In the not-too-distant future, no one trusts anyone and everyone is watching everybody else. America is obsessed with information and under siege from an insidious enemy: paranoia. National identify cards are mandatory, terrorism alerts are a daily event, and privacy is laid bare on the Internet. For a freelance journalist, her daughter, a bestselling author, and a struggling actor, these tumultuous times provide the backdrop as their lives become inextricably bound in a darkly humorous, frighteningly accurate story of life in an unstable world.
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The author, most recently, of Waxwings and Passage to Juneau, Jonathan Raban was born in En-gland and since 1990 has lived in Seattle. His honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature, the PEN/West Creative Nonfiction Award, the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association’s Award, and the Governor’s Award of the State of Washington.
From the Hardcover edition.
After the explosion, the driver of the overturned school bus stood beside the wreckage, his clothes in shreds. He was cupping his hands to his ears, as if to spare himself the noise of sirens, car alarms, bullhorns, whistles, and tumbling masonry. When he brought his hands away and held them in front of his face, both palms were dripping blood. His mouth opened wide in a scream that was lost in the surrounding din.
Beyond the bus, a tire dump had caught fire. Swirls and billows of black smoke, looking as thick and glossy as oil in the early morning sunshine, rose in a fast-climbing plume above the flames. The painted letters of the company sign, PACIFIC AUTO RECYCLING, swelled and popped in the heat.
A child was scrambling from a blown-out window on the bus—a towheaded boy of nine or ten, his face framing a disheveled grin. Half in, half out of the bus, he sat on the window's edge, gazing at the lurid inferno of burning tires and the screaming driver as if the catastrophic nature of the occasion quite eluded him.
Rescue workers came running—sexless toddlers in silver spacesuits—their giant feet slipping and sliding on the pulverized glass that coated the road inches deep like a freak hail-fall. Shards of glass were still dropping from the windows of buildings that had taken the full force of the blast.
The hollow whoomph of an exploding gas tank came from inside the auto-wrecking yard, followed by another a couple of seconds later. A spaceman with a machine gun shouted, "Keep down! Keep down!" at the rescue team, his voice muffled and distorted as he yelled through his respirator into a bullhorn. Bent low, stumbling through glass, they reached the bus, from which silvery tendrils of smoke or steam were now drifting skyward.
"Get in there! Get every live kid out of it, now!"
Silver-suited fatties clambered onto the axle casing, hoisted themselves atop the side of the yellow bus, and dropped inside through the windows. Two pairs of rescuers half carried, half hustled the grinning boy and the driver along the road, splashing through a small turbulent river that issued from a ruptured water main. The driver's head flopped against his chest, blood from his ears spattering what was left of his shirtfront.
A body in a torn tracksuit lay on its back in the path of the rescue party, her mouth and eyes open as if she'd been saying something important when sudden death interrupted. Dust, fine and pale as talcum powder, was settling on her face, as it settled on the parked cars and curbside dandelions, graying everything on which it fell.
The ground quaked to the sound of a bigger whoomph from the wrecking yard. The bus driver's head jerked upright from between the shoulders of his rescuers, and he let out a throaty, gargling howl. "Oh my Christ!" The word "Christ" was drawn out over several seconds, mingling in the air with the echoing rumble of the latest explosion.
"Not there!! There! Get them on the Decon van! The Red Cross van, assholes. Move it! I said move it!"
"Go fuck yourself," said one of the rescuers from inside his hazmat hood, his voice audible only to the bus driver and, by a stretch, to his fellow rescuer. "Fucking National fucking Guard."
The stumbling trio broke into an ungainly trot, closely followed by the rescuers with the boy, like competitors in a three-legged race making the final dash for the tape.
The tarry chemical stink of the fire filled the Red Cross van taking them to the Decon tent at Harborview. The rear windows looked out on boiling flames and on the dense black overcast, rifted here and there by scraps of flawless blue, that now darkened the streets. In the foreground, a camo Humvee, spacemen with gurneys, running stick figures, splayed bodies, liberated papers seesawing in air, drifts of toxic dust, smoking heaps of bricks and torn Sheetrock.
The driver of the school bus, Tad, was trying to assign the name of a painter to the scene. Goya, maybe. Or Hieronymus Bosch. He tipped his head and jiggled his pinkie in his right ear to clear the canal of stage blood.
"How're you doing, kid?"
"Better than school, huh?"
The boy's nose was squashed against the glass. The transfixed grin hadn't left his face since the moment when he'd first climbed out of the bus.
"You wait," Tad said. "You wait till you go through Decon. That's something else."
In Decon the boy would be stripped naked and hosed down before being admitted to the hospital. Tad had gone through it a couple of exercises ago. Never again: he'd written that into his contract. Today, as soon as the van reached Harborview, he'd be into his next part. After Bus Driver with Burst Eardrums came Psychotic Homeless Man Disrupting Work of Rescue Team, then Dying Amputee, Man Having Coronary, and—the one he seriously dreaded—Man Being Dug from Rubble.
Tad Zachary was one of the six professional stars of the show titled TOPOFF 27 by the Department of Homeland Security. Most victims were played by volunteers from government offices and by homeless people getting minimum wage and a free lunch. Tad and his fellow actors were scoring $1,000 of federal money apiece for their day's work. They were the ones who'd be filmed in close-up, their images beamed by satellite to the bunker in D.C. where the exercise was being monitored.
He needed the job. His last appearance on stage had been sixteen months ago, when he'd played Willy Loman in the ACT revival of Death of a Salesman. Since the downturn in the economy, one Seattle theater after another had gone dark, and Tad was scraping by on residuals, commercials, voiceovers, PSAs, vilely written parts in spec indie movies at $250 a throw, management-and-training films, the rare gig as MC at a corporate junket, and the interest on the proceeds of the sale of his mother's house in Portland. He had to remind himself most days that he was lucky: he had a strong local name and good connections. Even jobs in retail, the usual standby of the out-of-work actor, were in short supply now. His friend Gilda Hahn, who'd played opposite him as Linda Loman, had been on food stamps before she found her current role, working the midnight shift at a 7-Eleven on Denny Way.
For Tad the TOPOFFs were performances, but for the emergency services they were dress rehearsals: FEMA, the National Guard, the firefighters, police, ambulancemen, and civic officials were still plotting out their lines and moves, and still not getting it right. In TOPOFF 26, nearly every rescue worker had been contaminated, fatalities had vastly exceeded predictions, chains of command had broken down, hospitals overwhelmed. The reviews that came down from D.C. were so terrible, Tad had heard, that they were officially classified and never reached the press.
This one was the most realistic yet. A dirty bomb (two thousand pounds of ammonium sulfate, nitrate, and fuel oil, mixed up with fifty pounds of cesium-137 in powdered form) had gone off in a container supposedly holding "cotton apparel" from Indonesia, recently unloaded from a ship docked at Harbor Island. A fireworks expert (the same guy who directed the July Fourth display on Elliott Bay) created the terrific gunpowder explosion and the rockets laden with talc to simulate cesium. The tire fire had been set with gasoline, the broken glass supplied by volunteers standing on the roofs of neighboring buildings. At least the pictures beamed to the other Washington would look great.
A section of Route 99 had been closed for the exercise, which was happening in an area five city blocks square. Yet even in this micro version of nuclear horror, chaos was already breaking out all over, less than fifteen minutes since the bang. Judging by the fire trucks now homing in on it, and by the stream of silver suits running northward, the fire was out of control. Tad heard gunshots, which surely weren't called for in the script.
He hated working with amateurs. They never understood the fine line dividing real life from theater. They always overdid it. He hoped against hope that the exercise would be called off before he had to be dug out from the rubble.
The Red Cross driver had turned his whooping siren on. They were in regular traffic now, out of the exercise zone, speeding past a jam of diverted drivers on their way to work. This greatly excited the boy, who began to whoop in tune with the siren.
Tad hated working with children, too. "You're giving me a headache, kid. What's your name, anyway?"
"Taylor, I'll give you a buck if you chill out and shut up till we get to the hospital, okay?"
"Done deal," Taylor said. He looked and spoke like one of those kids whose parents dragged them from audition to audition. Too cute by half, and then some.
Tad dug into the back pocket of his pants, removed his billfold, and peeled off a dollar that the boy took without thanks. Professional curiosity made him ask, "You getting paid for this, Taylor? Or are you a volunteer?"
"Fifty bucks," the boy said with a smirk. "I was a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. And I was in The Nutcracker at the Opera House. How 'bout you?"
"If you're getting paid, kiddo, if you think you're an actor, you better learn to wipe that stupid grin off your face. This is a pro speaking. You're a casualty. You're probably going to be dead of radiation sickness in a week. Think of your parents. Think of the funeral. You're one unlucky kid, Taylor. You in Little League?"
"Well, think about this. You're never, ever going to play another game. You understand that? You're history."
The grin was at last beginning to come unstuck.
"If you're going to act, act good. Act real. Let me tell you something about the way you played that kid climbing out of my bus: it stank. Every other kid was dead, and you looked like it was Christmas and Santa had just popped out of the chimney. Next time you've got to be the character, right?"
"Right." A chastened mumble.
Tad laid his arm across Taylor's shoulder. "Just some friendly advice from an old actor. What are you next?"
"I got a dead mom. She's lying in the road, blown out of our car on the way to school."
"So you're in white shock. It's too early for grieving. You're a disoriented zombie. A shivering blank. And after Decon, you will be shivering. Think about it, Taylor. Learn to act."
At Harborview, the boy joined the cheerful line of people queuing at the entrance to the Decon tent: evidently no one had warned them of the intimate humiliations that lay in store. The car with City of Seattle plates and "ZACHARY" posted in the window was waiting to drive him to his next engagement. A change of shirt and trousers was on the backseat, along with a woolen balaclava helmet and his makeup-sponge bag. Before he climbed in he turned and called, "Hey, Taylor! Taylor! Break a leg, kid!"
Lucy Bengstrom was in luck that morning. The bomb-scare shenanigans going on downtown had freed the suburbs from their usual swarm of officious security types. On the dot of 7:30, aiming to catch the 9:30 ferry from Mukilteo to Whidbey Island, she'd parked her daughter, Alida, in the Early Birds program at her school on Capitol Hill. As it turned out, the drive to Mukilteo was a breeze: no soldiers manning the checkpoint on I-5, and the search of her car at the ferry terminal was merely a command to flip the trunk and an incurious glance inside. She was waved onto the 8:30 boat with nearly ten minutes to spare.
Earliness made her feel she'd won a surprise vacation as she got coffee from the machine in the passenger lounge and took it out onto the stern deck. It was holiday weather. For the entire last week of March, the temperature had been up in the eighties, and today, April 2, they were saying on the radio that it would likely pass ninety. To be wearing a dress that she'd bought for summer in Hawaii on a spring day in the Pacific Northwest was an oddity to add to all the other oddities of life in the last year or so: they steadily accumulated, like snowfall--another thing that wasn't happening the way it used to.
Water boiled in the dock and the ferry pulled slowly away from the ramp. Sipping at the tepid espresso, Lucy felt properly afloat again, at last.
The call from GQ had come in the nick of time—the first assignment in many months that she could really sink her teeth into. Back in the nineties, when East Coast editors thought of the Pacific Northwest as the new big thing, Lucy was offered far more work than she could possibly take on, but since then the region had lost much of its sexiness and the dateline "Seattle" was beginning to look like deja vu all over again. The old-new public library, the international toast of 2004, had long slipped into yesterday-land, though a recent string of gruesome serial murders, recalling Ted Bundy's exploits and the Green River killings, had briefly jolted Seattle back into the news. Lately, she'd been scratching a living out of travel pieces—short trips with Alida in tow, during school breaks--and wry reports from the deep sticks for "Talk of the Town" in The New Yorker. She called editors nowadays, and sometimes her calls were returned.
Before the GQ editor phoned, she hadn't known that August Vanags lived in her territory, though she knew of his book, of course. Impossible to miss its long bestsellerdom, or the bidding war between DreamWorks/Paramount and Miramax for movie rights; Spielberg had won, if that was the word, and paid gazillions. She'd gone straight out to buy Boy 381, the title superimposed on a creased and grainy black-and-white snapshot of a starveling boy standing against a forbidding barbed-wire fence. Leery of its blockbuster success, she'd begun to read, expecting to find it not half as good as it was cracked up to be.
But she was swept away, almost from the first page. It was amazing that this memoir of an orphaned child caught up in the worst barbarities of World War II could be so light, sweet-tempered, brave, and funny. From his terrible boyhood spent among the displaced and terrorized people of Central Europe, overrun now by Hitler's armies, now by Stalin's, Vanags had somehow conjured a magical, inspiring book. It was as if Huck Finn had been set adrift in this refugee world of trains, and labor camps, and trudging columns of shocked, exhausted men and women trying to escape. Like Huck's, the boy's voice was clear and true.
From the Hardcover edition.
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