It’s summer . . . a great time to relax with a good book. In that spirit, we’re pleased to offer this excerpt from Hugh Cook’s new novel, Heron River.
Adam, a young man with an intellectual disability incurred as the result of a childhood accident, lives in a group home with his housemates and their caregiver, Woody. This scene occurs one hot summer night.
After it got dark, Adam sat in the living room with Donnie and Eric and Jay watching a nature show on television. It was about a mother lion with two cubs and showed the cubs play-fighting and rolling on top of each other. They chased each other through grass and bushes.
Adam walked to the kitchen to grab a snack. He reached into the cupboard for some popcorn, and then the kitchen lights went off and he heard Donnie and Eric shouting. Hey, Donnie said, who turned off the TV? Turn it back on!
On on! Eric shouted.
Adam walked through the dark back to the living room. Not sure what’s going on here, Woody said. Looks like the power’s off.
Turn it back on, Donnie said. We’re missing the show here.
Woody walked to the window. Don’t see any lights on anywhere else in the neighborhood, he said. Looks like a power failure.
Well, go downstairs and turn it back on, Donnie said.
I can’t, Woody said. It’s not just in the house; the source of the failure is farther away. Maybe it’s so hot Niagara Falls dried up.
That’s not funny, Donnie said. We’re missing the show.
It was dark in the room, and Adam began shuffling towards the front window to look for light.
First thing we gotta do is find some candles, Woody said. Everybody just stay where you are a minute—I’ll be right back.
Nobody said anything, and then Adam saw the beam of a flashlight shining in the kitchen. A moment later Woody came into the living room, carrying two candles. He set one candle on the coffee table and the other on the TV. There, he said, at least now we can see something. Everybody okay? I’m sure they’ll have the power back on soon.
I wanna see the lions, Donnie said, we’re missing the lions.
Now now what do we do now? Eric said.
Not too much we can do, Woody said. We may just have to wait a bit. Adam, grab your harmonica and play us a tune.
Don’t want to, Adam said. Two weeks ago his brother Jesse had disappeared on his motorcycle, and he and his mother have not heard from him. Adam hasn’t played his harmonica since.
Hot hot it’s getting hot in here, Eric said. He began taking off his shirt.
Nobody said anything for a while. This is going to take forever, Donnie said finally. We’re never gonna get the power back.
I’ve got an idea, Woody said. I want all of you to get ready to do something. You’ll have to do it in the dark, but I think you can do it. Are you up for it?
Up for what? Adam said.
You’ll find out. Okay. Donnie, what I want you to do is go to your room and grab the blanket from beside your bed. Don’t ask any questions, just go and grab the blanket.
Donnie went to his room to get his blanket.
Eric, I want you to go and get us all a can of pop from the fridge while they’re still cold. Got that? Five cans of pop.
Eric went to the kitchen and came back carrying an armful of Cokes.
Okay, Woody said, I’m gonna blow out one candle. Adam, I want you to carry the other candle, then we’re all going outside.
Woody blew out one candle and gave the other to Adam. He went to the couch and picked up Jay. Adam, I want you to walk ahead of me with the candle and open the back door. Donnie and Eric, you guys follow me. Okay? Let’s go.
Adam opened the screen door, and they all stepped into the backyard. Donnie, Woody said, spread the blanket right in the middle of the grass over there.
What do we need the blanket for? Donnie said.
Just spread the blanket out nice, Woody said.
When Donnie had spread the blanket, Woody took Jay and set him down on the blanket. Just lie on your back, Jay, Woody said. Jay let himself fall back.
You can give me the candle, Adam, Woody said. Okay, Adam, Donnie, Eric, I want you guys to lie down beside Jay. Go ahead, lie down on the blanket, on your backs, just like Jay.
They all lay down on the blanket. Woody blew out the candle. It was completely dark outside. Not a light anywhere. Adam had never seen it this dark. He couldn’t even see the shapes of the trees.
Any room left for me? Woody said.
They all scrunched up beside each other. This is stupid, Donnie said, it’s hot out here.
Hot hot, Eric said.
Perfect, Woody said. Alright everybody, what I want you to do is look straight up. Look straight up. Tell me what you see.
Don’t see nothin’, Donnie said, it’s bitchin’ dark.
That’s the point, Woody said. Look up and tell me what you see.
Stars, Adam said, lots of stars.
Exactly! Woody said. Have you ever seen so many stars? What’s happening is that because the power’s off everywhere there’s no light interference and that’s why we can see the stars so much better.
Adam looked up and couldn’t recall ever seeing so many stars.
See that really bright star over there, Woody said, the one that’s brighter than all the others? That’s the North Star. It’s the last star in the handle of what’s called the Little Dipper. You know what a dipper is? It’s like a saucepan. It’s the group of stars you see there in the shape of—well, if you tilt your head a bit it’s sort of shaped like a grocery cart, and—
Why don’t they call it the Little Grocery Cart then instead of the Little Dipper? Donnie said.
Good question, Donnie, Woody said, I’ll suggest that to the Royal Astronomical Society. Anyway, those stars are the cup of the Little Dipper, and the last and brightest star in the handle is the North Star.
Adam tried to follow Woody’s explanation, but he didn’t see any dipper. And then, after looking some more, there it was above him, the North Star, brightest in a row of stars. I can see it! he said.
Good for you, Woody said.
They were all silent, looking at the stars. Then Woody asked, How long do you think it would take us to travel to the North Star?
A week, I’ll bet, Donnie said. That sucker’s way up there, man.
You know what? Woody said. If you traveled at the speed of light, it would take you more than four hundred years to get there.
Get off it, Donnie said.
Lots lots of years lots, Eric said.
But you know what’s most amazing? Woody said.
What? Adam said.
God made every one of those stars. And he knows each one by name.
Get out, Donnie said, there’s zillions of them. Nobody could do that.
No, but God can, Woody said.
They lay on their backs a long time, looking at the stars. None of them said anything for a long while.
Then they all saw it, a bright light flashing through the sky off to their right. Holy! Donnie shouted, did you see that?
Oooh, Adam said.
That’s called a shooting star, Woody said. When you see one you’re allowed to make a wish.
They all looked intently into the sky, waiting to see another shooting star. Then Adam saw another. There’s one! he shouted, pointing.
Bull, Donnie said, I didn’t see one. You’re just makin’ that up.
They looked at the stars a long while, and then Woody said, Listen, maybe we should collect our stuff and get back inside. Get ready to call it a day.
Not yet, Donnie said. I haven’t finished makin’ my wish yet. I want to look at the stars some more.
Me too, Adam said.
What about you, Eric?
Stay stay a while stay.
Sounds to me like it’s unanimous, Woody said. Alright then.
Adam hadn’t finished making his wish either. He thought about it and then wished his brother Jesse would come home.