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The Absence of Sparrows
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- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 5, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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When I look back on that summer, I think about birds. I think about crows and sparrows and waxwings, hawks and shrikes and jays. I guess you could say it’s just a distraction, a way for me to keep the truth of what actually happened to the back of my mind, but there’s more to it than that. It was through birds that I learned to see the world more clearly, both during the plague, and after.
I used to wonder how something so small and delicate as a ruby-throated hummingbird could possibly fly nonstop across the entire Gulf of Mexico, a journey of five hundred miles and more than five million wingbeats, over nothing but cold, open water, but I think I understand now. They do it because they have to, because that’s the path that fate chose for them, however unfairly. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are survivors, and so are we. That summer was our Gulf of Mexico, and somehow we crossed it. But not all of us, and not unscathed.
It all started on a blistering hot day in early July.…
C’mon,” said Pete. “Stop being a doofus.”
I was avoiding the cracks on the sidewalk again, like we both used to do when we were younger and we’d race to the end of the block while trying our best not to break Mom’s back along the way. Pete always won, but I’m pretty sure Mom got crippled every time.
“It’s harder than it used to be,” I said. “There’s way more cracks.” Plus, my feet had grown a few shoe sizes.
I finally gave up, my attention turning to the sound of a black-capped chickadee singing from somewhere nearby. Black-capped chickadees were one of my favorite birds. Pete didn’t have favorite birds, and seemed to think that I shouldn’t either. It wasn’t normal.
I could hear a northern flicker in the distance as well, with its long and loud wick-wick-wick sound. Flickers are big woodpeckers with exotic-looking markings. The first time I saw one, I thought I was looking at something that didn’t belong, a rare specimen that must have gotten lost during its migration. Turns out they’re actually common, but you don’t see them much because they’re skittish around people. Unlike chickadees.
Pete continued on without me. I listened a moment longer and then ran to catch up.
We were on our way to our uncle Dean’s shop, or more precisely, the shop roof, which was one of our two favorite haunts. The other was up in the arms of the big silver maple in Sunskill Park, the one with the checkered kite stuck fast near the top. Pete was hell-bent on someday freeing the kite, but could never quite work up the courage to risk putting his weight on those bendy little branches. Not even if I double-dog dared him.
As was always the case when we knew we’d be up on the roof, we both stopped along the way to stuff our pockets with maple seedpods, or propeller leaves, as we called them, since that’s what they looked like when you dropped them: spinning propellers. I thought it amazing how nature sometimes made the best toys. Not that we ever called them toys, of course. Toys were for kids. Pete was twelve and I was eleven, and dropping maple seedpods from the roof of Uncle Dean’s shop was serious business. There was a root beer on the line.
“Storm’s coming,” said Pete when we arrived at our destination. He kept his eyes skyward as he climbed the ladder attached to the wall at the back of the shop.
Pete had been acting like some kind of weather expert ever since predicting a tornado last summer. It ripped through Stanley Peterson’s farm, dancing between a few grain silos before finally picking up and dropping Stanley’s riding lawn mower onto the roof of his burgundy Cadillac. That was the only damage, which is kind of weird when you think about it, especially since people used to say Stanley spent more time with that car than he did with his wife. He used to polish it at least once a day. Pastor Nolan told Dad that it was God’s way of punishing Stanley for his vanity. I don’t know if that’s true, but what I do know is that Stanley started driving a little old rust bucket shortly thereafter. I guess he didn’t want to press his luck.
Pete’s prediction that day wasn’t anything special. He’d been making the same one regularly for almost two months. He would quirk an eye at the sky and say, “It’s going to storm.” If it didn’t, it was no big deal, and he’d just act like he never said anything in the first place. But if it did happen to storm, he’d look at you all sage-like and say, “See? I told you.”
“Maybe,” I said as I stepped off the ladder and onto the roof, although the clouds didn’t really look stormy to me at all. They had a soft-edged fuzziness about them, not that crisp popcorn shape of growing thunderheads.
We made our way to the front of the roof, where the garage overlooks Main Street. Uncle Dean was one of only two mechanics in Griever’s Mill (population 3,004), but even so, the shop was never all that busy. Nobody took any notice of us as we parked our butts and let our legs dangle over the edge. On the sidewalk directly below us was a white chalk circle with a big X through it. This was our target, the landing pad for our seedpods. The first one to hit it would earn himself bragging rights for a whole week, plus the loser would owe him a root beer float.
“You go first,” Pete told me, as usual.
“I always go first,” I argued. The wind invariably took the first pod. If I went first, Pete could try to compensate for which way it was blowing.
“I went first last time,” he lied. Or maybe he was just misremembering. That wasn’t uncommon with Pete.
“Fine,” I said. What Pete didn’t realize was that I’d come prepared this time, and had a single blade of grass to go along with my propeller leaves. I took it out of my pocket and tossed it into the wind.
“Hey, that’s cheating, Ben!” said Pete.
“So is making me go first all the time,” I countered.
We both watched as the blade of grass landed well left of the target.
“Be a cheater, then,” said Pete. “See if I care. You’ll still miss.”
I probably would. The best either of us had ever done was getting it on our fifth try.
“Definitely going to storm,” Pete said as I lined up for my drop. “Clouds are already turning black out past the edge of town.”
“Shh,” I said. “I’m trying to concentrate.”
Pete scoffed. “I bet you don’t even land within ten feet of it.”
“Not this time,” I said with a sudden certainty that sprang from I don’t know where. Somehow I just knew that I wasn’t going to miss, that I was going to nail it the first try, like when an athlete gets into the zone and knows he’s going to score a goal or get a touchdown.
My propeller spun as if guided by fate, around and around in slow motion, the wind pulling it away and then pushing it back into line again. Its ten-second journey from rooftop to sidewalk felt to me more like ten minutes, but it finally landed gently at the very center of the X. I let out a whoop while Pete called me a cheater, but my gloating pretty much ended there.
When I looked up from the makeshift landing pad, my eyes were immediately drawn to the darkening sky that Pete had mentioned just moments before.
“Uh, Pete,” I said. “I don’t think those are clouds.…”
They definitely weren’t clouds.
Dust storm? I wondered, but even as the thought took form, I knew it was wrong. What I was seeing looked more like coal smoke, the kind you’d see billowing out from a locomotive, all thick and dark woolen gray. It didn’t disperse like smoke, though; it held together as if buffeted by winds from every side, a roiling mass as wide as our town, yet strangely flat, almost pancake shaped. It was getting closer, its underside maybe thirty feet off the ground and its leading edge about two football fields away. It drifted with all the silence of morning fog, and yet something about it seemed predatory, like a lion on the savanna stalking a kill.
An icy chill climbed the length of my spine—a sensation immediately followed by a sudden and urgent desire to get down off the roof.
“C’mon,” I told Pete, but he just stood there and kept on staring.
“Pete!” I yelled.
He finally snapped out of it and looked at me.
“We need to go,” I told him.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Definitely.”
By the time we’d climbed down and circled around to the front of the garage, the darkness had already reached the far end of the street. Others had noticed it, too, and a small crowd stood on the sidewalk in front of the shops to watch it approach. I rescued my maple seedpod from the landing pad before anyone could step on it. I thought it might be lucky, and I wanted to keep it for next time.
Uncle Dean saw us from inside and came out to join us, not noticing what else was going on.
“What’re you boys up to?” he said, adjusting his ball cap. Uncle Dean was always adjusting his ball cap. It was like he couldn’t quite make it comfortable on his head, even though he’d been wearing it for as long as I could remember.
“Just watching,” said Pete.
Uncle Dean followed our gazes out to the approaching dark. His lips parted as his jaw went slack. “What in the name of H. P. Lovecraft is that?”
I had no idea who H. P. Lovecraft was, so I just shook my head and replied, “Not clouds.” I knew that wasn’t helpful at all.
Across the street was Crandall’s General Store. Mr. Crandall was standing on the sidewalk by the front door, hollering in at his wife, Marge. “Hurry up and get out here!” he said. “You gotta see this!”
“Whatever it is,” Uncle Dean continued, “I don’t like the looks of it. C’mon, let’s get you boys inside.”
I was already three steps ahead of him, my thinking being that whatever was happening, it would probably be a whole lot safer beneath a roof and surrounded by walls. Once inside, I waited for something like a sudden gust of wind or a downpour of smoky-colored raindrops, but even as the darkness slid over the sky right above us, the only thing that seemed to change was that the neighborhood sparrows—regular house sparrows, mostly—immediately stopped their chirping and flying and took up silent perches on eaves and fences, their small bills turned up at the heavens, heads cocked as though they were listening.
I wondered if they sensed something that we humans couldn’t. I watched them for a moment through the grimy glass of a single-pane window. Pete stayed close beside me, his eyes never leaving the sky.
“I had a dream like this once,” he whispered, “except I was lost in a cornfield.”
Outside it wasn’t night dark, but more like solar-eclipse dark, or at least what I imagined that to be. What little light there was had a different quality to it, a sort of peculiarity that made me think of all the “totality” YouTube videos that my science teacher made us watch in class last year, when half the country seemed to be suffering from total-eclipse fever.
Uncle Dean headed off to the corner to call Dad on his CB radio, since he was most likely still out driving around in the country, where cell phone coverage was spotty. Dad was an assessor for an insurance company, which meant that he did stuff like write up estimates for hail-damaged crops. He was also a volunteer fireman, and a first responder, too. I listened as the static gave way to conversation. I couldn’t make out what Dad was saying from across the garage—the transmission was too crackly—but I could hear Uncle Dean.
“Logan? Hey, whereabouts are you?” He paused, listening and nodding. “Yeah, it’s right above us here in town. Bloody bizarre. I’ve got your two birds here under my wing. Caught ’em flying down from my roof again.” Another pause. More static. “I will. Don’t you worry. Let me know if you hear anything, all right? Yep, you too, stay safe.” He hung up the CB and rejoined us at the window.
“What’d he say?” asked Pete.
“He says the sky’s clear where he is, but he can see the dark in the distance. He’s on his way back now and wants you two to stay put.”
“What about Mom?” I asked.
“I told your dad I’d call her on the phone. I’m sure she’s safe at home, though. Nothing to worry about.”
I wasn’t so sure. Mom could get a little anxious sometimes. Like when I was eight and someone reported a cougar near the edge of town. Pete and I weren’t allowed in the backyard for almost a week. I could just imagine what was going to happen because of this. She’d probably have us both on leashes.
I went back to staring out the window. The darkness hovered above the whole town now and everyone had gone back inside except for old man Crandall, who was still out on the sidewalk, brandishing one of those Polaroid cameras that would spit out a picture right after you took it. You couldn’t look at the photo right away, though; you had to wait for the developing chemicals to dry first.
I watched as Mr. Crandall snapped a picture and then tried to speed the drying process by waving the photo back and forth in the air. Mrs. Crandall yelled at him from the doorway, her eyes moving between her husband and the dark above, as if a coal-black funnel might suddenly appear to swallow him up.
“For heaven’s sake, George!” she said. She finally stepped over the threshold and reached out, clearly intent on dragging him if that’s what it came to.
She never got the chance, though. One second she was reaching, and the next she was standing there wide-eyed, staring down at George Crandall’s right hand, which was black now, I realized, and shiny as volcanic rock.
The Polaroid camera crashed to the pavement as the old man seemed to lose all control of his fingers.
“It’s spreading,” I heard Pete say. And it was.
From his hand to his wrist and then right up his sleeve—by the time my brain even registered what was happening, the blackness had claimed his whole arm and part of his neck above his collar, and it didn’t stop there.
Mr. Crandall opened his mouth as if to cry out, but it was already too late; the darkness had seized his vocal cords. A moment later the transformation was complete.
George Crandall stood frozen in place, an obsidian statue dressed in an old wool suit with patches on the elbows. A crow flew down to land on the statue’s head. It cawed twice and then silently flew off south.
The lights inside the garage flickered twice and then went out completely. The shop radio cut out as well, but not before losing its signal for a moment first, the harsh white noise giving way to a silence broken only by the hysterical wails of poor Mrs. Crandall, who was still on her knees on the sidewalk.
Seeing her out there seemed to trigger something in Uncle Dean’s brain, a hardwired instinct to help. He started toward the door, with Pete following close on his heels.
“Just wait!” I told them both. I was worried that it wasn’t safe yet, that the worst might still be to come, even though the sky was already clearing, the smoky darkness moving off with all the stealth and mystery of a town-sized UFO.
They both ignored me and continued out onto the street, where several others were already gathering, their eyes wary and their movements slow, like they’d just crawled out from a bunker in the midst of a war, the prospect of further bombing hanging over their heads.
I only made it as far as the front door myself before deciding to wait inside, at least for a moment or two, just in case. I tried to tell myself that I was the smart one, that I was only being sensible, but when it came right down to it, I was just scared.
I watched as Pete and Uncle Dean broke away from each other, with Pete heading off for a closer look at the old-man-turned-statue while Uncle Dean went to help Mrs. Crandall back to her feet. Uncle Dean was quickly joined by the large-bottomed Spandex sisters, who owned the hair salon down the street. Their last name wasn’t actually Spandex, but that’s what we called them since that’s what they always wore. Pete usually made a rude joke whenever he saw them, but today his head didn’t even turn in their direction. He was mesmerized.
“It’s not possible,” someone in the growing crowd said. “It can’t be.”
Clearly it was, though. The longtime owner of the general store had turned to glass.
I jumped as the radio behind me crackled back to life. The lights came back on as well, which made me feel a little bit better. Whatever had happened was officially done happening… for the time being at any rate.
I screwed up my courage and joined all the other brave people out on the street, most of whom had formed a circle around Mr. Crandall. I pushed my way into the heart of it to try to find Pete, who of course had moved in closer than everyone else, a slave to his curiosity.
“Nobody touch him!” said a woman to my right, as if Mr. Crandall’s condition might be contagious, which, for all we knew, it was.
Everyone backed off a step. Everyone except Pete. Ignoring both the warning and plain common sense, he stepped right up and reached out his hand to tap Mr. Crandall square on the chin. It made a firm sound, like a fingernail against granite.
“My God,” said a bearded man in a John Deere baseball cap. “What if he’s still in there? Trapped? He’ll suffocate to death!”
“I don’t think it’s like a shell,” Pete said. Mr. Crandall’s mouth was still open, and you could clearly tell that it was black on the inside, too. I wasn’t tall enough to see if the darkness went all the way down, but the bearded man was. He stepped forward for a closer look.
“I think he’s solid through and through,” he told the crowd.
The whole street was buzzing. The few people who had actually witnessed the transformation were now trying to explain what had happened to those who had shown up too late to see it. Many of them were talking over each other, which only resulted in shouting.
I was standing close enough now to see that every small detail was retained in the glass, from the lines on Mr. Crandall’s knuckles to the hair in his ears, which I’d noticed one day in church a few months before and hadn’t been able to stop noticing ever since, mostly because it grossed me out a little. Mr. Crandall wasn’t just a frozen semblance of his former self—he was a flawless replica, as dark as onyx but scarily real.
I couldn’t bring myself to look at his eyes, and instead turned my gaze to the Polaroid photo, which I’d belatedly noticed he was still holding above his head. It seemed important up there, like a small flag or a sign of protest. I decided that I wanted to see it. I didn’t know why, exactly; I just wanted to.
A small jump and the photo was mine. I only had time for a quick look before Uncle Dean appeared to pull me out of the crowd, but I was surprised to see that it hadn’t finished developing yet. There was still a big dark blur right in the middle.
“C’mon,” Uncle Dean said as I slipped the photo into my back pocket. “Let’s get you boys back inside before your dad shows up.” With one hand on my shoulder and the other on Pete’s, he guided us toward his garage.
According to Uncle Dean’s shop radio, the skies were going dark all over. From New York to New Mexico, Cairo to Japan, black waves were sweeping the globe, leaving swaths of solid glass victims in their wake. Mr. Crandall wasn’t alone.
If I hadn’t already seen it with my own eyes, I probably wouldn’t have believed what I was hearing. I would have written it off as some sort of silly mistake or misunderstanding, like when people started spreading fake news after Orson Welles read that War of the Worlds book over the radio. But as impossible as it seemed, it was happening. Pete and I really had just finished watching five strong men struggle to tip Mr. Crandall onto a trolley and cart him inside his general store.
It was a scene too strange for words.
“Must be heavy” was Pete’s only comment on the effort, as if the men were moving a deep freeze instead of a person.
I wondered where they would put him. In the back with the stock? Maybe near the front entrance? I imagined him standing there, his hand raised as if to welcome incoming customers, like an obsidian Walmart greeter. Definitely too strange for words.
By the time Dad showed up, Pete and I had left the window for a pair of rickety old stools by the Coke machine. We wanted to be closer to the radio, which continued to spill bad news. A radiographer in Chicago had turned to glass while performing an X-ray; a tailor in Montreal fell victim while taking measurements for a tuxedo. It didn’t seem to matter where you were when the darkness passed; inside or out, there was nowhere to hide.
“It’s a bloody circus out there,” said Dad as he entered the shop. The street was still abuzz over what had happened.
Pete hopped off his stool. “Did you see him? Old man Crandall?”
Dad narrowed his eyes. “George? No, why?”
“Please tell me you’ve been listening to the radio,” said Uncle Dean.
Dad shook his head. “Signal was mostly static outside of town, so I turned it off. What’s going on?” The fact that the sky had cleared had obviously left him with the impression that everything was okay.
Pete immediately launched into a breathless account of what had happened, but it was obvious that Dad was having trouble trying to follow. “Whoa,” he kept saying. “Just wait. What?”
“I think you better see for yourself,” Uncle Dean finally said. “C’mon.”
Pete and I tried to follow, but Uncle Dean told us to wait behind and listen for any updates.
“I bet it’s aliens,” Pete said after they were gone. “Abductions.”
“Why would they turn to glass if they got abducted?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Maybe the aliens can’t move matter without replacing it with something else. It would just be empty space otherwise. I think I saw something like that in a comic book once.”
I knew it had to have come from a comic book because Pete didn’t have the imagination to dream it up on his own. My brother was pretty smart, and way better at sports than I was, but he wasn’t exactly a creative thinker. Still, I couldn’t really argue that it wasn’t aliens.
I started thinking then about all the books that I’d read, too, from ones about demons and monsters to others about interdimensional beings and time-traveling bounty hunters. A thousand fantastical ideas suddenly didn’t seem that fantastic.
It wasn’t long before Dad and Uncle Dean returned, Dad now wearing an expression unlike any I’d ever seen on his face before—sort of a mix of shock and resolve, like part of him couldn’t quite believe what he had just seen, while another part had already processed it all and moved on, its focus shifting to being a dad.
“I think that’s enough news for now,” he said to me and Pete as we both watched him from our stools. “It’s time we got home. Your mom’s probably worried sick.”
“Do you think the power went out at home, too?” I asked, as if that was the one thing we should be worried about.
“Hard to say” was Dad’s only reply. “C’mon now, let’s go.”
“Is Uncle Dean coming with us?” asked Pete.
“He’ll come by later,” Dad replied for his brother, as if the two of them had already talked it over, which maybe they had. “He’s going to keep an eye on things around here for a little while first.”
What things? I almost asked, but the answer was obvious: Mr. Crandall. Uncle Dean was going to stick around just in case something changed or, perhaps, changed back.
We got in the truck and left for home. As always, Pete had to sit shotgun because the backseat of the truck was “too cramped” and his legs “too long.” It wasn’t true, but I didn’t argue about it.
“Do you think it could be aliens?” I asked Dad. I was still mulling over what Pete had said earlier.
“I sincerely doubt it, Ben,” he answered.
“But you don’t know that,” said Pete. “That black cloud could’ve been a UFO.”
“It could have been a lot of things,” Dad replied.
“Like what?” Pete pressed. When it came to Dad, Pete was always pressing. Mom said they liked to push each other’s buttons.
“Maybe something atmospheric,” I chimed in, hoping to stop them from arguing before they got started. “Like the aurora borealis, only instead of there being light in the darkness, there’s darkness in the light.”
“That’s stupid,” Pete said.
“No it’s not,” I countered. “It’s more scientific than just blaming aliens.”
Pete scoffed. “Scientific? You just made it up!”
“All right,” said Dad, “that’s enough. How about we leave the speculating to the experts?”
* "A powerful piece of storytelling... Will resonate with anyone who understands that heroism is not a matter of saving the world but of maintaining yourself, and acting to protect those in your community -- despite the forces arrayed against you."
—Quill and Quire, starred review
- "The mystery of the 'glass plague,' the constant threats to Ben and his family, and the fast-moving plot make the book hard to put down.... Sure to be popular with readers seeking a truly scary story."—School Library Journal
"Will stick with the reader long after they are finished."
—School Library Connection
- "This gripping novel trusts its young readers."—Booklist
- "Stephen King-level horror haunting a tight, thoughtful domestic drama."—BCCB
"Gripping and affecting."
"Creepy and engaging."
- "Narrator Will Collyer brings realistic emotion to this creepy audiobook about a terrifying plague."—AudioFile
"A fresh spin on the post-apocalyptic genre.... A thought-provoking read."
—Canadian Children's Book News
- On Sale
- May 5, 2020
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers