We invite you to enjoy this excerpt from Brian Francis Slattery’s upcoming novel, Lost Everything, out on April 10:
From the author of the critically acclaimed literary SF novels Spaceman Blues and Liberation comes an incandescent and thrilling post-apocalyptic tale in the vein of 1984 or The Road.
In the not-distant-enough future, a man takes a boat trip up the Susquehanna River with his most trusted friend, intent on reuniting with his son. But the man is pursued by an army, and his own harrowing past; and the familiar American landscape has been savaged by war and climate change until it is nearly unrecognizable.
Lost Everything is a stunning novel about family and faith, what we are afraid may come to be, and how to wring hope from hopelessness.
HE WAS ON THE river with Reverend Bauxite when the dream descended upon him, of the mountains and hills melting into the sky. The wrinkles of the land smoothed and rose, the air thickened and fell to meet it, until everything was gray, dull yet luminous, as if there was a sun behind it, though he knew there was no sun there. The whisper of the atmosphere through his ears, the reverberations of the earth, the last echoes of voices all came together in a fading thrum, the final sigh before silence. It lasted no more than a minute, but the image, the sound, would not leave him. Downstream, the ruins of the Market Street Bridge were a tangle of twisted iron, shards of bony concrete jutting from the water. If the bridge goes down, you’ll know we tried, Aline had said. Ten pounds of plastic explosive tied around her chest with a purple scarf. Upstream, the spindles of other bridges, the dark hills sliding into the water, the water itself a field of slate, the same color as the sky, promising storms. He looked down into the current, leaned over and let it wrap around his knuckles. The river was a rope, pulling him through the last hills, the submerged towns and factories, the stunted fields lined with sparse trees, all softened by rain. The leaning house where he was raised. The dead in the driveway. His sister in the window with a rifle, eyes closed and listening, as though she could hear it all. The cries and rumbles of the ruins of the coastal cities, the heads of the buildings on fire while the seawater surged around their knees. The roads snapping between the stony fingers of the shifting hills. The last houses groaning as the roots of the trees pulled them off their foundations, then rushed over the roofs and chimneys, pushing the walls down. Everyone, all of us, trying to speak at once. We are here. We are all here. Even after everything, we are all still here.
Aaron, my baby boy. I never should have let you go.
Sunny Jim’s oar slackened in the Susquehanna’s current. Reverend Bauxite, in the yellow boat with him, thought to say something, but did not. He could tell by the angle of Sunny Jim’s shoulders, his wrists. Something had visited him, Aline for sure. They were so close to where she left them. Reverend Bauxite was on the opposite shore when it happened, saw the snake of fire slither along the bridge. A chain of bombs, a tail of oily flames. When the wind drew the flames away, the bridge was gone. Too much like a magic trick. Aline was in the other hand. Under the hat. She was behind Sunny Jim the whole time, one step away. She was under the water, hugging the bottom of the boat. Putting words in Sunny Jim’s ear, talking to him as I am talking to you now.
Greasy smoke rose on the shore in front of them, over the blasted trees, the sandbags keeping the river back. There was commotion there, figures coming to frantic life in front of the small brick buildings. A new plume of fire, a gas can going up. The low thud of its ignition reached them a second later. There was no other sound until they reached the land and Sunny Jim leapt over the sandbags as Reverend Bauxite churned the water with his oar, fixing the yellow boat in the current. Then they could hear the wailing and shouting, the cries of agitated animals. A voice through a bullhorn. Reverend Bauxite stood and stepped to shore. They brought the boat over together.
“Just then, on the river,” Reverend Bauxite said. “What did you see?” But Sunny Jim was already moving beyond him. The line to Aline, the line to Aaron, pulling him in opposed directions. These cords that God makes, Reverend Bauxite thought, we stand holding one end while they run taut into the darkness. We are connected, to what, we do not know. But if we put the frayed ends up to our ears, we can hear voices.
On the frontage road next to the river, a bomb had made a truck bloom into a metal lily, the sides peeled back and out. Tires melted into asphalt. Things on fire around it. A few old, dark trees, bright with flame. The wooden poles and tarps from vegetable stands, charred and ashen. The vegetables themselves. Twenty-seven corpses, four of them horses, three children. A line of cars, flames painting them gray. The occupying army’s outpost was blackened, but not enough to take the graffito off the side: THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HARRISBURG, PA. A mustachioed captain tried to restore order with the bullhorn. Calm down, everyone, please calm down. But they would not be calmed, for their families were dead. The front of the war had come to Harrisburg and stayed for months, a malevolent hurricane, beyond what they thought nature would ever allow, before it moved on. They had survived all of that, thought after it ended that they would be safe. Thought that once they had lived to see it go, they would keep on living.
Sunny Jim and Reverend Bauxite found a crate of food, unwatched, unmolested enough to eat. Picked it up, heads down. Tried not to draw the soldiers’ attention. But the grief around them was too much. Reverend Bauxite approached the families, bowed over the bodies, covered them with cloth. Closed his eyes, uttered words of general benediction. Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. He did not know what the grieving believed, did not wish to send the dead where they did not want to go. But he believed that his deity was generous, would be a guide. A dim flame in dark woods. He bowed his head again as the faces of the families turned skyward, listening for news, for the last thoughts in the heads of the dead, set free and swirling around them like leaves. They never really go. They are always here. With me. And now with you.
THEY SET THE CRATE in the belly of the boat, pointed the bow south, and floated on the thick current, under the broken arches of the bridges. Passed City Island, the flooded marina. The stadium overgrown with trees and split by shells. The baseball field now a cratered forest. Depressions filled with water from the rain, the river pushing out of the ground, flooding the roots of monumental maples. The whole place, the whole city, going under, for too much at last had been asked of it.
Reverend Bauxite looked away, then forced himself to look back. Smacked his lips and pulled a pipe from his jacket. Packed it with bits of dried apple, scraps of tobacco. He had not lit it in fifteen months. He missed the smoke, but the smell and taste of it were still there, a tang in his mouth. The feel of the bone against his teeth and tongue, and he was in his rectory again, years ago. The stained brick, the stone stairs. The dusty scent in the hallway, a hint of impending mildew. He could never figure out where it came from. In his office, blue carpeting, white linen curtains for the bay window. He was leaning against his desk, his fingers following the deep scratches in the top. Talia sat in a faded pink wingback chair, legs crossed, examining her nails. Speaking to him in a singsong voice, a lilt of minor thirds. Reverend, she said, your parishioners, myself included, think you should do more services around Lent. She was in the third row on the aisle every Sunday, fixed her eyes on him from the first word of his sermon to the last, closed her eyes when she sang. Always looked at him as if she already knew a truth that would take him years to discover.
The war was so distant from him then. Reports of small calamities from people moving north on the river. There’s been some blood down there, they’d say. A couple towns burned in Georgia, North Carolina. Outside the rectory, they were celebrating the end of the monsoon. Boys beating on boxes and trash cans. Sixteen of the people in the choir singing and clapping their hands. A small mob in the street, shaking and shuffling, just glad for the sun. The church rising behind them, straight and serene. The light falling all over the city, taking the water away. It rose in columns of steam, as if Harrisburg was on fire, but when the mist dispersed, the city was still whole. That day, it was possible to imagine it always would be. For the city was weathered and sparking, a place of chipped houses on narrow streets, and you could read on its face what it had seen. During the Civil War, it saw soldiers and munitions heading south on the trains, corpses heading north, while young men trained for more slaughter in a camp on the edge of town, parading with bayonets before rows of white tents, as if they thought the war would be orderly. During the Cold War, it got a small dose of what everyone else was so afraid of. Not an explosion, but a meltdown, emptying the streets and houses, the people thinking about giving up on the place. But they didn’t, not yet. Once, before Reverend Bauxite was born, even before the rivers rose and the trees came to swallow everything, when the last factories were not quite dead and the capital was still the capital, Pennsylvania still Pennsylvania, old men in wool jackets smoked in the bars of hotels with wrought-iron porches. On a sunny summer evening the streets teemed with people. A handsome couple rode in a red convertible with whitewall tires, a cooler of beer hanging open in the backseat. On a night of torrential rain, a slack teenager with long oily hair served Middle Eastern food to three out-oftowners, who could not keep a straight face at the things he said. Is the food any good? Because I’ve never eaten here. Here—bringing some fruit on a platter at the end of the meal—he told me to give these to you. The out-of-towners talked about him for years afterward, wrote it down in their diaries, and it fixed the city in their minds. Kept it alive for as long as they were, and after they were gone. Had the Confederate army come to Harrisburg instead of Gettysburg, had Three Mile Island been worse, Harrisburg might have died sooner, and I would not be able to tell you anything about it. It is gone now, and my memory of it, from before the war, before everything else, is all I have. If I had known when I was there that it would be gone so soon—if I had known all that was coming—I would have tried harder to remember more. To write it down then, instead of now, when I have forgotten so much.
They drifted past the islands off Steelton, under the broken span of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Rounded the bend in the river near the blasted runway of the airport, Sunny Jim steering in the back. The destruction all seemed remote from them. Reverend Bauxite was always seeing it, the world without the war. Had to believe it would end, for all things passed, did they not, save one? On the land were burnt houses, the remains of firefights. Women kneeling in the street before a relative, bleeding away. Scorched trees, black vines, hanging over the current on the shore. Dogs in the leafy darkness at night. And in the river, fish hovered, water striders rode the surface. Herons stalked the shallows. As if the war had never begun.
Reverend Bauxite had seen it even the night Aline left. All along the Harrisburg shore, human screams and the roar of explosions. The end of the world for them, an end in fire. But all around him, mayflies rose in the air, trout leapt to catch them before their flight. He waded into the water, lifted his arms, and the flow of the Susquehanna whispered around his calves. It flowed as the bridge fell into it. Flowed as it put the fires out. We put our dead into it, our dead and mountains of slag, and still it flowed, Reverend Bauxite thought. We dug tunnels beneath it and it broke its way in, filled them, and flowed. It could wash away anything in time, without hurry or judgment, as it did before we ever saw it, as it would when we could not see anymore. But he was not consoled.
Evening was falling into night by the time they reached Three Mile Island. The river, a thin skin over the drowned causeway. Plants pulling down the rusted fence at the periphery. The road in the facility cracked by grass and saplings. A huge pine had burst through the pavement and shot for the sky, half its head knocked off by an errant shell, but still alive. The cooling towers spilled over with vines that ran in veins down their hourglass sides. Once they had been the house of the angel of death, who spread its wings over the city, getting ready to sweep everything up into it. Now they were filling with soil that trees took root in, braiding their branches together, competing for light. The cries of animals echoed inside. Keening bats, chirping birds. The hoots of small mammals. Someday, Reverend Bauxite thought, the towers would fill up all the way, the vines would cover all of them. Or the soil would be too much for the concrete to bear, and the towers would crack in two, the earth rumble out. Turn this island into a hill. He could not decide if that would be the end of us or the beginning. The glimpse of a revelation.
They lay down to sleep in the towers’ shadows, in a rusting trailer crawling with honeysuckle. A single copper cable, insulated with green plastic, jumped from a hole in the side, slithered into the river. Inside the trailer, two bunks, a big blue phone. A plastic bag with three changes of clothes. They had been moving ever since the resistance lost Harrisburg and the occupying army moved in. No more than two nights in any one place, stringing up a pirated telephone line in twenty minutes that could be taken down in ten. Floors of wet concrete, warping walls losing their plaster, spun with jagged cracks. They stared at the water damage, squinting their eyes. Played a game with each other that they used to play with Aaron. It looks like a big maple, Reverend Bauxite said. No, like a bunch of lightning bolts, said Sunny Jim. Like an old hairbrush. Like a dried-out spider. Both of them missed the boy so much, though the games brought him closer. Then Sunny Jim slept. Almost every night, Reverend Bauxite lay awake for too long after that, returning to the day his church fell. He had been outside when it happened, saw three holes appear in the tiled roof, a fourth in the wall. Heard the incoming whines of artillery a beat later. Then a bright light from within, a tremulous roar, and the church folded in on itself, became a pile of burning stone. There were forty-eight people in there, his parishioners, who had come to him for refuge. He did not know how to get them out.
When he had celebrated with his congregation before the war, their voices had multiplied on the ceiling in song. The echo when they were finished never sounded like dying, only like the sound was moving away from them, out into the world. Their voices must be moving still, Reverend Bauxite thought. Understood that believing in their persistence was a matter of faith. But he still longed to see his people, to know that they had lifted themselves from the fire. He had asked his God to grant him this, even though it meant that his faith was wavering. That he was not as strong a vessel as he wanted to be.
The toes of animals tapped on the metal roof in the dark. You should go get your boy, Jim, Reverend Bauxite wanted to say. Aline is not coming back. But Sunny Jim was asleep then, listening only for her.
REVEREND BAUXITE MET ALINE two months before the front came to Harrisburg. A meeting in the capitol building, with the mayor, several clergy, and four resistance leaders talking about what had happened in Baltimore. Horror stories. A vision of hell, Biblical violence, a village burned to nothing, people suffering an angry God’s wrath. Brother will betray brother to death, Reverend Bauxite thought, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next. For truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. Gray light poured through the windows. The pulsing wind rattled at a crack in the glass. The light bulbs in the ceiling had burned out long ago. After the speeches, Aline came over to Bauxite, smiling her sideways smile, her hand extended. Her palm a pad of callus. Something sharp embedded in the skin, a stone, an erratic jewel of shrapnel. She did not even know it was there.
“The war’s coming this way,” Aline had said. “You planning on taking a side, Father?”
“I’m on the Lord’s side.”
“And what side’s He on?”
“The one that helps those who suffer, and causes the least of the suffering.”
“And where was He in Baltimore?”
“I told you I’m on His side. I don’t pretend to know His mind.”
“You’re making God sound like my husband.”
Sunny Jim seemed half gone already when Reverend Bauxite met him, a stained photograph of another man. Said little. Never made eye contact. His thin fingers working. Reverend Bauxite thought maybe he was sick. Then he met the three of them together—Aline, Jim, and their boy—and understood. Aline and Aaron, flush with color. Aline’s big voice, Aaron’s shout. A spindly kid hopping up the stoop on one foot, jumping back down in a single leap. A run at the telephone pole to shimmy up it. He could bite electrical wire in half, Reverend Bauxite thought, send off sparks and swing out over the rooftop. Aline laughed, her elbow resting on the butt of a machine gun. Then Sunny Jim smiled and Reverend Bauxite saw it, a ray of warmth passing from husband to wife, father to son. Sunny Jim drew it from somewhere else, took just enough to keep him here, gave the rest to them. Did not mind the cold that came after.
“That’s why I’m here,” Sunny Jim had said. “I don’t care who wins the war. I just want it to end. I just want to get them through it.”
“And then what?” Reverend Bauxite had said
“Does it matter? As long as I’m with them?”
They split a bottle of bitter whiskey that night in the kitchen of a brick house near the shell of an old factory. A candle on the table, the flame burning low and slow. The smell of a fire outside seeping under the front door. Aline out. Aaron asleep in the dark room above them. The talk between the two men was easy and expansive. It was talk before wartime, but something else, too, the sense of a common soul between them so strong that, after only an hour or two, they were telling each other things they had never told anyone. Sunny Jim had been looking for the man to replace him if the bullet, the shell, came for him, knew they were both staying out of the fight. Decided there was no time to waste.
“You’ll take care of my boy with me?” he said.
“Of course,” Reverend Bauxite said.
“Until Aline can do it?”
“Yes. I promise.”
Two days before the war came to Harrisburg, the resistance was massing weapons in the street in front of the church. Stacks of rifles, jumbled boxes of ammunition. The guerrillas working in eerie quiet. All thinking of the noise to come. Of crouching in a ditch while the earth exploded. Clothes wet with blood, urine, gastric fluid. Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim stood on the steps with Aaron. The boy wanted to carry one of the rifles, wanted to know how to shoot one. Sunny Jim’s hands were on his shoulders, fingers tight.
“I don’t want any part of this,” Sunny Jim said.
“Me neither,” Reverend Bauxite said.
But then the church fell, and Reverend Bauxite found Sunny Jim and Aaron in a slumping apartment on Agate Street. The son playing with a yo-yo that the father made from a spool. The father watching the street for violence. Reverend Bauxite gray with ash, on his face and hands, worked into his clothes.
“They knocked my church down,” he said.
“Sit,” Sunny Jim said. Shook his head. Thought for a few minutes without moving, because he did not want to lose this man. Could not afford to.
“I guess you have to do something about it,” he said.
“Yes,” Reverend Bauxite said. “If only to end the fighting sooner.”
“I understand.” Then: “No guns,” he said. “There are enough already.”
But there was so much else to do. Engineering and sabotage. Said they were there to install a generator, robbed power from battalions. Clipped cables. Filled frequencies with noise. Kept lines open for guerrillas huddled in apartments carpeted with shattered glass, rifles angling from empty window frames chipped by enemy fire. Listened on headphones so Sunny Jim could hear Aline’s voice, know she was alive. They worked in the day amid fires, the rush of falling shells, rising smoke. At night, under the stripes of tracers, pink arcs of flares. They always took Aaron with them. Kept him where they could see him. We need to keep him safe, they kept telling each other. But even Grendel Jones, their commander, noticed how the boy seemed to be good luck, how the fighting never touched him, like a blind giant groping for a wily insect.
“The war can’t find that kid,” Grendel Jones told Sunny Jim one night. “Won’t find you or the priest either, as long as you’re with him.” She did not finish the thought out loud, how Aline would have to fend for herself. For Sunny Jim would never take his son to the front’s annihilating edge, and Aline would almost never leave it. There was so much about Aline that Grendel Jones could not understand. Why, when the fighting started, a spark lit inside her. Why she had a family. Why her family wanted her. She could not see into that, or get Sunny Jim to explain. So she never learned how Sunny Jim and Aline had pulled each other through and away from the leanest years of their lives. How, when the war came and everyone else panicked, they looked at each other and nodded, recognized the shapes of their own pasts in the face of the war’s violence, knew what it was, even as it began to pull them apart.
Perhaps that was why the boy was the charm he was. He was the best of both of them. He warded off the mayhem, just by breathing, that his parents had taken years to learn how to survive. Aaron, Sunny Jim, and Reverend Bauxite had shacked up one night in a burnedout apartment building near the state capitol, moved out at dawn. That afternoon, a flurry of mortars leveled the building. A firefight broke out on a busy street only twenty minutes after Aaron left it, killed forty-seven people, too many of them children, but left him unharmed. The boy played amid cracking masonry while his father strung wire to a satellite dish on a factory roof. Sat in the bottom of the boat when they crossed the river. Slept through bombing raids and firefights, woke up hours later, blinking and yawning. He did not know what power he had.
Didn’t, until six months ago on North Second Street. There had been a market there in full bloom, vegetables and animals amok. The sweetness of picked fruit, sourness of butchered flesh, tang of hay, flowing together in the air. Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim passing through, cable slung from Jim’s hip. Aaron zigging and zagging, curb to curb. Then a shell, a bomb—they argued later, for they never went back—and everything was quiet but for the moaning. They were far enough away to only be thrown, knocked down. By the time Reverend Bauxite could see, Sunny Jim was already cradling his son, a dirty hand over the boy’s eyes.
“Dad, come on, let me see.”
Soot was snowing on a wide wound in the pavement. The skin of people blown back and away. A slurry of blood and dirt. A knee on the sidewalk, disconnected from everything else, a scrap of denim wrapped around it.
“We have to get Aaron out of this place,” Sunny Jim said.
“Where can he go?” Reverend Bauxite said.
“My sister’ll take him.”
“Your sister can protect him?”
Sunny Jim just looked at him. Ended the discussion. Reverend Bauxite acquiesced, and Sunny Jim sent the word up the highway to Lisle, thirty miles over the border into New York. Merry was there within two days for the boy.
“We won’t be able to talk,” she said. “Just come and get him when you’re ready.” They turned to go, but not before Aaron hugged both men. It was then that Reverend Bauxite understood how the past few weeks had changed him, how the duty Sunny Jim had given him had become a mission. He thought he had begun to see a tiny fragment of God’s plan in the boy, let himself hope that maybe there was one, even if he could not say what it was. Aaron had given him some of his church back, and now he was losing it again.
Merry and Aaron were gone before Aline returned. The mother railed when she found out, screamed for three hours.
“How could you leave him with her?” she said.
“The reverend and I talked about it. It’s the best we could do.”
“The reverend is not his mother. I am. You should have asked me first.”
He glared at her. You should have been around to be asked. Why the hell are you doing this, anyway? When Aaron was born, when the war began, he’d thought that both their fighting years were done. She’d known all along that only his were. He was so angry at her for that, yet still loved her so much. The two were chained together. Then: “You’re right. I’m sorry,” he said. The apology offered only because it did not matter anymore—Aaron had been sent away, and there was no getting him back unless they went for him themselves—and Aline knew it. What Sunny Jim said next, he would regret for the rest of his life, for it was as if he had been given powers of prophecy for that moment and failed to see it, could not hear his own message.
“We’ll go and get Aaron when you and the war are done with each other,” he said.
And since the Market Street Bridge, since Aline left, Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim had been having the same conversation in their heads again and again.
We should go get your boy.
No. I have to wait until she comes back. Then we’ll go get Aaron together.
She’s not coming back.
Yes she is.
How do you know?
I just know.
Nothing of it spoken between them. They could read it on each other, their faces wrinkled pages. Words hiding in the folds of their clothes. She was made of letters then, as all of us are now. Here, in these words. Us and the city and the towns and river, and everything else, too. All that we know, and everything—everyone—we wish we knew.
Lost Everything © Brian Francis Slattery 2012