Before the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Martha E. Bray
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“Let America Be America Again” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad with David Roessel, Associate Editor, copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
“Harvest Song” from Cane by Jean Toomer. Copyright 1923 by Boni & Liveright, renewed 1951 by Jean Toomer. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
ISBNs: 978-0-316-12606-9 (hardcover), 978-0-316-35651-0 (ebook)
PART ONE ASYLUM
THE COMING STORM
WELCOME TO THE UNDERGROUND
A CRAZY DREAM
A BORN STAR
ALL THE WAY
THE HOTSY TOTSY
THE COTTON CLUB
PUNISHMENT FOR THEIR SINS
BEFORE THE DEVIL BREAKS YOU
INTO THE MADHOUSE
BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE
A BETTER AMERICA
DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
THE KING OF CROWS
PART TWO GHOSTS IN GOTHAM
THE VOICE OF TOMORROW
THE CARD READER
A PUNCH IN THE GUT
THE NEW JERICHO
NO REAL HARM
A GOOD TIME
THE SECRET SIX
EVERYTHING WAS DIFFERENT NOW
FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE
THE EXCEPTIONAL AMERICAN
WE WILL BE HEARD
A SPIT IN THE EYE
THE SHADOW SELF
THIS LIFE WAS GOOD
BLUE SKIES SMILING AT ME
THE FUTURE OF AMERICA
THE TIME IS NOW
For the truth-tellers
Thick evening fog clung to the forlorn banks of Ward’s Island, turning it into a ghost of itself. Across the dark calm of the East River, the glorious neon whirl of Manhattan was in full jazz-age bloom—glamorous clubs, basement speakeasies, illegal booze, all of it enjoyed by live-fast-forget-tomorrow flappers and Dapper Dons eager to throw off their cares and Charleston their way into tomorrow’s hangover. On Ward’s, it was quiet and dark, just a fat fist of neglected land housing the poor, the addicts, and the mentally ill, all of the city’s great unwanted, kept well out of sight, the rivers separating the two worlds—the living and the dead.
Inside the gothic expanse of the Manhattan State Hospital for the Insane, in the common parlor on the third floor of ward A, Conor Flynn sat with his frail arms wrapped around his knobby knees listening to a radio program. It was called the Pears Soap Hour featuring the Sweetheart Seer, and it starred one of those Diviners, a young gifted girl who claimed she could read the secret histories of objects through her touch: “Now, don’t tell me anything about this watch, Mrs. Hempstead. I’ll divine its very soul tonight. Just you wait!”
On Ward’s Island, that was called insanity. On the radio, it was called entertainment.
At the piano with the two missing keys, Mr. Potts, a cheery soul who’d murdered his mother at the breakfast table with a hunting knife, now plunked out a tuneless old beer hall song. Sad Mr. Roland worked his jigsaw puzzle with shaking hands. His shirt cuffs slid up, revealing the puckered scars running the width of each wrist. The squeak of a wheelchair announced an arrival to the parlor. Conor looked up to see a nurse wheeling in a newer resident, one of those shell-shocked veterans of the Great War. There were lots of broken men like that in the asylum—fellas who’d gone off to fight but hadn’t fully come back. A wool blanket covered the soldier’s lower half to disguise the fact that his legs ended at the knees, though Conor didn’t know why they should hide it.
“Here we are, Luther. Nice view from here,” the nurse said, patting his shoulder. “Bit of fog, but you can still see the river.”
Conor glanced toward the barred windows at the bruising sky and the distant steel arch of the Hell Gate Bridge. It would be night soon. Night was when they came.
The thought gave Conor the shivers, so he counted.
“One, two, t’ree, four, five, seven. One, two, t’ree, four…”
Mr. Roland squinted in his direction. It startled Conor and he lost his place. Now he had to start over. He flexed his fingers exactly three times and tapped the tips of his fingers to his forehead and lips, up and down three times, each in rapid succession. Then he counted to seven until it felt right, until the uneasy sentinels on watch inside his mind gave the signal that it was okay to stop. Counting kept him safe. There were rules: Seven was the best number. Threes were good, too, but counting a six was bad. He didn’t know why these were the rules, just that they were, and he followed them and had ever since he could remember.
“Evenin’, gentlemen!” The night attendant, “Big Mike” Flanagan, strolled into the common parlor, all loose gait and sharp smile. Mike had been a guard at the penitentiary on Welfare Island. He looked at all the patients as if they were guilty of some crime, and he had a habit of doling out his own sentences in secret slaps, trips, and pinches.
“What’s the matter, Mr. Roland? You’re jumpy tonight.”
Mr. Roland glanced over his shoulder toward the
“What’s out there, then? You expecting something?”
“G-ghosts,” Mr. Roland said.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts, Mr. Roland.”
Mr. Roland reached for a new puzzle piece. “Tell that to Mr. Green.”
Big Mike gripped Mr. Roland’s shoulder in what might’ve seemed like a brotherly hold. Mr. Roland’s pinched face said it clearly was not. “Whaddaya know about Mr. Green, boyo? Eh? D’ya see what happened? Do you know how he got that razor? Tell me!”
“Told you: ghosts.”
Big Mike let go of Mr. Roland’s arm. “Aaah, what am I even listening for? You didn’t see nuttin’. I’ll be as loony as you if I keep it up. You oughta be careful, boyo. Faye talked about the ghosts coming through. Wouldn’t shut up about it. So Dr. Simpson took that thought right out of her head.” Big Mike tapped the tip of his index finger just above Mr. Roland’s left eye. With a meaty paw, he crumbled apart Mr. Roland’s hard-won progress on the puzzle. “Lunatic,” he huffed, and walked away.
In his head, where dark imaginings often spread their bladed wings, Conor imagined Big Mike’s blue eyes widening with surprise, the blood bubbling up at his throat where Conor had taken a razor to it. That was a bad thought, Conor knew. It scared him, and so he counted to seven several times, a penance of numbers, until he could feel safe inside his skin again.
Outside, the wind howled mournfully. By the window, the soldier with the haunted eyes moaned softly and kept his gaze trained on the ceiling. Conor often got feelings about people—who could be trusted, like Mr. Roland, and who was rotten, like Big Mike or Father Hanlon, who was dead now and Conor was glad of it. Conor had a bad feeling about the soldier, too. There were unsettling secrets swirling around him. Someone or something was chasing Luther Clayton.
“The natives are restless,” Big Mike joked to one of the nurses. He was standing just outside the common parlor in the long hallway lined with doorways that hid the patients’ cramped rooms.
“Oh, you!” the nurse, whose name was Mary, flirted back.
A razor. Blood at Big Mike’s throat. An animal eating him down to the bones while he screamed. One, two, t’ree, four, five, seven. One, two, t’ree, four, five, seven.
“D’you hear old Mrs. Liggett nattering on about ghosts now? Claims they’re all over the island, with more coming. ’Course, she also thinks she’s a bride and every day’s her wedding. Still. Awfully dark out,” Big Mike said. “Better let me walk you to your dormitory tonight.”
“I might do,” Mary said coyly. Her smile disappeared. “Why do you think they’ve been talking so much about ghosts?”
Big Mike shrugged. “We’re in a madhouse, whaddaya expect? Ooh. Stuffy in here, idn’t it?”
Big Mike stepped back into the common parlor and cracked open a window.
“D-don’t!” Conor yelled. Under the table, his legs shook.
Big Mike scowled. “What’s that, boyo?”
“D-don’t open it.”
“And why not? Stifling in here.”
“They can get in,” Conor said.
Mary looked worried. “Maybe we shouldn’t.…”
“Aww, go back to your countin’, why don’tcha, Conor?” Big Mike said. “Now, Mary, don’t let it bother you.…” He took the opportunity to put his arm around the pretty nurse’s shoulders.
At the piano, Mr. Potts’s fingers stilled for a moment on the sickly keys. Then his quavery voice sang a new song. “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile!” In his chair, the war vet twitched and whimpered in a way that made the hair on the back of Conor’s neck stand at attention.
“What’s the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile,” Mr. Potts sang, really getting into it now. “So pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile!”
Luther Clayton’s head whipped in Conor’s direction, eyes wide, haunted. “Don’t let them in. They belong to him!”
And suddenly, Conor understood what had made him so uneasy about the soldier: He knew.
Big Mike hurried over to the veteran’s chair, Mary following. “Now, now, what’s the racket for, eh, Luther?”
“The time is now,” Mr. Potts said, resting his hands flat on the tops of his thighs. He stared out the barred windows, one open just a crack, open just enough. And now Conor could see it, too: the odd bluish fog rolling across the dark lawn like a magician’s best trick.
They were coming.
“The time is now, the time is now, the time is now,” Luther said, his voice escalating.
The door slammed shut. Mary tugged at the handle. “It won’t budge!”
“Ring the alarm!” Big Mike called.
The nurse pulled the string. “It isn’t working!”
The fog pushed in around the window cracks.
“What in the name of—” Big Mike’s voice cut off with a gasp.
The nurse screamed and Conor wanted to cry, wanted to wish it all away, but he didn’t dare turn around to look. He was waiting for the lady in his head to tell him what to do.
A curtain came down over Conor’s fear. His muscles relaxed. In his head, the lady’s voice guided him. Bear witness. He picked up the pencil. Behind him, there was the crack of overturned chairs and Big Mike crying, “No! Please, no!” and Mr. Potts screeching like a frightened monkey and Mr. Roland making sounds no human should make. There were the nurse’s terrified, pleading screams dying to a gurgle and Luther Clayton shouting, “The time is now!” till his vocal cords strained into hoarseness. Down the long hallway, running footsteps approached, though it was already too late. The tang of fresh blood fouled the air.
“Onetwot’reefourfiveseven,” Conor murmured over and over, like a prayer, as he kept drawing.
The fog slipped back through the windows and stretched its arms around the edges of Ward’s Island, the lights of the asylum barely visible in the murk. There were terrible things waiting in that fog, Conor knew. And just before the door to the common parlor creaked open of its own accord—Strange, they’d say later, as if it had never been locked to begin with—before the alarms and shouting and cries rent the night—“Oh, sweet Jesus! Oh, dear god!”—Conor heard the whispers traveling through the fog like current along a telephone line no one uses much:
“We are the Forgotten, forgotten no more.…”
THE COMING STORM
At five o’clock on a cold February afternoon, Memphis Campbell and his little brother, Isaiah, mounted the steps of the ramshackle Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult on West Sixty-eighth Street.
Isaiah peeked into the museum’s dusk-dark front windows. “Looks closed. Says it’s closed.”
Memphis pulled on his brother’s arm. “Quit it, now. You’ll get arrested for being a Peeping Tom.”
“Won’t, either. Say, what’s a Peeping Tom?”
“Something that gets you arrested,” Memphis said, opening the front door.
“You’re squawking at me for looking in the windows, and you’re just opening the front door and walking in!” Isaiah said, running to catch up.
“It’s okay. They’re expecting us.”
As they traveled the long hallway, Isaiah gawked at the museum’s many collections—the poppet dolls, the haunted ventriloquist’s dummy, the spirit photographs, and a slate used by mediums in their trances. He stopped in front of a painting of a root worker communing with a trio of wispy ancestors. Spooked, he ran to catch up to his brother.
“I thought we were gonna play ball.” Isaiah punched his fist into his catcher’s mitt. “You told Aunt Octavia—”
“Never mind what I told Octavia. Isaiah, I mean that—don’t tell her about this.”
Memphis slid open a pair of impressive pocket doors, and he and his brother caught their breath at the majesty of the museum’s library. Dark wood shelve
“Salutations, Campbell brothers!” a petite blond flapper called from a plump chair where she lay sprawled with her legs dangling over its rolled arm. Evie O’Neill. The radio’s famous object reader, the Sweetheart Seer. Evie spread her arms wide to acknowledge the others in the room. “Welcome to our merry festival of freaks.”
Memphis smiled nervously at everyone in turn. The museum’s faithful assistant, Jericho Jones, nodded from his spot at one of the long oak tables, where he sat with an open book. His large, well-muscled frame dwarfed the chair. Pickpocket Sam Lloyd warmed his hands at the limestone fireplace. “Hiya, fellas!” he called good-naturedly. On the tufted brown sofa, dream walker and spirit conjurer Ling Chan wore a wary expression. She sat very straight, her hands tugging at the hem of her skirt as if she could hide her metal leg braces. Beside Ling, freckled and friendly Henry DuBois IV seemed to be writing a new piece of music in his head, his fingers playing imaginary arpeggios across Ling’s crutches, which he cradled against his shoulder. Mabel Rose sat at the same table as Jericho, occasionally stealing glances at him. She had what Memphis’s aunt Octavia would call a “wholesome face,” which wasn’t a comfort to the girls on the receiving end of that euphemism. Mabel wasn’t a Diviner. She was the daughter of union organizers, and she spent a lot of her organizing skills on trying to keep her best friend, Evie, out of trouble.
That left only one other person in the room. Theta Knight smiled at Memphis, and his breath caught. “Hey, Poet,” she said in her deep purr of a voice. Her sleek black bob gleamed in the warm glow cast by the library’s Victorian chandelier. And suddenly, Memphis wasn’t thinking about the reason they were all gathered in a musty museum of the occult. He was only thinking about Theta and how much he wanted to be alone with her.