"Ed? Ed!" The husband opened his eyes and squinted up at his wife. "We're going to the store," she announced. She stood over him with the sun at her back, her curly hair highlighted like a frizzy halo, so he couldn't fathom the expression on her shadowed face. The commanding edge in her voice, however, told him what was coming next. "Now you remember the barbecue's tomorrow, so if you don't mow the lawn today it won't get done in time for all the grass to dry—"
"—and I don't want everybody tramping wet grass through the house."
"Absolutely, dear." He strove to prove his commitment by making a dramatic effort to rise from the chaise, achieving a sitting position on its side. The cool breeze swirling beneath the trees felt good on his face. He looked beyond her out into the large sunny lawn where it was hot. The lawnmower still sat there in grass-stained patience where he had trundled it earlier that morning.
"Okay, then," she said with the curt exasperation of a woman at the top of her daily energy curve, whose husband was indolently wallowing around at the bottom of his.
A soft, small form barreled lovingly into him, wrapping its arms around his neck, and he laughed and fell back onto the chaise. The little girl sat up imperiously on his chest, her sweet big dark eyes staring seriously into his.
"Daddy, you got to mow the lawn. Mommy says."
He laughed again and looked up at his wife, still silhouetted against the sun.
"My daughter," she declared with mock haughtiness. He couldn't see her face, but he knew she was smiling with womanly triumph at their daughter's sassiness. She gathered the giggling girl into her arms, kissing her loudly on the neck and padded off through the tall grass to corral her older brother from the yard next door.
Ed resumed his prone position, hearing the garage door open with a whine. There was a pause. He tensed slightly. The car started and backed out, the door rattled shut, and the sound of the car faded. Home free! After a few vague plans wafted through his heat-soaked brain, one cool image crystallized itself. A beer.
He heaved himself to a sitting position, felt around in the grass with one foot to find his comfortably ratty deck shoes, slipped his feet in and stood, letting a full-fledged plan slowly accrete around the concept of a beer, like a pearl around a grain of sand. It was near noon. Hottest part of the day. She'd be back in an hour, maybe two. The sun would have begun to go down beyond the tall oaks in the Matthews' back yard. He would have plenty of time for a leisurely beer or three. Then maybe a nap.
He went into the quiet house, pulled a cold can of Coors from the refrigerator and relished the fizzy whoosh when he opened it. He took a healthy sip of the cold malty liquid to help him face the return trip. He shuffled back outside and cagily estimated where the shade of his own more modest stand of trees would be in an hour. He moved the chaise to ensure that he would be safely situated in shade the entire period of her absence. He kicked off his shoes and curled his toes in the lush grass, congratulating himself for having fertilized it well that spring. Finally, he eased himself back down onto the creaking chaise, scratched an itch that he couldn't scratch in polite company, felt around on the grass beside him for the Sports Illustrated and placed it on his chest, closing his eyes.
Enough activity for a while. He lay there trying for perfect, blissful immobility, save for an occasional smooth move of his arm, raising the beer to his lips.
Zen, he thought as the cold liquid tingled his mouth and washed down his throat. Perfect Coors Zen. He blanked his mind. He would send all the bad stuff into Coors Zenland. He sent away into Zenland that damned memo from his boss about excess inventory. Away went the screw-up that Shipping made Friday on the Baker order. Away went the business trip to St. Louis next week. His mind thus cleared, he made significant progress on the beer and hazily considered getting another. But the breeze played over his body and he began to doze.
In his dim torpor, at first he thought the annoying sound was the guy down the street starting up that damned chainsaw. The noise was kind of a chainsaw sound, but deeper, with more . . . rumbling. He sleepily lifted his head as the sound grew louder and cocked his ears one way then the other, the better to pinpoint the direction. The muffled sound originated toward the yard. A lawnmower? Nope, his Lawn Boy stood silent.
With a gut-wrenching roar, the sound erupted into the open, sending him leaping with a loud startled curse off the chaise. He glimpsed a movement out of the corner of his eye, turning to see one of the big trees in the Matthews' yard—one of the really big ones—jerk over violently at an angle. Its massive branches quivered as if being shaken by an unseen giant hand, and it slumped several feet into the ground. The grinding, sucking noise rose to a deafening level, like being thrust inside a jet engine.
Unthinkingly curious, he took a few steps toward the massive, shuddering tree—the worst mistake of his life. The tree sucked down into the earth like a celery stalk chewed away into an unseen hungry mouth. For an instant, the vibrating tips of the topmost branches slashed back and forth before disappearing. The earth around the vanished tree began to collapse away, opening a great spreading maw of a crack. The smooth green fabric of the lawn slumped and tore, falling away in tattered chunks. The widening gorge revealed the hidden earth beneath, like a deep slash in the skin exposes raw flesh. The gaping hole ripped its way up to the lawnmower sitting in the grass like innocent prey, and the lawnmower too was sucked away. The devouring of the machine produced a brief shriek of tearing metal above the subterranean roar.
With a chest-clutching horror he had never known, he realized that the rift was eating its way toward him at the speed of a running man, so he became one. He turned and hurdled the chaise, sprinting barefoot toward his house and, he hoped, safety. He leaped onto the back deck and glanced over his shoulder to see the gorge yawning into a great dark malignant cavity, widening to devour his yard and part of the neighbor's. Panting with fear, he slammed the door and backed through the kitchen, watching through the screen the crater's hellish approach. Jesus, dear Jesus, it seemed like some predator coming for him!
The phone! He yanked the receiver from its cradle, checked for the dial tone and punched in 911. He gathered his wits, took a deep breath, prepared his speech. But it rang only once, then went dead.
A crunching, grinding roar enveloped him, a sound of pulverizing concrete mixed with the explosive crack of snapping foundation timbers, and his whole house dropped with a massive thud, tilting toward the inexorably approaching, invisible monster. The abrupt slanting of the floor made him slip and fall, and he scrambled desperately up its treacherous slickness toward the dining room.
"OH GOD! OH HELP ME!" he screamed, grabbing the door jamb and hauling himself through the doorway. The oak china hutch tilted and crashed to the floor with the lethal tinkle of shattering glass. It slammed into him with a ponderous inanimate determination, smashing one hand on the jamb, crushing the bones like matchsticks. He screamed in agony, desperately tore the shredded bleeding hand from the trap, and clawed his way over the top of the hutch, cowering behind its bulk. The kitchen imploded with tortured sounds of tearing metal, splintering wood and cracking ceramic tiles, all ripped away into a darkness he could not fathom. Sobbing with gut-wrenching fear, cowering on the floor, he felt the house shake to its very foundation in its death throes. He heard the snakelike hiss of a ruptured gas pipe and smelled the sickening stench of natural gas filling the house and his lungs.
He screamed a final scream as the dining room walls collapsed over him, as moist earth smothered him in darkness.
Firemen, rescue workers, policemen, reporters, TV crews, and neighbors crowded around the crater . . . or sinkhole . . . or earthquake fault . . . or whatever it was. They stood and speculated, still trying to figure out the frightening chasm that had devoured a chunk of quiet residential neighborhood, an entire house, and a man some of them knew. Taking care to stay behind the yellow police tape and away from the edge, they stretched and peered down into the gaping pit as if intense scrutiny would compel the hole to give up its secrets.
The crater slashed seventy-five yards through the well-tended suburban lawns. Because the low sun shone palely through the trees, its depths remained hidden in shadow, making it even more ominous. Only the periodic flash of camera strobes or the glare of video lights lit the hole. Everybody, it seemed, was taking pictures. The Internet was already rich with video and images of the pit.
An occasional car horn blast, a revved motorcycle, and other street sounds reached the crowd, but the unfathomable hole in their neighborhood, and their lives, riveted their attention. All day long their numbers had grown, attracted by television news reports. The police assertively held the crowd well back, except for the neighbors who lived nearby and asserted their property rights to examine the hole.
The rescue chief stood solidly scowling into its depths, his large tanned arms folded over a pronounced stomach. It wasn’t the hole that had provoked his anger. The hole was a freak of nature to be dealt with.
And it wasn’t the crowds. From beneath his battered, yellow hardhat, he glowered at the idle equipment and people poised to mount a rescue effort. A full complement of ladders, ropes, climbing gear, stretchers, emergency technicians . . . all just waiting. The fire chief had ordered him to hold.
An insistent growing sound of honking made him turn away from the hole to see a battered Range Rover jump the curb, bull its way through a line of policemen and speed across the front lawn stopping smack up against the police tape. A young woman leaped out and ducked lithely beneath the tape. She ignored the shouts of the cops, striding briskly toward the hole. She peered down into its blackness from beneath the bill of a baseball cap that said "Schist Happens." Her light brown ponytail jutted impertinently out the back hole of the hat, above the adjustment strap. She wore a sleeveless work shirt, slightly baggy khaki shorts and sturdy hiking boots with rumpled white socks. She stood with her hands on her hips, her feet apart, her sturdy tanned legs braced.
The rescue chief strode toward her, a freshened anger raising the veins in his neck. But he reined himself in at the last instant, remembering the public relations class he’d had to take.
“Honey, what do you think you’re doing? You just get on back there. You might fall in. I’m the rescue chief here, and—”
“What’s the situation?” She turned to the scowling middle-aged man, her gaze intent from beneath the cap bill. He took note of the attractive, oval, apple-cheeked face, the full lips, the slightly bent nose and the light blue-gray eyes. She was certainly an athletically attractive young woman, but he had other things to deal with.
“Look, honey, I’m going to have the cops take you out of here.”
“I asked what’s the situation?”
“The situation is, honey, that my boss says we got to wait for some damned geologist from the university to tell us it’s stable and we can go down and start a rescue operation. That’s what the situation is. Now get on back.”
“I’m the ‘damned geologist,’ chief.”
The rescue chief blinked. He decided to hide his embarrassment with bluster. “Fine . . . well, honey—”
“And my name’s not honey. Dacey Livingstone. Now, tell me what’s known.”
Read early reviews:
"... a first rate thriller in the best tradition of hard science fiction... a wonderful, likable cast of characters and the descriptions of the wormhole 'events' are fast-paced, vivid, and in some cases downright scary."
Jeff Spyder, Alphecca.com
"The story takes the idea of wormholes and alternate universes, both scientific facts, and puts a spin on the concepts, writing a brilliantly creative book that stretches known boundaries, reaching beyond known scientific thought into a world of science fiction that kept me up until three in the morning, 'just one more page, just one more page . . .'"
Leiah Cooper, So I Read This Book Today...