Anna Schumacher End Times

ISBN 13: 9781595147486

End Times

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9781595147486: End Times

Carbon County, Wyoming is like a current running through Daphne’s heart.

When life gets too tough to bear in Detroit, Daphne flees to her Uncle Floyd’s home, where she believes she’ll find solace in the silent hills of her childhood summers. But Daphne’s Greyhound bus pulls over in downtown Carbon County and it’s not silence that welcomes her. It’s the sound of trumpets.

Daphne’s desire to start again in simple country comfort is instantly dashed as the townsfolk declare that the End Times are here. And incredible occurrences soon support their belief. Daphne does all she can to keep her head down and ignore the signs. She works a job at the local oil rig, helps around the house, hangs out with her pregnant cousin Janie and gets to know Owen, a mysterious motocross racer and fellow roustabout at the rig. But soon a startling discovery shatters her resolve and calls into question all her doubts and fears.
               
Daphne landed in Carbon County for a reason. She only has to read the signs—and believe.

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About the Author:

Anna Schumacher received an MFA in fiction writing from The New School. Born and raised in the tiny town of Guilford, VT (no traffic lights, no post office, one store), she now lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two cats. End Times is her first book.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 Penguin Group (USA) LLC

ONE

 

DAPHNE’S mother clutched her husband’s hand, which was blue and waxy under the hospital lights. Tears ran down her cheeks, carving sooty mascara canals in skin as dingy and haggard as the cracked linoleum and seasick-green walls in the intensive care unit.

“Are you proud of yourself?” Her hair stood out in frizzy, white-streaked lightning rods from her head, as if electrified by the dark mania in her eyes. “You killed him.”

Daphne didn’t answer. She just stared at the slack line on the life-support machine, listened to the empty space that had been filled with her stepfather’s raspy, uneven breathing just moments before.

It was over. He was gone. There would be no more sleepless nights spent smothered by the close, dark air of her tiny room in their dingy Detroit apartment, bracing herself with every footstep behind the door. He would never come to her bed again, demanding something she wasn’t willing to give. She was safe—and no matter what her mother said, the world was a better place without guys like Jim in it.

A sob ripped through Myra’s body. She had been pretty once, back when Daphne was little and her real father was still alive. But years of bickering with Jim, working extra jobs to supplement his meager unemployment income, and glaring at Daphne had left deep lines in her face and turned her hair dull and gray. It was hard to see any remnants at all of the woman who had once seemed made of laughter and sunshine.

“Mom . . .” Daphne struggled to find the right words as Myra collapsed on Jim’s chest.

“Come back!” she wept into his neck. Her back quaked, shoulder blades cutting sharp wings in the cheap polyester of her dress.

Action had always been easier for Daphne than words. She took her mother by the arms and gently pulled her off the bed, hoping her touch would be comforting. But it had the opposite effect.

“You beast!” Myra screamed, clawing at her with ragged fingernails. Daphne felt her cheek tear open and the sting of suddenly exposed blood before she was able to grasp her mother’s hands, holding them tightly in the air between them.

“You’re a murderer!” Myra shrieked. “You know it and I know it and the Lord knows it.”

The accusation seemed to tire her. She sank into an orange plastic chair and resumed her high-pitched wailing.

The words stung more than the cut on her cheek, but Daphne kept her face placid, a mask. She’d learned long ago it was easier that way. “Mom, I don’t know why you can’t believe me. The cops, the lawyers . . . they all did. It was in self-defense.”

Myra rocked back and forth, tears leaking from her eyes. “It’s a pack of lies.”

They’d been over the argument so many times it felt like a well-worn path through a thorny wood, a path that went in circles and never came out into the sun. But Daphne tried again anyway. Because some part of her didn’t want to give up hope that her mom would someday believe her.

“They found his fingerprints on the knife handle. He was going to use it on me.”

A cloud passed over Myra’s face. She looked up at her daughter almost trustingly, as if Daphne were the parent and she the child. Her brittle lips opened in an empty O, and the frigid rage Daphne had carried in her chest since That Night—and practically since Jim had come into their lives—threatened to melt as her mother’s eyes searched hers. Maybe this time the path would come out on the other side, into the sunlit warmth she remembered from her childhood.

But the O flattened out to a hard, mean line, and the bitter glare returned to Myra’s eyes.

“Why should I trust you?” she spat. “Making up those lies about Jim, weaving your nasty little spells on him, trying to come between us. And now you have. Forever. Are you happy now?”

Daphne looked at Jim’s cold face, his eyes staring out into a new world that only he could see. She looked at her mother, shivering like a Chihuahua in the sickly hospital lighting. Finally, her eyes met her own reflection in the glass partition between Jim’s room and the hallway. Long dark hair struggled to escape her ponytail, falling in messy strands around the sharp lines of her face: cheekbones two angry slashes, chin set in perpetual defiance. Fury simmered in her amber eyes. She’d hoped that maybe, just maybe, the rage would abate with Jim’s death, but it was stronger than ever. Even as a corpse, he had her mother on his side.

“No,” she said simply. “Of course I’m not happy.”

“You never were,” her mother sighed. She took a deep, ragged breath. “I wish you’d just leave. When I look at you, all I see is a killer.”

A glacier of hurt expanded in Daphne’s chest. “I am leaving,” she said.

“Good,” Myra said absentmindedly. Her hand sought Jim’s again, fluttering over his blue-tinted fingernails.

“I’m going to stay at Uncle Floyd’s place in Wyoming for a while,” Daphne said. “To give you time to grieve.”

“Wait—you’re what?” Myra’s head snapped up.

She knew better than to tell her mother the real reason: that lately she’d felt a pull as strong as gravity toward her father’s side of the family in Carbon County. It woke her in the middle of the night with an ache in her stomach that felt stronger than longing— almost like homesickness. It was more than just the desire to escape: Something in her body was drawing her there and telling her she had to go as soon as possible.

She couldn’t explain why. She hadn’t been to Wyoming since she was a child, and even though she remembered liking her aunt Karen’s lasagna and her cousin Janie’s antics, the way the sky rolled endlessly over the mountains and how Uncle Floyd knew the name of every animal, plant, and tree, she hadn’t thought about it much since. Not until that night with Jim and the knife, when it had lodged in her mind like a tumor. It had been growing ever since.

Her mother blew her nose loudly into a hospital tissue, then balled it up and threw it on the floor. “So you’re just abandoning me? Now, when I’m all alone with nobody else in the whole wide world?”

“You just said you can’t bear the sight of me.” Daphne tried not to sound exasperated. “That every time you look at me, all you see is a killer.”

“How dare you talk back to me, missy!” Myra hissed. “If you want to go, then go. But don’t expect me to take you in when you come crawling back.”

“Okay.” It wasn’t the first threat her mother had made. Ever since Jim came along, Daphne’s place in their home had felt precarious, with her mom constantly hinting at throwing her out, and complaining about the expense of having an extra mouth to feed. It had gnawed at Daphne until she’d gotten her first job at the 7-Eleven when she was fourteen, lying about her age on the application to work extra hours. She’d started contributing to household expenses, but at the same time she’d kept a secret bank account: her “just-in-case” money for the inevitable day when Myra’s threats became reality.

Now that day was here. It was time to go.

She knelt by her mother’s chair and wrapped her arms around her tiny frame. “Take care of yourself, Mom,” she said. “You’ll be all right.”

She wanted to say more—that in spite of everything she still loved her, that somewhere she believed Myra still loved her back— but the words wouldn’t come. She hugged her mom tighter, trying to find the old scent of sunshine under the antiseptic smells of the hospital’s industrial-grade cleaner and her mom’s cheap shampoo.

Myra’s arms stayed tight by her sides, her shoulders sharp as glass. Daphne could feel the rage trembling inside her mother’s body, the hatred that Jim had wedged between them with the hungry way he’d eyed her growing body and reached for her in the cramped kitchen. It had always been there, but it was stronger now.

She stood and turned toward the door.

“Don’t you dare come back!” her mother shouted. “I never want to see your face again!”

The words echoed down the bustling hallway of the hospital where Myra had spent the last few weeks at Jim’s bedside, wondering how she could afford to keep him on life support. Daphne had stopped by nearly every day, bringing snacks from the 7-Eleven that her mother never touched, checking in with the doctors about Jim’s progress, but it was obvious to everyone but Myra that he would never be more than a vegetable. Finally the money ran out, and her mother decided to pull the plug.

Daphne knew she wouldn’t be back. She had a long journey ahead of her, but by the time she reached Carbon County, Wyoming, her mother’s accusations and threats would be as firmly behind her as Jim’s last breath. All she wanted was to put the last nine years behind her, to pretend that their relationship had ended when she was still a child with a mother who loved her. The moment she stepped onto that Greyhound, it would be over. She’d learn to remember her mom fondly from a distance, to touch her only through postcards and the occasional check when she could find work. Jim’s wandering hands and eyes, her mother’s cold denial of the truth, and the final, fateful night when it had all come crumbling down would disappear in the vast string of states between them.

By the time Uncle Floyd picked her up at the bus station, the trial would be nothing more than a smudgy square in an old issue of the Detroit Free Press.

                

TWO

 

JANIE arched her back as best she could and purred into Doug’s ear. Whoever said you didn’t want it when you were pregnant was full of it. It actually made her want him more: These days, just a whiff of his Abercrombie & Fitch aftershave (which, when she was being completely honest with herself, he maybe usually wore a little too much of) was enough to get her ready to create a whole new Miracle of Life.

“Ungh,” Doug grunted, quickly undoing his belt. He tried to wedge an arm under her back to unhook her bra, but between the frilly pillows, back issues of Seventeen magazine, and religious pamphlets from the Carbon County First Church of God strewn all over her bed, there was no room. “Sit up so I can get this.”

“Okay, babe!” Janie agreed. She struggled to get her shoulders off the mattress, but the weight in her belly flattened her right back down again.

“C’mon!” Doug urged, kicking off his boxers. He looked so funny with just his T-shirt on, no bottoms, that she couldn’t help giggling.

“You gotta help me up.” She giggled harder. Bella, her Pomeranian, jumped up on the bed and, thinking it was playtime, joined in with a series of high-pitched yips.

“Not now!” Doug snapped, sweeping Bella off the bed and into a pile of clean laundry that Janie kept meaning to fold and put away.

“Aw, don’t be mean!” Janie said as Bella started to whine. The dog was tiny, and her bed was way up high—her dad had put it up on risers to make room for the plastic bins underneath stuffed with her clothes, shoes, and accessories. It made her room look bigger when it was clean, but to be honest that wasn’t all that often. Between the usual mess on the floor and the ripped-out magazine pages of her favorite bands and actresses taped to the wall, her room looked busy, cozy, and fun—three words that Janie would also use to describe herself.

“Just help me up and undo my bra and then take off my pants and panties and we can totally do it. I really want to,” she added, trying for a sexy pout.

But Doug had already lost interest. “Forget it,” he sighed, rummaging on the floor for his boxers and jeans. “It’s too much work with that gut of yours.”

“This gut of mine?” Janie turned on her side and gingerly pushed herself up to sitting. “This just happens to be our son. I will not have you disrespecting him before he’s even out of the womb!”

Doug looked like he was gearing up for an argument—she could almost see the words tumbling around under his close-cropped brown hair. He was a meaty guy, with big shoulders and arms and, between her and God, kind of a big head, too, and he tended to wear his thoughts on his face. She could see in the way his thick brown eyebrows settled back into his forehead that he’d decided to skip the fight . . . which was good, because she didn’t think she could handle yet another one that day. If they were going to be parents together, they needed to stop getting into it so much!

“Okay, sorry, babe,” he said instead, lying down next to her and marveling at her boobs. “Man, those are big.”

“I know, right?” She’d always been busty, but now she was filling a DD cup.

“So your cousin’s gonna come stay here, huh?”

“Yup! Cousin Daphne. I haven’t seen her since we were little kids, but we used to have the best time playing together. I was always the princess and she was my lady-in-waiting, and we’d put on, like, these nasty old lace curtains my mom had and parade around, and then she’d talk Dad into driving us into town to get ice cream. I think he always had a soft spot for her, which I guess is why we’re taking her in now that her stepdad’s dead and her mom’s, like, practically a vegetable over it. Poor thing, the Lord hasn’t always shone his blessings down on her like He has with me. He took her father when she was still just a kid, and now this. But we’ll put her right again, or at least we’ll do our best. That’s what family’s for, right?”

“I guess.” Doug shrugged. “Where’s she even gonna sleep in this dump?”

“Can you please not call it that?” Janie knew her home wasn’t as nice as Doug’s house in town, with its fluffy wall-to-wall carpeting and shelves of ceramic frogs that his mom dusted, like, every other minute, but it wasn’t a dump. “The couch in the living room folds out, and she can keep her stuff here in my room.”

“Sounds cramped.”

Janie rolled her eyes. “Pastor Ted says that if we can make room in our hearts, we can make room in our homes. So that’s what we’re doing—darn it, Bella, stop that barking already!”

The little dog had begun yipping, really stirring up a racket. “Bella, just c’mere, it’s gonna be fine.”

She reached over to take her into her arms, but midway down she froze. A pair of beady black eyes stared back at her as the biggest snake she’d ever seen taunted her with a forked and darting tongue.

The serpent was enormous: as wide as Bella and who knew how long, the thick muscle of its body flexing under a sheen of scales that glistened in an ominous black-and-red pattern, like the spades on a playing card. It flicked its tongue at her almost seductively from inside a head as red and lustrous as fresh blood.

She opened her mouth, but even the scream wouldn’t come right away—not until the viper brought itself up tall and hissed, flexing the scales on its neck. Then she let loose a shriek so loud that even the ceramic Jesus on her bedside lamp looked like he wanted to take cover.

“What the—?” Doug jerked back on the bed.

“Doug, get it!” she shrieked. “Kill it, quick; it’s going to eat Bella!” “Aw, I don’t know.” Doug’s face had gone pale under his stubble.

“That thing’s seriously big.”

Bella whimpered from the corner. Fear had puffed the poor, sweet dog up to...

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