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The Falls Apart - Amanda SledzAmanda Sledz

The Falls Apart

This is Chapter One of the young adult book I’ve been working on. The book is called The Falls Apart and it’s the first of a series. Not sure how many books will be in the series. Enjoy!

Leaving

Jonah, do you remember my last day in Virginia? School let out and I ran over to your house and pressed my face against the glass of your front window. I smashed my cheek and spread my arms wide and slid, like a bird having a bad day. You laughed and opened the door and your hair was blue. Do you remember, Jonah? It felt like fiction.

It was unusually hot that fall and my best friend Jonah and I took advantage when school didn’t interfere, milking our time at swimming holes, floating on our backs under the harvest moon while leaves fell dead around us. That Friday night I did all the floating and star gazing, while Jonah waded and peered through tall grasses in pursuit of a croaking frog. Fireflies that should have disappeared already along with summer lit up the red birch trees that circled the swimming hole, sucking the scary out of the dark. The sound of Jonah clapping his hands broke the spell.

“Are you smashing fireflies?” I asked, still floating.

“No. Taking hostages. Clearly these boys are bionic,” he waded towards me until the water swallowed up his middle, a greenish glow lighting his hands. “There’s a firefly in your hair, by the way.”

“Only one? Usually I have a halo by now.”

He inspected my head. “You let fireflies throw a rave in your hair and get mad at me when I suggest a crown of crickets. Hold still.” Jonah reached over and gently removed the bug. He was more country than me somehow, his accent deliberate and slow.

“Fireflies and faeries are probably friends, and I’ve got relationships to maintain.”

“Your relationships attract raccoons,” he eyed the faery tea party I’d arranged by some rocks. It was just a couple of cups and saucers filled with milk, and a platter covered with nuts. Didn’t seem right for us to have all the fun and act like they wouldn’t notice. “Speaking of supernatural, check it out. Looks like I’m about to realize my super powers.” Jonah held his green glowing fists over my face.

“Slow poke. Mine kicked in years ago.”

“Believing you have super powers and actually having them are two different things.”

Says the man completely new to the experience.”

“Whatever. If I have a choice, I’m going for mind reading. That would be a fantastic super power.”

“You can already read mine.”

He smiled and looked away.

Jonah and I met when we were forced to occupy the same table in first grade because the teacher arranged us alphabetically by first name. That year he talked too much about asteroids and accidents. I wore a black cape and top hat to class and insisted trees have voices. The other kids labeled Jonah dork and me annoying. They were probably right on both counts. He discovered my home situation when he noticed my mother shouted “come back later!” as an after school greeting. I created one in his when I had no other place to go. We decided J names should stick together.

It was then that Jonah asked about the elephant in the swimming hole: “Did Doug and your mom mention anything about northwestern travel today?”

I thought about sighing, but anxiety beat out exasperation. “Of course.”

“Crap. They don’t even make it 24 hours anymore.”

“Doug read an entire story about how children are faring in Cascadia. Out loud. While eating powdered donuts. The smacking sound was fantastic.”

“Barf.”

“My mother stood behind him so she could look at the pictures. It was like one of those couples on TV reviewing a summer camp brochure.” Doug would have been my stepfather, if he’d married my mother. He claimed to make a better boyfriend than a husband. I thought he’d make a better ex-boyfriend. My mother said I didn’t understand. She had me there.

I rotated my arms to spin my body in a circle, coaxing my hair to curl out like yellow Medusa’s snakes. “Anyway, my retort was to read the cereal box aloud. There were a lot of encouraging statements about starting your day right, and some hard to pronounce ingredients. It was a riveting performance.”

“Damn Jaya, why don’t you try being invisible? We want the conversation killed, remember?” As I spun back Jonah blew on the fireflies in his hands and they launched into the air and danced inches from my face, before one gripped my bangs and another raced for the necklace at my throat. It was a buffalo nickel from old America with a triangle cut through the center, dangling from the sort of chain that holds a dog tag. A gift from Jonah. He found the nickel in a field and brutalized it with a dremmel, then called it a compass.

I stood up in the water, necklace flashing with the glimmer of its newly acquired living jewel. Jonah’s eyes drifted to my new spark and he said all solemn, “I’m not trying to give you a hard time. I’m just worried.”

“I know. I’m worried too.” He was close enough that I could have kissed him, and I thought about it, and it bothered me. “Maybe these lightning bugs can point us to a portal.”

“My backyard has an escape hatch. It’s called the Appalachian Hills,” then he held both of his hands up, and I stood in the water and joined my hands to his and intertwined our fingers, waiting for the jerk of him attempting to twist my wrists downward in an aggressive game of Mercy. Instead he just squeezed my hands and mumbled, “You’re not allowed to leave.”

I squeezed his hands back, then smirked and challenged his wrists, and the word mercy slipped out of my mouth much faster than it used to.

All anyone ever talked about was Free Cascadia, the northwest country that had been isolated for thirty-plus years for the sake of “environmental preservation and restoration.” That changed when a water-born plague struck the Alliance of Atlantic States and left millions dead or dying and desperate. All other regions in the former United States agreed to take in refugees and offer whatever relief was necessary to cure and contain. After months of deliberation, Cascadia announced that the borders would be opened to healthy children ages 0 to 16 with water plague afflicted parents willing to abandon, or “recommit” their children to the State of Free Cascadia. Before controversy even had a chance to simmer desperate parents covered in the tell tale scaly rash rushed to the border with carloads of still-healthy children. Jonah and I never understood the plague fully, who got it and why, what made adults more likely to contract it, how far scientists got in exploring the origins – and why we never knew anyone who had it.

Blogs buzzed with images of the infamous primitive stone wall that ran along Free Cascadia’s border, grey faced children dragging too heavy suitcases behind them, reaching for the extended glove-covered hands of emergency relief workers. The refugees began new lives with adopting families called New Parents; their old parents returned home to die young. As the plague reached its peak and began to subside, Free Cascadia made a second announcement that the borders would remain open indefinitely – but only to abandoned children from neighboring nations. Angry internet traffic accused FC of using foreign children to bolster their national labor force, and of positioning kids as human shields to protect the nation from war. Other commentators worried that some would start to see Cascadia as a parental get-out-of-jail-free card, a boot camp or boarding school without the price tag and pick-up date. Parents who have never been especially good at parenting – like my mother and Doug.

“We could be in West Virginia, maybe even Ohio before winter if we left right now, you know,” Jonah said as he released my hands and made a quick grab, finally capturing his frog. We walked towards the water’s edge, him holding the squiggling frog in the air and shouting some nonsense about victory, me with lightning bug friends and sore wrists I didn’t mention. He relaxed his body over a boulder with a craggy face that looked like a man with a moustache from a distance. This gave him the better view of the moon, but I wasn’t ready to leave the water yet. I knew in a matter of days the winter winds would work against me and that brown bath water would be better suited for skating.

“Before winter,” Jonah mumbled. “Got to go before winter.”

Thinking about the whole situation was too hard. I couldn’t see why mom and Doug needing to be alone meant I had to leave the country. There are lots of places in the world to set up a tent. Jonah’s backyard was one. It was hard to say if his parents would go for that. If I said anything too much it was: “I’m sorry, Mrs. Connolly-Jay.” She once snapped, “Doesn’t she have a home of her own?” when I lingered a little too long one Christmas, and Jonah shuffled her protesting curly gray-haired mom-meat into the kitchen for a whispered conversation. I didn’t care about what he said, so long as I could stay. Whatever he came up with worked. Jonah’s mom emerged from the kitchen looking annoyed but sad-eyed, and grumbled: “If there’s gonna be two bodies around, I suppose that means four hands.” From then on I washed and Jonah dried, Jonah fed and I watered, one of us dusted and the other hid, and neither one of us ever complained.

“Are you listening to me Jaya?” A lazy foot kicked water in my direction. “I don’t give a damn about Doug, neither. I’ll tie him to this boulder with his own foot in his mouth.”

“Doug is mean and dumb enough to forget you’re not 18 and punching you would be four different crimes.”

“I’m counting on the dumb. It’s my advantage. If I’m lucky, he’ll forget to cover his balls. I’ll spare the world further insult and kick him sterile.”

I laughed, and faked a swoon, collapsing against the boulder. “Are you my white knight, Jonah?”

“Nah. Your blue knight, maybe,” He shook his hair at me but looked serious, a fifteen year-old boy turned forty in an instant. “Though I always imagined I’d be an engineer or an astronaut and you’d be something important but boring, like a janitor.”

“I think I’ll be a mermaid. I’ll call you out to sea and you’ll flap away screaming and wake up the next morning with gills.”

“How do you know I don’t have gills already?”

“Knights don’t have gills.”

Jonah dropped the frog on my head and the lightning bugs scattered, and then he dove into the water and dunked me – proving that I don’t have gills either.

*

That night I had two dreams. The first doesn’t matter. In the second I was surrounded on all sides by towering tidal waves frozen in time. I approached the nearest wall and touched the center. It rippled. A weird sound slid from my mouth – it wasn’t a scream because I don’t scream. More like a gurgle. Then I pushed my hand through the wall, plunged my face in and opened my eyes to a world of algae green. A voice from behind taunted, “You put your head in, you take your head out, you put your head in and you shake it all about.” I turned into the sound dripping wet and was face to face with a violet-eyed woman, dark hair blowing around her like not-so-special effects from a cheaply made music video. There was something strange about her face, like if the light from the stars hit her geometry just right she’d be beautiful, but if she turned her head every ugly angle was illuminated and all grace was lost. She let me appraise her like an inspector calculating her dimensions for cloning, then I met her eyes again.

She smiled at me. Then her lips parted, and said: “Run.”

I woke up on the floor.

With sleep still in my eyes and a bruise probably blooming on my everything I felt someone watching me. My mother was standing in the doorway with a coffee cup in her hand. She was fully dressed and grim faced and it was Saturday and not even 9AM. When she walked towards me my heart stopped.

“I hear the coffee is really good in Free Cascadia,” she said, setting the cup on my night stand.

I fumbled for the mug, and swallowed a mouthful. It was weak.

*

The plan Jonah and I concocted sucked up panic and set me in motion. After a second slug of coffee I reached under my bed for a notebook utterly blank except for page one, which was a painstakingly constructed survivalist meets sentimentalist emergency pack list. In ten minutes time I stuffed everything listed and the notebook itself into the water resistant green and black backpack I scored from a thrift store: a reusable water bottle with a built in filter, five pairs of underwear, five pairs of socks, tights and legwarmers, two t-shirts, jeans, a pair of sunglasses, a rain jacket, a hunting knife with a serrated edge, toothbrush and paste, Dr. Bronner’s everything-soap, Ibuprophin, Benadryl, a wool hat, waterproof matches, a jar of peanut butter, the faery tea set and the Free Mason pocket watch my grandfather gave me “for the gold, not the wisdom” before he died, and a roll of toilet paper. By the time I hoisted the bag to my back I was already sweating. The thick wool skirt didn’t help, but that was the garment I’d sewn 750 Republic dollars into – money we’d scrounged from recycling steel and aluminum. I’d be grateful for it and the hiking boots covering my feet later. As I pushed my cell phone charger into an exterior pocket I reached for my phone and rang Jonah. No answer. I ran for the door.

The sun slapped my face announcing another beautiful day, and I called Jonah again, yelling “wake up!” into his voicemail though he couldn’t hear me through electronic-time, and then I texted him: It’s happening. We’ve got to move. He was never without his phone, especially now. My mother said my name, and just like the woman in the dream told me to, I ran.

“Jonah! Jonah!” I scrambled up the hill towards his house screaming his name until my voice cracked hoarse, heart pounding in my ears and fists pounding on his front door – which was locked. It was never locked. The sound of hand on screen made a tack-tack-tack sound I wasn’t convinced would wake anyone. His dogs barked a fury in response to my panic, and I tried the windows and found they were locked too. Somewhere close a truck engine roared and a thousand tiny voices screamed a sound only I could hear. Scanning the yard my eyes locked on a baseball sized rock Jonah would probably remark was really a geode, violet center just waiting to be revealed. I hoped it cracked open on his living room floor, an end-of-rainbow pot of purple for his bound-to-be- pissed parents. I’m sorry, Mrs. Connolly-Jay. I readied the rock to kiss the window. A jolt of excitement – we’re really going to do it – and I started giggling and sweating even harder, and just when my body had braced to heave the rock with everything I had time stopped and so did I. Jonah, in the window, his too-tall body and overgrown blue hair and eyes squinting from the sunlight snaking through curtains. He looked right at me, locked his brown shaking eyes to my own. I swear I saw his face in the window, and as I stepped closer I rubbed my eyes hard to try and talk them into lying. Without thinking I pressed my face to the glass like I always did, the bird with an unfortunate fate, arms spread wide, even though my knees were shaking as I melted down to the ground. Still – his front door never opened. The truck door did. Mom and Doug were behind me, waiting.

Without a word I pulled the notebook from my backpack and tore out a sheet. The white of the paper was so bright in the sun it didn’t seem right. No, it should have been midnight, clouds should’ve rolled in, anything to make it seem like the universe was noticing. A chorus of insects chirped the morning alive, the last of the cicadas announcing hibernation plans. Is this real? Would it really be seventeen years before these cicadas surfaced again? Is that really Jonah behind the glass?

“Will it really be seventeen years?” I asked the Phantom Jonah through the window, my shouting over once and for all. Then I threw up all over the gardenias. I’m sorry, Mrs. Connolly-Jay.

As the disgusting tea-colored coffee my mother brewed stared back at me I knew Jonah was real, if everything else was hallucination – Jonah was real. I never could have invented his voice, his low rumbling accent, the way it rose and fell slow like his tongue was negotiating a mouthful of gravel. No, I could have never made up that voice, and I would have never had it deny me in that moment. The Jonah of my invention would have opened that door, pulled me in, and we would have ran out the back into the hills where we would have invented trail names and lived undetected forever. Instead, I fowled the perfect white of my sunkissed page and wrote:

Jonah,

I dreamed of water again last night, not once but twice, and this time the waves didn’t swallow us. It was just me in an old hollowed out canoe, navigating a river polluted by garbage and debris and too many snakes. It was just me in both dreams. That doesn’t seem fair. I hope you dream of me, Jonah. I hope you wake up with gills. I hope you become an engineer. I hope I haunt you forever. You’re the last remaining J.

Then I wrapped the note around the rock, thought that my blue knight turned out to be yellow, and threw the rock through his front window with everything I had. The glass shattered and sprayed my face and made ice crystals in my hair, and if I was injured I don’t remember feeling pain, or anything at all.

That’s the last letter I sent Jonah. It’s not the last one I wrote.

As Doug drove me and mom in his truck through the streets of Virginia towards Blue Ridge Boulevard I tried to memorize every inch. The porches decorated with pumpkins and skeletons and plastic black cats, the buckets tacked to maple trees to collect sap that becomes syrup. Hikers with sticks and overstuffed backpacks and wind-red faces hopping cow fences and plunging heels to earth in pursuit of the Appalachians. Orange and yellow and red leaves stomped by two people power walking in shorts who waved to us as we passed. My mother waved back. I wonder if they knew they would never see me again. If they did, they smiled anyway.

I pressed my hand to the glass though I didn’t think people really did that. It was the mountains that caught my throat and squeezed my skull till I thought it would break, their rambling edges and sound so alive my ears ringed with their absence. Then they disappeared and at some point hills became flat and flat became gray and gray became red desert and cactus and no public bathroom for miles.

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