The following is an excerpt from Inspection, the new novel by Bird Box author Josh Malerman. Part coming-of-age story, part psychological thriller, it follows a group of boys being trained at one school for geniuses, and a group of girls at another. Neither knows the other exists — until now. Inspection publishes Tuesday and is available for pre-order.
“Turn,” Inspector Collins said. He and Jeffrey observed from a distance, always the first step of the morning’s Inspection. The dogs breathed heavy behind the glass door beyond the men. J turned to his left. He heard the leather of D.A.D.’s red jacket stretching. The man, as of yet out of sight, must have crossed his arms or sat back in his chair.
Winter outside the Turret could be brutal. Some years were worse than others. J, nearing his thirteenth birthday along with his twenty-three brothers, had experienced twelve winters. And with each one, Professor Gulch warned the boys about depression. The sense of loneliness that came from being stuck inside a ten-story tower, when the Orchard and the Yard froze over, when even the pines looked too cold to survive.
Hysteria, J thought. He shook his head, trying to roll the idea out his ear. It was a word he didn’t like anywhere inside his head. As if the four syllables had the same properties as Rotts and Moldus, Vees and Placasores. The very diseases the Inspectors searched him for now.
Collins again. His gruff voice part and parcel of the Check-Up room. Like the sound of clacking dishes in the cafeteria. Or the choral voices of his brothers in the Body Hall.
“Cold,” J said, turning his back to the Inspectors, facing now the locked door.
It was often chilly in the Check-Up room; unseen breezes, as if the solid steel walls were only an illusion, and the distorted reflections unstable drawing on the wind. J imagined a slit somewhere, a crack in those walls, allowing pre-winter inside. It was similar, J imagined, to the veterinarian’s office in Lawrence Luxley’s book Dogs and Dog Days. The brilliant leisure writer had described the poor animals’ reactions so well: Unwelcoming, cold, it was as though Doctor Grand had intentionally made it so, so that the dogs understood the severity of their visits. And still, despite the inhospitable environs, the dogs understood that the room was good for them. That their lives depended on these regular visits. Some of them were even able to suppress their basest instincts… the ones that told them to run.
J had memorized all of Lawrence Luxley’s books. Many of the Alphabet Boys had.
J did as he was told. Always had. The routine of the Inspections were as ingrained in his being as chewing before eating.
And with this third turn, he faced D.A.D.
A thrill ran through him, as it always had, twelve years running; to see D.A.D. for the first time in the day.
The bright red jacket and pants were like a warm fire in the cold Check-Up room Or the sun coming up.“Did you sleep well, J?”
D.A.D.’s voice. Always direct, always athletic. J wasn’t the only Alphabet Boy who equated the man’s voice with strength. Comfort. Security. Knowledge.
“I actually did not,” J said, his twelve-year old voice an octave deeper than it was only a year ago. “I dreamt something terrible.”
“Is that right?” D.A.D.’s hazel eyes shone above his black beard, his black hair, too. J had black hair. Just like his D.A.D. “I’m intrigued. Tell me all about it.”
“Turn,” Collins said. And J turned to face the Inspectors and the dogs all over again.
No longer facing D.A.D., the color red like a nosebleed out of the corner of his eye now, J recounted his unconscious struggle. He’d been lost in a Yard four hundred times the size of the one he enjoyed every day. He described the horror of not being able to find his way back to the Turret.
“Lost?” D.A.D. echoed. The obvious interest in his voice was as clear to J as the subtle sound of his leather gloves folding around his pencil.
Yes, J told him, yes, he’d felt lost in the dream. He’d somehow strayed too far from the Turret, and the Parenthood within. He couldn’t remember how exactly, the actual pines framing the Yard in were not present in this dream. But he was certainly very anxious to get back. He could hear his floor mates Q, D, and L calling from a distance, but could not see the orange bricks of the tower. He couldn’t make out the iron spires that framed the roof’s ledge like a lonely bottom row of teeth. Teeth J and the other Alphabet Boys had looked through many nights, having found the nerve to sneak up to the roof. Nor could he see the tallest of the spires, the single iron tooth that pointed to the sky like a fang. Gone were the finite acres of the Yard, the expanse of green lawn between himself and the Turret. So were the reflections in the many elongated windows of the many floors. In their stead was endless green grass.
“Well winter is upon us,” D.A.D. said. His voice was control. Always. Direction. Solution. Order. “Couldn’t even see the fang, hmm? No sign of the Parenthood at all. No sign of home.”
J thought of the yellow door on the roof, visible all the way from the Yard below. He thought of the solid orange bricks and how, on a summer day, the Turret resembled a sunrise.
“No,” he said, shaking his head, looking to the silent faces of the Inspectors who quietly fingered the magnifying glasses at their belts. J understood, now, as a twelve-year-old boy, something he hadn’t at eleven: the Inspections didn’t begin when the Inspectors used their glasses. It began the second you walked through the door.
“You must have been so scared,” D.A.D. continued. His voice was fatherhood. Administration. Always. “But, tell me, did you eventually find the Turret before waking?”
J was quiet a moment. He scratched at his right elbow with his left hand. He yawned a second time.
Hysteria, he thought again. He actually made fists, as if to knock the thought out of his head. Professor Gulch taught psychology and often stressed the many ways a boy’s mind might turn on itself: mania, attention deficit, persecution, dissociation from reality, depression, and hysteria. For J, it had all sounded like distant impossibilities. Conditions to be studied for the purpose of study alone. Certainly J wasn’t afraid of one day experiencing theses states of mind himself. Yet, here he was… twelve years old… and how else could he explain the new, unknown feelings he’d been having of late? What would Gulch call the sense of isolation, of being incomplete, when he looked out across the Yard, toward the entrance to the many rows of the Orchard? To where the Living Trees grew?
The boy recalled his childhood as though through a glass with residue of milk upon it. Unable to answer the simple question: where do I come from?
Another Lawrence Luxley line. A real zinger, as Q would say.
But no, J thought, there in the Check-Up room. He wasn’t trying to answer that question at all. No boy had ever determined which of the cherry trees in the Orchard were the ones they had grown on. And as far as J knew, they were fine with that.
“No,” J finally said. “I never found my way home.” He heard the pencil against paper again, could easily imagine D.A.D.’s bright science eyes reading the words he wrote.
Like all the Alphabet Boys, J felt honored whenever D.A.D. noted what he said.
“And when you woke?” D.A.D. said. He didn’t need to finish his sentence. It was clear what he was asking for.
“I thought it was real. I thought I was still out there. Like I’d woken in the Yard on my bed. I looked up, must have seen the ceiling, but I mistook it for more of that fog. It took me a minute to understand I was just in my bedroom.” He paused. Imagined D.A.D. stroking his black beard with a gloved hand. “This all happened moments ago, of course, as the call for Inspection woke me.”
“Of course.” D.A.D. said. “Now tell me,” he began and J knew the question he was about to be asked, before D.A.D. asked it. “Do you have a theory on what prompted this dream?”
While J had experienced a wide range of emotions in this room before, he wasn’t prepared for the one he felt then.
And where had it come from? Surely he knew this question was coming. Had he not had time to prepare for it? Was that it? Or was it something Q would call “deeper.”
Of course J knew the right answer to D.A.D.’s question. But for the first time in his life, he didn’t feel like telling the truth.
The shock of this realization didn’t strike him as hard as the one that immediately followed: a sense that he had decided to lie before entering this room, and had simply not told himself about it.
Why? Why lie?
Because, just prior to going to bed the night before, long after his studies were done, J had seen someone crouched behind Mister Tree, the lone willow that denoted the end of the Yard and the beginning of the Orchard. It was a figure, he believed. Perhaps it was the way certain branches reached down to the forest floor as others united across it, but in J’s mind’s eye, the sight he’d seen was a person.
By Mister Tree.
At the time, J thought it was A or Z. He couldn’t say why.
And maybe that was good enough reason to lie, J told himself. D.A.D. and the Inspectors would think he was crazy for suggesting such a thing!
A dead brother hiding behind a tree at night.