Touch, p.1Michelle Sagara
Copyright © 2014 by Michelle Sagara.
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art by Cliff Nielsen.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1620.
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All characters in this book are fictitious.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-62584-2
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This is for the teachers:
Because you chose to see all difficulties as challenges, and you worked to meet—and even exceed—them. Teaching is a vocation; it is an incredible gift, and it’s given day-in and day-out.
This was possibly the hardest book of my career to write. I thought, going in, it would be the easiest. This is the occupational hazard of the writer’s life. Usually, though, my hazards don’t cause quite as many problems for my publisher. DAW has been, as always, fabulous. I’m sure there was hair-pulling and teeth-grinding in New York—but it stayed in New York.
So: Sheila Gilbert & Joshua Starr, thank you, thank you, thank you. You let me take the time to start this book four times from the beginning, to figure out where and why it didn’t work, and to ultimately make it work, even though it messed up the schedule terribly.
Inasmuch as this book is any good, it’s due in large part to that understanding and that space.
Also: my family put up with an increasingly stressed and depressed writer for way too many months—which is generally what happens when I keep dashing my head against the wall of writer competence. So they deserve your sympathy.
WHEN YOU SLIDE INTO THE CAR, it’s empty. Stuffy. You roll down the windows, sit for a minute in the garage. It’s quiet, in the car. It’s like a bubble world. You’re in it; it’s your space. It’s your space until you park, turn off the engine, and get out.
Sitting in the garage won’t get you anywhere you want to be, and you want to be somewhere, but you’re not in a hurry, not yet. You start the car, back out of the garage, think about where you’re going.
Radio says there’s an accident on Eglinton you want to avoid. You’re not the only one to take that advice; traffic is slow.
Here’s a thing about cars. In the summer, when the humidity is 98%, you might as well be in an oven if your dad’s air-conditioning is dead. Intersections are not your friend. Windows are. Still air becomes breeze, and breeze becomes wind—but only when the wheels rotate.
Here’s another thing about cars. They have history.
Some of the history is in rust and nicks and dents and the taillight that’s sketchy. Some of it’s in stains on the vinyl; some of it’s wedged between the seat back and the bench. Some of it, though, is memory. Where you went. More important, with who. You can think about the empty passenger seat on the hot, humid drive, and you can imagine that Emma is sitting beside you, hair trailing back in the cross-breeze, elbow on the doorframe.
You can remember the first time you kissed her, when she got out of the passenger side and walked around to where you sat, behind the wheel, looking for words. Words have never come easily to you, but Emma gets that. She doesn’t make you say anything you’re not ready to say.
It was dark, but her eyes looked so bright. You didn’t even get out of the car; you looked up to tell her you’d see her tomorrow, and her face was inches from yours; she was leaning into the open window, into where you were. And then you didn’t want to start the car at all.
And maybe you didn’t.
When you’re on the inside of a car in motion, you’re not really thinking about physics. When you’re behind the wheel, you pay attention to red lights, green lights, stop signs, walk signals. If you don’t, you’ve got no business being behind that wheel. But there’s room for Emma in that, and you think about her when you’re waiting for lights to change. You want to see her. You’re going to see her.
But here’s the big thing about cars: They’re a couple of tons of metal and extraneous bits. Add wheels, and you get momentum. It’s pure physics. You get momentum even if your car isn’t moving, because the car that is moving doesn’t stop until half your car is crushed between its SUV hood and the wall of a building.
The front half.
* * *
You see the SUV.
You see the SUV a dozen times.
You see it a hundred times. You’re trapped in a loop where time slows down or speeds up randomly. You can see the license plate. You can see the driver. You can see his passengers, and you can count them. He’s not much older than you are. They’re not much older than he is.
You can see the front grille getting closer and closer. You know the license plate number by heart; it’s burned into your memory. You can feel the car crumple around you, can see the windshield crack and shatter. You don’t feel pain. It happens too fast for pain.
And you don’t feel heat. It’s summer, the sun made the car seats too hot to touch. Now it’s cold in the middle of July. Cold, dry, endless July. It’s still a bubble world, and you know you’re trapped here until you can open the door—but you can’t. There’s not enough of a door left. Not enough of you.
* * *
You are dead.
You come to realize you are dead. It only happened once, the dying; this stupid looped repeat has nothing to do with life. Nothing to do with you, except you’re in it. You don’t know where you are. You know that people talk about heaven—or hell—and this is hellish, except you feel no pain. Only confusion and anger and cold. You don’t know how many times their car has hit your car. You can’t begin to count.
But until you realized what it meant, you had to live it over and over again.
Now you know.
Now you can leave the car.
Your car still gets crushed against the wall, but this time, you’re not in it.
Your ears are ringing. You can see the street. You can see pedestrians, freezing, turning; you can hear the sound of a woman screaming. That grabs you, makes your blood freeze, but you don’t recognize the voice, and you can move again.
The thing is, you can’t see very well. You know people are here, but they’re blurs. You shout. They can’t hear you. You stand in front of them. You jump up and down like a four year old, but nothing changes. They’re still blurry. Some of them move. But they move past you, around you, as if you’re not there. As if they’re not here.
There’s no sun here. No heat.
You spend an hour screaming. You can scream forever. No one hears you. You jump up and down, you try to throw things. You go nuts. You haven’t gone nuts like this since you were five. There’s no reaction. No one sees you. You can barely see them, they’re so fuzzy. It’s like you died and you suddenly need glasses. Or worse.
You need to get out of here. You need to leave.
You can go home. That’s what you should have done. You should have gone home. You didn’t even think of home. Why?
Thinking of home. Mom. Dad. Gotrek the hamster. You’ll go home.
* * *
You don’t recognize the street you’re on. You don’t recognize the intersection. You know how to get home. You know this part of the city. But . . . you don’t. The streets are too long. The buildings are the wrong shape, the wrong size. You can see them more clearly than the blurred smudges that are people—but they make no sense.
You’ve had this nightmare before. You leave school, exit by the front doors, and stare out at a totally unfamiliar neighborhood. It’s as if the entire building had been teleported to some other borough while you were in history or math. In those nightmares, you end up wandering the streets, lost, until you wake up.
But you can’t wake up here. You’ve never been lost like this.
When it gets to be too much, you sit down. Just sit, in the middle of the road, staring at nothing, wondering where the hell the sun is. Wondering why there’s no blood on your clothing, no dirt on your hands. Wondering why you’re even here at all. This isn’t how death is supposed to work.
* * *
You have no sense of time, because time makes no difference. You have no idea how long you’ve been sitting on your butt in the middle of this street. You are cold, you are silent. You don’t scream anymore. You don’t move. The world moves around you, leaving you behind. You miss Emma. You miss Emma, but you’re terrified because you don’t remember what she looked like. You don’t remember sunlight.
So when sunlight comes, it’s almost too much. You curl in on yourself, because it’s too much. But it gets stronger and brighter. It’s not going away. You stand, you turn, you face it; it is so bright and so warm and so close you can almost touch it. And you can hear it. If you can reach it, you know you will never be cold again.
You won’t be lost, either. Maybe this is why you couldn’t find home when you tried: you can’t live there anymore. You can walk toward the sun. You don’t need the road. You can run, and you do.
Scattered throughout your childhood are memories: Cover your eyes. Don’t stare at the sun. Do you want to go blind? Different voices, different ages, same advice.
So you know this isn’t the sun because there’s no pain. Your eyes don’t water. Your vision doesn’t blur. The light doesn’t become a spread of painful brilliance; it takes shape and form. And you have no words for the form. It’s not round; it’s not square; it’s not flat. It’s not person-shaped, but . . . it’s alive. You are certain it’s alive. It’s alive the way home is alive: it promises warmth. It promises what you need—what you’ve always needed: quiet space, and company in which you can be entirely yourself.
No defenses. No shields. No prescriptive behavior. No need to define yourself by other people’s desires, by other people’s approval or disapproval. No need to talk if you’ve got nothing to say, no need to shut up if you’ve got too much. People are waiting there, on the other side: people who see you and know you and accept everything about you until your fear of the things they can’t accept becomes meaningless.
You can’t see that—how could you? You’re not even certain what it would look like, if you were still alive. You’ve seen glimpses of it in Emma. In your parents. In moments of time. You can’t put a shape to it. But it’s solid, and you understand that you only have to reach it, touch it, and you will be fully, finally, home.
But as you approach, you hear wailing. It is the most distinct sound you’ve heard since your car collapsed around you.
You can hear it as if it’s your voice; it’s inside you, inside your mouth and your ears. Your hands freeze with the strength of it because it is loss. It is loss; it is death.
You thought you were dead. No, you knew you were dead. But until this moment, you didn’t understand what that meant.
The light is where you belong. It’s where you want to be—it’s the only thing you want. But you can’t reach it. No one—you understand this as the screams take shape and form—can.
You can see shadows moving in the light. You know what they’re doing: They’re trying to touch it. They’re trying to reach it. You want to do the same. You don’t. You don’t because you know you’ll be up there screaming with the rest of them if you try and you fail.
* * *
And it’s true. You would be. You’d scream for years, and you’d feel every passing second as if it were a century. It’s what the dead do. This is their birth, their rebirth; this is when they come, at last, to accept their eternity. Like any birth, it’s painful and of interest only to parents—but, of course, yours aren’t here.
If they knew what awaited the dead, would they have children at all? It’s a question that no one has asked. The living who can speak to the dead don’t care, after all. The dead are dead, and they serve at the whim of their Queen, when they are at last presented to her.
Rare indeed is the dead boy who does not need to journey to the city to greet her. How many times do you think she has left her palace within that city and walked the paths the living walk to find the newborn dead?
Ah, but you are newborn. You don’t know. You have no idea of the honor done you.
You know only that there is a light that reaches for you, a light you can touch. In form and shape it is familiar: human, only slightly taller than yourself. But it casts no shadow, and it offers warmth—the only warmth you’ve found in the land of the dead.
Is she beautiful? To you, yes; you are dead. You see what lies beneath the surface of life, and you see it purely. No age, no experience, no prior vision blurs your sight. You would kneel, if kneeling made sense; you are immobile, instead, staring; you are afraid to blink, because in blinking, you might lose sight of her. Thus do all of the dead who understand their state stand before her: transfixed. Helpless.
Here. Take the Queen’s hand, and she will lead you to the only real home you will have for the rest of eternity.
Some people cry in public. They’re champion criers. They cry when they see a familiar name in a phone book, or when they’re signing yearbooks, or when they’re talking about anything more emotional than grocery shopping. It’s as though all of life is a big box of tissues.
Nathan’s mother has never been one of them. Nathan’s never seen her cry. Maybe her mother did, when she was a kid; if she did, she never shared. Nathan learned about crying from his mother, but it took him longer.
Maybe that’s why he fell for Emma. Emma was a total failure as a crier. She wasn’t like his mother in any other way, except gender. Which is also why he liked her.
But she and his mot
“If it’s the way you feel, why hold back?”
“If I feel like punching Nick in the face,” Emma replied, “I don’t see you encouraging me.”
“Your fists, his face. Not practical. Get a tire iron.” He shrugged. “It wouldn’t bother me if you cry.”
“It would bother me.”
She kissed him instead of answering, which was a cheat. But it was a good cheat.
He knows the answer now. He knows, and he should have known it then, would have, if he’d known how to think about tears the same way he thinks about circuit boards. He is standing in his house. He is standing in his room. His room hasn’t changed. Transistors, wires, solder, tweezers, in neat boxes, like a wall at the back of his desk. His clamps, his light, his computer. It’s been three months.
He knows because the date is marked on his calendar, the calendar that hangs from the corkboard to one side of his bedroom window. Someone’s been marking the date. He watches as his mother puts a neat, red line through a square box in October. She doesn’t need it; her calendars exist in the ether.
But she puts the pen on his desk, draws his curtains shut. Stands behind the closed curtains, her shoulders curving toward the floor, her arms bending at the elbows until she wraps them around her upper body. They’re shaking. No, she’s shaking. Her head drops. Nathan stands frozen for one immobile moment, and then he reaches out for her back in a kind of terrified wonder.
God, she cries. It’s a terrifying, horrible sound. No quiet tears; it’s like someone is trying to rip the insides out of her, but they’ve got nowhere to put them. It’s paralyzing; it’s worse than walking into his parents’ bedroom when the bed was heavily occupied. He feels like he’s violating her, just standing here in his own room.
And then the guilt and the paralysis break, and he’s reaching out for her, he’s trying, trying, to put his arms around her—from the back, he’s not an idiot—but he can’t. He can’t. They don’t go anywhere. He calls her. He shouts. He shouts louder than he’s ever shouted—and she hears nothing, and her knees give, and her forehead is pressed against his goddamn desk, and it is the worst thing he’s ever seen.
Touch by Michelle Sagara / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes