SSV is happy to present a preview of Michelle Browne’s newest book, After the Garden. It will be published in 2014. We’re happy to release a series of the upcoming novel and give our readers a taste of what’s to come! A segment will be released on Saturday. Keep an eye out and read along with us.
~ After the Garden ~
A young woman is experiencing memories of The Time Before. She and some other Bearers are trying to solve the riddle of their past and stay under the radar, but a certain fanatical cult may have other ideas. There’s a chance that love might complicate things, but in a world of ruin, poverty, and decadence, it might also be her undoing…
Alone, and lonely. Away from the chatter of the others’ minds and voices, the quiet conversations of adults and the bustle of children. It was worse than anything she’d experienced. Frightening things had happened to her in the past months, but it was the lonely times that were worst. Harpinder’s lessons, Millie’s piping voice, Lucy’s warmth, Gareth and Ethan’s pranks and tricks, Samina’s laughter: morning after morning, she’d woken up without them, and it still stung.
Expeditions into the forest were one thing; she knew her way around there, and didn’t mind being gone for a day or two for the sake of a few extra bits of winter meat. There was always a fire and the temple at the end of her road, the peace and solitude of her kin and the other clans. They mingled with strangers very seldom, unless a trip to another village was required.
She’d begun to lose the habit of turning instinctively from her finds to tell a cousin or sibling about something. It ached. There wasn’t even an easy way to send letters, and she certainly hadn’t been hauling around a ream of hempsheets with her. The worst part was that the memories were slipping, her real memories, and the times with the family were fading.
She was far enough away from the city that she couldn’t afford to pick-and-choose where shelter was concerned. Here in the plains, the hills were small and gentle, rolling like ripples over water. Though picturesque, it left little in the way of natural cover. The lack of foliage did permit for a view of the mountains, darkly streaked with blurry pine forests. The mountains and their far-between and ghostly towns haunted her still. She still wasn’t used to scavenging the homes of the long-dead.
She had prepared for this, with plenty of dried meat and supplies, but hadn’t estimated how long it would take as well as she’d thought. The map, too, had been lost with the pack of wildcats and the other supplies she’d had to abandon with Sweetgrass’s body.
She drew her thoughts away from the horse and her unease, and tried to concentrate on what the traders and villagers had said. The mountains wound close to the city she was headed towards, she knew, but there were kilometres of plains between the foothills and the city proper. Her home territory was on the other side of the mountains, deep in the hills. She sighed again, frustrated by the mirage distances.
Time to search, then, for somewhere to stay the night. She could see a few buildings on the horizon, but they were mere blips, and she had no idea what sort of repair they’d be in. Still, her capricious luck had held out so far.
Sure enough, the nearest house was still standing. It had the distinctive squarish ugliness of buildings From Before, but better an ugly, lonely building than sleeping under the stars.
The house was in the middle of nowhere, far away enough from satellite towns. If they’d survived The Crash, the owners would have been forced to abandon it long ago. Still, being a house from later times, it was composed mostly of cement and steel, and that was likely the reason it had survived. Stay out of sight and there would be no prowling wildcats; away from the untrustworthy villages, no human would harm her.
She was extremely tired, achingly so, and fought the urge to curl up on the porch. Opening the door, she glanced around the living room’s shambles—only mushrooms and darkness, and a few miserable bits of clothing that suggested she hadn’t been the only traveller to weather a night here.
Looking optimistically for a bed, she drifted through its mouldy, dusty halls. The house had been ransacked long ago; the couches slashed open, drawers emptied. The beds had layers of grass growing from the mattress. The looters were probably long dead, from the looks of it.
On the main floor, there was a small bedroom, a child’s room, and it was there that she sought her respite. The sheets, patterned with brightly coloured, unrealistic animals, were stained in a way that suggested unchildlike activities. The shelves above the bed and inside the closet were covered with plasteel fragments of broken, vandalized figurines. The computer on the desk had been cannibalized, hollow fragments of the plasteel lying like the husk of a shellfish on a plate. In all, it was a sorry sight, and she didn’t want to think about the child’s fate. Sold to a brothel owner or cereal mill? A runaway or foundling? Or was the child saved? Nothing in the room could answer the question.
She couldn’t help thinking of these things, but eventually the creeping and scuttling of rodents and other beasts soothed her into troubled sleep. The moon shining through the broken window said nothing, only watched.
Morning crept onto her like a lover’s caress. She woke to find light shining on her face. She stirred and sat up, her small body tense and bare beneath the sheets. Standing, she dressed quickly, deciding to find water to bathe in. Walking through the grimy, dust-laden halls, she found her way to a washroom and opened the door.
Like much of the house, it was a mess, the cabinets open and pillaged of their pharmaceutical treasures. The mirror over the lower part of the cabinet had had something thrown at it, and had shattered, so that a dozen of her own eyes returned her golden gaze. Though mirrors were often useful for frightening away animals, she had a whole pocket mirror in her satchel—unbroken, to boot—and this one would prove of little use to her. She looked hopefully towards the sink and reached out to twist a rusty tap-head, labelled ‘hot’ in red plasteel. It turned with a great deal of protest, and though a large black centipede fell out, wriggling in the cracked, gleaming beige of the ceramic sink, nothing else did.
Disappointed, she didn’t bother to check the other taps; she knew they would be just as dry. Instead, she crouched before the bottom half of the cabinet, the part below the shattered mirror.
Something reddish gleamed glassily, catching her eye. Interested, she tilted her head, and lost sight of it. The object was partly visible through a half-open cabinet door. The cabinet was empty, a few plastic bottles sitting dully on the shelf, the empty shells of bluebottles and other insects inside clattering against the walls like so many pills. Those would be gone, too, if she knew anything—there had been plenty of addicts roaming wild and taking whatever they came across, effects and expiry date unknown.
The crimson thing she’d seen turned out to be a bottle of perfume, squat and round; undoubtedly antique. She had no idea how it had survived looting; it must have been overlooked as a frivolity, but all the same, it was a rare artefact. The bottle was made of some kind of translucent material, glass or possibly plastic. The cap, still miraculously in place, was high quality jet-black plastic. She could almost read the words on the side. She mouthed the sounds, trying to string words together from scattered syllables. She could barely read, and the words came only with struggle.
Curious, she depressed the spray mechanism. The perfume itself had been used up, of course, but the air that came out smelled like French vanilla, with a much sharper undertone. It hadn’t rotted much; it had been out of the sun.
Suddenly, she was light-headed, and she could feel another memory unfolding itself inside her.
She was looking in a mirror, marvelling at her powdered face. You can’t even tell, she thought admiringly. She picked up a bottle of perfume and sprayed some on her wrist. She dropped it, and there was a heavy sound, a clunking noise, as the bottle connected with the tile. Not plastic, but thick glass.
Hearing the crash, he appeared from behind the bathroom door. “Are you all right, honey?” he said, resting a hand on her shoulder.
“Oh yes, I’m fine,” she said, nuzzling him.
“You look exquisite. I can’t believe you spend most of your time in a lab coat when you look like this.”
“Believe it,” she said. He twisted her around suddenly and kissed her.
“How much time do we have before dinner?” he asked.
“Enough.” She took him by the hand. “Come with me.”
The memory slid away to another part of her mind. She considered telling—no, wait, who could she tell? Their names eluded her. She winced, frustrated. She’d already forgotten her family’s names. That was part of the deal, she told herself; she’d known what she was in for. Paranoid, she wondered if she would forget her own name next. It wouldn’t be that bad, though; and after all, she knew she would remember some day. When the time was right, the lock would open again, and she’d have the things she was giving up back. And though they were frustrating and mildly debilitating, she still had the fragments. That annoyed her, but it was a comfort.
Philosophy was the path of madness, she decided, shoving the bottle in her satchel. In the meantime, she had other things to do—she had to see if there was anything of value left in this house and get out of here as quickly as possible. Something unpleasant had happened here after The Time Before had come to an end, a small disaster after the fact, and she was eager to leave.
Check out Michelle Browne’s website for more information on the author and her work.