|5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)
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State of Amazonas, Brazil
The sun was lost above the dense canopy of trees and nearly forgotten, save for a few fragments of light that managed to sneak their way through. Far below, the forest floor was in a state of almost perpetual darkness. It was a place where an outsider could easily become lost and disoriented, but to the boy named Peak, it was home.
Peak belonged to the Nacana tribe, a group that numbered just under two hundred and had inhabited this area of the Amazon for centuries. Like he did on most days, Peak explored his territory after the men left the village to hunt. He was only nine years old — too young yet to be a hunter himself, but he liked to pretend. With a small, pointed branch — resembling a spear well enough in the low light — he went on imaginary quests for great, wild beasts.
This morning, Peak had awoken to a heavy thunderstorm. They were common, almost daily occurrences and did little to interfere with his exploits. But as the unseen sky boomed, the boy sensed the beginning of another headache. For the last few months, those had become as regular as the rain. Peak had kept the headaches a secret so far. His father was the chief of the Nacana, a tribe that had survived — Peak was taught — because of its strength. Men with illnesses were not allowed to hunt or fight ... and could never lead.
A trek through the forest usually distracted Peak until the throbbing above his eyes faded, but today it hadn't. It was actually intensifying, moving deeper into his head. At one point the pain became so severe that Peak lost his balance and fell face first into the soggy earth. It was time to seek help. The village shaman had always been fond of Peak; the boy could think of no better person to confide in — he just hoped the treatment would be discreet. After a minute or two, Peak was able to regain his posture. He pointed his nose straight up, allowing the rain to wash the mud from his face, then turned to head back home.
That was when he saw the jaguar.
Peak had never seen one so close; it was only a few body lengths away. He was told that jaguars were mighty creatures, both beautiful and fearsome. This one was not. It was a baby, no more than six months old. It sat and cried out from a small clearing in the brush, but there was no sign of its mother.
The law of the village — of his father — was clear: only hunters were permitted to engage the giant cats. Peak convinced himself that this was an exception. Jaguars began learning to hunt at this age, so the spotted orange cub would be just the right match for a chief's son. Peak believed that if he could slay it, it would prove that the strength inside him was greater than the sickness.
Peak hurled his makeshift spear at the cub, but his excitement made him careless. The throw was rushed, his technique all wrong. The branch spun wildly and landed far short of its target. The cub, startled by the noise, darted further into the jungle. Determined not to fail, Peak snatched up his weapon and raced after the prize.
The boy knew his rainforest well, but thunderstorms could create new obstacles. Unlike the sunshine, the rain made its way through the canopy to the ground with ease. As the raindrops descended through the trees, they merged to form vertical rivers in ever-changing locations. The shifting waterfalls obscured Peak's vision, threw off his sense of direction, and slowed down his hunt. All the while, the misery in his head continued to grow. Peak approached a small, unfamiliar stream that could only have been formed minutes ago by the downpour. The cub tried to run through it, but stumbled and fell onto the opposite side. Wheezing with exhaustion, it remained sprawled out on its belly. Peak leapt over the stream without incident, landing right in front of the animal. He raised his weapon and readied the killing blow.
At that moment, Peak heard a terrible roar.
Tremors ran through his body as he turned to face what he knew was the cub's mother. Just a few paces away, the adult jaguar stood, its black eyes boring into Peak's. The beast snarled, displaying its sharp, curved incisors. Peak looked down at the branch in his hand. It seemed thinner now and duller than it was at the start of the chase. It shook along with Peak's arms.
The mother jaguar roared again, loud enough for Peak to feel the sound vibrations in his chest. Peak dropped his stick. The jaguar watched it fall, then brought its attention back to the boy. It crouched aggressively, its lean muscles tightened, clearly ready to pounce. Peak closed his eyes.
There was a shriek of pain, but it was not his own. Peak's eyes shot back open. The grown jaguar lay twitching in the stream with a spear through its neck. A real spear. As the animal lay dying, it streaked the flowing water with ribbons of blood. Peak looked around in disbelief until he saw his father emerge from the brush.
Peak ran over to give him a hug, but the chief did not accept it. He held the boy's shoulders at arm's length and stared intently into his eyes. The moment seemed to last forever, but finally his father smiled and touched his forehead to Peak's. Though meant to be affectionate, the impact was enough to renew the pain in Peak's skull. Peak gritted his teeth until his father pulled away.
"Tell me what happened," the chief commanded.
Peak told the story as best he could, but the words came out with unusual difficulty. He even found himself slurring at times.
"Why do you speak like that?" his father asked.
Peak knew it was because of the headaches, but was not ready to admit it. "I don't know," he lied, then tried to change the subject. "Will I be punished?"
"Yes," his father answered. "You disobeyed me."
"I needed to show you that I am strong, that I can defeat a jaguar."
"It is not yet a jaguar. It is only a child, like you."
"But it will grow."
"Not without its mother."
The chief walked over to the dead animal. It was now being prodded by the cub. The chief reached down, grabbed it with both hands, and broke its neck. He then picked up the two carcasses, laying the mother's over his shoulder while holding the cub's by the nape of its neck.
He turned to Peak and called out over the rain. "Together, we will burn them. To honor their spirits. They should not have died today."
Peak understood that he had caused the deaths of these animals and the shame was immense. He became dizzy, then the agony in his head intensified to levels he had never experienced. It felt as if the entire tribe had plunged their spears into his skull. He saw the jungle spin, then turn on its side. Peak hit the ground hard. It was cold and wet. His whole body began to shake uncontrollably, splashing in the mud as the rain bombarded his face.
Peak managed to turn in the direction of his father and tried to call out, but could not find his voice. He saw his father drop the jaguars and run towards him, then Peak's vision faded completely. In a darkness deeper than the rainforest's, Peak felt his own mind escaping, forcing him into a sleep that he did not want.
Will Battese hated New York City, but not around his wife.
In her presence, he was only allowed to "dislike it with a passion." That was because Shannon O'Cleary, the woman he sank to one skinny knee for — who said yes, but refused to surrender her last name — believed "hate" was too ugly a word and forbade him from using it to describe even one facet of the five boroughs. Will questioned the fairness to that rule, especially since his wife so often spoke the kind of language that forced movies into R ratings, but Shannon never wavered. According to her, hating New York meant that Will hated his new life there — a life that Shannon's career forced them to have and her unexpected pregnancy forced them to keep.
While his wife's extrapolation was completely incorrect — Will loved her and adored their baby boy, Gideon — it just wasn't worth the fight to change her mind. Will learned early in marriage that he could be right or he could be happy, so he consented to Shannon's watered-down alternative.
At least until the first piece of cinderblock crashed through the window.
But even as Will trudged to work on that day, unaware of the attack to come, he couldn't imagine a place more deserving of the "H-word" than the Big Apple. It was early morning, early March, and the first Friday of Lent. A time that should have been heralding the coming of Easter was instead nothing more than a bitter winter overstaying its welcome.
The wind blew in fierce spurts that stabbed at Will's freshly-shaven face. His teeth chattered almost relentlessly while a growing number of snow flurries danced around him. Dirty slush and black ice covered the sidewalks, ready to cripple the already uncoordinated twenty-five year old if he misjudged a step.
Beyond the weather, there was ugliness for all the senses. Unwashed taxi cabs congested the streets and charged fares that never fit into Will's budget. He breathed in their exhaust fumes and listened to their horns screech all the way through his morning commute. But the worst was the trash. Piled up to three bags high along the curb, Manhattan's garbage was more than just a visual blight; Will found it symbolic of the city's repulsiveness altogether.
Lake Placid had been different.
Nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, Will's home town had enchanting winters, full of fresh air, majestic wildlife, and vast landscapes adorned by snow. Real snow — fleecy, white, and pure. Not the gray abomination that now clung to his boots.
The city lacked other things, too. Will no longer had access to Grandpa Griff's perfect cup of Irish coffee. There was no Sunday mass that he could attend and see his father, Richard, serve as deacon. Worst of all, Will was without Danny, his kid brother and the only other person to know what it felt like to lose their mother.
"I hate this," Will said to his housemate, Kavi, who was walking beside him.
Kavi Minhas was half a head shorter than Will, but twice as fit and sported a winter coat that cost at least twice as much as his friend's. "You're not supposed to say that," Kavi said. Sharing a home with the married couple, Kavi was well aware of Will's feelings towards the city and Shannon's prohibition of them. "Watch out for spousal lightning."
Before Will could respond to the joke, he and Kavi were separated by a gray-haired man speaking into a Bluetooth earpiece who shoved his way between them. "Asshole!" Kavi yelled after the guy, but the man ignored him and kept walking. "Well, that guy was a jerk," said Will, working his way back to Kavi. "It's hard to contain my ... passionate disliking when stuff like that happens all the time."
"You just gotta make it through the day," Kavi continued. "Try to focus on the good."
"Focus on the — I can't find the good, man." Will dropped his head slightly and frowned, uncomfortable with his own negativity, then forced a small laugh. "You know what I saw yesterday?"
Kavi continued to face forward. "What?" he asked.
"A blue jay."
"First one of the season," said Will, with a deliberate lack of enthusiasm in his voice.
Kavi picked up on it. "And? No beauty in that?"
"Might have been," Will answered, "until it started drinking from a puddle of somebody's vomit." Will shook his head. "I'm not kidding, the bird was eating from a half-frozen puddle of green sludge filled with like ... rice ... and hot dog bits."
"Heh," Kavi chuckled. "Complain again and I'll tell Mr. DiSantos to put it on the menu. The Blue Jay Special," he said, waving an outstretched hand up and across the air as if his newly created entrée was written upon a flashy marquee sign.
"Hey, if it saves our boss some money, you better tell him you got the idea from me. It might help me get back in his good graces."
"Yeah ... I doubt it."
So did Will, unfortunately. He and Kavi were both cooks at the Cosmic Ocean, a low-end Italian restaurant in Manhattan's meat packing district. It was owned by a morbidly obese man named Anthony DiSantos — a man whose face sat undisputedly at the top of the list of things Will so passionately disliked. It was a large, pockmarked face, and one permanently squished into an expression of contempt. From within it came a hoarse voice that did little more than insult and bark orders.
As a business owner, Mr. DiSantos focused solely and shamelessly on profits. The food in his kitchen was never fresh and his menu void of originality and complexity, with small portions and minimal ingredients. It also wasn't above Mr. DiSantos to assign waiters to kitchen duty so that he could serve tables himself and keep all of the tips (which Will could only imagine amounted to diddly-squat since Mr. DiSantos moved slowly, rarely smiled, and swore in front of children).
Kavi often referred to Mr. DiSantos as a "vile thundercunt," which could always make Will laugh, despite being unsure of what exactly the phrase meant. Will preferred a simpler metaphor: a noose, strangling out any joy Will might have found at work.
The only positive attribute Will could find in his boss was predictability. Mr. DiSantos was always rotten so Will always knew what to expect. A deep breath and a quick prayer before walking through the door allowed Will to grin and bear the worst his boss threw at him. It kept his feelings towards Mr. DiSantos on the "dislike" scale. For months, Will held it there — for Shannon's sake — but then something happened that shot the needle all the way to the right.
It had been Will's fault, in a way.
He couldn't just blame Skidmark or The Stink. Will was the one who had taken food from the kitchen and given it to the two homeless men. He could blame them for the destruction that came after, but not for what went down in the alley.
Will first encountered the duo shortly after New Year's Day. Their nicknames — courtesy of Kavi — were as mean as they were accurate. Skidmark was an African American man in his late fifties who wore a tattered pair of skinny jeans with a dark brown stain in one very conspicuous place. The Stink was a Russian immigrant who earned his title by somehow managing to smell worse than Skidmark.
Finishing up an evening shift, Will was taking some bags of trash out through the narrow alley behind the Ocean when he heard footsteps behind him. He spun around to see two hunched men shuffle out from the shadows. Will became paralyzed, having no doubt that he was about to get mugged.
Skidmark approached first, his hands together with straight fingers pressed into a gesture of prayer. It was an effective act of humility. "Would it be possible to have one of those garbage bags?" he asked, his voice was gruff, but kind. "My friend and I haven't eaten much today."
"We'd clean up any mess we make when we were done," The Stink added in his thick accent. He didn't appear much older than Will.
Goosebumps sprang up on Will's arms as if they were physical manifestations of the guilt he felt for his initial presumption. "Hold tight," Will said. "I have something better."
A few minutes later, Will presented the best medley of customer leftovers he could put together. The two men received clean plates, forks, and knives, along with a pitcher of tap water. Skidmark and The Stink sat cross-legged on the cold ground as they ate their platters of day-old bread and partial portions of ziti, salmon, and chicken parmesan. The smiles on their faces were as big as if they were guests at a king's feast. When they were done, they returned the dishes to Will with a degree of gratefulness that he found near impossible to convey when later recounting the story to Shannon and Kavi.
Will continued serving these backdoor suppers to Skidmark and The Stink anytime they came around — which turned into almost anytime Will closed the kitchen. The only rule Will imposed (at Kavi's insistence) was that the homeless men not tell anyone else about their arrangement. There was no way Mr. DiSantos would appreciate the Cosmic Ocean doubling as a homeless kitchen.
Skidmark and The Stink agreed to Will's terms and stuck to their word. It was Will who got sloppy. Normally, he would only feed the men when Mr. DiSantos had left for the day or otherwise had Kavi to stand as lookout. Two days ago, however, Mr. DiSantos had taken a prolonged break to attend mass for Ash Wednesday. He left in the middle of an especially busy dinner service and Will had become swamped in the kitchen, losing track of time. When Will finally got a minute to serve the leftovers to the homeless men, Mr. DiSantos returned and caught him in the act.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Cult of Eden"
Copyright © 2013 2018.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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