Excerpt: NORTH OF BOSTON by Elizabeth Elo

 

The brisk plot smoothly incorporates such far-flung subjects as environmental issues, the fishing industry and the perfume business.”
Publishers Weekly,  Starred review


Elo’s use of extreme natural settings will have strong appeal for Scandinavian crime fans. An impressive debut with surprising literary depth.”
Booklist, Starred review

 

NORTH OF BOSTON

© Elisabeth Elo

Chapter 1

He was a loser,” Thomasina says, head lolling. “But he was a good loser.” A fifth of Stolichnaya has put her in a nasty, forgiving mood. I’m tempted to take a few shots myself to medicate my grief and survivor’s guilt. But someone has to stay sober for Noah.

Thomasina paws something she sees in the air—maybe nothing, a spark of hallucination, or a particle of dust—and her tone goes flat. “I never loved him. I just wanted sperm.” She pushes the bottle half- way across the kitchen table and lays her head down on folded arms. Her shoulders heave a few times. Sorrow? Nausea? In her state it could be either, or even a hiccup of indifference. But when she picks up her face, it’s tear-stained. “But I must have loved him some, ’cause right now I feel wicked bad.”

Noah pokes his head around the corner. He doesn’t have the heavy, square look of Ned or what was formerly the haunting, big- eyed beauty of Thomasina. He’s small, thin, pale. Dark eye rings give him a monkish quality. He doesn’t talk much, doesn’t have friends. Maybe that’s why we get along.

“Noah, baby. Let mama get you something to eat.” Thomasina lurches to her feet and staggers to the refrigerator. When she opens the door, Noah and I look inside. Lime Gatorade, half a tomato, mold- speckled hamburger buns. “You want a tomato sandwich, baby?”

“No, thank you,” Noah says. He’s always been polite. He wanders back to the living room to continue whatever intricate activity he was engaged in. I’ve seen him build entire futuristic cities out of tongue depressors, popsicle sticks, and toothpicks.

Thomasina sways in a widening arc, her eyes start to roll back in her head, and her eyelids flutter and close. She slides down the refrigerator and collapses. I get one of her arms around my neck and haul her up, drag her across the scuffed linoleum to the dank bedroom at the back of the apartment. Clothes and shoes litter the floor. I recognize the lizard-skin cowboy boots she wears out at night. I let her fall across the king-size bed and push her legs onto the mattress.

9780670015658_North_of_Boston162The fall brings her back to consciousness. She mumbles, “You have to tell him how it happened, Pirio. He trusts you. He loves you. And you know better than anyone what to say—you were there.” She turns her face toward the closed window shade and says mournfully, “Remember, long time ago, when we were just little girls no one cared about? So we cared about each other. It was sweet, but we were so sad. Weren’t we, Pirio?”

“We were OK,” I say firmly, trying to steer her away from the rabbit hole of old pain.

“Can you believe it, Pirio? I can’t. Ned dead. Hey, it rhymes! Now Noah has no father. My baby’s half an orphan. Poor little kid.”

I don’t say anything. I can’t believe it either. I’d do anything to make it different. I keep asking myself what I could have done, but I keep coming up empty. No one could have saved him. Except the cowards on the ship.

“Want to know who I dreamed about the other night?” Thomasina asks musingly. Sometimes I’m jealous of the way booze gives her mind permission to wander up every alley and side street it sees. “Biggest asshole ever. You know who it is. You and me, we’re like peas and carrots, peas in a pod. Whatever. Insert your vegetable.” She puts two fingers over her lips in self-censorship. “Oops. Didn’t mean it that way.” Her hand flops away from her mouth, and her eyelids begin another rapid-fire fluttering. “Guess, Pirio. You’ll get it on the first try, I bet. Biggest asshole ever was . . . It was . . .” Her voice becomes a whisper. “It was . . .” Her eyes close.

“It was Dickhead Bates,” I say softly.

I push some pillows under her head and shoulders to prop her up so she won’t choke if she vomits, and pull a blanket over her. I take a minute to collect myself, then go into the living room.

Noah looks up from his project. “How’s my mom?”

“Sleeping.”

He nods. With his limited life experience, he has no idea how worried to be. He knows his mom’s been trying hard not to drink so much. Sometimes he comes to my apartment in the evenings so she can go to meetings; then for days she doesn’t go out at all. He’s used to her taking naps at odd times.

I get a whiff of indoles and uric acid. Translation: shit and piss. There’s a small plastic cage on a table in the corner. I slide back the cover, reach inside, curl my hand around a quivering little body huddled in a pile of sawdust, and place the hamster in Noah’s cupped hands. He starts cooing to it, rubs his cheek against the rodent’s fur. Hi, Jerry. Are you OK, Jerry? It takes me a little while to clean the cage. When Noah places Jerry back inside, he makes his body round and hunkers down into the fresh sawdust, which smells confusingly of sweetened pine and searing ammonia. I try to imagine how the cheap chemical additives affect his tiny olfactory glands and decide he probably preferred the smell of his own waste. I hate the whole idea of keeping animals in pens. If he weren’t Noah’s pet, I’d let him go.

“Come on, Noah. I’ll buy you a hamburger,” I say.

 

Reprinted by arrangement with Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from NORTH OF BOSTON by Elisabeth Elo. Copyright © 2014 by Elisabeth Elo.