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The Harvest

an extract from the novel
by Scott Nicholson



It fell from the heavens.

The object cut a hot, green-yellow The Harvest by Scott Nicholsonslice through the dark belly of the atmosphere and shot to earth under the cover of twilight clouds.

It rammed into the worn granite of the Appalachian mountainside, plowing into the ground and throwing bits of rock and shredded fern and stump dust into the air. Steam rose from its scalded shell and joined the night fog. The thing inside the shell rested, wounded from the impact and weary from its journey across galaxies.

It would heal. It always had.

The rain began, clattering across the metallic skin. An orifice opened, dripping sulfuric meringue, and a trembling tendril tested the air. Then it drooped to the ground and probed the soil, verifying that its instinct had not failed.

Bacteria. Protozoa. Amino acids. Life.



Tamara Leon ran across the parking lot with rain pounding her head and shoulders. She hadn't brought her umbrella today, and she cursed herself for the oversight. The fierce winds of a Southern Appalachian spring often reduced umbrellas to rags and twisted metal anyway. Still, it would have given her a meager talisman against the rain gods if nothing else.

She rammed the key into the door lock of her Toyota sedan and worked the handle, then slid into the driver's seat as rain drummed the roof. Tamara slammed the door and caught her breath, her leather satchel spotted with water. She looked at herself in the rearview mirror to see if the Gloomies were hiding in her eyes.

Nope, only eyes.

She wiped a clear circle on the fogged window with the sleeve of her coat. The brick buildings of Westridge University stood clean, square, and solid around the perimeters of the parking lot. The college had all the personality of a tweedy, pipe-smoking administrator. Not a hint of controversy roamed those halls, except when Tamara cut loose with one of her more spectacular psychology theories.

She started the car to let the heat circulate before she started the long drive up the mountain. The rain continued to pelt down like liquid ball bearings. At least it wasn't snowing. Then the half-hour drive could easily stretch into two or three hours. She pulled out of the parking lot, the windshield wipers beating sheets of water off the glass.

Tamara slid a tape into the cassette deck, Wild Planet by the B-52's, and killed the miles by singing along with Cindy and Kate, making up harmony parts as the duo wailed away in the high registers. Drivers passing her, seeing her bobbing up and down in her seat and shaking her head from side to side, probably took her for a drunk. But she was doing a great job of closing down, putting the workday behind her.

This was her time. She wasn't Dr. Leon and she wasn't "Mommy" or "honey," as she would be in a half hour. And time away from home meant a delay in defending herself from Robert's increasingly cruel taunts. She could pretend, at least for another evening, that home was a happy place.

She often wondered if her whole life had been role-playing. Little tomboy, teenage jock, valedictorian of her college class, wife, professor, mother, unheralded backup singer for the B-52's. Everything but Daddy's little girl. The one thing she would have liked to have been, but had never gotten the chance.

And it was all her fault.

Freud would say she had some kind of penis fixation-- everything was, with him--and Jung would say she was responding to some ancestral instinct that compelled her to wear masks. But to Tamara, it was because of her Gloomies, the bad things she felt and saw and heard before they ever happened.

Nuts, every one of us, she thought, tossing back her damp hair and cackling like a demented witch in a bad TV movie. Studying psychology made you wonder if you were crazy, and teaching it removed all doubt.

The miles whirred by under her wet tires, and soon she hit the outskirts of Windshake. She drove past a stucco-sided motel that hugged the edge of a cliff. A plastic black bear stood by the motel office, its paws raised against the rain. It wore a black T-shirt that said John 3:16 in white letters. Most days, she could look out over the valleys below and see a 180-degree panorama. But today she saw only a mist that covered the mountains like a gray wool blanket. She had just crossed the county line when the first whispering of Gloomies echoed in the caves of her skull.

Shhhh, they seemed to say, as if calming her, hushing her, lulling her into dropping her defenses. But her defenses were rock solid, the Great Wall of China against Mongol hordes. Gloomies didn't exist. Hadn't Robert told her that a dozen times, each reminder more terse and insistent than the one before?

She passed a boarded fruit stand that huddled under a red gap of hill. Through the chicken wire that had been strung across the front of the store, shelves of honey jars caught the last feeble daylight and reflected back like golden eyes. Rubber tomahawks and long burgundy ears of Indian corn hung from the rafters. A life-sized hillbilly doll, corncob pipe tucked into the black bush of its beard, sat in a rocker under an awning, its stitched face fixed on the highway.

Hillbillies and barn dances, church socials and knitting bees. Cow pastures and cornfields. Burley tobacco warehouses and craft shops. Windshake wasn't a melting pot, it was a big black kettle where you dipped your slaughtered hogs.

The quaint attraction of small-town life had worn off in a couple of months. Quite a change from Chapel Hill. That community had a real international flavor and was an energetic wellspring of ideas. There, people gathered in coffeehouses and bars and discussed Sartre and Pollock, Camus and Marxism. Here, they drank liquor from Dixie cups in the Moose Lodge parking lot and talked about hubcaps. She wasn't sure which of the two lifestyles was the most compelling.

The sibilant noise wended through the alleys of her head again: Shhhhh.

No. She wasn't hearing telepathic signals. The Gloomies could keep to themselves. Because they aren't real, are they?

Tamara cranked the stereo another notch, and Fred Schneider talk-chanted his way through an amphetamine-fueled tune about a girl from Planet Claire. She took the narrow fork into their neighborhood, a cluster of small houses at the foot of the slopes. The closer she got to the driveway, the tighter her stomach clenched, her body anticipating another showdown. What would it be tonight, cold indifference or hot rage?

Think happy thoughts.

At least Robert had a job here and the family was relatively secure. She was lucky to have a position at Westridge. Even if she had given up her assistantship at the University of North Carolina, where she'd been a rising star in the psychology department.

Don't think about it, she told herself. You know good and well that Robert wanted to stay, wanted you to develop your career.

But she'd watched his face grow longer and older as he came home jobless every day, tired from delivering air check tapes to Piedmont radio stations, worn out from filling up program directors' voicemail boxes, pissed off at the media whiz kids who wouldn't recognize talent even if it came from Walter Cronkite's golden pipes.

She'd decided that, for his self-esteem and their mutual happiness, they'd be better off moving here, where Robert had been offered an air shift. It meant a cut in pay for Tamara and not much of a boost in overall household income. But her sacrifice had been repaid with sullen resentment, and the gulf between them had only widened when her disturbed sleep and headaches began.

Because she had been stupid enough to share her suspicions with him, that the strange set of sensations she'd nicknamed the Gloomies were back.

The invisible voice came again, louder, more drawn out this time: Shhhhuuu.

As if the Gloomies were trying out a new tongue, breaking it in, forming a forgotten language or else a word not yet learned.

She turned into their driveway and pushed the nagging thought-sound from her mind. Happy, happy thoughts. The house was neat, cedar-planked and stained clear, with redwood trim. No garage, but they had three bedrooms and two baths. An ordinary home where nothing bad could happen.

And we can have it paid off in, oh, thirty-nine years or so.

Tamara was suddenly struck with a vision of herself as an old woman, bones bent from more than seven decades of holding themselves up. Her lying on the plaid couch and filling the air with the stench of decaying flesh. Robert gone somewhere, off to another marriage to a woman who didn't have imagination, who didn't "hear voices." Cats. She would need lots of cats, the cliché of the crazy old dowager.

She shuddered and looked through the window into the lighted kitchen. Her heart leaped with joy and she broke into a smile, the thoughts of her own mortality falling from her like blossoms from a storm-struck peach tree.

Kevin and Ginger sat at the table, bent over their schoolbooks. Kevin looked so much like his father, with his thin nose, curly hair, and quick brown eyes. Ginger was a miniature replica of Tamara. Ginger had blonde hair, too, but it was slightly more reddish than her mother's. She had the turned-out ears as well, and her straight hair was tucked behind them. But the ears were not unflattering, as much as Tamara had hated her own worst feature. In fact, Ginger's ears complemented her wide expressive face. And her lips were plump and curvy, the kind some man would be falling all over himself to kiss one day.

There you go again with that "future" nonsense. Better enjoy what you have, because it can all be taken away in the blink of an eye.

Like her father had been taken.

Because she had ignored the voice of the Gloomies.

Happy, happy thoughts, damn it.

She honked, waved, jumped from the car, and ran to the front door, the rain tapping out its tireless rhythm on her head and shoulders. The kids met her just inside the house, ducking under her wet trench coat for a hug.

"Hello, my cuties," she said. "What did we learn at school today?"

Kevin hopped up and down. "I made three homers in kickball. We had to play in the gym because of the rain, and all you had to do for a homer was, like, kick it into the bleachers. I rocked their little world, dude."

Kevin wagged his index fingers as if they were six-shooters, then blew the imaginary gun smoke from his fingertips and returned the weapons to their holsters.

"Uh--okay, dude. What about you, pumpkin?" She stroked Ginger's soft hair.

Ginger looked up and flashed her mother a bright green smile. "I ate a crayon."

"My goodness. You get in the bathroom and brush your teeth right this minute."

"Sorry, Mommy," Ginger said, but Tamara could tell she wasn't. And Tamara had to wait until Ginger was down the hall before she could allow herself to laugh into her hand.

"Has Daddy called?" she asked Kevin.

"Not since we got off the bus."

Tamara looked at the clock. Twenty past five. Robert's shift ended at two, and his production work usually took only a couple of hours at the most. Still, she shouldn't worry. He was a big boy. He would be here.

He wouldn't die on her. Not like--

She caught herself. There you go again. What kind of a downer are you on, girl? Dancing with the Gloomies again. Well, it's a morbid kind of day, what with this dreary weather. And thinking about the past doesn't do a thing to cheer you up.

"Hon, would you bring some kindling from the laundry room?" she said to Kevin. "I'll build a nice fire and make us a round of hot chocolate."

Kevin whooped in anticipation of a good sugar buzz and skated across the oak floor in his stockinged feet.

Tamara put the kettle on to boil and was rummaging in the cabinets when the whispers returned.


Soft as a snake burrowing in the crevices of her mind.

"No," she said, slamming the cabinet closed. She had heard nothing. Because Gloomies weren't real.

Especially not this one, the strange sibilant phrase that chilled her bones and carried doom as if it were a typhoid wind.

Even when Robert pulled into the driveway ten minutes later, Tamara still hadn't shaken the sense of foreboding. She'd always been sensitive. Too sensitive, her sisters had constantly reminded her. Always letting little things bother her, a sixth sense for the negative. She wondered if she might be suffering from a touch of depression.

Yeah, right. And probably schizophrenia with delusions of grandeur. With a dose of bipolar disorder thrown in on the side.

Nope, I'm just plain old crazy. Crazy, I can live with. And look on the bright side. At least your hubby didn't die today. Even if sometimes you can't stand him.

But she was going to give it a try. Happy, happy thoughts. For the kids. For him. For herself.

"You look like you had a rough day," she said as Robert elbowed through the door, arms loaded with radio copy, cassette tapes, and damp manila envelopes.

"Hundred percent chance," Robert said. He leaned forward to kiss her. "But the sun's breaking through the clouds."

Happy thoughts indeed. "Hmmm. Another kiss like that, and I could get a sunburn."

He winked. "Later, when it's dark."

"Is that your forecast?"

"No, honey, that is a guarantee." He dumped his work onto the sofa and sat down. He was already lost in Robertville, studying some advertising circulars.

Tamara knocked on the table. "Hello? Aren't you going to ask about my day?"

"Yeah. Can you believe it? Hardware store wants to do a special campaign for Blossomfest." He hummed an uneven jingle, then said in his radio voice, "'Spring has sprung and Windshake is blooming, time for scrubbing, mopping, and brooming.' Catchy, huh?"

"My day was fine. I proved that ESP doesn't exist."


"My husband can't read my mind because he can't even read my lips."

"Sorry." Robert put his papers away, went to her, and massaged her neck. "I'd be afraid to read your mind. But I can read your body like a book. Every single page." He rubbed lower, then stopped when Kevin came into the room with a load of firewood.

"More Gloomies?" Robert whispered to her.

She looked away and nodded. This was one of those times she wished her constitution enabled her to lie. His hands dropped from her shoulders, the room grew ten degrees cooler, and household chores suddenly seemed intensely interesting.

Tamara and Kevin sipped hot chocolate and built the fire while Robert started supper. After the meal, Tamara sat at the kitchen table with a stack of student papers she had to grade. But her attention wandered and her gaze kept returning to the window. The world outside was harsh, gray, and ugly. The rain ran down the glass in silver streaks, not merrily but angrily, as if it would like to come inside and make itself at home.

As if it were thin fingers scratching, scratching, scratching, searching for a fissure.

And the sound the water made: shu-shaaa, shu-shaaa.

She turned her chair around so that she faced the wall and put the weather out of her mind. A storm in Windshake was more the rule than the exception, especially at this time of year. She told herself that all was well, her family was safe and snug and soon to be tucked in.

Happy, happy, happy.

But still the Gloomies swirled in her head and heart. The soft whispers played all evening and followed her into a restless sleep, crowding the three-foot gap of ice between her husband's flesh and her own.

...continues in the print edition

© Scott Nicholson 2003.

Scott Nicholson's The Harvest was published in September 2003 by Kensington Books; ISBN: 0786015799.

The Harvest by Scott Nicholson
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