Faller: A novel

Faller: A novel

by Will McIntosh

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765383556
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

WILL MCINTOSH is a Hugo and Nebula award-winner for his short story "Bridesicle." He has a PhD in social psychology and has authored several novels including Defenders and Love Minus Eighty.

Read an Excerpt

Faller


By Will McIntosh

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2016 Will McIntosh
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8355-6


CHAPTER 1

He tried to open his eyes, but they felt glued shut, so he just lay there, exhausted, listening to the screams. His cheek was against a hard surface, pebbles pressed into his skin. A dog barked nearby.

Dog. The word burst in his mind, fresh, like he was giving birth to it. Yet, he knew what a dog was. When he thought the word, a picture formed. Four- legged animal, fur, wagging tail.

His mind felt slightly clearer, his energy returning.

He dragged his eyes open.

The world was incredibly bright, remarkably colorful. Someone ran by in green and white sneakers, sideways, as if running on a wall. Except he was the one who was sideways.

As he managed to sit upright, the world tilted and spun for a moment before settling into crisp focus. He was surrounded by tall buildings; cars and trucks were scattered on a street. None were moving. Thick black smoke rose from behind the closest buildings.

A few feet away a pink-haired woman was doubled over, clutching her head in her hands. There were colorful tattoos of flowers on her forearms.

"What is happening?" she wailed.

"I don't know."

The woman looked up, startled. "Do you know me? Do you know who I am?"

"No. Do you know who I am?"

The woman shook her head.

Something had happened. The confusion he felt, the screaming, this wasn't normal. He needed to figure out what was going on. Maybe he could find help. Police.

When he pressed his palm to the pavement to try to stand, lancing pain shot down his thumb and into his wrist. There was a deep slash across the pad of the thumb, caked with dried blood. There was more dried blood on the tip of his index finger and under the fingernail. This must have happened before, he realized.

Still shaky, he stood, looked around. There was a little silver cart with a yellow umbrella nearby. The word for it sprang to mind: hot-dog stand. A red and white bus sat parked along the curb. A few blocks away, a cluster of people stood with their backs to him.

He went to see what they were doing.

There were no buildings beyond the place where the crowd was standing. The sky grew wider as he approached, until he merged into the crowd and saw that the world simply ended a few feet from where they stood.

There was nothing beyond but sky.

Ragged asphalt and concrete marked the edge of the world. A concrete sewer pipe jutted from the dark earth below, spewing water.

He couldn't say how, but he sensed this, too, was wrong. The sky felt too big, although he knew skies were enormous.

A white-haired man knelt off to one side of the crowd on a stoop that led up to thin air. He was studying a small photograph, the contents of a wallet spread beside him. The old man looked up as he approached, held the photo up for him to see. It showed the man in a black suit, smiling, clutching an old woman's hand.

"I found this in my pocket. They must be people I know."

It took him a moment to realize the old guy didn't know he was one of the people in the photo.

"That's you," he said, pointing.

"That's me?" The old man held the photo closer, studied it. "That's me." He sounded surprised.

He wondered if there was anything in his own pockets. Checking the front ones first, he pulled out a folded food wrapper and a toy soldier.

There was a photo in one of his back pockets: a dark-haired woman with freckles, grinning, hugging a round-faced, sandy-haired man. They looked happier than anyone could possibly look.

He showed the picture to the old man, who pointed. "That's you."

He studied the man in the picture. How could that face be his? It was a stranger's face. He preferred looking at the woman. She had bright, intelligent green eyes that looked ever so slightly crossed, arms like flamingo legs.

He scanned the faces in the nearby crowd, hoping to spot the woman among them. His gaze paused on an old woman, hands buried in the pockets of a black sweater, standing at the edge of the crowd. He glanced at the picture in the old man's lap.

"Hey, there she is."

The old man stood, squinted into the crowd. "Where?"

"There." He grasped the man by the elbow, led him to the woman. She turned as they approached, her eyebrows pinched.

The old man studied the photo, looked at the woman, studied the photo again. He held the photo up so the woman could see it. "I think that's you in the photo. With me."

Relief spread across the woman's face. "Do you know me?"

"I don't," the old man admitted. "But we must be something to each other, don't you think? In the picture we're holding hands."

"I don't understand what's happening." She touched her face. "Am I dead? Is that it?"

"I don't think we're dead. No," the old guy said.

He was glad these people had found each other. He wished he could find the woman in his photo, so they could face whatever was happening together.

"I'm going to look for this woman." He held up his photo.

The old man nodded. "Thank you. I won't forget the kindness you showed a total stranger."

As he set off along the edge, he took a closer look at the other things in his pocket. The thumb-sized green toy soldier was connected to a toy parachute by a half-dozen threads.

As he opened the folded-up food wrapper, he stopped walking. There was something drawn on the back in rusty brown, the crude shapes smeared and splotched. A series of ovals ran down the length of the page, with an X over the bottom one. He moved his thumb, which was obscuring a second image in the bottom right-hand corner of the page: a triangle with two numerals in it — a one, followed by a three.

He studied the dried blood caking his thumb, set it beside one of the ovals. It was the same rust color as the writing. He'd cut his thumb and scrawled those ovals on the food wrapper with his own blood, then put it in his pocket. He'd left a message to himself. If he'd sliced open his thumb to write it, he must have known something was about to happen, and the message must be important.

He studied the ovals, the triangle with the numerals inside, and tried to make sense of them, but it meant nothing to him. Carefully folding the wrapper, he put it back in his pocket and walked on.

Crowds were gathered along the edge on every street. He searched the faces, seeking the dark-haired woman.

The crowds thinned with each block, and eventually he came upon a deserted, ruined part of the world. Only a few buildings stood; the rest had been reduced to piles of steel and concrete. Wading through the wreckage, he picked up blackened bricks, melted electronics. Vehicles had been crushed flat, fires had raged. There were no bodies, at least none he could see, and no smoke, so the destruction wasn't recent.

Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, he squatted, closed his eyes. He was in serious trouble. All of them were. But he didn't understand the trouble; nothing made sense, none of it fit together.

What was there to do but keep looking, both for the woman in the picture and for answers? He moved on, staying close to the edge.


* * *

Hungry, his throat dry, he found himself back where he'd started.

The world was a circle, and smaller than he'd imagined.

Most of the crowd was gone, including the man and woman he'd reunited. They'd all no doubt gone to find food and a place to sleep. He decided he'd better do the same.

CHAPTER 2

Two big-eyed children sitting on the steps outside an apartment building gazed up as he approached.

"Have you seen this woman?" He held up the photo.

They shook their heads in unison.

"Okay. Well, thank you anyway." He felt guilty leaving the children on their own, but there were so many children on their own. He'd met most of them over the past few days as he walked to every corner of the world, asking everyone he met if they'd seen the woman in the photo.

His hope of finding her was fading, and as it did, looking at the photo became painful. He longed to see her, even though he had no idea who she was.

An orange sheet of paper rolling on the breeze blew up against his shin. He peeled it off.

It pictured four men, three holding musical instruments. Guitar. Saxophone. Trumpet. Above the picture of the men were boldly printed letters. He squinted, trying to make the letters speak. He knew the letters, knew which was A, which was Q, and he knew they said something, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn't make them speak.

Some words came so easily. Why wouldn't the name of the woman in the photo come to him? Why wouldn't his own?

Maybe he should pick a name, for now. He was tired of feeling nameless. He folded the paper and added it to the day's collection of clues, stuffed in his pockets.

As he headed home he considered names, finally settling on Clue, because as far as he could tell he was the only person looking for them. Everyone else was focused on finding food and clothes. And weapons.


* * *

Clue stood muttering to himself, surrounded by things he'd amassed. He should be out searching for food, because the howling emptiness in his stomach made it difficult to think, but first he wanted to study everything at once, see if it sparked an insight.

The best clue was still the blood drawing, which he knew so well by now it was all but etched on his eyeballs.

The triangle with the numbers in it might have been a flag, because its shortest side — the vertical side — extended downward an inch or so. It was hard to tell, though, because the drawing was so poorly executed. There was a thumbprint smearing the top circle. He couldn't imagine what was so important about these circles that he would use his own blood to draw them.

Beside the indecipherable drawing was a length of pipe, one end ragged and twisted, as if it had been torn by a giant, the other end neatly sawed using a hacksaw from the tool box Clue had found. Sundry papers, magazines, and books filled out his collection.

One book, in particular, had photos of the world that included streets and buildings that didn't exist, set out beyond the edge of the world. It was possible these streets were only make-believe, like the images of endless bodies of water and fantastic animals he'd found, but there was another possibility: maybe the world had once been bigger, and something happened to make it smaller. The pipe was torn as if it had been ripped in half with incredible force.

Shouting outside broke his concentration. He went to the window of the apartment he'd claimed. Men carrying rifles, axes, pieces of wood were leading a dozen or more children down the street. He'd seen these men before, or others like them, stockpiling tons of food and supplies in a building with heavy steel doors and bars on the lower windows. Clue didn't understand what they'd want with children, though.

Grabbing a jacket he'd found in the front closet, he hurried down the seven flights of stairs.

By the time he got to street level, the gathering was out of sight. Hands in his pockets, he turned in the direction they'd been heading.

He should be searching for food. The stores were empty; people were going door to door through every building, smashing vending machines, emptying cupboards in unoccupied apartments, and sometimes in occupied ones.

The food must have come from somewhere. Clue had yet to find any place where cans of food could be produced, or fresh food was growing. Food grew — that much he knew. Apples grew on trees and carrots grew underground. But where? If he could figure out what had happened, maybe he could solve the food problem. If not, this was going to become a nightmare before much longer.

Clue thought he heard gunshots. He stopped, listened. In the silence he heard the gunshots clearly, along with screams. Shrill, terrified children's screams.

Taking off at a sprint, he tried to imagine what would terrify children like that. The screams grew louder as he turned a corner around a brown brick building.

He stopped short.

Men were pointing weapons at a crowd of onlookers. Other men were pushing children off the edge.

"What are you doing?" Clue ran toward the edge as a screaming little boy clung to a fat man's leg. The man pried the boy's little fingers until the boy lost his grip and fell onto his back. The man kicked the flailing boy over the edge.

Clue reached the onlookers, who were shouting and crying for the men to stop. Seven or eight onlookers lay dead at the feet of the men wielding the weapons.

"What are you doing? What are you doing?" Clue shouted, pushing through the crowd.

"They're saying there's not enough food for everyone," an Asian woman said. "We have to stop them."

It was too late, though. The children were gone. The men stood where they were, the front line with weapons at the ready, the ones near the edge — the ones who'd done the pushing — simply standing, hands hanging at their sides. The faces of a few were streaked with tears; others were grimacing, as if they'd just eaten something rotten.

A commotion rose behind Clue. He turned, craned his neck.

More men, leading more children.

"Out of the way," one of them shouted. "Move, or we'll shoot."

Shouting at the men, the crowd moved aside until Clue, the Asian woman, and two other men stood alone blocking their path. The children looked terrified and confused, but clearly had no idea what these men planned to do to them.

Two shots rang out; the man to Clue's left jerked and dropped to the asphalt, a bloody hole in his sternum. Gasping and writhing, he clutched the hole, grimacing in pain.

Clue pressed his hand to the Asian woman's shoulder, urged her toward the crowd. They merged into the crowd as the children were led past.

Clue sank to his knees as children were thrown off. He covered his ears. Their screams were intolerable; they were going to kill him just as surely as the men's bullets.

"Please don't. Please don't," he said, his palms clapped over his ears. He had to stop this. He'd rather die than live through what was happening. He struggled to his feet, woozy with shock, and pushed through the crowd.

Once again, it was too late. They were gone; the only sounds were people sobbing.

"This is for your good as well as ours," one of the men by the edge shouted. "Someone has to do it or we all starve." He was tall, young, with black circles below his hungry eyes.

A hundred shouted replies, curses, entreaties blended into an incoherent howl from the onlookers. The man folded his arms across his chest, turned his back on the crowd, shaking his head as if to say they were all fools.

The men with the weapons stood their ground, which Clue was certain meant more children were coming. What were they going to do, round up every child and throw them over the edge? Would they move to the weakest adults after that? Probably.

He heard a child crying; a moment later more children came around the corner led by more armed men.

"No. Oh, no." Clue put his hands on his knees and leaned over to throw up. Nothing came, though his stomach roiled violently. If he charged the men they would shoot him down, and that would be the end of it. He could commit suicide in that way, or he could watch, or he could run away. Those were his choices.

He decided to run. If there was a way he could save even one child, he would stay and suffer through this horror, but why witness it if he couldn't save even one?

Clue froze. He straightened, eyed the advancing line of kids. Could he save one? Just one?

He thought of the old man on that first day, showing the old woman the photo from his wallet. Clue pulled his photo from his pocket and marched toward the children. Three rifles spun to point at him.

"She's with me." He waved the photo, pointed at the closest child, a young girl. "I found this photo of the two of us in my pocket." He went right up to the girl, who had brown skin and came up to his armpit. "I found you. I finally found you." He gripped her elbow and led her toward the crowd.

"Get back," a grey-haired, bearded man shouted, rifle raised to his cheek.

"She's mine, you idiot," Clue shouted back, waving the photo. His heart was hammering, his eardrums throbbing. "If we're in a photo together she must be my daughter, or something." As he led the girl toward the crowd, the man with the rifle tensed. Clue grimaced, anticipating the gunshot.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Faller by Will McIntosh. Copyright © 2016 Will McIntosh. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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.

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Faller 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
SciFiGuyDM More than 1 year ago
Faller by Will McIntosh is simply amazing. There are two disparate stories running simultaneously, that, as you read, droop clues that keep you guessing. And, just when you think you've got an idea about whay might happen, McIntosh throws you for a loop, similar to Faller leaps from world to world. A compulsive page-turner. Highly recommended!