Quiet Apocalypse come out tomorrow! But for now, here’s the prologue and chapter one.
The end of the world started on a dark winter night.
Trees circled the apartment building at 437 Oakmont. They weren’t old trees, nor were they tall. Yet to look at them, one would think them ancient. They were twisted and gnarled. Every gust of wind found them, even when no other tree moved. The cold of winter clung in their branches, no matter the weather. Passersby didn’t like to dawdle along the sidewalk. The trees made them feel unwelcome. Children especially felt this, but of course, children always feel these things most keenly.
But we weren’t talking about children. We’ll come back to them. For now, we’re discussing the trees.
They’d been groaning and moaning for most of their lives. Sometimes you couldn’t hear them unless you were listening carefully. Other times the inhabitants of the apartment had to turn their TVs up to drown the trees out. But on one dark night in February, the sounds were unrelenting. There was a winter storm. The wind was hellacious, cutting through the town like a vengeful spirit. It took out hanging signs for stores on Main Street, brought down the old pine next to the library, and crashed Mr. Wallback’s patio table into his sliding glass window. Ashley Homestead regretted leaving her potted pine tree out for the night. It was thrown against the house from the back porch with such force that the pot shattered.
Leslie Richard’s trampoline, covered over with a tarp for the season, was lifted and thrown into the yard of his next-door neighbor.
The wind rattled windows, pushed its way through cracks in the walls and around doors. Heaters couldn’t keep up with the sharp, blistering cold. The families in the apartment building were kept awake by it, huddled under blankets to keep warm.
The storm built up steam as it headed for Oakmont. It was as though those trees in a circle were its target, and it meant to have them. The storm came to a head at almost four in the morning. One of the trees, exhausted from a night’s battle, couldn’t hold on any longer. It came down, crashing into the roof and jutting sharp, dark branches into the attic apartment.
The wind died away almost at once. Gentle snow replaced it, covering the ice. The next morning this would cause several accidents.
The trees that remained continued to scream, as though mourning their fallen brother.
Sadie sat in the doorway of her ruined apartment. Her eyes were itchy, there were rivets of tears dried to her face. She had cried herself out the night before. Now she only wanted a shower and a good long rest. But, as a tree had crashed through the roof of her apartment, neither of those things could happen.
She knew she ought to be grateful. She’d been in the kitchen with Sage, her creamy colored lab mix when the tree came down. Branches seared through the exterior wall, crashing through her living room and bedroom. One had pierced right through her bed. It was still there, jammed right in the center of the quilt. If Sadie’d been asleep, she wouldn’t have survived. All she’d lost were things. She should be thankful for that.
When she was done mourning her things she would be. Her mother had made her that quilt. The crystals on the altar in her living room were all buried in the rubble. Her whole living room was a loss. What wasn’t destroyed in the crash or buried under the roof was damaged by the snow that had flooded in.
And her books! Her family had given her irreplaceable books. Thank the Green Man Himself that her grandmother’s grimoire was at Aunt Helen’s place. But Sadie had her mother’s grimoire. And now it was destroyed.
She looked at the cardboard box that contained everything she now owned. There was her teapot, gray with a design of cherry blossoms. The cups that matched it had shaken loose from their shelf and shattered.
There was her grimoire, a battered old sketchbook with a red cover. A french press, some herbs. A truly astounding assortment of tea. A handful of crystals and candles had been on her kitchen windowsill. Sage’s food and water bowl. That was all she had.
They were just things. Things that didn’t mean anything aside from everything. Ties to family members lost. Tools for her magical work and her mundane life. Decades of learning were destroyed in no time.
The stairs behind her creaked. She looked back. Her landlord, Frank, was coming up slowly to accommodate his bad knee. He didn’t say anything. They’d known each other too long for that. He just stood beside her in the entryway, looking over the damage.
Sadie thought Frank was the only person who could understand how she felt just then. This apartment was in the attic of a house that Frank’s family built. And now the roof was nothing more than a mess to be carted away and burned.
“I guess it could have been worse, but I’m not sure how,” he said.
“I could have been asleep,” Sadie said. “I’ll have to go stay with my aunt until you guys get this fixed, I guess.”
She said this with a hint of irritation. Helen was a great woman, in small doses. The thought of spending so much time with her was a bit daunting.
“There’s an open apartment on the second floor if you want it. It’s not as big as this one, but I’ll give you a break on the rent.”
He gave her a grin that was something of a comfort. Being a witch, from a long line of witches, she was used to being frowned upon. To being not entirely welcome. But not by Frank’s family.
“That would be really great,” Sadie said.
“Here, I’ll get this box and you can grab the others.” Frank bent down and lifted the lone box.
“Um, there are no others,” Sadie said.
“Oh,” Frank said. “Well, I’ll get this one anyway.”
There was no more reason to stay there, sitting on the landing. She stood, dusted the wood chips from her jeans.
The studio was about the size of Sadie’s living room, but with a stove and fridge wedged into the corner. There was a closet and a bathroom. Two windows overlooked the side of the building, or would if she could see past the snow-covered trees.
Frank sat the box in the middle of the room, leaving Sadie to settle in.
Sage sniffed over every inch of the place, her active nose trailing over every inch of the floor and what of the wall she could reach. Sadie peeked into the bathroom. There was a clawfoot tub, good sized. Some previous tenant had left behind a cache of monopoly pieces under the sink. The Park Place card and the racecar.
Sadie put her tea and teapot away in a cupboard above the stove. Then she set her crystals on one of the windowsills. After that, there was nothing left to do but call her aunt.
“What’s wrong?” Aunt Helen said, as soon as Sadie said hello.
“One of the big trees outside the apartment came down on the roof,” Sadie said. “My place is totaled.”
“I’ll be right over.”
Aunt Helen was soon there in her red truck. She looked as she always had, brown hair brushed and pulled into a braid so as not to be a burden through the day. She wore a thick coat that was probably older than Sadie. Helen took care of her things.
While Sadie and Sage piled into the car, Helen leaned over the wheel to peer at the remains of the tree. “I never thought I’d see that,” she said.
“It was that awful wind storm last night,” Sadie replied. Helen gave Sage a good scratch before pulling out.
“I’m surprised it didn’t do as much damage out at your place. You’ve got all those big oaks in the backyard.”
“Those trees will outlive me,” Helen waved a hand at her niece. “But I don’t even remember hearing the wind last night.”
“Well yeah, but aren’t you taking Ambien?” Sadie asked.
“The kind of storm that brought that tree down? I should have heard it in my grave.”
By the end of the shopping trip, Sadie had a second-hand futon, a blanket, a kitchen table, three mismatched chairs and a small stand to use as a new alter.
Everything fit neatly into the back of Aunt Helen’s truck, along with a large paper bag.
“What’s this?” Sadie asked.
“Oh, I was wondering if you’d take a look at that,” Helen said. She held it out to her. Sadie glanced in the sack and whistled. “Where did this come from?”
It was an ouija board, but not the cheap sort found in toy shops made of cardboard and plastic. It was thick oak, smooth with age and use. The letters were highly stylized in a swirling font and deep black. The planchet was in its own little red velvet bag.
“Don’t touch it with your bare hands. Ruby picked it up from that creepy second-hand store downtown. She’s sure there’s something messy hanging around it. She tried to get rid of it, but you know how Ruby is. Soft hand with her kids, her dog and spirits. I’d take care of it myself but just don’t have the time for the full cleansing ritual.”
“Are you sure it’s not a two-person job?” Sadie asked.
“No, I don’t think it’s anything big. Probably just some spirit hanging onto it. Nothing you can’t handle.”
“I’ll take a swing at it,” she said and set the sack in the back seat.
“You’d better drive the truck back to your place and leave me with your car for the night,” Helen said. “My back’s been acting up all day. I need to lay down.”
“Sure, no problem,” Sadie said. Though this would mean she’d be carting all the furniture inside by herself, it was better than her aunt ending up in the hospital again.
Fortunately, she happened to drop the futon frame in the entryway, directly onto the smallest two toes on her right foot. Her swearing fit brought Rina, the woman who lived on the first floor, out to check on her.
“Oh, what’s this?” she asked. She was a beautiful woman, with creamy brown skin and the longest hair Sadie had ever seen in real life. It was pulled back in a long braid, hanging down so low she’d have to move it to sit down.
“I’m moving into the empty apartment on the second floor while my place is being repaired,” Sadie said.
“Are you trying to move all this stuff up those stairs by yourself?” Rina asked. “You can’t do that. Hold on, I’ll grab Ajay and Eli. We’ll give you a hand.”
“Oh, I don’t want to put anyone out,” Sadie said. But Rina had already ducked back into her apartment and was calling for someone in Indian.
A moment later Rina’s husband, Eli, and brother Ajay came to the door. “Get some new furniture?” Eli asked. Ajay, who only spoke a handful of words in English, just smiled at her. Damn, that smile. His dark hair curled over his face, framing his amber-colored eyes.
“Yeah, pretty much everything I owned was wrecked,” she said, trying to focus on the present. “My aunt took me thrift shopping to get some new stuff.”
Eli turned and spoke rapidly in Indian to Ajay, who nodded. “Okay, we’ve decided. That’s far too much work for one person,” Eli said.
They grabbed the futon frame without waiting for her to agree. Rina picked half of the mattress.
“Thanks,” Sadie said, giving in. She lifted the other side of the mattress and together they got it up the stairs.
It took only three trips to get everything upstairs. Then, as there wasn’t much space to move things around, it took even less time to get everything into place. The futon was set up in the corner. The kitchen table near the stove, with the chairs grouped around it. The end table placed under the window. Sadie looked around the room. It wasn’t great, but it would work. She’d at least have a bed to sleep in. Maybe this wouldn’t be so awful.
Then she heard someone coming up the stairs.
Melody and Andy were home. And they had no idea yet that Sadie would be across the hall.
Melody looked fussy no matter what she was doing. She always had some expensive blouse or sweater. Even in jeans, she looked proper. Perhaps it had something to do with being a librarian. Though she wasn’t like any librarian Sadie had ever known. She wasn’t the friendly sort who liked having kids in the building. She was more the sort to breathe down patron’s necks if they dithered too long.
Maybe that was why her kid was such an insufferable little pain in the ass. Even now, Andy had a sour look on his face at the sight of Sadie. He might have said something nasty to her, but she was the school nurse. He’d been in her office often enough, with scrapes and cuts most other kids would have ignored. Usually, they came about because he’d managed to push another kid into losing their temper with him.
“What are you all doing out here?” Melody asked.
“Helping Sadie move her stuff,” Rina said, rubbing her hands on her jeans. “She’s staying in this apartment while they’re fixing hers.”
“Oh,” Melody muttered. She turned and put her keys in her door. “Here I thought you’d be staying somewhere else.”
Why hadn’t Sadie thought of this? Would staying with Aunt Helen be so bad?
“Frank offered me this place,” Sadie said.
Melody’s cat, Boots, scooted out of the door as soon as it was open. He was a fat old Burmese with a bad temper and a dislike for dogs. Sage, standing in the open doorway of Sadie’s apartment, whined when she saw him. Boots hissed and Sage made for the bathroom.
“Do you think you could keep that monster in your apartment?” Sadie snapped. It was an old fight.
“I thought witches were supposed to like cats,” Melody said. Her son snickered.
Sadie tensed. “I like all animals. What I have a problem with is bullies. And your cat is a bully.”
Melody scoffed and went inside, Andy trailing after her.
“What a fun time we’re going to have,” Sadie muttered.
“Maybe you two will get a chance to mend fences while you’re down here,” Rina chuckled.
Sadie snorted. “Not likely. You guys want to order pizza? My treat.”
Sadie was still driving her aunt’s truck the next day, not having had the energy to return it the night before. She pulled into the faculty parking at the school and just sat there a moment.
Sleep had been hard to find. Part of it had been the new location. The futon was a trial as well. They were great when she’d been a teenager, but her thirty-three-year-old back didn’t approve.
Then there were the tree branches scratching on her window. Had that always been there? She couldn’t remember ever hearing it in the attic apartment. But then, maybe the tree didn’t reach up that far. Maybe she just hadn’t noticed it before one of those trees almost killed her.
A cup of coffee and sigil for energy had gotten her dressed and to the school. She wasn’t sure how much farther they would take her.
She had to go in, though. There wasn’t a substitute school nurse. Sadie took a deep breath and headed inside.
She shared her office with Gene, the principal’s secretary. He grinned at her when she came in. “Well don’t you look happy to be here on this beautiful Monday morning?”
“Be happier if I didn’t almost die over the weekend,” Sadie said. She sat her bag down next to her desk. “A tree came down on the roof of my building, right into my apartment. Right into my bed!”
“Wow, really?” Gene gasped. “Are you okay? What about Sage?”
“Yeah, we were in the kitchen at the time. But everything I own now fits in one little box.”
“My God, that’s terrible. Do you have somewhere to stay?”
“Yeah, Frank had a studio on the second floor he’s letting me use. But it’s right across the hall from you know who. So that’s going to be a fun couple of months until my place can be repaired.”
“I don’t know why you’re still renting in that ancient place to start with. Haven’t you been there since college?”
“Sorry, is working for an elementary school lucrative for you?” Sadie replied. She went to the coffee station in the corner and poured herself a cup. “Ugh, this stuff is the worst.”
“No arguments here,” Gene said, taking a sip out of his mug. “Well, it looks like we won’t have to worry about bad coffee tomorrow. We can all stay home and sleep in.”
“Why?” Sadie said. She walked over to Gene’s desk and looked over his shoulder at the weather report. “Oh, that looks like a nasty storm. We’re going to get hit hard.”
“Looks like it,” Gene grinned. “Here’s hoping it dumps five feet on us.”
Sadie clicked her coffee mug against his in salute.
A child was coming through the open door. Sadie and Gene looked up, surprised. Classes hadn’t even started yet.
It was Andy, clutching an envelope in his hand and crying. “I, I need to see Principal, Principal Conner,” he sobbed.
“Go right in,” Gene said, pointing to the open door. Principal Conner was standing behind her desk, giving Gene a quizzical look. What had the kid done so early in the morning to be sent to the Principal’s office?
Andy went into the office and shut the door behind him. “That kid,” Sadie whispered.
Before she could say anything else, Stephanie Rogers came in. “Ms. North, I’m not feeling good.”
The girl looked green. Sadie grabbed Gene’s wastebasket and shoved it into her hands. Just in time too, as she puked right into it.
Sadie sighed. “Go lay down on the cot. Is mom or dad home today?”
Stephanie had to be cleaned up, then looked after until her dad arrived. Then there was the crowd of kids who had prescription medication they had to take during the day to be checked in. Once Stephanie was packed away in her dad’s car, Sadie finally had a moment to return to her stone-cold coffee.
Gene was watching her, with a look of disgust on his face.
“What did I do?” Sadie asked.
“Nothing,” Gene said. He slipped over to her desk, and said quietly, “You’re not going to believe what Andy was in here for.”
“I’d believe anything of that little delinquent,” Sadie said.
“He called Abigail a bitch,” Gene hissed.
“No,” Sadie replied. Abigail was the second-grade teacher, and probably one of the most patient ladies Sadie had ever known.
“Yes,” Gene said. “They got into an argument over a letter from his dad.”
“He couldn’t have a letter from his dad,” Sadie replied. “Andy’s dad died before he was born. I don’t know if he ever knew Melody was pregnant.”
She thought back to the man in question. He and Melody had moved in around the same time Sadie had. They’d all been college students. Sadie had thought they’d be good friends. But they were distant right from the start. And after Arthur died, Melody’s distance had turned to outright disdain.
“Abigail must know about his dad,” Gene said. “And I’m sure she would have called him out for lying.”
“Yeah, but in the nicest way possible,” Sadie said.
Gene shrugged. “How nice can you be with that? All the kid gloves in the world can’t soften that blow.”