The Year of Disappearances

BOOK: The Year of Disappearances
9.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


The Society of S

Blue Money

Walking on Ice

Rockefeller Center
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2008 by Blue Garage Co.

All rights reserved, including the right of to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information, address Simon & Schuster Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020.

SIMON & SCHUSTER and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hubbard, Susan.
The year of disappearances: a novel/Susan Hubbard.
p. cm.
1. Vampires—Fiction. 2. Murder—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3558.U215I53 2008

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-6607-6
ISBN-10: 1-4165-6607-4

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To the ones who never come back

It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature.


So much of nature has been ruined. Spirits of trees and rocks are displaced and haunt humans because they have nowhere else to go. No wonder the country is a mess.

7, 2007,
P. A

The Year of Disappearances

omeone is standing in my bedroom doorway, watching me sleep, then watching my eyes open. In the dim light I can’t see who stands there, looking at me.

But a moment later I am with the watcher, closing the door and moving down the corridor, toward my father’s room. We don’t open the door, but we know he’s sleeping inside.

We smell the smoke. As we move toward the kitchen, the smoke becomes a presence, a gray mass spiraling down the corridor. Wan light spills from the kitchen, and now we see the fire—white flames shooting through gray whorls—and the shadowy forms of two men. At first they look as if they’re embracing, but their embrace is really a struggle. They’re fighting for something we can’t see.

Then I am myself again.

The watcher leaves, followed by one of the men. They pause outside to lock the front door. I hear the click of the lock and lurch away, trying not to breathe. I’m on my hands and knees, crawling from the fire. I keep my mouth shut, but the smoke is already in me, burning my lungs. Then come words:
Help me,
trapped and strangled in my throat before they can be spoken.

As I wake from the dream, I hear guttural keening—a primordial noise that predates language—rising within me.

My mother’s voice comes out of the dark. “Ariella? What’s wrong?”

She sits on the edge of my bed, lifts and cradles me in her arms. “Tell me.”

Why do we tell our dreams to those we love? Dreams are unintelligible even to the dreamer. The act of telling is a vain attempt to decode the indecipherable, to instill significance where likely there’s none.

I tell my mother the dream.

“You were back in Sarasota,” she says. Her voice is measured and calm. “On the night of the fire.”

“Who were they?” I ask.

She knows I mean the shadow figures. “I don’t know.”

“Who locked the door?”

“I don’t know.” My mother holds me closer. “You had a bad dream, Ariella. It’s over now.”

Was it a dream?
I wonder.
Is it over?

A few days before my fourteenth birthday, I awoke in a glass coffin, a chamber used for oxygen therapy to treat smoke inhalation. On another floor of the hospital, my father recovered inside a similar device.

The third person rescued by the Sarasota firefighters was Malcolm Lynch, an old friend of my father’s. The emergency medical technicians reported finding a driver’s license in his wallet. But when their van reached the hospital, the stretcher was empty.

The investigators said the fire had been caused by ethyl ether, a highly flammable liquid. They found an empty canister in the kitchen, but they weren’t able to trace its source.

Those are facts that others have told me. When I think about the fire, my recollections come out of order. I remember waking up in the hospital. Then I recall the day before the fire—Malcolm, a tall blond man in a tailored suit, stood in the living room, telling my father without apology that he’d killed my best friend.

The experience of the fire itself? I don’t know if what I recall is a memory, or only a bad dream.

In My Mother’s House
Chapter One

t was the year of disappearances. The honeybees were the first to go.

The stacks of old white cabinets kept near the herb gardens were eerily still. Normally the air around them shimmered with hundreds of bees moving from hives to flowers and back again, and as I approached, a scout or two would fly out to meet me, hover over my forehead, their buzz barely audible above the others’ collective hum. The bees knew me and could smell that I wasn’t afraid. Sometimes I closed my eyes and stretched out my hands, felt the air around me throb with the vibrations of tiny wings, even felt the brush of wings against the hairs on my forearm. I’d never been stung.

But that day in August, no scout approached me. The air was quiet except for the faint shuffling of saw palmetto leaves down by the river. When I drew closer to the hives, I saw a dozen or so bees, walking in erratic circles. Others lay on the ground, dead.

I lifted the cover of a hive and pulled out a frame. Instead of fuzzy worker bees moving purposefully over golden combs, a few bees crawled haphazardly along the cells, as if it hurt them to move. Some were missing wings. The honey looked dark and smelled pungent, more sour than sweet. I saw no sign of the queen.

In July, a hurricane had blasted through Florida’s Citrus County, leaving behind twisted trees and broken houses. My mother’s house was one of several in Homosassa Springs to lose its roof. A companion tornado took out walls and windows, along with the stables, a guesthouse, and most of the gardens. We’d lost furniture, clothing, and books, but somehow the kitchen survived intact, and none of us had been harmed.

Now a blue tarpaulin shrouded what remained of our home. When I woke in the morning and looked up at the wrinkled plastic overhead, my first sense was of displacement—where was I?—then of being in storage, under wraps, waiting for life to begin again.

Every morning brought the harsh sounds of reconstruction. My mother worked alongside a hired crew clearing away debris and making repairs to the house’s frame. To complement the machines and hammers, the workers played a portable radio; they preferred an oldies channel that mixed pop with heavy metal, so most days I awoke to the sound of Iron Maiden or Steely Dan or Led Zeppelin (eternally playing “Stairway to Heaven”).

The morning that I found the dying bees, a deejay was talking about Iron Butterfly (“The soul-daddies of metalheads everywhere!”) as I walked back to the house. The kitchen table was strewn with sketches and blueprints, and a bowl of oatmeal had been set next to a note from my mother: “Ari, Blueberries in the fridge. We’re pouring concrete out back!—M.”

I had to tell her about the bees, but I hesitated. I wasn’t ready to bring her more bad news.

My mother’s handwriting slanted right, full of loops and twists and optimism—nothing like the way my father wrote, in small, vertical lines close to calligraphy in their consistent precision. Comparing the two was easy—a letter from him lay half-visible beneath one of the sketches. The envelope had been torn open with my mother’s characteristic impatience, and the postmark read
Ballinskelligs, Eire.

Is it wrong to read another’s mail? Yes, I’d consider it an invasion of privacy. Nonetheless I felt tempted. Would Mãe (the Portuguese word for “mother,” and the name she preferred me to call her) really mind? After all, she’d left the letter in plain sight.

She knew how much I missed my father. He’d been gone only ten days, but he’d taken with him my sense of belonging—either to him or to her. They hadn’t lived together since I was born, and I’d managed to reunite them briefly. Then came the hurricane, and the fire that nearly killed my father and me. Since then, I sometimes felt that I belonged nowhere at all.

After he recovered, my father couldn’t wait to leave the life he’d so carefully constructed, so that he could design a new one in its place.

I didn’t read the letter. Instead I put blueberries on my lukewarm oatmeal and sprinkled both with Sangfroid, the freeze-dried tonic I take three times a day, same as my parents.

I didn’t share my father’s talent for engineering change. I savored the brief periods when things seemed to stay the same, even while I realized that all around us, things were evolving or devolving, the living ones moving inevitably toward their own extinction or rebirth.

My hair, in a long braid, fell into my cereal bowl. I sighed and went to the sink to rinse both clean. Then I went to find my mother.

Mãe stood in the shade of a mangrove tree, talking to two of the builders. Her long auburn hair trailed out of a bun she’d pushed under a canvas hat with a wide brim. Her sunglasses were large and dark. She wore a faded blue chambray shirt and jeans with holes in both knees.

For me she epitomized elegance. The men clearly were mesmerized by her.

To clarify: they hadn’t literally been hypnotized. Although she was quite capable of that, too. Both my parents and I had special talents. They used theirs sparingly.

Mãe stopped talking and turned to me. “I thought you were down at the hives.”

“I was,” I said. “But you’d better come see for yourself.”

She gave me a quick look of concern, then excused herself and followed me down the path that led to the hives. They’d been moved to shelter before the hurricane and returned to their old site only a week ago.

My mother took off her sunglasses and moved from hive to hive, lifting covers, pulling out trays. “Poor things,” she kept saying. “Poor things.”

“They were all right last week.” I’d helped unload the hives from the truck and set them back in place.

“I’ve been neglecting them.” Mãe stared down at the tray in her hand. Dark honey and unfertilized eggs that looked like grains of rice were scattered in the hexagonal cells, but not a single bee was there. “I’ve been so busy with the house.” She slid the tray gently back into the cabinet and looked up at me, her eyes the same dark blue as mine. “We’ve lost bees before, but never so many.”

“Maybe the hurricane made them sick?”

“Possibly.” She didn’t sound convinced. “I’ll make some calls tonight, check in with the other beekeepers.” Her jaw clenched, as it tended to do when she worried. “Right now, I have to get back. The builders are on a tight schedule.”

“Can I do something?”

“Why don’t you see what you can find out on the Internet? Search for
dead bees.
” Her voice sounded wry, and she tried to smile. “See if this is happening elsewhere.” She pushed her sunglasses back on and turned away from the hives.

As we walked to the house, she suddenly put an arm around me and squeezed my shoulders.

“It’s okay.” I felt clumsy, trying to comfort her. “We’ll put everything back together again.”

I like solving problems. My father taught me the art of analysis—of defining a problem, then delving into its history and context, then restating it, and taking these steps again and again until the true essence of the problem emerged and could be addressed creatively and scientifically. Often, when you considered all the possible solutions, you realized that the real problem wasn’t the one you’d begun with. The real problem often lay elsewhere—sometimes hidden, sometimes right in front of you, in plain sight.

But problem-solving worked better when we had Internet access. On that day, as on many others, the connection failed.

“I’ll do some research at the library,” I told Mãe. “Maybe stop for a swim on the way back.” I stuffed a towel into my backpack.

“It’s a long walk for such a hot day.” She looked at my cutoff jeans and tank top, wondering if I’d put on enough sunblock.

I took the bottle out of my backpack, poured sunscreen into my palm, and for the second time that day spread it across my face, neck, arms, and legs. I checked the mirror. As usual, my reflection wavered; with intense concentration I could make it clarify, but only for a few seconds at a time. Those few seconds were enough to make out my long hair, stubborn chin, and the streak of white on my nose. I rubbed the sunblock into my skin.

“Be back by one for lunch,” she said. “I’m making gazpacho.”

Grace, the blue-gray cat my mother had adopted years ago, followed me down the dusty path to the gate. We kept the gate locked. I let myself out and shut the gate carefully. Grace, as usual, stayed behind. I blew her a kiss before I went on.

Near the intersection where the dirt road became a paved street, I stopped to watch two dragonflies—one perched on the road itself, the other hovering several feet above it. Both had translucent wings; the one on the ground had light blue patches on its thorax and head, while the one in the air was black except for the vivid blue tip of its tail. I focused on the one on the road, on the intricate, yet delicate, etching of its wings. Suddenly the hoverer dove at the percher—and the odd thing, the thing that mystified me, was that the percher didn’t move, but let the other bombard it.

“Shoo!” I waved my hands at the attacker. I thought the other dragonfly must be injured, but after a second it flew off after the first.

As I walked into town, I wondered,
Were they enemies or friends?

Homosassa Springs was a sleepy place on the Gulf Coast of Florida, next door to the town of Homosassa. I never could figure out where one ended and the other began. Most of the locals referred to both as “Sassa.” The area was popular with fishermen, manatee lovers, and vampires.

I passed the supermarket and the gas station, the restaurant (Murray’s) that we never went to and the other one (Flo’s Place) favored by vampires—and there were quite a few of us, attracted as much by the area’s mineral springs as by its promise of anonymity. I waved at the post office in case the postmistress might be looking out the tinted window. She was one of us.

At the library—a small brick building overhung by live oaks trailing Spanish moss—I used a computer to search for
The most intriguing thing I learned: dragonflies are capable of motion camouflage, a predatory technique that makes them appear to be stationary even when they’re in motion. The predator dragonfly (called the
in the article I read) moves in a way that produces the image of an unmoving object on the retina of its prey, the
—who might be food or a prospective mate. The camouflage works so long as the shadower keeps himself positioned between a fixed point in the landscape and his target. The shadowee sees the shadower as part of the background, right up until the moment it strikes.

The concept fascinated me. If dragonflies could camouflage themselves by the way they moved, could we?

Then I remembered what I’d come for, and I began to search for
honeybees disappear.
(I didn’t think
dead bees
would prove as productive.)

Yes, the phenomenon was happening elsewhere, across the United States and in parts of Europe. Some of the articles I read called it a crisis, others an epidemic. Bees were simply flying away from their hives and never returning. The few left behind were found dead, crippled, or diseased. Researchers weren’t sure whether to blame pesticides, mites, or “stress” caused by environmental factors. Some beekeepers blamed all three.

I printed out three articles to take home.

Before I left the library, I browsed through the fiction and nonfiction shelves, finding nothing much of interest that I hadn’t already read. Then I glanced through the stacks of periodicals. My father never had subscribed to newspapers, and the only periodical I knew well was
The Poe Journal,
devoted to literary and biographic scholarship about Edgar Allan Poe. My father said he found solace in reading about Poe.

More to my liking were general interest magazines devoted to fashion and entertainment. I’d been home-schooled, and I grew up without TV or movies, except for brief exposures to both at a friend’s house. Reading about popular culture had become a guilty pleasure of mine. My father would have dismissed this sort of reading as a waste of time. Why take an interest in temporal, inconsequential matters?

But American culture struck me as a roiling mass of contradictions, and I intended to familiarize myself with at least some of them. Why couldn’t film stars stay in love (or keep their underwear on)? Why were the athletes so likely to take drugs? Why were the political candidates so anemic looking?

And why were vampires so invisible?

As usual, I left the library with more questions than I’d had when I walked in.

The post office served as the hub of Sassa, the place where you’d run into the whole town(s) if you lingered long enough.

Two girls about my age leaned against the building. Like me, they wore cutoff jeans and tank tops that showed the straps of bathing suits underneath. Their eyes were invisible behind oversized sunglasses, but I knew they were appraising me.

The tall one with shoulder-length dark hair tilted her head to survey me from head to toe. The other girl had golden ringlets that framed her face, which had a doll’s tiny features, and a rose tattoo on her right wrist. Her glances were more discreet.

BOOK: The Year of Disappearances
9.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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