Read an Excerpt
By Peter Lerangis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Peter Lerangis
All rights reserved.
I will begin with what I saw on the night of April 15. But, first, a word from your narrator.
I, David Kallas, am a Genius.
This is not a boast. I don't look or talk anything like a Genius. My grades are pretty mediocre, and I have a lazy streak from here to Montana.
But my test scores confirm it: IQ Level — Genius. Right up there with Hair and Eyes — Brown and Height — 5'11" So I don't fight it.
What does it mean to be a Genius? It means teachers always look at you perplexed and disappointed. It means every adult you're in contact with thinks he or she must be doing something wrong. It means you must be doing something wrong, because you're exactly like everybody else.
For a Genius, I did an extremely stupid thing on April 15. Now, I could have detected warning signs, as early as February, but I'll go into that later. Anyway, on that night, I took a walk in the Ramble.
The Ramble is a small forest at the edge of town, sloping downward into a wimpy river called the Wampanoag. A few well-worn footpaths wind through the trees, and one path of tire tracks leads to a secluded clearing. To many people in my drab hometown of Wetherby, Massachusetts, the Ramble is Nature. To others, especially those who know the clearing well, the Ramble is Sex.
I'll put it more delicately. As a teenager in Wetherby, book-learning goes on in school. Learning about everything else happens in the Ramble.
Parents warn their kids never to go there after dark. The older the kid, the more frequent the warnings. Once puberty hits, it becomes the world's most dangerous place. Oddly enough, no one can actually recall a crime there in years. You are more likely to come upon a parked car with steamed-up windows than a mugger.
Well, I did come upon one of those cars that fateful night. And Ariana Maas was in it. With someone who was not me.
I admit, I asked for it. I kind of thought she'd be there. I was on a very indirect route to the print shop to proofread our high school yearbook, the Wetherby Voyager. I guess my curiosity had gotten the worst of me.
Her thick red hair was unmistakable, even mashed against the mousy brown hair of her boyfriend, Smut. (Yes, Smut. The initials stand for Stephen Matthew Underwood-Taylor.) I had an urge to pull open the car door and yank the guy out. But I didn't.
I may be a Genius, but I'm not a Hero.
I slunk away before they could see me. If I had had a tail, it would have been between my legs. Ariana was discovering heaven in a Chevy, while I was off to check for apostrophes. What a life.
The weather had been horrendous for months, so the river was pretty swollen. It wasn't the measly sewage-choked trickle we'd all come to know and love. I decided to follow it to the other side of the Ramble. That would put me on the road to Someday My Prints Will Come, which I think is the dumbest name for a print shop ever invented.
That was when I saw the brownish lump of fur. It was floating on the water, mostly hidden by a boulder.
At first I thought it was a badger, or a river rat. I was still angry and frustrated and hurt, thinking about Ariana, and that is the only explanation I can give for what I did next.
I picked up a rock and tiptoed closer. Being quiet was easy. After all the recent storms, the fallen branches were soggy, and the ground soft.
Slowly I made my way around the boulder. The critter was still, sleeping maybe. Easy target.
I cocked my arm, took aim, and threw.
Thud. Dead on. Right in the critter's side.
I braced for a yelp or a scream. If the thing came after me, I would need to book.
But the rock bounced silently away. It left a small indentation in the flesh. I slumped and sighed. Hooray for me. I'd hit a dead rat.
I stepped out from behind the boulder, feeling extremely stupid. Now I got a closer look at the fur.
It wasn't fur.
Fur was not that long. Not on any animal you'd find in the Ramble.
But it couldn't be what I thought it was. The body — the object — covered with this hairy substance, was almost flat. As if it had been stepped on. As if it were a thick, wet mask, not a living thing.
I noticed the smell then. Not an ugly smell, but sort of chalky and slightly sweet, like dried milk.
My brain echoed with that warning. Did I listen? Noooo.
I kept walking around the boulder. I reached down and pulled the brown hair ball toward me. Why? I'm still asking myself.
I should have taken a look at the whole thing before I touched it, but I didn't. Only when I had a fistful of hair was I angled close enough to see the whole body. Only then did I realize it was human.
My hand froze. I felt something shoot through me, like an electric jolt. The smell was overpowering now.
When I yanked my hand away, the face lolled around. It was a young face, familiar somehow. But there was no way on earth I could tell who it was. Its eyes were missing, its mouth two sunken flaps of skin. Flesh hung from its face and arms in thick, shriveled chunks.
A scream caught in my throat. I wanted to run, but I couldn't move. My eyes were locked on the corpse.
Under an outfit of black pants and a shirt, it was grotesque, distorted. It bent to the right and left, not at the joints, but everywhere. Its calves curved into the opening of a drainage pipe, bending forward in a smooth and perfect C shape, opposite to the way the knees were supposed to bend. Like a Gumby.
A Gumby? A vicious laugh welled up inside me. But I didn't open my mouth for fear that all my sanity would go rushing out. I just kept staring.
And I realized I was looking at a person who had had his insides removed.
Then, for the first time in my life, I fainted.CHAPTER 2
Out of the darkness comes a dream.
In my dream I'm a man and I'm fishing in the river and I catch a whopping bluefish. I reel it in, and it's flipping, flopping, desperate to get back into the water. But my hook is clean through its mouth, and blood sprays all over the place with each flip.
I want to throw it back, but a little boy comes up to me, screaming happily. He wants to take it home, which means I have to clean it.
I drop the fishing rod, grab the fish's tail with one hand, and take out a gutting knife with the other. All I need to do is slit open the belly, pull out the guts, and throw the fish in my pail.
I've done this a million times, but this time I start to feel sick. The fish is enormous, and as I cut it open, thick warm blood spurts into my face. I grit my teeth and grab its insides. They are throbbing. I pull, and pull, and pull, and pull. The entrails seem endless, but they're attached to the bones, so I keep pulling. The skeleton is now coming out and I'm thinking: great, instant fillet. The little boy is staring, horrified.
That is when I realize the fish is not a fish. It's a classmate of mine, and he's screaming for me to stop.CHAPTER 3
I did not reach the printer that night. That much I remember.
My nightmare jarred me awake into a pitch-black night.
The first thing I noticed was the strange, chalky smell. I started shaking, and it had little to do with the freezing temperature. Panic was stealing heat from my body, sending pinpricks of ice through me. I could not see the river, but I could hear it, maybe two feet away. I had been lying next to the ... the what? The body? The hide? I didn't know how to think of it.
I bolted to my feet. I did not look back as I ran blindly away from the Wampanoag River.
The rest is fragments, flashes of memory. I've forgotten the physical part of my trip home — as if my mind had separated from the rest of my body, floating outside it, letting my legs stumble over the ground. Thoughts spat themselves into my consciousness, and my brain tried frantically to digest them.
It wasn't until I'd arrived home that I realized my pants were muddy and wet. I ran straight into the bathroom, stripped, and turned on the shower.
"David!" my mother shouted through the closed door. "Where were you?"
What was I supposed to tell her? Nothing, Ma. Just a quiet evening in the Ramble, spying on some taboo behavior, then having a nap next to a hollowed-out human. Oh, and by the way, I need to wash my pants out.
I wished my dad were alive. He would have believed every word, and insisted on going back with me. Then he would have talked about it for months, embellishing the story each time.
"Proofreading the yearbook!" I replied. "Remember I called you?"
"Until one in the morning?"
"Sorry. I lost track."
Don't get me wrong. Mom is cool. But she has this proper, old-fashioned streak. Her parents immigrated to Wetherby from Greece. She was not allowed to wear pants to school, or marry a non-Greek, or work for a living. That last part changed when my dad died of a heart attack. For the last seven years, she's been working at a paper-tubing factory.
Mom had all kinds of names for dad. When he got into his frequent storytelling moods, he was Homer, after the ancient Greek narrator. When he dressed up, he was Adonis, the handsomest Greek god. When he sang, he was Apollo, the god of music (although he sounded like Jerry Lewis on a bad day). When he was mad, he became Zeus.
Too bad she wasn't right. If he were a god, he could come down and explain what I had seen in the Ramble.
I threw my pants in the sink. Then I turned the shower up to full blast and hopped in.
The water sent red rivulets down my calves, cleaning out a bruised crosshatch of cuts and scrapes on my legs.
The shower water was soothing. The harsh bathroom light flooded my mind with rationality: The body wasn't real. Couldn't have been. It was a mannequin, a latex dummy. Stolen from a store window as a prank. That was it.
But there were a few problems. Mannequins didn't have skin. And fingernails and eyes. They were not squishy and caved in. The one in the river wouldn't have sold too many clothes.
It was real.
I had seen a dead body. A dead, filleted body.
I knew I was different now. Changed forever. All because of this one event. And it wasn't just what I had seen. Something had gotten inside me; I could feel it. Something cold and sticky and slightly nauseating. Could fear itself take root in a person's body, like a virus?
At that moment, I hated Ariana. Hated her for making me want her so much. That was the reason I had joined the yearbook in the first place. If I hadn't done that, I'd never have gotten stuck with proofreading, never seen the body. I'd be the same happy but screwed-up kid I'd always been.
Which brings me to the beginning of this whole fiasco. The day I met Ariana.
The day of the Great Wetherby Earthquake.CHAPTER 4
Now, I know earthquakes are no big deal in some places, like California. But they are in New England. They just don't happen. We are not in the "earthquake belt."
Well, the belt was loosened on a gray and windy afternoon in February. The seventh, to be exact. I was walking home from school the fun way. Fun because Ariana Maas was a half-block in front of me. (If you could see her body move, you'd know what I mean. Real slow and lazylike, with lots of ... well, movement.)
Sounds pathetic, I know. But I was obsessed, okay? Don't tell me you don't know what that feels like.
It started when she looked at me with her hazel-green eyes in the school cafeteria. It was in November, I think. I was mopping up this chocolate shake I had spilled, and when I glanced up, she was watching, with kind of a sneer. There's this scene in Dr. Zhivago where the two lovers see each other on a trolley for the first time. Suddenly the camera cuts to sparks on the electric wires overhead (duh, get the message?). Well, that's how it felt when Ariana looked at me. Only the sparks were DC, not AC. They went only one way.
I vaguely knew she was editor in chief of the Voyager, and that Smut was an editor, too. Smut, by the way, is six two and 180 pounds. He also finished seventh in our class (out of 179), was a wide receiver on the football team, played the lead in the school production of Carousel, got into Yale early admissions, and is friendly to everyone.
You can see why I hate him.
It was a warm afternoon for midwinter. As Ariana crossed Cass Street, the wind tossed her thick hair like flickering flames. Cass borders the Ramble, and its trees were bending and groaning in the gusts. Chipmunks chittered, birds argued, crows cawed and traced crazy patterns overhead. The Wampanoag River, which is pretty far in from the road, sounded like a crashing surf.
When I heard thunder, I said good-bye to Ariana in my mind and began to hightail it home before the storm.
I didn't get far.
The world went suddenly silent. Like a pulled plug on a stereo. Absolute nothingness. You never know how loud plain old nature is until it shuts up.
The woods were motionless, the sky blank and gray as slate.
I stopped in my tracks. I could see Ariana looking toward the Ramble, then toward me. I quickly tried to think of something clever to say.
When my knees buckled, I thought it was nerves. Then I felt a vague queasiness. Around me, things got blurry then sharp again, as if some giant were twanging the world like a guitar string. I heard a low rumbling underground that reminded me of the Boston subway. Finally everything sort of jittered, side to side, and I felt as if I were a fly on the back of an angry nine-acre bull.
I ran to the nearest tree, as if holding it would somehow stabilize me.
The silence broke with a cracking sound, like a bat hitting a baseball.
Then Ariana screamed, "Look out!"
I felt a blow to my chest. My feet flew out from beneath me. I tumbled to the ground, my face buried in the folds of a pink-and-turquoise L.L. Bean anorak.
I was flat on my back, my body wrapped up in Ariana's. It was a moment I'd dreamed about for months. I'd planned it, rehearsed every word I'd say, every move I'd make. I should have been prepared.
"Oww —" was my clever opening line.
"Sorry," Ariana said, untangling herself. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I think."
We both stood up and brushed ourselves off. I felt stable again. A bird screeched, and I saw a squirrel making agitated circles in the woods. Behind Ariana an enormous branch rocked slowly on the pavement, leafless and broken off at one end.
It was lying right where I'd been standing.
"Oh my God, you saved my life," I said.
Ariana smiled at me, and I felt a second earthquake. This one started inside me, and stayed there. "That was amazing, huh?" she remarked. "I wonder how strong it was — like on the Richter scale."
I shrugged. "I don't think they make them out here."
Ariana laughed. I nearly had a heart attack, it sounded so beautiful.
Rain had started to fall, heavier by the second. "Come on over to my house," Ariana said, turning to go. "You can fix your hand up there."
I looked down and noticed for the first time that the palm of my left hand resembled freshly chopped hamburger.
I ran after her, my blood pounding. All right, an invitation inside for a Band-Aid wasn't exactly a moonlight skinny-dip on a Mexican beach, but it was a start. I had to take what I could get.
After I was bandaged up, Mr. and Mrs. Maas invited me to stay for dinner, but I felt too nervous. If Smut showed up, he might get the wrong idea, and I didn't want to end up on the wrong end of a carving knife. So I politely refused.
As Ariana and I passed through the living room to the front door, her mom, dad, and younger sister were staring at the TV.
"... Damage to area homes, as far as we know, was limited to a few broken plates and glasses in private homes," the announcer was saying. "At 5.1 on the Richter scale, the quake would seem mild to a San Franciscan, but it baffles local experts. It far surpassed the tremor felt in this area in 1950. Is there an active fault below Wetherby? Impossible, says Dr. Paul Bascomb, of the County Meteorological Institute. But don't try to tell that to the students of Wetherby High School...."
The camera cut to our school. An ancient maple tree was lying across the front lawn, its top branches embedded in a parked car.
The Maases all gasped. But Ariana smiled and blurted out, "Hey, we've got an event!"
Excerpted from The Yearbook by Peter Lerangis. Copyright © 1994 Peter Lerangis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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