The full first section, behind the cut! The Severed Earth will be out on Amazon this week!
His mother was dead, but he hadn’t killed her.
Vão stared into the hazy black-speckled sky. Crows circled his parents’ house and spiraled in the updrafts. Dead, gone, broken. Everything had been swept away on the wings of those crows. Everything was now buried in chill earth among the hills.
Cold stone. All he was. All he could be, now.
He drained the rest of the bottle of Jack Daniels — snagged from the flock of uncles in his mama’s kitchen — and let it drop, then sagged against the wooden fence post. Vão had listened, he’d promised, he’d sworn, as his mother had tossed restlessly in her hospital bed last year: a routine hospital stay, nothing more, or so he’d made himself believe. She didn’t want the machines. She didn’t want to be held to life by the grasping clutch of metal and wire. She’d elicited those promises from him on one breath, had fallen into drug-induced delirious storytelling to the child he’d been on the next. Like that child, he’d promised, then fled the room, fled her life, fled as far as the band’s tour bus had been able to take him.
Yesterday morning, they'd buried her.
Sun burnt the back of Vão’s neck. The day was perfect for sprawling under trees and watching clouds shape-shift in the wind, but the nearest trees were either at the farm’s border — Vão didn't feel like walking — or far too close to the faded stucco farmhouse with many cars parked outside. He wasn’t about to go near that, either. All those cars meant relatives and all those relatives were more than Vão could handle right now, a flock of human crows that swooped down on his parents’ horse farm outside Milpitas to pick at the dead and living both.
Gravel crunched behind him. "Hey, Carvalo."
One of his cousins, thick, meaty and nameless. Vão never could keep them all straight. Only habit kept his voice polite. "Yeah?"
Bright, black, beady, the man’s gaze picked Vão over. "I was wonderin’. My daughter’s a big fan. If I could have —"
As always. “No.”
“But you’re —”
"Go away." Rage and grief a heavy stone in his chest, Vão turned back to the fence.
Words blurred past Vão’s ears: Portuguese, Japanese, whatever. The sneering polyglot faded towards the direction of the house. Vão stared at the ground. If he ignored them, they gave up. Usually.
A chattering flock of watching relatives fluttered around on the porch. They wanted to see him break down. He was certain of that.
Vão would not give them that show. Ever. They gossiped about everything and nothing. Their eyes were on him at every turn, no matter what he did or said. They only saw Vão Carvalo, rock star. Never mind that those meaty cousins used to beat up Vão the runt. Never mind that the aunts and uncles always ignored him before. Never mind that Vão was now more broke than before. No, Vão was famous and he was family. Anything was possible if one was connected to him, somehow, never mind the reality.
Vão didn't feel like a rock star. He only felt tired.
Gravel crunched again. Vão clenched his arm around the fencepost and concentrated on the splinters driving into his skin, the horses chasing each other in the muddy fields. Anything to keep him from screaming at whoever it was to leave him alone.
"Estevão?" Rough, furry voice — Carlos, his papa.
Vão bowed his head. He wanted so badly to throw himself into Papa’s arms and bawl, but couldn't, not while in view of the house and those relatives.
Papa’s meaty hand wrapped around Vão's shoulder in a rough hug, surprising Vão into looking up. Papa was a huge, crew-cut man, weather-worn and dark from years of working in the sun, unlike his runty son with the too-long black hair. For all the difference, the big man's face mirrored the runt's grief: blank-eyed and struggling to go on.
The grip of that callused hand was very tight. “You had another call,” Papa said.
Vão looked away. Even now, the collection agencies wouldn’t stop calling him. Even here.
“You thought about what I said?”
“Yeah,” Vão whispered.
“Your mama loved horses,” Papa said, his gaze on the paddock. “Everything’s gone to hell. I can’t do this alone.”
Finally, "You should be inside.”
"Vão!" It was a female squeal — Moni, Vão’s ex-girlfriend, who’d been trying to trap him all day with her fake sympathy and fake tits. Vão sighed.
Papa almost smiled. He gave Vão another rough shake of a hug. "Head for the trees, son. I'll head her off."
Not trusting his voice, Vão only nodded and headed towards the barn, away from the house, as a second squeal was cut off by Papa’s bass rumble. Vão didn't care. All he wanted was to get away.
Vão broke into a run, made it to the tree-lined ravine at the farm's border and ducked under branches into the shadows of the wood, towards the creek. He hit a loose rock; his feet flew out from under him in a spray of mud and water and he landed flat with a squelch. His chest heaved for air, his eyes squeezed shut.
It was cooler here with the shade from bay laurels and live oaks and the babble of the silvery creek. He was surrounded in chain ferns and yerba buena; insects buzzed in the undergrowth. When he was little, Mama would sit with him under these trees and tell stories about the creek, ghost stories, faerie tales…
…an old wizard spun silver from his wheel, the silver winding through the forest below his castle, and with it, the wizard lured children, turning them into birds, catching them in cages of silver and thorn…
He'd dreamed about following that silver thread through the hills, past the suburbs, past the mountains, past everything, and finding hidden caves glittering with silver and magic kingdoms that hailed him as a hero. The creek was still here, but all he had left of his mother was memory.
Slowly Vão's chest stopped heaving and his breathing slowed. He lay cradled by mud and earth and lulled by the trickling stream. Here, he was just Vão, not Vão-the-rockstar, not Estevão-the-prodigal-son, just plain Vão and nothing else.
I'm sick of it. Of everything.
He'd been on the road the past year with his band Karma, struggling to pay off creditors left by their bastard of a first manager. He hadn't believed Mama was that sick. He’d thought the hospital stay was just one of her usual panic-runs. Papa hadn’t told him otherwise. Papa hadn’t wanted to worry him. Papa had said nothing until Karma had started writing for the next album and Vão had finally come home for longer than a day or so.
Then everything had fallen apart. Vão hadn’t been able to stop it. He’d only been able to sit by Mama’s hospital bed, watching, listening, praying. She’d been engulfed by those machines, caged in metal and wire. He'd been on the road, playing, partying and screwing his brains out, and Mama had been dying…and he hadn't…and now…
Vão threw his arm over his eyes. He could run from groupies. He could run from relatives. He couldn't run from his own guilt.
Sodden sucking sounds of mud, rustling of brush. "Vão?"
Tall and blonde, Jonathan Abel looked like a typical California surfer-dude, though he'd come to San Francisco from Detroit; he’d started Karma, him and that street-brother of his. The band had been at the funeral, but that didn’t explain what Jonathan was doing here — Milpitas was a good hour drive from Jonathan’s walk-up.
Jonathan eased down the muddy slope to sit next to Vão. "Holdin’ up?”
Vão didn’t want to talk about it. "How'd you find me?"
"Carlos." Jonathan's mouth quirked. "He's good at handling groupies. We ought to hire him as security."
“He won’t leave the horses. Mama didn’t want —” Vão had to stop.
…you thought about what I said?…
The silence stretched out, uncomfortable, strained.
“That bad?” Jonathan said.
Vão didn’t answer.
"So get out for a while. The others are over at my place. Making some noise’ll do you good."
All that way, just for a social call? Jonathan was working up to something; that was obvious. Vão stared into the woods across the creek. It was peaceful and green over there. The ripples of shadows and sunlight in the trees kept him distracted, just a bit.
Movement caught Vão’s gaze. One of the larger shadows had definite shape and form, human-looking, watching.
A breeze rustled through the green and broke the shape up into a dazzle of sunlight spots. Just a shadow, a trick of light and leaves.
Jonathan gripped his shoulder. "Hey. You can't hide forever."
"I’m not. Just ‘til Papa runs 'em off with a shotgun."
"What, put him up to felony assault just so you can hide?"
“Misdemeanor,” Vão said. “He only uses rock salt.”
Jonathan grinned, and for a moment, Vão felt an answering grin try to break loose. Only for a moment.
"Vão, look…” Jonathan looked away. “Cy’s bringing a rep to hear the new stuff. No excuses, he said.”
“What?” Sudden, hot outrage.
“I know.” Jonathan wouldn’t look at him. “The rep didn’t give him a choice, he said. Our contract’s on the line.” Quieter, “I tried to explain. He wouldn’t listen. They’re tired of the delays.”
Vão clenched his fists against the mud. The record company bound him in a tighter cage than any wizard, but for all the touring and contracts, the money had vanished in a haze of embezzlement, scam, and business. Creditors, bills, the music business, the horse farm — life — it stopped for no one.
Two promises, two oaths, one he’d wanted — god, he still wanted it — the other, family and necessity. There had to be some compromise, somewhere, someway. Vão had to try. “Papa needs me here. I need to be here. I can’t leave, Jay. Not now.”
“Okay.” Quiet, accepting. Jonathan’s gaze took in the ravine, the creek, Vão sitting out here alone. Then Jonathan pushed himself up. “We’ll manage somehow.”
Vão’s bandmates, his friends, all caged by the same contracts, the same creditors, the same necessity. They’d put so much into their music: lives, money, sweat, blood. They’d gotten re-signed; they were just starting to live again.
Vão didn’t want to kill the band, too.
Jonathan had paused, watching him.
Sighing, Vão got to his feet. He couldn’t stick Jonathan with that. Jonathan clapped a hand on Vão’s shoulder in a sympathetic shake and led him back out into the hot sun to Jonathan's car, a much-dented ’96 Dodge covered in tattered Grateful Dead bumper stickers, out of place among the shiny SUV’s skewed across the dusty gravel.
Papa still stood by the paddock, watching.
…you thought about what I said?…
Two promises, two lives, himself torn between. Vão threw himself onto the vinyl carseat and winced as his bare arm contacted the seatbelt buckle, overheated from the sun. He'd built the cage, he'd trapped himself.
But what I wouldn't give for a normal life again.
And the updated, final version of the cover: