One sunny spring morning the Tasman Bay settlement of Kahukura is overwhelmed by a mysterious mass insanity. A handful of survivors find themselves cut off from the world, and surrounded by the dead. As they try to take care of one another, and survive in ever more difficult circumstances, it becomes apparent that this isn't the first time that this has happened, and that they aren't all survivors and victims—two of them are something quite other. And, it seems, they are trapped with something. Something unseen is picking at the loose threads of their characters, corrupting, provoking, and haunting them. Wake is a novel about what it really means to try to do one's best, about the choices and sacrifices people face in order to keep a promise like "I will take care of you." It is a novel that asks: What are the last things left when the worst has happened? and about extreme events, ordinary people, heroic compassion—and invisible monsters. An invisible monster is what one can't see coming; with an invisible monster one never knows when they're in danger and when they're safe—if they retreat to their fortress they can't be sure they haven't locked it in with them.
|Publisher:||Victoria University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Elizabeth Knox is one of New Zealand’s leading writers. She is the author of eight previous novels, including the award-winning novel The Vintner’s Luck and its sequel The Angel’s Cut; a trilogy of autobiographical essays, The High Jump; a collection of personal essays, The Love School; and the young adult novel, Dreamquake, which won an American Library Association Michael L. Printz Honor Award for Young Adult Literature. She was made an Arts Foundation Laureate in 2000 and an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2002.
Read an Excerpt
By Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University PressCopyright © 2013 Elizabeth Knox
All rights reserved.
Later, when people talked about the fourteen, they called them survivors. It wasn't strictly true. All but one arrived after the deadly moment. They came alone or in pairs, some with their heads up and their eyes on the smoke.
Constable Theresa Grey had spent the morning helping break some bad news to a woman in Motueka about her teenaged daughter. It had been Theresa's job to hold the woman's hand, which she did, leaning forward, knee to knee, for over an hour. Then the woman's brother arrived, and the detectives thanked Theresa for her support, and sent her off.
As she drove, her grip on the steering wheel gradually erased the ghostly sensation of that stricken woman's hands. She began to feel better, to come alive to the drive and the sunny weather.
Then she got a call from the dispatcher at Nelson Central police station. 'We've a mayday from a helicopter flying out of Kahukura Spa,' said the dispatcher. 'Four on board. I'll give the spa a call and get back to you.'
Theresa pulled out, and accelerated. She passed a milk tanker and a Holden Captiva and glided back into her lane. She hit her siren and — because she was looking for it — spotted the smudge of smoke while still on the straight before the cutting that crossed the bluff west of Kahukura Bay. Theresa reached the cutting, and the smudge vanished behind the frothy white screen of apple blossom along the ridge of Cotley's orchard.
She picked up her radio again and tried to raise the community constable in Kahukura. Then she tried the dispatcher. No one responded.
Theresa was a young police officer, but she had initiative. She figured that if a helicopter got into trouble shortly after leaving the spa, it might try to put down in the clearing around Stanislaw's Reserve — 300 hectares of old-growth forest enclosed in a state-of-the-art predator-proof fence. Sixteen of the world's 140 remaining kakapo nested in Stanislaw's Reserve — the rest were on an offshore island in the far south. Theresa's friend, Belle Greenbrook, was a ranger at the reserve, and rangers carried radios.
Theresa got lucky; Belle answered right away. 'Belle? We've a helicopter down. I'm at the turn to Cotley's Road and I can see smoke. I'm pretty sure it's coming from the field above the spa. Over.'
Belle said that she was by the east gate, with her chainsaw, clearing a fallen branch from the fence. She reckoned that, if she cut up over the ridge and ran to the main gate where she'd left her quad bike, she could be at the wreck in twenty minutes.
Theresa dropped the radio and put both hands on the wheel to take the long horseshoe bend. She was aiming for the bypass, which would take her straight to Kahukura Spa. The spa's driveway would offer the quickest route to the crashed helicopter.
But when she reached the bypass, Theresa saw fire in the far perspective of Kahukura's main road. She ignored the turnoff and floored the gas. Houses, hedges, churches all poured past her windows while she peered into the seething knot of oily, orange flame.
A woman ran out into the street in front of the car. Theresa braked, and her seatbelt clutched her so forcefully that she was grateful for the padding of her stab-proof vest.
The woman didn't swerve, or cringe, as the car bore down on her, slid to a halt, and was overtaken by a drift of smoke from its own tyres. She didn't seem to see the car. She wasn't screaming, or crying, only fleeing. She was naked from the waist up, and her arms were marked by red notches.
Theresa jumped out and raced after the woman. She caught hold of her. The woman's skin was cold with shock, and slippery with blood. The V-shaped wounds on her shoulders and upper arms were as much bruised as bloody, and identical, as if inflicted by the same weapon. It looked like they'd been made with one of those can piercers from a standard bottle opener.
Theresa looked about for an assailant, but the only people in view were a couple in the driveway of a house back down the road. They were locked in a passionate kiss, holding each other's heads. It wasn't an open-air, mid-morning kiss, and Theresa felt faintly embarrassed. In a moment she'd have to go interrupt them to ask if they'd seen anything. But first she must look after the injured woman.
The woman let Theresa lead her back to the patrol car. Theresa popped her trunk, grabbed a bagged rescue blanket, and used her teeth to tear the bag open. 'It's okay,' she said, 'I've got you. You'll be fine.' A dog ran from a property down the road, stopped beside the lip-locked couple, and barked at them. Then it flattened its ears and backed away, trembling.
Theresa wrapped the woman, and ducked her head to meet her eyes. 'You're safe now.'
There was a sharp concussion of an explosion in the fire up the road. Theresa flinched, but the woman didn't react at all. She just stared at Theresa, apparently intent. Only she wasn't meeting Theresa's eyes. Her gaze seemed to focus on the air millimetres from Theresa's skin, as if caught on the tip of each hair — the hair lifting all over Theresa's body.
Theresa became aware then of sounds below the roar of the fire, and the skirling alarms of trapped and wounded cars. Unaccountable, frightening noises were coming from behind her, on both sides of the street. She heard a hissing, as if someone were busy spraying weeds, followed by a deep flutter, like a wind-baffled bonfire. There were thumps, smashes, a squealing noise, and the sound of someone gasping for breath. But there were no screams, no cries for help.
Theresa glanced again at the couple. Their heads were still pressed together, grinding and working. Theresa saw that their cheeks and necks were smeared and dark.
In the house nearest Theresa a scuffle broke out. Two men tumbled from an open screen door and commenced belting each other, neither of them making any attempt to block the other's blows.
Theresa told the injured woman to stay where she was. Then she went to the secure box in her car, punched in the code, and removed her pistol. She clipped its holster to her belt. Never before in her professional life had Theresa had to get out her gun.
She hurried into the yard, and tried to grapple the brawling men apart, using her hands and her baton. It wasn't clear which of the two was the aggressor, but one was taking a real beating, and was bleeding from both ears. He continued to fight, fearlessly and insensitively.
Theresa yelled at them to stop. She tried to haul the stronger man away. His arms were as hard as wood, his body solid, hot, clenched all over and slick with blood — far too much to have come from just his own injuries. Theresa's hands slithered off him. She lost her balance, and came down hard on one knee.
Once she was down, both men turned on her. Without exchanging a look, they simultaneously ceased hitting each other and began pummelling Theresa instead.
She scrambled away, dropped her baton, and drew her gun. She pointed it, swinging the barrel back and forth between them. 'That's enough! Don't come any closer!'
But they didn't even glance at the gun. They looked through her, as if she were an obstacle they meant to trample over to get at something promising that lay beyond her, something more worthy of their pitched savagery.
Theresa risked a backward glance. The injured woman was standing right behind her. She had followed Theresa, trailing the rescue blanket like a queenly mantle.
Theresa gasped. 'Jesus!' She scrambled to her feet and lunged at the woman, meaning to haul her off, throw her in the patrol car, and flee. That's what Theresa was thinking: she had to pull back somewhere safe and call for help. Lots of help.
But she only managed a few steps before one of the men barged her. Theresa sprawled on the grass, and the men began to kick her. She pushed the injured woman away from her, and flipped over onto her back. Her boots connected with someone's legs, and the kicking stopped. Theresa raised her head and held the gun out before her again. From the corner of her eye she saw the empty rescue blanket floating away over the lawn, bundling up the sunlight. The weaker of the two men was in flight, pushing his way through a hedge. But the other had got hold of the injured woman. And they were both giggling — sly, silly giggles. Then the man began to shake the injured woman, violently.
Theresa clambered up. She shouted, 'Stop that or I will shoot you!' She issued her warning. She followed her training. But no one had ever told her about the blank bit of human hesitation, of unwillingness, that appeared before her then. A gap between procedure familiar to her, and procedure she hadn't yet had to follow. She had to act to save the woman. But the idea of hurting the man filled her with a terrible queasiness. It was as if she were about to shoot herself.
Theresa stepped towards the man. Again she shouted her warning.
The shaking continued, and the injured woman's sweat-soaked hair bounced around her smirking face. Theresa tried one-handed to snatch her free, but the man kept moving like a machine, his limbs greasy and as inexorable as pistons.
In the pause where Theresa ran out of bearable options, she glanced once more at the other man, who was crawling away across the neighbours' lawn. He was on his hands and knees. But he wasn't walking on his palms. Instead his wrists were bent inward, and he was moving forward pressing the backs of his hands to the grass.
Theresa stopped shouting. Her breath left her in a grunt. Her arms sagged. Her body was in shock, but a small voice in her mind made itself heard. It said, 'Who does that?' Behind her shock a deeply rational and analytical part of her was trying to make her attend to something more important than simply what she should do next. It was telling her that she was in lethal danger, and that her own death wouldn't be the worst of it. And of course she sought confirmation for her feeling. She glanced at the kissing couple.
They weren't kissing. Their lips and noses were in red strings and tatters, and still they kept pushing mouth to mouth, their bared teeth biting.
Theresa's arms came up. She stepped forward, jabbed her gun against the man's shoulder, and pulled the trigger.
He staggered back, but he didn't release the injured woman. Instead he used his good arm to grapple her closer, opened his mouth and sank his teeth into her scalp, like someone taking a big bite of an apple.
Theresa leapt at him. She pressed the muzzle of her pistol to his temple, and pulled the trigger.
He was at her feet, his head served on a bed of his own brains. The woman rolled free.
Theresa holstered her gun. She thought, 'He didn't look at me. He didn't even see me coming.' She picked up the woman, who immediately began to struggle.
'It's all right,' Theresa said. She half-carried the woman to her car, and laid her on the back seat. She leaned on the woman while fumbling at the buttons of the radio. But there was only empty static as she cycled through the frequencies looking for people she knew must be there — Kahukura's community constable, the dispatcher in Nelson, other emergency services.
The only open channel was to Belle. 'Tre? What's happening?' Belle said, then, 'There are fires on Haven Road. Over.' She sounded desperate.
'Where is everyone?' Theresa said.
The woman stopped thrashing and began to claw at her own face. Theresa had to drop the radio to catch her hands.
For the next minute Theresa fought to keep the woman still. She spoke to her softly. The woman was making vacant, inarticulate sounds. Blood glistened in the join of her lips. She was gnawing her own tongue.
Theresa cast about for something to slip between her teeth. A sunglasses case might do. She popped the glove box, found the case, and, holding the woman tightly with one arm, she tried to slip the soft plastic between her chomping jaws.
In a nearby house a window shattered. An old man slumped through it, skewering his throat on the shards left in the frame. He moved only feebly while his blood unfolded like a concertinaed red banner down the weatherboard wall.
Theresa reached for her radio again. She held it to her lips and depressed the talk button, but she couldn't speak. It was as if she were taking a sip of static — putting a pump bottle to her lips and tasting only air. She had ducked down below the level of her car windows. The only people she could see were those near her — the man she'd shot, and that one across the way, still gasping on his hook of glass, and the couple, head to head, slow-dancing on their patch of blood-soaked grass. No one else. Nothing new was happening in Theresa's ambit, but she was still desperate for things to stop, to pause. She wanted to find herself and figure out what she should do — what she could do.
Theresa dropped her radio and concentrated on the woman. She held the sunglasses case in place, pressing down her tongue. She kept up her quiet reassurances, staring into the woman's eyes. Those eyes were mad and spiteful; the woman's nostrils vibrated with fury. Then, all at once, her eyes flicked sideways, and froze. She stopped struggling. Her face went stark, her body stiff.
Theresa pulled her straight, and began CPR. The woman's mouth was clamped shut, so Theresa breathed into her nose. But the woman seemed to be holding her breath. Her lungs were full, her chest taut. Theresa shouted, 'Please!'
The woman's chest suddenly collapsed, and she went limp.
Theresa pumped at her sternum. She breathed into her bloody mouth. But nothing worked. The woman was gone. Theresa gathered her, held her tight, and looked over her bowed head, out the car windows, and through its open door. Looking didn't help. She wasn't able to check for danger. Everything was melting. For long minutes everything was melting.
Theresa was startled back into the moment by an explosion. She flung herself off the body and out of her car. She took off, striding away along the centre line, leaving her car with its doors open and lights flashing. She scanned the road for danger as she went. She felt like a nervy animal, rather than an upholder of public order.
There was a garage on fire in one property, and through the open front door of the house Theresa saw a heavy shadow swinging in the hallway. She paused, paralysed not by fear, but by the conflict between that and her sense of duty.
As Theresa hesitated, a cavalcade of runners emerged from a cross street ahead of her. The younger, fitter ones at the front, others trailing. But however spread out the runners were, they were going the same approximate pace, flat out, the group as cohesive as a school of fish. Some were barefoot. One was in pyjamas and a dressing gown. Two bringing up the rear were dragging objects that bumped and bounced along in their wake. One man had a small dog on a lead — no longer alive. The other had a child. He was hauling the child along by his ankle. The boy's other leg was doubled back under him, his hip dislocated.
Theresa surged forward, gun pointed. She yelled a challenge — a wordless, simian roar.
But then a letterbox lunged at her. She sidestepped, and the box fell as far as it was able to, still attached to its pole, and followed by the body of the man who'd head-butted it out of its concrete footing, the man who had rammed his head into it as far as it could go. The man fell to his knees, hunched over the fallen box as if it were downed prey. He braced his shoulders and continued to push. The sides of the letterbox creaked and bulged, the man's ears doubled over, and — that resistance overcome — his whole head plunged into the distorted box, passage lubricated by blood.
Theresa saw that the man was wearing a postie's bright red and yellow uniform, and mail harness, though he'd lost his mail sacks.
He was a postie. A postie posting himself head first into a letterbox.
Theresa's face went numb. Her ears stopped working. And the two men who'd peeled off the rampaging group were nearly on her by the time she noticed them.
Excerpted from Wake by Elizabeth Knox. Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Knox. Excerpted by permission of Victoria University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Once again, I am in the minority with this book. It has received so many good reviews of 4 and 5 stars that I am beginning to think there’s something wrong with me because I just didn’t get it. It starts off brilliantly with all kinds of mayhem and unspeakable acts which are excellently described by Elizabeth Knox who really captures the fear and confusion well - this first bit is not for the feint-hearted. I thought this was the start of something that was going to keep me up and make me bleary eyed at work the next day but, alas, this did not last too long as once the initial madness was over, it became quite a monotonous story about the group of people who had survived. The book is written from the point of view of the survivors and there are quite a few. Each of the survivors are well developed but there are a lot of them and the story changes from one person to the other which I felt was a little confusing and resulted in me not developing a connection or any particular feelings towards any of them and I wasn’t particularly bothered what happened to them either. The premise of the story is great but it's just written in a way that neither captured nor engaged me but I would like to thank the publisher, Little Brown Book Group UK, via NetGalley for the copy in return for an honest review.