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John Tietjen loves New York City like life itself. But while he's out of town at a conference, confused reports come out of the city. Millions of refugees are streaming out, each bearing contradictory tales of fire, earthquake, explosions, collapse. Making his perilous way back, he gathers a few survivors and establishes a shelter. But the full nature of the catastrophe is still unclear.
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John Tietjen loves New York City. Even as millions of other urbanites retreat behind security guards and steel gates, fleeing the swelling numbers of gangbangers and homeless, John takes his sons throughout the city, trying to teach them its joys and beauties. But John's ex-wife fears the city; and, seeking to screen their sons from his influence, she persuades John to take a consulting job in the safety of the suburbs. When John is in Massachusetts, garbled broadcasts and swarming refugees reveal that disaster has struck New York. Fire, flood, earthquake, explosions-- the reports are contradictory, but all dreadful. John returns to New York despite the dangers to find his family, to preserve what he can, and to find himself confronting the force behind the nightmarish destruction.
Tough, literate, and wise, The Stone War, a first novel by Madeleine E. Robins, is a dark and powerful modern fantasy. --Cynthia WardExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Stone War
PART ONE1THE air was soft and warm; a light breeze belled out at the corners of the block and whisked bits of paper, dust, and cellophane from the trash cans. Down the block, framed against the late dazzle of the sunset, Stevie Prokop was waving to him: Come on, come on. Whatever the game was was less important than the getting there, being part of it. For a moment John just stood, poised to run, feeling the June warmth, the breeze, the sights and smells and sounds of the block run through him like fuel. Every building on the street--the low, dignified brownstones, the blockish granite apartment buildings, even the dark stone church on the corner--was familiar and loved. Each doorway was filled with possibilities. He felt like he was perched on a special moment."Johnny, hey, John!" Stevie called again.John waved back, grinning. Another minute and he'd run after, join whatever the game was. Another minute. He breathed in deeply, feeling the air stir the inside of his nose and fill his lungs. It tasted of a thousand things: the dank, swampy smell of steam vents; the warm smell of sun on the black locust tree in front of his house; the perfume of the woman who'd just walked past; sun on brick and sun on asphalt; the river smell of the Hudson, and rain not far off. The air tasted like everything, forever.He was ten years old, and he didn't have the words to describe it. But for a moment, he knew, "It will always be just like this, and I will live forever, just like this."Down this street a woman laughed; a horn blared on Sixth Avenue; heels clattered in jazz syncopation; and kids were yelling to each other. The coiled spring loosed. John launched off up the street toward Seventh Avenue, where Stevie was waiting for him.
Tietjen woke slowly and easily from the dream, enjoying the wakening, savoring the lingering sense of joy and lightness that seemed to infuse his muscles. Eyes closed, he concentrated on the feeling of the sheet against his skin, the way his head sank into his old down pillow. What had he been dreaming? Something about being a kid again, on the street he'd grown up on.Four floors down someone on the street was praying. The wail of Arabic was one voice, joined by another, then a third. He lived on an open block, and two Muslim families had settled, one in a garden across the street, another in the doorway of a house three doors down from his. Tietjen had found them to be friendly enough, although he'd overheard hard words between them and members of the synagogue half a dozen doors down. For a few minutes he listened to the devotions with his eyes closed, trying to sink back into the dream. Useless. He would not get back to sleep that morning. Anyway, it was Saturday, the day he had the kids.The sun between the blinds made sparkling strips on the bed and wall, patterned by the shifting shadows of leaves from the tree outside his window. When he drew the blinds the light dazzled him for a moment. Scents from someone's cooking on the street filtered up, making him feel pleasantly hungry. He went off to shower and shave, thinking of breakfast.The water was cold again. He persuaded himself this was a blessing on a day that promised to be hot, and stepped into the tub to shower. It was an old cast-iron tub with claws for feet, and when he had first moved into the apartment he'd let his sons paint the claws, red and blue with gold trim and generous splashes of paint on the molding and linoleum. By the time he finished his shower the water was almost warm enough to shave in. As he shaved he made plans, improbable and impossible plans for the day ahead, plans made for the city he had grown up in, not the New York Chris and Davy lived in now.Tietjen combed his wet hair back from his face; the water made it look dark, almost black. For a moment he hardly recognized himself, looking for the ten-year-old from his dream. They shared the light brown eyes and the same lanky body. What they didn't share,Tietjen thought ruefully, was faith that everyone loved to poke around the city the way he did. His sons didn't, certainly.Okay. What then? As he dressed he made other plans, real plans. Which meant plans Irene couldn't disapprove of; he resisted the thought that anything he wanted to do, she would disapprove of.He made coffee and pried a couple of pastries out of their sticky bag. While he ate he pulled the day's Times up on the screen and tabbed briskly through the headlines before he saved the whole thing to be looked over more carefully later. He had almost sixteen gigabytes of unread Timeses saved, all collected in the hope that tomorrow he'd have time to do more than scan. He'd keep saving Times files until his creaky old drive was glutted with them, then delete them all, mostly unread, in an irritable passion. It was nearly time to purge the Times, he thought. Then he remembered that there was an event that had caught his eye, something in the Times's MetroList that he'd thought might make a suitable Father's Day Out activity. Some time in the last three or four days, he thought, and called up the MetroList. It was in Wednesday's edition: a Transit Authority exhibition and film about the history of the subways, a fund-raiser of some sort. Maybe the boys would like that; he'd have liked it at their age. Bad housekeeping is rewarded, he thought, and smiled.There was no need to tidy up the apartment; Irene almost never let the boys come over to the West Side, which she thought was less secure than their block in the East Nineties. Tietjen was used to the status quo and rarely fought against it. He jotted down the information about the TA program and jammed it into a pocket, grabbed a windbreaker, and was almost out the door when he remembered, and turned back to grab the two remaining pastries, pour hot coffee in a paper cup, and take a juicebox from the refrigerator. Down three flights of stairs, not at a run but a gravity-induced canter, and out of the building. Maia, who slept in the six-foot-square basement garden in the front of his building, was awake, sitting by one of the trash cans and combing out her sparse hair with a broken comb."Morning, John." Her voice was melodious. Maia was tall and rail thin; her hair was short and tight-curling gray; her face was ageless, so dark the brown was almost purplish; her smile was beautiful."Maia. Brought you breakfast." He offered the pastries, coffee, and juicebox. She smiled as she took them."Thanks, honey. Next one's my treat." She said it every morning. "Where you off to today?""My Saturday with the boys."Maia's smile broadened. She rubbed absently at her cheek with one of the two remaining fingers on her left hand. She'd never told him how she lost them; there was something in her past she called My Accident, from which the amputation, and her homelessness, apparently dated. "What you going to do with those lambs?" she asked now."I'm going to try to take them to Brooklyn." Tietjen shrugged as if it didn't matter if they got there or not."Brooklyn's got itself some bad neighborhoods, John. You take care of those little lambs. And thanks for breakfast."His apartment was halfway down on a shady open block. East, toward Columbus, there was a white-brick public school, guarded even on weekends, lest the street families try to stake a claim to part of the heavily fenced yard. In the other direction, a synagogue, a funeral home, neat brownstones and small apartment buildings, and living trees guarded and tended by some of the street families. Even with the shade of the trees, sunlight danced in patches on the pavement. He nodded at a couple of the resident street people he knew, stopped to answer a question; somehow, without meaning to, he had become the block's liaison between the housed residents and the people who homesteaded on their stoops and in their gardens. At the end of the block the guards at the schoolyard glared at him blankly, as if they hadn't seen him walk past the yard every day for almost four years. He turned the corner onto Columbus, heading for the Seventy-ninth Street crosstown bus.The bus stop guard nodded curtly and raised an eyebrow, as though smiling would lessen his scarecrow effectiveness. As far as Tietjen could see, the sum of the guard's effectiveness was in the semiautomatic that hung loosely from his shoulder. Smiling wouldn't have hurt. Five or six other people were crowded inside the bus shelter, although the day was clear. Safety by association, Tietjen thought, and made a point of waiting outside the shelter.
The bus took him across Central Park and at Third he got off to walk uptown. In this part of town only the avenues and the big crosstown arteries--Seventy-ninth, Eighty-sixth, Ninety-sixth--were ungated. At each corner guards stood waiting to ID residents and visitors and ward away undesirables. What does that make me? Tietjen wondered. Three times as he went he was stopped and carded by blockcops. Each time he waited as they checked his ID, matched his fingerprints; stood and watched their faces, ruddy and young above the high stock collars of their uniforms. These uniforms were a reflective metallic gray, the color of storm skies over Manhattan, a color he had always thought was a reflection of Manhattan's body heat. On the guards, the color was cold and stern. There were too many uniforms in this city, Tietjen thought; it was hard to keep up when every private security force had its own insignia and dress code. Subway guards wore dull gray serge over full body armor. That must be hot as hell on a June day, Tietjen thought.Irene lived in one of a nest of brick towers that reached upward, away from a brick plaza from which the homeless were endlessly swept away. In Irene's building the security men recognized him at once and made only a cursory scan of his ID. Riding up to the fourteenth floor in the tiny elevator, Tietjen felt a familiar itch, the urge to run. He'd hated this building when he lived here. He hated that his sons were being raised here now, in four square anonymous rooms in this ugly brick tower clustered with the other towers in the development, pulling away from the people and buildings that surrounded them. Architect-speak, Irene called that. She was probably right.The elevator slowed, wobbled, and stopped. Before he rang the bell to Irene's apartment, Tietjen took one minute at the hall window, staring out at the mosaic of streets below. A little serenity returned. He pressed the bell."Who is it?""Come on, Reen. They called you from downstairs. It's John." He heard the rusty click of the peepscreen before she began to turn the bristle of locks on her door. When the door finally opened Irene stood there urging him into her apartment as if she were afraid that he had been followed."Hello," she said suspiciously. They filed down the narrow hallwayto the living room, past the closed door of the boys' room. Irene sat on the edge of a chair, one trousered leg tucked under her, and looked at him with her odd, flat mixture of curiosity, apprehension, and hostility. "The boys are getting their shoes on," she said. "What are you going to do with them today?"He relaxed against the wall. "I thought I'd wait to see what they were thinking," he hedged, suspecting Irene would not like what he was planning. "I wish you didn't make it sound like I was going to boil them for soup," he added."I never know what--" Irene began. Then Davy bounced into the room and wrapped his arms around his father's leg. Chris followed a moment after, two years older and trying for a little dignity; he hung back and waved a cool hand at his father. "Hey.""Hey." Tietjen swung Davy up for a hug, and his younger son wriggled like a puppy. Tietjen wished that Chris had not already reached the age where he was embarrassed to hug his father. "So, shall we go?"Irene followed them to the door, her expression uneasy. She vented her apprehension in small touches, tugging gently at Chris's collar, briskly reminding Tietjen not to let Davy get overtired. "He had a cold last week." Then she let them out. Behind them Tietjen heard the locks snapping into place, one after another. "Shall we go?" he asked again, and let Chris press the elevator button.Chris and Davy grew in the city untouched by it. On his days with them Tietjen tried to give them a little piece of it. Today the boys pranced around him in the lobby of Irene's building, full of stories, full of suggestions, ultimately wary of another of their father's weird ideas. They didn't like the Transit exhibit idea."Slipskating," Chris demanded."I'll tell you," Tietjen countered, man to men. "We try my idea and if you don't like it, we'll go slipskating. We've got time for both. Okay? Davy, okay?" They went through almost the same routine every Saturday. Tietjen knew his role, the boys theirs."Okay."He took them west to catch a downtown Fifth Avenue bus, nodding at the armed bus guard (gray serge, body armor, patent leather hat pulled low over his eyes), smiling at the bus driver. The boys chattered one over the other about school, friends, games, uninterested in the changing ribbon of street, building and person that rippledin the windows. Tietjen watched, listening and answering as best he could. As they passed Sixty-fifth Street he said, not meaning it seriously, of course, "I wonder how the old Zoo is doing?"Chris broke off his story. "In Central Park? Mommy'd never let us." He spoke too fast, and his tone was too old, the sound of someone forestalling disaster.Tietjen hadn't meant to propose it seriously: you couldn't take a seven- and a five-year-old kid into Central Park. But the exasperated refusal in his son's voice hardened Tietjen's sentimental curiosity. All he wanted was for the boys not to dismiss the idea out of hand. "It's just a park, Chris. People used to play ball there and bike and sail--well, when I was a kid they still sailed miniature boats in the ponds. They used to do all those things. Davy, you remember Stuart Little, don't you?" They had read it together in the fall. "The boat race happened in Central Park.""You said it was just a story," Davy said. He tucked in his chin and watched his father cautiously.He couldn't stop. "Did you know there's a bronze statue of a sled dog in the park? And one of Alice and everyone in Wonderland, and--from the inside of the Park you can hardly see the tops of the buildings, you can pretend you're somewhere--" Confronted by two small, unblinking faces, "Look," he wanted to say. "I love this place. I give it to you.""My teacher says Central Park should have been torn up for subsidy housing a long time ago," Chris said."Your teacher--" Tietjen began."Mamma said we shoun't ever go in here. Mamma says people get killed here. All the time. With knives." Davy's eyes widened at the thought of knives. "I want to go slipskating."The knot of failure in Tietjen's gut tightened. "What about Brooklyn," he said. "I thought we had a deal.""I don' wanna, Daddy. People in Brooklyn got knives, too."What was he going to do, argue with a five-year-old about who in Brooklyn did or didn't carry a knife, an automatic, a shotgun? "You too, Chris?"Chris took refuge in superiority. "Really, Dad. I don't wanna go look at so...
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