Read The Alex Crow Online

Authors: Andrew Smith

The Alex Crow

DUTTON BOOKS

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Copyright © 2015 by Andrew Smith

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Smith, Andrew (Andrew Anselmo), date.

The Alex crow : a novel / by Andrew Smith.

pages cm

Summary: The story of Ariel, a Middle Eastern refugee who lives with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, is juxtaposed against those of a schizophrenic bomber, the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century, and a depressed, bionic reincarnated crow.

ISBN 978-0-698-14583-2

[1. Adoption—Fiction. 2. Death—Fiction. 3. Science fiction.] I. Title.

PZ7.S64257Al 2015

[Fic]—dc23

2014039366

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their contents.

Version_1

THE ALEX CROW

Title Page
•
Copyright
•
Dedication
•
Prologue: HERE IS A PINWHEEL
•
WE FIVE BOYS OF JUPITER
•
THE GREAT WELCOMING MANNEQUIN
•
MRS. NUSSBAUM, LARRY, AND THE SNORE WALL
•
THIS IS WHAT WE DO AT CAMP
•
SCARY STORIES
•
MARSHMALLOW JEFF AND THE BOYS FROM EARTH
•
DEMIKHOV'S DOGS AND THE ALEX CAT
•
TEACHER'S PET AND THE DUMPLING MAN
•
FRANCIS MACINNES IN THE CEMETERY
•
SO MUCH FOR GOOD LUCK!
•
THIS IS PROBABLY WHY YOU DON'T WAKE UP SLEEPWALKERS
•
SOCK PUPPET JESUS
•
RED MERCURY AND BOTTLED WATER
•
MALE EXTINCTION
•
YOU NEVER KNOW
•
CRYSTAL LUTZ AND IGOR ZELINSKY
•
THE YOKE OF INAUSPICIOUS STARS
•
SUCK IT UP, ICEMAN
•
ALL IN THE NAME OF RESEARCH, ARIEL
•
COFFEE FOR GOD
•
THE VERNACULAR OF MAX
•
THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. ALEXANDER MERRIE'S SIBERIAN ICE MAN
•
THE CABOOSE OF NATURAL SELECTION
•
SIM
•
THE BOOK OF MAX AND COBIE
•
I'M STILL THE SAME OLD GUY I'VE ALWAYS BEEN
•
A LITTLE GAME OF STONES IN A GRID
•
THE CAT AND THE MICE
•
FOX IN THE SNOW
•
BOYS IN THE WOODS
•
MAJOR KNOTT
•
THE BEST THING TO DO WITH ARIEL
•
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME
•
SOMETHING MORE LIKE FONDUE
•
OUT FOR A WALK WHILE OUR PORRIDGE COOLS
•
UP IN THE WOODS A WAY UP THERE!
•
AMERICAN AIRSPACE
•
BRINGING YOUR FLAG BACK HOME
•
THE MELTING MAN AND THE BEAVER KING
•
OUR LAST DAY IN JUPITER
•
SUNDAY IN SUNDAY
•
MAX AND HIS BROTHER
•
Epilogue: MASON-DIXON-BRAND SAUERKRAUT
•
Acknowledgments

For Chiara Luciana Smith,
my beautiful daughter who went with me to see the great welcoming mannequin that rises from the water

prologue:
HERE IS A PINWHEEL


Here, kitty-kitty.

The cat had a name—Alex—but General Parviz always called him in the same generic manner.

General Parviz, all gilded epaulets and clinking medals, a breathing propaganda poster, repeated, cooing, “Here, kitty-kitty.”

The Alex cat, a six-toed Manx, an official gift from the Hemingway estate and the people of the United States of America, swept its head from side to side, walking slow like a drowsy lion. The cat paused at the general's slippered feet as though considering whether or not it actually
wanted
to jump up into General Parviz's lap.

The general patted his thigh softly, beckoning.

“Kitty-kitty.”

The cat leapt soundlessly.

Then cat, general, palace, bodyguards, and approximately one-third the territory of the capital city blew up.

Here, kitty-kitty.

- - -

Here is a handful of dirt.

As far as its use as a medium for sustaining life—nourishing roots—it is perhaps the least capable dirt that can be found anywhere on the planet. To call it sand would be to give it some unwarranted windswept and oceanic dignity.

It is simply dead dirt, and it fills my hand.

I will tell you everything, Max, and we will carry these stories on our small shoulders.

- - -

On my fourteenth birthday,
Marden and I played outside the village in one of Mr. Antonio's fields with Sahar, Marden's sister. We would have been in trouble if we had been discovered. There was a funeral that day for Mr. Antonio's cousin who had been killed fighting against the rebels, so it was expected that everyone attend.

At school that morning, we performed a play. I had the role of Pierrot, Sahar my Columbine. One of the boys in our class played a joke on me: At the end of the day when we went to change out of our costumes to prepare for the funeral, somebody had taken all my clothes—everything—so I had to stay dressed as the mute white clown. I didn't mind so much; the costume was loose and soft and made me feel disconnected, like a ghost drifting above the dead fields we played in.

“This is Mr. Barbar's ram,” Marden said.

Mr. Barbar's ram had been missing for more than a week.

Sahar and I grabbed small handfuls of dirt. We poured our dirt into the eye sockets on the rotting skull. What else would kids do? Playing with dirt and horned carcasses was a good way to have fun.

The thing looked like a caricature of the devil himself.

When the FDJA came to the village that day—it was just after the mourners arrived back from the funeral—four of them took all the boys and made us go up to the third floor of the school building. I was still dressed as Pierrot; nobody would confess as to who the thief of Ariel's clothing was.

Of course, we all knew what was going to happen next, once the rebels got us into the upstairs classroom. We could already hear gunfire and cries coming from outside the school.

The rebels bribed us with cigarettes and guns.

What boy doesn't want cigarettes and a gun?

One of the men, his face hidden behind a red scarf, said to me, “What are you supposed to be?”

“Pierrot,” I answered.

He shook his head, confused.

“You look like a boy-whore.”

Ivan, a ten-year-old, puffed on his first cigarette and glared at me. I wanted to slap him. One of the FDJA men patted the boy's head. We were all goners at this point.

Everyone knew. It had been this way all our lives. Here, the deliberate cruelty of violence was a matter of fact, controlling, constraining, and understandable. Not so much in some of my other stories, Max.

The rebels targeted the older boys, many of whom were approaching conscription age for the Republican Army. They taunted the boys with insults about patriotism and loyalty to capitalist puppet masters. One boy, Jean-Pierre, pissed himself when the man whose face was covered with the red snot-stiffened rag prodded his belly with a gun barrel. Naturally, this was very funny to the FDJA men. Who wouldn't laugh at a sixteen-year-old boy who pissed his pants as he was about to be kidnapped by thugs with guns?

I felt bad for Jean-Pierre, who, like the other chosen boys in the schoolroom, recited a robotic pledge of allegiance to the FDJA. He would have done the same thing on his eighteenth birthday to the Republican Army, anyway. So, who cared?

We were all going to go with the FDJA now, or we would never leave this third-floor schoolroom. They promised us that we were old enough to make our way as men, even though some of the youngest boys were barely ten years old.

My friend Marden was sixteen.

When one of the men tried wrapping the red scarf of the FDJA around Marden's neck, my friend swatted his hand away. Marden was always defiant like that—impulsive—and everyone knew it was a mistake. But what could we do?

To make an example of him to the other boys, two of the FDJA men picked up Marden by his feet and threw him headfirst out the window as he kicked and scratched at them. But Marden didn't scream or cry. I heard the impact of his body against the paving stones that lined the street below.

I desperately wished I had my proper school clothes. I felt so isolated and noticeable in my thin white clown suit.

Two of my schoolmates ran for the doorway that led to the stairs. The man with the hidden face fired at them and they tumbled down in a heap across the threshold.

“Let's go!” he said.

I could only see his eyes peering out from a slit on the covering. He waved his gun to goad the remaining boys—there were five of us—over our friends' bodies and out the door.

One of the men videoed the slaughter in the schoolroom with his cell phone, sweeping it around and around until he focused directly on my face. Most of the white makeup I'd worn earlier had been wiped away, but I was still pale and painted. And I was crying. The video would be uploaded with the usual descriptions blaming all this on the Republican Army. People naturally believe things they see. Nobody argues with the irrefutable postings on YouTube.

I was told that in America, many people believed FDJA stood for
Freedom Democracy Jesus Army
.

They sent money.

I stood by the open window, thinking about Marden and how we'd been playing in Mr. Antonio's field just moments before. What could I do? I was frozen at the edge of the floor, with the fingers of one of my hands resting on the windowsill where my friend had left the room that smelled of sweat and gunpowder.

The man with the red mask, his eyes wild and white, turned toward me. The other boys made their way out into the hallway, tramping through blood. He raised his rifle. The barrel was so slender and short. I was as familiar with these guns as anything in the world—how they smelled, the sound of their report. When he pointed the thing at the center of my chest, I thought it would be a better end than to be thrown after Marden—but when the man pulled the trigger, the thing jammed—dead—and the two remaining FDJA men stared at me as though I were dead, as though the gun had functioned properly and I was done for—I believe they could not accept anything other than this—the wide white staring eyes of them, whiter than the soft clown suit that seemed to flutter around my body.

Then they left and I heard their footsteps clattering downstairs as the others ahead of them yelled at the boys and told them to form a line and get out onto the street.

Happy birthday to me.

Later, I thought, this was the first miracle I had seen. Perhaps my survival was nothing more than an accident. Accident, miracle—I suppose the storyteller retains the right to determine such things.

Picture this, Max: I waited in the classroom for a while, wondering if maybe I really was dead—that this is what being dead is, just a dream that continues on and on—and now I truly was the ghost I'd imagined myself to be when Sahar and Marden and I played that afternoon.

When I was certain the men and their new conscripts had gone, I went downstairs into the school's kitchen and hid inside a walk-in refrigerator.

- - -

Here is nothing but ice.

It is more than ice, more than anyone on the steamer had ever seen. It is the blue-white fist of God, curling calloused fingers to grasp the protesting wooden hull. It is an infinity field of jaws with countless rows of teeth; absolute control and the concurrent absence of control. The hungry ice creaks and moans, stretching forever to become horizon, ceiling, and cemetery; and the ship, frozen and moving, trapped in this relentless vise, is slowly dragged along, endlessly northwest into more and more ice.

T
UESDAY
, F
EBRU
ARY
10, 1880—
A
LEX
C
ROW

Today is our fifth month in the ice. The ship is held fast. The readings calculated by Mr. Piedmont, ship's navigator, measure the distance the ice has taken us at more than one hundred miles!

It is the cruel reversal of our intent. The men of the
Alex Crow
expedition set off with the expectation that it would be us—the first voyagers here to absolute north—who might inflict our will upon the planet; instead we face the grim truth that nature's will is uncontestable.

I keep such daily accounts as no measure of optimistic entertainment. My overwhelming sense is that the end of our story will not be written by my hand.

I don't think I can endure this imprisonment much longer; I am beginning to wonder if I'll go as insane as Murdoch.

After breakfast, a party of seven men took a team of dogs and one of the sleds out onto the pack to hunt for seal and bear. I stood at the rail and watched in amazement as the men and dogs clambered over the unyielding hummocks of ice that had once been the ocean.

Twenty-five of us remained behind on the
Alex Crow
, including the newspaperman, Mr. Warren, who had crushed his hand three days ago between the ice and forefoot of the hull and is currently under my care. Today, the majority of the men busy themselves with the drudgery of routine maintenance.

Some watch and record wildlife sightings. Wildlife!

In the afternoon we heard rifle fire but could not determine its direction due to the blinding whiteness that smothered everything.

It was then that Murdoch, who has taken to following me around, said, “Doctor, Doctor, I do believe our men have found something.”

- - -

Here we see a two-quart jar
of Mason-Dixon-brand sauerkraut.

I believe sauerkraut, along with guns, is some type of national symbol in the Land of Nonsense. Everyone in Sunday, West Virginia, eats sauerkraut and also shoots things. So it isn't a casual act by which I begin a story with the examination of a jar of sauerkraut—the sauerkraut has a purpose; it shapes one of my clearest initial memories since coming to America, as though when the contents of that particular two-quart jar of Mason-Dixon-brand sauerkraut spilled, something began to fill me up after all my emptying and emptying.

I arrived here in Sunday little more than one week after my fifteenth birthday.

A year had passed since the miracle in the schoolhouse.

Happy birthday to me, once again.

Mother—my American mother, Natalie Burgess—has the most confusing habit of making everything seem insignificant and small. My brother Max calls her the Incredible Shrinking Machine.

Here is what happened: When the top jar tumbled from its eye-level placement, it caught the edge of the metal cage basket on the shopping cart and exploded in a fetid shower of cabbage and knife-shards of glass.

Mother was dressed in salmon-colored shorts and pale yellow sandals.

One of the glass shards slashed across her leg, mid-calf.

She said, “Oh.”

I had only been here four days, but the way she said it sounded like an apology to me, as though it were her fault for being in that precise spot inside the Sunday Walk-In Grocery Store at the exact moment the jar slipped from the shelf.

We had dropped Max off at school earlier. I was not enrolled yet, because the officials at William E. Shuck High School insisted on testing and testing me to determine whether or not I was an idiot, or could speak English, which I could do perfectly well despite my aversion to talking.

“Oh,” Mother said again.

I shifted my weight from foot to foot. I didn't have any idea what I was supposed to do. Maybe I
was
an idiot of some kind. But here I was in this grocery store, which may just as well have been some gleaming palace or gilded mosque, watching in confused silence while Mother bled all over the speckled linoleum floor.

It was a nauseating scene; so much so that I vomited, which made everything just that much more repulsive, and Mother said “Oh” again because we were making such a mess on aisle number seven.

Mother reached into her purse and gave me a handkerchief so I could wipe my face. The handkerchief smelled like perfume and mint chewing gum. Then she pressed some wadded napkins into the cut on her leg.

A clerk wearing a brown apron came running up the aisle toward us. I thought he was mad because of all the mess we'd made, but he was most concerned about the injury to Mother's leg.

“We're calling an ambulance!” he said. “Please sit down!”

And he flailed his arms as though he were swimming toward us.

But Mother said, “No. No. I'll be fine! I'm so sorry for all this.”

And while the man pleaded with her, bent forward so she could press her soaked napkins against the wound, she grabbed my clammy hand in hers and led me out to the car.

“I'm sorry. This is so embarrassing, Ariel,” she said as we climbed in.

We did not make it home. Mother passed out behind the wheel less than a mile from the Sunday Walk-In Grocery, due to all the blood she'd lost.

She was like that.

- - -

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