Book 1:

The Eastwood Event

Eastwood Event Cover-jgp.jpg

Mary

Two Months After the Eastwood Event

What was that line of dry and dusty soil on the riverbank?

Her mother once said Eastwood was a whole other world. A hole in the grid. A land out of pace with its surroundings. Its water shone clearer and brighter, free of empty bottles or cigarette butts. Its rivers flickered with sunfish darting through the reeds. Its forests stretched larger, deep enough to get lost in and dark enough to hide in. Its skies spread wider unhindered by the vapor trails of planes, a great blue blanket over the hills.

So why, on her ‘scenic tour’ of the Eastwood County area, did this ugly brown thread mar her tapestry of blues and greens? It trailed roughly parallel to the river, barely visible from the road. Down the way, she saw a gas station coming over the horizon. Her eyes darted down to the needle, pushing empty. Mary hit the brakes to park the old truck at the pump and a toothbrush tumbled into her cupholder. She threw it back to land atop the haphazard contents of her previous apartment and went inside.

After picking up a soda, a candy bar, and an apple to square the meal, she stepped up to the counter. Mary threw down a few bills and the cashier made change. She stuffed the apple into her leather jacket while she waited.

As she turned to go, she looked out the window and asked as if an afterthought, “What’s with the dirt track by the river?”

When the old man followed her eyes, the dullness cleared from his gaze and he noticed her for the first time. “Isn’t it terrible? All the construction stirring up mud,” the cashier said and sighed. “At least those government types won’t stick around forever. They’ll fix the gas leak and let us back into the forest eventually,” he thumbed at the rifle on the wall behind the counter and grinned, “Can’t wait for hunting season.”

“I’d like to see that.” She smiled back, “Dad took me hunting once. It’d bring back good memories… Actually, I’m moving into a flat in Wakefield today. I’ll be here for a while—so maybe I’ll get the chance.”

He leaned over the counter, extending a hand, “Good to have some new blood. Didn’t catch your name, Miss?”

“Dr. Adelaide.” They shook.

“Oh, sorry.” He frowned and let go. “Didn’t know you was one of them.”

“No, that’s alright. I’m here to patch up that hole in the ground leaking volcanic gas. Things will be back to the way they used to be before you know it.”

“That’s kind of you to say, miss, but I doubt it’ll ever be the same.” The old man shivered, eyes downcast, “All those people.”

Mary started to sweat. “Right.” The story was the best they’d get, it’d be a shame to blow it with poor acting. She counted out three seconds to herself. “Well, see you later, then. Take care!” she said and walked through the door.

“Ah… goodbye, Miss Adelaide.” She glanced over her shoulder at the old man waving and all she left behind was the ‘ding’ of the door chime.

Mary filled her truck but crossed the road on foot to get a better look at the riverbank. She saw several overlaps of backhoe trails and caterpillar tracks in the mud, their distinctive impressions at varying levels of freshness. However, one line sat without weeds sprouting or fresh mud with little worms squirming for cover.

Barren ground. Bare dirt like a scar on the land’s face even ants wouldn’t cross. Salted soil. She looked east and the stream wound back into the forest. Then she followed the water with her eyes as it meandered west.

Following the trail downriver, she rode in her truck for an hour. Tracking wasn’t easy from the road. The line of dirt swerved as it came to a bridge, ducking between the supports to the other side. She reached what must have once been a lush green bank, now a network of dirt paths.

Getting out of the truck, Mary tentatively stepped off the grass and onto the dead soil. She tested the ground with the edge of her boot before letting it support her weight. She kicked at the dirt and watched a puff of dust swirl away on the wind. She walked down the side of the bank until, in the shadow of the bridge, she saw a figure crouched in a corner. “Hello?” she asked and, startled, it turned to her. A boy.

His voice shocked her when he replied. Not the tone, which was angry, nor the pitch, normal for a ten-year-old. The language gave her pause. She’d never heard the like, not in all her years at university or even on television. It might have some roots in common with a tongue spoken halfway across the globe or have a unique origin, she wasn’t sure.

Mary pressed on.

Is he wearing his father’s night robe? It hung so loose on him one shoulder slipped off to reveal half his chest, belted tight around his slim waist with a sash. Velvety soft and black—the fabric seemed too expensive and clean for the homeless. Had he been abandoned, had his parents died? As she came closer she noticed something emblazoned in gold over his heart like a coat of arms: a scythe in the center, a wing on the shaft opposite the curved blade, and, above, a broken crown.

Mary tried to calm him, holding out her empty hands to show she was unarmed, “I’m not going to hurt you.”

As her eyes adjusted to the dim, she took in his features and gasped. ‘Gaunt’ could not describe him, merely ‘skinny’ would be a travesty, and not even ‘emaciated’ went far enough. Every one of his bones showed through his tightly stretched dark skin—from the ribs you could see coming or going to his bladelike clavicle. His arms were twigs. His ankles, when she glimpsed them, surely couldn’t bear what little he weighed. A skull profile faced her, his eyes sunken in and shaded by his sharp brow.

He shook his head, greasy black hair waving in negation.

“No?” she stopped edging closer, “No, what?” The boy mumbled something else in that alien language. Mary knelt an arm’s length away. “I want to help you,” she mimed the best she could. He put his face between his knees. She took the apple from her pocket and extended it to him, “You hungry?”

The boy glanced up and, with a hand so bony and frail it wrenched her heart to see it, waved her off. He shook his head and made a soft flicking motion, trying to shoo her away like an annoying bird.

Stubborn, she kept the apple within his reach, waiting. He must crave the apple, but he wouldn’t take it. The boy wasn’t afraid of her, so why?

Mary persisted, edging the fruit closer, “You’ll never solve your problems without trying anything new.”

They didn’t share a language but maybe he’d understood something in her voice. He slowly lifted his hand to take the fruit, hesitating every inch of the way as his will clashed with desperate hunger. At the last second, instead of taking the apple and brushing her hand, he poked it with the tip of his finger.

She felt it wither. Mary dropped the fruit and watched where it fell. In a second, at one touch, the apple deteriorated as if left out for weeks. No flies or mold spoiled it, but the fruit shriveled to desiccation without any new life growing from it.

Their eyes met. She couldn’t quite see his eyes themselves because they were portals—two windows into a scene playing in her mind. A great tower fell in a distant city, its foundations crumbling in smoke and flame. Next, an endless desert of shifting sands revealed broken columns fractured and protruding like bleached bones with no trace of the civilization they once supported. Dozens of images flitted through her mind, each bearing a sense of unspeakable dread and creeping fear—a withering tree, a dying star. Worst of all came the face of a man aging from birth to decrepit old age finally closing his eyes and breathing his last. She tore her eyes away from the images—afraid she might see something familiar. Her mind wouldn’t dare touch on the secret fear of seeing herself in those eyes.

She stood, turned, and left that place.

The boy didn’t watch her leave, which explained why he jolted in surprise when she came back with a big woolly blanket and a blue plastic tarp. She unrolled the blanket and threw it over him. The fabric began to discolor but it would be minutes deteriorating.

“As I suspected,” she said, adjusting her glasses with a smile, “Some things are tougher than others.” The boy was too shocked to resist as Mary wrapped the tarp around him and the blanket, gathering him up in her arms. Mary carried him to the truck. He was horribly light.

She set him in the passenger seat, came around, and started the engine. Her jeans were fraying in the places the boy’s feet accidentally knocked against her. Mary felt bruises forming beneath those spots, but a quick inspection showed no serious or lasting damage. She would be fine.

The moving scenery absorbed the boy’s attention as they rode, letting her take a better look at him. His prepubescent features solidified her guess at around ten years old. She doubted he’d cut his hair in that time. The only thing besides his black robe not degrading was a metallic ring decorated with odd lettering on his finger.

After driving quietly for a while, she said, “My name is Mary—” speaking slowly, repeating until he understood, “—Mary. What is your name?”

The boy watched her talk, following her hands and eyes as she tried to breach the language barrier. Several repetitions later, he got it, “Daniel,” he pointed to himself. Then he pointed to her, “Mary.”

“Good!” she exclaimed, “You’re a fast learner. I’ll teach you all you need to know and help you get back on your feet.” The blanket dissolved into fine dust, but the plastic tarp was going strong. His body would eat its way through the truck given time and he’d do the same to her flat if she took him there.

Looking out the window, they were nearing the Eastwood Forest. “Don’t worry,” she smiled her brightest, and it seemed to hearten him, “I know somewhere we can go.”

The truck blew past the green and white greeting sign,

 

Welcome to Eastwood!

Pop. 4,250

 

And the larger orange sign beneath it,

 

WARNING

QUARANTINE ZONE

AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY