City of the Beast lyrics by
CHAPTER ONE page 1
ALEXANDER COLD AWAKENED at dawn, startled by a nightmare. He had been dreaming that an enormous black bird had crashed against the window with a clatter of shattered glass, flown into the house, and carried off his mother. In the dream, he watched helplessly as the gigantic vulture clasped Lisa Cold’s clothing in its yellow claws, flew out the same broken window, and disappeared into a sky heavy with dark clouds. What had awakened him was the noise from the storm: wind lashing the trees, rain on the rooftop, and thunder.
Hе turned on the light with the sеnsation of being adrift in a boat, and pushed closer to the bulk of the large dog sleeping beside him. He pictured the roaring Pacific Ocean a few blocks from his house, spilling in furious waves against the cliffs. He lay listening to the storm and thinking about the black bird and about his mother, waiting for the pounding in his chest to die down. He was still tangled in the images of his bad dream.
Alexander looked at the clock: six-thirty, time to get up. Outside, it was beginning to get light. He decided that this was going to be a terrible day, one of those days when it’s best to stay in bed because everything is going to turn out bad. There had been a lot of days like that since his mother got sick; sometimes the air in the house felt heavy, like being at the bottom of the sea. On those days, the only relief was to escape, to run along the beach with Poncho until he was out of breath. But it had been raining and raining for more than a week—a real deluge—and on top of that, Poncho had been bitten by a deer and didn’t want to move. Alex was convinced that he had the dumbest dog in history, the only eighty-pound Labrador ever bitten by a deer. In the four years of his life, Poncho had been attacked by raccoons, the neighbor’s cat, and now a deer—not counting the times he had been sprayed by the skunks and they’d had to bathe him in tomato juice to get rid of the smell. Alex got out of bed without disturbing Poncho and got dressed, shivering; the heat came on at six, but it hadn’t yet warmed his room, the one at the end of the hall.
At breakfast Alex was not in the mood to applaud his father’s efforts at making pancakes. John Cold was not exactly a good cook; the only thing he knew how to do was pancakes, and they always turned out like rubber-tire tortillas. His children didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so they pretended to eat them, but anytime he wasn’t looking, they spit them out into the garbage pail. They had tried in vain to train Poncho to eat them: the dog was stupid, but not that stupid.
“When’s Momma going to get better?” Nicole asked, trying to spear a rubbery pancake with her fork.
“Shut up, Nicole!” Alex replied, tired of hearing his younger sister ask the same question several times a week.
“Momma’s going to die,” Andrea added.
“Liar! She’s not going to die!” shrieked Nicole.
“You two are just kids. You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Alex exclaimed.
“Here, girls. Quiet now. Momma is going to get better,” John interrupted, without much conviction.
Alex was angry with his father, his sisters, Poncho, life in general—even with his mother for getting sick. He rushed out of the kitchen, ready to leave without breakfast, but he tripped over the dog in the hallway and sprawled flat.
“Get out of my way, you stupid dog!” he yelled, and Poncho, delighted, gave him a loud slobbery kiss that left Alex’s glasses spattered with saliva.
Yes, it was definitely one of those really bad days. Minutes later, his father discovered he had a flat tire on the van, and Alex had to help change it. They lost precious minutes and the three children were late getting to class. In the haste of leaving, Alex forgot his math homework. That did nothing to help his relationship with his teacher, whom Alex considered to be a pathetic little worm whose goal was to make his life miserable. As the last straw, he had also left his flute, and that afternoon he had orchestra practice; he was the soloist and couldn’t miss the rehearsal.
The flute was the reason Alex had to leave during lunch to go back to the house. The storm had blown over but the sea was still rough and he couldn’t take the short way along the beach road because the waves were crashing over the lip of the cliff and flooding the street. He took the long way, running, because he had only forty minutes.
For the last few weeks, ever since his mother got sick, a woman had come to clean, but that morning she had called to say that because of the storm she wouldn’t be there. It didn’t matter, she wasn’t much help and the house was always dirty anyway. Even from outside, you could see the signs; it was as if the whole place was sad. The air of neglect began with the garden and spread through every room of the house, to the farthest corners.
Alex could feel his family coming apart. His sister Andrea, who had always been different from the other girls, was now more Andrea than ever; she was always dressing in costumes, and she wandered lost for hours in her fantasy world, where she imagined witches lurking in the mirrors and aliens swimming in her soup. She was too old for that. At twelve, Alex thought, she should be interested in boys, or piercing her ears. As for Nicole, the youngest in the family, she was collecting a zoo full of animals, as if she wanted to make up for the attention her mother couldn’t give her. She was feeding several of the raccoons and skunks that roamed outside the house; she had adopted six orphaned kittens and was keeping them hidden in the garage; she had saved the life of a large bird with a broken wing; and she had a three-foot snake in a box in her room. If her mother found that snake, she would drop dead on the spot, although that wasn’t likely, because when she wasn’t in the hospital, Lisa spent the day in bed.
Except for their father’s pancakes and an occasional tuna-and-mayonnaise sandwich, Andrea’s specialty, no one in the family had cooked for months. There was nothing in the refrigerator but orange juice, milk, and ice cream; at night they ordered in pizza or Chinese food. At first it was almost like a party, because each of them ate whenever and whatever they pleased, mainly sweets, but by now everyone missed the balanced diet of normal times.
Alex had realized during those months how enormous their mother’s presence had been and how painful her absence was now. He missed her easy laughter and her affection, even her discipline. She was stricter than his father, and sharper. It was impossible to fool her; she had a third eye and could see the unseeable. They didn’t hear her singing in Italian now; he missed her music, her flowers, the once-familiar fragrance of fresh-baked cookies, and the smell of paint. It used to be that his mother could work several hours in her studio, keep the house immaculate, and still welcome her children after school with cookies. Now she barely got out of bed to walk through the rooms with a confused air, as if she didn’t recognize anything; she was too thin, and her sunken eyes were circled with shadows. Her canvases, which once were explosions of color, sat forgotten on their easels, and her oils dried in their tubes. Lisa seemed to have shrunk; she was little more than a silent ghost.
Now Alex didn’t have anyone to scratch his back, or brighten his spirits when he got up feeling depressed. His father wasn’t one for spoiling children. Besides, John had changed, like everyone else in the family. He wasn’t the calm person he once had been. He was often cross, not only with his children but with his wife, too. Sometimes he shouted at Lisa because she wasn’t eating enough or taking her medicine, but immediately he would feel terrible about his outburst and ask her to forgive him. Those scenes left Alex trembling; he couldn’t bear to see his mother so weak and his father with tears in his eyes.
When Alex got home that noontime, he was surprised to see his father’s van; at this hour he was usually at the clinic. He went in through the kitchen door, which was always unlocked, intending to get something to eat, pick up his flute, and shoot back to school. He looked around, but all he found were the fossilized remains of last night’s pizza. Resigned to going hungry, he went to the refrigerator to get a glass of milk. That was when he heard the crying. At first he thought it was Nicole’s kittens in the garage, but then he realized that the sound was coming from his parents’ bedroom. Not meaning to spy, almost without thinking, he walked down the hall to their room and gently pushed the partly opened door. He was petrified by what he saw.
In the center of the room was his mother, barefoot and in her nightgown, sitting on a small stool with her face in her hands, crying. His father, standing behind her, was holding an old straight razor that had belonged to Alex’s grandfather. Long clumps of black hair littered the floor and clung to his mother’s fragile shoulders, and her naked skull gleamed like marble in the pale light filtering through the window.
For a few seconds, Alex stood frozen, stupefied, not taking in what he saw: the hair on the floor, the shaved head, the knife in his father’s hand only inches from his mother’s neck. When he came to his senses, a terrible cry rose up from his very toes and a wave of madness washed over him. He threw himself on John, pushing him to the floor. The razor traced an arc through the air, brushed past Alex’s forehead, and landed point first in the floorboards. His mother began to call Alex’s name, tugging at his clothing to pull him away as he blindly pounded on his father, not seeing where the blows landed.
“It’s all right, son! Calm down, it’s nothing,” Lisa begged, weakly trying to hold Alex as his father protected his head with his arms.
Finally his mother’s voice penetrated Alex’s consciousness and his anger dissolved in a flash, giving way to confusion and horror at what he had done. He got to his feet and staggered back, then ran out as fast as he could and locked himself in his room. He dragged his desk in front of the door to block it, and covered his ears to keep from hearing his parents calling him. For a long time, he leaned against the wall with his eyes closed, trying to control the hurricane of feelings that shook him to his marrow. Then, systematically, he set about destroying everything in his room. He pulled the posters from the walls and tore them to bits; he swung his baseball bat at pictures and videos; he crushed his collection of antique automobiles, and airplanes from World War I; he ripped pages from his books; he gutted his mattress and pillows with his Swiss Army knife; he slashed all his clothes and bedding; and as a final touch he kicked and stomped on his lamp until it was in pieces. He carried out this destruction deliberately, methodically, in silence, like someone performing a necessary task, and stopped only when his strength was spent and there was nothing else to break. The floor was covered with feathers and mattress stuffing, broken glass, papers, rags, and pieces of toys. Weak from emotion and effort, he threw himself down in the midst of that devastation, curled up like a snail, his head touching his knees, and cried until he fell asleep.
Alexander woke up hours later to the voices of his sisters. It was a few minutes before he remembered what had happened. He wanted to turn on his light, but he had wrecked the lamp. He felt his way to the door, tripped, and cursed when he fell on some pieces of glass and cut his hand. He didn’t remember that he had to move his desk so he could open the door. The light from the hall fell on the battlefield that had been his room, and on the astonished faces of his sisters in the open doorway.
“Are you redecorating your room, Alex?” his sister Andrea joked, while Nicole clamped her hand over her mouth to choke back her laughter.
Alex slammed the door in their faces and sat down on the floor to think, pressing hard on his cut hand. The idea of bleeding to death seemed tempting; at least that would save him from having to face his parents about what he’d done, but he soon changed his mind. He needed to wash the cut before it got infected, he decided. Besides, it was beginning to hurt; it must be pretty deep, he might get tetanus . . . He fumbled his way out into the hall. He could barely see because he had lost his glasses in the disaster area and, on top of that, his eyes were swollen from crying. He went into the kitchen, where all his family was gathered, including his mother, who had a kerchief tied around her head that made her look like a refugee.
“I’m sorry,” Alex blurted out, his eyes on the floor.
Lisa stifled a cry when she saw her son’s bloodstained T-shirt, but when her husband gave her a sign, she took her two girls by the hand and led them away without a word. John went over to Alex to check his injured hand.
“I don’t know what came over me, Dad,” he murmured, not daring to look up.
“I’m really afraid, too, son.”
“Is Mom going to die?” asked Alex, in a voice as thin as a thread.
“I don’t know, Alexander. Here, let this cold water run over your hand,” his father directed.
John washed off the blood, examined the cut, and decided to inject an anesthetic so he could pick out the glass fragments and stitch the wound. Alex, who felt weak just at the sight of blood, bore the procedure without a word, grateful for having a doctor in the family. Then his father applied a disinfectant cream, and bandaged his hand.
“Mom’s hair was going to fall out anyway, wasn’t it?” Alex asked.
“Yes, because of the chemotherapy. It’s better to cut it all at once than watch it come out by the handful. That’s the least of it, son. It will grow back. Sit down, we need to talk.”
“I’m sorry, Dad. I’ll work hard to replace everything I broke.”
“It’s all right. I suppose you had to get it out of your system. We won’t mention this again. There are other things, more important things, I need to tell you. I have to take Lisa to a hospital in Texas, where she’s going to undergo a long and complicated treatment. It’s the only place it can be done.”
“And will that make her well?” Alex asked anxiously.
“I hope so, Alexander. I will go with her, of course. We’ll have to close this house for a while.”
“What will happen to the girls and me?”
“Andrea and Nicole will go live with their grandmother Carla. You are going to go to my mother,” his father explained.
“Kate? I don’t want to go to her, Dad! Why can’t I go with my sisters? At least grandmother Carla knows how to cook.”
“Three children would be too much for her.”
“I’m fifteen, Dad, and that’s plenty old for you to at least ask my opinion. It isn’t fair for you to ship me off to Ka
te as if I were some package or something. That’s always how it is. You make the decisions and I have to follow them. I’m not a baby anymore!” Alex protested. He was furious.
“Well, sometimes you act like one.” John smiled and pointed to the injured hand.
“It was an accident, it could have happened to anyone. I’ll behave at Carla’s, I promise.”
“I know your intentions are good, son, but sometimes you act without thinking.”
“I told you, I’ll pay for everything I broke,” yelled Alex, banging a fist on the table.
“You see how you can’t control your temper? In any case, Alex, this has nothing to do with what you did to your room. Things were already arranged with Lisa’s mother and mine. The three of you will have to go stay with your grandmothers; there’s no other solution. You’ll be leaving for New York in a couple of days,” his father said.
“Alone. I’m afraid that from here on you will have to do a lot of things alone. Take your passport, because I think you’re going on an adventure with my mother.”
“To the Amazon.”
“The Amazon!” Alex exclaimed, horrified. “I saw a doc*mentary about the Amazon. That place is crawling with mosquitoes and caimans and bandits. There are a zillion diseases there—even leprosy!”
“I expect that my mother knows what she’s doing; she wouldn’t take you anywhere you’d be in danger, Alexander.”
“Kate is quite capable of pushing me into a river filled with piranhas,” Alex blurted out. “With a grandmother like mine, I don’t need enemies.”
“I’m sorry, but you will have to go, son.”
“And what about school? It’s exam time. And besides, I can’t just walk out on the orchestra—”
“You’re going to have to be flexible, Alexander. Our family is going through a real crisis. In the Chinese language, do you know what the characters for ‘crisis’ are? ‘Danger’ plus ‘opportunity.’ Maybe your mother’s illness will offer you an extraordinary opportunity. You’d better go pack your things.”
“What’s to pack? I don’t have anything much,” Alex muttered.