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When Home is the Polar Bear Capital of the World


 

“I like to go out for walks, but it’s a little awkward to push the baby stroller and carry a shotgun at the same time.”—a housewife from Churchill, Manitoba

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That’s right, welcome to Churchill, Manitoba! Year-round human population: 943. Yet despite the isolation and the searing cold here at the Arctic’s edge, visitors from around the globe flock to the town every fall, driven by a single purpose: to see polar bears in the wild. And for a brief time, one family from Oakland, Californa called it their home. And this is a tiny glimpse of author Zac Unger’s wild adventure, where polar bears stroll across coffee shops and can be seen checking out garbage cans.


 

Walking around outside in Churchill took a little getting used to. A number of people told me that if I was ever about to have an encounter with a polar bear, I would be forwarned by a distinctive tingling along the length of my spine. But I had been feeling that tingle since the minute I landed, and it reappeared every single time I tied my boots and stepped outside. Either my every move was being followed, or my bear detector was seriously on the fritz.

“Is your spine tingling?” I asked Mac.

“What’s my spine?”

“It’s the bone in your back.”

“My spine’s OK,” he said. “But my nose is cold.”

I stepped down off the wall and scooped up little Zeke, who was eating pebbles. His coat was misbuttoned, his hat was askew, and his scarf was tied in a fashion that was more noose-like than warmth-giving. A two-year-old California boy has difficulty understanding the direct relationship how he dresses and how comfortable he will be. I’m quite sure that he would have happily frozen to death rather than submit willingly to having a down coat put on him. He always fought valiantly as we headed out the door, but I outweighed him by a solid 150 pounds, so I usually won.

Holding Percy’s hand tightly, Shona looked as nervous as I felt. “Should we really be up here?” she asked, nodding at the Polar Bear Alert signs.

“We’ll probably be fine,” I said. “I saw some kids playing around here yesterday.” It occurred to me that all of the bear warnings were as much about the Churchill brand as about any actual danger. The unofficial town motto could be Scre hem and They Will Come.

“We’d feel pretty stupid if we got eaten by a bear, though,” Shona said. True enough. As if to agree with his mother, Zeke squirmed and whimpered, bait-like in my arms. In the end, we decided that Mac and I would say and explore, just a few minutes, and Shona and the others would go back. In my quick and stupid calculus of risk, I figured that I could grab Mac and run with him, but that Shona and the others would have more trouble. Besides, this was a four-year-old boy we were talking about, with a long-standing interest in the construction projects, rocks, and ruination in general. Showing him a crumbling castle might be worth a minor mauling.

After Shona and the other two kids left, Mac rambled without fear while I peered around corners and tried to keep him close. It was easy to imagine a sleeping bear nestled down in a roofless bedroom or prowling around possessively like an impotent emperor surveying the trappings of a nobility that had long since eroded.

“We should go, Mac,” I said. “It’s not really safe here.”

He considered my statement for a minute. Even back home I was constantly telling him that he was on the verge of killing himself, and he’d long since decided to be selective in regard to the advice he was willing to take. “It’s not really a person place anymore,” he responded at last, giving a respectful nod to my paranoia. “It’s kind of like he built a castle and gave it to the polars. And polars don’t need roofs.”

I wished I could share Mac’s calm, but I was glad to be going. I lifted him over the last wall and watched as he trundled off, zigzagging out of his way in order to smash the ice on top of every puddle. “Heeeere polars,” he sang as he ran. “Come on out big bad beary-bears… You can have my little broooooother.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

A magical debut with a fairy tale feel that will break your heart . . . Perfect for fans of The Night Circus, The Bear and the Nightingale and Uprooted.

 

 

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1

Liba

If you want to know the history of a town, read the gravestones in its cemetery. That’s what my Tati always says. Instead of praying in the synagogue like all the other men of our town, my father goes to the cemetery to pray. I like to go there with him every morning.

The oldest gravestone in our cemetery dates back to 1666. It’s the grave I like to visit most. The names on the stone have long since been eroded by time. It is said in our shtetl that it marks the final resting place of a bride and a groom who died together on their wedding day. We don’t know anything else about them, but we know that they were buried, arms embracing, in one grave. I like to put a stone on their grave when I go there, to make sure their souls stay down where they belong, and when I do, I say a prayer that I too will someday find a love like that.

That grave is the reason we know that there were Jews in Dubossary as far back as 1666. Mami always said that this town was founded in love and that’s why my parents chose to live here. I think it means something else—that our town was founded in tragedy. The death of those young lovers has been a pall hanging over Dubossary since its inception. Death lives here. Death will always live here.

2

Laya

I see Liba going
to the cemetery with Tati.
I don’t know
what she sees
in all those cold stones.
But I watch,
and wonder,
why he never takes me.

When we were little,
Liba and I went to
the Talmud Torah.
For Liba, the black letters
were like something
only she could decipher.
I never understood
what she searched for,
in those black
scratches of ink.
I would watch
the window,
study the forest
and the sky.

When we walked home,
Liba would watch the boys
come out of the cheder
down the road.
I know that when she looked
at Dovid, Lazer and Nachman,
she wondered
what was taught
behind the walls
the girls were not
allowed to enter.

After her Bat Mitzvah,
Tati taught her Torah.
He tried to teach me too,
when my turn came,
but all I felt was
distraction,
disinterest.
Chanoch l’naar al pi darko,
Tati would say,
teach every child
in his own way,
and sigh,
and get up
and open the door.
Gey, gezinte heit—
I accept that you’re different, go.

And while I was grateful,
I always wondered
why he gave up
without a fight.

3

Liba

As I follow the large steps my father’s boots make in the snow, I revel in the solitude. This is why I cherish our morning walks. They give me time to talk to Tati, but also time to think. “In silence you can hear God,” Tati says to me as we walk. But I don’t hear God in the silence—I hear myself. I come here to get away from the noises of the town and the chatter of the townsfolk. It’s where I can be fully me.

“What does God sound like?” I ask him. When I walk with Tati, I feel like I’m supposed to think about important things, like prayer and faith.

“Sometimes the voice of God is referred to as a bat kol,” he says. I translate the Hebrew out loud: “The daughter of a voice? That doesn’t make any sense.”

He chuckles. “Some say that bat kol means an echo, but others say it means a hum or a reverberation, something you sense in the air that’s caused by the motion of the universe—part of the human voice, but also part of every other sound in the world, even the sounds that our ears can’t hear. It means that sometimes even the smallest voice can have a big opinion.” He grins, and I know that he means me, his daughter; that my opinion matters. I wish it were true. Not everybody in our town sees things the way my father does. Most women and girls do not study Torah; they don’t learn or ask questions like I do. For the most part, our voices don’t matter. I know I’m lucky that Tati is my father.

Although I love Tati’s stories and his answers, I wonder why a small voice is a daughter’s voice. Sometimes I wish my voice could be loud—like a roar. But that is not a modest way to think. The older I get, the more immodest my thoughts become.

I feel my cheeks flush as my mind wanders to all the things I shouldn’t be thinking about—what it would feel like to hold the hand of a man, what it might feel like to kiss someone, what it’s like when you finally find the man you’re meant to marry and you get to be alone together, in bed . . . I swallow and shake my head to clear my thoughts.

If I shared the fact that this is all I think about lately, Mami and Tati would say it means it’s time for me to get married. But I’m not sure I want to get married yet. I want to marry for love, not convenience. These thoughts feel like sacrilege. I know that I will marry a man my father chooses. That’s the way it’s done in our town and among Tati’s people. Mami and Tati married for love, and it has not been an easy path for them.

I take a deep breath and shake my head from all my thoughts. This morning, everything looks clean from the snow that fell last night and I imagine the icy frost coating the insides of my lungs and mind, making my thoughts white and pure. I love being outside in our forest more than anything at times like these, because the white feels like it hides all our flaws.

Perhaps that’s why I often see Tati in the dark forest that surrounds our home praying to God or—as he would say—the Ribbono Shel Oylam, the Master of the Universe, by himself, eyes shut, arms outstretched to the sky. Maybe he comes out here to feel new again too.

Tati comes from the town of Kupel, a few days’ walk from here. He came here and joined a small group of Chassidim in the town—the followers of the late Reb Mendele, who was a disciple of the great and holy Ba’al Shem Tov. There is a small shtiebl where the men pray, in what used to be the home of Urka the Coachman. It is said that the Ba’al Shem Tov himself used to sit under the tree in Urka’s courtyard. The Chassidim here accepted my father with open arms, but nobody accepted my mother.

Sometimes I wonder if Reb Mendele and the Ba’al Shem Tov (zichrono livracha) were still with us, would the community treat Mami differently? Would they see how hard she tries to be a good Jew, and how wrong the other Jews in town are for not treating her with love and respect. It makes me angry how quickly rumors spread, that Mami’s kitchen isn’t kosher (it is!) just because she doesn’t cover her hair like the other married Jewish women in our town.

That’s why Tati built our home, sturdy and warm like he is, outside our town in the forest. It’s what Mami wanted: not to be under constant scrutiny, and to have plenty of room to plant fruit trees and make honey and keep chickens and goats. We have a small barn with a cow and a goat, and a bee glade out back and an orchard that leads all the way down to the river. Tati works in town as a builder and a laborer in the fields. But he is also a scholar, worthy of the title Rebbe, though none of the men in town call him that.

Sometimes I think my father knows more than the other Chassidim in our town, even more than Rabbi Borowitz who leads our tiny kehilla, and the bare bones prayer minyan of ten men that Tati sometimes helps complete. There are many things my father likes to keep secret, like his morning dips in the Dniester River that I never see, but know about, his prayer at the graveside of Reb Mendele, and our library. Our walls are covered in holy books—his sforim, and I often fall asleep to the sound of him reading from the Talmud, the Midrash, and the many mystical books of the Chassidim. The stories he reads sound like fairy tales to me, about magical places like Babel and Jerusalem.

In these places, there are scholarly men. Father would be respected there, a king among men. And there are learned boys of marriageable age—the kind of boys Tati would like me to marry someday. In my daydreams, they line up at the door, waiting to get a glimpse of me—the learned, pious daughter of the Rebbe. And my Tati would only pick the wisest and kindest for me.

I shake my head. In my heart of hearts, that’s not really what I want. When Laya and I sleep in our loft, I look out the skylight above our heads and pretend that someone will someday find his way to our cabin, climb up onto the roof, and look in from above. He will see me and fall instantly in love.

Because lately I feel like time is running out. The older I get, the harder it will be to find someone. And when I think about that, I wonder why Tati insists that Laya and I wait until we are at least eighteen.

I would ask Mami, but she isn’t a scholar like Tati, and she doesn’t like to talk about these things. She worries about what people say and how they see us. It makes her angry, but she wrings dough instead of her hands. Tati says her hands are baker’s hands, that she makes magic with dough. Mami can make something out of nothing. She makes cheese and gathers honey; she mixes bits of bark and roots and leaves for tea. She bakes the tastiest challahs and cakes, rugelach and mandelbrot, but it’s her babka she’s famous for. She sells her baked goods in town.

When she’s not in the kitchen, Mami likes to go out through the skylight above our bed and onto the little deck on our roof to soak up the sun. Laya likes to sit up there with her. From the roof, you can see down to the village and the forest all around. I wonder if it’s not just the sun that Mami seeks up there. While Tati’s head is always in a book, Mami’s eyes are always looking at the sky. Laya says she dreams of somewhere other than here. Somewhere far away, like America.

4

Laya

I always thought
that if I worshipped God,
dressed modestly,
and walked in His path,
that nothing bad
would happen
to my family.
We would find
our path to Zion,
our own piece of heaven
on the banks
of the Dniester River.

But now that I’m fifteen
I see what a life
of pious devotion
has brought Mami,
who converted
to our faith—
disapproval.
The life we lead
out here is a life apart.

I wish I could go to Onyshkivtsi.
Mami always tells me stories
about her town
and Saint Anna of the Swans
who lived there.

Saint Anna
didn’t walk with God—
she knew she wasn’t made
for perfection;
she never tried
to fit a pattern
that didn’t fit her.
She didn’t waste her time
trying to smooth herself
into something
she wasn’t.
She was powerful
because she forged
her own path.

The Christians
in Onyshkivtsi
built a shrine
to honor her.
The shrine marks a spring
whose temperature
is forty- three degrees
all year,
rain or shine.
Even in the snow.

It is said
that it was once home
to hundreds of swans.
Righteous Anna used to
feed and care for them.
But Mami says the swans
don’t go there anymore.

There is rot
in the old growth—
the Kodari forest
senses these things.
I sense things too.
The rot in our community.
Sometimes it’s not enough
to be good,
if you treat others
with disdain.
Sometimes there’s nothing
you can do
but fly away,
like Anna did.

5

Liba

When we get back from our morning walk, Mami is in the kitchen making breakfast and starting the doughs for the day. Tati shakes the snow off his boots as he walks in. “Gut morgen,” he says gruffly as he pecks a kiss on Mami’s cheek. She pins her white- gold hair up and says, “Dubroho ranku. Liba, close the door quickly—you’re letting all the cold in.”

I let the hood of my coat drop down. “Where’s Laya?”

“Getting some eggs from the coop,” Mami sings. She and Laya love mornings, not like me, but I’d wake up early every morning if it meant I got time alone with Tati.

I shrug my coat off and hang it on a hook by the door as Mami pours tea at the table. “Nu? Come in, warm up,” she says to me.

I shake the chill off and start braiding my hair, which is the color of river rocks. Long and thick. I can’t pin it up at all. “Your hair is beautiful like moonstone, dochka,” Mami says. “Leave it down.”

“More like oil on fur,” I say, because it’s sleek and shiny and I never feel like I can tame it. It will never be white and light like hers and Laya’s.

“Do you want me to braid it for you?” Mami asks.

I shake my head.

“Come here, my zaftig one,” Tati says. “Your hair is fine; leave it be.”

I cringe: I don’t like it when he calls me plump, even though it’s a term of endearment, and anyway, I know what comes next. Laya walks in and he says, “Oh, the shayna meidel has decided to join us.” The pretty one. I concentrate on braiding my hair.

Laya grins. “Gut morgen. How was your walk?” She looks at me.

I shrug my shoulders and finish braiding my hair, then sit at the table and lift a cup of tea to my mouth. “Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech haolam, shehakol nih’ye bidvaro—Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, by whose word all things came to be.” I make sure to say every word of the blessing with meaning.

Oymen!” Tati says with a smile.

Instead of trying to be something I will never be, I do everything I can to be a good Jew.

6

Laya

When I was outside
gathering eggs,
I searched the sky,
hoping to see something—
anything.
One night I heard
feathers rustling
and turned around
and looked up—
a swan had landed
on our rooftop.
It was watching me.
I didn’t breathe
the whole time
it was there.
Until it spread
its wings
and took off
into the sky.

Every night I pray
that it will happen again
because if I ever see
another swan,
I won’t hold my breath—
I will open the window
and go outside.

That’s why I rake my gaze
over every flake of bark
and every teardrop leaf,
hoping. I see that
every finger- branch
is reaching for something.
I am reaching too.
Up up up.

At night I feel
the weight
of the house
upon my chest.
It’s warm
and safe inside,
but the wooden planks
above my head
are nothing like
the dark boughs
of the forest.
Sometimes I wish
I could sleep outside.
The Kodari is
the only place
I feel truly at home.

But this morning
I’m restless
and that usually means
something is about to change.
That’s what the forest
teaches you—
change can come
in the blink of an eye—
the fall of one spark
can mean total destruction.

There is a fever
that burns in me.
It prickles every pore.
I’m not happy with
the simple life we lead.
A life ruled
by prayer and holy days,
times for dusk and dawn,
the sacred and the profane.
A life of devotion,
Tati would say.
The glory
of a king’s daughter
is within.

But I long for what is
just outside my window.
Far beyond
the reaches of the Dniester,
and the boundaries
of our small shtetl.

It hurts,
this thing I feel,
how unsettled
I’ve become.
I want to fit
in this home,
in this town.
To be the daughter
that Tati wants me to be.
To be more
like Liba.
Prayer comes
so easily to her.

Mami understands
what I feel
but I also think
it scares her.
She is always sending me
outside, and I’m grateful
but I also wonder
why she doesn’t
teach me how to bake,
or how to pray.
It’s almost like she knows
that one day
I will leave her.

Sometimes I wish
she’d teach me
how to stay.

I close my eyes
and take deep breaths.
It helps me
resist the urge
to scratch my back.
I want to crawl out
of this skin I wear
when these thoughts come
and threaten to overwhelm
the little peace I have,
staring at the sky,
praying in my own way
for something else.

Something is definitely
inside me.
It is not glory,
or devotion.
It is something
that wants to burst free.

7

Liba

Night falls and Tati comes home from work. It’s well past eleven. Laya is already asleep beside me. She was restless all day, I could sense that—and I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but I never got the chance. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door.

And another.

The knocks are so loud, they feel as if they could wake the dead. I can’t imagine how Laya sleeps through it. I creep to the top rung of the ladder to our loft, where I can just barely see the door. Tati goes to open it. Mami baked all day and into the night—babka for matters of the heart—and I wonder if she knew that this was coming.

Is it the Tsar’s army? Have they come for Tati? So many men from our town have been conscripted recently. Their absence in the village is felt—lights in windows have gone out all over town.

I know, we all know, that something as small as a knock—the rap of knuckles on wood—could change our lives forever. If the Tsar’s army comes for you, they take you for twenty-five years. And we know it means some people might never return.

I wait for the world I’ve known to crumble, with the scent of chocolate in the air.

“Who is it?”

There’s a muffled answer and Tati unbars the door.

A man I’ve never seen before steps inside. He bows before my father and I see Tati put a hand over his mouth and cry out.

“Yankl?”

But the man doesn’t rise until Tati places his hands upon his head and blesses him.

Ye’varech’echa Adonai ve’yish’merecha—May God bless you and keep you . . . ” I don’t understand why my father says the priestly blessing. He normally only says it on Friday nights with his hands on Laya’s head and mine—just after we sing “Shalom Aleichem” inviting the angels into our home and before he blesses the wine.

The man lifts up his head and kisses my father’s knuckles.

“Yankl!” my father says again. The men embrace. “What brings you here?” Tati asks. “How did you . . . ?”

“It wasn’t easy to find you, Rebbe, I’ll tell you that much.”

Mami takes a step forward and bows her head in his direction. “Can I offer you something hot to drink? I just made babka.”

“This is Adel, my wife,” Tati says to the strange man. And to my surprise, the man looks at her and says, “I remember.”

He wears a large cloak that looks like a bearskin, and underneath it, a satin overcoat with white stockings that end in large black boots.

“Please—take a seat.” Mami beckons the men to the table as she goes to the kitchen. I can hear her fill the kettle and put it on the fire.

The man sits down at the table and stares at Tati. “It’s good to see you, Berman.”

Tati grunts. “What brings you all this way, my brother?”

Tati has a brother?

The man starts to sway back and forth at the table as if in prayer. “Oh-yoy oh-yo-yoy, oh-yoy,” he chants. “The Rebbe is sick, Reb Berman. He doesn’t have long to live.”

I see Tati’s face go slack, white almost, like he’s seen a ghost.

“Here, have a tipple of something.” Mami takes out the schnapps and offers both men a glassful.

The man—my uncle?—takes a healthy gulp, shudders, and continues. “We need you to come home. The Rebbe needs you, Berman . . . we all need you. Please come back before it’s too late.” He takes another gulp of schnapps, then picks up the mug of tea.

Tati shakes his head. “I have to speak to my wife.”

“There isn’t much time,” Yankl pleads. “It may be too late already.”

“Then what are you doing here? Leave,” Tati growls, and slams his glass on the table.

“Berman . . . ” Mami goes to put her arms on Tati’s shoulders.

“I said I’d never go back, Adel. You know that.”

“You can’t send Yankl back out into the cold.”

Tati grunts and says, “Will you stay the night?”

Yankl stands up. “No. You’re right. I should head back right away. I gave you the message.” He shrugs. “What you do with it is on your conscience.”

“Get out of my house!” Tati yells.

“Berman!” Mami scolds.

I hear Laya turn over in bed.

Tati grumbles, “Es tut mir bahng—sorry,” and looks up at his brother. “I’ll think about it, okay?”

Yankl walks to the door.

“Yankl, I didn’t mean it. You can stay the night. You are always welcome in our home,” Tati says.

“It’s all right,” Yankl says. “I’d best be going back.”

“I’ll pack you up some food,” Mami says, “and a thermos of tea.”

He hesitates, then nods.

Mami busies herself in the kitchen, but otherwise there is silence in the room. The brothers seem to look everywhere but at each other.

A bi gezunt,” Mami finally says, bringing him a packed basket. She adds in a low voice, “I’ll talk to him. He’ll come. Don’t worry.”

And just as quickly as he’d come, the man is gone.

“Why did you tell him that?” Tati growls when she closes the door.

Mami sits down at the table and takes Tati’s hands in hers. “Calm yourself, Berman. You have no choice, and you know that. You must go back to Kupel. You have to pay your respects.”

“No choice is also a choice,” Tati grumbles. “They never had respect for you, or for me and my choices.”

“Maybe he wants to make amends . . . ”

“We haven’t had word in over a dozen years. They cast us out! I swore to you. I swore to myself that I would never go back. And now they want me back? Me, they said, not you. I won’t go.”

“Yankl didn’t say that,” Mami sighs. “You know how I feel about your family . . . but if your father goes to his oylam, chas v’shalom—God forbid—and you don’t make it back there, you’ll never forgive yourself.”

“And then they’ll never let me leave. I’m next in line. You know that. And if they won’t accept you, I want no part of it. What—I should leave my wife and daughters to go see a father who never approved of me?”

Mami’s long thin hands grip Tati’s large ones tightly, her knuckles white. “Yankl wouldn’t have come unless the situation was dire. I think you should leave now. Tonight. I’ll stay here with the girls.” She looks into his eyes and says, “I trust you. I know that you’ll come back for us.”

“It’s not about trust, Adel,” Tati says ruefully. “What would happen if you went back to your family?”

Mami shakes her head. “I could never.”

“So why is this any different?”

“Because the Rebbe is on his deathbed! Really, Berman?”

“And if Dmitry was dying?”

Who is Dmitry? I wish I understood half of what they are discussing. Everything feels both foreign and familiar all at once, as if these are someone else’s parents—but also, as if these are things I’ve heard them discuss in my dreams.

“It’s not the same and you know it. I’m sick of this life we lead,” Mami says. “A hovel at the edge of the forest? A shtetl full of nebbishers who talk behind our backs every chance they get. This town is a dead end. We are on the brink. Maybe this is your chance at salvation. To reclaim all you lost.”

“Maybe we should go to your family, then, eh? Reclaim them.”

“You know we can’t do that.”

Tati raises his voice. “So why is this any different?”

Mami starts to cry.

Tati gets up and goes to put his arms around her. “You chose this life. You chose me. Are you saying you regret that choice?”

“No, never!” Mami looks up. “But maybe you can have both. Them and me. You have a chance now. You know I never will.”

“Adel.” He hugs her tightly and sighs. “I will only go if you come with me.”

“What? And leave the girls?” Mami’s voice is shrill and I hear Laya turn over in bed again.

“If we get there and the Rebbe, my Tati, is willing to finally accept you,” he says in a voice that sounds cracked, “publicly, then we can come back here, get the girls, and move back to Kupel. But I won’t expose them to that kind of spectacle unless I know what my father’s answer will be. They must accept you first. That’s my condition.”

“We can’t leave the girls.”

“The kehilla will take care of them. And anyway, they don’t have travel permits. None of us do. I won’t take the girls on the road and expose them to that kind of danger. If we are caught, it will mean certain death.” Tati rubs his hand across his forehead. “For now, they’re safer here in Dubossary.”

“Are you meshugge? They’ll be prey to any man!”

“Liba won’t let that happen. She’s stronger than she knows.”

“Maybe we should tell them . . . ”

Tell us what?

“No! We said we’d wait until they got engaged and we’ll keep to that. No need to worry them before that. The townsfolk are mensches. They’ll take care of our girls and keep them safe.”

“No girls should be without parents,” Mami says.

“Liba will keep house until we return. She’s nearly eighteen.”

“Which is even more of a reason for us all to go back. What kind of future does she have here? You always say that no one from this town will marry our girls. Well, here’s your chance. Liba is almost of age. You can’t wait forever. It’s time, Berman.”

“When the time comes, I will find them worthy husbands. Don’t you worry about that.”

“When? How old does Liba have to be? You’ll wait until she’s too old for anyone to want her and then see what’s left? Let them come with us. Please?”

My skin suddenly feels cold, coated with pinpricks of ice.

“No!” Tati says. “My girls are more precious to me than rubies and pearls. I won’t risk their lives on the roads.”

I can tell that Mami’s crying in earnest now.

“Adel . . . ” Tati’s voice is instantly soft.

“No!” Mami cries. “I gave up everything I was—everything I had—for you. I did everything right, and it still wasn’t enough. Not here, not there, maybe not anywhere. There’s no love lost between me and your family. But it’s not like things are all that much better here. I hear what people say. I know how they talk. Please go alone. Do it for me. For us. Get his blessing. Then come back safe and sound and we’ll either stay here, or we’ll go.”

“And what if they don’t let me leave? What if I can’t come back? What if my father is on his deathbed for months? I can’t take that chance. I’ll be lost without you. You know how they get into my head. You are my life, gelibteh, I can’t go without you by my side.” He lowers his voice and suddenly sounds nothing like my father. “I don’t trust myself when I’m with them.”

Mami shakes her head and makes a fist. “And if someone murders the girls in the night, or ravages them, you could live? You’re a beast to think to leave them.”

“I am a beast,” he chuckles, “but I haven’t acted like one in many years, and you know that better than anyone.” Then he looks at her solemnly. “In times like these, people change. Maybe everything will be different. And if not . . . ” I can see my father swallow hard, his jaw working. “You’re right. I have a responsibility to my parents. At least to mourn, to say kaddish at my father’s grave if it comes to that.”

“You know . . . if things don’t work out . . . there are other places we could go. People speak of America.”

“America is a fairy tale.”

Mami throws her hands up in defeat. “You’re impossible.” She shakes her head and sighs. “Fine. I’ll come with you.”

Tati takes a deep breath and softens his tone. “The girls will be okay. We will come back for them, I promise. Adel . . . I know you think that I’m against you in this, but I’m not. It is honestly safer for Liba and Laya to stay here.”

Mami seems to make a decision. She gets up and walks across the room. She takes something out from the trunk beneath their bed.

“Adel . . . ” Tati whispers.

“Don’t stop me, Berman. I need to think. I have to get out of this cabin.”

Mami holds up something white that looks like a cloak, and drapes it over her shoulders. She rubs her arms as if goose pimples dot her skin. She begins to shiver and shake, then hunches down on the ground as if she’s in pain. Her arms arc up, graceful, yet contorted at odd angles. The air shimmers. I don’t understand what I’m seeing, only that I can’t look away. Little wisps of white start to coat her face, then her arms, and feathers, long and white, burst out of every pore. The dress she’s wearing falls to the floor in a pool of cloth, leaving her naked, except it’s not skin I see anymore, but soft white down that shines in the light. She curls into herself, like a white ball of cloud, except for her arms—they reach for the sky. I blink, and in that instant, her arms become ivory wings, feathered and majestic in the moonlight that streams down from the skylight above our heads. My mother is a swan.

My hand is over my mouth. I’m doing everything I can not to shout, not to make a sound. I’m so busy watching the swan in our kitchen that I don’t see my father reach into the trunk. When I notice, he’s taking out a brown fur cloak, one I thought I’d seen him wear before, but maybe not. This one looks different—the fur more lush and lifelike. Like the bear cloaks the townsfolk wear to celebrate the new year. Then I hear a noise that doesn’t sound very manlike and my heart skips a beat in my chest.

I look over, and in the space where my father had been, there’s a bear. This time I nearly do cry out—in fear! I’ve never seen a bear so large. It’s twice his size, like a mountain of rich dark earth. Its eyes are dark and shining, like orbs of obsidian stone, and its teeth, sharp and yellowish, terrifying, poke out of a long snout. The nose at the end of the snout is double the size of a human nose. The bear takes a step forward. His fur is so brown it looks black, like the bark of a birch tree, rippling in a sheen with every move he makes to reveal powerful muscles and paws with claws that look sharp as daggers and dig into the wooden floor. It’s a dream, I keep telling myself, it must be a dream. A fairy tale coming to life in my head, nothing more. I look over at Laya and see that she’s still sleeping. Maybe I’m sleeping too?

I’m trembling so hard I feel as if I might tumble down the ladder.

The bear nudges the front door latch open with his snout and looks back at the swan. The swan leaps onto his back as he lumbers out of the house, careful to close the door behind him. I let myself breathe hard once the door closes. I clasp and flex my fingers, trying to wake myself up, but my fingernails feel sharper and when I look down at them, they’ve grown black and dark, with fine points that almost look like claws. I cry out and reach for Laya, but when my hand hovers over her sleeping form, I see that the hair on my arm has nearly doubled in volume and thickness. I bring my arm back, afraid of what my own hands might do. I hold myself instead, trembling in fear. I close my eyes and let the tears that have gathered fall onto my nightgown, afraid to rub my own eyes and do them damage, and too scared to move lest Laya wake and see what’s happening to me. It’s a dream, Liba, just a dream, I keep telling myself. When you open your eyes everything will go back to normal.

I lie down in bed and try to steady my breathing. I wait, my heart thundering in my chest, until I hear the rustling of bedcovers and the sound of my father’s snores. I open my eyes and look at my still-shaking hands—they look completely normal. I take a deep breath and creep down the ladder, determined to see my parents as I’ve always seen them—human and whole.

Mami is awake, drinking tea at the table. I sit by her feet and put my head in her lap.

“I had a bad dream,” I say in a shaky voice.

“What did you dream?”

“I heard you and Tati speaking,” I confess.

“Oh, dochka. You heard?” She takes a deep breath. “And saw?”

I nod. “Everything,” I say, and my voice shakes.

It’s in that moment that all I’ve ever known changes. Mami always says that fairy tales are real. With my head in my swan-mother’s lap, I start to believe—and I wonder which tale is ours.

Mami leans down and embraces me.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” she says. “But it’s not everything.” She shakes her silky white-blonde hair and her tears fall on my cheeks. “There are things I need to tell you.”

But Mami doesn’t say anything more, and soon I get up and silently make my way up the ladder back to bed. All night I watch the windows and the doors. I can’t sleep. Yankl’s words about the Rebbe dying scare me because I don’t know what it will mean for our future. But the truth of what I’ve seen my parents become scares me even more.

Tati always says that every heart has its secrets, and it is not our role in life to try and uncover them. I’ve uncovered my parents’ secrets, and more terrifying than anything, I think that means I have a secret too.

As I watch Laya sleep, I see her scratch in places where only wings grow, and then I know. My body is thick and large-boned while my sister’s is lithe. We both eat fish, but I hunger for meat.

We both love the Dniester River, but I’m drawn to its dark places, while she loves the tall trees that line its banks and the open air above. My hair is coarse and black- brown, but hers is blonde like Mami’s . . . nearly white. Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.

There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.

Now I know we are a part of that unseen world.

Literary Wonderlands: The World of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

“God is a National Resource” in this remarkably powerful, feminist dystopian novel about a repressive American theocratic dictatorship.

In 1984, when Margaret Atwood began writing her dystopia set in a near-futureAmerica, she made the decision not to include technology that was not already available, nor anything human beings had not already done in some other time or place, so she could not be accused of, as she put it, “misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behavior.”

The transformation of the U.S. into a theocratic dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead has been brought about by true believers, religious fanatics driven by a determination to establish God’s kingdom on Earth, much as the Puritan settlers (who included some of Atwood’s ancestors) were determined to do in seventeenth-century New England.

Prior to the beginning of the novel, fundamentalist Christian extremists assassinated the president and Congress, pinning the blame on Islamic terrorists and allowing their army to declare a state of emergency, in which the Constitution is “temporarily” suspended, news is censored, identity cards issued, and, with the new religious rulers in place, new rules imposed. Overnight, women lose the right to have jobs, or bank accounts, or to do anything except submit to the will of their husbands. And all are subject to the rule of the Commanders of the Faith, who claim biblical authority for every act, having abolished any distinction between church and state.

The narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale is a young woman known only as Offred—“Of Fred”—designated as the legal concubine of a high-ranking Commander whose first name is Fred. Only a few years before, she had a name and a job, a husband and a child, friends, and freedoms she took for granted. But the family left it too late to cross into Canada with fake passports, and now her husband is either dead or in detention, her daughter adopted by a childless couple. The only thing keeping Offred from being shipped off to perform slave labor in “the Colonies” is the possibility she might bear a baby for the Commander and his wife. For another major element driving this bleak vision of the future is that from a multitude of causes—including radiation, pollution, and untreated STDs—there has been a steep drop in human fertility, so women of child-bearing age and proven fertility are very valuable.

The biblical book of Genesis includes the story of Jacob, who married two sisters, Rachel and Leah. When Rachel produced no children, she told Jacob to impregnate her maid, Bilhah: “and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” Thus, under a regime that fears and mistrusts all science, preferring to find the answer to every problem through selective reading of an ancient book, the solution to childlessness, at least in the upper ranks, is to establish Rachel and Leah Centers for the indoctrination of “handmaids” to be assigned to the households of all childless Commanders. (Naturally, the centers are not named after the handmaidens who had Jacob’s children, but after his wives.)

In Gilead, society is rigidly hierarchical and divided by gender: Commanders of the Faith at the top; below them the Eyes (secret police), then Angels (soldiers), Guardians (low-level police duties), all male civilians, and all women. Women have no power of their own, and are valued only as wives and the producers of babies. Some unmarried women are assigned other roles by the state—the “Aunts” who indoctrinate and control those who have been selected as potential surrogate mothers and “Marthas” who work as cooks and cleaners. A few women survive by practicing the oldest profession—a brothel known as Jezebel’s is permitted to thrive, and the men in power take liberties forbidden to others.

If a handmaid fails to conceive after three different postings she is declared an “Unwoman” and sent off to “the Colonies.” This is a euphemism for forced labor camps, where lives are brutal and short. Women likewise become “unwomen” if they refuse to submit, or the men in power have no more use for them.

Women are not the only victims of this repressive, rigidly stratified, coercively heterosexual, white dictatorship. Enemies of the state regularly tortured and then executed include Catholic priests, Quakers, doctors (if they ever performed an abortion, prescribed contraception, or are accused of having done so), and “gender traitors.” African-Americans, called “Children of Ham,” have been resettled in distant, underpopulated areas such as North Dakota, now designated a “National Homeland,” and Jews were given a choice between conversion and emigration to Israel.

Offred’s life as a handmaid is relatively easy, but deeply boring. Most of her time is spent waiting. The occasions when the Commander must attempt to impregnate her are as de-sexualized as intercourse can possibly be (“This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty.”) and she wonders if it is worse for his wife, or for her. Her room is as bare as a prison cell, almost everything we would take for granted is classed as a luxury (hand cream) or a sin (reading). She is marked out by her red robes, as the wives are by their blue ones and the Marthas in green. Her daily walk is taken with another handmaid, and they are expected to police each other: If one tries to escape or does anything wrong, the other will be punished, too.

No one is allowed to suggest that a man could be sterile—infertility is always the woman’s fault. But of course it is known, and the Commander’s wife is desperate enough for a baby to arrange for Offred to spend time alone with Nick, their handsome young chauffeur. Their intimacy, after so much deprivation and misery, is almost enough to reconcile her to her situation. How little it takes, to make someone stop resisting. How easy it is to be distracted.

Although every aspect of this society is supposedly justified by the Word of God, as presented in the Bible, only the Commanders are allowed to read it, and they use it selectively, to say the least. A famous line from Karl Marx, changed to include the expected relationship between women and men, is attributed to St. Paul when repeated to the handmaids-in-training: “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.”

The city where Offred serves is never named, but it is evidently Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University. The university where Margaret Atwood once studied has become the seat of oppression, a detention center, and the site of mass executions. Atwood has said that one of the elements that inspired her to write The Handmaid’s Tale was a fascination with how dictatorships work (“not unusual in a person born in 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II”). She explained: “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. The deep foundation of the U.S.—so went my thinking—was not the comparatively recent eighteenth-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of seventeenth-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”

 

  • First published by McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
  • Margaret Atwood dedicated the book to Mary Webster and Perry Miller. Mary Webster, believed by Atwood to have been one of her ancestors, was hanged as a witch in Puritan New England, but survived.
  • A 2015 Public Policy Polling (PPP) national survey conducted on U.S. Republican voters found that fifty-seven percent wanted to establish Christianity as the official national religion, and only thirty percent were opposed to the idea, which is specifically prohibited by the Constitution.

 

An excerpt about The Handmaid’s Tale from Literary Wonderlands: A Journey through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, general editor Laura Miller.  Copyright © Elwin Street Productions Limited 2016.  First Published in North America November 2016 by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, an imprint of Running Press, a division of Hachette Book Group. Used with permission.  All rights reserved.

Book Excerpt: A Little Piece of Light

A little piece of light “Say his name.”

I stand in front of the stainless-steel mirror in my cell in the solitary housing unit. My face is bare of any makeup—there is nothing covering this up, no making it any prettier. This is me, facing myself. Facing what I did. “Say his name,” I whisper at the mirror. “SAY HIS NAME!”

I brace myself to sit on the slab of metal that serves as my bed in my cell. “Thomas Vigliarolo,” I whimper. “His name is Thomas Vigliarolo!” The crescendo of sobs breaks me. “I’m sorry, Mr. V!” I call out. Weak from the years of carrying this weight, my voice drops again to a whisper as I beg for his forgiveness. “I am so sorry, Mr. V. I am so, so sorry that I didn’t help you.”

Cries echo throughout the unit—my own, and the cries of the women around me. In this place, our cries are our only release. We cry for ourselves, and we cry for each other. With each other.

For many of us here, imprisonment began long before the day we registered in prison. Feeling trapped and isolated began years before we found ourselves confined to a six-by-eight cinder block room with no clock to mark the time. A prison worse than any government facility is the feeling that nobody loves you. Nobody wants you. You belong nowhere. As the men in my life told me from the time I was a child: Donna, you are nobody, and nobody will ever love you. Years . . . decades . . . lives of abuse and neglect spurred many of us to make one desperate decision that finally, ultimately led us here. Too often, by the time a woman commits a crime, her only goal has been survival.

For that lapse in judgment, that poor decision—that mistake— it’s likely she will forever suffer the worst prison of all: the inability to forgive herself.

I’ll never forget waking up to my friend’s words: He’s not breath- ing. It was a turn of events that I could not fathom. Even now, half a decade after leaving prison, not a day goes by that I don’t think about Mr. Vigliarolo. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of his family, the fear they must have felt as they imagined him in fear, wondering where he was for eleven nights and worried for what he might have been experiencing.

Say his name.

I’m sorry, Mr. V.

I know what it’s like to fear for the safety of the person we love. Family is protection. I know this because on the day I gave birth, that was my fiercest vow to my daughter: I’m not going to let any- thing bad happen to you. And I know this because, beginning in my childhood, I lived a life of suffering and tough choices for two decades, until I finally found my family in the most unexpected place: prison. In spite of all the pain I’ve experienced in my life, I’ve never wanted anyone to die. But it is here, in this most unlikely place, that I found the protection and support I needed to turn my life around.

I am Donna—but here, for twenty-seven years, I was inmate.

This is my story.

Start Reading THE BRIDGE by Stuart Prebble

To him, she seemed perfect. But what is Alison hiding?

THE BRIDGE, Stuart Prebble’s “brilliantly executed” (Dayton Daily News) new thriller, goes on sale today. It’s a gripping novel (with a stunning cover, if we do say so ourselves!) that asks the terrifying question: what if the woman of your dreams is not what she seems? Get started into the mystery with this exclusive excerpt.

IT WAS A sunny Saturday afternoon, and sightseers and tourists from all parts of the world crowded onto the South Bank, streaming in both directions across Waterloo Bridge. Some were walking to or from Covent Garden or the theaters; others stopped to admire the spectacular London skyline. At first glance the Madman seemed harmless enough, just a little the worse for wear from alcohol perhaps, or maybe celebrating a victory by his football team. Dressed in blue jeans and a gray hoodie, he muttered to himself and danced light-footed as he progressed, lifting his legs high like a week-old pony. Once or twice he paused and bent his knees to speak at eye level to a child, but later no one could identify the accent or decipher the words. Parents kept a watchful eye, but there seemed to be no reason for alarm. Then, with no warning, in a single sweeping movement and before anyone could intervene, the Madman scooped up the first tiny child, a four-year-old boy apparently selected at random, and swept him over the barrier.

There was a momentary snapshot of paralysis. The boy had made no sound. Was it some trick? Had the man switched the real boy for a dummy in some bizarre and ill-judged entertainment? Before anyone could take a breath the Madman had run half a dozen steps farther towards the next child, a three-year old girl in a pink dress with birthday ribbons in her hair. Once again he gripped the child under the arms and swept her up and over the barrier, her legs suddenly pedaling through nothingness. Even now, shock and disbelief immobilized bystanders. He darted forward again and grabbed another, and yet another. Each child was seemingly as light as a wafer, flicked up to shoulder height and thrust out into emptiness. Four small people, infants and toddlers, lifted up in the space of twelve or fifteen seconds and thrown over the wall before the Madman took to his heels and vanished like a phantom into the holiday crowds.

A mother fell to her knees, cracking bones against pavement, and shuffled towards the wall as if drawn towards it like a magnet. It took more moments for the screams from the bridge to catch the attention of people below on the South Bank, and fuller realization of what had occurred spread through the crowds like waves of poison gas across a battlefield. Scores of people held their heads and covered their ears as if to prevent the news from penetrating. Eyes were turned upwards towards the sound of the cries and then followed the pointing arms into the water below. Desperate and still confused, one father jumped from the bridge and hit the surface with the slap of raw meat against concrete, but even as he submerged, already the bobbing heads which were still visible had traveled a hundred yards in the churning foam. Another brave man jumped into the water from the riverbank and struck out with an urgent stroke in the direction of the fast-moving shapes. Both were overwhelmed within moments by the strength of the swell.

The first police officers arrived on the bridge within two minutes and began trying to calm the hysteria sufficiently to understand what had happened, but it seemed that no two accounts from among the many were sufficiently similar to produce a consensus. He was variously described as eighteen years old at one extreme to about thirty-five at the other. He had brown hair or black hair or auburn hair. He was tall, medium, and short, and had an athletic build or was running to fat. The only clear agreement was about the jeans and the gray hoodie, which made him a match for about two hundred other young men in the vicinity that afternoon. CCTV recordings examined later lost track of him minutes before the incident and lost him again as a pinprick in the crowd within seconds after it.

Continue reading “Start Reading THE BRIDGE by Stuart Prebble”

Start Reading The Prometheus Man by Scott Reardon

The Prometheus Man by Scott ReardonStart the year of right—with a bracing, nerve-jangling debut thriller. Scott Reardon launches a new series for Mulholland today with the publication of The Prometheus Man. Tom races against the clock to get to the bottom of a secret government program, a project so clandestine he must go under deep cover to infiltrate it. What makes this project so dangerous? Read the opening chapter below to find out what’s at stake.

Chapter 1

“You need to come in.”

The words came out so low and fast Karl wasn’t sure he’d heard them.

He rolled over in the bed. “Who is this?” Then he remembered he was on a cell phone and the line wasn’t secure. “Wait. Say again.”

“You need to come here. Right now.”

His feet were already on the floor the moment he recognized the voice. There were questions on the tip of his tongue, but the circumstances answered them before he could speak.

Did something happen at the lab?

—Of course something happened at the lab.

Are the police there?

—He wouldn’t tell you if they were.

“Fifty minutes,” he said and hung up.

He was actually only twenty minutes away, but Weaver—the voice on the phone—didn’t know just how frequently he switched hotels. Within minutes, he was out of Paris proper and heading for the lab. It was that hour of night when so much of the world was at rest that it became a sort of death. He sped across silent streets and empty highways, a world without people, until he reached the forest outside Versailles.

He pulled onto a service road. Once he reached a redundant power station, he skidded to a stop. The wind whistled across his windows and bent the trees in his headlights. He sat there for a minute, knowing he ought to call this in to Langley, ultimately deciding he wasn’t going to do that.

He drove around the power station and took the road another half mile to a warehouse whose only color came from ancient scabs of red paint.

The stars were out. Karl could see Weaver sitting on a cinder block surrounded by black leafless trees.

Weaver had always reminded Karl of Renfield, the attorney Dracula turned into his houseboy. He was short, severe-looking, and had the kind of temper that flares only when a back is turned. Weaver said nothing as Karl approached. His eyes were fixed on the horizon, though in the woods there is no horizon.

Without looking in Karl’s direction, he stood up and led the way to the lab. The entrance to it was inside the warehouse, which wasn’t actually a warehouse. And that was the idea. No road crew or stray backpacker could ever know what was here.

Inside, the lab was dark. It wasn’t supposed to be. Weaver flipped the switch to a light by the door.

And there was blood.

It was streaked over the plexiglass wall that divided the lab from the rest of the building. Where it wasn’t streaked, it was sprayed.

Karl saw a handprint in it.

“I locked them in,” Weaver said. “I had to.”

He stood waiting for the reaction, the explosion at what he had done. But Karl just turned and stared at him.

“One of them got loose,” Weaver said. “It was waiting for us.”

Karl glanced at Weaver’s jacket pockets, looking for the bulge of a weapon.

“I got out first and used the override. By the time I got back, it had dragged Dr. Feld to the door.”

“What override?”

“It was holding him against the glass.” Weaver closed his eyes. “I couldn’t see what it was doing to him, but he was still alive.”

Karl looked at the plexiglass. There were other partial handprints and, between them, runny smears where someone had tried over and over to wipe away the blood. Which would have been difficult, like scraping egg yolk off a plate after it’s congealed.

“It was keeping him alive on purpose.” Weaver pulled out another cigarette. “It was torturing him.”

“‘Animals don’t torture other living things.’ Your words, Dr. Weaver. And please don’t smoke in here.”

Weaver turned on him. The expression on his face was hard to look at. “You don’t get it. The code. It knew he had the code to get out.”

Then Karl understood the purpose behind the wiping. The last one alive would have tried to clear the blood off the glass, so he could see Weaver. Plead with him.

“Unlock the door,” he said.

Weaver grimaced like this was a sick joke.

“They could still be alive. Unlock the door.”

“But by now the rest of the sample could be loose too. I’m not going to—”

Karl shoved Weaver back against the wall and pressed his forearm into his neck. Weaver choked in silence, in acceptance.

“You override the override,” Karl said, “or whatever the hell it is you have to do to get that door open.”

Weaver worked on the door while Karl went into the woods. At the base of a little tree, he dug up the Sig compact he’d buried in a plastic shopping bag. When he got back, he found Weaver standing across the entrance from the lab door.

They hit the fluorescents inside, but only a few came on. The rest dangled by their wiring. The alarm system went off, but since they’d disabled the sirens long ago, the blue lights spun in silence, whipping shadows around the room. Through the strobing, Karl could see Dr. Feld. He was right by the door, right where Weaver had last seen him.

Deep gouges had been cut into his skin, splitting it wide along his legs, back, and sides. His foot, still encased in its Rockport orthopedic walking shoe, lay several feet from his body. His face wasn’t on right: something powerful had gripped it and twisted.

Feld’s assistant was stretched along the floor nearby, facedown, with one arm extended overhead. Patches of hair and scalp were missing from the back of his head. The other arm was so dislocated from its socket that the wrist rested on the back of his skull. Karl didn’t see Eric Reese, the youngest member of Project Prometheus and the only one he really knew.

With his weapon raised, Karl crept through the door. The spinning lights made it seem like in every corner of the room something was moving. He listened as hard as he ever had in his life. As he scanned the room for bodies, dead or alive, his eyes stopped on something else.

He didn’t recognize it at first—it looked so different from the way it had looked the last time he’d seen it and so different from the way it was supposed to look. Only its height was the same: four feet. The largest members of the species, Karl had been told, weighed 110 pounds. This one must have weighed twice that. Its hands had thickened, and the skin on them looked chunky, like raw hamburger microwaved gray. The musculature was all wrong. It was thick like a man’s, not lengthy like a chimpanzee’s.

The chimp was propped up against a desk with its hands in its lap, like a child being read a story. There was blood pooled under its body and a hollow space where its throat had been. Skin hung in rags under its fingernails. Though he would never admit it to anyone, though it wouldn’t go in any report, Karl knew its wounds had been self-inflicted. He knelt down and gently cupped the back of its head. Then he looked at Dr. Feld and his assistant and tried to imagine scenarios in which they bled out fast. He stayed there until Weaver came up to him.

“Contact Dr. Nast,” Karl said. “Tell him everything’s on hold.”

When he looked up, Weaver was staring at him. “I thought you knew.” He almost sounded sad.

“Knew what?”

Weaver hesitated.

“Knew what?”

“Dr. Nast got the go-ahead.”

“The go-ahead for what?”

“To start the next trial. They injected the first volunteer two days ago.”

Start Reading IQ by Joe Ide

IQ by Joe IdeJoe Ide’s debut novel, IQ, is one of the most fun novels we’ve read in the long time. IQ is a raucous take on Sherlock, if Sherlock were young, black, and lived in East Long Beach. Washington Post hails IQ as “one of the most original thrillers of the year,” and the New York Times Book Review calls it “a total laff-riot.” All we can say is buckle up, enjoy a few pages from Chapter One, and pick up a copy of IQ at a bookstore near you.

Chapter One: Unlicensed and Underground
July 2013

Isaiah’s crib looked like every other house on the block except the lawn was cut even, the paint was fresh, and the entrance was a little unusual. The security screen was made from the same heavy-duty mesh they used to cage in crackheads and bank robbers
at the Long Beach police station. The front door was covered with a thin walnut veneer but underneath was a twenty-gauge steel core set in a cold steel frame with a pick-proof, bump-proof, drill-proof Medeco Double Cylinder High Security Maxum Deadbolt. You’d need some serious power tools to get past all that and even if you did there was no telling what you’d be into. Word was, the place was booby-trapped. A cherry eight-year-old Audi S4 was parked in the driveway. It was a small, plain car in dark gray with a big V8 and sports suspension. The neighborhood kids were always yelling at Isaiah to put some rims on that whip.

Isaiah was in the living room, reading emails off his MacBook and drinking his second espresso, when he heard the car alarm go
off. He snatched the collapsible baton off the coffee table, went to the front door, and opened it. Deronda was leaning her world-class badonk against the hood, smothering a headlight and part of the grill. She wasn’t quite a Big Girl but damn close in her boy shorts and pink tube top two sizes too small. She was pretending to sulk, sighing and sighing again while she frowned at the sparkly things on her ice-blue nails. Isaiah chirped off the alarm, one hand shading his eyes from the afternoon glare.

“No, I didn’t forget your number,” he said, “and I wasn’t going to call you.”

“Ever?” Deronda said.

“You’re looking for a baby daddy and you know that’s not me.”

“You don’t know what I’m looking for and even if you did it wouldn’t be you.” Except she was shopping around for somebody who could pay a few bills, and Isaiah would do just fine. Yeah, okay, he did make her uneasy, he made everybody uneasy, checking you out like he knew you were fronting and wanting to know why. He looked okay, not ugly, but you’d hardly notice him at a club or a party. Six feet tall, rail thin, no chain, no studs in his ears, a watch the color of an aluminum pan, and if he was inked up it was nowhere she could see. The last time she’d run into him he was wearing what he wore now: a light-blue, short-sleeve shirt, jeans, and Timberlands. She liked his eyes. They were almond shaped and had long lashes like a girl’s. “You not gonna invite me in?” she said. “I walked all the way over here from my mama’s house.”

“Stop lying,” he said. “Wherever you came from you didn’t walk.”

“How do you know?”

“Your mama lives on the other side of Magnolia. Are you telling me you walked seven miles in the heat of the day in flip-flops
with all those bunions growing out of your feet? Teesha dropped you off.”

“You think you know so much. Could have been anybody dropped me off.”

“Your mama’s at work, Nona’s at work, Ira still has that cast on his leg, and DeShawn lost his license behind that DUI. I saw his
car in the impound yard, the white Nissan with the front stoved in. There’s nobody left in your world but Teesha.”

“Just because Ira got a cast on his leg don’t mean he can’t drive.”

Isaiah leaned against the doorway. “I thought you said you walked.”

“I did walk,” Deronda said, “just, you know, like part of the way and then somebody else came and I—” Deronda slid off the hood
and stamped her foot. “Dang, Isaiah!” she said. “Why you always gotta fuck with people? I came over here to be sociable, aight?
What’s the damn difference how I got here?”

It made no difference at all but he couldn’t help seeing what he saw. Things different or things not right or out of place or in place when they shouldn’t be or not in sync with the words that came with them.

“Well?” Deronda said. “You gonna make me stand out here and get heatstroke or invite me in and pour me a cocktail? You never
know, something good might happen.”

Deronda looked down at her ankle, turning it to one side like something was stuck to it, probably wondering where Isaiah’s eyes
were. On her dark chocolate thigh gleaming in the California sunshine or her dark chocolate titties trying their best to escape over that tube top. Isaiah looked away, uncomfortable deciding for the both of them what would happen next. She wasn’t his type, not that he had one. Most of his love life was curiosity sex. A girl intrigued by the low-key brother who was so smart people said he was scary. That hadn’t happened in a while. He opened the screen.

“Well, come on then,” he said.
Continue reading “Start Reading IQ by Joe Ide”

Start Reading “Power Wagon” by C.J. Box from The Highway Kind

The Highway KindNext week we publish a short story collection called The Highway Kind, an anthology edited by Patrick Millikin with a unique premise: the world’s bestselling and critically acclaimed writers share thrilling crime stories about cars, driving, and the road. We’ve got new stories by Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Diana Gabaldon, and C.J. Box, who contributed the story “Power Wagon” excerpted below.

A single headlight strobed through a copse of ten-foot willows on the other side of the overgrown horse pasture. Marissa unconsciously laced her fingers over her pregnant belly and said, “Brandon, there’s somebody out there.”

“What?” Brandon said. He was at the head of an old kitchen table that had once fed a half dozen ranch hands breakfast and dinner. A thick ledger book was open in front of him and Brandon had moved a lamp from the family room next to the table so he could read.

“I said, somebody is out there. A car or something. I saw a headlight.”

“Just one?”

“Just one.”

Brandon placed his index finger on an entry in the ledger book so he wouldn’t lose his place. He looked up.

“Don’t get freaked out. It’s probably a hunter or somebody who’s lost.”

“What if they come to the house?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess we help them out.”

“Maybe I should shut off the lights,” she said.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said. “They probably won’t even come here. They’re probably just passing through.”

“But to where?” she asked.

She had a point, he conceded. The old two-track beyond the willows was a private road, part of the ranch, and it led to a series of four vast mountain meadows and the foothills of the Wyoming range. Then it trailed off in the sagebrush.

“I saw it again,” she said.

He could tell she was scared even though there really wasn’t any reason to be, he thought. But saying “Calm down” or “Don’t worry” wouldn’t help the situation, he knew. If she was scared, she was scared. She wasn’t used to being so isolated—she’d grown up in Chicago and Seattle—and he couldn’t blame her.

Brandon found a pencil on the table and starred the entry he was on to mark where he’d stopped and pushed back his chair. The feet of it scraped the old linoleum with a discordant note.

He joined her at the window and put his hand on her shoulder. When he looked out, though, all he could see was utter darkness. He’d forgotten how dark it could be outside when the only ambient light was from stars and the moon. Unfortunately, storm clouds masked both.

“Maybe he’s gone,” she said, “whoever it was.”

A log snapped in the fireplace and in the silent house it sounded like a gunshot. Brandon felt Marissa jump at the sound.

“You’re tense,” he said.

“Of course I am,” she responded. There was anger in her voice. “We’re out here in the middle of nowhere without phone or Internet and somebody’s out there driving around. Trespassing. They probably don’t even know we’re here, so what are they doing?”

He leaned forward until his nose was a few inches from the glass. He could see snowflakes on the other side. There was enough of a breeze that it was snowing horizontally. The uncut grass in the yard was spotted white, and the horse meadow had turned from dull yellow to gray in the starlight.

Then a willow was illuminated and a lone headlight curled around it. The light lit up the horizontal snow as it ghosted through the brush and the bare cottonwood trees. Snowflakes looked like errant sparks in the beam. The light snow appeared as low-hanging smoke against the stand of willows.

“He’s coming this way,” she said. She pressed into him.

“I’ll take care of it,” Brandon said. “I’ll see what he wants and send him packing.”

She looked up at him with scared eyes and rubbed her belly. He knew she did that when she was nervous. The baby was their first and she was unsure and overprotective about the pregnancy.

During the day, while he’d pored over the records inside, she’d wandered through the house, the corrals, and the outbuildings and had come back and declared the place “officially creepy, like a mausoleum.” The only bright spot in her day, she said, was discovering a nest of day-old naked baby mice that she’d brought back to the house in a rusty metal box. She said she wanted to save them if she could figure out how.

Brandon knew baby mice in the house was a bad idea, but he welcomed the distraction. Marissa was feeling maternal, even about mice.

“Don’t forget,” he said, “I grew up in this house.”
Continue reading “Start Reading “Power Wagon” by C.J. Box from The Highway Kind”

Read the First Chapter of Revolver by Duane Swierczynski

Revolver by Duane SwierczynskiDuane Swierczynski’s new novel opens in 1965, but the events in the opening pages reverberate forward and backwards through the decades. The event crosses family lines, race lines, and legal lines, putting nearly all of Philadelphia in its cross hairs. Read the first chapter of Revolver below and discover the crime that sets everything in motion.

Stan Walczak – May 7, 1965

Officer Stanisław “Stan” Walczak usually takes his beer by the gallon, but he’s taking it easy this hot spring afternoon. He uses the backs of his thick fingers to wipe away the sweat beading up on his forehead. It’s seventy-two degrees and very humid. His Polish blood can’t stand the humidity.

He looks over at his partner, George W. Wildey. Unlike Stan, Wildey rarely breaks a sweat. He also hardly ever drinks. But after the week they’ve had, George said a cold one was most definitely in order. Stan couldn’t agree more.

They’re in plain clothes, but anybody setting foot in the bar would immediately tag them as cops. No white guy ever hangs out with a black guy in North Philly unless they’re undercover fuzz.

Technically, both are shirking duty.

A dozen blocks away, protestors are surrounding Girard College, and Stan and George are supposed to be there to help keep order. Over 130 years ago the richest man in Philadelphia willed most of his considerable fortune to establish a school for “poor, white, male” orphans on the outskirts of the city. Over the next 100 years, neighborhoods rose up around the campus. The neighborhood changed from German to Irish to Jewish and finally to black, even as the students of Girard College remained poor, white, and male.

After Brown v. Board of Education, however, blacks began to fight for their seats in the classroom. Picketing by the NAACP began seven days ago, and the commissioner dispatched a thousand police to the scene to make sure nothing got out of hand. The last thing the city wants is another riot like that clusterfuck on Columbia Avenue last August.

Stan and George were assigned to the protests from the very first day. Punishment detail, best they can figure. They must have pissed off someone high up. But despite fears of another riot, nothing has really happened. A few jokers trying to scale the twenty-foot wall onto the campus, but that’s been it. Otherwise, just a lot of standing around and waiting. Stan is pretty sure nobody will miss them. Continue reading “Read the First Chapter of Revolver by Duane Swierczynski”

Start Reading The Night The Rich Men Burned by Malcolm Mackay

nullHere’s a familiar scenario: two friends, finished with school, looking for work. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy—just enough to cover rent and maybe—maybe!—a car. In my experience, this kind of story leads to exhausting bartending gigs or grim retail jobs. But in Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow, it leads to debt collection. In his new noir, The Night The Rich Men Burned, Oliver Peterkinney and Alex Glass are tempted by a life in which the only thing easier than the money is the slide towards ruin. Read the prologue below.

He ended up unconscious and broken on the floor of a warehouse, penniless and alone. He was two weeks in hospital, unemployable thereafter, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that, for a few weeks beforehand, he had money. Not just a little money, but enough to show off with, and that was the impression that stuck.

It had been a while since they’d seen him. Months, probably. They were heading back from the job center, having made a typically fruitless effort at sniffing out employment. They went in, they searched the touchscreen computer near the door, and they left. Two friends, officially unemployed since the day they left school together a year before, both willing to do unofficial work if that was available. They bumped into Ewan Drummond as they walked back up towards Peterkinney’s grandfather’s flat.

“All right, lads,” Drummond said, grinning at them, “need a lift anywhere?” He was as big and gormless as ever, but the suggestion of transport was new.

“Lift? From you?” Glass asked.

“Yeah, me. Got myself a motor these days. Got to have one in my line of work, you know.” He said it to provoke questions that would allow him to trot out boastful answers.

Glass and Peterkinney looked at each other before they looked at Drummond. There wasn’t a lot of work among their circle of friends. The kind of work that let a man like Drummond make enough money to buy a car was unheard of. They could guess what was involved in the work, but they wanted to hear it.

“Yeah, we’ll take a lift,” Peterkinney nodded. Continue reading “Start Reading The Night The Rich Men Burned by Malcolm Mackay”

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