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By Chase Novak
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Thirteen years ago, a radical fertility doctor helped bring Adam and Alice Twisden into the world. The treatment came at a great cost: it turned the twins’ parents into barbarous animals and threatens to transform the children, too. As Adam and Alice find themselves on the brink of maturity, they starve themselves in a desperate attempt to stop their bodies from changing. Will they succumb to the same bodily horrors that destroyed their parents?
Their aunt, Cynthia, who has always wanted to be a mother, oversees renovations to the Twisden family’s Upper East Side residence-violently torn apart by the children’s parents — and struggles to give her niece and nephew the unconditional love and stable home life they never had. Meanwhile, in the world outside, the forces of good and evil collide as a troop of wild teenagers, growing steadily in number, threatens to invade the calm refuge Cynthia is so determined to construct behind the safety of the Twisdens’ walls.
As New York City transforms into a battleground, Adam and Alice will have to decide where their loyalties lie. They are determined to lead normal lives — and yet their unnatural urges, which grow ever stronger by the day, can only be stifled for so long…
They were not here to clean up a crime scene. That grisly work had been accomplished two years ago by RestorePro, when the town house on Sixty-Ninth Street was closer to hell’s ninth circle than it was to its former incarnation—a stylish, impeccable, historically correct Upper East Side town house, one of the few left in New York City that had remained in the same family since its construction. Its last owner had been Alex Twisden, who had lived there his entire life, first as a child, then as a playboy, then as a corporate lawyer obsessed with his work, then as a somewhat reclusive bachelor, then as the newly wed husband of a beautiful younger woman named Leslie Kramer, then as the father of twins, and, finally, stemming from the fertility treatments he and Leslie endured in order to procreate, as a kind of beast for which neither science nor folklore has a name.
RestorePro’s workers, decked out in muck boots, respirators, and HAZMAT suits, had swooped in. Of course, the worst thing about the cleanup was the blood, the hair, the fur, the bones, and the teeth, the parts of bodies for which neither Alex nor Leslie had a taste—they both eschewed ears, and found feet as a rule inedible. But there was a lot more to do than simply remove the evidence showing that for a time the elegant old house had been an abattoir. There was disinfecting to be done. There were odors to be dispelled and others that could only be covered up. There were scratches in the plaster, claw marks deeply grooved into the wooden floors. There were piles of smashed furniture—it looked as if crazed vandals had gotten into the storeroom of Sotheby’s before an antiques auction. Once-precious Blackthorn wallpaper, brought into the house by William Morris himself, hung in long drooping curls. Sconces had been torn from the walls; sofas had become public housing for all manner of rodents. RestorePro’s motto was No One Will Know, but though the workers did their job diligently, and did not stint on labor or time, the house they left behind when they finally got to the end of their contract still bore the ineffable marks of a place where something hideous had happened. You did not have to believe in the spirit world to sense that an aura of misery and doom hung over the place, even after it had been scrubbed clean.
Two years passed. If the house was haunted, the ghosts had it to themselves. The doors were locked. The shutters were closed. The electricity and the gas were disconnected. Alex’s estate paid the taxes on the place, though his once-sizable fortune had been severely compromised in the ten years between the fertility treatments in Slovenia and his sudden bone-crunching death in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he was struck down by a Fifth Avenue bus. (Leslie’s violent death—more clearly by her own design—came shortly after, on a tarmac at the Ljubljana Airport.) Alex Twisden’s sister wanted nothing to do with the place, and though Leslie’s sister, Cynthia Kramer, an antiques dealer herself, had always had a love for the house that bordered on lust, she was not in line to inherit it. It really belonged to Alex and Leslie’s twins, Adam and Alice, but they were only ten years old when their parents died and had been left to float unhappily through the troubled, murky waters of New York’s foster-care system.
Their mother’s will had been quite clear on the subject: the twins were to go to her sister, Cynthia. But the law moved slowly, following its own maddening path, and two years passed before Cynthia had a date in Surrogate Court to finalize her adoption of the children. She would move from San Francisco to New York, and the twins would be restored to their old home—a site of countless terrifying nights, but nevertheless the only real home they had ever known.
Cynthia did not know these children very well, but she was thrilled to suddenly have an opportunity to be a mother, a chance she would have said, even recently, was as remote as her becoming secretary of state or a rock star. She granted that, once upon a time, Alex and her sister had been loving parents to the twins, but the last year or two with their parents had been terror-filled, and the time in foster care, well, who knew what damage that had done to them? Cynthia accepted the fact that the twins would need rehabilitation, a lot of it. Therapy perhaps. Tons of love, for sure.
She had tons of love.
And more where that came from. She had never been more certain of anything in her entire life. She could and would love these children back to health. She would return to them their birthright—to be well educated, to be safe, to be cared for, and to live in their beautiful house.
And so, as the wheels of the legal system slowly turned, Cynthia presided over the final renovations of the house on Sixty-Ninth Street from the opposite coast, organizing the whole thing via e-mails, phone calls, and Skype from her shop in Pacific Heights. There were light fixtures to be torn out and replaced, a kitchen to be modernized, nine bathrooms to be redone, some in need of a little twenty-first-century touch-up, some needing…everything. There was furniture to purchase, windows to be replaced and curtained or shuttered; there was flooring so brutally scarred that it needed to be torn up and replaced, and there were sixteen rooms that needed repainting.
The most pressing job, however, was the cellar. It was here that Alex and Leslie kept their tragic menagerie, the cats and dogs, some bought at pet shops, some “rescued” from various shelters in the tristate area. The cages and cramped runs in which these doomed beasts were once confined had to be removed, and all evidence of their ever having existed had to be completely erased. The cages were heavy and had been bolted into the cellar’s stone walls. Mack Flaherty, the contractor overseeing the entire job, had saved the cellar for last, and to make certain it was finished on time—Cynthia was due in New York in a week—he hired more men. They worked fourteen-hour days to get the job done. A few of the workers heard the squeak and scratch of rodents in the walls, but it was in nobody’s best interest to admit to it. The finish line was in sight. Cynthia was on her way. Let’s get ’er done, was the mantra; all the guys were saying it. Let’s get ’er done.
You know what I always say?” Arthur Glassman announces to Cynthia as he elbow-guides her through the echoing halls of the Surrogate Court in downtown Manhattan. “If life gives you lemons, what you have to say is ‘Hey, life! Enough with the fucking lemons already.’ ” He is a stout man with an expansive smile and an expensive smell—the smile cost him about $100K and the smell was $315 an ounce. He can be a fool for a beautiful woman—and Cynthia is quite his type. She has shiny dark hair parted in the middle, a generous mouth, a long neck, broad shoulders, long legs. When he attends parties with his wife, and a woman of Cynthia’s type walks in, Mrs. Glassman pokes Arthur in the ribs and says, “Hey, there’s one for you.” Once upon a time, Arthur had been Alex and Leslie Twisden’s attorney, and now he has become Cynthia’s, without exactly being asked to. He has worked without compensation helping Cynthia to get the poor twins out of the foster-care system and into her custody once and for all, and now they are at the finish line and he is happy—if happy can be used to describe anything that arose from his relationship with the twins’ late parents.
“Will I be able to take them home with me?” Cynthia asks.
“I believe that today’s your day, Cynthia. My hope is that with all the time that’s passed, this town’s morbid curiosity about the children will have faded and they can lead a normal life—if teenagers can ever be called normal.” He winks to show he is more or less joking.
“They’ve been through a lot,” Arthur says. “Psychologically, of course. The loss of their parents. And both of them, as you know, have severe eating disorders. They’ve been hospitalized many times.”
“I’m an excellent cook, Mr. Glassman,” Cynthia says. “I have to believe that with some stability in their lives, they’ll eat normally.”
“My theory too,” Arthur says, patting her arm. “I think refusing to eat has been the only control they’ve been able to exert, since everything else in their lives was out of their hands.”
“Well, I’ve cooked for all kinds of people. I know kids can be picky eaters, but I’m pretty comfortable in the kitchen. I actually love to cook.”
Arthur glances over his shoulder and suddenly steers her into an empty courtroom, which seems to be all but waiting for them. The door closes behind them with a breathy ooomph.
“It’s a very complicated situation, Cynthia. I want you to be fully cognizant of that. These terrible treatments Alex and your sister went through—they weren’t the only couple to do it, you understand? Many people of means availed themselves of those treatments. Sometimes it worked out well, and sometimes…” He spreads his soft hands, as if to make room for the unspeakable. “Funny, isn’t it? How money can put wings on your feet, but you can end up flying to places you never should have gone.”
“So other children had to live with the terrors that Adam and Alice lived with, is that what you’re saying?”
“And some of them are still out there. That’s what I’m saying. Not many, but some. Not just here—a lot of places. But with a concentration here in New York because…” He smiled his pricey smile. “We have more than our share of one-percenters. Frankly, I wish you’d take Adam and Alice away from here. But at least you plan to drop the Twisden name—wise decision, and one that the court intends to uphold.”
“You speak as if everything’s already been decided.”
“Oh, it has, it has. Your sister’s will stated quite explicitly that the children were to go to you, and there was nothing in Alex’s will one way or the other regarding permanent custody of Adam and Alice. No one has stepped forward to contest the will and the City of New York is more than happy to be released from its financial obligations to these little orphans. As far as the court is concerned, there could be no better resolution of this matter. The twins will be with their aunt, and the foster-care system can cease paying for their upkeep, beginning today. And, just between you and me and the lamppost, there are people in city government—shall we say, at the highest reaches?—who have a special interest in seeing that justice is done for those children.”
“And what about the house?” Cynthia asks. “Has that been decided too?” She clears her throat, glances away. She does not want to appear overly interested in the Twisden town house on East Sixty-Ninth Street. She was not sure what the appraised value of the place was, but it had to be a fortune, even with its recently acquired reputation as a site where monstrous acts were committed.
“Ah, yes. The house. Of course. The social workers have given it the A-OK,” Arthur says. “You did an admirable job putting that place back together again.”
“Have you been there? Have you seen it?”
Arthur shakes his head no. He cannot imagine ever stepping foot in that house again.
“It must have cost a lot,” he says.
“Yes. There are services that specialize in that sort of thing. Just the cleaning was nearly a hundred thousand dollars. I had to sell some of their things to cover the costs.”
Arthur looks shocked, as if she has just confessed to something that strains the boundaries of attorney-client privilege.
“I don’t want to hear anything about that, Cynthia.”
“What choice did I have? The place was uninhabitable.” She shudders, shakes her head, remembering how she used to lust after that classic Manhattan town house, with its graceful staircases, the sconces, the tables, the paintings, the rugs. Much of it had disappeared as Leslie and Alex’s life spiraled out of control; they had sold off a lot of it (often at shockingly low prices), and most of what was left had not survived daily life in the house.
“I worry about the kids going back to that place,” says Arthur. “But on the other hand, it’s the only home they’ve ever known.”
“They won’t be living there as Twisdens,” Cynthia reminds him. “They’ll be Kramers. And they won’t be attending their old school.”
“Well, we’ll wait and see,” says Arthur.
As they make their way through the courthouse corridors, it seems there’s no one Arthur does not know, or at least no one whom he does not feel obligated to acknowledge, either with a nod or with his standby verbal greeting: Well, look at you!
Cynthia is overdressed; she looks as if she should be strolling through the lobby of some chic hotel rather than down the scuffed, chaotic corridors of municipal justice. She is wearing four-inch heels, a pencil skirt, her most expensive satin blouse. Yesterday, on the phone, she’d asked Arthur how she should dress for her court date, but he’d made light of her concerns.
“Just don’t wear a cape,” he’d said. “Or one of those bracelets shaped like snakes, with little ruby chips that look like shining red snake eyes. But honestly? I wouldn’t worry too much. You should see some of the people the court sees fit to send children home with. Mothers with tattoos! Whoever thought we’d come to a time when Mommy’s got a tarantula tattooed on the small of her back and Daddy’s wearing eyeliner? It’s a whole new ball game out there, Cynthia.”
Arthur pushes open the swinging door of courtroom 4 with all the swagger of a sheriff walking into a saloon.
“You’re late, Mr. Glassman,” the presiding judge calls out as soon as she sees him. She is a tall, weathered woman with a voice that sounds like a chain-smoking Canada goose. “My docket is full full full, and I can’t be wasting time, not today.”
As the two approach the bench, Cynthia glances at the people in the gallery. Many of them—actually most—appear to be staring at their shoes; it takes Cynthia a moment to realize they are all surreptitiously staring at the screens of their hopefully named smartphones, despite the widespread notices throughout the courtroom prohibiting the use of cell phones. Here, the supplicants before the law come in all the shades and sizes of a great city, seated on pews in a church whose bible is the Constitution, waiting to contest a will or further an adoption. Somehow, Arthur used the influence he gathered in the course of his long career and jumped Cynthia’s petition for custody to the top of the docket. It makes her feel a bit queasy. Where she comes from, this kind of line-jumping is considered bad manners. She decides to make it easier on herself by avoiding all eye contact. She fixes her stare straight ahead as she and Glassman approach the judge, who is swiveling back and forth on her high-backed leather chair while satisfying an itch on her scalp with a long bright yellow pencil.
And that is when Cynthia lays eyes on her niece and nephew for the first time in years. They are seated front left, their knees touching, holding hands. Even though she knows they have been resisting food, refusing it, possibly even throwing it up, their thinness stops her in her tracks for a moment. They have nothing extra. Each one’s skin fits like a wet suit, like paint on a wall. And yet, there is a beauty, the beauty of youth, unvanquished even by the madness of self-starvation. They are both gracefully tall, with quiet, shy demeanors. Ethereal. They have their mother’s reddish-blond hair, their father’s stubborn chin and slight underbite. The sight of them breaks something that has been frozen inside of Cynthia. She lets out a gasp, holds on to Arthur’s arm for balance, and begins to weep.
Arthur has considerately arranged for a car to take Cynthia and the twins home, and as soon as the three emerge from the courthouse, they see a dark blue Lincoln Town Car at the curb with a liveried driver holding a hand-lettered sign bearing Cynthia’s surname—Kramer. She glances over her shoulder, looking for Arthur, but he is nowhere in sight. Probably one of the innumerable people he knows has detained him in the corridor. I’ll call him later, she thinks as she shepherds the twins into the backseat of the car and then gets in herself.
They are off without delay, pulling quickly away from the curb. A moment before they blend with the northbound traffic, a hand pounds angrily on the passenger-side window. The sound of it fills the car like gunshots. Startled, Cynthia grasps the children’s hands. She sees a tall, long-faced man in a chauffeur’s uniform shaking his fist at their car as it begins its journey to the Upper East Side. As the car moves, she twists around for another look at him—his sneering mouth, his furious eyes. He pulls a phone out of his jacket quickly, as if he were drawing a gun.
Dennis Keswick, in a chauffeur’s uniform, watches the Town Car with Cynthia and the twins pull away. Those kids have no idea how close they came to getting themselves snatched. Not only today—today, Dennis must admit, was a long shot, a sudden inspiration on his part when he learned that they were going to be in Surrogate Court—but over the past year, while they were both in foster care. If there was someone who cared to listen, Dennis could fill his ears with the ins and outs of drugging and capturing a child; it is simply not as easy, not as straightforward nor as foolproof, as the average person assumes. It is a very difficult job. And very underappreciated. Oh, well…they were not the only fish in the sea. Dennis’s superiors (whom he hated, as a matter of fact) had a special interest in Adam and Alice, but meanwhile, there were other similar little beasts for Dennis to deliver.
“You folks comfortable back there?” the driver asks. His face is difficult to make out. He has a full beard, though there is something oddly childlike about him too. The visor of his chauffeur’s cap is yanked low; he wears a scarf—in summer!
“We’re okay,” Cynthia answers. “Right, kids? Are you cool enough?” She worries they might be cold, without any fat on their bodies to insulate them. She feels enormous next to them, filled with hundreds of rich meals, oceans of tortellini and crème brûlée.
A thought presents itself: What if she were still drinking? Her breath catches for a moment. She closes her eyes and thanks the Higher Power for her sobriety.
“Hey,” she says to the twins. “I have a little present for you, no big deal.” She’d been counseled by friends and books that kids recoil if they think you’re making a big deal out of something. She opens her purse and takes out two wristwatches. As soon as she touches them, however, she thinks she has made a mistake. They are ridiculously gender-specific: an American Girl watch for Alice, a Swiss Army watch for Adam.
She decides to let them choose which watch they want—both will fit their slender wrists.
“Funny,” Adam says, choosing the American Girl.
“Alpine,” says Alice, choosing the Swiss Army.
“I know kids don’t really use watches anymore,” Cynthia says. “What with phones and all.”
“No, this is amazing,” Adam says, strapping on the green-and-yellow watch with its face splashed with stars and daisies.
Cynthia also read that amazing is what kids say now instead of cool. Things are clicking into place; this might not be as difficult as she was afraid it would be. Afraid? Forget it. Try petrified. Try sick with dread and uncertainty. Try hourly confrontations with her own inexperience. Becoming a parent at her age is like suddenly moving lock, stock, and barrel to a new country, knowing only a few rudimentary phrases of the language.
“More AC?” the driver asks. His voice is foggy, strange, off. It occurs to Cynthia that he might be transgendered. What a brave new world!
“We’re fine back here,” she says.
She glances down at her hands and notices they are shaking. As much as she has looked forward to having custody of her sister’s children, she feels right now that the whole thing has been sprung on her as a huge surprise. No amount of thinking and wishing and planning has prepared her for this sudden and overwhelming sense she has that two helpless children have been entrusted to her. They have been through hell, and now Cynthia must remind herself that she has within her the power to restore them to some semblance of the carefree happiness and safety that she believes to be the birthright of every child.
After accepting her gifts, they are paying no attention to her whatsoever. They are holding hands and gazing at each other. Their silent, cellular communication has not lessened in the many months they have been apart. Cynthia feels a small pang of exclusion, but mainly she is happy they have reconnected. Overjoyed, really. Overjoyed. No one will ever understand Alice the way Adam does, and no one will understand Adam like Alice, and thank God they are back together. May they never be separated again!
“Did you have sisters where you were?” Alice asks Adam.
“I guess. They had two girls, two boys, and me.”
“Were they nice?”
“The last ones? Which ones do you mean? I had four different families.”
“Yeah. The last ones.”
“They were pretty old. They worried a lot about money. You had to choose if you wanted one of the heated rooms or a real lunch.”
“I bet you took the heated room,” Alice says.
“My Staten Island family served goose on Christmas Day,” Adam says.
“Ick. Let’s be vegetarian.”
“Okay,” Adam says. “How many calories do you do?”
Alice frowns, looks away. “So I guess you’re all mature and everything now, right?” she murmurs.
“No way!” Adam says, as if it were a matter of honor.
And then, after a few moments of silence, Alice says, “Did you do okay in school?”
The ringtone on Cynthia’s phone is chapel bells, and they are chiming now in her purse. She glances at the screen: Arthur Glassman.
“Hello, Arthur,” she says.
“Where are you?” he asks. He sounds furious.
“In the car. Thank you for arranging it for us.” She sees the driver’s eyes glancing back at her in the rearview mirror.
“Your car is here, Cynthia. Waiting for you.”
Chug-chug. The driver uses his controls to lock the doors.
In a long, narrow apartment overlooking Gramercy Park, Ezra Blackstone and his sixth wife, Annabelle Davies, are fighting over air-conditioning. Ezra is seventy-one years old and has circulation problems and feels clammy and cold even on a hot day like this. Annabelle is twenty-eight; she spent the first twenty-seven years of her life in Monroe, Louisiana, and then, as she frequently says, she “came north to get out of the fucking heat.” They’d had a rather nice courtship, particularly refreshing to Annabelle, who’d come to believe that gallantry, seduction, roses, and romance were a thing of the past. The touch of her young flesh, the lemon-and-spearmint tang of her kisses, were like a time machine to Ezra, restoring him to a youthful vigor. But the rituals of courtship soon gave way to dailiness, and the excitement of her young flesh soon stopped working its decade-dissolving magic on Ezra. Since marrying five months ago, they have fallen into squabbling about any number of things, including where to eat, which candleholders to use, how to get to Amagansett, how much to pay their housekeeper, and whose turn it was to feed the piranha. But today’s confrontation over whether or not to air-condition their apartment is one of the most bitter fights they’ve had in weeks—well, if not weeks, then at least days. Or, at the very least, the worst fight they’ve had today. So far.
For now, peace has been restored. The air-conditioning remains off, but the windows overlooking the park are wide open, letting in a soft summer breeze, barely strong enough to stir the gauzy white curtains.
Their nerves are unusually taut because they are expecting the doorman to ring them any minute to announce a visitor, a young boy named Boy-Boy. Boy-Boy did not give—and perhaps does not even have!—a last name. He was that kind of visitor. Ezra’s connection to Boy-Boy is through Bill Parkhurst, who worked for Ezra back in the day, when Ezra was producing three daytime game shows, one on each of the major networks. Bill had been a loyal lieutenant but was, in Ezra’s view, weak of character, always chasing after the newest revolutionary therapy, the most enlightened guru, the next can’t-miss self-help regimen and, even as a young man, consuming a fistful of vitamins and supplements with every meal. And drugs too, of course, he had a contemptible weakness for drugs and the attendant softheaded beliefs—peace through pot, enlightenment through LSD, ecstasy through Ecstasy. Bill’s latest enthusiasm is something called Zoom, a drug so new to the New York underground that it is not even illegal.
“A few years ago,” Bill had explained to Ezra during lunch at the Carnegie Deli, peering over a pastrami sandwich that was nearly as tall as he was, “a few very desperate people went over to some cockamamie place in Europe for fertility treatments.”
“I remember,” Ezra said. “I remember the story well. Don’t tell me you’re taking that.”
- "[Novak's] prose sings with joy when he describes the snap of a bone, delights - and disturbs - when he dredges dark humor from the aftermath. Simply put, the people-eaters bring out the best in Chase Novak."—Colin Dwyer, NPR
- "Gruesome and grimly funny"—BookPage
- "Like all good literary horror, a sense of foreboding piggybacks on a layer of strong emotion, and here it's tweaked by the characters' desperate, haunting desire for connections."—Booklist
- "A satirical supernatural thriller . . . Genuine rat-inspired horror."—Publishers Weekly
- "Novak ably combines realism and the supernatural."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Oct 7, 2014
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Mulholland Books