Chapter 4 Excerpt: Burntown - Vilma Iris | Lifestyle Blogger

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Chapter 4 Excerpt: Burntown

Below is the fourth chapter of Burntown by Jennifer McMahon, out April 25th!

✦ Read the previous chapters here: Ch 1 | Ch2 | Ch3 ✦

Pre-order Now: AmazonBarnes & Noble | IndieBound | iBooks ✦

BURNTOWN by Jennifer McMahon – Chapter 4

MILES

 

April 12, 2011

 

“Miles, I’m worried about the rain.  The radio says the worst is yet to come.  Flood warnings for the whole county.  And if the dam goes… we’ll be underwater in minutes. There won’t be any warning.”

Lily’s wrapped in one of her chunky, hand knit sweaters, and her hair is held back in an untidy ponytail.   She still looks lovely, but there’s a certain light in her green eyes that only comes on when trouble is brewing.  There are dark circles under them now; she’s hasn’t been sleeping well these last few days, not since the rain began.

He takes her hand, kisses her knuckles, which smell of turpentine.    She’s been working in her studio, doing a new series of paintings of the moon on huge canvases.  She’s showing the moon in all its phases in a series she’s calling “Birth, Marriage, Death, Rebirth.”  She’s taken to referring to the moon in her painting as She.  Miles got her a telescope for Christmas and Lily spends hours looking through it, studying the moon and all her craters and shadows, trying to bring the far-off stars into focus.  Miles has suggested that she take an astronomy class at the college, but Lily prefers exploring on her own, giving her own names to things.

“The dam will hold,” he promises her now.  “That dam has seen far worse storms than this.”

m           Their house is miles and miles downstream, on the east side of the river.  Right in the flood plain — as the mortgage company was quick to point out whenever they demanded proof of his flood insurance.  But it’s never flooded.  The dam, originally built by William Jensen to harness the power of the water for his mill back in 1836, has always held.  The river has never crested more than a few feet above the banks, even in the years they’ve had heavy spring melts and ice dams.

He sops up the last of his soup with a hunk of Lily’s homemade bread.  The kids are in the living room with the TV on, some police drama turned up loud, the whole house echoing with sirens and gunshots.  Errol and Eva are on the floor below it playing cribbage on the oval rag rug.  Eva is ahead and is teasing Errol mercilessly about it.

“You’re going to get skunked,” she says.

“Am not,” he says.

“Smell that, Er? That’s the smell of a big old skunk coming your way.”

He gives her a playful shove.  “It ain’t over till it’s over, Little E,” he says.

She pretends that she hates the juvenile nickname, , but Miles knows she secretly likes it.  He’s always amazed at the bond these two have; at how unconditionally they love each other.  At how much Eva worships her older brother.  At how she never seems to remember a time when he wasn’t there; when he wasn’t one of the centers of her universe.

It’s their break time.  After this, they’ll get back to their studies.  The kids are home-schooled, their studies supervised by both parents: he tackles math and science and Lily teaches them art, English, and occasionally, more esoteric subjects like astrology and divination..  But these two kids have little interest in trying to see beyond; they are rooted in the real world, in the here and now, and only go along with the lessons to placate their mother. Both kids are excelling, doing work far beyond their age.  Errol’s been accepted to Two Rivers, starting in the fall.

Lily looks down into her own half-eaten soup.  “It’s just… I’ve had a feeling all day.”  She rubs at the back of her neck.  “A feeling that something terrible is about to happen.”

Miles sets down his spoon and looks hard at his wife.  Lily believes in premonitions; she’s sure that she is hard-wired to predict the future, to have visions about things to come.  And Miles has known her long enough to realize that she’s often right.

“Okay, then.  I’ll go check the river.  I’ve already sandbagged around the workshop, but we can build a barrier around the house.”

He goes into the living room, looks down at the kids playing cards.  There’s candy on the rug next to each of them: root beer barrels for Errol and a roll of Necco wafers for Eva.  There’s a fire in the fireplace, its birch log crackling and popping.  Above it, on the mantle, rests a collection of photographs.   There’s a shot of Miles, Lily and three-year-old Eva standing in front of a giant snowman they’d all built.   Then one taken a little over a year later — all of them camping in the White Mountains, eight-year-old Errol holding a trout he’d just caught.   Next to it is Lily and Miles’s wedding portrait.  Lloyd is to Miles’ left, his arm draped around him, the best man.

Miles can sometimes hear Lloyd’s voice in his ears, asking if he has any idea how lucky he is.  He looks at the kids on the rug, then the bookshelf in the corner which holds a copy of the book that changed his life: the book he’d written based on his PhD dissertation:  The Princess and the Elephant: How we are all trapped inside our own mythology and how we can break free.  Lily had talked him into expanding his dissertation, simplifying parts and publishing it as a pop-psychology, self-help book, something she has always been into, especially if they have a New Age slant.  The shelves in her painting studio are full of books on meditation, dreamwork, and using creativity to get in touch with your spiritual side.  With Lily’s help, Miles found a small publisher in New Hampshire, and to everyone’s surprise, Miles’s book took off.

It wasn’t a bestseller by any means, but it developed a small cult following.  People started showing up at the college to hear his lectures and sign up for his sociology classes.  Enrollment was up.  The college even asked Miles to develop a course based on his book.  The book made him the star professor of Two Rivers College.

“Errol,” Miles says now, taking his eye off the bookshelf and looking down at the kids again.

“Yeah?”  The boy looks up.  At seventeen, he’s tall and gangly, ropy with muscle, his hair dark and too long.  He needs a trim.  But he likes it long to cover the scar on his forehead above his left eye.  They don’t ever talk about the scar and where it had come from, but they both remember all too well.

“Get your slicker on,” Miles tells him.  “We’re going to sandbag around the front of the house.  And we need to see how close the water’s coming to the road down by the bend.”

Errol’s eyes get huge.  “If the road washes out by the bend —“
“I know.  We’ll be stuck here.  But we’ve got a cellar full of food and supplies.  And there’s always the boat if we need to evacuate.”

“Cool—we’ll have our own island!!”  Errol says.  “Totally cut off from the rest of the world.”

Lily has come into the living room.  She pulls her sweater tight around her shoulders and shivers.  “I don’t think that sounds one bit cool.”  Miles puts his arm around her, kisses her cheek.

“Can I help, too?” Eva asks, shoving a chalky pink candy into her mouth.  “I want to go with you to see if the river has washed out the road.”

“You can come help me check the workshop,” he says.  “Make sure that hole in the roof we patched up isn’t leaking and that the sand bags are all in place.”

She jumps up and clomps across the floor in her new purple cowboy boots.  She’d wanted them so badly, these crazy boots, enough that Lily got them for her for her birthday a couple of weeks ago.  Miles had given her a special gift, too: the elephant charm on a long gold chain.  She’d always loved it so much, and Miles decided it was time for him to let go of the past; to let Eva turn the necklace into something positive. She’s been wearing it every day since, the little brass elephant gracing each carefully planned outfit.   His little girl who used to run around in messy pigtails and dirty overalls is now fourteen and has all of a sudden developed a fashion sense: she wears tapered jeans tucked into boots, and she borrows long flowing scarves and dangly earrings from Lily.  Miles has even noticed her wearing makeup every now and then, a hint of Lily’s eyeshadow and lip gloss.  Gone is the girl who had her bed piled high with stuffed animals and dolls; now she’s painted her pink room a deep purple, tacked up posters of bands, and the only doll she keeps out is the one Miles made for her: Mina the talking doll, who used to sing Eva a lullaby each night when she pulled the string on the back of her neck.  “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” recorded in his own voice, singing in a high, doll-like pitch.

“Maybe we should just go,” Lily suggests, with a slight hint of panic.  “Get in the car and go wait out the storm somewhere.”

Miles thinks of his workshop, of what he has tucked under a tarp on his bench.  The Edison invention has been sitting there, wrapped up for years.  Every now and then, he uncovers it, looks at it.  But he’s never turned it on.  Not since that one Halloween eleven years ago.

He’s never told Lily a word about it.  She knows about the machine in his workshop, but he’s never told her what happened the one time he turned it on.  “It doesn’t do anything except hum and crackle,” he told her when she asked  He thinks, sometimes, that he should destroy it, but he’s never been able to bring himself to pick up a hammer.

“No,” he says now.   “We stay. At least for now.”

He kisses Lily again, this time on the forehead, as if his kiss could drive all her dark thoughts and predictions away.  “Don’t worry Mrs. Sandeski,” he says.  “We’ll be fine.”

But her look tells him she’s not buying it.

He pulls on his raincoat and boots and pushes open the front door, Errol and Eva right behind him.  The rain pounds on the hood of Miles’s coat and blows against his face, little droplets covering his glasses which have already started to fog.  Although it’s only two in the afternoon, the sky is so dark it almost looks like nightfall.  Across the yard, the river roars like a great beast longing to be set free.

“Errol,” he says, shouting to be heard over the rain’s percussive din.  “I want you to walk down the road to the bend.  See how high the water is and if it’s covering the road yet.  Eva and I are going to check the workshop.  Then we’ll all start sandbagging the house.”

“Yes, sir,” Errol says, taking off down the driveway, pleased to have a mission.

Eva runs to the workshop, gets there before him and goes in. Two seconds later, she sticks her head out the door.  “Dad!” she calls, her voice panicked.  “Come quick!”

He runs the rest of the way across the yard, his feet slipping on the waterlogged grass.

He gets to the workshop, and Eva looks flushed and frightened.  He glances around, doesn’t see anything out of place.

“What is it?” he asks her.  Eva.  His clever daughter who loves his inventions and mechanical things.  She comes into the workshop and winds up the animals, delights in finding the secret compartments he’s hidden in some, like the raccoon with tiny door in his chest that pops open when you twist one of its ears just so.  Miles sometimes hides pieces of candy or other treasures in these, knowing Eva will find them.  She’s been helping him in the workshop since she could walk, handing him wrenches, fueling the fire for the forge.   Eva always asks to hear the stories about what came before, paying close attention and nodding her head as he fills in each detail:  Tell me about how you met Mama, tell me about what happened to Grandma and Grandpa. 

               “They died,” Miles tells her.  “They were killed in an accident.”  It’s the only lie he’s ever told his daughter, but he just can’t bring himself to tell the truth.

Eva loves the picture of her grandmother that sits above Miles’ workbench.

“Do you think I look like her?” Eva asked once.

“Maybe a little,” he said.  “Mostly, you look like your mother, which is a lucky thing because she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Eva wrinkled her nose.  “Mama’s pretty, but Grandma, she looked like a movie star.”

Now, she points to the machine sitting on the corner of the workbench, still covered with a tarp. “I heard a voice.”

Two clumps of red hair stick out from under her yellow slicker.  Rain is dripping down her face.  Her green eyes are enormous. She’s always been fascinated by the machine, but lately she seems afraid of it.  And right now, downright terrified.

“But what does it do, Daddy?” she’d asked once, when she was younger.

“Well,” he told her, “Edison believed it was a special sort of telephone.  One that would let you speak with the dead.”

“That’s impossible,” she’d said.

“Maybe,” he’d told her.  “But remember, people thought the electric lightbulb was impossible too, once upon a time.  And movies.  And the telegraph.”

He goes to the workbench now, pulls back the tarp and Eva lets out a little muffled cry.

The machine is on, the tubes glowing.

It hums as its needles jump, static crackles through the speaker.  And then a voice emerges — not a random radio signal, some female DJ in New York, but one he recognizes at once.

Danger, his mother says.  You’re in danger.

Miles turns and looks at Eva who has her back pressed against the door, mouth open and panting, frantic with fear.

Then, Elizabeth speaks again, louder this time, more urgent:  He’s here!

The signal fades and there is nothing but a dull hum.

“Who’s here, Daddy?” Eva asks him, her voice strangely dull and quiet.

“I don’t know,” Miles says, fiddling with the dials, grabbing the receiver and speaking into it.  “Hello?  Hello?  Mom?  Are you still there?”

Receiver in hand, he glances up out the window above his workbench, out into the driveway, where Errol is standing by the car looking at the windshield.  There, on the windshield, stuck under the wiper blade, is something that looks like a piece of trash blown in by the storm; something bright and colorful, yellow and red, almost glowing in the washed out gray landscape.  Errol picks it up, and Miles knows what it is in an instant.

“Impossible,” Miles says, as he drops the receiver.  The empty hum of static washes over him.

Through the window, Errol lifts the rubber chicken mask, turns it in his hands.

The Chicken Man is dead.  Miles knows that for a fact.  He knows it because he’s the one who killed him.

“What is it, Daddy?” Eva asks.

He turns to her.  “Sweetie, I need you to run back to the house and lock all the doors.  Do it quickly, but quietly.  Don’t alarm your mother.  And don’t open the door for anyone but me or Errol.”

“But who—“

“Go now!” he orders.   “Hurry.”

She runs out of the workshop toward the house, passing Errol who is hurrying to the workshop, chicken mask in hand. When he bursts through the door, he’s soaking wet and panting..

“Dad—“

Miles gives a sharp nod.  “I know.”

“And the river’s covered the road,” Errol says.  “It’s not too deep yet, but it’s rising fast.  The right shoulder is all washed away.”

Miles takes the rubber mask in his hands and stares down into the two empty eye holes.

“This is all my fault,” Errol says.  He’s crying, his shoulders shaking as he tries to hold back sobs.

“No, it’s not,” Miles tells him.

Miles looks through the open door at the house, then down toward the river.  He lays the mask down on the workbench, then goes to the forge in the corner, grabs his heaviest iron hammer.

“Errol, I want you to destroy everything in this workshop.”

“But you can’t mean—“
“Smash it to pieces.”

“But your machine!”

“I can build it again.  I’ve got the plans someplace safe.”

“Where?” Errol asks.

“Your sister will know how to find them.”

Errol looks at him, puzzled, frightened.  Despite his height and build, he suddenly looks like a boy rather than a young man.

“Destroy it all,” Miles repeats.  “Quickly.  Then, I want you to get the rowboat ready.  Grab the life jackets and paddles from the garage. Make sure there’s gas in the outboard motor.  We’ll meet you down by the dock in fifteen minutes.  If we don’t come, get in the boat and go down to the Miller’s.  Use their phone to call the police.”

“But I—“
“Do as I say,” Miles orders, taking one last look around the workshop.  He opens the door just in time to hear the sound of a house window being smashed, followed by Lily screaming.

Hammer in his hand, Miles starts to run.

Come back to Vilma’s Book Blog tomorrow to read the fifth chapter!!! ✦

About Jennifer

I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade. I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction. After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house.

Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness — I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time. In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we’re living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure.

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