It started with a single child and quickly spread: you could get high by drinking your own shadow. At night, artificial lights were destroyed so that addicts could sip shadow in the pure glow of the moon.
Gangs of shadow addicts chased down children on playgrounds, rounded up old ladies from retirement homes. Cities were destroyed and governments fell. And if your shadow was sipped entirely, you became one of them, had to drink the shadows of others or go mad.
One hundred and fifty years later, what’s left of the world is divided between the highly regimented life of those inside dome cities who are protected from natural light (and natural shadows), and those forced to the dangerous, hardscrabble life in the wilds outside. In rural Texas, Mira, her shadow-addicted friend Murk, and an ex-domer named Bale search for a possible mythological cure to the shadow sickness—but they must do so, it is said, before the return of Halley’s Comet, which is only days away.
Brian Allen Carr’s Sip is a lyrical, apocalyptic debut novel about addiction, friendship, and the struggle for survival—available August 29th from Soho Press.
They’d sip their shadows and the darkness stained them. Anyone who said they saw it coming told bad lies. There existed no concrete prophecy foretelling the malady, no rational explanation science could come to. How could it be, this new behavior? Drinking light’s absence? Falling crude victim?
The religious offered up bits of texts.
From Acts and Joel and Revelations came the closest warning: “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood.”
“But the moon ain’t blood,” skeptics argued.
“Not yet,” believers said, looking up at the night sky gravely.
And then from the Al-Furqan:“But they are going to know, when they see the punishment who is farthest astray… Have you seen the one who takes as his god his own desire… Have you not considered your Lord—how He extends the shadow, and if He willed, He could have made it stationary? Then We made the sun for it an indication.
Then We hold it in hand for a brief grasp.”
“So it’s a punishment from God?”
“Only He knows why He does His doings.”
When doctors were asked to explain it, they’d invoke other anomalies from medical history—mysteries, freak occurrences that could never be explained:
“Strasbourg, Alsace in 1518. A woman named Frau Troffea begins dancing, can’t stop. Dozens join in with her, within a month, hundreds. All of them dancing ferociously, endlessly. No one knows why, though some have blamed a kind of mass psychosis induced by stress, others suggesting ergot poisoning might have fueled the catastrophe.
See, many of the dancers danced themselves to death, and it’s even been said that the dancers danced beyond that. Moved on with some inaudible, internal music even postmortem. And no one is entirely certain why.”
“This ain’t 1518, though.”
“And ain’t nobody fucking dancing.”
The sun was up, so the dark could start. All about the ground, all in the same direction, shadows sprawled. And this is what he was after.
Murk crept from the mesquite trees into the full light of day. Hobbling, his clothes dirty and tattered—his left leg a wooden peg. He shooed gnats from his face as he advanced, humming a bit of tune.
“A world with two suns,” he sang softly, “and both are for me.” It was as if his mother’s breast milk had been ashes. He had thirsty-looking skin and hair thickly greased with sleep. He’d been growing it out, his hair, and wasn’t used to the length of it. He constantly tucked the brown thatch behind his ears. Most his life, he’d kept it short, but he’d found an old Doors album while rummaging a capsized van, and he wanted to look like the guy on the cover. Around that time, he’d started making up songs.
He found the sun and put his back to it. He knew he should wait a few hours, let the light get brighter, his shadow darker, more potent, but the call in him could not be placated—he lacked self-control.
“I missed you,” he said to his shadow on the ground. He waved. It waved back. He danced. It did too. “Lose weight?” he asked it. “Something different with your hair?” But, of course, there was no answer. “Either way,” he said, “looking good.”
He dropped to his knees, lowered his face to his shade-made print, now a hunched clot of dark on the grass.
“A world with two suns,” he continued singing, “that is the dream.”
He was silent. Lust slithered across his face. He tucked his mane behind his ears, palmed his cheeks, and motes of dry skin swirled away.
Down he went like a starving man. His mouth bored open, he crashed against dirt, and he gulped at the dark, each swallow dimming the shade. Murk grunted and gnashed, pulling the shadow off the ground and into his mouth, down in his belly. When he’d gotten it all, or as much as he could gather, he rolled to his back laughing and let the magic work its charm. “A world with two suns,” he bellowed, “that is the dream,” his mouth as wide open as an opera singer’s and his lips and teeth grayed with stain. His eyes drew black. His skin went pale. His veins showed through like sooty scribbles on pale parchment.
In the distance he could hear the train. To Murk, it was the sound of heaven.
Mira crouched, watching for the train to race around again on its mile-long, circular track. She looked for the break between the caboose and the engine to catch glimpse of the buildings beyond. A step in front of her, the grass had been scorched away, covered with white rocks, but the smell of the scorching lingered, and Mira sniffed the perfume of it, her brown eyes sleepy in the smell. She messed her hair. She’d never thought much of it, but then Murk started growing his and one day she looked at him and couldn’t help but ask, “Are you trying to look like me?”
He got defensive, something about some singer.
“You’re trying to steal my fucking haircut,” she told him.
And Murk called Mira all kinds of dirty names and stomped off on his peg leg to wherever Murk went when Mira sent him stomping.
But now, she thought, “Shit, he can have it.”
Just beyond the train, observation towers stood, and in them guards trained guns on the perimeter of rocks. Mira heard the man’s voice through his bullhorn.
“Closer and I’ll fire.”
It was half past noon, and Mira was ambivalent. She’d been coming to the train for days now with the halfhearted idea of dying, but each time she’d come, nothing happened. This threat was the first she’d heard, and it made the consequence of her dying more real to her.
That’s the thing about suicidal thinking: it’s kind of harmless until it isn’t.
A few days back, she’d stood motionless with a bouquet of citrus blossoms clutched to her chest, a kind of funeral service in her heart, but she’d only lingered for hours thinking she’d gone unnoticed. She’d even shown her shadow then, turning it off and on, hoping the strobe of it might gain some attention, but it didn’t.
The next time, she’d gone to a different edge of the town, thinking maybe her luck would change if she tried another observation tower. Each time the train sped up, but no shots were fired. She thought mildly of running for the train, throwing herself beneath its heavy steel wheels and letting the train cars chew her up to yuck, but she couldn’t seem to get her legs to go through with it.
It was puzzling. She’d been shot at before. When Murk had sent her to the train the first time. It’s why she’d even come to think of this as a way out of the world. So what was different? Why weren’t they firing now?
She knelt toward the rocks, lifted one of the white pebbles casually. Her tanned knees flecked with scars, her palms rough from hard work and living. She dropped the rock, contemplated the white dust it left behind on her. She blew at it and most of the stuff disappeared, and what was left she licked away, spat out at the grass, and the chalky flavor of the task left a scowl on her face.
“What now, Mira?” she asked herself, her words aimed at the train. “What happens next?”
In the observation tower, the guard shouldered his gun. He brought the sight of the weapon to his eye, set the crosshair on her forehead. The girl mouthed something but he couldn’t tell what. He liked the look of her brick-colored lips, how they spoke the inaudible words. He pretended a voice for her, to match the look she had: a bauble that’s shatterproof, a wild kind of preciousness.
“Same girl as yesterday?” asked Drummond.
“And the day before,” said Bale. “And the day before that.” He chewed at nothing, his perfect teeth click-clicking a toneless music.
“How she know what tower you’ll be at? I mean, we draw y’all’s names from a hat even. Ain’t no order to it at all.”
“Don’t know,” said Bale. “First time she came, she had flowers.”
“Flowers?” Drummond and Bale were brothers and both had the same pretty teeth. They had a large, domestic build, as though they’d been bred rather than born.
“Bunch of white ones, but that ain’t even the strangest part.”
“Shoot her. It’s too screwy.”
“Wait,” said Bale. “Wait and watch.” He stretched his neck. Rolled his thick shoulders. Smiled a childish grin.
They both wore white fatigues. They had both entered duty at the age of sixteen, as had most of the lower-ranked members of their outpost. Drummond, entered a year before Bale, was Bale’s superior, but they’d both spent the last thirteen months working the train slowly across the countryside to this spot—the train operating across a length of track only slightly longer than itself, inching forward and then resting as the section of traversed track was disassembled and then reassembled in front of the engine to begin again the laggard cycle.
When the captain decided, those straight rails were recycled, used in the building of the observation towers—one of which Drummond and Bale now stood in—new curved rails were produced from cargo cars and laid ahead of the train as it progressed into its permanent circular orbit. And there they were: perhaps a hundred miles from the safety of the dome, forging some in between life.
“You should shoot,” Drummond said. He picked up a radio and ordered the train to increase its speed for protection. The train always rode its circular track, a kind of moving wall around them, a millipede in pursuit of itself. “She might not be alone.”
“There,” said Bale, who’d stayed watching the girl.
Drummond turned the binoculars to her. “Alright?” said Drummond. “She’s kinda pretty, right? Like a dark little fairy. Or like that story about that soup Indian. Remember that one? That guy lost in the wilderness. Pocahontas or some shit?”
“I don’t mean that,” said Bale. “Look at the ground.”
“What the hell is that?”
They both stood still. The train’s wheels screeched and chirped across the track. Bale peeked through the scope of his rifle, Drummond through his binoculars. “It’s like pulsing,” said Drummond. “Gotta be an illusion, right?”
“Maybe,” said Bale, “but you ever seen an illusion like it?”
“Should’ve just shot the first time you saw her.”
“She was holding flowers, man. It’s hard to kill a pretty thing holding flowers.”
“Well don’t shoot now.” He handed the binoculars to Bale.
“We should at least see what the captain has to say on it.”
They had seen shadows on the white rocks before, cast from the folks they’d shot, people who had come toward the train with their arms held high. But they had never seen a shadow that could come and go as it pleased.
Excerpted from Sip, copyright © 2017 by Brian Allen Carr