No, you’re not seeing things. The bar on the left really did change from “Outline Chapters” to “Words” – and the prologue has been written. Because you’ve all waited so patiently for, what, nine months now (good thing I’m not George R. R. Martin!) I thought I’d post it here.
Beware, there are spoilers here, if you’ve not read the other two books. So you should totally go buy those and read them before reading this. Just saying. Without further ado…
New Salisbury, PA
Z-Day + 24 Years
He awoke slowly, and for the first time in nearly twenty-five years, remembered who he was.
It wasn’t like they used to show in the movies; he didn’t get his memory back in dribs and drabs. It was just suddenly there, as if it had never gone away. As if he hadn’t languished, a prisoner of his own mind in so many ways, for the past quarter-century. The truth of his identity hit him hard, a hammer-blow to his consciousness, and it staggered him, both mentally and physically. If he hadn’t already been lying down, he would’ve fallen.
As it was, he needed to get up, to tell someone, anyone, the truth, before he forgot again, before he went back to being the scarred, weird old man everyone — including himself — called Harvard. He eased his creaky old legs over the side of his cot, tossing aside the light blanket he’d used against the cool Pennsylvania night air, and pushed himself to his feet with the cane that was always to hand. He shook his head to clear the last of the cobwebs, and wiped his brow.
Going to be a hot one, he thought as he stumbled to the door of his cabin. I’m already a’ sweatin.’ He threw the wooden door open and raised a hand against the bright morning sunlight, trying to let his old eyes adjust to the glare. He felt a stab of pain just behind his eyes, and the nausea it brought along for the ride nearly doubled him over. One hand thrown out to the door frame steadied him for the moment, and he took several deep breaths. The rough wood under his hands reminded him of the trip he’d taken with his youngest daughter, Josephine, backpacking for the day in the woods near Camp David, all those years ago. Or was it Miranda? Damn, it’s already fading.
Picking up his cane from where it had fallen, he straightened his back as much as he could, and began the longish trek over to Marjorie’s house. She’ll know what to do, he thought. She’s always known. Most people called her crazy, a coot that had long-outlived any usefulness she might have once brought to the community, but he liked her. She was the only person in the whole village as old as he was; older, even, if he was any judge, but he’d never have guessed out loud.
Besides, he owed her. His health, his mobility, hell, he owed her his life. And she would know what to do.
He rounded the corner of the dentist’s office, making a beeline down the main street for Marjorie’s home-and-shop – Madam Marjorie’s, naturally — but his age and the constant download of memories betrayed him, and he tripped. Unable to catch himself, he caromed off the porch rail and fell onto the horse trough, overturning it and spilling water everywhere, turning the street to mud. The soft stench of horse manure filled his nose, and he was glad he’d missed the pile — if only by a few inches.
His cry of pain and embarrassment drew attention, though, and just the sort he needed. Young Darnell happened to be leaving the general store, and Harvard saw him drop his purchases and rush over.
“Lemme help you, Mr. Harvard,” Darnell said, suiting actions to words and levering the old man back up. “Wow, you’re burning up. Better get you over to see my ma.” He threw the old man’s right arm over his shoulders, leaving him the cane to use with the other.
The man known as Harvard grunted, and said, “Thank ya, boy. Funny, I was just coming to see your ma; I need her help.” At least, that’s what he tried to say. For some reason, his mouth wasn’t working right, and he felt all fuzzy. The memories were starting to fade faster, and he knew he had to get to Marjorie before they were gone completely. “’S go!” he managed to mumble, doing his best to put one foot in front of the other as they trudged down the street.
He saw Darnell glance at the townsfolk who stood to each side of the street, watching the scarred cripple being helped by the younger man, and he saw the boy’s face darken in anger. He tried to tell him that it wasn’t their fault, that they were just scared folk, but nothing came out, his tongue tied in knots. Frustrated, he concentrated on walking faster.
Soon enough, they had reached Marjorie’s place, and Darnell had dragged him inside, clearing off what his mother euphemistically referred to as her ‘examination table,’ even though it was quite clearly just an old coffee table. The overpowering scent of the ever-burning candles in the shop made him sneeze, and that made his head ache even worse.
“Ma! Harvard’s hurt!” Darnell yelled, moving toward the bead curtain that led into the back of the shop, intent on finding the old woman.
Before Darnell could get out of reach, Harvard grabbed his wrist in an iron grip, pulling Darnell close to him. He struggled mightily, forcing his lips and tongue to move, to say something, to say anything before the memories drained back out of him, before they were gone for who knew how long, probably forever. In the end, the only thing he could manage to croak out was his name.
“I’m… Norman…” he said, coughing and wiping away the sweat from his eyes, the confusion and what was now obvious to him as a fever taking over. “I’m… Ennis… Norma—” Just before he passed out, he saw the old woman come through the curtain, and wondered if the boy would remember what he’d said.
Marjorie saw to the unconscious old man named Harvard, cleaning him up and wiping his brow. “Go and get the straps now, honey,” she said, pointing vaguely into the back room.
The young man returned quickly, concerned. “What’s wrong with him, Ma?” he asked as the woman carefully secured the tossing and turning man’s arms and legs to the edge of the table with the padded straps.
“I’m not sure. He’s got one helluva fever, and that’s no mistake. You said he was on his way here?”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s what he said when I picked him up. He didn’t look like hisself, though. At first I thought he was drunk.”
“Before noon? It doesn’t matter, the man never touched a drop o’ shine the whole time I known him. Did he say anything else?”
Darnell nodded. “Yeah. He said his name was Norman.”
“Norman? Well, that’s no help.” She ran her hands over Harvard’s face, as she had countless times before, tracing the pattern of the burn scars she hadn’t been able to get rid of, all those years ago. “Norman? As if that helps,” she repeated.
She turned to her small kitchen area, taking the kettle off the wood-burning stove and pouring herself some tea. Sipping it slowly, she felt her way over to her favorite rocking chair, near the window, and took a seat. Darnell took his usual place in the other chair at her side, and she patted his arm. “Did he say that was his first name or last name, by any chance?” she asked.
“Last name, I think,” Darnell said. “I think his first name was Ennis— ow,ma, that hurts!” he yelled, snatching his arm away.
Her tea lying forgotten on the table next to the chair, Marjorie grabbed Darnell and turned her milky, sightless eyes on him. “Did you say Ennis? Ennis Norman?”
“Yeah, ma, that’s what he said, why? Damn, you cut me with your nails!”
“Oh my god,” the old woman said, her son forgotten in that moment. “Oh my god! Now I know why I’ve always thought his voice was so familiar! I can’t believe I didn’t realize it before. Here, Darnell, help me over to the cedar chest.” With his help, she reached the large cedar box, sweeping the bric-a-brac that lay atop it into a careless pile on the wooden floor, tossing the contents of the box out in every direction until she found what she was searching for. She thrust a faded but still pliant magazine into Darnell’s hands, the subtle and pleasant aroma of old paper drifting up from the yellowing pages.
“What’s Time, ma?”
“Shaddup, boy, and tell me what it says on the cover!”
“It’s kinda dark, lemme move to the window,” he said, reading as he moved closer to the daylight streaming through the dirty window. “It says ‘Can he save us?’ and has a picture… holy shit, ma!” he said, eliciting a slap on the shoulder from her.
“Sorry, ma, it’s just… How come Mr. Harvard’s on the cover of this book?”
The old woman sat down hard in her rocking chair, spilling her tea onto the floor, the metal cup clanging dully and rolling away into the dust underneath the cupboard. “I can’t believe it. It’s really him.”
“It’s really who, ma?”
Marjorie grabbed his arm and yanked him down beside her. “You can’t tell anyone, boy. Not anyone. Not ever.”
“Tell who what, ma? What’s going on?”
“Swear to me, Darnell!” she said, not letting go. “Swear to me you won’t tell anyone.”
“Alright, alright, I swear! Jesus!” She let go and slapped him again, but without much force, and he knew it was purely from reflex. “Now will you tell me who he is?”
She pulled her shawl tighter around her trembling body and pointed a shaking finger at the man on the table, moaning in his fever dream. “That man, boy… that man is Ennis Norman.”
“I know that, ma. But who is he?”
“It’s not who he is, Darnell. It’s who he was that matters.” She took a deep breath. “That man was the President of the United States.”