Keri Cleary is worried about her brother, Alistair. Everyone is worried about Alistair. As the one witness to a shooting, he has been shocked into silence. But everyone needs to know three things: Who shot Kyle Dwyer? Where is Charlie Dwyer? What does this all have to do with the disappearance of Fiona Loomis?
Perhaps the answers lie in stories. As Alistair makes strange confessions to his sister, Keri becomes inspired. She tells stories, tales that may reveal hidden truths, fiction that may cause real things to happen. In the concluding volume of the Riverman Trilogy, readers are asked to consider the source of inspiration, the borders of reality and the power of storytelling. They are asked to forgive monsters, to imagine alternate dimensions, and to believe in a phosphorescent wombat who assures us that gone for now is not necessarily gone for good.
About the Author
Aaron Starmer was born in northern California, raised in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York, and educated at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. His novels for young readers include The Riverman, The Whisper, Dweeb, and The Only Ones, and his travel writing has appeared in numerous guidebooks. He lives with his family in Hoboken, New Jersey.
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By Aaron Starmer
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Aaron Starmer
All rights reserved.
THE CHRONICLES OF KERRIGAN CLEARY
Sometimes I'm a sister who gives advice and teases and all of that, and sometimes I'm just a girl who wonders how the kid who sleeps in the next room could ever be related to her. Only natural, right? We all love our brothers, in spite of the fact that none of us has a clue what's really in their hearts.
Even before Fiona Loomis took off, or got killed, or who knows ... before this neighborhood was all sirens, search parties, and ladies standing by their windows at all hours ... weeks before someone shot Kyle Dwyer in the stomach, my brother, Alistair, had changed. Puberty: it got him and it got him good. At least that's what I thought at first. That's not what I think now. Because when they found him in our front yard, looking up at the stars, that wasn't the boy I knew, and that wasn't even the one I didn't know yet. That was someone from outer space.
Here's what we can say so far: Kyle Dwyer will live. For now. He's in a coma, so he isn't talking. Can't tell us who shot him. My money is on Charlie because, well, he's Charlie, and Charlie has always been a bit off. But Charlie is nowhere to be found, and the police bagged up Alistair's wet and bloody clothes. They say Alistair is the one who made the 911 call.
"It's not how it looks," Alistair told me two nights ago as he stood in our hallway, dripping wet and terrified. "Just make sure they know it's not how it looks."
I didn't make sure "they" knew anything. I love the kid, but he has to speak for himself. He has to start talking. He put a padlock on his mouth, though. Swallowed the key. Mom and Dad think he's still in shock. It's only been a couple of days, so they may be right. A psychologist tried to get him to open up and will try again. The police gave it a try too. Nothing doing. Not enough evidence to arrest him, I guess, but they can't help but think this has something to do with Fiona Loomis.
Everyone thinks that.
The town prays for Kyle Dwyer. A sentence I thought I'd never write.
The town misses Charlie Dwyer. Another sentence that tests the laws of logic.
The town is sure my brother shot someone in the gut. Ding, ding, ding! That's three in a row.
Oh, the town. Forgot to tell you about that. The town is Thessaly, up here in the forehead of New York State, where no one notices us until a couple of kids go poof.
Oh, and me. I'm Kerrigan Cleary. Keri to friends. I'll admit, Keri Cleary is a bit of a tongue twister. Keri Cleary carried cherries for cheery chipmunks. Say that ten times fast. What can I do, though? It's the name I got and I can't get another.
Oh, and one more thing. I haven't even told you the date yet, which I guess is pretty much necessary for this sort of ... endeavor. I hesitate to call this a diary, even though that's what it is. Hopefully it becomes more than that. A place to confess. A place to tell stories. Truth and fiction.
Anyway, I'm writing this on:
TUESDAY, 11/21/1989 EVENING
Which is two days after Kyle was shot and Charlie disappeared. A day after they found my brother sitting in our yard, looking up at the stars. Hours after I started thinking up a story about a wombat.
Yes, a wombat.
That's yet another thing. There are no wombats here in Thessaly, at least that I know of. Most of my neighbors probably don't even have a clue what a wombat is. For the record, it's a marsupial, which means it has a pouch like a kangaroo or koala, and lives in Australia. It looks a bit like a woodchuck, but it isn't related. Not even close.
How much wom could a wombat bat if a wombat could bat wom?
Dumb joke. Forget it.
The story is the important thing. In it, this brother and sister find a wombat on the side of the road, and the wombat has a sign around her neck that reads: PERFECTLY FINE WOMBAT. This is the type of story where kids believe signs like that, so they take her home and make her their pet.
I don't think I'm ready to write any of it down yet, but I do have a pretty good idea how it'll end. In a waterfall. Images and ideas have been crashing into me like a meteor shower for the last day, and the image of a waterfall is the clearest. The story starts with a brother and a sister on a road. It ends with a wombat and a waterfall. That's what I've got so far.
I've never thought of myself as a writer. Don't get me wrong, I've written stories before. For school. A few times for fun. But this is the first time I've really felt like I needed to do it. I'm finding out that if you have the ending from the get-go, then you're in good shape. Problem is, I rarely have the ending from the get-go.
Here, for instance, is a different story, a shorter story, one about endings that doesn't really have an ending. I don't care. That won't stop me from writing it.CHAPTER 2
Justine Barlow was a runner. She wore sweat suits. She drank Gatorade. Every morning, when her cuckoo clock cheeped six times, she got up, got out of the house, clipped a Walkman to her waistband, stretched against a tree, hopped in place a few times, and then set off into her neighborhood.
It cleared her head. It kept her heart healthy, which was important because hers was a good heart. She gave money to the homeless, even when they weren't begging. She said "Good morning" to people and meant it.
Why not? Mornings were good. Cold mornings, rainy ones. It didn't matter. They were new beginnings. Justine had recently graduated from college, was living on her own for the first time, and had her entire life ahead of her. "Each day is a blank page," she told people. "A fresh thing to write on. Have fun with it."
Running was hard work, but it was fun too. The sounds — the barks, beeps, and buzzes — always entertained and they were never the same, even if her route was, a four-mile loop that passed by the school and the reservoir, through the center of town and back home past the rickety old houses on Palmer Street. The images were always different too. The trees that went from green to brown to white to pink to green, depending on the season. The babies who went from slings to strollers to feet to bikes. Change. Beauty. Life. All that crap.
And death. That came later.
It started with one baby bird, clear-feathered and dead on the sidewalk beneath an oak tree. Poor little thing must have fallen from her nest, Justine thought. She even considered burying it, giving it a proper funeral, but she knew that wasn't how nature was supposed to work. A stray cat or raccoon would eat it and poop it out, and then the poop would become dirt and plants would grow from the poop and other birds would eat the plants. This was called the circle of life.
So the next morning, when she saw two dead birds on the sidewalk, she thought, Poor little things, and she ran on.
The next morning she saw four. Poor little things. The cats and raccoons were going to be plump as can be.
It kept doubling, though. Eight the next day. Then sixteen. Thirty- two. Sixty-four dead birds by the end of the week, all along the same running route.
Justine was disturbed. "Have you noticed a lot of dead birds lately?" she asked her friend Laura.
"Always see some in the spring," Laura said. "It's a shame. The world is a tough place."
"How many have you seen this spring?" Justine asked.
"I don't know. Normal amount, I guess. I haven't counted."
Justine had been counting. She had started by keeping tabs in her head, but now she put little check marks in a pocket notebook as she ran.
One hundred and twenty-eight baby birds the next day. Two hundred and fifty-six the next.
Was this an omen of something worse to come? How could other people not be noticing? She asked around. "What's with the birds?"
People would reply by looking into the cloudless sky and shrugging.
The birds weren't imaginary. They were flesh and blood. Cold flesh and cold blood, that is. Justine knew because she poked them with her finger. There weren't enough cats and raccoons to possibly eat them all, so she started scooping the bodies up in plastic grocery bags like little logs of dog poop. Or at least that's what it looked like to her neighbors.
"You probably have yourself one of those Great Danes," a postman joked as Justine jogged past with two sagging plastic bags.
Strange thing to say, Justine thought. If that's the case, then where's the dog? I don't just run around scooping poop. No sir. This is death. Something serious is afoot.
"Aren't you worried?" Justine asked him. It wasn't the type of question she normally posed. For her entire life up until that point, she believed in a world without worry.
"Worried about what?" the postman asked.
"All the death."
He too looked up at the sky, but he kissed his fingers. "Our time comes when our time comes," he said, and returned to his route.
Justine returned to her route, but she couldn't run anymore. Too many birds to pick up. When she made it home, she buried them all in a hole in her backyard as a suspicious neighbor boy watched from a perch in a tree house.
"It'll be okay," she assured him, but he didn't respond. Maybe it was the wobble in her voice, the tone that said it would, in fact, not be okay, that it was actually going to be pretty damn horrible.
Because Justine could do the math: 512; 1,024; 2,048; 4,096; 8,192. That was just one more week's worth if it kept doubling, and she was sure it would. It meant in two more weeks there would be a billion dead birds. A month after that? She couldn't fathom such a number. Enough to cover the entire earth, she suspected. It seemed biblical. Beyond biblical.
She locked herself in the house. She started making phone calls. The police, senators' offices, her parents.
"What will we do to stop it?" she asked.
They all laughed her off. "You're too sensitive," her father said. "Heck, your mother's cat alone probably kills one hundred birds a year. These things have a way of balancing themselves out."
Two weeks before, she would have agreed. Two weeks before, she wouldn't have boarded up her windows. But that's what she did now.
The next day, the birds started showing up in her house. In the toilet, down the chimney, in the air-conditioning ducts. The numbers held true. She ticked them off in her notebook and filled the bathtub with the bodies.
There would be no more running. Mornings weren't good anymore. There was only the inevitable sunrise and the inevitable double dose of dead baby birds. Within a few days the bathroom was full. Justine didn't dare look out her windows. Not because she feared seeing more dead birds outside, but because she feared seeing none.
She was the problem. She was the cause of all this. They followed her. Was this punishment for her positivity? Or was she simply going crazy? Whatever the case, she couldn't face the world anymore. Each day was definitely not a blank page. It was a black page. And it didn't matter what you wrote on it; it would always be black.
Within five more days, the birds filled the house. There was nowhere to stand, to eat, to sleep. Justine huddled in the corner, surrounded by the stinking mess.
I can't do it, she thought. I can't go on like this.
But before she could act on her dark thoughts, something came out of the pile of death. A bird, a real live hummingbird. It hovered in front of her face.
"What does it all mean?" she asked the hummingbird.
The hummingbird didn't say anything because hummingbirds can't talk, obviously. Though she swore it had compassion in its eyes. The hummingbird hovered there for what seemed like hours. Then it fell dead on top of the pile, as Justine's cuckoo clock, buried by birds, tried in vain to announce a new day.
People want closure. It's been two and a half weeks since Fiona Loomis disappeared, and people want her home safe and sound, but if they have the choice between never knowing what happened to her and knowing that she's dead, then I hate to say it, but they're going to pick dead. No one will 'fess up, obviously, but it's the truth. A story with a clear ending, happy or sad, is an acceptable story.
They still don't know anything about Charlie. No ending to his story either, and no ending to Kyle's, who's still hooked up to the machines and full-on comatose. The superintendent canceled school yesterday and today, so we essentially have the week off. With one missing kid, he told us to go about our routines. Two kids changes things. This isn't a fluke. Something's happening. Someone's doing something.
I stood outside of Alistair's door last night. I was going to try to reason with him, but what can I say anymore? Please speak to us? It's okay, we won't judge? We love you no matter what? A lot of people say no matter what, but how many people actually experience no matter what? No matter what will fill up your head with a real mess.
So, yeah, I stood there, saying nothing, and I listened. I could hear some faint beeps. I could hear him whispering, like he was talking to himself. Eventually, Mom saw me and glared at me like only she can glare. I tiptoed over to her and she whispered, "He's not ready yet. One more day."
Mandy isn't as patient as Mom. I tell people she's my best friend, but she really tests me sometimes. Like when she calls me up and says things like she said this morning.
"You gotta get your brother to talk. The longer he's silent, the guiltier it means he is. He's probably working on his alibi, making sure it's super airtight."
"How the hell do you know that?" I snapped.
"TV. Books. Every place," she said. "It's a well-known fact that most missing person cases are solved in, like, forty-eight hours, and what's it been now since Charlie disappeared? How many hours are there in two and a half days?"
"He's already met with the police twice."
"Does he have a lawyer?"
See what I mean about Mandy? Pushy. Nosy. Whatever you want to call it. Alistair does have a lawyer, of course. Or at least my parents have one. Dad works at the hospital in Sutton, and they have a few lawyers on staff. One of them is a family friend named Ms. Kern, and she gives Mom and Dad advice on documents and things like that. So she's been going to the police station with Alistair. I'm not sure what she does, because Alistair isn't under arrest and has been totally silent, but she's there just in case.
"He's got people looking out for him," was what I decided to say to Mandy, because that's all she needs to know.
"Heavy Metal Fifi made sense," Mandy replied. Heavy Metal Fifi — or HMF — was our nickname for Fiona, because we saw her a few times listening to heavy metal music while she was riding her bike.
"Made sense?" I asked.
"She's a lonely girl and they're easy prey for sickos," Mandy said. "But who's going after Charlie Dwyer?"
"I don't know," I said with a sigh.
"Honestly, I don't think it's your brother, but I got this theory. What if it's Fiona's uncle? He's a war vet, like Rambo, which means he torched villages in Asia and stuff. Maybe he, like, did something with Fiona because she found out about that. Then Kyle and Charlie found out about it, and so he tried to cover up some more. And now Alistair knows all this and he's scared. Weren't you saying Alistair blamed the uncle for Fiona disappearing in the first place?"
"Alistair was confused," I said, which was an understatement. Mom and Dad haven't told me everything, but I know that after Fiona disappeared, Alistair was making all sorts of strange accusations. Like I said, he hasn't been himself.
"One thing is for sure," Mandy said. "Creepy uncle drives by and honks at you, offers you Fruit Roll-Ups or something? Run, run, run."
"Goodbye, jerkface," I said.
"Sayonara, onion butt," she said in her super high I'm going to annoy the crap out of you voice.
I hung up.
Excerpted from The Storyteller by Aaron Starmer. Copyright © 2016 Aaron Starmer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
THE CHRONICLES OF KERRIGAN CLEARY,
Thursday, 11/23/1989 (Thanksgiving),
THE FINE ART OF FORGETTING,
THE CANDY CANE GIRL,
Saturday, 11/25/1989 ... Continued,
TONY THE GUN,
THE PHOSPHORESCENT WOMBAT,
THE STATEMENT OF KYLE DWYER,
THE KNOCK-KNOCK JOKE,
THE PHOSPHORESCENT WOMBAT, PART II,
Wednesday, 12/13/1989 ... Continued,
THE PHOSPHORESCENT WOMBAT, PART III,
THE RECOLLECTIONS OF DORIAN LOOMIS,
THE KID WHO BELIEVED,
Monday, 12/25/1989 (Christmas),
THE PHOSPHORESCENT WOMBAT, PART IV,
THE MEMORY OF FIONA LOOMIS,
THE PHOSPHORESCENT WOMBAT, PART V,
THE CHRONICLES OF KERRIGAN CLEARY,
About the Author,