In River City, where magic used to thrive and is now fading, the witches who once ruled the city along with their powerful King have become all but obsolete.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from We All Fall Down, the first book in a YA dark fantasy duology by Rose Szabo, out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux on June 7.
In River City, where magic used to thrive and is now fading, the witches who once ruled the city along with their powerful King have become all but obsolete. The city’s crumbling government is now controlled primarily by the new university and teaching hospital, which has grown to take over half of the city.
Moving between the decaying Old City and the ruthless New, four young queer people struggle with the daily hazards of life—work, school, dodging ruthless cops and unscrupulous scientists—not realizing that they have been selected to play in an age-old drama that revives the flow of magic through their world. When a mysterious death rocks their fragile peace, the four are brought into each other’s orbits as they uncover a deeper magical conspiracy.
It was still August when Jesse ran away.
He’d been a good son, stopped asking questions about where he was allowed to go or when, looked down when Paul called him faggot, and mumbled yes, sir, yes, ma’am at the dinner table. He’d given his paychecks to Paul, and had hidden an envelope of tips, skimmed a dollar or two at a time, in the gap between the floor and the baseboard where he’d kept the postcard his best friend had sent him when he was eleven. He’d turned eighteen and sat quietly through the argument where his mom said he was just a kid and Paul said he was a man and should be fending for him- self, and he’d waited for them to go camping for their anniversary, and he’d bought a ticket to the place on the postcard: a gleaming jeweled island city, like the Mont-Saint-Michel, with a great iron suspension bridge connecting it to the mainland. Greetings from River City, said the postcard. And on the back, in crabbed tiny boy handwriting, a note.
One by one, all Jesse’s other secret places had been found: the shoebox in the back of his closet where he kept a girl’s black T-shirt and a pair of soccer socks. The loose floorboard under the bed where he’d hid a magazine or two for a while. One at a time, like fortresses under siege, those hiding places had fallen. But the gap in the baseboard hadn’t let him down yet. It had saved him $200 and that postcard. And so that was what he had when he left his house at 11:45 p.m. on a clear night, right at the end of summer when the heat was starting to break. He walked to the bus station, his big backpack heavy with packed sandwiches, clean underwear, and library books he felt a little guilty about planning to never return.
He’d done some research on the internet about River City. It wasn’t supposed to be real; he’d only found it on old message boards, most of which were full of random nonsense about ghosts and games you could play with elevators and time travel. They’d said that to get a ticket, you had to go to a bus station at midnight on a clear night with a breeze in one of a handful of towns, and get on the bus that pulled up, and pay them whatever they asked for. Some of the older stories said that they’d ask for weird things, like blood, or hair, or a sigh, or the name of your true love. Other people said that was bullshit, that they’d been on the bus this year even, and all they’d wanted was cash. Jesse wasn’t sure, but he was ready to give them whatever they asked for. It couldn’t be worse than staying where he was.
The bus station was closed, so he huddled outside against the wall, hiding in his sweatshirt. He hoped that nobody would see him; Paul drank with cops, and they’d ratted Jesse out before. He pulled his hood over his face and folded his arms across his chest, hoping he looked tough. Tough was hard for him. He was too skinny, his face too soft and round for it to really carry off well.
From outside of him, we can see how beautiful he is. A little bit lanky and awkward, but with a good gentle face. A scar on his forehead, usually hidden by a soft shock of hair, that he got from Paul, with some help from the sharp edge of a coffee table. Until he was fifteen, he’d told people it was a witch’s mark.
He checked his watch. Midnight. No bus. He waited. Buses were late, right? But minutes wore past, and he started to feel like an idiot. Maybe he should just come back in the morning, get on a bus to New York, or wherever it was that kids like him went when they ran away from home. Not that he was a kid anymore. Paul said it often enough.
He was about to shoulder his backpack and go home when he saw a bus coming down the road. It wasn’t a bus like the kind he was used to. It looked like a silver bullet trailer, with red trim, and windows set on an angle, giving the impression of speed, and big wide headlights and a wide front fender that looked like a cartoon mouth. He laughed out loud when he saw it. This was more like it. This was a magic bus to a city that only people on the internet knew about. One hundred percent.
It came to a halt, and the shadowy bus driver pulled a lever to hinge open the doors, and Jesse shouldered his backpack and stumbled up the steps. “Hi,” he said. He looked around. There were only a few other people on the bus. A mother sitting near two girls wrapped in a blanket, falling over each other to press their faces to the window. A middle-aged couple and a dog. Jesse grinned wildly at all of them. And then the bus driver, an impossibly jowly and warty man, stuck out his hand.
“What do you need?” Jesse asked.
“What you got?”
Jesse rummaged around in his wad of cash. “I can do… fifty?” he said.
“Looks like more than fifty.”
“What’s the price? Is there a price?”
“Give me all of that.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
“Do you want on the bus or not?”
Jesse felt a stab of fear. Every bit of money he had seemed like a little too much, even for a journey into a magical world. But what choice did he have?
“Or I’ll take that postcard,” the bus driver said.
Jesse wondered for a second, fearful, how the man had known about the postcard. And then he realized he’d gotten it out with the money. It wobbled in his trembling hands.
“Uh,” Jesse said. “Why?”
“Maybe it’s valuable.”
Jesse swallowed. “I’ll give you the cash,” he said.
The driver took the wad from him. “Sit wherever.”
Jesse stumbled to a seat and fell into it, dazed and panicking. This wasn’t at all what he’d planned for. Now he was on a bus with no money. He clutched the postcard for a while before stuffing it into his backpack. Nobody was taking that from him.
The bus rumbled along for hours, through small towns. Jesse wondered vaguely why the lore said the bus came at midnight, when it was clear that it was on a regular damn bus schedule, picking people up between something like 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., and late to each stop by the impatient, desperate looks of the people getting on board. The bus driver extorted all of them, although some people managed to talk him down to something reasonable. One guy didn’t have any money, and Jesse watched the driver barter with him for his hat and his jacket and eventually his pocket square. The man sat down in the row opposite Jesse, looking lost and bereft. He kept putting his hand to something under his sweater that jerked periodically. Jesse watched, fascinated, until they stopped in another small town and a woman got on with a scarf wrapped so tightly around her throat that it almost hid the lump bulging from the side of her face.
As the bus filled up, Jesse realized that about half the people who got on had something they were hiding. He started scoping out the people who’d been on when he’d boarded, and realized that the girls sitting by the window were fused at the hip: two girls, one pair of legs. They were fighting over whether the window was going to be cracked open or shut.
Eventually, Jesse drifted off to sleep in the warm darkness of the bus, knocked out by the hissing of the hydraulic brakes and the rumble of the engine. He rocked from side to side, his legs tucked up and braced against the seat in front of him, his head propped on his knees for a pillow. The murmur of voices talking quietly entered his dream in dribs and drabs. What if it doesn’t work? This hospital is the best—they’ll know what to do. Girls, stop hitting. I’m hungry. Snores. The sound of the girls hitting each other and giggling while their mother shushed them angrily. He felt a kind of vague kinship with all of them. After all, there was something wrong with him, too.
He had to go now because he had to get away. He had a feeling that if he stayed, he was going to die. Not of sickness or accident, but because he would get himself killed. Maybe wanted to get himself killed. That feeling had been building in him for months. It’d hit a peak in the last few days of junior year, when a kid he kind of knew—a starter on the football team—had been in the bathroom at the same time as him. Jesse usually got out of the way of guys like that; he was skinny, they were big. But for some reason he’d stared at him, and the guy had seen him staring, and before Jesse knew what was up, he’d been against the wall, the guy’s palms grinding his shoulders into the cinderblocks, the guy’s hips against him, too. Jesse wasn’t sure in that moment if he was about to kiss him or murder him in cold blood, but the bathroom door had started to open, and the guy had let him go, and he’d escaped, for now, the fate he seemed to be courting. He had to fix himself, before something worse happened.
The sun slanting through the window woke him up at last. It was morning, and they were rumbling along an empty, straight country road, corn on both sides, waving in the breeze, as far as he could see. Trees behind the corn. It was like a corridor of nothing, a long, empty drive.
The man sitting opposite him saw that he was awake, and winked at him. Jesse realized it wasn’t pocket square guy, who had moved several seats back and was eyeing them warily. This was a massive white guy wearing a greasy black raincoat, with a wild white beard like a feral Santa Claus. He was younger, though, than most of the men Jesse had seen who had beards like that. He also had a milky right eye, like a cataract, under which his pupil swam, just barely visible. Something about the guy looked familiar to Jesse, but he couldn’t place him.
The man fished around in his pocket, and Jesse winced, until the man pulled out a hard candy in a crinkled yellow wrapper. “Want one?” he asked.
“No,” Jesse said. “Thanks.”
“This bus used to be faster.”
“You taken it a lot?”
“Not in a long time,” the man said. Jesse realized he smelled vaguely of piss, and also something else: a coppery smell like corroded metal. The guy took out a bottle from somewhere inside his coat, and uncapped it, and took a swig. He was missing a few teeth in the front. “I like to ride it now and then. Scope out what’s going on.”
“Here’s a history lesson,” the man said. “People used to come to River City because it was where they could be the way they are without attracting much attention. Then the hospital opened. Now they come here to get themselves cut up and put back together in the shape of ordinary people.” He tipped the bottle in Jesse’s direction; Jesse shook his head. “Is that what you’re here for, girl? To get yourself cut up and sewn into something that makes sense?”
Jesse looked around to see if anyone else had heard. No one else appeared to be listening at all. The mother with the twin girls was checking her phone, over and over again, while the twin girls slept tangled in each other’s arms. The middle-aged couple was petting their increasingly nervous dog. He’d sometimes had this happen before, people mistaking him for a girl. He didn’t like how happy it made him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said to the old man.
“I don’t have time for your feelings,” the man said. “I got on here to warn you about something.”
Jesse felt a prickle, like he might have to sneeze, or like he might be about to explode. And something else, too. The thrill of impending adventure.
“Tell me,” Jesse said.
The man looked somber, like he was about to say something. And then he twitched, and his expression buckled. “Oh, shit,” he said, groaning. His voice changed, and so did his demeanor, and all at once he looked stupid, helpless. He looked down at the bottle in his hand. “Fuck,” he said, and took a big gulp of it, spilling some of it into his beard. Jesse had thought earlier that it was all white, but now he saw it was streaked through with red. The big man swallowed, wiped the back of his mouth with one hand, and tried to focus his one good eye on Jesse.
“I have a hard time,” the old man said. “I have a hard time staying present.”
Ah, okay. This was the kind of guy who always tried to talk to Jesse. It was something about his open face, he guessed. He had one of those faces that said, Please, tell me everything bad that’s ever happened to you.
Jesse sighed. “It’s okay,” he said. “You called me a girl. How did you know?”
“I said that?” Jesse started to give up, but the man chewed on a fingernail. “No, I wouldn’t call you a girl. I would’ve said the girl.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Ugh.” The old man clutched his head. “Fuck. Okay. Important question. What time are we upon?”
“Have y’all killed the monster already?”
“How about the Hero? Have you met him?”
“Uh… no? I don’t think so?”
“Do you know you’re the girl?”
“You just told me.”
“Jesus.” The man shut his eyes, and took a big sniff, like he was trying to swallow a booger. He popped his eyes open and the milky one rolled around in his head. “You got anything I could eat? That helps.”
“You’ve got some hard candies.”
“Right on.” The man dug around in his own pocket. “Huh, maybe I don’t have them yet…”
“River City ahoy,” the bus driver called out.
Jesse looked away from the old man, and up through the bus’s bulging windshield. They must have been slowly climbing, because now they were cresting a hill, and below them, spread out, was a great and winding river.
It was called the Otiotan, he knew from the forums. They’d placed the river’s origins somewhere in Virginia, or Tennessee, or Kentucky, but no one could say where it met the ocean. It lay across a valley, wider than any river he’d ever seen, like an unknown Mississippi. And in the middle of it was the island, shaped like a great teardrop, low at the upstream end, with a great hill on the down- stream side. Gleaming with great silver buildings, and covered in trees. Jesse had never imagined a city could be so green.
“Wow,” the old man across from him said.
“I thought you said you’d been there before.”
“What are you talking about?” the man said. He glanced over at Jesse, and smiled, showing a mouthful of perfect teeth. Jesse blinked, not sure what he was seeing, or what he had seen before. “You going there, too? Maybe we can seek our fortunes together.”
“Uh,” Jesse said. “Look, man, I—”
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” the man said. “More fortune for me.” He propped his arms behind his head, flipped his hat down over his face, and appeared, to Jesse, to be getting ready for a quick nap.
Jesse studied the man. Even with his face covered, there really was something familiar about him that was hard to place. Something about his large square frame, the elasticity of his smile, even his weird way of talking, reminded Jesse of someone he’d known before, a long time ago. Or maybe it was just because they’d both called Jesse a girl without meaning it as an insult.
But Jesse lost the thread of that thought as the bus descended the hill and hit the bridge that led to the city. The wheels switched from a low rumble to a sharp staccato. The wind rushing through the metal bridge sounded almost like a harmonica, and below them in the river was a smaller island with a ruined castle on it, and Jesse lost himself in imagining being down among those rocks. And then, before he could breathe in to will it away, he felt that prickle again, and then a sharp pop.
It hurt, like having all your joints dislocated and jammed back in at new angles, like growing new organs, like a total bodyectomy, and the accompanying dizziness as his inner ear tried to compensate and the cramps, good god, the cramps. And Jesse sat there stunned. She knew without looking exactly what had happened to her, even though it was impossible, or at the very least, unlikely.
The old man in the seat glanced over at her. “Huh,” he said. “I thought so.”
Jesse widened her eyes at him. “Don’t say anything,” she hissed.
“I’ll be quiet,” the old man said. “But will you?”
They’d crossed the bridge, and were suddenly on a long boulevard with low old buildings on one side, and on the other, towering new ones. The bus was slowing. The old man jerked a thumb at the bus driver.
“He’s gonna sell you to the hospital if you stay on this bus,” he said, not bothering to keep his voice low. “They’d pay great for someone like you.”
The bus driver turned in his chair as the bus stopped for a light. “Who said that?”
The old man winked his blind eye at Jesse. “Go find the baker’s on God Street. Tell Astrid I say hello.”
“Astrid,” Jesse repeated.
“Yup. Watch your back.”
The bus driver put on the hazard lights, and stood up. “Huh,” the driver said, looking at Jesse. “Good tip, old man.”
The old man stood up and blocked the bus driver’s path. “Run,” he said. And Jesse snatched up her backpack and ran for the back of the bus.
“Stop that kid!” the bus driver yelled. Stunned passengers stared, doing nothing, as Jesse sprinted past them. She ran for the back of the bus, found the emergency exit door, and flung it open. An alarm went off. Behind her, she saw the driver shove the old man out of the way. And she leaped.
Jesse had always been good at thinking on her feet, but now she was off of them, and careening toward the hood of an old Cadillac. She bent her knees, like they learned in track doing the high jump, and let them buckle under her as she rolled off the hood backward and hit the ground. It hurt, but adrenaline had her up in a second, backpack still on, sweatshirt hood flapping as she ducked through the next lane of traffic. Stunned, she noticed it was mostly bicycles and mopeds that flew around her, riders screaming at her, as she flung herself at the far sidewalk, where she scrambled away into a park on the far side. She glanced back just long enough to see the driver hanging out of the back door of the bus, yelling at her to get back there.
Jesse had always liked running. She wasn’t the fastest in track, but she showed up and ran and liked the feeling of being alone, just her and her feet and the wind.
As she sprinted away, she thought briefly that this was the first time in her life she’d run quite like this. Running into the unknown, with no idea what was on the other side to catch her.
Excerpted from We All Fall Down, copyright © 2022 by Rose Szabo.