In a small Pennsylvania town, one of the most famous women in history — a woman who the world has believed dead for almost two decades — is dying.
John Chambers walked away from his life eighteen years ago to become the woman's bodyguard. He gave up everything — including the woman he loved — because he believed that was his destiny.
But destiny has other ideas.
Praise for New Avalon:
“New Avalon is a suspenseful examination of love, loyalty, and identity that gathers steadily in tension and will leave its mark on your heart.” —Benjamin Percy
“Like middle-period Hitchcock, New Avalon opens sedately, slowly revealing an off-kilter world based on the most precarious secrets. Using a sneaky second-person, Robert Swartwood has crafted a satisfying revenge tragedy about identity and destiny.” —Stewart O’Nan
“A fine slow burn thriller.” —Jack Ketchum
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Read an excerpt from New Avalon
Sometimes you forget who you’re supposed to be.
This happens early in the mornings, an hour before your alarm clock buzzes, the bedroom cold and dark and still. Faint sunlight slices through the narrow openings between the window blinds. It takes a moment, wondering if you’re awake or if you’re still dreaming, if all of this is just a dream, and then you blink and remember who you are. Or, rather, who you’re supposed to be.
It especially doesn’t help in the winter months, when it snows. As a boy you loved the snow. You loved playing in the snow, building snowmen and snow forts and having snowball fights. As an adult, you’ve come to loathe the very idea of snow. It’s an irrational hatred, but practical. And last night the weatherman was calling for snow, five to seven inches at least, and even then you knew today was not going to be a good day.
You peek through the curtain at the backyard and the tableau of sycamores and hemlocks and oak trees all blanketed by white. The snow is flawless except for some tracks toward the bushes, what may be a set of deer prints—except no, it’s a squirrel, skittering across the fresh powder, its gray tail snapping in its wake.
You put on boots, parka, and gloves, and step out into the quiet January morning. The shovel is already on the porch, right where you left it last night in preparation. The weatherman got it wrong, as weathermen are apt to do. Instead of five to seven inches there are only three, but still you start with the driveway from the road up to the house, then the walkway. The temperature is one you’ve come to expect in the winter months, the chill not uncomfortable but just enough that you can see your breath. The job takes thirty minutes to complete, and then, when you set the shovel on the porch, when you start to kick the snow off your boots, you hear the approaching plow truck.
Only it’s not one of those mammoth PennDOT plow trucks with a yellow light flashing on top but Samuel Baker with a plow attached to his Dodge Ram. He’s the town’s self-proclaimed plowman, a retired farmer who clears the roads of New Avalon every time it snows, doing it simply out of the kindness of his heart. You wait on the porch as the plow scrapes the road. The truck crests the hill and you spot it through the trees. As Samuel passes the house, you raise a hand in greeting. He gives a quick salute and then he’s behind a wall of trees again, the sound of his plow and the roar of his engine the only proof of his existence.
You wait outside for another minute, watching the skeletal branches of the trees, hoping to spot some kind of life. Maybe a bird that hasn’t retreated with the rest of its kind for the winter, or even that squirrel you saw earlier. But nothing appears. The temperature must already be rising, because at that moment a sheet of snow falls from one of the tall branches, destroying the smooth surface with a dull and resonant thud.
Back inside, you decide to forgo your usual morning workout of one hundred push-ups and two hundred sit-ups. You shave and shower. You put on boxers, socks, then stand in front of your closet for a while, deciding on a suit. In the end you pick a gray pinstriped, one of your older suits, thinking it’s best in case salt gets on the slacks while you’re in the city. You put on a shirt, a tie, and take the jacket with you to the kitchen, where you drape it over a chair.
Two nice things about your life now: simplicity and progress. Years ago you would need to brew an entire pot for a single cup of coffee. Now you pop a pod into the Keurig machine, press the start button, and let it do its thing.
It takes only a minute for the coffee to brew. In that minute you retrieve the black metal case from your bedroom closet. You set it on the kitchen table. You type in the code, and the case clicks open. Inside are a Glock 17, two full magazines, and a holster. You set the holster aside and take out the Glock and place it on the table, just as the Keurig machine finishes.
You sip from the mug, contemplating turning on the TV. Some mornings you let the news fill the silence. But tales of ongoing war, of political corruption, of financial strife have become much too redundant, so you decide to keep it off.
You sit down at the table and place your mug to the side. You pick up the Glock, hold it in your hand, just stare at the matte black finish for several seconds. You begin taking it apart, setting each piece in a line in front of you, until the entire thing is dismantled. Then you start cleaning the pieces, slowly putting them back together, taking an occasional sip of coffee. Eventually the gun is reassembled and you insert one of the magazines, rack the slide to chamber a round.
Your mug is empty. You think about making yourself another cup. You even start to rise to your feet when your cell phone buzzes on the table. It’s your friend. It’s always your friend. Some mornings he calls, but today he’s sent a text:
* * *
Because of the snow you decide to take the SUV. Both that and the Town Car are cleaned and vacuumed, and just last week you’d detailed the Town Car in anticipation for today’s trip. But last night’s snow has put a wrinkle in that plan. At least three inches have settled here, and who knows what it’s going to be like in the city. So you take the SUV, wearing your suit jacket and your overcoat, the Glock holstered to your belt. Your shoes are shined, smelling of polish, and you start the SUV, let it idle for a minute, before hitting the automatic opener and waiting for the double garage door to slowly creak open.
A minute later you’re headed down the road, thinking that Samuel has done a great job as usual, the old man taking pride in what he does. Trees and bushes and houses pass by, all covered in white, and then you’re turning down a long driveway, and just as you expected, it hasn’t been shoveled. No matter: the SUV handles it without trouble. You’re shadowed by the trees all around you before you rise over the crest and there sits the house, the one-story ranch style home just like nearly all the rest in New Avalon. Your friend is outside, wearing boots and gloves and a parka. He’s already shoveled the walkway and is now beginning the top of the driveway. He’s wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hat, which you always think looks peculiar on him. He turns as you pull up and waves hello.
You step out of the SUV. “Here, let me do that.”
He shakes his head, waves you off. “I need the exercise anyway.”
It’s quiet then for a moment, the SUV idling behind you, the sound of more heavy snow falling from weak limbs and crashing to the ground. The temperature, according to the SUV’s thermometer, is now almost fifty, and something tells you it’s going to keep going up before the end of the day. Just another freak snowstorm in Pennsylvania, something you’ve come to expect and almost rely upon in the past eighteen years.
Your friend leans on his shovel, watching you closely.
“What is it?” you ask.
He glances at the house, then steps forward, his voice barely a whisper. “She’s dying.”
For a moment you aren’t sure what to say. “She’s been dying since the beginning.”
He nods, the tip of his green hat rising just enough that the sun catches a glimpse of his face. It’s more worn than the last time you saw him, though you wonder how that’s possible, this small dark-skinned man who has always had intelligent, piercing eyes.
“But it’s really happening now,” he says, his voice still quiet. He glances at the house once more, takes a deep breath. “It’s returned. Full force this time. The doctor”—his voice cracks—“he doesn’t think she’ll last until summer.” He shakes his head, his face looking even more ragged. “This is it. This is the end.”
“What about more chemo?”
He shakes his head again. “She hasn’t been responding to it for the past three months, when the first signs of the cancer showed up again.”
“And you didn’t say anything?”
“We haven’t told anyone. We were hoping …”
But he doesn’t continue. He doesn’t have to. And for the next minute you both just stand there in the driveway, the SUV idling, exhaust coughing white from the tailpipe. Then the front door opens. She steps out, bundled in her winter coat, a black scarf wrapped around her head. Dark glasses cover most of her face just as they always do, and for some reason it’s a comforting sight, something that looks normal. Only now you’re thinking of what your friend has just told you, and you’re wondering just how far she’s decayed, how much the scarf and glasses are hiding.
You glance at your friend and he gives you a look, a small look which speaks volumes. He turns, shovel in hand, and goes to meet her as she comes down the walkway. He sets the shovel aside and takes her in his arms, whispers something in her ear, hugs her tightly. Then he leads her to the SUV, where you’re now waiting for them. You open the back door, hold out your hand to help her up inside.
Once she’s safely inside, you quietly shut the door and turn to find your friend watching you again, the tiredness even more pronounced in his eyes. He holds out his hand, and when you shake it, the grip is just as strong and confident as always. “Be careful.”
* * *
The drive from New Avalon to New York City is close to seventy miles. You spend a good deal of time on SR-23, driving through New Jersey’s High Point State Park, then through Sussex and Hamburg. Next onto SR-3, then I-495. By now you have the entire route memorized, you know every alternate you can take in case there’s construction or an accident or some kind of emergency. The SUV has the standard GPS but you never use it.
You set your iPhone on the middle console, the digital Mozart album already cued up. The music—Symphony No. 40 in G minor—begins, but you hardly notice. You continue down the same highways, passing the same speed limit markers, the same signs announcing exits for Rutherford and Lyndhurst. You watch the cars in front of you, noting when one changes lanes, when one taps its brakes, but somehow it’s all become background. You’re reviewing everything you’ve just learned from your friend, the little he’s told you. Since the beginning you’ve been expecting it, but still the days passed, the months, the years, and life went on, the new life you’ve finally come to accept. And now, it seems, that will soon end.
Eventually the city appears in the distance, rising like a phoenix on the horizon, and the closer you get the more you tell yourself you need to pay better attention. But it’s difficult. It’s almost impossible. Occasionally you check the rearview mirror at the woman in the back. She sits hidden by her coat and scarf and dark glasses, staring out her window. You want to say something to her, ask her how she’s feeling, but you remain quiet and allow only the noise of flutes and horns and clarinets, of violins and cellos and violas, to fill the cabin.
Minutes later you hit the Lincoln Tunnel and then you’re underwater, staying in your lane and telling yourself to keep your mind on the task at hand. It happens every time you come this close to the city. The irony isn’t lost on you if somehow you have an accident and the woman in the back who the world believes has been dead for the past eighteen years suddenly breaks her leg or arm or worse. You grip the steering wheel a little tighter. You turn the air up a little more. Watching the cars in front of you for anything unexpected. Anticipating it because that’s your job.
After exiting the tunnel and making your usual turn, you take a right onto West 42nd Street, then head north up Eighth Avenue. Stopping at lights, waiting for the hordes of people to cross at each corner, nervously watching as yellow taxis swerve from one lane to the next. Once you hit Columbus Circle you take in the secluded piece of wilderness spread before you on the right. Turning onto Central Park West, you pass the Trump Towers, the Mayflower, the Dakota, and continue until you hit the Cathedral Parkway. The sun and buildings play patterns of shadows over everything. It’s back around the perimeter of the park then, driving down Fifth Avenue, until you finally break your reticence and ask her what she would like for lunch. Nothing right now, she says, and sips from one of the many bottles of water from the cooler in the back.
The streets here are just as you expected, wet but not too slick, gray snow piled in gutters. People walk the sidewalks in boots, some wearing heavy parkas, others wearing light jackets. Without a word you switch lanes to make the turn onto 79th Street.
This is what you do for the next couple of hours, just drive through Manhattan and then the Bronx, going over bridges and through tunnels, stopping at traffic lights and at stop signs. And while you’re driving, while you’re making your occasional stops to pick up whatever it is she wants (chocolate, a croissant, tea), the memories of your past life start coming back to you, memories you’ve managed to block these past eighteen years. You don’t want to remember them but it’s impossible—what your friend told you earlier has opened the doors—and like a flood they come, reminding you how everything in life sometimes happens for a reason, just as how everything in life sometimes doesn’t. And how accidents—like the one Jack Bishop made nearly two decades ago—always occur, almost as if everything eventually ends in Paris, stopping in its tracks at the thirteenth pillar of the Alma Tunnel.