I will be posting chapters from my new novel, “The Last House in Levittown”, every Friday afternoon until it’s complete (it is currently at 10,000 words). This is the first draft, and so I would covet your feedback–anything that confuses you, bores you, and also what excites you! Also please feel free to simply read and enjoy without comment. Thank you! 🙂
Harlow was lost. The sun had just set for the first time, or else he would have believed he’d been walking for days. Or had the sun finally died after all, and had he actually been walking since the last morning on Earth?
It all startled him—the sunshine, the cold, the eerie ruralness that had retaken Long Island. He wrapped his sport coat even tighter around his torso, feeling chilled. He had lost weight during his years inside, and every ten or so steps he stopped to pull his trousers up again.
But where was he? He had been released out of Manhattan’s East Wall at 5 a.m. with his old clothes and three days of rations. As the sun came up, he had started across the old Queensboro Bridge, then found the rails of the long-abandoned Ronkonkoma line and followed them all the way to Hicksville. The letters H-i-c were all that had remained on the stucco front of the old stationhouse, and the stationhouse itself, he had discovered, was all that remained of Hicksville.
From there, his route had become less clear. The buildings had all been destroyed and without the old landmarks to guide him, he had come upon a fork in the road, feeling as if he had landed in an old riddle. Show me the way to the City of Truth, or else show me the way to the City of Lies. He recited it to himself as he tried to determine which path was Jerusalem Road, the road that would lead him homeward. One man guards the path to the righteous, and that man cannot tell a lie. The other man cannot be honest, and he guards the path to demise. Try this saying with each and they’ll point the same way; they will point out the path of the wise.
He stood at that V for a long time, hours past cursing his decision to show up for his arrest a decade prior wearing wingtips and a summer suit. The riddle had been something his grandmother had passed down, told and then retold by his own mother when he was a boy. If he had ever seen it written down, he could have pulled the image from his memory in a heartbeat. But his auditory memory had never been any different than anyone else’s, and that even wasn’t what it used to be.
It was finally the setting sun that forced him onward. He decided at last to follow the road on the right.
He had chosen correctly, and followed Jerusalem Road south past Nelson, West Marie, then Nicholai. Every street he crossed was one street closer to home. Of the street signs that still stood, most now bent the wrong way. One had suggested in purple graffiti that “DOOM” and “MISERY” ran perpendicularly. Traffic lights still hung from most intersections, although the electric grid on the Perimeter had already been shut off at the time of his arrest.
By the time he reached Cherry Street and had seen no other buildings, he’d begun to lose faith that his house still stood at all. But he had been released, meaning they’d found Penny, meaning she was still in that house. Or at least had been two months ago—and the Dozer Squads weren’t that efficient…were they?
Harlow walked to the middle of the intersection to inspect a large piece of debris—a tattered section of an awning for Vernon C. Wagner Funeral Homes. He looked at all four vacant corners, trying to remember on which he had laid his mother to rest what felt like several lives ago now.
By First Street, night had set in and that’s where his real problems had started—not the least of which, he was hungry, old, tired, sore and cold. A few blocks after he lost his bearings, he sat down on the asphalt, took off his shoes and ripped the cellophane off his tuna fish sandwich with a side of hydroponic salad. The bread inside the city tasted like tree bark and everything hydroponic tasted like it came from a jar of expired pickles. He thought for a moment about tossing it for day two’s rations—grilled cheese and a brownie—but he didn’t know when or how he would find his home or what they were doing for food there.
The more empty streets he’d seen reclaimed by underbrush, the more impressed he had become with Penny’s ability to survive this long on the Perimeter. But then, she had been a survivor since the day she was born. And now she had that guy with her—what was his name? Harlow had only met him once, a thin young man with a frenetic quietness about him. A man’s prolonged interest in his daughter had surprised him, even though she had started to look just like her mother had. She was just too smart for most of them.
He lied back on the asphalt and stared up at the sky. The stars had never been so bright on Long Island. He closed his eyes and opened them, and in that beat allowed his world to change. What have we given up, he thought, and what have we gained for it? He would never be allowed back on the inside, but now looking at the stars, still in the familiar patterns he’d memorized as a young boy, he felt an immense peace and wondered if that meant he was about to die.
He closed his eyes again, letting his body fall heavy and open against the road. A cold breeze rushed over his face and he began to remember why he couldn’t die right now—he’d had a breakthrough. In spite of the tests, the injections, the dull, white walls of his windowless cell, in spite of the constant interrogations—the same, insipid questions—he’d lied and lied a thousand different times. What were you inventing and why, Doctor? In spite of nothing to write with or on and the loss of days and nights that created the worst sense of infinity, the thoughts had come like water babbling from a secret spring and he’d held on. Like a thousand grains of sand all headed for a sieve—that’s what they’d built, a thought sieve the size of New York—he’d clutched what he could in his fists and he’d held on. Now he thought of these clumps of sand, hard from the dried sweat of his fists, and of how he might break them back apart and save the world.
Show me the way to your city, he thought, and smiled for the first time in ten years. That was the answer to the riddle. Harlow sat upright, took a bite of tuna fish, and realized for the first time that Penny would try to kill him.
To continue reading Chapter 2, click here.