Text copyright © 2008 by Christopher Krovatin
Illustrations copyright © 2008 by Kelly Yates
For Quin, my hero,
and Maria, my savior.
A HEAP OF GRATITUDE goes to my family and friends, for loving and supporting me unconditionally, sometimes against their better interests.
A mighty hail goes out to Ginee Seo, queen of editors, who wouldn’t let me publish this book until it was the best novel it could be. Ginee, I couldn’t have done it without you, and if I’d tried, it probably would’ve sucked. Also, thanks to all those at Simon & Schuster for helping me publish this book.
Cheers go to Kelly Yates for his amazing artwork. You’ve warmed this old-school fan’s dark heart with your illustrations, sir. Kudos. Horns to all of the bands and musicians I love, but especially to the World/Inferno Friendship Society, for inspiring so much of this book, and to Slayer, for all the blood.
This book couldn’t have been made possible without the friendship of three people-the incorrigible Andy Michaels, the inimitable Zach Smith, and the indomitable Lola Pellegrino. These three people have always reminded me that there’s magic in this world and that sometimes you need to take the good with the bad. Kids, the road is long and life is short, so drive like hell and don’t look back. Let’s do it.
Big props go to Amanda Urban and Ron Bernstein, the most metal of agents.
To Emily Boyd, queen of the dragons, friend to the friendless-thank you.
Special thanks go to Satan. What a mensch.
THIS CITY IS absolutely gray today. Gray all over. The sky is a perfect shade of miserable gray that manages to emanate a coat of gray over all else-the buildings, the stores, everything. Somewhere in the distance, I see an American flag waving on top of an apartment building, a glaring peppermint-red-and-white in the overwhelming gray. I think of the Towers. I think how if they were burning now, everything might not seem so gray, and then I hit myself for that thought, because it’s incredibly uncool of me to think something like that. Venom talking.
My trench coat flaps a little bit in the breeze, and I smile. It’s nice. It makes me feel like Dracula or Moriarty or something. The cigarette in my hand helps, too-just that much more dramatic and badass. It’s a Marlboro, though. I don’t think either Dracula or Moriarty smoked Marlboros. So I dunno, maybe I’m looking like a vampire James Dean.
Heh. Vampire James Dean. That’s good. That could be a band name.
I wipe ash and a little roof grit off my glasses with the back of my hand and take another drag from my smoke. The breeze blows a little harder; my coat flaps a little more. I feel the venom bubbling somewhere between all my organs, deep in the core of me that’s mental and emotional all at once. It rises up just a tiny bit, swimming around behind my eyes before settling back down. It’s a whale breaking the surface, coming up for air to remind me how huge things can get when they live somewhere so deep. Gray days always make the venom churn, but in a surprisingly good way. On gray days the venom makes me feel immortal.
Mom grunts as she comes up the fire escape ladder, and then pads over. “When are you going to quit? You told me you’d quit.” She sounds tired.
“I thought we were both going to quit.”
“Don’t get smart. Nobody likes a smartass. Give me one.” She takes the smoke and provides her own light. We both stare out over the city in all its depressing glory, her beginning a cigarette and me finishing one.
“What a miserable day,” she mutters.
“I kind of like days like this. Dark, but no rain.”
“Yeah, you would, kid.”
We keep staring until I have an infinitesimal line of white between the ember and the filter. I flick my cigarette off the edge of the roof in a perfect, high arc with a slow, relaxed spin. As it disappears, I wonder what would happen if it landed in a baby carriage, and then I have to mentally slap myself for thinking it. It’s the venom again, the worst kind of impulse. Uncool.
Mom glances at me out of the corner of her eye. “How you feeling?”
“I’m doing okay. Just…thinking about things. You know?”
Mom rubs my shoulder in that way that rocks my entire body back and forth. It signals the end of our checkup-I’m keeping myself sane, she’s keeping herself informed, all is right in the world, let’s have a Fresca. I’ve been okay with the venom lately; my mom understands that that’s not necessarily a good thing. The venom doesn’t really go away but sits and broods, festers, considers its options. Of course she worries.
“You want a quesadilla?”
“Yeah. Can I have some soup, too?”
“Kidlet, you can have whatever you want. C’mon.”
Following Mom downstairs, I try to ignore the sinking feeling in my gut, the nagging sensation of doom at every turn.
After quesadillas, my mom lights another cigarette and asks me what my plans are for the rest of the day. “Why?” I ask, mid-soup-slurp.
She shrugs. “It’s a Saturday. I figured you’d be going out or something.”
“Well, not until tonight, no,” I say, taking my dishes to the sink.
“Oh. Who’re you going out with tonight?”
“Randall. He wants his outside-of-school friends to meet me.”
“That should be fun.”
My mom smiles and says nothing. I can almost hear her thoughts from where I’m sitting. Oh my GOD, you have a SOCIAL LIFE! Other kids your age! GIRLS, maybe! “Well, as long as you’re not busy today, will you take Lon out to get some books? He has a project for school he needs to research.”
“Chapter and Verse down the street, actually. He’s been scouting out books for a week. Just wants to go pick them up.”
“He already knows what books he’s getting?”
She nods, smiling even wider. “Just needs to pick them up.”
I shake my head in disbelief. “Smart kid,” I mutter, and skulk into my room to get my coat.
Lon’s standing by the bookstore’s door, bouncing around like he desperately needs to pee. “Come on, Locke,” he whines. “What if someone already got them?”
“Calm down. Nobody took every book you picked out.” I flick my cigarette end into the gutter. “Now, if you’d put them on hold like Mom told you to, they’d be sitting safely behind the counter.”
Lon makes a face. “I thought you and Mom were quitting.”
Poor kid. We’d both promised him that we’d quit sometime around July. It had started pretty well, too: Mom and I happily going around the house, crushing our hidden packs, patches latched firmly onto our biceps. Our resolve was short-lived, though. Mom had to start working overtime here and there, the stress got to her, and she started up again, and being a recovering smoker in a house with an unrecovering recovering smoker is somewhere between agonizing and impossible. But this here was the first Lon had said about any of it, at least to me.
We make our way up to the biology section, and Lon starts pulling out books about sea turtles left and right. My little brother, the genius. The scholar. He gets things done while I daydream and fade into my own fucked-up world. He knows what needs to be done and how to do it, so he does it. Always in control. Unlike me. Unlike the venom.
He glances up at me. “Hey, Locke, do we have enough money? I don’t want to be wasting any of your money on-”
I pat him on the back. “Don’t worry, Leonardo. Mom gave me her credit card for these.” Physical contact: opiate of the younger sibling.
Lon turns pinkish. “Don’t call me that. What if someone was listening?”
Who would be listening in on Lon? He’s ten years old (although if you ask him, he’s almost eleven), and while he knows quite a few more people than I do, I doubt one of his best friends is hanging out at the bookstore, trying to hear his full name. Not that I’m an expert or anything. Having friends is not my strongest suit.