Good morning! And happy book birthday to Rags by Ty Drago!
We are excited about this edgy and nostalgia-forward horror novel. As the author already shared Chapter One, we are giving you a deeper peek with Chapter Two. We hope you enjoy!
And if you love the cover as much as we do, check out more of Lynne Hansen’s work. She takes commissions and has pre-made art just ready for your text treatment.
“The Shadow meets Joe R. Lansdale’s God of the Razor. Yes, it’s that good.”
John L. French, award-winning author
My Parents Named Me Abigail
—Abigail Lowell. Of course, why they named me that—if Abigail was my grandmother, some favorite aunt, or just a nice name they got out of a baby book—is something I’ll probably never know.
At the age of four, I was found wandering through the crowds on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. It was a bright summer afternoon, and I had on shorts and a dirty t-shirt. I was skinny like I hadn’t eaten in days.
And I was crying.
A cop found me and took me to “Family Services,” two words that, to me, will always mean blank grey walls and overworked, underpaid suits who try to be nice but can’t quite pull it off. There I got questioned but couldn’t tell anybody where my folks might be or how I ended up alone on the boards.
I knew my name and how old I was, but almost nothing else. Over the next several hours, my photo got passed around in the shops all up and down the boardwalk. They even checked with the local elementary schools, though they were closed for the season. But, in the end, they found zip. Nothing at all. Finally, yet another official stranger who was “there to help” showed up and whisked me off to a foster home—the first of many.
I remember none of this.
My earliest memory is of getting spanked. I don’t recall where I was at the time or even why I was getting hit. But I know it was by someone named Judith who didn’t like me, probably one of the hundred foster mothers I burned through during the early years. Okay, maybe it was closer to a dozen. But when you’re a little kid, it seems like more—an endless parade of cramped, shared bedrooms, cheap food, and the learned habit of carrying everything you own from place to place in a green trash bag.
At least, that was how it was until I came to the Nelsons.
Nick and Kelley. For years they ran a state-funded orphanage out of a former hotel they owned half a block from the Boardwalk. Since 1962, when the State of New Jersey abolished orphanages in favor of the “kinder and better” foster care system, Aunt Kell and Uncle Nick went from being “caretakers” to “foster parents,” and the average of a dozen kids under their roof went from being “orphans” to “children of the state.”
I was eight when I got delivered to the lobby of what the neon sign atop the roof announced to be “THE CALM SEA ARMS.” By then, I’d been in the System for four years, and the constant upheavals—a new foster home every few months—had left me, well, broken.
I stole stuff, usually from stores but sometimes from my fosters, which was probably the main reason I got moved around so much. I also hoarded food, having learned that eating regularly could be a luxury in a house crammed with foster kids who were just as messed up as I was. My foster parents would rail at me whenever they found moldy bread or half-empty cereal boxes under my bed. They’d tell me I was “selfish.” They’d tell me I was “bad.”
After a while, I guess I believed it.
Eventually, you get yourself a rep in the System. I was a “problem kid”—so the social workers kind of got used to moving me around. It became a routine. I’d hit a house, get into trouble, get into more trouble, and finally get moved.
Over and over again.
If it sounds like a pretty shitty childhood, well, you’re right.
But everything changed when I found the Nelsons.
They were old, older than any fosters I’d ever had, and the moment I met them, they scared me. Truth is, they were only in their mid-fifties, but to me, that was ancient. Besides, old people always scared me back then. I still don’t know why. I remember standing in that lobby—with its shabby-but-clean furniture. There were, as I’ve said, something like a dozen kids already living in the place, and the lobby was a common area where everyone pretty much did whatever they felt like doing: board games, Lincoln Logs, even hopscotch. The hotel’s only working television was in there as well.
You get the idea—noisy and busy.
A girl my age waved at me and smiled. I stared back at her, clutching my trash bag a little tighter.
Uncle Nick talked to the social workers. He’s a big dude, Nick Nelson, tall and broad-shouldered. Not scary exactly, but imposing, hair shaved close and skin even darker than mine.
He seemed—solid to me.
Then, while I watched him, Aunt Kell came up and took me aside. She was kind of short and, not fat, exactly. Just round, with a big bosom that, at that age, I found weirdly comforting. Her hair was long and white, tied up and held with a ribbon. Her skin, lighter than her husband’s, looked like old rawhide, but there was something about her smile that almost cracked the walls I’d built around myself—and that’s saying something.
I remember she handed me a small tin box. It had a picture of Princess Leah from STAR WARS on it. “Abby,” she said in a kind, soft voice. “This is yours. You can put anything you want in it. If you want to put food in it, you can… as much as will fit. And you can keep that food for as long as you want. But you’ll need to be careful because keeping the wrong kind of food too long can make you sick.”
I knew that from bitter experience. I expected her to lecture me on why I didn’t have to hoard anymore, or even tell me what kind of foods were safer to store than others. But she didn’t. She just handed me the box and then pulled a wristwatch out of her apron.
The watch wasn’t a cheap digital, but had actual hands and a leather band. “This is yours, too,” she said. “All my children get one. You can wear it or not. That’s up to you. Personally, I think it’s good to always know what time it is. But, Abby, it’s a wind-up. No battery. So, you’ll want to remember to keep it wound every few days.”
Then she turned the watch over and let me see the back. My initials were there—scratched in, not engraved. But to me, it looked like a miracle.
I felt my eyes light up. I couldn’t help it.
That’s how it began at the Calm Sea Arms. I ended up staying there longer than six months, longer even than six years. This old hotel’s become the only home I’ve ever known, and Uncle Nick and Aunt Kell are the only parents I remember.
I don’t tell them I love them, though I do.
I don’t call them ‘’‘Dad’ and ‘’Mom,’ though I want to.
I have eleven foster brothers and sisters. Some I like. Some I don’t.
A couple I even love.
And Corinne is one of those.
In fact, loving her is kind of what got us into trouble under the pier tonight in the first place.
The craziest thing is: we somehow get away with it.
Corrine and I make it back to the hotel, climb atop the dumpster in the alley to the fire escape ladder, and then in through that “special” second-floor window without anybody knowing a thing.
She clings to me almost the whole way back, neither of us saying much. I let her do the climbing ahead of me and, once we’re safe in the hallway, I see her to her bedroom as quietly as I can. She and I are both in the “Girl’s Dorm,” which is really just the hotel’s second floor. The boys have the third. The idea is to keep us nice and separated. Uncle Nick and Aunt Kell sleep on the lobby floor, and the boards creak something fierce, especially when the hotel’s quiet. So, each of us learns pretty quick how to shuffle our feet when we walk at night and to keep to the threadbare carpet when we can.
Both dorms have eight bedrooms, which means there’s enough to let each foster kid have one of our own. It’s pretty amazing. Most of us have never had a private room in our lives, something that the Nelsons know perfectly well. Honestly, it’d be so much simpler for them to cram us in, three or four to a room. That would surely make cleaning and upkeep easier.
But they don’t do that. They never have.
It also means I’m able to get Corinne into her bed without worrying about waking anyone else. She slips under the covers without complaint, most of her tears and shakes having stopped. I wonder how much of what happened tonight she’ll remember in the morning. Hopefully, not much at all. Corinne might be nine, but, like a lot of fosters, she’s younger between her ears. “Emotionally stunted,” they call it, which is as freaking stupid a term as there ever was. Corinne’s become what she needs to be to survive in the System, what works for her. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t need a label.
Just like Corinne doesn’t need more bad memories to fill her dreams.
“Abby?” she whispers when I kiss her forehead.
“For getting us in trouble.”
“You’re not mad?”
“Nope. Now, goodnight. We’ve got school in the morning.”
She nods. Then, as I straighten and turn toward the door, she says again, “Abby?”
“Are you gonna tell Aunt Kell?”
I feel my heart sink. “About what?”
“About you going out with me to look at the moon on the water?”
That was the start of it. Corinne loves the moon. Some nights, when a few of us sneak up to the hotel’s roof after lights out to smoke, drink, or whatever, she follows us. To be honest, it used to bug me. But then I found out that she’s not interested in us at all. Instead, she just sits under the big neon Calm Sea Arms sign that’s mounted up there in letters ten feet tall and stares at the moon.
Tonight, after lights out, she snuck into my room and begged me to take her out to the beach so she could see the moon on the water. “Tomorrow’s my birthday,” she announced, though I know for a fact that, like me, she doesn’t know her birthday. “So, please, Abby?”
I knew it was a bad idea when I agreed.
I just didn’t realize how bad.
“Do you want me to?” I ask her cautiously, standing halfway between her bed and the door. “Talk to Aunt Kell, I mean.”
“No. She’ll be mad. I don’t want her mad at me on my birthday.”
“Then I won’t say nothing.”
She smiles sleepily. “Thanks, Abby.”
“Sure thing, pumpkin. Good night.”
I slip out of her bedroom and down the hall to my own. Around me, the second floor is graveyard quiet.
This may sound weird, but it’s not until I’m safe in my room and pull off my clothes, until I look down and see blood—honest-to-God human blood!—on my black sneakers, that I start seriously freaking out.
How did I even get blood on me? I wasn’t anywhere near Pimples when Rags dragged him behind that pillar. Thirty-Eight had to have been something like a dozen feet away when he got stabbed from behind. And Butterfly, unlike his homies, got broken instead of cut.
Then I remember Rags standing in front of me, still holding his knife. His bloody knife.
Was he really that close?
I didn’t think so at the time, but—
Feeling suddenly nauseous, I take off my shoes and run down the hall to the toilet.
I don’t throw up, though I want to. Instead, I end up splashing cold water on my face and then my shoes, rubbing them with paper towels until there’s not a trace of red. Then, feeling a lot less better than I’d like, I go back to my room, pull on my cotton jams, and climb under the blanket.
That’s when I lose it.
Not completely, mind. I mean, I cry, but I don’t sob. I don’t make noise. I don’t wake anybody.
It’s a thing you learn when you grow up in the System.
You cry alone.
The terror I felt when those drugged-up bangers closed around us on the beach, corralling us under the pier like dogs trapping a pair of rats, runs through me like ice. Weirdly, it isn’t almost losing my own life that freaks me out the most. It’s Corinne. The idea that she might have ended up just another dead orphan was almost enough to send me down to the bathroom again for another round of “Will She or Won’t She?”
Yet, if Rags hadn’t shown up, that’s exactly what would have happened.
That dude frightens me, no lie. But not because he threatened me. Instead, it’s what he did to protect me, to protect my little foster sister, that scared me, and not a little bit because some part of me, and I get how this sounds, appreciated his brutality. But no. “Brutality” isn’t the right word. Savagery. What he did to those dudes under the pier was savage but not brutal. Until tonight, I didn’t know there was a difference.
But there is.
The tears flow for a while. Finally, as my heart rate slowly slips back to normal and what Tyrone calls my “scare buzz“ drains off, I sit up, wipe my face, and spend just a minute looking out through my window at the night.
Only to scream—almost—when I see him staring back at me. My hands shoot to my mouth, my eyes going wide. I feel my stomach clench and, all of a sudden, the scare buzz is back with interest.
Rags is right there.
Except… no, he’s not.
I blink, shuddering. Then I stand on wobbly legs and step closer to the window. By the light of the moon, which hangs waning in the late fall sky, I can see that the fire escape’s empty. But he was there. I spotted his shape, crouching in the gloom, his heavy hood hiding his face, his long, black-bladed knife in his hand. He was there! I know it!
It takes me a while to fall asleep after that, but eventually, I manage. And, strange as it sounds, I don’t dream about Rags or bangers or blood and carnage. Instead, I dream of the sight of the massive pier, as we saw it from the beach—big and blocky, mysterious and amazing. It always looks to me like an enormous treasure chest, full of history and secrets rather than gold. And, in the dream, like when I’m awake, I’m drawn to it.
But there’s a lot about the pier I haven’t told you yet, a lot you need to know. For now, though, let’s just say that I love that place, as rundown and derelict as it’s become. The truth is that when Corinne came to my bedroom after lights out and begged me to take her to the late-night beach, I did it partly for her and partly for me.
You see, Corinne went for the moonlight.
But I went for the pier.
Ty Drago is a full-time writer and the author of ten published novels, including his five-book Undertakers series, the first of which has been optioned for a feature film. Torq, a dystopian YA superhero adventure, was released by Swallow’s End Publishing in 2018. Add to these one novelette, myriad short stories and articles, and appearances in two anthologies. He’s also the founder, publisher, and managing editor of ALLEGORY (www.allegoryezine.com), a highly successful online magazine that, for more than twenty years, has featured speculative fiction by new and established authors worldwide.
Ty’s currently just completed The New Americans, a work of historical fiction and a collaborative effort with his father, who passed away in 1992. If that last sentence leaves you with questions, check out his podcast, “Legacy: The Novel Writing Experience,” to get the whole story.
He lives in New Jersey with his wife Helene, plus one dog and two chickens.