The debut novel from Zack Parsons (My Tank is Fight!) is a mind-bending journey through time and genres. Beginning in 1874, with a blood-soaked western story of revenge, Liminal States follows a trio of characters through a 1950s noir detective story and 21st-century sci-fi horror. Their paths are tragically intertwined and their choices have far-reaching consequences for the course of American history.
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It was the stone horse called Apollyon that stomped cruelty into him. The beast stood nineteen hands, and every man was afraid to go near, its hooves and mane wild and black, black and untamed as its eyes. It was not ridden. It did not toil in the field. The unbroken giant was proof that man could not subject every beast to his will. By its size and defiance it became a mythical creature. Apollyon breathed morning's smoke, exhaled and snorted in such great gusts, it seemed it could breathe fire as well.
Gideon Long was never more afraid than when he stood before Apollyon.
His father watched from behind the gate, one foot up on the second rail, a gentle smile in place to hide what he was doing. "Go on," he said. "Go on in there, boy. Brush his hide."
Placed between the forces of his raw fear of this enormous beast and his fear of his father's disappointment, Gideon ducked beneath the railing and entered the stall. He took with him the camel brush and the metal curry comb. Apollyon watched and snorted and crowded him with its muscular presence.
Gideon slowly put the comb to the horse's flank. He brushed away a year of rolling in dust. He combed out the burrs and scabs and every bit of filth that had clung to Apollyon's hide. The beast tensed beneath the teeth of the comb but did not move or lash out.
When Gideon was done, he looked to his father, still on the other side of the gate.
Harlan Long said to his boy, "Go on. Go on and comb his mane."
Apollyon's mane was badly tangled. Gideon climbed the stool and stood beside the snorting beast. With tiny hands he lifted the bone teeth of the comb to the hair, and with slow, deliberate, terrified strokes he smoothed the knots from Apollyon's mane.
At last he finished the task, and he looked again to his father, still with one boot up on the second rail.
Harlan smiled gently at Gideon, though the he knew exactly the sort of devil he was tempting. "Go on," he said. "Go on and pick his hooves. It's been so many months."
It had been many months since Apollyon's massive black hooves had been seen to. With these Apollyon had injured so many unlucky stable boys that none would brave this most perilous task of grooming. The nervous lads who worked the barn climbed up the railings of other stalls and observed the spectacle of Gideon's torment from the surrounding darkness of the barn.
Apollyon's hooves were grouted with rotten manure and piss. This foul clay required strength and a steady hand with the metal pick to remove. Gideon could feel the power of the beast as he took hold of one of its legs. By pressure he urged the beast to lift that leg, big around as a jug, and he carefully chiseled and levered the stinking muck from the beast's hoof. The hooves were unshod, overgrown, and split. Tender, no doubt, and yet Apollyon stood and snorted and allowed his hooves to be picked clean by the terrified boy.
By the time Gideon finished with this task, his arms and legs were shaking. Sweat clung to his body and ran into his eyes. He could bear no further chore, could scarcely stand, and yet when he looked to his father, his father only smiled and said, "Go on. Go on and climb onto his back. Go on and ride him and tame him. Make this beast your horse."
Gideon climbed the stool beside Apollyon. He placed one palm against the gray stone pelt and said, "Please." Apollyon switched his ears and looked back at Gideon with black eyes that reflected Gideon's stricken face. The boy took a deep breath and began to climb atop Apollyon's back. There was a moment, from atop the back of the giant Percheron, that Gideon could see all the stable hands staring in amazement and awe. Awe! At a boy only nine.
Apollyon's patience was exhausted. It was not hate or evil that made the horse do what it did. It was not malice that motivated Apollyon to throw Gideon into the straw, to kick his side, to crush his child's ribs. It was not even cruelty itself that caused Apollyon to stomp a great black hoof onto Gideon's knee so that it broke like dry clay and the child's blood ran out into his trousers. Not cruelty, and yet this was the affliction Gideon received. Cruelty was the venom injected into his marrow that day.
Gideon would forever recall what his father said to him that day.
"I knew you could not do it, but I hoped you would prove me wrong."
Gideon imagined he heard his father laughing. He lay there in a state of cold agony, reaching for his father, reaching for nothing until the terrified stable boys dragged him from beneath the hooves of Apollyon.
* * *
In came Father's nurse, Adelaide. She was a shrill doll of aprons and scowls and greeted Gideon in the walnut-paneled anteroom with her usual disdain. She had once been Father's doting secretary, perhaps more, and her transformation into nurse was only a matter of setting. Gideon's father had been moved from the office he had occupied above the copper foundry to be ensconced for his miserable remainder in his bedchamber, surrounded by his precious treasures of his tyrant's life well lived.
Adelaide took an appraising look at Gideon and shook her head. "No, no, he will have a fit. Do you plunder the cemetery for your wardrobe?"
"Good evening, Adelaide. Always a pleasure to see you, as well."
"Do not bear false witness," she said. Her piggish nose crinkled. "Do you ever bathe? Or should I ask what you bathe in?"
She began grooming Gideon there in the anteroom. She smoothed his greasy hair and clucked at his missing vest buttons. She cursed at the bits of licorice root stuck in his teeth. There was nothing to be done about his overgrown beard and mustache, nor could she repair the tear in the leg of Gideon's corduroy trousers. She could at least straighten the black ribbon of his tie, and this she fussed over at length.
"I'm doing this for his health," she said. "You would have done it yourself if you cared one speck about that man. As it is you scarcely — oh, your shoes, scuffed and ratty as a child's. Playing in the privy? I'll fetch the shine. But you will do it yourself. I'll not stoop."
Adelaide disappeared down an adjoining hall, and Gideon could hear the receding thump of her shoes on the carpet.
A rasping voice called out through the door of the bedchamber. "Adelaide, I need you."
"It is me, Father," said Gideon.
"Junior? Is that ... my Junior ... who ..." Father's voice trailed off into half-heard muttering.
Junior was Harlan Long II, Gideon's older brother, dead on the battlefield nearly ten years prior. Gideon accepted his own fate and limped to the door. His cane clicked against the floor, and his leg brace squeaked with each turn of the joint. He took a last deep breath before stepping through the threshold into Father's shrinking domain.
The stench of endings filled the room. Father lay withered by time and a procession of disease. He was a fragile thing beneath the overstuffed down comforter, shrunken in every measurement and capacity. Though waning, he existed still as a fearsome spirit at the outer edges of the world. Gideon wondered if the dead could restlessly seek to pursue their evils. Though he knew the man could no longer strike him with his fists, it was no coincidence that he recalled the horse Apollyon whenever he thought of his father.
The bedchamber was crowded. Books and ledgers were piled over what windows might have provided at least a scrap of moonlight. The room was made to seem smaller still by the few oil lamps burning at this late hour. The walls were papered with pictures of pheasants, father's favorite beast to shoot, and festooned with Hindoo knives and German landscapes, finished with the garish portraits of ten generations of Longs. The painted eyes of Gideon's ancestors were uniformly dark, as though something had prevented each painter throughout the many years from finishing their depictions with believably human eyes.
Perhaps not so unfinished, Gideon thought as he looked upon the sickly remnants of his father. The old man's eyes were dark, sunken, glittering coal in the pallid face. Father looked at Gideon with the cold envy of a man unwilling to relinquish history to the next generation.
Gideon did not doubt that, were Mephisto to appear to offer his father a bargain, Gideon would find his soul caged in his father's rotting carcass, while his father lived out a full life in Gideon's body. Such a trade would suit his father well.
"Ah, it's only you," said Father. He lifted a palsied hand and motioned Gideon to his bedside. "This long wait for the reaper tests my patience. I nightmare away the hours sweating and pissing myself, yet the true terror is conjured when I imagine what ruin you have brought to my lifetime's enterprise."
Gideon said nothing. He reached to take his father's hand, but the invalid dragged his speckled claw away.
"This land remembers me, what I did. I carved civilization from it. I beat back the savage, god damn him. I —" Father's cough interrupted him. His lungs rattled, and he spilled phlegm down his chin. "Civilization."
"Please, Father, you are unwell. Try to calm yourself. Perhaps some sleep."
"Perhaps sleep," Father said in a voice that mocked Gideon's tone. "Sage counsel to be sure. History is written by the sleeping."
Father raised his gnarled hand once more and pointed a bony finger up at Gideon. "You'll not raise my hackles on this day. I called you here to be spoken at, so listen."
"I brought you the accounts," Gideon said. "I have detailed everything with —"
Gideon brought forth the heavy ledgers he carried beneath his arm. Each was carefully crafted to tell a story of vitality to his father. Each was an increasingly difficult deception. Father pushed them away with surprising vehemence.
"You brought me scrap paper and numbers written down by liars." Father sat up in the bed. "I yet have faithful men within your midst, men whose loyalty to my enterprise compels them to report your mismanagement. You can bring in your Dutchman and your fancy machine. Replace white men practiced at the trade with stinking Slavs and all those gutter Chinese. Cheaper, but they will ruin you. Those mongrel peoples are parasites gathering upon the body of this nation."
The old man's eyes bulged, and foam gathered at the corners of his lips. His hair was long and gray and as thin as spun sugar around the spotted dome of his head.
"Father, try to calm yourself," Gideon said as he took a step forward.
"Your brother, God rest him, was brought up for this. He had the spirit of a Long in him."
Father fought to catch his breath.
"You have already met Mr. Horten," Gideon said with a pleading tone. "I have explained the wireworks. It is an investment that will pay dividends over —"
"We're in copper, boy. Not iron." Father sighed and allowed himself to settle back in the cushioned bed. "Your excuses no longer matter to me. I have sent for my attorney."
Gideon felt a fearful lurch and clenching in his gut. He steadied himself by leaning against his cane and tried not to show his fear. It was too late. His father's smile revealed a mouthful of teeth so decayed, they were nearly gray.
"Yes, Gideon. My attorney is come from Memphis. He will be arriving in Jessup in two days by railway. Robert Broken Horse can take care of sending a coach to retrieve him."
Father gleefully wallowed in Gideon's dismay.
"He will want to see everything. The accounts themselves, not just these ledgers. What you have done to my foundry, to the mine. To our family."
"I have done nothing."
"Nothing would be bad enough, a failure by inaction, but I suspect you are lying to me. I fear Pearce has not been put in his place, as you claim. Profligacy, perhaps criminal acts of accounting. Mr. Surebow will sniff it out, and your goose will soon be cooked."
"Should any of my suspicions prove true, I have already alerted your sister's husband to be ready to take over the business."
Gideon began to protest, but Father held up a hand to stop him.
"He has already proven himself in his own enterprise. I should rather my life's work pass to another name than have it ruined by my own. By this method my industrious ancestors will at least enjoy some benefit of all my labors."
Father clapped his hands together to punctuate his declaration. He seemed rejuvenated by Gideon's reaction. He took the edge of the comforter in his left hand and flung it back from his body. An orange brine of liquid surrounded him on the mattress.
"I will be needing you to clean my piss."CHAPTER 2
He snatched in his hand the fire and the knife and ran, heedless of discovery, out into the night. He was barefoot. His nightshirt was soiled with blood. The same blood sheathed his face and his eyes were wild marbles in its midst. Smoke coughed from every crack of the shanty. Could someone yet live within its walls? Fireglowed beneath the door. The shack throbbed with malevolence.
He fled from it. Into the cold. Men were returning from shifts in the textile mills and chemical factories of Kensington. Some were barge tenders from the river come to the snowy mud and squalor of the shanties in search of pleasure.
The boy ran on against the tide of returning workers. He escaped the grasp of twenty men. He howled toward the river. In sight of the railhead he cast aside his lantern and it broke open and spilled fire in the road.
The train platform before him was crowded with travelers bound for Schuylkill and farther on. A train policeman was patrolling to prevent stowaways and thefts among the waiting travelers. The boy tried to discern some course by which he could climb onto the train and avoid detection. His head was not clear. His hands shook with the wild beat of his heart.
The fire started by his lantern was causing a commotion. A shabbily dressed man took off his jacket and used it to beat the spreading flames. Curious inhabitants of nearby shacks were emerging one by one to view the spectacle. The impromptu fireman shouted and pointed to indicate the boy.
His only route for escape was in the direction of the river itself. He shoved past a man with the obvious intent of capturing him and leaped onto the wooden decking to the coal wharves of Port Richmond. A half dozen steam colliers crowded the docks. Most were dark and silent, their crews ashore. Two bustled with activity as the overhead cranes loaded coal into their holds.
A cry went up from behind the boy, and he sensed that he was discovered. The boots of several men beat against the dock as they chased him. If they caught him, his life would end, perhaps not by noose, but by some other slow and poisonous method. His fear propelled him, and he ran to the railing. The boy took a last glance back. He bit the blade of the knife and jumped into the Delaware.
The cold nearly sent him into shock. He could not swim. Years spent up to his knees in the muck, and he could not swim. He thrashed and kicked and was only just able to keep his head above water. His fingers collided with something, and he grabbed hold. When he bobbed to the surface again, he could see that he was clinging to the rigging of one of the iron-banded steamships. He hauled himself up the slimy ropes and paused out of sight to ensure no guard was patrolling. His body steamed in the cold air. He pressed his prickled flesh against the ship's hull.
When he was certain he was not detected, he heaved himself over the railing and onto the deck. It was crowded on the ship. Men with long hair and heavy coats focused on one another or the coal clattering into the hold. Their voices were loud and fearless. He crept across the deck undetected and turned himself sideways to slip into a gap between the ship's superstructure and its sidewall.
Exhaustion and cold took their toll. The boy sagged and lapsed into a restless sleep. His dreams were haunted by bloody visions of his deeds. He awoke for just a moment as the ship departed. Long enough to see the fires of Philadelphia receding into the distance.
He next awoke to angry shouting. One of the sailors was leaning half his body into the narrow passage the boy occupied.
"C'mere," the man said. "I ain't gonna hurt ya."
The sailor stretched his arm out as far as he could in the tight space and his grimy fingers wriggled scant inches from the boy's nose. The boy could smell the rope oil on the man's hand.
The boy slashed the knife at the sailor's fingers and nearly opened the man's wrist. The blade was made from thick bottle glass and wrapped in twine. The sailor howled in pain and surprise and retreated from the hiding spot. The boy darted out. His legs were unsteady on the swaying ship but he was too nimble for the shocked sailors to catch. He ducked under one and dodged around another. They enclosed him in a half circle and backed him against the railing.
"We have you, boy." The sailor's teeth showed red from sucking at his wound. "Throw down the knife and it'll only be a kick or two."
The boy leapt into the frigid Delaware. He resurfaced with a gasp and heard the men calling out to him and throwing ropes into the water. "You will drown!" they told him. He ignored them and paddled and kicked away into the night as best as he could manage. The ship never turned back for him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Liminal States"
Copyright © 2012 Zach Parsons.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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
BEFORE AND AFTER - The Champion,
1874 - The Builder,
1890 - The Covenant,
1951 - The Judge,
1973 - The Sister,
TRANSCRIPT OF A RECORDING OF A MEETING BETWEEN THE PRESIDENT AND ADVISORS IN THE OVAL OFFICE ON MARCH 20, 1973,
2006 - The Mother,