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 ONE 1 THE 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 ...
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