Devil’s Alphabet Chapter 1

Pax knew he was almost to Switchcreek when he saw his first argo.

The gray-skinned man was hunched over the engine of a decrepit, roofless pickup truck stalled hood-up at the side of the road. He straightened as Pax’s car approached, unfolding like an extension ladder. Ten or eleven feet tall, angular as a dead tree, skin the mottled gray of weathered concrete. No shirt, just overalls that came down to his bony knees. He squinted at Pax’s windshield.

Jesus, Pax thought. He’d forgotten how big they were.

He didn’t recognize the argo, but that didn’t mean much, for a lot of reasons. He might even be a cousin. The neighborly thing would be to pull over and ask the man if he needed help. But Pax was running late, so late. He fixed his eyes on the road outside his windshield, pretending not to see the man, and blew past without touching his brakes. The old Ford Tempo shuddered beneath him as he took the next curve.

The two-lane highway snaked through dense walls of green, the trees leaning into the road. He’d been gone for eleven years, almost twelve. After so long in the north everything seemed too lush, too overgrown. Subtropical. Turn your back and the plants and insects would overrun everything.

His stomach burned from too much coffee, too little food, and the queasy certainty that he was making a mistake. The call had come three days ago, Deke’s rumbling voice on his cell phone’s voicemail: Jo Lynn was dead. The funeral was on Saturday morning. Just thought you’d want to know.

Pax deleted the message but spent the rest of the week listening to it replay in his head. Dreading a follow-up call. Then two a.m. Saturday morning, when it was too late to make the service—too late unless he drove nonstop and the Ford’s engine refrained from throwing a rod—he tossed some clothes into a suitcase and drove south out of Chicago at 85 mph.

His father used to yell at him, Paxton Abel Martin, you’d be late for your own funeral! It was Jo who told him not to worry about it, everybody was late for their own funeral. Pax didn’t get the joke until she explained it to him. Jo was the clever one, the verbal one.

At the old town line there was a freshly painted sign: WELCOME TO SWITCHCREEK, TN. POPULATION 815. The barbed wire fence that used to mark the border was gone. The cement barriers had been pushed to the roadside. But the little guard shack still stood beside the road like an outhouse, abandoned and drowning in kudzu.

The way ahead led into what passed for Switchcreek’s downtown, but there was a shortcut to where he was going, if he could find it. He crested the hill, scanning the foliage to his right, and still almost missed it. He braked hard and turned into a narrow gravel drive that vanished into the trees. The wheels jounced over potholes and ruts, forcing him to slow down.

The road forked and he turned left automatically, knowing the way even though yesterday he wouldn’t have been able to describe this road to anyone. He passed a half-burned barn, then a trailer that had been boarded up since he was kid, then the rusted carcass of a ’63 Falcon he and Deke had used for target practice with their .22’s. Each object seemed strange, then abruptly familiar, then hopelessly strange again-shifting and shifty.

The road came out of the trees at the top of a hill. He braked to a stop, put the car in park. The engine threatened to die, then fell into an unsteady idle.

A few hundred yards below lay the cemetery, the red-brick church, and the gravel parking lot half-full of cars. Satellite trucks from two different television stations were there. In the cemetery, the funeral was already in progress.

Pax leaned forward and folded his arms atop the steering wheel, letting the struggling air conditioner blow into his damp ribs. About fifty people sat or stood around a pearl-gray casket. Most were betas, bald, dark red heads gleaming like wet river stones. The few men wore dark suits, the women long dresses. Some of the women had covered their heads with white scarves. A surprising number of them seemed to be pregnant.

An argo couple stood at the rear of the group, towering over the other mourners. The woman’s broad shoulders and narrow hips made a V of her pale green dress. The man beside her was a head shorter and skinny as a ladder. He wore a plain blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up his chalky forearms. Deke looked exactly as Pax remembered him.

The people who were seated rose to their feet. They began to sing.

Pax turned off the car and rolled down the window. Some of the voices were high and flute-like, but the bass rumble, he knew, was provided by booming chests of the two argos. The melody was difficult to catch at first, but then he recognized the hymn. “Just as I Am.” He knew the words by heart. It was an altar-call song, a slow weeper that struck especially hard for people who’d come through the Changes. Leading them through the song, her brick-red face tilted to the sky, was a beta woman in a long skirt, a flowing white blouse, and colorful vest. The pastor, Pax guessed, though it was odd to think of a woman pastor at this church. It was odd to think of anyone but his father in the pulpit.

When the song ended the woman said a few words that Pax couldn’t catch, and then the group began to walk toward the back door of the church. As the rows cleared, two figures remained seated in front of the casket: two bald girls in dark dresses. Some of the mourners touched the girls’ shoulders and moved on.

Those had to be the twins. Jo’s daughters. He’d known he’d see them here, had braced for it, but even so he wasn’t ready. He was grateful for this chance to see them first from a distance.

A bald beta man in a dark blue suit squatted down between the girls, and after a brief exchange took their hands in his. They stood and he led them to the church entrance. The argo couple hung back. They bent their heads together, and then the woman went inside alone, ducking to make it though the entrance. Deke glanced up to where Paxton’s car sat on the hill.

Pax leaned away from the windshield. What he most wanted was to put the car in reverse, then head back through the trees to the highway. Back to Chicago. But he could feel Deke looking at him.

He stepped out of the car and hot, moist air enveloped him. He reached back inside and pulled out his suit jacket—frayed at the cuffs, ten years out of style—but didn’t put it on. If he was lucky he wouldn’t have to wear it at all.

“Into the valley of death,” he said to himself. He folded the jacket over his arm and walked down the hill to the cemetery’s rusting fence.

The back gate squealed open at his push. He walked through the thick grass between the headstones. When he was a kid he’d used this place like a playground. They all did: Deke, Jo, the other church kids, playing hide and seek, sardines, and of course ghost in the graveyard. There weren’t so many headstones then.

Deke squatted next to the grave, his knees higher than his head like an enormous grasshopper. He’d unhooked one of the chains that had connected the casket to the frame and was rolling it up around his hand. “Thought that was you,” he said without looking up from his work. His voice rumbled like a diesel engine.

“How you doing, Deke.”

The man stood up. Pax felt a spark of fear—the back-brain yip of a small mammal confronted with a much larger predator. Argos were skinny, but their bony bodies suggested scythes, siege engines. And Deke seemed to be at least a foot taller than the last time Pax had seen him. His curved spine made his head sit lower than his shoulders, but if he could stand up straight he’d be twice Paxton’s height.

“You’ve grown,” Pax said. If they’d been anywhere near the same size they might have hugged-normal men did that all the time, didn’t they? Then Deke held out a hand the size of a skillet, and Pax took it as best he good. Deke could have crushed him, but he kept his grip light. His palm felt rough and unyielding, like the face of a cinderblock. “Long time, P.K.,” he said.

P.K. Preacher’s Kid. Nobody had called him that since he was fifteen. Since the day he left Switchcreek.

Pax dropped his arm. He could still feel the heat of Deke’s skin on his palm.

“I didn’t get your message until last night,” Pax lied. “I drove all night to get here. I must look like hell.”

Deke tilted his head, not disagreeing with him. “The important thing’s you got here. I told the Reverend I’d take care of the casket, but you want to go inside, they’re setting out the food.”

“No, that’s-I’m not hungry.” Another lie. But he hadn’t come here for a hometown reunion. He needed to pay his respects and that was it. He was due back at the restaurant by Monday.

He looked at the casket, then at the glossy, polished gravestone. Someone had paid for a nice one.

Jo Lynn Whitehall
Born February 12, 1983
Died August 17, 2010
Loving Mother

“‘Loving Mother.’ That’s nice,” Pax said. But the epitaph struck him as entirely inadequate. After awhile he said, “It seems weird to boil everything down to two words like that.”

“Especially for Jo,” Deke said. A steel frame supported the casket on thick straps. Deke squatted again to turn a stainless steel handle next to the screw pipe. The casket began to lower into the hole. “It’s the highest compliment the betas have, though. Pretty much the only one that counts.”

The casket touched bottom. Paxton knelt and pulled up the straps on his side of the grave. Then the two of them lifted the metal frame out of the way.

Paxton brushed the red clay from his knees. They stood there looking into the hole.

The late Jo Lynn Whitehall, Paxton thought.

He tried to imagine her body inside the casket, but it was impossible. He couldn’t picture either of the Jo’s he’d known-not the brown-haired girl from before the Changes, or the sleek creature she’d become after. He waited for tears, the physical rush of some emotion that would prove that he loved her. Nothing came. He felt like he was both here and not here, a double image hovering a few inches out of true.

Paxton breathed in, then blew out a long breath. “Do you know why she did it?” He couldn’t use the word “suicide.”

Deke shook his head. They were silent for a time and then Deke said, “Come on inside.”

Deke didn’t try to persuade him, he simply went in and Pax followed, down the narrow stairs-the dank, cinderblock walls smelling exactly as Pax remembered-and into the basement and the big open room they called the Fellowship Hall. The room was filled with rows of tables covered in white plastic tablecloths. There were at least twice as many people as he’d seen outside at the burial. None of them looked like reporters.

Deke went straight to the buffet, three tables laid end-to-end and crowded with food. No one seemed to notice that Pax had snuck in behind the tall man.

The spread was as impressive as the potlucks he remembered as a boy. Casseroles, sloppy joes, three types of fried chicken, huge bowls of mashed potatoes… One table held nothing but desserts. Enough food to feed three other congregations.

While they filled their plates Pax surreptitiously looked over the room, scanning for the twins through a crowd of alien faces. After so long away it was a shock to see so many of his people in one room. TDS-Transcription Divergence Syndrome-had swept through Switchcreek the summer he was fourteen. The disease divided the population, then divided it again and again, like a dealer cutting a deck of cards into smaller piles. By the end of the summer a quarter of the town was dead. The survivors were divided by symptoms into clades: the giant argos, the seal-skinned betas, the fat charlies. A few, a very few, weren’t changed at all-at least in any way you could see.

A toddler in a Sunday dress bumped into his legs and careened away, laughing in a high, piping voice. Two other bald girls-all beta children were girls, all were bald-chased after her into a forest of legs.

Most of the people in the room were betas. The women and the handful of men were hairless, skin the color of cabernet, raspberry, rose. The women wore dresses, and now that he was closer he could see that even more were pregnant then he’d supposed. The expectant mothers tended to be the younger, smaller women. They were also the ones who seemed to be wearing the head scarves.

He was surprised by how different the second-generation daughters were from their mothers. The mothers, though skinny and bald and oddly colored, could pass for normal women with some medical condition-as chemo patients, maybe. But their children’s faces were flat, the noses reduced to a nub and two apostrophes, their mouths a long slit.

Someone grabbed his arm. “Paxton Martin!”

He put on an expectant smile before he turned.

“It is you,” the woman said. She reached up and pulled him down into a hug. She was about five feet tall and extremely wide, carrying about 300 pounds under a surprisingly well-tailored pink pantsuit.

She drew back and gazed at him approvingly, her over-inflated face taut and shiny. Lime green eyeshade and bright red rouge added to the beachball effect.

“Aunt Rhonda,” he said, smiling. She wasn’t his aunt, but everyone in town called her that. He was surprised at how happy he was to see her.

“Just look at you,” she said. “You’re as handsome as I remember.”

Pax felt the heat in his cheeks. He wasn’t handsome, not in the ways recognized by the outside world. But in Switchcreek he was a skip, one of the few children who came through the Changes unmarked and still breathing.

Rhonda didn’t seem to notice his embarrassment. “This is a terrible thing, isn’t it? People say the word ‘tragic’ too much but that’s what it is. I can’t imagine how tough it must be on her girls.”

He didn’t know what to say except, “Yes.”

“I remember your momma carrying Jo Lynn around the church in her little dresses when she was just a year old. She loved that girl like she was her own. So pretty, and so smart. Smart as a whip.”

Pax waited for the slight, the veiled insult. Rhonda had been the church secretary while his father was pastor. She was a sharp-tongued woman with opinions about everyone and everything, including his mother’s performance as a pastor’s wife.

Rhonda shook her head. “And you two! You two were like brother and sister. Only three months between you, is that right?”

“Four,” he said. A dozen feet behind Rhonda, a young charlie man, broad as a linebacker and not showing any of the fat that clung to the older people of his clade, watched them talk. His hair was shaved to a shadow. A diamond stud winked from one ear.

Pax spotted the twins at a nearby table. The girls didn’t seem to be eating. The beta man who’d walked them into the church-a beta man in a dark suit-sat at the end of a table, the beta pastor beside him. The man seemed to be trying to talk to the twins, but they only stared at their plates.

Rhonda half turned to follow his gaze. “That’s Tommy Shields, her husband.” There was the slightest pause before the word “husband.”

“I’m sorry-what? Nobody told me she’d…”

Rhonda lowered her voice. “Oh, hon, not the way anyone but them calls a husband.”

Pax didn’t know what she meant. No betas were getting married when he left town.

He knew Tommy, though. He was a junior in high school when Deke and Jo and Pax were freshmen. Complete asshole. That freshman year, Tommy had beaten up Deke, evidently for standing too close to Tommy’s car, a red and white ’76 Bronco that he’d restored himself. Pax didn’t remember seeing Tommy after the Changes.

“Still,” Rhonda said, almost sighing. “Tommy’s a help to those girls. They’ve got a hard row to hoe-but I don’t need to tell you that, do I?” She shook her head sadly. “It just breaks my heart. I let the sisters know that the town’s going to help anyway it can. And of course, they’ve got their church to help.”

Their church. “You’re not going here anymore?” Paxton asked. Rhonda’s grandfather had been a founder, and Rhonda had held the office of church secretary for twenty years. Pastors came and went, she’d told his father more than once, but she wasn’t going anywhere. Even during the Changes, when the church had closed and her own body was bloating, she refused to step down. Then again, Pax’s father hadn’t stepped down either, not until a year after Pax had left town. Pax had never tried to get the whole story-that was his father’s life, nothing to do with him now.

“Oh, Paxton, it’s not like it was before,” Rhonda said, keeping her voice low. “This is Reverend Hooke’s church now. I go to First Baptist, though I can’t be as involved as I’d like.”

Paxton’s father had impressed upon him at a young age that attending First Baptist was almost as bad as converting to Roman Catholic. The First was where the rich people went-as rich as anyone got in Switchcreek-and everybody knew they didn’t take their scripture seriously.

“Aunt Rhonda’s the mayor now,” Deke said, sounding amused. He was bent under the ceiling, holding his plate and plastic cup of iced tea between big fingers. Waiting to see how Pax would react.

“Really?” Pax said, trying not to sound too shocked. “Mayor Rhonda.”

“Six years now,” Deke said.

“Well,” Pax said. “I bet you keep everyone in line.”

Rhonda chuckled, obviously pleased, and patted his arm again. Her mood kept changing, fast as switching TV channels. “You and I need to talk. Have you seen your father yet?”

He felt heat in his cheeks, and shook his head. “I just got in.”

“He’s not in a good way, and he won’t take my help.” She pursed her lips. “After your visit, you give me a call.”

“Sure, sure,” he said lightly.

Her eyes, already small in her huge face, narrowed. “Don’t sure me, Paxton Martin.”

Pax blinked. She wasn’t joking. He remembered a church picnic when he was nine or ten: Aunt Rhonda had found Pax and Jo misbehaving-he couldn’t remember what they’d been doing-and she took a switch to their backsides. She didn’t care whose kids they were. Then she gave them both moon pies and told them to stop crying.

“I’ll call,” he said. “I promise.”

She smiled, all sweetness again. “Now you better go eat your meal before it’s cold.”

She turned away, and several people at the table nearest them resumed talking. The charlie man stepped away from the wall and followed Rhonda. He glanced back at Paxton, his expression serious.

Deke walked toward the other end of the room where a group of argos, including the woman in the green dress, ate standing up, bend under the drop tile ceiling. Pax tried to follow, but he’d been recognized now, and people wanted to shake his hand and talk to him. Some of them seemed exactly as he remembered them. Mr. Sparks, already an old man when Pax knew him, had been one of the few of the elderly who’d survived, and in his own skin. He still looked trim and vigorous. Others had become distorted versions of their old selves, or else so changed that there was no recognizing them. Each of them greeted him warmly, without a hint of reservation or disapproval, as if he’d decided on his own to leave Switchcreek for greater things. After all, every other unchanged person under thirty seemed to have left town. When the quarantine lifted there was nothing to keep the young ones from leaving, and no reason to stay. The skips skipped.

He squeezed past two tables of charlies, nodding back at those who said hello to him, even when he wasn’t sure of their names. The people of Aunt Rhonda’s clade were as wide as he remembered from the year and a half he’d lived among them: squat, moon-faced, engulfing their metal folding chairs. Finally he made it to the far side of the room where the argos had congregated. Most stood with their slouched backs touching the ceiling. A few perched on benches at the edges of the room, knees and elbows splayed, like adults at kindergarten desks. Each of them was a different shade of pale, from pencil lead to talcum.

Deke held out a long arm: “P.K., you remember Donna?”

Like all argos, the woman was tall and horse-faced. But while argo hair was usually stiff as straw and about the same color as their skin-troll hair, Deke had called it-hers was long and red, cinched tight close to her head and then blossoming behind, like the head of a broom.

The woman held out her hand. “Good to see you again, Paxton.” Her voice was as deep as Deke’s-deeper maybe-but the inflection was more feminine somehow.

“Oh! Donna, sure!” He put down his plate and grasped her big hand in both of his. Donna had been a year behind them at school. She was a McKinney, one of the poor folks who lived up on Two Hills Road. Poor black folk. And now, he thought, she was whiter than he was.

“You two have been married how long again?” Pax asked. As if it had just slipped his mind. He remembered a wedding invitation that had been forwarded to him from his cousins’ house in Downers Grove. He’d meant to respond.

“Eight years at the end of the month,” Donna said.

“You guys were kids!” Pax said. “Tall kids, but still. What were you, nineteen? That must have been some shotgun wedding.”

“Not really,” Deke said.

“Oh shit, I’m sorry,” Pax said, then realized he’d said “shit” in church and felt doubly embarrassed. There was no such thing as a pregnant argo, no such thing as an argo baby. “I didn’t mean-”

Deke held up a hand-don’t worry about it.

Donna said. “We want to feed you supper, then of course you have to stay at the house.”

“No, really, that’s okay-”

“We’ve got plenty of room. Unless you’re staying with your father?”

“No.” He said it too quickly. “I thought I’d just stay at the Motel 6 in Lambert.”

Deke said, “Have you talked to him lately?”

Pax started to say, Twelve years, give or take-but then the two argos looked over his head. Pax turned. Tommy Shields walked toward them, the twin girls trailing behind him.

Tommy had been tall before the Changes, but he’d lost several inches of his height. His face was hairless, without even eyebrows, and his skin had turned a light brown that was splotched with dark across his cheeks and forehead. But he was still first-generation beta, with a broad jaw and too much muscle in the shoulders, and the old Tommy was still recognizable under the new skin.

His voice, however, was utterly different. “You’re Paxton,” he said softly. His lips barely moved, and the sound seemed to start and stop a few inches from his thin lips. “Jo Lynn’s friend.” He extended a hand, and Pax shook it and released without squeezing.

Pax couldn’t think what to say, and finally came up with, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Girls,” Tommy said, “This man was a good friend of your mother’s.”

The girls stepped forward. Heat flared in Paxton’s chest, an ache of something like embarrassment or fear. They were the same height, their heads coming up to just past Tommy’s elbow. They had to be almost twelve now.

Tommy didn’t seem to notice Paxton’s discomfort. “This is Sandra,” Tommy said, indicating the girl on his left, “and this is Rainy.” They were second-generation betas-the first born of that generation-and their wine-colored faces were expressionless as buttons.

“Hi,” Pax said. He coughed to clear his throat. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He knew their names from decade-old letters. Jo had rejected twin-ish stunt-names. No alliteration, no groaners like Hope and Joy. The only thing notable was that Rainy-Lorraine-was named after his mother. “Your mom was…”

He blinked at them, trying to think of some anecdote, but suddenly his mind was empty. He couldn’t even picture Jo Lynn’s face.

No one spoke.

“She was a great person,” Pax said finally. “I could tell you stories.”

The girls stared at him.

“I bet they’d like to hear those,” Tommy said. “Come by the Co-op and we can talk about her. Before you leave.”

Pax hesitated. Co-op? “I’d like that,” he said. “I’m not sure if I can, though-I have to see how my father’s doing. But if I can get away…”

Tommy looked at him. “If you can spare the time,” he said in that soft voice. He smiled tightly and turned away. The girls regarded Paxton for a long moment and then followed Tommy across the room.

Pax exhaled heavily. “Man,” he said.

Donna said, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just those girls.” He shook his head. “I know Jo loved them. She did, right?” Before they could answer he said, “Never mind, stupid question. It’s just that I can’t believe she’d leave them.”

There was an awkward silence, and he looked up at the argos. Deke was frowning, and Donna wore a strangely fierce expression.

“She wouldn’t,” Donna said.

He looked from Donna to Deke, back again. He could see it in their faces. “You don’t think she killed herself?”

Neither of them said anything for a moment. Deke shook his head. “It’s just a feeling,” he said.

“Show me,” Pax said to him. “Show me where it happened.”


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