En route to NYC on a train...

Working on APoS. Here's the first chapter

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An old black windowsill appeared before me. Paint weather-beaten and dried and bleached by the sun till it curled into little shreds to reveal gray wood that used to be pine. I think. Bits had shredded away thanks to rain and wind. Maybe someone’s careless pulling at the splinters. Maybe me doing that. It was almost lovely in its weaving patterns and grooves. But what caught my attention most was the steady line of ants whispering back and forth across it to swirl over and dismantle what was left of a half-eaten sandwich and crisps on a dish set in the corner. Some sort of fish salad on light bread. Not so very old. Part of a crust lay next to it. Had it been mine? There was a taste in my mouth that was rather fishy. And in my hand was a long bottle of Coke. Still chilled, sweaty and half gone. If it was me who sipped it, I didn’t remember.

I was on the first floor of a house, it seemed, looking down at a yard that was nothing like what you would find in Derry...and could have used some tending. Half was covered in brick tiles, with grass forcing its way between them. The rest was a rectangular swimming pool encompassed by concrete. At the far end was a small house built of red brick, with black trimmed windows and a slanted roof made of tin. A wire fence laced with vines of thick, drooping, fragrant yellow and white flowers extended from it to surround the yard, and a pair of trees offered deep shade one corner, a strip of colorful cloth strung between them. An old bicycle, rusted but workable, was propped up against a section that had a wire gate. A brick garage was to the right of one tree, unto itself, a well-tended gravel drive leading up to it and an old Volvo was parked to one side, having the feel of once being costly but now was worn and in need of extensive work.

Like that bloody para's shifting column.
Half of a laugh came from somewhere within me and I used that coke bottle to crush half the ants in the line. They scattered and scurried about, so I brushed more off the sill into the air. Sent the sandwich fling with them, still on its plate. I heard it break as it hit the ground, and I smiled.

I turned from the window to look around a room larger than Ma’s, with a massive bed against the wall to my left, a table beside it holding a lamp and a clock that read 1:42. A unit of shelves to the other side of it was filled with books, then came a door and a well-stuffed chair in another corner and a writing desk jammed behind me. Paper with soft lines of golds and browns and oranges and greens covered the walls while plain tan paper swiped across the ceiling, and picture-prints in black frames hung here and there, with areas around some of them faded, as if there had been larger items in their place.

I finally noticed I was seated atop a cushion in a wooden swivel chair that seemed to belong to the desk, on which was a typewriter under its own cover. The bed was mussed. Slippers and a robe lay on the floor, which led me to notice I was in pajamas. Bottoms only, but it was good they were. The air was warm and thick, not at all like early winter.

I heard children laugh in the distance and I looked around to see a boy and girl chasing from the sweets shop and dancing around each other and the boy falling against the car and I bolted from the chair to pace the room, my breath harsh and sudden, my arms wrapped around me. Panic filed my entire body and I put my hands to my ears but still I could hear the laughter.

I walked the length of that floor, back and forth and back and forth until the sound faded away and I could slow my pacing and let my arms drop...and notice a smell that came from my skin. A scented soap so clean and fresh and my shirt was removed by two men, one my age and one twice as old, and I was sat on the toilet to remove my boots and socks then guided to my feet for one set of hands to tug at my pants as the other held me up and I turned to look at a door beside the desk. I knew it was the loo before I even crossed to open it.

It was a room far too bright and long and narrow and happy, with a massive tub and shower curtain around it. A pair of wash basins below a tall mirror were opposite. A small window in the wall above the tub let in light and there was a door at the far end that I knew would be locked. I slipped in and saw the toilet was behind a partition on the far side of the basins. Everything was in perfect condition, save for towels that hung haphazardly from neat little bars affixed to the wall. I smelled one, and it held the same lingering aroma of that soap and the older man rubbed me down with one, talking in a voice I couldn’t understand, as the younger one brought in the pajamas and robe and my hair was toweled off then combed, as if he’d done it a hundred times before and I sat on the edge of the tub, not so much from confusion as from dizziness. It seems I’d been bathed and dressed and put to bed like a sleepy child. Was it the day after? Two days? A week? I had no sense of the time. But the weather was warm to the point of hot and the stillness of it oppressed almost to where you couldn’t breathe. This could never be winter in Derry. Nor even summer. Was I in the tropics?

I rose and leaned against the sink to look in the mirror and saw looking back this hollow-eyed lad with a scruff of a beard...well, in the places it would grow. My hair was long and ratty with curls. My skin was grey and my bones showed on my sides. I began to shake and my knees gave out and I dropped to the floor and I flew through clouds of the finest mist molded into perfect playthings, with the sky as blue as blue could be and all seen through a small window with rounded corners that distorted everything but I didn’t care because the clouds were my prayers and wishes filled them to bursting and hopes danced in the shadows of their billowing tufts and I whispered a song to them -- “Farewell Angelina”? -- as they soared past like dreams and a hand touched me and I looked around and someone entered the room, without knocking.

“Brendan?” asked the kindest voice one could imagine. “Are you all right, son?”

I couldn’t answer. Couldn’t think of words to say.

A woman became visible in the room, by the bed, looking about, short and round and hair black as coal, with eyes as kind as any you’d see. Hardly the mirror image of Ma but close enough to know she was her sister. But what’s this? Ma’s sister was in Houston. In America. What was this?

She saw me in the bathroom and came over, wiping her hands on a dishrag. “Are you all right?”

I made myself nod, afraid of her, for some reason, and tried to pull myself back to my feet. She came over to help me.

“Come along, me boy; back to bed. You’ll need time to regain your strength.”

I backed away from her. She seemed not to notice, just took me under the arm and guided me from the washroom.

I finally managed to croak out, “Aunt Mari, what’s this?”

“Don’t you remember, Brendan? Do you recall anything?”

I shook my head but then Ma slapped me, screaming, “Come out of it!” as Father Jack pulled her back and two other men joined them in Ma’s room but only one looked at me because the other went straight to Danny and took him aside to whisper in his ear and I’d never seen him so white and afraid and near weeping but why was he in my home when he was in Belfast and “Where am I?” I asked as Aunt Mari put me back in the bed and pulled a sheet up to cover me. Then she turned to set a small circular fan to going.

“This is good. Two coherent questions in a row. There were some afraid you’d never come out of this.”

“Aunt Mari?”

“You’re in my home, Brendan. In Houston. They sent you here after -- well -- ”

I closed my eyes and the car dissolved into nothing but smoke and debris and a single child’s leg flipping through the air and Joanna fighting to free herself as the flames danced, danced, danced closer and closer and filled the world and the sound of someone screaming in my voice crushed my ears and I gasped. Gulped in air. Aunt Mari wrapped me in her arms. Held me close to her. Smoothed my hair.

“Shh-shh-shh-shh-shh, son. You’re all right now. You’re safe here.”

It took me some moments to stop breathing so fast and sharp, but just her holding me slowed my panic. I finally reached a point to where I could whisper, “How long?”

“Just over five month.”

Five months?

Five bloody months gone to nothing.

Then she’d be buried by now. Rotting in the ground. Food for ants and other creatures that feasted on the dead, with no thought of those who’d dreamed with them and hoped with them and prayed with them and loved them and Joanna kissed me by the door and touched my lips and the white smoke enveloped us and flames laughed around us and I was lying back in the bed, staring at the ceiling.

The sun was low in the evening and the room had taken on a gentle aura of dusky gold. A beam of sunlight cut through the shadows, specks of dust dancing within it. A cool breeze whispered in to join with the fan at playing with them, making them twist and swirl in the air as if rejoicing that I was finally back amongst the living.

I sneered at the foolish thought.

I stretched out across the bed and for a moment luxuriated in the understanding I was alone in it. The pillows were soft. The sheets still crisp and clean even after having been slept in. The mattress so firm and comfortable I never wanted to get up. This was better even than my stay in hospital. I could live the rest of my life in this bed and love it.

Never have to face the world, again.

Never have to think about anything, anything ever again.

But I heard voices downstairs, not so much loud as happy and pleasant, with a telly playing some program. A comedy, sounded like, as one could tell from the laughter. And the pleasure of it all made me want to join them.

I rose and tasted my mouth. Something foul was in it, and my throat was as dry as dirt. I slipped out of the bed, found slippers right at my feet and a robe draped from a corner post, and slipped all of them on, then shuffled into the bathroom like a man ten times my age. I drank from the faucet with my hand then found a toothbrush and toothpaste, both looking very new, so I broke them in.

I never would have thought the simple act of brushing your teeth could be so tiring. So exhilarating. I felt as if I were the Dagda washing his sins away in the waters off the coast of Clare. And the taste of the toothpaste was so familiar and I kissed Joanna atop the wind-swept fort, long and deep, with the lovely scent of spearmint about her and I forced the brush from my mouth and spit. I hesitated then turned on the water and rinsed the brush and worked my teeth over, again.

I looked about and found a comb in a drawer so tried to run it through my hair, but it was too wholly a mess. There was a brush in the drawer, as well, so I wetted my hair and shoved the brush through it, pulling and grunting and grimacing from the pain till it was back to a semblance of normal. And as I did it, I noticed marks on my face -- tiny scars, with one larger one cutting through my right eyebrow in such a way the hairs didn’t meet right and it looked like it was perpetually cocked. I wasn’t fond of the scruff on my face, but I could find no blade or soap to shave with. Since that would have to wait, I combed it to make it a bit more presentable. By the time I was done, I was near exhausted.

I was also famished from the hunger, made the more-so by the insistent aroma of something rich and edible wafting up from downstairs. I had no choice but to follow the scent and see if the kind person fixing up such a heavenly feast would be willing to also feed a poor traveler. I opened the door by the drawers and stepped into a dark hallway that lead to some stairs and, using the wall for support, headed for them, half scared to make even the slightest sound.

I tried to creep down the stairs but they weren’t willing to be silent. So before I was off the middle landing, a solid bulk of a man appeared at the bottom. Taller than me, a smiling face with laughing eyes, a flock of freckles still evident on his nose and cheeks, short sandy hair going white -- Uncle Sean, one of those who’d bathed and dressed me.

“Looks who’s up,” he said, his voice long and slow. He met me halfway down the stairs, and it wasn’t till he took my hand that I realized I was shaking. And coughing that bloody cough.

I let him guide me down and across a narrow hallway to a lovely sitting room, with two settees that met in a corner at a table and lamp, an overstuffed chair that turned out to be a recliner, a small table in the middle of them and all facing a wall of shelving that held a hi-fi setup, television and numbers of books. A bay window had cushioned seats and curtains framed the windows.

Seated on the floor were two girls of about ten, both blond, slim and bright-eyed, almost like twins. I vaguely recalled Ma telling me once that Aunt Mari had daughters, and she’d been in my room but a few hours or days or weeks before, so I recalled where I was and smiled at them.

Uncle Sean nodded to me and said, “Brandi, Bernadette, you want to meet your cousin, Brendan?”

“We have,” said one, and the other chimed in, “Twice.”

I frowned at the casual dismissal and I lay on the bed in the dead of night, a single lamp on and Aunt Mari laying a cool cloth on my forehead, and the door opened and two blond heads peeked in and one asked, “Is he gonna cry all night?”

I looked at the floor, embarrassed and ashamed as I said, “I haven’t been the best neighbor, have I?”

They shrugged and turned back to their program.

Uncle Sean sat me on one of the settees, saying, “Scott and Jeremy’ll be back in a moment, then we’ll have dinner. You hungry?”

I nodded. Scott and Jeremy? I seemed to recall Aunt Mari having only one other child and the younger man rubbed my wet legs with a thick towel and said, “If I can have the pool house, I’m fine with him taking my room.”

“Let’s see what your mother says.”

“She gets to decide that, too?”

“Scott...”

Uncle Sean slipped a glass of Coke in front of me, ice clinking in it. I sipped some and it felt sharp and real on my throat. I could focus on that, for a moment, and the TV program playing -- something about people making bids on appliances and cars and clothes. It was confusing and gave my brain no time to settle. Finally, I gave up and asked, “Have I been like this the whole five month?”

“Six,” shot one of the girls at me, with the other chiming in, “No, he’s right -- five.”

“But I -- I thought -- ”

“You’ve been in and out of it, Brendan,” said Uncle Sean. “We’re into April.”

That settled it. No wonder I was such a sight. Half a year gone and seeming like nothing...except to my hair and sanity. I began to shake so sat the drink on the table before me. One of the girls noticed and, with a massive sigh, got a small cork pad and moved the drink onto it. I wrapped my arms around me to lessen the shaking.

“I’m sorry,” I coughed, my voice barely able to keep even. “I remember none of it. God knows what you had to put up with.”

“Cut it out, son. We’re just happy we could help.”

The two girls looked at me with questions on their faces. One asked, “Is that how everybody talks in Ireland?”

I looked at her, confused. “What d’you mean?”

“The way you say stuff,” said the other girl. “It’s kind of weird.”

I nearly spat back at them, And the words you speak are bloody damn well impossible to figure out, but caught myself and instead only said, “Yeah.”

They smiled and the first girl said, “You weren’t that bad. Just the first couple days, till they put you on something.”

“Valium,” I heard Aunt Mari’s voice say, then I turned to see her coming in from the kitchen, wiping her hands. “Which you haven’t had any of in near a month. You feel up to joining us for supper?”

I nodded.

She turned to Uncle Sean. “How long’s Scott gone?”

“Half-hour.”

“It’s a five minute drive to Weingarten’s, five minutes to grab a head of lettuce and pay for it, and five minutes back. What’s he doing that’ll take so -- ?”

A car with a powerful motor thrummed past the house on the driveway, its tires crunching over the gravel and the car squealed to a halt, behind me, and Charley and his mates boiled out to pummel me and yell, “Fookin’ Taig bastard!” and I crushed back against the settee, shivering, again.

Aunt Mari shook her head and returned to the kitchen, shooting back at us, “Food’s on in five minutes. Wash your hands. Girls, set the table.”

“In a minute,” the girls chimed in unison. Uncle Sean just shrugged and sighed.

Moments later, two lads my own age busted into the room, one pale blond and one dark-haired, both with it long. The blond looked at me and I could see strong hints of both Aunt Mari and Uncle Sean in him, though he was not as large as his father. He wore cut-offs and a pullover shirt with sandals on his feet and was taller than me by a few inches. The other lad was not at all like the rest of the family -- stockier, wore gym shorts and was only as tall as myself, but had much stronger lacings of light brown hair all over his arms and legs.

The blond one saw me and spoke first. “Dad, he’s back!”

“Cool,” said the other lad.

“So, Cousin Brendan, I’m Scott and this is my best bud, Jeremy.”

Jeremy shot his hand forward, looking hard at me, and said, “Jeremy Landau. An’ it’s about damn I met you. I was thinkin’ you guys had a Jane Eyre situation goin’ on here.”

One of the girls hopped up and said, “Yeah, it IS kinda like that.” And the other chimed in with, “Don’t be silly; that was a girl they kept hidden, not a guy.” To which the first one said, “It’s symbolic, nitwit,” and got the reply of, “I know, but it’s still not right.” And they argued off to the dining room.

I’d no idea what any of them were going on about, so I just shrugged and said, “That’s the Irish for you.”

Jeremy laughed and Scott rolled his eyes, so I guessed I’d said the right thing.

Uncle Sean got up and motioned for me to join him, but his eyes were on Jeremy. “You stayin’ for dinner?”

Jeremy shook his head. “Mom’s fixing Kosher, tonight. She’s decided that since I’m off to a kibbutz, in a few months, she’s gonna have me ready.”

“Say hi to her for us, okay?” Then he guided me to my feet and aimed me for the kitchen. We were halfway there before I remembered my manners and turned and saw a wink pass between the two lads and hesitated then said, “Jeremy, it’s a fine thing, meetin’ ya.”

He looked at me and nodded. “Same here.” Then he left and Scott bolted past us to the table. I caught a hint of pot on him, layered over by cigarette smoke and Danny strode up to me, fag in one hand and joint in the other and I smiled.

This might not be so bad, then.
The kitchen was bright and airy even in the dimming light of outside, and I figured it to be three times the size of our sitting room. Appliances and the sink were spaced neatly apart and a tall table sat in the middle of them all, everything done in yellow and white. I was led to a larger table with six chairs that matched the rest of the room, and even the plates were sunny and cruel.

I was set in one chair then a blond girl sat next to me. I couldn’t help but ask, “Which one’re you, again?”

“Brandi.”

The other girl sat across from her and sighed, deeply. “No, she’s Bernadette. I’m Brandi.”

“I’m Brandi, Brendan. She’s trying to mess with you and that’s not right.”

“You’re the one doing the messing, nitwit.”

“Cut it out. He’s probably still kind of crazy and -- ”

“GIRLS!” That shot out of Aunt Mari as she set bowls of cheesy pasta and salad on the table. “Brendan, you’re seated next to Bernadette. And, little miss, if I catch you making sport of your cousin like this, again, you’ll not hear the end of it.” And it seemed to me her brogue was stronger than I’d ever heard it, before.

Scott chuckled and leaned over. “Oh, Berni, you got mom’s Irish up. Better listen.”

“Sorry, Brendan,” she said much too sweetly. “I forgot about you being nuts.”

“BERNADETTE!” That came from Uncle Sean, and the look on his face was murder.

I was starting to shake, again, and my chest was tight and my breath fast and I coughed and I had to do something to make it all vanish or I knew I'd sink back into the nothingness of time, so I barked with laughter. They all jolted and looked at me, and I leaned in close to Bernadette and loudly whispered, “You’re right, little miss. I’m mad as a March hare, so have a care with me or I might snatch one of your dollies and split her.”

Both girls shrieked, “That doesn’t make sense!”

Aunt Mari laughed and said, “All he means is he’ll bash her head in.”

"He wouldn't dare!" said Bernadette.

I growled a low laugh and whispered, "Then test me."

Their eyes grew round and they said nothing more.

Uncle Sean helped himself to the cheesy pasta, not even trying to hide his grin.

Scott silently chuckled and grabbed some bread as the girls dug into the salad. The silent chuckle turned loud and he said, “That’s the quietest those two’ve been at dinner in months.” Both glared at him...but still said nothing.

Finally, Aunt Mari put pan-fried chicken before us then sat at the end of the table next to me and said a short grace over the food. The moment she ended, everyone dove in on it. I hadn’t touched a thing, yet, so she took my plate and set a chicken leg on it.

“Best to start light, Brendan," she said. "We’ve had some trouble getting food down you, so your belly won’t be used to a lot. Can I have the Mac and Cheese?” The bowl of pasta was handed down to her and she put a spoonful on my plate. Then added a few bites of salad. “You were already set for a doctor’s appointment, Thursday next, so I won’t try to change it. The girls in the office’ll be happy to see you’re better.”

“I’ll bet,” Uncle Sean smirked. Aunt Mari sent him a cold look of warning and I wondered what all of that meant and a round woman with yellow hair was kissing me and pulled back to look at me and smile and wipe her fingers over my lips, saying, "Don't you forget me, now.".
I began to breathe heavy. “What day is it?” I asked.

“Thursday’s the 19th -- ”

“No, today. What’s today?”

Aunt Mari cast me a gentle look. “Monday. April 9th.”

The date made it real.

I truly had been lost to the world for near six months, with Joanna gone for that long, as well. And I could do nothing to change it.

Nothing.

Nothing.

The understanding welled up in me like a flood and my breathing stopped and my hands shook, and it was only Aunt Mari reaching over and gripping my arm, tightly, that kept me from slipping under, again.

“Eat something,” she said, smiling but with an urgency in her voice. “Please. Show me you can.”

I nodded, lay my face in my hands and silently offered a prayer for the souls of the dying and the dead.

The long since dead.

The words I used are lost to me, but at least they let me return to myself, take up my knife and fork and cut into the chicken's leg.

Then Brandi said, “That’s not how you eat a drumstick.”

I must have had some expression on my face, for she gulped and looked away and left me to myself. Bernadette cast quick glances between her sister and me as Scott just watched me set the meat in my mouth, wonder in his eyes, and I deliberately made myself chew the food that I knew tasted wonderful but stuck in my throat, and was meant only to keep a ghost alive.

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