Uncanny, p.1

Uncanny, page 1

 

Uncanny
 


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Uncanny


  DEDICATION

  FOR PATTI

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Part One: At a Time of Great Awakenings Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Part Two: Wonders of an Invisible World Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Part Three: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  Chapter Thirty-Eight

  Chapter Thirty-Nine

  Chapter Forty

  Chapter Forty-One

  Chapter Forty-Two

  Chapter Forty-Three

  Chapter Forty-Four

  Part Four: Man Knows Not His Time Chapter Forty-Five

  Chapter Forty-Six

  Chapter Forty-Seven

  Chapter Forty-Eight

  Chapter Forty-Nine

  Chapter Fifty

  Chapter Fifty-One

  Chapter Fifty-Two

  Chapter Fifty-Three

  Chapter Fifty-Four

  Chapter Fifty-Five

  Chapter Fifty-Six

  Chapter Fifty-Seven

  Chapter Fifty-Eight

  Chapter Fifty-Nine

  Chapter Sixty

  Chapter Sixty-One

  Chapter Sixty-Two

  Chapter Sixty-Three

  Chapter Sixty-Four

  Chapter Sixty-Five

  Chapter Sixty-Six

  Part Five: A Divine and Supernatural Light Chapter Sixty-Seven

  Chapter Sixty-Eight

  Chapter Sixty-Nine

  Chapter Seventy

  Chapter Seventy-One

  Chapter Seventy-Two

  Chapter Seventy-Three

  Chapter Seventy-Four

  Chapter Seventy-Five

  Part Six: A Token for Children

  Acknowledgments

  Back Ad

  About the Author

  Books by David Macinnis Gill

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  EPIGRAPH

  You hang by a slender thread,

  with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it,

  and ready every moment to singe it and burn it asunder.

  —JONATHAN EDWARDS

  PART ONE

  AT A TIME OF GREAT AWAKENINGS

  CHAPTER ONE

  THIS morning, I awoke to a dead girl standing beside my bed, peeling strips of skin from her arms. I closed my eyes, told myself it was a dream, and made her go away. It wasn’t the first time I had dreamed of her. She had visited me every morning for the past two years, starting the day after my dad was murdered.

  Even before her appearance, my whole life had been haunted by dreams. Maybe it was because I lived in a hollowed-out town, a thighbone wasteland with its marrow sucked dry. A river crawled through it, sneaking past high-spired churches and bullfinch halls, under murky catacombs with ghosts waiting for someone to wake them and hear the secrets only they could tell. Or maybe it was because I was that someone and their secrets were waiting for me.

  Before I learned about secrets and ghosts and deep dark bowels beneath our feet, I was an average girl with above-average grades who loved poetry and hockey and the dichotomy of that. As I sat in Tom’s Pub with my ma and little sister, Devon, I tried to forget my bad dreams and concentrated on stuffing a slice of pepperoni pizza into my face.

  Then the kitchen doors blew open, and my best friend, Siobhan, burst through, holding a birthday cake.

  A cake that was on fire.

  So was Siobhan, who had stuffed lit candles into her long black braids.

  “Surprise!” she screamed. Which was followed by Ma and Devon, yelling, “Happy birthday, Willow Jane!” Which was followed by me wanting to crawl under the table—I was a backstage kind of girl with crippling butterflies, not a diva who basked in the limelight.

  “And now!” Siobhan clapped a frosted hand over my mouth. “We must sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the birthday girl! Because she’s a girl! And it’s her birthday!”

  “Let’s not,” I said.

  “Shh, my sweet.” Siobhan stuck a finger to my lips. “It’s not every day a girl turns sixteen! Right, Devon?”

  “Right!” Devon sniffed the air. “Did ja know your head’s on fire?”

  “Your head’s on fire,” Siobhan said sarcastically, then sniffed. Her eyes popped wide. “Again?”

  She had braided her wild, staticky black hair into pigtails, and she wore faded overalls with a black Bruins tank top. Her manic mood, like an airborne virus, had spread to Devon, who needed mania like a kid with ADD needs a double shot of Red Bull.

  I licked my fingers and doused Siobhan’s braid candles, then sighed heavily and closed my eyes. The last thing I wanted was a sweet sixteen, but Ma wanted one for me, and I desperately wanted Ma to be happy again.

  “Just get it over with,” I said.

  “Um, dois, quatro!” Siobhan sang. “Everybody, sing with me!”

  She belted the first sour notes and then was joined by a chorus of regulars singing at the tops of their lungs, louder than the volume of the six big-screen TVs showing the Patriots game. “Happy birthday to you! You smell like a monkey—”

  “And you look like one, too!” Devon shrieked.

  The air was filled with blue-gray smoke and shouts of well-wishing. Tom’s regulars hadn’t forgotten Michael Conning. The pub walls were papered with photos of singers, and my dad was pictured in a lot of them, flashing that grin and cocking his head just so to let his green eyes glitter. The oldest photo captured a curly haired guitar player in his youth, a soon-to-be one-hit wonder. The most recent showed a faded folk singer playing for his supper. But that was before the shooting, and I wasn’t interested in his pictures anymore.

  “Let the spankings commence!” one of the regulars called.

  “First one of you lays a hand on my daughter,” Ma yelled and shook her fist at the guy. “Is getting a shiner to show for it!”

  The crowd laughed, raised their glasses to us, then turned back to the game.

  “You guys?” I pleaded. “Could you possibly be more embarrassing?”

  “Yes!” Siobhan waggled her artfully unplucked eyebrows. “We really, really could and in ways even your advanced intellect couldn’t imagine.”

  I looked to Ma for sympathy, but she wasn’t having it. Maggie Mae Conning was what Southies called a mere slip of a woman, but beneath multiple layers of sweaters beat the heart of an old-school mother superior. I had inherited her dimples, petite frame, and unruly flame-kissed hair, but not her personality. Ma was the crispy skin of a toasted marshmallow, and I was the soft, gooey center.

  “You oughta see the look on your face, Willie!” Siobhan planted a sloppy wet kiss on my cheek.
“Never saw it coming, did ya?”

  Well, yes, I thought. I did.

  In middle school my friends called me the Trivia Jedi because I knew the answers before the teachers finished asking the questions. I ruled games like Words with Friends and Scrabble. I would’ve won the spelling bee, too, if I didn’t forget how to breathe in front of a crowd. So when Siobhan made a grand entrance with my surprise sweet sixteen cake, I wasn’t surprised. I knew exactly what flavor (double chocolate with jimmies), what color icing (white), and what I would wish for when Devon demanded I blow out the candles.

  “Willow Jane!” Devon yelled over the din of the pub. “They’re melting! Hurry up!”

  Another thing I knew? The candles would relight as soon as I blew them out. That didn’t take clairvoyance—Siobhan had been pulling the same trick since third grade.

  “Pull your head outta your ass, Conning!” Siobhan said, growling like our hockey coach. “There ain’t time to make it look pretty!”

  “Knew you’d say that,” I said, but still let the flames burn.

  Siobhan was right. My head was firmly anchored in my ass, metaphorically speaking. This morning, I had woken to waffles with maple syrup, delivered by Devon on a platter with a plastic red rose and a card written in crayon, the implement of choice for second graders. The rest of the day I had spent reliving bad memories, paying no attention to the priest at church, forgetting to take communion and getting a withering look from Ma instead of a paste-tasty wafer and a sip of sour wine.

  I had sleepwalked the six blocks to Tom’s Pub and had eaten the pizza because refusing it would alert Devon to my ennui. Nobody loved malaise like my little sister. She would pounce on a foul mood with the gusto of a kitten attacking a ball of yarn.

  Truth was, I’d been dreading this day for months. When Siobhan and Kelly O’Brien, my other but not quite best friend, first suggested a party, I had totally nixed it. Sweet sixteens existed to give girls yet another way to compete. Just on philosophical grounds, I opposed them, and reality check? A widow raising two kids in Boston couldn’t keep up with the Joneses—nor the O’Briens.

  My plan not to plan was dashed, though, when Ma got a sudden craving for pizza, even though she had a wheat allergy and tomatoes gave her heartburn. And it couldn’t be just any pizza. It had to be Tom’s, and we had to eat precisely at 3:00 P.M.

  Because I was woolgathering, as Ma called it, I barely noticed Kelly scoot through the front door. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail, and she wore a peacoat over a knee-length dress. Kelly was, like Siobhan, almost a foot taller than me. Her face was all cheekbones and dimples, and she had a cleft chin, which Siobhan had dubbed the Butt Chin. She waved at me and Siobhan, who shot her a dirty look.

  Later Siobhan would bust her for being the skid who’s late for your friend’s party, and Kelly would apologize profusely and swear to work on her recidivistic tardiness. Despite her poor grasp of time, Kelly was a trooper. She may show up late, but she would always show up, and she’d be carrying an apology in a beautifully wrapped gift bag.

  “Willie!” Kelly swooped in and pecked my cheek. “Brought you a little something.”

  “You’re a little something,” Siobhan said.

  “Get a new joke, huh?” Kelly said without looking at her. “Sorry I’m late. Hey, you waited to blow out the candles. How sweet.”

  “Woulda been sweeter,” Siobhan said, “if you’d been here a half hour ago, you big skid. Y’know, like you promised?”

  “I’m here now,” Kelly said and sniffed. “You set fire to your hair again?”

  “Willow Jane,” Ma said. “Make a wish before the frosting catches fire.”

  Part of me had been waiting for my dad to magically walk through the door, but no amount of wishcraft could accomplish that. He always promised that no matter what, he’d be there for me. For us. “I’ve got your back,” he’d say. Who had my back now?

  Still, I closed my eyes and whispered a wish. It brought back the memory of my fifth birthday, when Ma decorated the house in a Three Little Pigs motif, and I pretended to be the Big Bad Wolf.

  “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,” I whispered, then exhaled every molecule of air in my lungs.

  The lights went out.

  Not just the candles but the lights in the pub, along with the streetlights outside and the illuminated windows of the triple-decker across the street. In an instant the room turned black, and we were bathed in darkness until the sky boomed and lightning exploded in the heavens above.

  CHAPTER TWO

  THE blackout spread like a plague throughout South Boston, its tendrils spreading down the side streets, gathering on Broadway, and sweeping over the bridge until it covered all of downtown, and Boston went dark. The final light to shine was the spotlight on Faneuil Hall and the great gilded grasshopper weather vane that sat upon its ancient roof. Then that flickered out, too, and on the roof, the grasshopper blinked its bronze eyes and waited for fate to intervene.

  Two beggars rounded the corner of Quincy Market. No, the grasshopper ruminated, beggar was not the right word. Vagabond? Bum? Homeless? Yes, they were called homeless now. The homeless men, one old and one younger, were dressed in cast-off clothing, and they were arguing. The grasshopper recognized their voices. The younger one had a name—Artie—and he had joined the service at eighteen and served a hard tour in Afghanistan, which had clogged his brain like a wet mass of hair and soap scum. After the army was done with him, his meanderings led him to Boston.

  “What happened to all the lights?” Artie asked.

  “The mayor forgot to pay the bill!” The second man laughed, then frowned when Artie didn’t.

  Artie shivered in a cast-off blanket as he ducked into a nook between Faneuil Hall’s foundation and back steps. The wind off the harbor cut like a bayonet, and his only coat was a patched-up cardigan.

  “You cold?” the second man asked. The grasshopper couldn’t recall the second man’s name, but he was born and bred in Providence, where he’d worked the scallop boats until a bad fall bent his spine like a question mark. “Wait till January. That’s whatcha call some real winter.”

  Artie’s teeth rattled so hard he bit his tongue. “I’ll b-be gone b-by then.”

  “Gimme a cigarette.”

  “D-don’t smoke.”

  “Found cigarette butts by your hiding spot.”

  “D-don’t smoke.”

  “Liar. Saw you light up an hour ago.” The second man had appointed himself unofficial Faneuil Hall groundskeeper. He used a broomstick with a screw on the end to stab litter. He pointed it at Artie. “If you lie about smoking, you lie about cigs. Where’s you hiding them?”

  “I ain’t got no smokes.” Artie held up two fingers. “Scout’s honor.”

  “You was a Scout?”

  “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” Artie crossed his heart. “If I’m lying, may the man above strike me dead.”

  With a bone-rattling crack, the sky lit up, and a bolt of lightning shot down from the heavens, striking the second man dead.

  “Wait!” Artie screamed to the sky. “I take it back! I never was a Scout!”

  The dark air filled with wild static. Another strike hit the weather vane. The bronze grasshopper glowed bright orange for a few seconds. Then, with a grinding of metal on metal, the grasshopper began to grow. Inch by inch, it expanded until the weather vane bent. The grasshopper broke free and two bounding hops later, landed on the bricked courtyard. Its eyes glowed like a furnace, and its mouth was white hot.

  “No one cares what you were,” the grasshopper said in a deep—and deeply human—voice.

  A third bolt flew from the sky, striking Artie. He fell to the ground, dead before his skull cracked on the pavers, and his spirit parted, shimmering like cellophane.

  Then the grasshopper took another bounding hop and plunged into Artie’s corpse. With a herky-jerky movement, the corpse sat and turned his head unnaturally toward Ar
tie’s spirit, the neck vertebrae popping like bones in a meat grinder. Artie’s eyes fluttered, turned from blue to tarnished copper, then he rose and shed the patched cardigan and began removing the layers of tattered clothes.

  “What the hell?” Artie’s spirit said.

  “The freshest kind,” the grasshopper said. “Why does your corpse stink like fish? Did you never bathe?”

  “My corpse?” the spirit said. “I’m d-dead?”

  “Dead as the proverbial doornail, I’m afraid.” He found a pack of cigarettes stuffed in a sock and tossed them aside. “I’m called Harken. Sorry to make your acquaintance under such tragic circumstances.”

  “But, but.” The spirit tried in vain to pat itself. “I-I don’t feel dead.”

  “No one ever does.” Harken tossed aside the last of the clothing and stood naked in the howling wind, examining himself. “Not the best material, your body, but I’ve worn worse suits.”

  “That’s me?” Artie’s spirit said, staring into his own face. “You stole my body?”

  “Claimed it, not stole it. I’ve also claimed your memories, but fortunately not your horrific body odor.” Harken ran his hands over Artie’s flaccid muscles, murmuring in a forgotten language. “This next part may be a bit . . . disconcerting, even to the dead.”

  Wild static filled the air, and a final lightning bolt struck.

  When it cleared, Harken was resting with a hand on one knee, posed like a statue of a dying gladiator. His skin—red-hot slag that turned to thick black ash—crackled with current. He shook loose the ash, and underneath was flesh like alabaster marble. He had a strong chin, deep eyes, and thick dark hair that rose in waves on his head, and except for his torc, a braided bronze ring wrapped around his neck, he was nude. For a moment Harken’s new body emanated waves of heat, then his molten eyes cooled, turning to the color of tarnished pennies, electricity dancing in the irises. He bowed his head and rubbed his face with his hands, and when he lifted his chin, he was human once more.

  “I had a cleft in my chin.” Artie’s spirit reached out to touch Harken’s torc, as if he were drawn irresistibly to some unseen fire. “Just like you do.”

 
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