Authors: Michelle Gagnon
Copyright © 2013 by Soho Press Inc. and Michelle Gagnon
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States in 2013 by Soho Teen
an imprint of
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Strangelets / by Michelle Gagnon.
1. Near-death experiences—Fiction. 2. Survival—Fiction.
3. Escapes—Fiction. 4. Science fiction. I. Title.
Interior design by Janine Agro, Soho Press, Inc.
For the real Lisa Brown
Sophie Page felt herself
getting closer. Every inhalation drew further apart from the previous one until there were measurable gaps between them. She could almost picture the breaths strung like beads on a necklace, stretching off into the distance, growing more isolated from one another as they approached the horizon. Her heartbeat followed suit, slowing until she only felt an occasional tap against her ribcage.
It was easier than she’d expected, letting go. Sophie was vaguely aware of her parents standing on either side of the hospital bed, gripping her hands tightly as if that alone could tether her to earth. Her younger sister sobbed quietly at the foot of the bed. The whisper of sneakers on linoleum came and went as nurses flitted around like moths, doing their best to be unobtrusive.
They’d offered her a priest, but she’d turned them down. It seemed hypocritical when she hadn’t been in a church in
years. She’d allowed her parents to tuck Soup, the bedraggled stuffed cat she’d slept with as a child, in bed beside her. But they all knew that was more for their sakes than hers.
Sophie drew a sudden, sharp breath. She hadn’t known exactly what to expect. Over the past few months, as her inevitable demise approached, she’d developed a voracious appetite for stories of near-death experiences. Apparently people saw everything from angels to a bright light to nothingness. Some were exotic: a Lakota chief claimed that he rose above the clouds and saw a circular hoop surrounding the world, its edges vanishing into infinity. Others were more mundane, like the Calcutta man who found himself in an office where a panel of faceless people berated him for showing up early, then sent him back to his body.
Sophie figured she should have
to look forward to. Anything was preferable to her present: endless rounds of chemotherapy and countless discussions with doctors who tried to explain why her lymphoma hadn’t responded to treatment. A steady stream of hospital beds until she finally landed in this one, in a hospice. Would she see anything at all? The secrets of the universe revealed? A strange bureaucracy? Or just a blinding flash, then nothing?
Whatever she’d expected, it hadn’t been this.
Her parents stiffened, though she could still feel their grasp. Her sister had frozen mid-sob, as if someone had snapped a photo. The walls suddenly seemed to bow out, expanding. Like the hospice room had come to life and sucked in a huge breath of air. And at the foot of her bed was … a circle. Not light, exactly, but not dark either. Sophie was transfixed by it. Every color imaginable whirled in a dizzying gyre. It started out small as a pinhole, rapidly increasing until it was the size of a bread loaf, then a car. As
it grew, it drew the contents of the room inexorably inward. Sophie wanted to call out to her family and ask if they were seeing it too, and maybe knew what it was. But she was immobilized, heavy—and this was it, she realized. This was how she was going to die.
An overwhelming sense of calm descended on her. Sophie relaxed, letting her mind spin along with the gyre, touching lightly on memories. The time she ran away and Mom found her hiding behind the local ice cream store … When Nora was first brought home from the hospital and Sophie couldn’t believe this tiny screaming thing was her sister … Dad swinging her up on his shoulders to pick apples.
Sophie didn’t have any regrets, not really. It would have been nice to have lived longer: a real life, a full one. But she’d had plenty of time to come to terms with the fact that she’d never go to college. Never know what it felt like to fall in love. Never get married or have kids of her own to take apple picking and fight with and console. She was ready. The gyre reached the tips of her toes. A peculiar heat came off it, as if it were a living thing lapping at her heels. Sophie smiled one last time and closed her eyes, letting it take her.
Declan Murphy tripped and
nearly went flying. At the last moment he regained his footing and tore forward, feeling the hard pavement through his worn trainers.
He chanced a glance over his shoulder. The men were still after him. They looked winded—they were old, after all, probably thirty—but seemed to be closing the gap. And they looked damned pissed.
“Bloody hell,” Declan muttered to himself.
All this fuss
over a box
. He tucked it more securely under his arm and kept running.
He had no idea what was inside. Based on the doggedness of his pursuers, it was probably more valuable than he’d thought. As Declan rounded the corner, his mind spun through possible escape routes. Usually, he’d have at least three mapped out in advance. But this had been a one-off, a job taken on a lark from a random guy in a pub. Not the sort of thing he’d usually do. Problem was, he’d had in mind to buy something nice for Katie, her birthday coming up and all. And she’d made him swear that any gift he gave her was bought, not stolen. So when the stranger offered a hundred euros up front, another hundred on delivery, Declan agreed. After all, the man said he was only claiming what was rightfully his in the first place. And it was a house job, not a bank or business. He assured Declan that the study window was never locked and no one would be home.
In and out, easy
, the bloke claimed.
Quickest two hundred euros you’ll ever make
Except, of course, there
been someone. Two someones, in fact—they’d entered the room as he was slipping back out the window. By the time Declan reached the corner they were nearly on top of him, proving to be in surprisingly good running shape for a couple of old bastards.
The house was located in Salthill, the nicer section of Galway.
, he chided himself. His mum always said not to trust lads from Salthill. It was a part of town that Declan didn’t know well, so he shouldn’t have been surprised when he darted right and hit an alleyway that dead-ended into a solid brick wall. He’d made a right hames of it, sure enough. Either that or the fool in the pub had set him up.
Cursing, he doubled back, only to find his pursuers
blocking the entrance. Declan’s eyes darted around, looking for a fire escape, a dumpster, anything. But he was surrounded on all three sides, not so much as a bin lid at hand to toss at them.
His pulse quickened as they strode toward him, clenching and releasing their fists. Still, Declan forced a cocky grin as they advanced. “Aye, you got me, then.” He raised the box with both hands. “You’re welcome to it.”
Already got a hundred euros, after all
, he told himself. More than enough to get Katie the necklace he’d had his eye on. A heart with a ruby set in the center, the color just a few shades brighter than her hair. Declan sighed. Really would have been so much easier just to lift it. She’d never have known, and there was hardly any security to speak of at Hartmann’s, at least nothing he couldn’t get past.
With no response from the pair, he set the box down and backed away until he reached the rear brick wall. The larger one stooped to retrieve it. He was tall with dark hair and a jutting chin. The other bloke was blond, lean, and compact. He stared at Declan, unblinking.
They whispered to each other in hard, low voices. It was a different language; Russian, maybe? They had that Slavic look, as if no matter how much they ate they’d still be hungry.
Declan swallowed. “All good then, eh?” he managed.
The taller one handed the box to his mate. He opened it without taking his eyes off Declan, checked inside, then nodded brusquely. He strode out of the alley without looking back.
The taller one watched him leave, then turned. Something in his eyes struck Declan to the core, a sort of tired resignation. With slow-motion horror, Declan watched the Russian reach under his T-shirt and pull a pistol from the waistband
of his jeans. Declan raised both hands. “Hold up, mate,” he said. “I mean to tell no one, if that’s worrying you …”
The Russian glanced back over his shoulder, clearly checking for witnesses.
Turning, he raised the gun to shoulder height. Time seemed to slow. The attacker’s eyes looked bored, sleepy. Somehow that made it even worse, like at the end of the day he’d barely remember this. Declan pictured him sitting down to supper, telling the wife,
Aye, I went to the bank and the Tesco, got a pint … something else … oh, nearly forgot about shooting that seventeen-year-old lad in the head
Declan felt his knees start to go, everything inside him rapidly turning to liquid. Katie’s face flashed through his mind, her eyes sparkling, light glinting off her teeth as she laughed.