From the author of Tash Hearts Tolstoy comes a funny, moving novel about the lengths we’ll go to make dreams our dreams come true that’s perfect for fans of Shaun David Hutchinson and Rainbow Rowell.
Slater, Kansas, is a small town where not much seems to happen.
Stella dreams of being a space engineer. After Stella’s mom dies by suicide and her brother runs off to Red Sun, the local hippie commune, Stella is forced to bring her dreams down to earth to care for her sister, Jill.
Galliard has only ever known life inside Red Sun. There, people accept his tics, his Tourette’s. But when he’s denied Red Sun’s resident artist role, which he believed he was destined for, he starts to imagine a life beyond the gates of the compound...
The day Stella and Galliard meet, there is something in the air in their small town. Literally. So begin weeks of pink lightning, bloodred rain, unexplained storms...And a countdown clock appears mysteriously above the town hall. With time ticking down to some great unknowable end they’ll each have to make a choice.
If this is really the end of the world, who do they want to be when they face it?
The Great Unknowable End 1 Galliard SUNDAY, JULY 31
Mornings at Red Sun begin with prayer to the Life Force.
Bullshit, you’re saying. You don’t actually believe in a Life Force.
I’m telling you, I do.
See, the Life Force can be almost anything. To you it could be God. It could be unseen energy. It could be your girlfriend or your favorite basketball player.
To me it’s stars.
Those are my stars.
I see them most nights, shining from the sky. They’re up there, three across, and have been ever since their untimely mortal deaths. They look out for me, and I pray to them.
At Red Sun you can pray however you want. It isn’t about the how or the who so much as it is about the praying itself. Though the Life Force—the energy that has bound this universe together since its inception—can be different things to different people, what matters is that prayer is a communal act. It’s a group dedication that brings together the members of Red Sun. The only rule is that your prayer must ascend (or descend, depending) between the hours of six and eight o’clock in the morning. You can pray wherever you want: in your room or the gardens or out in the cornfields. I like to pray right here in Common House, with one hundred others.
This morning, I’m talking to Holly. He’s the guy I go to for confidence and understanding, and I’m going to need a hell of a lot of confidence today.
It’s Assignment Day.
The Council is going to tell me where to go, what to do, and who to be. Corn farmer, livestock tender, meal preparer, textile worker—they’re all up for grabs. But I don’t want any of those shitty positions. There is one spot open for resident artist, and it’s going to be mine.
It has to be mine.
I’m begging Buddy Holly, Let it be mine.
“Hear me out,” I pray. “This is within your jurisdiction. I know you can make it happen. If you do, I’ll be set for life. If you don’t, I’ll disembowel myself. I’m not shitting around—I will. So do me a solid and make me resident artist, and I’ll cover your songs till my dying day. Thanks, sir. Much appreciated.”
I choose to say my prayers under my breath, though plenty of seven o’clock supplicants talk to their respective versions of the Life Force at conversational volume. Common House is thick with incense and consonants and vowels—prayers sent to God or gods or self or earth or no one in particular. Newcomers sometimes complain about the noise, but it’s a soothing sound once you get used to it.
I’m really used to it.
Prayer over, I lie on my back, hands behind my head. I breathe in the sweet, tongue-coating incense. I breathe out. I breathe in, lungs expanding to full capacity. I pucker my lips and blow out in a whistle.
Here in Common House, surrounded by all these serious prayers, my tics hardly ever show up. Here I whistle intentionally, blink intentionally, move intentionally.
But then, as always, morning prayer ends, and the day begins.
• • •
My friend Phoenix is standing outside Common House, eyes trained on the rising sun. I grin, because this is a sign. Phoenix is just who I need to see; he understands what today means to me.
Phoenix was raised outside the commune. He saw everything the Outside had to offer and found it lacking. He’s heard my music, and he says there’s nothing that good on the Outside. He says I’ve got talent.
“Hey,” I say, joining him where he stands.
“Big day,” Phoenix replies.
I nod, and for a moment we stand in silence, watching members of Red Sun pass by.
“Look at them,” he says. “Moving with purpose toward their own tasks, keeping this community strong and well. Everywhere else, it’s a mad dash for nothing. People clawing at each other to get the next paycheck, next car, next model.” He turns to me, his pale face lit by the sun. “You don’t know how lucky you are to have been born here.”
“I’ve got some idea.” Then I say, “Better go. Got somewhere important to be.”
Phoenix pats my back. “You’re ready for this day.”
I take this as a benediction from Buddy Holly himself.
• • •
There’s a hornet in the sitting room. Who knows how he got in, but he’s determined to get out through a closed window. He keeps ramming his body against the glass and letting out a pathetic buzz at every failed attempt.
It’s making me fucking sad.
Right now my best friend, Archer, is in the chamber with the Council. It’s only me and a girl named Bright left waiting for our assignments. My hands are clutched between my knees, and I’ve sunk my head real low as a sign that I do not want to talk. When Saff first showed us to our seats and explained the assignment procedure, I felt confident enough (thanks, Buddy). Then Bright started pestering me with questions.
“You want to be an artist? Will you be disappointed if you don’t get it? Farming is good too, though, isn’t it? Isn’t nature beautiful? Don’t you love our land? Six hundred acres, four hundred people, and nothing but love and acceptance.”
Bright is new to the commune, which means she’s completed the Council’s preliminary education course and been approved to live in a newly constructed residential wing of Heather House. Red Sun doesn’t turn many people away, and when we do it’s because their energy isn’t right for the community. Honestly, I don’t see how Bright passed the test, because I for one don’t find her energy appealing. She is so damn curious, which a lot of the adults find “encouraging” and “endearing,” but no. No, it is not.
Normally, you get your first ten-year assignment when you’re sixteen, like me. Since Bright is new, though, she’s going through the process with the rest of us first-timers. I hope she gets chicken duty. Not because I wish a decade of egg collecting and shit clearing upon Bright, but because the coops are as far away from Council House as they can possibly be, and once I’m resident artist I will need lots of concentration in order to compose my life-altering ballads. There will be no Bright questions allowed.
When the chamber door opens, I lift my head, and Archer steps out grinning, exultant. He can’t say anything—we’re not allowed to speak from the time the Council assigns us to the time we leave the building. I know he got good news, though, when he shoots me a wink. I watch him go, distracted, and it takes me a few seconds to realize Saff has said my name.
Saff is the youngest of our three-person Council. Unlike Rod and Opal, she doesn’t have gray hair yet. Her hair is black, and it hangs long, past her shoulders, twisted into dreadlocks. She talks so quietly that I usually miss the second and third syllables of everything she says. It gets annoying fast.
“Come in, please, Galliard,” she whispers, ushering me before her into the chamber. Then she motions to an empty wooden chair and says, “Sah-suh-sah-muh.”
Not actually that. I just can’t hear her, because she’s gone ahead of me and her words are indistinguishable. I’m pretty sure she’s asked me to take a seat, so I do.
She takes her own seat at a long table across from me. Beside her are Opal and Rod. The three of them sit before stacks of papers. Opal, founder of Red Sun, folds her hands and looks me over with a faint smile.
“Good morning, Galliard,” she says.
I don’t say anything. I’m supposed to keep quiet through all of this, per the Assignment Day training I went through in the spring. I’m suddenly nervous as hell, and my jaw jerks hard to the right—one of my tics.
“You are a treasure to our community,” she continues. “It has been a joy and great privilege to watch you grow. Your spirit and mind contribute invaluably to us, and you’ve cultivated many talents that can be put to use. Our decision was therefore a difficult one.”
Inside me, a hundred bells start clanging. My jaw jerks again.
The Council’s decision shouldn’t have been difficult. They’ve received my request for resident artist, a spot that was vacated in February when Gregor—a skilled potter—left the commune for Kansas City. I wrote a long essay on my request form about how my talents would benefit Red Sun.
I write my own songs. And instead of performing them on community nights at Common House, as I do now, I could perform them at the Moonglow Café, for outsiders to hear. I’ll develop a following, and I’ll find someone on the Outside to make a recording of my songs, and those records will sell, and I’ll be played on the radio, and soon the entire United States will know about Red Sun, through my music. That’s what a resident artist is supposed to do: reach as many outsiders as possible and educate them about our way of life. Because, as Rod reminds us daily, there are plenty of outsiders who don’t think we live right. Some people out there, in town, would like nothing more than to kick us off our own property. They claim we worship Satan and sell their teenagers cannabis and partake in drunken orgies. It’s a laugh. Outsiders don’t know anything.
They could know more, though. They could understand our ways and see the path we’re on, and they could learn this through my music. That’s what I wrote the Council.
You see now? It doesn’t make sense, what Opal’s saying about my assignment being a difficult decision.
What’s difficult about it?
“Galliard.” It’s Rod talking now. “We consider every assignment request with great care and attention. We don’t take lightly the fact that we are determining your future for the next ten years. We hope you know that. We appreciate your enthusiasm, but we’ve decided on another candidate for our resident artist.”
I follow the rules. I don’t speak.
I scream on the inside.
And I tic again, my jaw moving forcefully to one side.
“You didn’t mark a second preference,” says Saff in her way-too-soft voice. “However, we’ve chosen an assignment we hope you will find rewarding. We’re placing you in the Moonglow kitchen. You’re familiar with the job through your preassignment and have proved to be an asset there. And you can go on working with J. J. and Archer.”
“Archer is a good friend of yours, Galliard, isn’t he?” asks Rod.
Well. Looks like I broke the no-talking rule. Might as well break it some more.
“Sorry,” I say. “Who . . . did you choose for resident artist? If it wasn’t me, then who?”
This is a no-no, and I know it, and the Council does too. The only thing worse than talking during the assignment process is questioning the Council’s decision. But hey, I’m mad. Who cares about rules right now?
Saff tugs on one of her dreads, then another. She’s not making eye contact with me. Opal isn’t smiling anymore; she’s gone solemn, and she and Rod are sharing a look.
In the end, Rod actually answers my rule-breaking question.
“We’ve chosen Phoenix for the position. You may be aware that he has quite the skill as a painter. He shared a very impressive portfolio. We’ve already commissioned a half-dozen paintings depicting scenes of life at Red Sun. We mean to display and sell them at the café.”
Sirens set off inside my brain, joining the screaming and bell-clanging. They wail in big, sonic spirals, and they’re so loud I can barely hear what I say next.
“Phoenix, as in Phoenix from town. Showed up here two years ago Phoenix. That Phoenix?”
My friend Phoenix. The Phoenix who patted my back an hour ago. That Phoenix?
“To my knowledge, there is only one Phoenix in Red Sun,” says Rod. “You didn’t know he’d made a special reassignment petition?”
“No. I absolutely did not.”
Rod and Opal share another look. I’m unbearably uncomfortable, so of course another one of my tics kicks in. I clear my throat, loud and low. Only Saff looks startled. She fidgets with another one of her dreads.
“Galliard,” says Opal, standing, “you must trust our judgment on this. We appreciate your many contributions to the commune, and we’re certain you will continue to enliven our spirits with your music. But we feel this assignment is best.”
I clear my throat.
I’m red in the face, and my hands are dripping sweat. I need to get out, out, out of here. So I nod and nod, and I stand up, and the rest of the Council stands up, and we’re all standing here, facing each other, and my brain screams, I hate this, and my heart screams, Phoenix is a traitor, but my lips stay closed. I don’t talk again. I just clear my damn throat.
Kathryn Ormsbee grew up with a secret garden in her backyard and a spaceship in her basement. She is the author of The Water and the Wild and the YA novels Lucky Few and Tash Hearts Tolstoy. She’s lived in lots of fascinating cities, from Birmingham to London to Seville, but she currently lives in Austin, Texas.
"THE GREAT UNKNOWABLE END is unlike any book I’ve read. Take a small-town paranormal mystery, drop in a 70s commune, add a dash of haunting familial histories, and a hefty scoop of Science vs. Art, and voila: a book to delight the likes of Carl Sagan himself. Ormsbee’s latest is a big-minded, full-hearted treat of a novel."
– David Arnold, New York Times bestselling author of The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik
It’s a rare author who can imagine a story like this. It’s a rarer author with the ambition to try it. And it’s the rarest of all who can execute it in such lyrical, haunting beauty. Kathryn Ormsbee is that author. Breathtakingly imaginative and ambitious; dazzlingly beautiful and profound. This story of love and fervor will grip you and won’t let go. Not even after you’ve finished. A hauntingly beautiful and wildly imaginative story of faith, fervor, coming of age, and connection. Masterfully rendered and spellbinding."
– Jeff Zentner, Morris Award-winning author of The Serpent King
"Fantastic premise meets perfect execution in this heartfelt and wholly original novel."
– Kerry Kletter, author of The First Time She Drowned
"A mesmerizing, trippy, and fantastic story about finding yourself in the most extraordinary circumstances in the most ordinary of places. Ormsbee has written a coming-of-age novel like no other."
– Kathleen Glasgow, New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Pieces
"Realism with a hint of science fiction will inspire readers to question their own trajectories."
– Kirkus Reviews, November 21, 2018
"Told in alternating perspectives by Stella and Galliard, Ormsbee (Tash Hearts Tolstoy) skillfully parallels nature’s disturbances with her characters’ internal turmoil to create a suspenseful story about self-discovery and following one’s dreams amid a life’s complications"
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