Authors: Jonah C. Sirott
THIS IS THE NIGHT
“Part parable, part thriller, and part love story,
This Is the Night
will keep you turning its pages until you reach its remarkable ending. Could our contemporary lives look and feel like this? Yes: they could and they do. Just start reading, and believe it.”
—Charles Baxter, author of
There’s Something I Want You to Do
Feast of Love
“A beautifully written, flashlight-under-the-bed page-turner, reminiscent of
The Handmaid’s Tale
Never Let Me Go
. . . a chilling novel that will stay with you.”
—Michael David Lukas, author of
The Oracle of Stamboul
“Sirott knows what William Gibson meant when he said, ‘The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.’ Put another way:
This Is the Night
is so right it’s a little scary. I couldn’t put the damn thing down.”
—Justin Taylor, author of
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Jonah C. Sirott
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Little A, New York
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Little A are trademarks of
Inc., or its affiliates.
ISBN-13 (hardcover): 9781503947641
ISBN-10 (hardcover): 1503947645
ISBN-13 (paperback): 9781503947658
ISBN-10 (paperback): 1503947653
Cover design by Cyanotype Book Architects
Three police officers stood beneath a harsh, generator-powered streetlight. Their shiny badges seemed to momentarily blind Lorrie as she let up on the gas and rolled the car into the checkpoint. Next to her, Lance stiffened. Already one of the officers was approaching the car. Terry, who sat in the back, remained quiet. The highest-ranking officer gestured for Lorrie to roll down the window while the other two walked around to the passenger side and stood with their arms folded, eyes on Lance.
“Another round of attacks,” the officer explained. One by one, she applied her gaze to the three passengers, daring them to break contact.
“By whom?” Terry asked.
“I think it’s
,” said Lorrie.
“Who do you think?” the officer said. “Foreigns. Ideology Fivers. Maybe Fareon freaks. We got lucky, though. Whoever those mother-rapers are, they can’t even build a bomb right. The thing didn’t blow.”
“This just happened?” Terry asked the officer. “Right now?”
“What’s a Fareon freak?” said Lorrie.
The officer ignored their questions.
Lance slunk low in his seat. He knew better than to talk to a person with a gun more than was necessary. He knew what was coming next. But Terry spoke first.
“So can we go?” she asked.
“Can you go?” The officer seemed amused. “You think we’re just out here looking for terrorists? Let’s see your papers, young man.”
Lance handed them over, and she walked in front of the car so her colleagues could inspect his documents. She leaned in toward them and made some sort of joke, and the three women burst out laughing. She strode over to the passenger side window, the seed of a smile appearing on her face. “My goodness,” the officer said, glancing down at Lance. “I see your time is coming soon.” She was looking, he knew, at his birth date.
As the officers waved them on, Lorrie misjudged the width of a gaping pothole, jolting her passengers as the car plunged in and causing a loud bang that echoed in the night. They were silent for a long while. Finally Lorrie spoke. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “We’ll figure something out.”
Lance glanced at the clock on the car’s dashboard. Twelve hours since they’d first met.
That morning, the third day of his third week as head technician and sole employee of the small, poorly equipped photo studio, Lance’s future had suddenly come into focus. The studio was nestled in the back room of the town’s only bookstore. Just weeks into his new job, Lance’s life was yet again engorged with sameness. Though Lance had long had the hazy notion that he was destined for a life of vast joy and fulfillment, little in his world suggested a trajectory that would end up any different from his brothers. Until finally the day came when life proved him right. He went to work, the sun was shining, and there, in his store, was Lorrie.
She and a friend were lost, she explained, having strayed far from the expressway. And while they had chosen the loose gravel of the backroads on purpose, they had gotten lost in Lance’s town unintentionally. Their car had a flat, and while they were waiting on the mechanic, they had decided to walk around in search of adventure.
“What’s with all the tinsel?” Lorrie asked, placing one palm on the counter. “Something special happening around town?” She had an overflow of hair and stood with her other hand fixed against her hip, a posture that wrung Lance’s heart clean. He was not sure if she was making fun of him.
“Oh c’mon,” he said. “You know what today is. The entire Homeland is celebrating.” At first Lance thought it was her unruly spritz of hair that made his heart throb—or maybe her small breasts softly swaying beneath her dress, or those round, round eyes, perhaps it was the eyes—but a moment later he realized that such a woman could not be broken down into distinct parts. One focal point did not do justice to her beauty.
“It’s the prime minister’s birthday, isn’t it?” she said.
“His ninety-sixth, I believe.”
A flash of distaste crossed her face, and he watched as she did her best to quickly transition her expression back to neutral. Though he could not make out her reason for disliking the man who had ruled the Homeland for as long as he could remember, the thought came to him that if he could keep her talking, he just might find the sort of endless depth—or maybe it was a looseness—that he immediately realized was completely absent from his own life.
“It’s just,” she began, her voice lowering, “twenty-two years is a long time to be at war, you know?”
Lance did not know. The Homeland had always been at war. Though his family had suffered, he knew his story was just one dark cloud in a stormy sky that was full of them, one of thousands. War was what was happening, what had always been happening. In two weeks he would be eighteen, and the same thing that had happened to his brothers would happen to him. Until this moment, he had never thought to invent a different ending.
“That’s why me and Terry there”—she gestured to a woman smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk—“we needed to get out of the city and clear our heads.”
Their eyes met. Lance could see that she was a woman who would not let him in without effort, which was, of course, the entire point. Anyone who offered up his or her heart too soon surely deserved to get it stomped on.
After a moment, Lorrie explained that not only did they not know where they were on the map, but even after having the tire repaired, the car was still jerking to the right when they drove.
“Almost like it led you here, like fate?” he joked. The small curl to Lorrie’s lip followed a skewed wrinkling of her forehead. Either she didn’t get Lance’s sense of humor or she didn’t like it.
The woman named Terry poked her head through the door and gave a cool, practiced look around the shop. Immediately Lance spotted a vague suggestion of non–Majority Group features in her relaxed face that was rare in these parts of the Homeland.
“So here’s the deal,” Terry said. “I just picked the car up from the mechanic, but it’s still pulling to the right.”
None of this was surprising; with no money to repave the roads, sunken indentations in the blacktop were the norm. Lance told the single customer browsing in the mystery section that he would be right back and went outside to look at their car, an old hay-colored Brand 8 pocked with rust spots over the rear wheels. All the tires were worn down evenly but still had plenty of tread. He checked the springs and saw that they jounced strong and even.
“It’s Terry’s car,” said Lorrie. “See that rust there? Do you think that has anything to do with anything?”
“Well,” Lance said. He bent down to take a closer look, sneaking a sideways glance at Lorrie’s unpainted face. From every angle, she was stunning. He felt Terry’s disapproving eyes on him and returned his focus to the Brand 8 and its rusted quarter panels. Lance had taken only one course of shop and had spent most of it making intricate line drawings of air hoses and locking nozzles in his sketchbook. When it came to component parts of combustion engines, he understood their form but had no idea of their function.
“She had bad oil leaks last winter,” Terry was saying. “But I got that taken care of. Of course when the first snow hit, exhaust came right through her vents along with the heat. Just driving was enough to get a girl tipsy.”
“Hmmm,” Lance said. The Brand 8 didn’t look like a she. He gave a light kick to the passenger front tire that he thought looked authoritative. The idea came to him to check the tire pressure.
“I don’t like this much,” Terry said.
“The car?” Lance asked.
“No, asking you to fix it,” Terry said. “It doesn’t go with what we’re trying to do.”
“You asked Dan Cummins for help,” Lance pointed out.
“Who’s Dan Cummins?” said Terry.
“I think that’s the name of the mechanic,” Lorrie offered.
“It is,” Lance said, happy to agree with Lorrie about anything, no matter how insignificant.
“And I think Dan Cummins, the one-legged mechanic, screwed us,” Terry said, her voice rising. “I don’t remember her veering like this before he fixed the flat.”
“That’s crazy,” Lance said. “That man saved his whole battalion, held off a band of Foreigns for twenty-seven hours until a rescue team came in.” Dan-the-Mechanic had served with Lance’s oldest brother, and the mention of their ordeal made his brother’s narrow forehead leap into his memory, the rest of his face following quickly. With a silent apology, Lance pushed him out. Like so many others in town, he was well acquainted with the problems with dead people: they still insisted on making themselves felt, even as the world moved on without them.
“Fighting Foreigns doesn’t make him a good mechanic,” Terry said. “Everyone who gets shipped off fights Foreigns. If anything, it probably rattled his brain like the rest of them.”
“You think Dan damaged your frame?” Lance said. “He just patched your tire.”
“Then maybe it was you,” Terry said to him.
“All I did was check the springs!”
“You kicked her, too.”
“If it’s the frame, a kick won’t make a difference.”
“Terry.” Lorrie crossed her eyes. She turned to Lance. “We appreciate your help,” she told him, “but we’re not about to depend on men. Now, where can we get some good coffee around here? Terry and I need to figure out our next move.”
“I’ll come along,” Lance said. They didn’t object, but they didn’t agree, either. “Wait here,” he said. It was unclear if they would.
“Hey, get lost,” he hissed at the browsing customer. “We’re closing early.” The man, an old drinking buddy of Lance’s father, had already lost two boys to the Foreigns and hadn’t heard from the third in months. Plus there’d been a younger brother, Lance remembered. His words tugged the man’s face downward, but he shuffled off without complaint. No big deal. He wasn’t going to buy a book anyway; no one ever did. With a sharp push, Lance slammed the cash register shut and headed out to the street. He willed the two women to still be there. They had to be.
“Took long enough,” Terry said once he returned to the sidewalk.
Lance pointed the way to the one diner in town and hoped they weren’t in the midst of a blackout. On the walk over he smiled as he heard them agree that it was probably the frame that was bent after all, and that it had been that way for quite some time. The busted tire was probably just a coincidence. On every block, the preternaturally triumphant grin of the prime minister gazed down from bannered lampposts, his face standing out brightly in the warm sun. Lance felt around his pockets, caressing the Currencies he knew were already there. Going out to lunch would not be a problem.
As a boy, Lance’s pockets had overflowed with small-denomination bills. Other students always followed him around school; chances were a few crumpled Currencies would jump from his pants onto the ground, and anyone alert enough to notice would be able to grab at least enough for an extra dessert or after-school snack, maybe even a whole meal.
The means by which Lance collected his classmates’ allowances and filled his pockets to overflowing were transparent: each day at recess he set himself up with pad and paper in a corner of the playground, interruptible only for new orders of the pencil-and-ink portraits his fellow students commissioned of themselves. Lance’s clients were charged with providing the pebbly, textured paper that was his preferred medium, and boys and girls—though they were mostly girls—would line up, sheets in hand. Lance’s process was straightforward and direct: step one, collect their Currencies; step two, take the textured paper from the excited girl or bashful boy’s optimistic hand; step three, internalize the face that stood in front of him. Before the final bell of the following day, Lance would return the piece of paper to the correct classmate/customer, portrait now included, a large profit realized.
How many of these he sold he couldn’t say, only that by ninth grade, business was so good that he raised his prices and lowered the quality of his work. Nothing anyone noticed, of course, just small steps to save time: a skip of some shading, the failure to vary his line weight. At first he thought doing a crap job might make him feel bad about his art, but he found that as long as he told himself he wasn’t trying, he felt fine. Though his strokes were sloppy, his customers were always satisfied when the end product appeared to at least represent their particulars. In addition to his living customers, Lance was often commissioned to draw a portrait of those killed in action, usually the older brothers of his classmates.
For these pieces, he charged double and always drew from memory. He always had enough Currencies for the movies, plus a date, even when he didn’t want one.
Mostly, people said, there was something about Lance’s eyes. Others claimed his face was far wiser and more erotic than was reasonable for a boy his age, particularly one in such a far-off and isolated part of the Homeland. Traveled eyes, the people around town liked to say. Only Lance had never traveled anywhere, and on most days, he had little desire to. After all, everyone in his family who left had simply failed to come back.
For one family to have given so many boys to the war wasn’t right, people mumbled to one another in the aisles of the grocery store, whispered over pews at church, shouted above the splashes of children at the community pool. At the local veterans’ shrine, where pictures of forgotten boys from Lance’s town stared down at the few visitors, wall space was now at a premium. Quite a few of those pictures were of people related to Lance, and though the effort was unspoken, folks wanted to protect the next up in this long-suffering clan. Now that next boy was Lance—almost of age—possessor of those soothing eyes and that smooth, uncut skin. Their town was a small, Young Savior–fearing place, people reminded each other, and they were not those cold, unruffled heretics who lived their lives stacked vertically in metropoles like Western City North. In Lance’s town, deep in the Homeland’s interior, townsfolk celebrated the prime minister’s birthday every year with gusto, neighbor helped neighbor, and family watched out for family, especially when that family’s suffering was of such endless magnitude.
Those people could have been us,
husbands and wives whispered across mattresses. And so it came to be that people around town, particularly those without daughters, tended to go out of their way in order to help Lance out.