Extract / Preview: Dreamland by Robert L Anderson

CB - Sep - Dreamland

P A R T   O N E

All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
—Edgar Allan Poe
Afterward, Dea blamed it all on Toby. She knew it wasn’t nice to blame a cat. It was definitely immature. But that was life: one big chain reaction, a series of sparks and explosions.
Always, explosions.
If Toby hadn’t clawed through the screen door, she would never have met so-and-so, she would never have said such- and-such, she would never have done blah, blah, blah. She’d still be slogging through dumb algebra homework in Fielding, Indiana, getting picked last in gym class and ignored in the cafeteria.

*
Funny how Fielding, Indiana, didn’t seem so bad anymore. Or maybe it just didn’t seem important. Not after the cops and the disappearance. Not after the men with no faces and the city in the sand.

Not after the monsters started showing up in the mirror. Definitely not after Connor.

 

O N E

“Freaks.” An empty can of Coke ricocheted off Odea’s backpack and landed in the dirt. Inside the car, several girls laughed, a sound like the distant twittering of birds. Then Tucker Wallace’s truck continued grinding and bumping down Route 9, kicking up dust and exhaust.

“Thank you!” Gollum shouted. She scooped up the can and dribbled a few drops of soda in the dirt. “Thoughtful,” she said to Dea. “Too bad they forgot to leave us anything to drink.”

“I’m sure it was just an oversight,” Dea said.

“You know, for an evil hell spawn, Hailey’s got pretty good aim. Maybe she should try out for the basketball team.”

Dea laughed, imagining Hailey Madison, whose sole form of exercise came, according to rumors, from showing off various parts of her anatomy to different horny senior boys beneath the bleachers, running up and down a basketball court. She liked that about Gollum, arguably the only person in Fielding more unpopular than Dea was. She couldn’t be fazed. She turned everything into a joke.

Gollum always said it was because she’d grown up on a working dairy farm, dirt poor, with five brothers. After you’ve shoveled shit at five in the morning in December, she always said, you learn how to keep things in perspective.

They kept walking. It was hot for September. The fields were full of withered corn and sun-bleached grass and the occasional spray of white wildflowers, floating like foam on the surface of a golden ocean. The sky was pale, practically white, like someone had forgotten to vacuum the dust out of the blue.

Even by Fielding standards, the Donahues’ house was in the middle of nowhere. There were only four properties within shouting distance: a house that belonged to an ancient alcoholic Dea had never seen; Daniel Robbins’s house, which was bordered on all sides by a chicken wire fence and bore a dozen No Trespassing signs; the Warrenby Dairy Farm, which sprawled over three hundred acres (“all of them useless,” Gollum liked to say); and a large brick colonial almost directly across the street that had been vacant since Odea and her mother had moved in. But today, as Odea and Gollum got closer,  Dea  saw  the yard of the colonial house was littered with cardboard boxes and furniture sheathed in plastic. There was a big U-Haul truck parked in the driveway. A woman was standing on the front porch, sorting through cartons as though looking for something specific. She straightened up, smiling, when she spotted Dea. She was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved white T-shirt and she had blond hair tied neatly in a ponytail. She was just the right amount of fat for a mom.

Dea felt a sharp stab of jealousy.

Before the woman could say anything, a man’s voice called to her from inside and she turned and entered the house. Dea was relieved. She would have had nothing to say by way of greet- ing. Welcome to Fielding, pimple of Indiana. Watch out for roadkill.

“Think they got lost?” Gollum asked, adjusting her glasses. Everything Gollum owned was a hand-me-down or picked from the Salvation Army, and was either a little too big, too small, or just slightly out of fashion. Gollum, real name Eleanor Warrenby, had earned her nickname in third grade, when she’d made the mistake of wearing her older brother’s Lord of the Rings T-shirt to school too many days in a row. When she’d first explained this to Dea, Dea had been stupid enough to ask why she hadn’t just worn a different shirt. Gollum had looked at her like she was insane, squinting from behind her too-big glasses.

“Didn’t have any,” she’d said matter-of-factly, and Dea had been ashamed.

“Think we should tell them to run?” Dea said, and now it was Gollum who laughed, a honking laugh that belonged to a person way bigger than she was.

They’d reached Dea’s gate, which was crowded with climb- ing leaf and honeysuckle, so much of it the small bronze plaque nailed to the wood was almost completely concealed: HISTORICAL  LANDMARK SOCIETY,  BUILT  1885,  RESTORED 1990.

“If you’re bored this weekend . . .” Gollum trailed off, like she always did, leaving the invitation unspoken: I’m right down the road. Gollum and Dea had been walking to and from the bus stop together since January, when Dea had moved to Fielding in the middle of sophomore year. They sat next to each other in class and ate together at lunch. But they’d never once hung out after school, and Dea hadn’t seen Gollum at all except in passing over the summer.

Dea’s fault. Dea’s problem.

And she could never, ever explain why.

“Bored? In Fielding?” Dea pretended to be shocked. “Never.” She didn’t want to have to make up an excuse, and Gollum never pushed her for one, which was one of the things she liked best about Gollum.

The Donahues’ house was the exact replica of a farm that had existed there over a hundred years ago. It was restored to look completely original—silo and all—even though not a splinter of the original house remained. For two decades, the house was a museum, but by the time Dea and her mom rented it, the place had been shuttered for a few years. Dea figured no one wanted to walk through a past that looked exactly like the present, and vice versa.

A simulacrum: that’s what it was called when something was made to resemble something else. Dea’s mother had taught her the word. Her mother loved simulacra of any kind: plastic sushi designed to look like the real thing, kettles concealed within the plaster model of a roosting chicken, clock faces that were actually cabinets.

As usual, her mom had locked all three locks on the front door, and as usual, Dea had a bitch of a time getting the keys to work. In Cleveland, in Chicago, even in Florida, Dea could understand her mom’s obsession with locks and barriers, escape plans and worst-case-scenario talks. But here, in Fielding, where the biggest crime was cattle tipping, it made less  sense.

Then again, her mom had never made any sense. Dea occasionally imagined that scientists would come knocking on the door and drag them both to a lab for experimentation. They’d isolate the gene for crazy—an inherited twist in the double helix, an unexpected sickle shape.

The hall was cool and dark, and smelled like rosemary. Other than the tick-tick-tick of a dozen old clocks, it was quiet. Dea’s mom was a nut about clocks. They were the only things she insisted on keeping, the only possessions she bothered to take with them when they moved. Sometimes Dea felt like that crocodile in Peter Pan, like a ticking clock was lodged in her belly and she couldn’t escape it. Every so often, her heart picked up on the rhythm.

Dea didn’t bother calling out for her mom. She was usu- ally gone during the day, although Dea was no longer sure what, exactly, she did. There’d been so many jobs triumphantly attained, then quietly lost. A quick celebration—I’m a receptionist now!—a rare glass of champagne, a spin through the local mall to buy shoes and clothes that looked the part. Sometimes Dea thought that’s why her mom got jobs in the first place: so she could dress up, pretend to be someone else.

Inevitably, after a week or two, the sensible, flat-soled shoes were returned to the closet; the car would remain in the drive- way well past nine a.m.; and Dea would find a laminated ID card bearing a picture of her mom’s smiling face under the words Sun Security Systems or Thompson & Ives, Attorneys-at-Law dis- carded in the trash, under a thin film of rotting lettuce. Then the weeks of scrimping began: microwavable meals purchased from the gas station, sudden relocations to avoid overdue rent, pit stops in cheap motels mostly populated by drug addicts. Dea was never sure what her mom did to get fired. She suspected that her mom simply got bored and stopped showing up.

In the kitchen, Dea excavated some pickles from the back of the fridge, behind a bottle of crusty ketchup and a chunk of moldy cheddar cheese, and took the jar out to the back porch, her favorite part of the house. She loved its broad, white railing set on a curve, like the swollen prow of a ship, its sagging rattan furniture, and beat-up iron tables. She settled down on the porch swing, relishing in the Friday feeling: two whole days without school. She liked to think of the weekend as a geometric shape, as a long wave. Now, she was just riding up toward the first swell, at the very farthest point from the dumpy shoreline of school.

Sometimes, when she was sitting on the porch, she liked to imagine another Odea, an alternate-girl who lived on an alternate-farm, maybe back in time when it really was a farm. She imagined her sitting on the porch swing, using one leg for momentum, as Odea did. She enjoyed imagining all the different people and lives that had been played out in the same space, all of them packed together and on top of each other like Styrofoam peanuts in a carton, and at the same time preserved in their separate realities.

She wondered whether alternate-Odea liked pickles, too.

She was startled by a sudden rush of wings. A black bird landed on the railing, hopped a few inches, and cocked its head to look at her. It had a big red splash across its belly, as  though it had recently been plucked out of a paint can.

“Hey.” Odea wrestled a pickle out of the jar. She had no idea whether birds liked pickles but decided to give it a shot. “Want one?”

The bird hopped away another few inches. Its eyes were like two dark stones.

She liked birds. Birds were harbingers—another word she’d learned from her mom. The dictionary defined harbinger as a person who goes ahead and makes known the approach of another; herald. Also an omen; anything that foreshadows a future event.

In dreams, birds were very important. Dea often depended on them to show her the way back out of the dreams she walked. Dreams were confusing and ever changing; sometimes she turned and found the passage she had come through blocked by a new wall or a sudden change in the landscape. But birds knew the way out. She just had to follow  them.

“Hungry?” she tried again, leaning forward, reaching a little closer.

Suddenly, a dark blur of fur rocketed past her. The bird startled, let out a scream, and went flapping into the air just as Toby made a clumsy lunge for it. Toby thudded down the stairs, belly thumping, and plunged into the garden, as if hoping that the bird might change its mind and fly directly into his mouth.

“Toby!” She stood up quickly but Toby had already disappeared into the garden. She followed him, swatting aside heavy branches dripping with flowers, clusters of chrysanthemums, fat bunches of zinnias that crowded the walkway. Her mother’s garden always reminded her of dreams: the colors slightly too vivid to be real, the perfume so strong it was like a lullaby, whispering for her to sleep, sleep.

She spotted Toby slinking under the low, rotted picket fence that divided her property from the road. It had been too long since she’d walked a dream—a week, maybe longer—and she was getting weak. She was sweating already, and her heart was beating painfully in her chest, even though she wasn’t moving very fast.

Toby took off again as soon as she was close enough to grab him, and it took another ten minutes before Dea could corner him at the edge of Burnett Pond, which was technically the border of Gollum’s family’s property, although Gollum always said her family used only a quarter of their land.

“Got you, asshole,” she said, and snatched Toby up. He was heavy, like a fat, warm rug. “Good thing you’re cute,” she said. “Otherwise I’d chuck you in the pond.” He licked her chin.

She stood for a moment, trying to catch her breath, careful not to stand too close to the water. They were sheltered from the sun by a heavy growth of pine and sycamore trees, a rare break from the wide fields, burnt and withered, stretching all the way from horizon to horizon. The pond was covered with deep purple and green shadows.

She was about to turn back when she noticed a pair of red shorts—a guy’s—and some flip-flops carefully laid out on the bank. She scanned the water and saw a ripple at the far side of the pond, and a dark shape she had originally mistaken for an animal. An arm pinwheeled out of the water. Then another.

She was temporarily mesmerized, as she always was when she saw someone swimming. Slowly, the boy carved his way through the water, creating a small wake. Then, abruptly, before she could turn away, he surfaced.

He had a nice face—good-looking without being too good-looking. The water had turned his hair into spikes, and his nose was crooked, like maybe it had been broken. His chin was pronounced, probably a tiny bit big, and it gave his whole face a stubborn expression.

“This is awkward,” was the first thing he said.

“Sorry,” she said quickly, realizing she probably looked like a weird stalker or a pervert. “My cat . . . I wasn’t watching you.”

“No, no.” He made a face. “I meant . . . well, my clothes.” Then it hit her: he was swimming naked. He was naked, right then. Which meant she was having a conversation with a naked boy.

“I was just leaving,” she said.

“Wait! Just wait one minute. Just . . . turn around and close your eyes, okay?”

She heard sloshy water sounds, and then the rustle of fabric. She tried to think of something other than the fact that a boy was pulling on clothes less than three feet away from her: a large hall of statues, cool, full of echoes. An image she had seen once in a dream.

“You can open your eyes now,” he said.

She did, and was surprised to see that he was taller and skinnier than he looked in the water—probably at least six foot two. He had a swimmer’s build: long arms, broad shoulders, skinny waist.

“I don’t want you to think I’m some kind of nudist,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone came down this way.”

“No one does, except for this guy.” She hefted Toby in her arms, glad her hands were full and she didn’t have to figure out what to do with them. “He got out.”

He reached out and scratched Toby on the chin. Toby stretched his head to the sky. As he purred, his body vibrated in her arms.

“What’s his name?” he asked. “Toby,” she said.

He kept his eyes on Toby. “And what about your name?”

She hesitated. “Odea,” she said. “People call me Dea.” This wasn’t exactly true, since most people didn’t speak to her or address her at all. But her mom called her Dea, and so did Gollum.

“Connor,” he said. There was an awkward pause, and then they both spoke simultaneously.

“So, you live around here?” he said. Just as she said: “You new?”

He laughed. He had a nice laugh. Nice teeth, too. “You first.” “Yeah. The farmhouse,” she said, jerking her chin to indicate the direction from which she’d come.

He smiled. Suddenly, his whole face was transformed. The slightly-too-big chin, the crooked nose, and eyes maybe spaced a centimeter too far apart—all of it became perfect, symmetrical. Beautiful. She looked away, suddenly embarrassed.

“We’re neighbors,” he said. “We just moved in across the street.”

“I figured,” she said. He raised his eyebrows, and she clarified. “Everyone knows everyone around here. I figured you were the new kid. I saw the moving truck.”

“Busted,” he said. “You go to Fielding? I’m a transfer.” When she nodded, he said, “Maybe you know my cousin. Will Briggs?” Even thinking the name brought a foul taste to her mouth, like rotten gym socks and watery beer. Will Briggs was huge and dumb and mean; rumor was that his dad, who worked for the police department, had once cracked him over the head with a guitar, and he’d been screwed up ever since. Nobody liked Will Briggs, but he was good at football and his dad was a cop, which meant that no one messed with him  either.

Apparently he was the one who’d started calling Gollum Gollum in third grade, probably the only vaguely creative thing he’d ever done.

“No,” she lied. In Dea’s opinion, Will Briggs was radioactive material: anyone associated with him was contaminated.

He was still smiling. “I thought everyone knew everybody around here.”

“Guess not.” She squeezed Toby tightly, burying her nose in the soft scruff of his fur. Connor would get to school on Monday and hear from his cousin that she was Odor Donahue, friendless freak; then her new neighbor would turn suddenly unfriendly, and make excuses to avoid looking at her when they passed in the hall.

It had happened to her like that in Illinois. The summer before freshman year, she’d spent two months hanging out with a girl, Rhoda, who’d lived down the block. They’d spent hours looking over Rhoda’s sister’s yearbook and giggling over cute upperclassmen. They’d shopped for their first-day-of-school outfits together. And then, as always, the rumors had spread: about Dea’s house, and the clocks; about how she and her mom were crazy. On the third day of school, Rhoda wouldn’t sit next to her at lunch. After that, she would make the sign of the cross when she saw Dea in the halls, like Dea was a vampire.

In fact, Gollum was the only semi-friend Dea had had in years. And that was only because Gollum was weird. Good-weird, in Dea’s opinion, but definitely weird. Besides, Gollum couldn’t really be counted as a friend, since she knew hardly anything about who Dea really was—if she had, Dea was pretty sure even Gollum would go running.

“I should get back,” she said, not looking at him. “See you Monday,” he called after her.

She didn’t bother responding. There was no point. She already knew how this whole thing would go.

 

***

You can read more on WAY DOWN DARK on our Jul-Dec 15 Hodder / Hodderscape Books page or our September New Book Recommends.

And there’s more extracts from our pick of titles – you can see in order of most recent in our EXTRACTS ARTICLES CATEGORY,  and below in order that we put them out!

DAVE VS THE MONSTERS: EMERGENCE – John Birmingham
SKY PIRATES – Liesel Schwarz
BLOOD RED CITY – Justin Richards
RADIANT STATE – Peter Higgins
THE SUMMONER – Taran Matharu
MARKED – Sue Tingey
BETE – Adam Roberts
FOUL TIDES TURNING – Stephen Hunt
STEEPLE – John Wallace
CRASHING HEAVEN – Al Robertson
BENEATH LONDON – James Blaylock
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS – Tom Pollock
CAUSAL ANGEL – Hannu Rajaniemi
YOUR SERVANTS AND YOUR PEOPLE – David Towsey
THE SEVENTH MISS HADFIELD – Anna Caltabiano
DETECTIVE STRONGOAK AND THE CASE OF THE DEAD ELF – Terry Newman
THE RELIC GUILD – Edward Cox
FOXGLOVE SUMMER – Ben Aaronovitch
THE MOON AND THE SUN – Vonda McIntyre
PATH OF GODS – Snorri Kristjansson
TIME SALVAGER – Wesley Chu
REGENERATION – Stephanie Saulter
THE SUPERNATURAL ENHANCEMENTS – Edgar Cantero
THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN – Mark Hodder
THE MARTIAN – Andy Weir
KOKO THE MIGHTY – Kieran Shea
THE UNNOTICEABLES – Robert Brockway
IF/THEN – Matthew de Abaitua
THE SAND MEN – Christopher Fowler
THE DRAGON ENGINE – Andy Remic
YOUR RESTING PLACE – David Towsey
THE NIGHT CLOCK – Paul Meloy
MYTHMAKER – Marianne de Pierres
THE RETURN OF THE ARINN – Frank P Ryan
WAY DOWN DARK – J P Smythe
LIMIT – Frank Schatzing