The Last House in Levittown, Chapter 2.5

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To start reading “The Last House in Levittown” from the beginning, click here.

To see a chronological list of all excerpts published so far, click here.

 

Chapter 2 (cont.)

Penny sighed, feeling fatigue hit and thinking it unlikely that her father, at his age, would still be coming that night. Maybe he wouldn’t be coming at all. She didn’t know which would be worse.

She pinned the two pieces of the clue to the refrigerator door with magnets that were souvenirs from another world—one was a white pawn from a magnetic chess set her grandmother used to have. Penny could remember moving the pieces around on the refrigerator door when she would visit with her father as a young girl, before she understood the rules of the game. She would instead arrange them in an X formation, one half black and the other white. She wondered why only one white pawn had survived into her adulthood.

The other magnet featured a photo of a preternaturally tan, middle-aged man with the address and phone number of a real estate office below it. She wondered where he and his cheesy grin had landed in all of this. Not in Science, she thought, and placed her face against the cool, stainless steel dent Jimmy had left behind. She suddenly missed his smell, the warmth of his arms around her. She wanted to stop missing him.

The night before he’d left, the mail car had come for the last time. The post offices had disbanded years ago, but there was still a weekly mail service, mostly for the new government to communicate with the holdouts on the Perimeter whatever they wished them to know. That night, they had wished to tell Jimmy the results of his Abilities Assessment—under a final threat of imprisonment, he had relented to taking the test the week prior.

The AA was infamous now on the Perimeter, and stories abounded of what various results meant, which results were preferable and how to achieve those results. Merchants had even popped up for a little while at the trading hubs, promising this or that result, but either due to their inability to predict the best result, their inability to deliver it, or something more nefarious, they had all disappeared years ago. By the time Jimmy took it, he had gathered as much intel as anyone on the Perimeter could have had, and it still hadn’t worked.

The general consensus was that it was more or less of an IQ test and the trick was to score somewhere in the middle—Jimmy had just earned his MD before the Migration, and was about to start his residency in neurology at NYU just before the hospital had been ordered closed. There were rumors that workers designated for Science were closely monitored—Big Brother type crap. Some people had even speculated the scientists got monitoring chips implanted, so that if their blood pressure or heart rate or anything indicated betrayal to the government, those in charge would know.

Penny had speculated that in Jimmy’s case, the test might have been bogus, anyway. They—whoever “they” even were—didn’t even send any actual results, just a letter notifying him he’d been placed in Science and a car would be coming for him in the morning to “migrate him into the citizenry”.

Hence, the dent in the refrigerator.

It was the Congressional scientists who had been responsible for moving everyone Indoors to begin with—at least according to the new government. The scientists themselves hadn’t spoken directly to the public in at least thirty years, under a gag order from the President. That’s when she had established the Department of Homeland Energy Revitalization and quietly went about hiring the nation’s top scientists to develop various doomsday simulations, then estimate the energy needs vs. resources that would face the population in each scenario.

Ten years into the program, the United States had experienced the coldest winter since the 1800s. For a few years there had been a vibrant social debate on whether or not the cold winters meant an escalation of global warming, or a reversal, and during those years, it kept getting colder.

In the sixth subsequent year of declining temperatures, the Congressional scientists had issued a unanimous decree: the sun was dying. Their models had predicted a 20-year die off before it flickered out for good, plus or minus five years with a 95% confidence interval. It had only taken them four to erect the foundational walls, which were a thousand feet high, and then six more to move the majority of eligible citizens indoors.

Now they were in the final phase—collecting the last of the holdouts, like Jimmy, and starting to close up shop. At this point, they hadn’t even had to use force. The resources on the Perimeter kept dwindling, as did the people, and the ones who were still eligible were basically just being starved-in to the new, indoor society.

But a latent fennel seed had just blossomed in Penny’s greenhouse for the first time in seven years.

It was getting warmer.

The Last House in Levittown, Chapter 2.4

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To start reading “The Last House in Levittown” from the beginning, click here.

To see a chronological list of all excerpts published so far, click here.

Chapter 2 (cont.)

The second match took, and she lit the propane lantern on the counter. The flame glinted against the large dent Jimmy’s fist had left in it the night before he left. She’d hit it pretty hard herself in the months since, but couldn’t even manage to leave a scratch.

She had cherished that dent, stroked it, mythologized it into some demonstration of his love for her—that was just how angry he had been at the thought of having to leave her there. But as time had ebbed on, with no word from the Indoors, she had started to doubt her own romanticism and also realize how it might multiply in her isolation. They had officially ended things that night, to make things as charitable as possible to them both. Or so they had said. Her own loneliness had already led her astray, although what did that really mean—he was Indoors now, she was out here. She wondered if she’d ever even see him again.

She remembered the bread, and decided that if she just ate it slowly and in small bites, she might stanch the fear of poison. She opened the plastic bag, noticing the wrapping read “Little Portion Friary” in brown letters. Monk bread? Was she seen as so desperate by now that a loaf of bread was meant to inspire some “come to Jesus” moment?

She tore off a small piece and put it on her tongue. After months of canned soups and stale crackers, the moist, salty sponginess of it was nearly orgasmic—she waited just five minutes, felt fine, and maniacally set to task, holding the whole loaf in her hands and devouring it with all the gusto of a zombie ravaging one very large brain-baguette.

About one-third of the way through, she tasted paper. In terror, she stopped eating immediately and in even more terror, felt the wet rip as the paper already on her tongue separated from the paper still inside the loaf.

She fished two fingers inside her mouth, scraping off the tiny, wet mounds of bread that had congealed around the strip and then so, so carefully, she extricated the moistened strip from the rough grooves of her tongue. It was a surgical procedure for who knows what—a clue. A piece of paper baked into bread and sent to her in the dark of night.

She placed the wet scrap of paper on the counter, in the light of the lantern, and smoothed it several times to try to flatten it. It was mostly blank, about half an inch thick and two inches wide. Her hunger had produced an embarrassing amount of salivation. At the very right end of the strip appeared to be a handwritten O and an i. Or was it a zero and a one?

She carefully pulled the rest of the paper out, wishing she had some tape. Tape! She hadn’t even thought about tape in years. Even if she still had any, she’d be too afraid to use it. She would keep it in a special place, a relic from the Old World that she would check in on every now and then like a treasured souvenir from a particularly enjoyable trip abroad.

Lew might even have some, but the markup would probably be $20 by now and she could not foresee any urgent purpose for scotch tape on the Perimeter.

She lowered the lantern so the brightest part of the flame was at the counter level, and in the dim glow she uncovered the mystery. The two pieces, when placed together, read in careful, penciled handwriting, “Our Lady of the Ashkenazi, Exodus 2:8.”

Shit. Another thing she did not have was a Bible.

To read the conclusion of Chapter 2, click here.

The Last House in Levittown, Ch. 2.3

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To start reading “The Last House in Levittown” from the beginning, click here.

To see a chronological list of all excerpts published so far, click here.

Chapter 2 (cont.)

Penny was always a little bit afraid of that red flag. It could be rations from the Interior, but it could also be a bomb. And even though it probably wasn’t a bomb, she still figured she must be a target, living in one of the only houses left. And after all, rations wouldn’t fit in the mailbox.

The whole reason she was still living there was simply that no one had arrived to tear it down yet—and with an increasing amount of doubt, she still hoped no one ever would. But no one had tried to so much as break in for three years, now. So maybe there was no one left out there to care.

Which led Penny to her next problem—she couldn’t even trust herself to separate fear from fantasy anymore. Was she really such a ghost of her former self that she was standing here in the dark, dreaming up a murderer just so she wouldn’t have to feel alone?

She flipped the porch light on and by the sliver of light that reached inside the foyer, she donned a hockey mask, goalie pads and an oven mitt on her right hand—her standard getting-the-mail ensemble, designed to hurt her slightly-less-maybe in the case of an explosion.

She poked her head out the door and waited, one last stand to entice some lurking threat out of the dark while she was still basically protected. Nothing. With her un-mitted hand, she picked up the axe by the door and walked outside.

There is a kind of quiet you can only pretend to understand until you are standing on a wide, empty plain that was just a few years ago filled with thousands of people. Penny closed her eyes and let the solitude soak in—there were years she would have killed for this kind of quiet. Then she folded her free arm across her stomach to steel herself from the wind and made her way out to the mailbox.

Standing behind it, she used the tip of the axe to push it open. It took more heft than she was anticipating—they made axe-wielding look so easy on TV—but the mailbox fell open without any drama. She took the final step to the mouth of it and shoved her mitted hand in, patting it down first to ascertain the general feel the package. She heard the crinkle of thin plastic, and felt something not quite solid beneath it.

Pulling it out now with a complete lack of caution, she readily confirmed that it was, in fact, a loaf of bread.

It could be poisoned, a voice whispered into her ear from the wrong side of her ear. She had been living alone for too long, she thought, and had started to wonder if multiple personality disorder ever developed merely from solitude. Drink it in, she reminded herself, and took another, deliberate breath of the night air. You get what you want once you don’t want it anymore.

In addition to the crispness of the air, she smelled warm, fresh bread.

This was fresh bread! Poison be damned, she smiled victoriously and sailed back inside, buoyant for a moment and altogether uncareful. Once inside, however, her caution resumed. It had become an automatic response over the years to the cloistered interior of her sad, ancestral home. A place of both safety and anxiety. She closed the door behind her, locked it, and set down the axe.

She pressed the loaf of bread against her cheek. It was still slightly warm and thereby the closest she had come to real human interaction in weeks. Her heart sank in loneliness.

She turned back, as if she still might still catch a glimpse of the stranger who had delivered this to her. Who would have brought her bread? Lew would have just brought it making the rounds and charged her for it. The world still wasn’t so desperate that a loaf of bread in the dark of night was now some sort of romantic gesture…was it? Or had it been Jimmy’s rations delivery, after all?

That thought made her stop in her tracks. It actually really, really pissed her off.

One measly loaf of bread?

She estimated the location of refrigerator in the dark and slammed her fist into it. Some days, making her own hand throb in pain was the closest she felt to being alive. She felt for the match drawer in the dark—once crammed with matchboxes on some past, blessed day of plenty, there were now only three left. She opened one, and broke the first match she tried to ignite. She allowed herself two per day, which had so far amounted to just one night of total darkness in ten years.

To continue reading Chapter 2, click here.

The Last House in Levittown, Chapter 2.2

capecod1-1947-fmTo start reading “The Last House in Levittown” from the beginning, click here.

To see a chronological list of all excerpts published so far, click here.

 

Chapter 2 (cont.)

Penny rose from her chair and lifted the baseball bat, giving the barrel a few shallow spins in the air. A pair of headlights grazed the living room through the venetian blinds and glinted off the steel blade of the axe resting next to the front door.

The weight of the bat tugged at her abdominal scars and she bit her lip in pain, but this would finally make all of that right. She stared at the glass-mosaic front door and could still make out the pattern in the dark, having stared at it all day. Then the headlights retreated, leaving Penny alone once again.

Penny’s palms sweat around the bat handle and she wiped them on her pants, one then the other. She trembled. Either her father had arrived home and was just waiting her out outside, or it hadn’t been her father at all. In which case—who was it? She waited another minute and still heard nothing. Not even the hollow wind that sometimes blew at night across the island.

After some inscrutable length of time, she crept toward the front door. She imagined that the darkness was a live thing, changing density and shape around her. She wondered if ghosts were real, if one was waiting now to off her in the dark.

From the front of the house, she peeked through the blinds. If the car was still out there, it had turned off its engine and was cloaked in darkness, waiting for her. If her father was out there, he wasn’t moving, either. There had been no car door opening or shutting, unless it had happened before she woke up. She scolded herself again for falling asleep on the job.

It occurred to her that it could be the delivery of rations Jimmy had promised to send the day he had left. Their supplies had been dwindling for months—they had had to discard about a hundred cans of tomato soup that had gone rancid, which had felt like digging their own graves. That had been the day Jimmy decided to leave her, for their mutual survival. He could send her rations from the Indoors with the salary he would make on a Science crew, since the law forbade her from ever joining him. Her fucking father.

That’s how he had framed it, at least. “For their mutual survival.” Or was it just a gentle letdown?

Her stomach growled. Without Jimmy there the past few months to help scavenge, she was starting to starve. The two of them together had been much more efficient than if they’d each been working by themselves, and now Penny only even had half of that.

The abandoned wells they’d depended on since they had arrived in Levittown ten years prior were all drying up, too, forcing them to go further and further out in search of more water. Last week, she had come upon a vagrant, bent over at a new well she had stumbled upon, his pistol gleaming in a leather holster around his hips. He either never even saw her or had let her run away. She had dropped her good canteen in her panic and had had to leave it.

She needed a gun.

Taking a deep breath, she turned the porch light on. Propane was another supply that was steadily dwindling, to the point that Penny had become almost afraid of electricity. Her grandmother had refused to go solar, against the fashion of her time, which was both a blessing and a curse. Early on, vandals had ransacked the solar panels off of the neighborhood homes that had them, which would have left Penny without power at all. Her grandmother had been something of a prepper, hoarding propane in her garage for years. But even so, it’s hard to plan very well for an event that even you don’t expect to ever actually happen.

Peering once again through the blinds, she still saw nothing—until she looked at the mailbox. The red flag had been turned upward, the opposite signal from the old days. After the post offices were disbanded, people only put the flag up when they made a delivery.

To continue reading Chapter 2, click here.

The Last House in Levittown: Chapter 2.1

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To start reading “The Last House in Levittown” from the beginning, click here.

 

Chapter 2

She always came back to this spot, measuring the merit of her life against the beige, puckered vinyl of the diner booth. Cold eggs, greasy bacon, a faceless waitress. Yes, more water please. Thank you.

The eggs were just a decoy, like every other meal in the joint. She could hear it in the din that rose up between the clinks of cheap cups on saucers:

“Nothing make you feels alive like almost dying.” Coughed a hoarse old man behind her.

“Miracles happen everyday–” a fat redhead with a thin voice implored in Penny’s right periphery. “Things that science can’t explain.”

That’s when she felt the hot breath on her neck and every follicle stood on end. She’d been tracked down, even here in this crowded, nameless diner, eating cold eggs that felt like eyeballs on her tongue. She couldn’t speak.

I see you, Penny. The voice said. I know you.

Penny turned her head, searching, even though she knew that was in vain. She’d been here too many times. This booth, that voice, these eyeball eggs. She knew exactly what she’d see and what she wouldn’t.

She would see that face, a harlequin mask painted on a thousand year old corpse.

But where was she?

I see you, dear. You’re all mine now. This is how I like my prey. Beautiful and scared.

She glanced around again, then heard the laugh—a nasty, secretive cackle.

Where am I?

“Yes, where are you?” Penny asked aloud.

No answer.

“You want to see the dessert menu, hon?” The waitress interrupted, startling her.

“Oh, no. No thank you.”

The waitress waited.

“So, you just want the check, then?”

“Yes, that would be great. Thank you.” Penny burrowed a hole a mile deep into the laminated menu. Goat cheese and arugula salad. Walnuts with a blended fig dressing. It was always a mistake when these homespun places tried too hard.

The waitress lingered on. Slow country types.

What—“ Penny started, making her mistake. She looked her waitress in the face—not her at all but the deathly mask—half black, half white, a scheme that followed suit down the length of her body. Her dead eyes preened and her lips peeled back in a ghastly, toothless smile.

Do you know why they call me BlackWhite?” she hissed with gravel in her voice. It stuck in Penny’s mind like a pebble pricking the flesh of her foot inside her shoe.

“No.” Penny managed, surprised she could still make any sound at all. Surprised she hadn’t said, because you are black and white.

Think about it, honey. Don’t you remember where you were standing when the world changed?”

A car engine sputtered outside, and Penny awoke in wide-eyed panic. In the half-second it took for her to open her eyes on the pitch dark of her kitchen, the dream had been cast off into the ever-growing pile of things she would never remember.

She had wedged one of the old kitchen chairs under the side doorknob, where she had drifted off, but the engine rattle had come from in front of the house. The previous owners had at one time tried to turn their cramped, suburban confines into an “open concept” living space, and done a shitty job at it. They had taken out the wall between the kitchen and the living room, but left the clashing paint jobs and floors. Penny had become more and more grateful for it, though, as it now allowed her to monitor the front of the house from the shadows.

To continue reading Chapter 2, click here.

The Last House in Levittown – Chapter 1

capecod1-1947-fmI 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! 🙂 

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Chapter One

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.