to do to even things out? Make all this go away?” he said. “I can give you back the board.”
“Boards are a dime a dozen. It’s the principle of the thing. It sets a bad example, you know? Otherwise it’s just anarchy out there.”
The Sammy guy snorted derisively. “Why don’t you just tell me the bottom line?” He seemed annoyed more than anything. Dom looked completely taken aback. And Del had to keep herself from laughing. This guy was clearly no sheep.
Dom leaned in again, his mouth a straight line. He poked his finger at Sammy’s chest. “This is serious, man.”
Sammy leaned in too. “Last I checked, no one was telling anyone else what was funny or not funny.” He ran his fingers through his mop of hair. “Just tell me what you want me to do. Deliver some packages? Run a few errands?” He sounded tired and frustrated, like he was barely keeping his temper in check. There were deep shadows under his eyes, and his clothes were rumpled as if he had slept in them.
Del tried to remember if she’d seen him around before. He looked the same age as her. They maybe even had classes together but she’d gotten so used to just blurring faces together, ignoring names, being incognito, that she couldn’t place him.
Hollering rose from a tight cluster of students at the bottom of the steps. A fight had broken out between a couple of football throwers. Everyone was getting to their feet, rushing over to check it out, egg the guys on. Dom was distracted momentarily but Del watched a short, muscular boy walk past Sammy, bump knuckles, and she clearly heard him say, “What up, Aidan?”
Aidan nodded briefly, his eyes flicking back to Dom whose head was turned towards the fight, and then he adjusted his stance, so that his weight was balanced on the balls of his feet. He was going to throw a punch, Del thought. Sammy, or Aidan, or whoever the hell he was, was about to get into more trouble than he had ever dreamed of. Why had he lied about his identity, she wondered. Why would someone voluntarily take heat that wasn’t even directed towards them?
“Dom,” Del said, standing up.
“Yeah,” he said, without taking his eyes from Aidan.
“Give him to me.”