High on a mesa in the mountains of New Mexico, a small town hides a dreadful secret. On a morning very soon there will be an accident that triggers a terrible chain reaction, and the world we know will be wiped out.
James Oberhelm, a reporter at Los Alamos National Laboratory, already sees the devastation, like the skin torn off a moment that is yet to be. He believes he can prevent an apocalypse, but first James must escape the devices of a sensuous young blood tech, a lecherous old hippie, a predator in a waking nightmare, and a forsaken adobe house high away in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains whose dark history entwines them all.
A massive bomb is ticking beneath the sands of the Southwest, and time is running out to send a warning. James has to find a way to pass along the message—even if it ruins him.
“Arellano pulls off the not-inconsiderable feat of making the disintegration of his hero more compelling than the end of the world as we know it.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Reads like a top-notch thriller . . . Alternating between the hilarious and the dreamlike, the novel is imbued with the sense of foreboding inherent to Los Alamos’s infamous ‘gift’ to mankind.” —George Mastras, author of Fideli’s Way and writer/producer, Breaking Bad
“Nothing in New Mexico has ever been more secret than Los Alamos, the Atomic City, where a diverse group of geniuses built the first atomic bombs and changed the face of the world forever. That’s the setting and premise for this excellent novel by Cuban-American Robert Arellano. Disaster is about to happen and one man can avert it . . . maybe.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
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Monday, July 1
She took my wrist in her hands and placed it on the padded, tissue-papered armrest. "Keep your elbow real straight for me now." She was what you might call a goth: black scrubs, pierced tongue, and an extreme manicure, black-polished fingernails at least three inches long. How can someone who draws blood for a living have such long nails?
There were tattoos up her inner arm: figures, faces, and names. I don't know, guys she had been with? There were girls' names too. I watched her preparations.
She tied the latex strap around my bicep and gave me a rubber ball to squeeze. Somehow she pulled a pair of surgical gloves over those nails, and then she scrubbed the crook of my arm with an alcohol swab, finding a vein she liked. I tilted my head back and closed my eyes. She jabbed the needle in and I groaned softly.
"You're lucky you have such low blood pressure," she said, and we both waited for the vial to fill. "So, what are you doing for the Fourth?"
Fourth of July: a special day for me — like the song says, "Born on."
"Staying home, probably. Fireworks make my dog skittish."
What made me say probably just then? And what made me refer to Oppie as just my dog? The same impulse that makes me take off my wedding band before entering the clinic: a just- in-case. Never mention the wife just in case you run into a woman who might want to make a pass at you.
The blood tech was holding her breath, and for the first time in our short history of brief encounters I noticed that she looked into my eyes with a strange earnestness. Back in college, that expression would have made me put down my beer at a party and follow her up the stairs no matter how she looked. I said, "What about you?"
She exhaled and flicked the strap away. A little grin stole over her usually dour pout. "Me and my girlfriends go to Morphy Lake. Have you ever been up there?"
"Is that the one near Mora?"
"Yeah. There's an abandoned house above the lake. It's the only place in that valley, right after the bend in the old road. Me and my girlfriends bring a bottle of Crown Royal and make up ghost stories." And then she said, "You should come."
She backed out the needle and pressed a gauze pad against my skin. "You should come, we could hook up."
Hook up, that's the phrase young people use for sex, right?
For as long as things have been cooling with Kitty, I have been waiting for this to happen: a loose girl — a young woman, the likes of whose suppleness I haven't experienced since grad school — makes the first move. I am a lecher, but I am also a coward, so I have always left it up to someone else to propose an extramarital affair.
The nails got in the way and she fumbled with the Band-Aid. I had to help her put it on my arm, our fingers briefly touching. I let go of the rubber ball and she finished her job with a bit of surgical tape. I liked the way she held my wrist and gently bent my arm back at the elbow instead of saying okay, you don't have to keep it straight anymore. I liked the homemade signs she taped to all the cabinets, little penciled messages that read: don't 4get servecing code! and remenber: just a little pinch! I decided she might just be trying to pick me up. Hook up.
I took a mental picture of her ass inside those scrubs. I wanted to know what it would feel like for those long fingernails to scratch my back, draw a line of blood. In my head, I was already winding across the mountains in the Spider, and Kitty was better than a thousand miles away — even though she would be right beside me — because my mind was on a sexy young blood tech I pictured disrobing inside an abandoned house at the end of the trail. I realized I had not felt this way in fifteen years, when driving three hours to get laid was almost as good as getting laid. It simultaneously inflamed my lust and awakened an affinity for deception.
In the clinic parking lot, I climbed in the Spider, took the New Mexico map out of the glove compartment, and drew a line across the mountains.CHAPTER 2
Thursday, July 4
Dozens of families went camping at Morphy Lake for Independence Day weekend, and every one of them had to drive over that awful road. Even SUVs bottomed out on the ruts, but I'm the only one who tried it in an Alfa Romeo Spider, bashing the tailpipe all to hell. Kitty and I weren't getting along, Oppie had indigestion, I stabbed myself in the hand with a tent stake, and the cap on the Dewar's somehow got open and spilled whiskey all over the trunk of the Spider. Kitty caught me trying to suck whatever I could out of the floor mat. Not an auspicious start.
Kitty said, "Are you going to give Oppie his suppository or not?"
"I gave it to him last time."
"No. I gave him the last two times."
"I cut my hand. I don't want to get it infected."
"Shit. How the fuck did you do that?"
"Fucking tent stake."
"You clumsy fuck."
Kitty and I shared a carefree swearing habit, the mark of a childless couple. Sometime after the tenth wedding anniversary, living in close quarters without kids to keep us in line, we embraced expletives with gusto. It rattled anyone who hung around us. We never hit each other, but people picked up on the vibe of verbal abuse, and we had no real friends. There was Dr. and Mrs. Henry Farmer, but I can't be sure they really count. It would be more accurate to call Hank Farmer a drinking buddy, while our wives relied on each other to bicker to about their husbands' drinking.
At sunset we were eaten by mosquitoes. I had forgotten to bring the repellent.
Fire danger was just moderate, so the park rangers cleared the campground area for sparklers and small poppers only, but at dusk someone across the lake blasted "The Star-Spangled Banner" from an RV, and on cue a bunch of kids lit off some big ones on the beach: The bombs bursting in air ...
The pyrotechnicians scattered before the campground host could maneuver his Bronco II around the ring road at five miles per hour.
Kitty and I watched it all from a rock while eating cold beans out of the can. The Coleman bottle I had brought didn't have anything in it.
"You stupid fuck. Couldn't you feel it was empty?"
"At least I remembered the fucking can opener."
Oppie started whimpering, so Kitty and I let up and laid our sleeping bags out in the tent. I popped the trunk of the Spider and soaked a tissue with whiskey from the floor mat as antiseptic, wrapping it around my injured hand and securing it with duct tape.
When I got in the tent Kitty was deep in her sleeping bag with her shoulder to me. I climbed into my bag still wearing a shirt, pants, and socks. I waited fifteen minutes until Kitty's breathing slowed and became shallow. I shook her shoulder to no effect. She hadn't forgotten to pack her Ambien.
I squirmed out of the sleeping bag and slipped into my windbreaker, patting the pockets to make sure the camera and the Altoids tin were there.
Oppie, curled in a little ball at the foot of Kitty's bag, looked up and wagged his tail. I made easy-boy gestures and clipped the leash to his travel collar. If I didn't take Oppie he would whine and wake Kitty.
I unzipped the tent flap and stepped outside into my shoes.
The dark campground was quiet, the only sounds the crickets, my footfall through the brush, and the tinkling of Oppie's tags. We followed an unmarked trail out the back of the overflow parking lot. I took Oppie's leash off and we labored up the steep slope from the lake. The chirping of the crickets became louder.
What starlight made it through the trees kept us on a footpath that ended at a wire fence about a quartermile into the woods. I spent a minute feeling my way around the edge of the forest. Behind the broken branch of a ponderosa pine I found the cattle gate. I went over and Oppie went under.
I flicked the lighter beneath a sign nailed high to the side of a tall aspen: Aplanado. Sucking the makeshift bandage on my hand for a taste of the scotch, I dug in my pocket for the Altoids tin, took out a joint, and lit it.
It was a narrow dirt road, packed earth winding potholed between ancient trees. It had been here before horses and wagons. It had been here before the original Indian trail, when barefoot traders and skin-shod scouts beat the prairie grass to dust. It had been here before deer and elk carved the contours of a trail for its proximity to water. It went from nowhere to nowhere.
I smoked and walked between the ruts while Oppie sniffed around the overgrowth at the edges. The road humped at a spot where a culvert had been installed to allow an irrigation ditch to cross under. Water trickled through the metal ribs of the corrugated pipe.
There was no moon. Only starlight reflected off the scarred faces of mountain peaks in the distance. I had a feeling that the road might dead-end any second, but then the tree cover broke open onto a dark valley.
It's the only place in that valley, right after the bend in the old road.
I took one last hit of the joint, plucked the roach into the ditch, and kept going in the direction of the peaks, where eventually the road dwindled to scratches in the granite.
I came upon the bend at the edge of a pasture and caught a glimpse of a rusted roof. At the bottom of an overgrown drive lay the house, its back turned to the world. No sign read No Trespassing, but everything about the place said Keep Out: cattle wire all around, ragweed higher than my head, no lights, not a sound.
I climbed over the gate, walking through waist-high cheat grass along a mud drive cut into two deep furrows by centuries of truck and wagon wheels, and the shoulder of the house came into view with its hulking, twisted walls of crumbling adobe. I was high and I was horny, and the house was just as she had described it. I followed the drive around the side and Oppie sniffed away into a thick hedgerow.
The front of the house was L-shaped, one long, straight section of sagging mud rooms with an addition of rough timber protruding from the end. The boardedup windows made me think of a face bandaged after a beating.
An open portal on the inside of the L, with its bowed posts and peeled-back tin roofing, wasn't doing much to hold up the rooms. The decking was riddled with splintered, rotting boards. A porch swing hung from rusty chains, hopelessly desolate on the threshold of this ruin.
As a precaution I grunted, "Hello." Silence. I stepped onto the portal and looked through the slats on the boarded windows.
The heart of the house was dark. I hadn't brought a flashlight, but I did have the camera. I held it at arm's length through the slats and fired the flash on the abandoned room, burning a brief image of squalor into my retina: floor covered with empty bottles and trash, planks full of jagged holes, and, in the corner, a discarded mattress blackened with filth, moldy stuffing erupting from a gash in its side.
Nothing was happening. Nobody home.
I am one hundred miles from Los Alamos — two hundred miles by road — and eight thousand feet lowdown in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. Is it because I thought that a bunch of horny girls were going to be around here getting drunk without any guys their own age? Because I thought that I was going to bust out a joint and they were going to get uninhibited? Because I thought I was going to take pictures of it all? I did think that. Something about the way she said, We should hook up.
On the other side of this barren peak, back up on the Hill, I would be watching Letterman about now, actually half-watching and half- wishing I had porn channels, while Kitty lies curled up with flatulent Oppie on the far side of the king-size, springless, formaldehyde-free mattress.
A pudgy blood tech in black scrubs shakes her ass at me, and I drag wife and dog on a miserable camping trip without provisions on a slim-to-none hunch. I set up a tent beside a remote hellhole on Fourth of July so I can sneak out to a house, an abandoned house, on a thin whiff of the possibility of hooking up where I wouldn't even have given a second look twenty years ago.
I held the camera out to take a picture of myself. The flash hit me full in the face. This is to remind you what a loser looks like.
I decided I might as well take a closer look.
I should have felt fear, I know, in the face of the still, dark house. The front door had been removed altogether and the entryway was a gaping hole.
It was pitch-black inside with all the windows boarded up. But when I stepped across the threshold I felt an instant, soporific comfort. There was a sudden drop of pressure in my chest accompanied by a great fatigue. I couldn't say what about the place made me feel as though my system was suddenly going to sleep, made me wish there was a chair to sit in.
I fired the flash into the other rooms. The first was actually an attached log cabin that hadn't been chinked in decades, gaps between the logs big enough to stick your hand through. Of the six adobe rooms, five connected end-to-end with no doors on the passages between them. But at the entrance to the last room, a heavy wooden door was deadbolted.
I wondered about the people who had lived here. These houses, these old adobes, were originally oneroom dwellings. People ate and washed, slept, fucked, shat in the pot, gave birth, and died all between the same four walls.
It was only when the oldest son grew up that they converted a window on one end into a door or broke through a wall shotgun-style and added three more. The young man and his new wife moved into the next room, which they in turn filled with children, and the cycle began again.
In warmer months, the cooking and washing took place outside and naturally so did most of the work: farming, herding, and gathering the next winter's wood, a chore that began early in spring, as soon as the snow had melted from the last winter.
At eight thousand feet, winters lasted half the year — long, monotonous battles of resistance against the snow, the cold, the wind, the dark. The women melted snow in iron pots and cooked dried meat, chiles, beans, hominy. For six frigid months the families slept long hours, played tired games, told stories, and never let the fire go out.
I walked back out on the portal, heard Oppie rustling in the dark trees, and whistled low. "C'mere, boy."
He came out of the hedge dragging a plastic bag around his neck.
"Oppie, what the fuck did you get into?"
It was a large shopping bag, not quickie-mart sized but the kind you'd get at a department store.
"Drop!" He did not drop. "Drop, Oppie!" He could not drop. He had somehow gotten his pointy head through both handles, and now the bag was slung around his neck.
I bent over Oppie and he had a bizarre look in his eyes. I took the bag off his neck and felt that it was heavy. Oppie scrambled away.
I opened the bag and held the camera inside. The lighted display shone on an intricate pattern. I felt the lining of my throat thicken. Inside the bag were bones — not from a chicken or pig, but large bones, a tangle of eight or more.
I threw the bag back into the weeds and peered around the overgrown yard. The sagebrush and ragweed glowed dimly in the starlight. A cricket chirped loudly near my feet.
"Come on, Oppie, let's get back to the campground."
We walked back the way we had come.
When we got to the campground Kitty was still asleep. Oppie followed me into the tent and curled up at her feet. I slid quietly into my sleeping bag and lay awake a long time.
I played the scene over and over in my head: Oppie dragging a bag of bones out of the thicket. Had there been someone out there? Oppie hadn't growled. Could he have sniffed around in the brush, found the bag, and looped his head through the handles while trying to get at the contents? What kind of bones were they? Cow? Elk?
Toward dawn, with the crickets giving way to the birds, the insomnia yielded to a throbbing headache. I think of that dark hour waiting for sunrise — tossing in the sleeping bag, irritated by Oppie's farts, and wincing against the migraine — as a kind of haven, a last quiet before I came to understand the nightmare I had stumbled into.CHAPTER 3
Friday, July 5
Soon it was morning and kids were waking up at campsites all around us, laughing, screaming, jumping in the lake. It was a workday, but we were in no hurry. I had used a personal day to make my birthday a four-day weekend. Great expectations.
"This place is a dump," I told Kitty after taking Oppie for his walk. "Let's go home."
"You drag me way the fuck out here in the sticks and now you want to leave already?"
"There's no coffee and I have a headache."
"You and your goddamn headaches."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Curse the Names"
Copyright © 2012 Robert Arellano.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Monday, July 1,
Thursday, July 4,
Friday, July 5,
Saturday, July 6,
Sunday, July 7,
Monday, July 8,
Tuesday, July 9,
Wednesday, July 10,
Thursday, July 11,
Friday, July 12,
Saturday, July 13,
Sunday, July 14,
Monday, July 15,
Wednesday, July 17,
Sunday, July 21,
Thursday, August 1,
Tuesday, August 6,