Read an Excerpt
Friday, May 3, 2002
Trinity Falls, New Jersey
I don't believe in omens. So when the rain fell in
buckets against the living room window as I waited for our ride,
I kept telling myself it wasn’t a shadow of things to come; I was
not leaving Trinity Falls forever. I’d be back by fall. We were all
The limo pulled up to the curb a minute later, and I dashed
out my front door. My head was soaked two steps later. A door
at the far back of the endless car opened, and a girl’s hand beckoned
like crazy. I dove through the door, and Rain Steckerman
quickly tugged at one of my soaked sleeves so I could yank my
The driver slammed the car door, but through the glaze I
noticed the door to my house was wide open and my two bags
stood just inside. Nobody else was in there. This is what can
happen when nine of the fifty-two pills you’re taking list memory
loss as a side effect.
“Let the limo driver get them!” Rain said quickly, drowning
my curses. “Be rich and famous—just for this forty-five-minute
I watched the driver run up the walk, grab the two swollen
garbage bags, and shut the door. I don’t own luggage—that’s
how rich I am. As for the famous part—I’m not a rock star or
anything you’d want to be. I’m just a guy who lives in a small
South Jersey town that found itself in a horror flick two months
Some unheard-of international terror cell decided our
town of mostly professional, well-educated Americans would
be a good place to conduct an experiment. They poisoned the
water, hoping to kill every person within the five-block area off
one main water vein. They only killed two, so some people like
to say they failed miserably. I don’t agree with that. I was halfway
through paramedic training this spring when my brother
and I and Rain and Cora Holman were diagnosed as “Stage
Four Toxic.” We never know whether we’ll wake up feeling okay
or like we have some butt-kicking flu. Nearly a hundred Stage
Twos and Threes were diagnosed in Trinity, and even the Stage
Threes responded surprisingly well to antiviral medication.
Stage Four is another term for “a real challenge to cure, though
doctors on four continents are trying.” There is no Stage Five.
I slid my arms back into my soaked sleeves and intentionally
waited until the driver got around to the trunk and popped it.
“He forgot to turn offthe light.” I dashed from the limo,
and the rainfall drowned out the end of Rain’s “Wait! My dad
can take care of—”
I threw open the door, ran upstairs into the bathroom for
a bath towel, and shoved it under my jacket as I took two stairs
at a time down, hurrying. I reached for the living room light
but stopped to survey the room before switching it off. Mom
had moved us here from Las Vegas thirteen years ago, when
I was six. So many kids had sat on this worn-out gray couch.
We’d watched so many football games, baseball games, hockey
games being won or lost here, over so many bags of Doritos
and microwave popcorn. My paramedic squad had stood in the
kitchen shooting the bull on so many non-busy nights. I had
been in training, and my squad loved Mom’s mint iced tea.
Mom’s chair . . . I moved over to it, knew it still smelled
like Mom because I’d stuck my nose to it a couple of times and
caught my brother, Owen, doing it, too. My mom had drunk
enough poisoned water to move beyond Stage Four. I banged
the chair lightly with my fist instead of reaching for one last
deep inhale. It’s a smell you don’t forget.
“Sorry!” I hollered as I raced back to the limo. The driver
held the door for me again. His rain poncho didn’t cover his
extra-polite smile, which reminded me of a melting wax face in
a horror movie.
Rain didn’t look so thrilled with me now. She sidled up
to Cora, whose mom died the day before mine did. Cora was
wearing a sweater with a scarf around her neck, despite that it
was seventy degrees outside. The limo was long, with most of
the seating in one row from back to front, so Cora and Rain
were facing sideways. My brother, Owen, sat sideways also, but
up close to the front with his head on the backrest and his eyes
shut, though I could see him shaking his head slowly back and
forth over my actions.
The three of them had just been released from St. Ann’s
ten minutes ago. I’d gotten permission to be released earlier,
having had a symptom-free day. I had come home to close up
the house, get some more pictures of Mom, and pick up whatever
I’d missed during our eight weeks in St. Ann’s. The three of
them were graduating seniors, and even though there was only
two years’ difference in our ages, I was eons more mature. Mom
always said I was born thirty. I’m not sure the nurses would
have let them come home by themselves.
The driver pulled away as I unfolded the towel, and I made
certain not to give my house a last, longing look. Instead, I
watched Cora while I pulled offthe soaked jacket and threw
the towel over my neck. She was reading get-well cards. The
four of us had gotten more than fifteen thousand cards from
Americans who watched the news or read Time, Newsweek, or
People magazines. We tried to read all the cards and letters, but
Cora was way ahead of the rest of us. She’d give us a heads-up
sometimes if it was a name we all knew, like John Mayer or former
vice president Al Gore or Brittany Murphy. She’d wave the
card, and we’d pass it around. We got telegrams from dignitaries
of over a hundred countries. All of that kept us going.
But with no remarkable improvements in our conditions
yet and being moved to a more permanent locale, our foursome
was getting harder to buoy. Right now, Cora was reading
tensely, waiting for Rain to explode on me so she could pretend
not to notice.
“Hope your little campaign of refusing help from others
is worth it,” Rain lectured on cue. In other words, her dad
certainly would have noticed the lights being on in our house
while on his way home tonight and would have turned them off
and locked the door. “Now you’ll wake up with the Throat from
“Tomorrow is not important,” I stated, wiping offthe back
of my neck and my hair with the towel. “It’s always today, and
today, I’m having a four-star day. Besides. Acting like an ass has
therapeutic value once in a while.”
Rain slowly reached out her hand, and I gave her skin. That’s
the good thing about Rain—she can sympathize with just about
anyone. Four-star day meant it had been a symptom-free day, at
least for me. I glanced at Cora again. She said nothing, but her
sweater and scarf were telltale: four-star wasn’t for her.
Rain moved to a little refrigerator under the TV, saying,
“What’s your pleasure? Coke? Diet Coke? Sprite? Or water?”
“C’mon, don’t be a party pooper. Club soda . . .” She made
a big deal out of filling a plastic cup from a silver ice bucket
and pouring Perrier over the top, though her eyes were glassy
enough to reflect the little overhead light. Tears or fever? I figured
tears. She seemed keyed up, like she was trying to distract
herself from a horrible mood, which she’d had on a daily basis
over the past three weeks. Rain was an extremist. It was always
laughter or tears, with very little in between.
Still, she handed me both the cup and the bottle with both
pinkies high in the air. The limo was compliments of Rain’s
dad, Alan Steckerman. He had been an FBI director in southern
Jersey for many years, but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks last
September, he moved over to the newly formed United States
Intelligence Coalition, joining with agents from the FBI, the
CIA, and all branches of military intelligence. There are at least
two USIC supervisors in every state, and they’re supposed to
guard against, or in this case solve, acts of terror.
The limo is Mr. Steckerman’s way of saying, “We’re working
on it. In the meantime, think positive.” They’d already made
twelve arrests. All had been foot soldiers, but I tried to remind
myself that the big guns could be caught any day.
I held up my cup, and Rain got the idea, throwing my bottle
cap at Owen so he would open his eyes and raise his Coke can
off his knee. Cora held up her cup, and they all looked at me.
I’m supposed to be the strong one.
“Here’s to the future,” I said as my brain went into cliché
autopilot. I knew the risks we faced better than they did. I
wanted to keep it positive, but the words weren’t there.
“To the future,” they joined in, but their voices flickered.
I forced myself onward. “We all have mixed feelings about
going out of town.” Rain quietly ducked her head.
We were being taken to a place about twenty miles up the
coast from Trinity Falls, a dark corner of the Pine Barrens,
where the nearest house would be a half mile inland from us.
The Kellerton mansion was on the historical register. New Jersey,
apparently, doesn’t like spending a lot of money on historic
restoration of cool places, but they’ll spend it for far-out
health care these days. The people in the Atlantic County Historic
Society offered this old mansion to “house state residents
physically traumatized by an act of terror,” probably realizing
that it would be restored pretty fast if the state agreed.
The bottom line: Rain, Cora, Owen, and I will get to live
in a beautiful mansion on fifty acres that ease up to Great Bay,
like we’re rich, even if we’re not. The historical society wants to
smooch us, not that I mind their little agenda. Everyone’s got an
agenda. If I feel powerless to help myself, at least I can help the
little old ladies of the Atlantic County Historic Society.
Rain, on the other hand, would be farther from her friends,
which meant fewer visits, and the most beautiful place in the
world couldn’t replace those daily gatherings—not in her mind.
I went on. “But we’ll make this work. We’re all coming out
on the other side.”
“Hear, hear,” they cried.
“No more fights,” I said, eyes firmly on Rain.
Slowly, she turned her glass to Owen and muttered,
“Me, too.” He clinked her cup but wouldn’t look her in the
I had no idea what she was apologizing for this time, or
what he was forgiving her for. Between the two of them it had
been a daily dropping of bombs over the past two weeks. Rain
had lived kitty-corner to us for thirteen years, and they’d always
been friends. At this point, she and Owen were just sick of each
“Listen, guys. We’re going to have to readjust to more quiet,
more leisure time . . .” I cleared my throat. “All I’m saying is that
the more you two fight, the more wear and tear you put on
yourselves. Whatever it is, either talk it out or let it drop.”
Rain looked ready to explode. Finally, she kur-powed. It
was about Owen again. “I just hope there’s an extra TV. I don’t
mind that he tapes sports on his TV and then comes in to watch
my TV so he doesn’t miss either game. I don’t mind that he
takes up half my bed when I’m trying to take a nap because he’s
freezing and wants part of my blanket. I don’t even mind that
he goes from cold to hot and kicks off his smelly socks under
“My sweat socks do not smell,” he insisted.
She ignored him. “And I don’t even care that in the middle
of the night, I’m kicking sweat socks out of my sheets, okay? All
I want is that when our lives are upsetting me . . . I want him to
understand, to . . . to be there for me.”
“Rain. I am so there,” he said in loud annoyance, gesturing
at the roof. “What do you want me to do? Play the violin?”
“Something like that!” She sniffed.
“I don’t play the violin, Katherine!” That was Rain’s real
name, which she hated, and nobody ever called her that. So my
brother used it only to make his most worthy points.
Frankly, I sided more with my brother. Not that kicking
your sweat socks off in someone else’s sheets smacks of diplomacy,
but I figured Rain was asking the impossible with this “be
there” line. She was laying the burden on Owen to gift-wrap her
peace of mind and serve it up to her. You can only give yourself
peace of mind.
Today, peace had been hard for me to grab hold of. I had
left the hospital to visit my house and put together photos of
my mom and Owen and me—from back when we thought a
problem was Mom doing so many pro bono legal cases that the
electric bill was late. Now I was catching the Throat from Hell
I swallowed a couple of cold gulps of my club soda, and my
mouth went into let-it-rip mode. “Rain. One of these days, you
have to stop crying. Find your maturity. I’ve heard lots of girls
cry . . . I’ve probably made some girls cry. But I feel like I’ve been
living for the past few weeks with the Philadelphia Symphony
Orchestra playing three different songs at once—”
“Leave her alone, Scott,” my brother kicked in. Great. I was
standing up for him, and he took up for Rain. I think this is
called a circle jerk.
My brother shut his eyes. I could see his lips moving, implying
that he was praying again, his usual solution to our problems.
You can see how well that had been working. Cora just
kept reading a get-well card like mad. Rain was sniffing, sniffing,
sniffing, which is a martyr’s version of crying, and even
more annoying. I had heard girls say her line to me before, usually
when they were crying about something. “Why can’t you
just be there for me?” It was vague—intentionally so, I’d always
thought—and nothing I did qualified as “being there.”
We need to find a cure—for them. We need to find the terrorists
who got away—for me.
I toasted the ceiling of the limo again, the raindrops falling in
pellets against it, as I fought off a screechy feeling of helplessness.