The Garden of Darkness: exclusive excerpt
4 years ago
We were delighted with the news today that litpick has select The Garden of Darkness by Gillian Murray Kendal to be it's book of the month for January! To celebrate we're giving you an exclusive peek at the opening chapters:
The Garden of Darkness
By Gillian Murray Kendall
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night;
Nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness.
After They Left the City
The pandemic burned through the population until only a few children remained. The adults died quickly. When SitkaAZ13, which everyone called Pest, first began to bloom, Clare and her father and stepmother, Marie, listened to the experts on the television—those desperately mortal scientists with multiple initials behind their names. And then one by one the experts had dropped away, taken by the pandemic they so eagerly described.
But not before they’d made it clear: while a very few children might prove resistant to the disease until they reached late adolescence, all of the adults were going to die. All of them.
Clare had found it hard to watch her father and Marie, still vital, still healthy, and know that the two of them would soon be dead. She supposed she would be dead too before long. The odds weren’t great that she would prove to be one of the few who lived into their late adolescence. Anyway, she thought she might already be in her late adolescence. Her father and Marie simply tried not to talk about death. Not until her father’s words at the very end.
Now it was over, and Clare, a temporary survivor after all, stood on Sander’s Hill looking down at the giant necropolis that stretched out below her—the city of the dead and dying. The city of crows.
Clare was fifteen years old. And it astonished her that she was still alive. Everything that told her who she was—the intricate web of friendships and family that had cradled her—was gone. She could be anyone.
Scenes From a Pandemic
Clare and her father and stepmother survived long enough to leave the dying city in their neighbor’s small Toyota. The family SUV was too clunky and hard to maneuver, and their neighbor, decaying in his bed, offered no objections when they took his more fuel-efficient car. Their departure was hurried and late in the day—they had spent most of the day waiting for Clare’s best friend, Robin, to join them. But Robin never came. They daren’t stay any longer; the Cured now ruled the city at night.
Clare knew that once they left the city, there was no possibility she would ever see Robin again. While Clare had loved Michael, still loved Michael, would always love Michael, her friendship with Robin was inviolate. Which is why Clare knew that if Robin could have made the rendezvous, she would have. They might wait a thousand years, but Robin would not come. Clare did not doubt that someone—or something—had gotten her.
On that fresh summer day, as the shadows began to creep out from under the trees, and the strange hooting of the Cured began to fill the night, Clare was under the illusion that she had nothing more to lose. She had, after all, even lost herself—she had been a cheerleader; she had been popular; she had been a nice person. And under that exterior was something more convoluted and complicated, something that made her wakeful and watchful, that made her devour books as the house slept. But none of that mattered anymore. Her cheerleading skills were not needed. And there was nothing to be wakeful about anyway: the monster under the bed had been Pest all along.
They were taking all the supplies they could fit into the car, but they were not taking Clare’s parakeet, Chupi. Marie talked about freeing the bird, but Clare knew that Chupi would not last a winter. She knew that Marie knew it, too. When it was almost time to go, Clare got into the Toyota listlessly, fitting her body around backpacks and cartons of food and loads of bedding and enough bandages and bottles of antibiotics to stock a small pharmacy.
Then she got out again. Her father and Marie were arguing heatedly about who was going to drive as she slipped into the house. “No, Paul,” Marie said in her patented Marie-tone, “I’m a better driver on the freeway.”
Clare went straight to Chupi’s cage. They had never had a cat or a dog. Marie was allergic to both. That left fish or something avian. It was a choice that wasn’t a choice—Clare wasn’t about to bond with a guppy or deal with ick—so they bought her a birthday parakeet. And, eventually, Clare found that Chupi charmed her. The parakeet would hop around Clare’s books while she studied. Occasionally, he would stop and peck at the margins of the pages until they were an amalgam of little holes, as if Chupi had mapped out an elaborate, unbreakable code in Braille.
Chupi’s release was to come right before they left. Her father, Paul, didn’t have the heart to wring the bird’s neck—Clare knew that Chupi had charmed him, too. Marie’s delicate sensibilities made her a non-starter for the task, although Clare thought that, actually, Marie might turn out to be rather good at neck-wringing. They didn’t ask Clare.
When Clare got to Chupi’s cage, she opened the door and pressed gently on the parakeet’s feet so that he would pick up first one foot and then the other until he was perched on her finger. Then she transferred him to a smaller cage. The car was packed tightly, but there was a Robin-size gap in it now, and she had suddenly determined that Chupi, with his bright blue wings and white throat, was coming with her. He was going to be all she had of the old world.
She returned to the car. The argument between Marie and her father had apparently been settled, and her father said nothing when he saw Clare and Chupi. When Marie opened her mouth in protest, he said, “Never mind.”
Clare leaned forward to wedge the cage next to a sleeping bag. She wore a low cut T-shirt and Michael’s Varsity jacket, unsnapped, and she looked down for a moment at the pink speckles sprinkled across her chest: the Pest rash. It was like a pointillist tattoo done in red. They all had the Pest rash, but so far they hadn’t become ill.
As they began the drive, her father and stepmother scanned the roads for wreckage. Marie had a tire iron in her hand.
“What’s that for?” asked Clare.
“Just in case,” said Marie.
Clare tried and failed to picture Marie wielding a tire iron against one of the Cured. Marie was a runner.
They were retreating to their house in the rolling countryside.
They drove until they came to a place where the highway was blocked by four cars and a tractor-trailer. When her father left the car to explore the collision, Clare was sure he wouldn’t return.
“Be careful, Paul,” yelled out Marie, alerting all the Cured in the area. Clare pictured hands reaching out of the wreck and pulling him in like something out of a zombie movie; she pictured faces sagging with Pest leering out of the windows.
But he came back to report that the vehicles were empty. There was a basket of clean laundry in one of the cars, and they rummaged through it and took a blanket from the bottom of the hamper. He had found some pills in the glove compartment of the tractor-trailer. He took those, too.
There was no way to maneuver around the wreckage, so they filled their backpacks with as much food as they could carry and left the car.
“Once we get clear of this mess,” said her father. “We’ll look for another car.”
“I didn’t know you could hot-wire cars,” said Clare, impressed.
“We’re going to look for a car with keys in the ignition.”
“Oh.” Clare poked holes in a shoebox and, after putting Chupi in it, placed him at the top of her pack. She jammed him solidly between a bunch of fresh bananas and a can of baked beans. It was when they started moving on foot that Clare noticed that her father’s face was flushed. She stopped walking, and the cans in her pack pressed against her back as she stared at him. She was suddenly afraid of all that the angry patches on her father’s cheeks and forehead might mean. Then—
“We have to go on,” he said to her. “No matter what.”
They found a car late that afternoon—an abandoned Dodge Avenger with the keys dangling from the ignition.
It took them three long days to get to Fallon. Both Marie and Clare’s father were too tired to drive all night, so they stopped and made camp and engaged in the pretense of sleeping. Two would huddle together under the sleeping bags while the third stood watch. Mostly Clare found herself lying awake back-to-back with Marie while her father sat against a tree and stared into the dark. She wondered if the sour damp smell she detected were coming from Marie or from her. She knew that smell. It was fear.
Robin would not have been afraid. Clare knew that, back in the city, when the time had come, Robin would have faced whatever it was that took her down. Pest; an End-of-the-Worlder; a Cured; someone hungry.
When they reached Fallon, they were only two miles from their little country house. By then her father’s face was a strange and deep crimson. His cheeks and lips and eyes were slightly swollen, and his smile, when he tried to be encouraging, was lop-sided and forced. His lower lip was grayish and sagged on the left side. He had allowed Marie to drive the last stretch, which Clare did not take as a good sign.
Marie wanted him to rest for a while in Fallon.
“You gave me a scare, Paul,” Marie said. “But now you look better.” Clare looked at Marie, astonished by the magnitude of the lie.
It was Clare’s father who wanted to push on, but Clare knew that it didn’t make any difference anymore. Not for him. She loved her father dearly, and she would have loved to sink back into the comfort of denial. But Marie had already taken that route, and somebody needed to be vigilant and to cook the food and to try and keep the living alive. And, of course, to be prepared for the Cured, if any had left the rich scavenging of the city. Marie was not up to those things.
In the end, they spent the early afternoon in Fallon rather than moving on to their country house. Clare put together the kind of lunch she thought her father could stomach, while Chupi, on her shoulder, occasionally tugged at her hair. She was glad she had brought him.
“The two of you will come back to Fallon and search for supplies once we’ve settled in,” said her father. “I want to get to the house. We can rest there. There shouldn’t be any Cured this far from the city.” The words came out with effort.
“Daddy,” said Clare. She hadn’t called him Daddy in years.
He looked at her steadily. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to duck out on you, Clare,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s nonsense,” said Marie. “You’ll be fine.”
They walked. By the time they reached the house, even Marie didn’t try to deny the facts.
Her father had Pest. There was no mistaking it; his eyes were swollen almost shut, and he was flushed with fever. His Pest rash had bubbled up into ridges of blisters, and there was blood in the corner of his mouth. Marie quickly made up the double bed so that he could lie down.
“He can be all right if we’re careful,” said Marie when he was settled in the bedroom, and she and Clare had gone to the living room to talk.
“But there’s nothing we can do,” said Clare.
“Rest, liquids, aspirin. That’s what he needs,” her stepmother said.
“And then he’ll die anyway.” Clare wanted to shake Marie.
“Don’t you say that,” said Marie. “Just don’t you say that.”
“They all die,” said Clare flatly.
Marie slapped her.
“There’s always been a hard streak in you,” Marie said. With the slap, Chupi had flown across the room. Now he returned to Clare’s shoulder. The slap stung, but it occurred to Clare that time might reveal something rather different inside her. Not a hard streak. Not a hard streak at all.
“I would love to wring that bird’s neck,” said Marie.
“You don’t have the guts,” said Clare.
On the second day he had full-blown Pest, her father managed to get out of bed and walk to a chair. Marie looked almost cheerful at that, but, as he leaned on Marie’s shoulder and staggered towards the chair, Clare saw that her father’s face was a welter of ropy lines, a perverse road map towards death.
Clare remembered when they had all been hopeful, when, encouraged by television and radio broadcasts, they had been invited to believe that a cure for Pest existed. It had been early days then. It wasn’t long before everyone knew that the Cure didn’t work. Most who received it died anyway, and even when the Cure did arrest the progress of Pest, it turned humans into something monstrous. The Cure drove them mad.
The Emergency Broadcasting System didn’t mention monsters when the word went out not to take the Cure. The Emergency Broadcasting System referred to ‘unfortunate side effects’ and ‘possible instability.’ By then, Clare and her best friend Robin knew the truth: the Cured were violently insane. They would kill the living and eat the dead. Despite a certain amount of exaggeration, by the time all the texting and Tweeting and Skyping and Facebooking and YouTubing came to a halt, everyone was pretty well informed.
Once he was in his chair, Clare’s father looked up at her. The skin around his eyes and mouth still looked swollen, but the flush of fever was gone.
“I feel better,” he said. And Clare thought that maybe it really would turn out all right. Maybe he would be the one person in the whole world to beat Pest. Then he pulled her close.
“I think that maybe you’re going to be the one to make it,” he said to Clare. “Get supplies. Dig in when winter comes.”
“What about me?” asked Marie.
“I’m sorry, Honey,” he said. “But Clare will care for you at the end.”
It was clear from Marie’s face that this was not what she had expected.
“What a thing to say,” she said. Clare wondered which part had offended Marie. She also realized that it was true—if it came to it, she would care for her stepmother.
An hour later, her father collapsed. Supported by Marie, he staggered to his bed. His skin looked papery and febrile; he began raving in a low and desperate tone. Marie stood and stared. It was Clare who pulled up the covers and put a cool wet compress on her father’s head.
Clare was struck by the colossal indifference of the disease. Pest didn’t care that her father was a famous writer. Clare remembered that he used to joke that being famous meant that he could, finally, put a comma anywhere he damn well pleased. But commas didn’t matter anymore. And Clare thought it would probably be a long time before she read a new book.
Her father never got up again; he was too weak to move. Sometime during the afternoon the pustules from the Pest rash burst, and Clare mopped up the red and yellow fluid without saying anything. Near the end, Clare tried to spoon a little chicken bouillon between her father’s chapped lips. He gave her a wrecked smile. Then he died.
Marie stood in the doorway, weeping, which annoyed Clare.
“We should bury him,” Clare said, but she doubted they had the strength. And when Clare looked up at her stepmother, she noticed the beginning of a rosy glow on her face.
“We’ll cope,” said Marie. “We’ll get through this. Right, Clare?” As she spoke, Clare saw swollen lips and eyelids. The Pest rash had crept up Marie’s neck and deepened to an angry red. There were blisters on her throat.
They weren’t going to be able to cope at all. Clare knew better. Marie probably had no more than three days. People generally didn’t last longer than that.
Her father’s body remained on the bed; a fetid smell filled the room, but Clare didn’t have the strength or the time to do anything about it—open the windows, try to move the body. Marie needed her right away. Clare unfolded the sofa bed in the living room, covered it with the only clean sheet she could find—one with a pattern of bluebells and roses—and helped her stepmother lie down. The cheerful sheet seemed to mock them both.
Clare tended her stepmother as best she knew how, as if her ministrations could make up for all the dull anger she had felt towards Marie after the marriage to her father. She put wet washcloths on Marie’s wrists and neck; she brought her stepmother water and aspirin and more water and more aspirin. Lesions began to streak Marie’s face and more pustules began to form on her neck. At the end of the second day she got up and, without a word, lurched into the bedroom where Clare’s father lay. Marie lay down next to her husband, oblivious to the smell in the room, and so Clare tended her there. Unlike her husband, Marie was never entirely lucid again.
On the evening of the third day, she died.
She died with her eyes wide open. Clare tried to shut those staring eyes by passing her hand over Marie’s face the way people did in movies, but it didn’t work.
Then Clare curled up at the foot of their bed; she waited in the bedroom for a long time for someone to come. Because that’s what happened when you were a kid—even when you were a fifteen-year-old kid. When your parents died, someone came.
Later, on Sanders Hill, Clare blinked in the strong light as Chupi pecked at the ground around her. She wondered if there was a lot of dying going on in the city that day. Clare knew that she was infected with Pest—the rash was enough to prove that. She knew that she was going to die of it, too. Eventually. She might even have a couple of years left, but, according to the scientists, she wasn’t going to live to adulthood. That’s what they had all said, all those scientists who were now dead. Those scientists had called delayed-onset of the disease the ‘Pest Syndrome.’ Syndrome. On a triple word score in Scrabble, it was seriously useful vocabulary.
In its own weird way, Clare thought the link between Pest and adolescence sounded logical. Adolescence had always been a bag of goodies: complexion problems, mood swings, unrequited love and now, Pest.
Her thoughts came back to the problems at hand. It was high summer. Not a good time to keep dead bodies above ground.
And if Clare couldn’t bury them—and she was sure the task was beyond her—she was going to have to go elsewhere. She was going to have to leave her father and Marie to the forces of time and nature, both of which, it seemed, were sublimely indifferent to Clare’s emotional state.
But it seemed to Clare now that she could deal with the grandeur of indifference, the blind workings of the universe. This was not the time for petty gods or the Thunder-roarer; death was insidious, irrational, arbitrary; now was the time of the beetle and the worm. And, for better or for worse, because there was no one else, it was her time too.
In those last days, before it all broke down, he left his lab to work in the wards. They all thought he was a great humanitarian, but the truth was, he enjoyed watching SitkaAZ13 close-up. The disease, under a microscope, looked plump and innocent–right before it would enter a red blood cell and, in the metaphor his mind constructed, scatter the cell’s constituent limbs while feeding off its bloody heart.
So elegant. He wished he had developed it himself–the virus was a wonderful world-cleanser. He wondered if someone really had spliced it together, or if the virus were just a natural consequence of too many species sharing the same niches. A vampire bat sucked on a monkey and then shat on a coca fruit that was picked by a farmer who–Or maybe it had gone down some other way. But it most certainly had gone down.
The patients came in a steady stream now, and most of the pediatric patients were referred to him. He liked to look at the nurses looking at him as he developed a rapport with his soon-to-be-dead young. His manner was perfect; he gained the children’s confidence and then he watched them die.
Some of them had lovely eyes.
He had read the articles (and many of the articles he had written himself), and although the journals were now largely defunct, shut down by the pandemic, he knew a great deal about SitkaAZ13. Out there were pediatric patients who, although they had the Pest rash, resisted the onset of the full-blown disease. He wanted to find them. The world would soon be almost empty; it would be ripe for a new creation; that creation would come from those resistant child-patients.
He faced a girl called Jenny. She was obviously not resistant; lesions marked her throat and face.
“Hello, Jenny,” he said. “I don’t need to look at your file. I can see you’re a good girl, a caring daughter, just by looking in your eyes. I bet your parents are proud of you.”
“They’re dead.” Her voice was dull, flat. “My brothers too. I had to leave them in the house–no-one answered when I called for help. They’re turning more and more dead.”
“Admit her,” he said to a nurse. Then he turned to Jenny again. “We’ll see your parents and brothers are taken care of, but right now, we’re taking care of you. All right, Honey? You’re not going to need to worry any more.”
She looked up at him with eyes of infinite trust. He was, after all, the doctor.
“Yes,” she said. “Thank you.”
The nurse was watching him closely, and he knew word about his humanitarian bedside manner would spread. Why not? All the more pediatric cases would be sent his way. And he would rifle through their folders looking for resistant ones. And among them there would be resistant ones with the elusive double recessive genes he was seeking.
His cause was scientific. Not, perhaps, in the sense that the old world understood science. But he would build a new world. He had already purchased the place he would take all the suitable survivors he could find.
Land was going cheap.
When the folders came in, however, and when he looked them over, he realized he might not be able to be picky: so far, there were no resistant children at all, not at his hospital. The world was engaged in a massive dying.
He took precautions against SitkaAZ13. He would need to be careful. They were saying now that his cure didn’t work, that the side-effects were overwhelming, but when he applied the cure to himself, he didn’t feel any side-effects at all. Odd. Maybe the side-effects were already part of his constitution.
The hospital stopped admitting patients. As he went to the pediatric ward, he had to step around gurneys with patients strapped to them. They were in the hallways, and when he went to the cafeteria for something to sustain him, he saw that it, too, had become a staging area for SitkaAZ13 patients. He went to the vending machine for a candy bar, and there were gurneys there too. Pressed right up against the place he wanted to insert his dollar bill.
He moved the gurney.
“Please,” said one of the patients. “Can you get me some water?”
He was trying to squash a George Washington into the machine’s bill receptor, and finally, after several tries, he got the machine to take it.
“Of course,” he said.
He picked up his Diet Coke and went back to the pediatric ward.
He examined child patients wherever he found them, and when he was done, really no matter how sick they were, he gave them a lollipop. Most of them smiled, even if they were too sick to enjoy the candy; it was a comforting gesture, one reminiscent of the pre-SitkaAZ13 world. Like giving Scooby-Doo bandaids to little ones.
Soon other doctors fled. As he indefatigably and patiently made his rounds, he became hospital legend.
And, again, why not?
Meanwhile, somewhere out there were the resistant ones. And surely among them–he tried not to be excited, but it was a thrilling thought–were his little blue-eyed girls.
The Old World Dies
Looking back, it seemed to Clare that the break-down of high-tech devices should have given her the biggest clue that nothing was ever going to be the same again. Take away electricity, and one could light candles and, eventually, get a generator going. Take away Google, take away the contributors to Wikipedia, take away all that, and one was taking away the world as Clare knew it.
When their neighbors, the Cormans, boarded up their house and left, Clare, worried, texted Michael, even though he was supposed to be on a camping trip and out of reach of cell service. He didn’t answer. Next she texted Robin, who seemed distracted and upset. There was alarming news on the television about overloaded hospitals and overworked doctors.
One day later, Clare’s friends slowly ceased to answer her texts—except for Robin. Two days later Clare’s phone was refusing to send texts at all, and the landlines were down. Robin bicycled over to Clare’s house since her learner’s permit didn’t allow her to drive alone.
At the time, those things still seemed to matter.
“My parents are in the hospital,” she told Clare. “Can I stay with you?” There were dark circles under her eyes, and she looked drawn and grey.
Clare’s father and Marie welcomed her. Robin had spent half her life sleeping over at the house anyway. And, unlike Clare, Robin got along all right with Marie.
“Mom and Pop went to the hospital to get the Cure,” said Robin. “But now people are saying that it isn’t working right. The doctors wouldn’t let me stay.”
In the morning, Clare’s father drove Robin back to the hospital. When they returned, before either of them even spoke, Clare knew that something was very wrong.
“They died in the night,” said Robin.
“Robin.” Clare didn’t know what else to say.
“I should have stayed.”
“We’re not going back,” said Clare’s father. “Robin will stay with us for the time being.”
“They’re not releasing their bodies,” Robin said “They said there was too much chance of spreading Pest. There’re lots of dead people in the hospital now: in the corridors, on stretchers by the vending machines.”
“It’s a nest of contagion,” said Clare’s father.
That night they all crouched around the television. They tuned in to Natalie Burton, science analyst for Channel 22—Clare’s favorite channel because of its Law & Order re-runs.
“What was early this week thought to be a cure,” said Natalie, “ has proven deadly: most who receive it die; those who do not, become gravely changed; they become what at least one researcher has called ‘inhuman.’ These so-called ‘Cured’ are to be avoided at all cost.
“While mortality rates have been reported to be high, a tiny percentage of children under the age of eighteen show no signs of the full-blown virus—although they carry the Pest rash. When this scourge ends…” (Clare could tell that good old Natalie was winding up to her conclusion) “… they may be left orphaned and alone.” Clare’s father turned off the television.
And so it seemed that she and Robin were among the resilient. Robin showed no signs of Pest; Clare felt perfectly healthy. Only the Pest rash showed that they were infected, too.
When Clare got back to the house from Sander’s Hill, she went into the bedroom where the bodies were. Her father and Marie had been dead for two days. In death, her father stared sightlessly towards the ceiling. Her stepmother lay beside him. Clare wondered how long she could stand to stay in the house with the dead: they didn’t seem like her parents anymore now that they lay there, unmoving, flies taking advantage.
Clare suddenly crossed the room and opened the window, overcome by the smell. She wanted to vomit, and she bent over the sill but then realized that she was leaning out over the flower garden. The zinnias were in full bloom, a vibrant riot of reds and blues, and Clare realized that she didn’t really want to throw up on them.
Her stomach began to settle as she breathed the cooler air of twilight. Night was drawing in, and now the scent of the moonflowers was in the air. The evening light muted the color of the zinnias, but even in the growing darkness, Clare was aware of the garden spread out below her.
The garden wouldn’t last; she couldn’t tend it; the weeds would overcome the flowers.
It was a long time before she turned away.