Read Chapter One of Billy Donahoe’s The World is More Than Half the Sky below, an ensemble science fiction novel set in the frigid ruins of a distant galaxy. Follow three young people as they discover the meaning of family in different ways.
There’s Vernon, who leaves his old life behind to seek out his estranged father on a mysterious, frozen world. Then there’s Dorothy, who must reluctantly follow in her ailing mother’s footsteps and run the orphanage she herself grew up in. And finally there’s Gabriel, a street urchin with dreams of seeing the stars, who must protect his companions and see their safe return across the desolate, dangerous city.
Wisps of snow-ash tinkled soft and thin like silica across the frozen ground. It flitted and twisted into the air. White dust swept in great arcs up to second floor windows and rusted street signs, sculpted into alien shapes, burying front doors and stoops beneath. The wind brought newspaper and plastic bags and tucked them trembling into every crevice, every crumbling curb. Cars sat dead like skeletons, picked clean of hoses, upholstery, and fenders. The clouds were low and heavy as the sun went down. In the distance, tall buildings reached into the sky, no lights in their windows.
A lone locomotive rumbled, tortoise-like, through the solemn city. From its hood belched a thick soup of soot and smoke. It’s engine, coughing and weak, echoed against the walls along the tracks: empty warehouses, factories, and tenement buildings. Past dark signal towers and boxcars on sidings festooned with faded graffiti it moved. The tracks were twin strips of rust, orange ribbons vanishing side-by-side to the end of the long horizon.
The locomotive pulled no carriages for there was nothing to carry. It’s driver sat huddled inside the chilly cabin, invisible to the world behind fogged glass, with only a fist-sized porthole to see out of. On its platform up front, a brakeman hung from a ladder and blocked his eyes from the blowing wind. He wielded a long torch and periodically reached down with his pike to light the rails afire, a grave robber on the prow of a river steamboat. Molten goop dripped from his torch onto the platform at his feet, casting the pilot of his train in tiny globes of flickering amber. He stomped the embers out with thick rubber boots. The driver laid on his horn as they approached a level crossing with no cars. Two long blasts, one short, then another long blast. Like a lighthouse visited only by gulls, the deep bellow thundered out across the desolate urban landscape, down streets whose names were forgotten, shifting snow and rippling puddles. Almost imperceptibly, the grade pointed downward and the driver and his man plunged slowly into a wide trench with six tracks laying side-by-side.
As the solitary engine passed, wind blew the snow in giant swirls and erased the choking machine from view. They left in their wake little fires, burning chemically, every twenty feet along the rails, light from hell itself hole-punched into the ancient dark.
All around, the crumbling walls of the trench began to move. Out of hardy bushes came little feet, hands holding hands, bodies guiding bodies down the rocky outcrops to the railroad bed below. Urchins, clad in wet and ragged clothes, scurried from all sides to claim a piece of track and fire. Groups of three or more were most successful, staking claim to pairs of flames on each rail. They overturned buckets and took a load off, unfolding chairs if they had them, removing sopping jackets and draping them close to the warmth. Most crouched on the ground and warmed their hands nearby. Those who could not make a camp of their own orbited groups on the outside or ambled away, head in hands. No one sat directly on the rails.
Gabriel watched the thirty or so figures from his perch atop the embankment. Gabriel’s coveralls were animal pelts, saturated with oil and smelling as wild as the day they were ripped from great tundra beasts. His hair was matted and blew in all directions. Slung over his shoulder was a makeshift knapsack: a detergent bottle with a strap made of wire, full to spilling with steaming liquid. Around his shoulders and tucked close to his neck was a tattered blanket, crusty and stained.
His companion, Jessie, crouched at his side. She was his age, sixteen. She wore beige pants covered in pockets, pilfered boots two sizes too big and a patterned quilt coverall made from diamonds of tarpaulin. In a sling across her back was a sharpened stick with electrical tape for a handle. On her head was a pair of grubby pink headphones with cat ears and the speakers removed.
Gabriel watched one particular group with interest, two men and a woman. Each had a folding chair and amble overclothes for the evening. While other groups brought bundles of garbage and scraps to clean and eat, this particular group had fresh-killed meat turning on a low spit. The woman turned several small rodents while the men skinned and skewered more. A large metal can with rectangular grooves was fitted neatly over one of the rails and a cookpot was placed on top to boil.
“That’s them?” Jessie asked, knitting her brow.
“That’s them.” Gabriel confirmed. “James told me their names. The big one is Fort, the other one is Sunshine, and I don’t know the woman’s name.”
“They stand out.”
“James said they would. They’re advertising, he said. Trade food for valuables.” Gabriel explained, patting the plastic jug at his hip.
“Well, before we give it all away, give me another drink.”
Gabriel lifted the bottle from his shoulder and handed it to Jessie, who removed the rag stopper and drank. A thread of steam curled from its mouth and there was fog on her breath when she wiped her lips clean. Gabriel took a long draft for himself, the crystal clear liquid warming his esophagus and flopping into his empty, knotted gut. He stuffed the rag back inside the jug and slung it back over his shoulder. He steadied himself to move, planned his next few footholds down the slippery embankment and looked to his companion.
“No, wait.” She whispered, putting up a hand. “Someone’s coming.”
Gabriel squinted back at the tiny scene below. A group of children, some holding hands, walked cautiously up the center of the tracks toward the three. There were seven of them, wrapped in blankets and tarpaulins, clothes mismatched and threadbare. Their faces were dirty and swollen. Fort and Sunshine were now pouring over a veritable feast. They spotted them, and the group shuffled into single file behind the oldest, a girl of twelve or thirteen. She wore a thin blanket shawl and engineer’s overalls with a knitted sweater underneath. From a pocket she produced a fist-sized chunk of food wrapped in silver foil.
“Ration bar.” Gabriel whispered. “They’re trying to trade.”
“Food for food?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s payment.”
“They only have half of a bar. It’s not enough.”
The leader girl approached the camping elders, ration bar in the open, free hand urging the huddled young ones to stay back. She drew the campers’ attention, who all stopped to stare.
Gabriel could not hear the exchange, though the encounter drew the eyes and ears of other campfires along the tracks. Fort, an older-looking man with a rough cap and a limp, stepped forward to intercept. The children backed away in fright. The girl, for her part, stood her ground, proffering her meager morsel to the stranger with plenty. Gabriel watched each gesticulate in turn: first the girl, who made a silent plea, making sure Fort saw the children in her charge, then Fort, who refused the trade, arms akimbo, only barely acknowledging the hungry kids beyond.
The girl hung her head in defeat, returning to the throng of open mouths. Gabriel heard their protestations just fine. One stronde right up and kicked her sharply in the shin. Another, seemingly more industrious than the others, followed Fort back to his fire, arms waving. But he too was shooed away. Single file, the group, girl bringing up the rear, marched back along the tracks into the swirling, ashy abyss.
Jessie looked at Gabriel, eyebrows raised, indignant. “You said they would trade.”
Gabriel bit his lip, thinking. “We have what they want.” He said as much to himself as his companion.
“We’re exposed down there.” She warned. “I don’t like being out in the open like that. No easy way to run.”
“I know..” Gabriel agreed. “But this is fresh water. Even they’ll need that down there.”
“I hope you’re right.” Jessie added through her teeth. She moved around the rocks and eased herself down the embankment. Gabriel followed, glancing behind to the alley at their backs to make sure they weren’t being followed. He scrambled down a ledge, steadying the jug against his chest.
He stepped onto terra firma, stretching his body across a shallow ditch, black sludge at its bottom. The ground was a series of mounds, gravel ballast poured up to the rails. Six sets lined the trench, chest high when standing in the troughs between. Jessie clawed at the scree, clamoring her way up each pile.
Their arrival did not go unnoticed and before long Gabel’s precious bottle felt twice as heavy. Tired eyes followed them as they traversed. Eyes lit by dancing flame, shadows deep and alive. Most belonged to weary faces, lined with age, burnt from wind, hollowed from malnutrition. Peering down the tracks, orange fire spit and dripped like tiny forges, fed from holes in the earth from hell itself, is if the iron was being made where it lay. Ripples of heat bent the air above like clothes on the line.
“We call it The Devil’s Footprints.” A voice called out, snarling and phlegm-sodden. Vernon stopped short. A man leaned over in his chair, turned to face him; the voice belonged to Fort. “The way it…looks like a little demon ran around on the ground, you know?”
“More like The Devil’s Horseshit!” The woman added, clapping her hands at her own wit.
Fort sneered, gestured absently with his hand. “Probably wondering what the fire’s for.”
Gabriel didn’t answer, though he was wondering.
Fort took that as an invitation. “Cold makes the rails shrink, makes gaps in the joints, see? The fire forces the metal to expand so it don’t rip itself apart.”
“Thank you for the lesson.” Jessie said. Gabriel eyed her, nervously.
Fort frowned, deflated. His menace returned quickly though. “What do you want?” he growled.
“I’m told you’re the man to see about a trade.” Gabriel cut to the chase.
“We have food. But it’s for us.”
“And we’re hungry!” The other man chimed in, eliciting a round of laughs from the group. Gabel noticed others in the near vicinity trying to look like they weren’t eavesdropping. He swallowed hard and Jessie shifted on her feet.
“Come into the light!” Fort barked, louder than Gabriel preferred. “The rule of the rails is, you don’t hide your face in the dark. You show a man your face so he can know who he’s dealing with!”
That sounded like a rule Fort had just made up, Gabriel thought. But he moved into the glow just the same.
“This is Vandal and Sunshine.” Fort said, introducing his party. “You probably know me.”
“That’s right. James gave us your name.”
Fort eyed Jessie, drunkenly, Gabriel surmised.
“We introduce ourselves around here, son!” Fort croaked, patience visibly waning. “Either you have something to trade or you don’t. My time is valuable so don’t waste it like those rat urchins!”
“We’re Jessie and Gabriel.” Jessie answered, eager to move things along. “We’ve brought fresh water from the bog crab.”
“It’s still warm.” Gabriel added nervously.
The mirth vanished from the group like oxygen released from a balloon. Fort shared a furtive glance with his party. Gabriel saw. The man did not rise from his chair, only offered a dismissive alternative. “What do we need water for? We got plenty to go around right here!” He swept a gloved hand to the ground and sifted his fingers through the snow on the ground.
“You can’t drink that forever.” Jessie noted. “It’ll kill you, you let it go to long.”
“The fire melts any impurities” Vandal said confidently, crossing her arms. “It’s safe.”
“It’s not and you know it.” Jessie responded, speaking to Fort. “We have real, fresh water to barter. For food.”
“And how much do you think is fair?” Fort asked indignantly.
“I see four birds, a dozen skewers with vegetables, and fried grain. Give us half.”
There was another round of laughter, but only from Vandal and Sunshine. Fort was thinking, eyes to the distance. Gabriel watched him closely. Fort stood. Turned to the young man, his back to the fire. “And how did you manage to come across this treasure? They say you have to fight the beast to get it. The crab’s no slouch.”
“Maybe he talked to it!” Vandal joked, food in her mouth. “Played it a song!”
Fort smiled. “Is that it, boy? Can you talk to the tunnel monsters?”
“What do they say?” Sunshine added. Fort ignored him. “Ten feet around. Tall as a man, they say. Mean buggers.”
“They’re not that big.” Gabriel corrected.
Fort shrugged. “Maybe someone else killed it and you stole it off him?”
“I killed the crab.” Gabriel growled, his own patience waning.
“Where did you find such a beast?”
“The concrete river. West of here.”
Fort nodded. “That’s where they’re found. Chewing on the ice. ‘Course you knew that, big fighter, such as you are.”
“Such as you are.” Sunshine echoed.
Fort brought his face close to Gabriel’s. He looked through him, but his face slowly softened. “Give me a taste!”
Gabriel, relieved the introduction had been made, knelt and pulled the jug from his shoulder, setting it on the ground. He tipped the bottle and wet the stopper rag. Fort took the cloth greedily and pushed the wad to his lips, sucking violently. He vacuumed up as much as he could, then wrung it several times to force the last half-drops of liquid to fall onto his tongue. He closed his eyes, let his head fall back. He opened his eyes like he was possessed, danced a jig in place like a drunk, twisted his smile into the most unsettling grimace Gabriel had ever seen.
“There’s more tomorrow if you give us what we want.”
Fort heard Jessie’s words loud and clear. He scrambled to the fire and produced a metal bucket and several odd cups. Gabriel stepped back to and Fort got to work transferring the precious commodity. On his knees like a fiend, Gabriel saw the man suddenly as he was, not the king of his domain but desperate and cold, like him.
Jessie grabbed as many skewers she could carry and scooped a handful of grain into a cup.
“You from around here?” Fort asked.
“Where else would I be from?”
Fort sniffed, second-guessed his own cunning. “Stupid question.” He regrouped. “Tomorrow.” He choked, a question. His eyes glazed with promise. “You bring more. We bring more.” The man proffered his arm, which Gabriel took, equals in agreement against nature.
“We’ll see you again.” Gabriel agreed.
Bounty in hand, the two crossed the tracks, palmed up the jagged embankment of the trench, and disappeared into the darkness of the alley.
Gabriel followed Jessie south, their task complete. To avoid attention, he suggested they cut outward, away from the tracks for several blocks. No doubt there were settlements and lean-to dwellings closest to the nighty fires. There were other dangers to contend with also, beyond just people: dangers attracted to the fragrant smell of grilled meat. If they gave the humans a wide berth, they might circumvent the scavenger beasts as well. They crossed an empty street, then another. To their left behind a chain link fence stood an electrical substation. The fence was down in sections, the ground inside littered with bottles, plastic bags and rotting paper. A spiderweb of metal connected great sleeping machines by wire, which rose hundreds of feet above the street to latticework towers. Gabriel squinted down the alley which the power lines ran, a cut between buildings, draped in steel catenary, stretching west into infinity. After another block they came to a wide avenue, sixe lanes across with an elevated highway along its spine. Jessie put a hand up and stopped short near the right hand corner. Gabriel closed the gap behind her, flattening himself low against the nearby wall. They were concealed for the moment.
Around the corner came the rumble of a different kind of engine. Jessie heard it first, turning her ears to the ground and craning her neck beyond the wall.
“Truck coming.” She whispered, backing to the wall and crouching low. Gabriel held his breath and listened to Jessie’s. It was even, calm; white fog escaped her mouth, hazy and diffuse. On the avenue beyond, a long spot of light jittered from side to side. The sound of the engine grew louder. The light materialized into a beam of dancing snowflakes, which rose to meet a tire-sized spotlight on the roof of an armored vehicle. The thing rolled slowly, black and angular with balloon tires that threw snow in little tails. A lookout on the roof manned the spotlight, the lower half of his body inside the cabin. He was bundled in thick gear for a polar expedition: heavy goggles, black gloves, a patchwork camouflage uniform of white and gray swatches.
Gabriel resisted the urge to scratch an itch on his nose as the truck lumbered by. He was sure he heard the radio inside, all discordant bass and vibration. But it passed without incident and he sighed with relief.
Jessie looked around and spotted a metal staircase on the other side of the street. She scrambled to her feet, crept across the road and scrambled up the rickety steps to the second floor.
“It’s unlocked!” She called out in a hollow voice, holding the emergency door open. Gabriel made his way across the street and joined at the top of the landing. She held the door open and he ducked under her arm, finding a darkened stairwell within. Steps rounded a bannister and continued upward to other floors, and an inside door to his left opened to the rest of the building, a halfway beyond.
“This one opens too.” He reported, cracking the heavy, fire retardant barrier. “Multiple exits. Off the ground.” He said out loud to himself. “Good place to stop.”
Jessie unbuttoned her jacket and removed her hat and pack. The outside door closed with a satisfying “ker-click” and the stairwell inside was plunged into pitch darkness. Gabriel heard rustling, the strike of a match and his stalwart companion’s face manifested into view. She was kneeling over a small glow lamp, which caught the flame and settled into a low, even flicker. Gabriel joined her on the concrete floor, setting the empty jug aside. From a breast pocket he pulled a plastic water bottle from an inside pocket, the liquid inside cloudy, its bottom rnged with sediment. He took a swig and handed it to Jessie, who was unwrapping a roll of newspaper containing their feast. He traded water for a skewer. Gabriel slid backward against the wall and settled into his meal.
“Well done.” He exhaled with relish.
“You got the water.” Jessie answered, swallowing the milky liquid.
“But you found Fort.”
“We make a good team, don’t we.”
Gabriel nodded in agreement, feeding his face. He grabbed a piece of meat with his teeth and teased if off the end of its stick. Jessie was more delicate but no less triumphant.
“What’s this? Gabriel asked, pointing to the next chunk of food on the line, his mouth full.
“Jackflower.” Jessie smiled. “It’s peppery.”
Gabriel took the morsel whole. It was chewy, and went down with some difficulty, but before long it bit back. Gabriel choked on the rolling waves of heat, swallowing too large and chunk while trying to spit it out. He leaned forward, mouth open to the air, tongue out.
Jessie couldn’t hide the perverse pleasure of his discomfort. She blurted a guffaw, kicking the ground, nearly spitting out her food. Gabriel looked at her teary-eyed like she was a mirage.
“Probably should’ve mentioned it was kinda spicy!” She giggled.
“Kinda?” He coughed, indignant.
“You want a drink?” She proffered the bottle, making a show of her pout.
Gabriel took a swig, then swished another mouthful before swallowing that too. His face was flushed, his eyes pulsing and sweaty.
“Better?” Jessie asked, this time with a hint of genuine concern.
“Better.” Gabriel agreed. He pulled the next piece of meat, and pinching it between his fingers, chewed it slower.
Jessie shuffled on her knees around the tiny light to Gabriel’s side, sunk against the wall next to him. Her arm, puffed under her jacket, pressed against his own and he felt her close.
“Hey.” She cooed, her voice delicate and near.
“Hey you.” Gabriel answered.
“Fifty miles down.”
“Four thousand…” Gabriel stammered, the remainder eluding him. “I don’t know. You’re better at that than I am.”
She took his hand, tapped his fingers gently with every syllable. “Four thousand, four hundred, and twenty three.”
“Four thousand miles.” Gabriel repeated slowly, the number sounding made up when he said it out loud. He did some math in his head, estimated the number of weeks they still had before them. Months at their current pace. More close shaves. More deals with hobos and tramps. A lot of miles. A lot of ice.
“We’ll get there.” He said, as much to himself as to Jessie.
“I’m gonna take all my clothes off and jump in the first lake I see!” Jessie dreamed. There’ll be trees, and birds, and fish. Leaves you can eat and rain you can drink right out of the stream. We’ll build a house! A little cabin on the beach where the ocean meets the sand. You’ll fish and catch animals and I’ll build a boat and sail all around the world!” She put her arm around his middle and held him there. Gabriel blinked into the dark. On this night, shivering against a pinprick fire, a sprawling metropolis, dead and frozen, it all sounded so far away.
He slipped his hand into the sleeve of her jacket, felt the warmth of her arm and squeezed. They could stay here the night. They’re be no one to bother them. It didn’t matter where he was, he resolved, as long as Jessie slept next to him, he was home.
As the lamplight weakened and the shadows morphed into dark ghosts along the floor, Gabriel felt his eyes become leaden. Jessie relaxed into his lap. He felt the world close its blinds, first fuzzy, then hard. His head lolled forward and there was a banging on the door.
Gabriel flinched awake and froze. Jessie shot bolt upright, not a hint of wind on her breath. For a moment the air was still. He hoped beyond hope he’d dreamed the sound.
The knocking came again. Gabriel extinguished the lamplight with the sole of his boot. He heard a voice through the door.
He felt Jessie’s searching eyes on him, though he could not see them. The voice came again. It was young, plaintive, and low to the ground. Then a second, female, older, accompanied by more knocking. Gabriel made an impulse decision and stood. He pushed open the door. Before him on the landing stood the young boy he recognized from the tracks, and the girl, her arms around his shoulders. Gabriel peered out to the ground below. The remaining five children stood neatly in a cluster, eyes wide, faces ashen.
“Do you have food?” The young boy asked.
audiobook – COMING SOON
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER TWELVE: “Each building told its own story of ruin: window ledges blackened from dirty rain, shingles swollen and bursting like sponges. Walls looked like old cheese, bloated and rotting homes to stubborn fungi and bacteria. Powdered snow swept in broad arcs up to doorways and into corners. Dorothy spotted a bicycle chained to a railing, now draped in an ever-blowing curtain of white and grey cover.“
“The world looked like a shuttered mansion, dank and dying but with sheets drawn to save the furniture.”
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