Author Interview ~ Fran Clark

Today SSV welcomes Fran Clark, a professional singer and songwriter, and now the author of Holding Paradise – a novel of mother, daughter, and their search for connection. Fran was born and currently lives in West London. She is studying for a Creative Writing MA at Brunel University. Recently, she released her second album of original songs. She is now working towards the completion of her second novel. Fran talked to me about her novel and her writing.


Fran, please tell us about your book and where you got your inspiration for it? Why did you feel you had to tell this story?
Holding Paradise is about love, trust, betrayal. It explores relationships and takes us from the Caribbean to London and back again. I was inspired by my mother’s stories about life in the Caribbean that I compared to that of someone raised in London, as I was. That sparked an idea about the lives of two women from different worlds.

What did you enjoy the most about writing it?
I think the thing that was most satisfying was my relationship with the characters. They lived with me for almost three years – the time it took me to write it. I watched them grow and they helped me move the narrative along into places I may not necessarily have planned.

Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or is it all imagination?
In some respects, there are similarities, but I would have to say that it was important to infuse more imagination into the story than real life. Who wants to read about real life anyway? Most of us are pretty boring. A novel is a place to escape real life.

What do you think about research? Did your book require lots of it? How do you research?
I recently wrote a post about research. I think it is absolutely necessary if it adds to the authenticity of your story. As writers we need to achieve a believable sense of time, place and setting. Imagination alone is not always going to get you there. If historical detail is needed then you need to get your facts straight. Holding Paradise did not need a lot of research, and I was able to find answers by talking to family and reading up on the time the novel is set. Research can be very exciting but you don’t want your fiction to sound like a history book. Making the researched material flow into the narrative is important.

Have you ever hated something you wrote?
Well hate is a strong word but I certainly disliked many attempts at writing along the way. I write short stories and some of them should never see the light of day. I have two novels filed away on my laptop that I’m sure I will never resurrect although I may borrow some of the better ideas within them some day.

What are some things you learned from writing this book?
Mostly I learned that I love to write. I haven’t always wanted to be a writer. I am a singer-songwriter, and music has always been my passion. I’m happy when I’m making music and can’t imagine my life without it. And that is exactly how I feel about my writing now too.

What do you think about editors: writers’ best friends or necessary evil? What was your experience with editors?
Yikes – don’t get me started.  Pretty sure I’ve written a post about this on my blog too! Firstly I have to say editors are completely necessary. All top writers have them and so should all the rest of us. I get tired of reading awful grammar and typos in books. Those writers who feel they don’t need them are mistaken. Writing is a lonely job but to make your writing really work you need to bring in expert help. I didn’t always see eye to eye with my editor about some of the changes he wanted to make but with compromise we worked it through and he absolutely improved on a few aspects of my writing.

What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m in the middle of writing my second novel. Unfortunately it is taking a bit of a back seat because of family commitments and the heavy workload from my Creative Writing MA. But I intend to finish it this year. Lots of research is needed for this story, so I need to get stuck in and get it written. I’m really looking forward to completing it – having a second novel will make me feel truly initiated into the title of writer.

What is your writing environment (a quiet room, a coffee shop, loud music, etc)?
I usually need as much quiet as I can get. I sometimes write late at night when everyone else is tucked up in bed or in the early hours of the morning when everyone else is still asleep. As a bad sleeper this tends to work for me. But it must be said that I can lose myself in my writing and whether I have music playing softly in the background, or the television is loud in the room next door, I can click away at the keys and not notice anything else.

When did you first tell yourself: I’m a writer?
That didn’t happen until I let other people read my work. The feedback I got from the first readers of Holding Paradise was very encouraging but it wasn’t until I paid for a professional critique. After I read the report I thought, ‘Hey, a professional has read this and didn’t laugh out loud.’ It was a positive report and to have someone I didn’t know speak about my work like that made me want to pat myself on the back: I had arrived.

Are you scared of sharing ideas – so nobody could steal them?
That has never really occurred to me. It is often said that there are no new stories or plots and in many respects that’s true. The important thing is the telling of the story and that’s what sells books. I focus on my storytelling and making sure I’m writing something that is worth reading. That’s all I can do. If someone has to steal ideas, then that’s pretty sad, don’t you think?

What do you do when a new idea pops up in your head while you’re working on something else?
Notebooks. The writer’s friends. Jot all your ideas down. You can come back to them anytime and by recording it you’ll never forget the idea. But there is no problem with writing more than one story at a time. Some writers prefer to work that way while others find they have to focus on one. I’m a multi-tasker but I don’t think I could work on two novels at once. I can fit in the odd short story and my assignments for University but that’s about all. That’s more than enough if you want to do your writing justice.

What tips do you have for aspiring writers?
Just start. Be dedicated and persevere. There will always be difficult times and times when you feel you are writing rubbish. But that’s what editing is for. As long as you are passionate about your story then the ideas will come. See if you can finish the whole piece, that is do a complete first draft, without the input of others. When you get to second draft stage, then get opinions as those can sometimes help you improve your writing. Trust your own opinions too. Don’t assume that because someone doesn’t like something about your story that it is wrong. Writing should never feel like hard work. I’ve spent some really happy times just tapping away on my laptop.



Holding Paradise

On a grey and miserable morning in 2008, London businesswoman Angelica Ford boards a plane and flies off to the blues and greens of her mother’s island in the Caribbean. Angelica is desperate. She is looking for a way to save her marriage and win back her daughter. A web of lies has torn a hole into her seemingly perfect world and she is convinced that only her mother, Josephine Dennis, can help her turn her life around.

Josephine Dennis arrived in England by ship on a cold winter morning as a young mother joining her husband. She weathers a lifetime of secrets and betrayal, as she raises her family in 1960s London. A matriarch with strong family values, she told her children colorful stories to guide them through life. It is the wisdom of one of these stories that Angelica seeks. Josephine has one last story to tell – the story that could change both of their lives.


Fran will have her online book launch on Friday April 25 on her website, from 9am to 9pm GMT. See details on her blog to sign up for the party and a chance to win a copy of Holding Paradise. You can also view the book trailer on Youtube.


Preview: After the Garden by Michelle Browne (6)

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…


Chapter 6

Chris grinned at Arthur as they walked over to the flier. “I always like this part,” he said. He ran a hand over the smooth side of the vehicle in admiration. Rare as a unicorn, vehicles like this. Most of them had been fried in the Crash, along with everything else. Its carbon-fibre sides were a bit dented, and the paint, a bit scuffed, but it was still beautiful.

Arthur smiled with childlike delight and stroked its hood fondly. “Man, I miss my racing days.”

“That was in the Time Before, though.”

He shrugged. “Still miss ‘em.”

“So, what are we looking for this time? How long do we get to cruise around for?”

“We’re watching for signs of expansion.” Arthur looked sternly at him. “Remember, this isn’t all about fun. If we don’t keep an eye on Purifier activity—”

“Aw, come on. How often do we get to drive this sweet thing? I know it’s work, but let me enjoy it,” Chris whined.

Arthur shook his head and smiled a little. “Well, you’re not an aristo prince out on a pleasure drive. Enjoy it, but don’t take a nap.”

“As if!” Chris was already lifting the wing of the door and gawkily seating himself, a baby bird re-entering the nest.

“Where to?” he asked. Arthur glanced at him from the corner of his eye, a mannerism that only made Chris all the more anxious to continue.

“Satellite towns to the south. That’s where the rumors are coming from. The Purifiers were closer to the mountains a few months back, but they’ve moved closer to the city, and the one of the Nation trader bands got attacked. Karine said. Add that to the rumours Callaghn heard, and—are you listening, Chris?”

“Of course! But I wanna get going.”

“We’re not going anywhere until I know you’re going to be on guard.”

He scowled. “Yeah, yeah. I heard you. I know what to ask about. I’m not a kid, you know.”

“Fine.” Arthur grinned wickedly at his younger brother as he turned the ignition key.

“You ready?” he asked, locking the doors. Chris could only grin. The roof hatch from the attic was open. They lifted off vertically, fans purring. The mansion shrank below them rapidly as Arthur shot into the sky.


Chris clutched the dashboard as Arthur bolted up. They skimmed the lowest clouds until they were out of the city. Fliers were a rare site, but not unheard of. Still, Chris grinned to himself at the thought of all the people looking up at them. Arthur banked sharply, then banked again to the other side.

“Now you’re just fucking with me! Urgh,” he groaned. Chris’ seatbelt strained as he shifed in the flier’s seat.

“Maybe a bit. Are you daydreaming or are you going to keep your eyes on the ground?”

“I’m gonna be sick,” groaned Chris.

“Open a window. Don’t do it in the car.”

“Oh, right, and then you’ll drop me out. You’re just trying to get rid of me!”

“Am not. Don’t be ridiculous.”

Chris turned green. “Open a window? Please?”

Arthur cracked the window down just in time. Chris leaned to the side and heaved once. He shook and wiped his mouth.

“I hate it when you do that,” he grumbled.

“Sorry,” said Arthur. Chris pouted until his brother awkwardly cleared his throat.

“Thanks for not puking inside.”

“Hmph. Just wait until I learn to drive.”

The drive into the township was filled with the sound of the weary horse trudging forward on the gravel road, but little else. Ember didn’t speak, but hummed snatches of song. If she didn’t think about certain things, her head hurt less, and she could almost remember—them. The people. Trying to pry made her head hurt, so she stuck to the tuneless humming. Dave cleared his throat once or twice, but didn’t say a word.

When they reached a stall at the small market, he didn’t even introduce her, just barked a few orders as they unloaded the wagon.

“Haven’t seen you before, miss,” said the stall-owner politely.

Ember smiled. “I’m just passing through.”

“Applesauce is near the front,” said Dave. He shot the stall-owner a withering look, and the woman didn’t say another word.

When the wagon was empty, he bought a pair of fricasseed ground squirrels and gestured to the cart. She looked at him uncertainly, but took the ground squirrel on a stick and got back in her seat. He retrieved a jug of cider from below the seat and a cup, and poured some for her. She took a bit and watched as he ate. He chewed the squirrel like he had a personal grudge against it and didn’t look at her between swigs from the bottle.

“Well, thanks for your hospitality,” said Ember. “I’d better get going. The city—”

Dave grabbed her by the wrist. His weathered eyes, burned with suspicion. “That’s enough, girl,” he said. “I want the truth.”

“I have to get there so I can—”

“You ain’t northern. You look wrong—right colour, almost, but if you’re from one of the Nations, you’d be with your people. They don’t mix with us as much. But your eyes ain’t right. I saw you in the kitchen. Who are you, really?”

“I told you, I—”

“Uh-uh. And what was all that about witch hunts? I’m an old man. I raised a coupla daughters. I know when a girl’s lyin’. So what are you, huh? What are you so afraid of?”

She couldn’t remember who she was protecting, but Ember hadn’t forgotten her own secrets. And an old man, no matter how stubborn, wasn’t going to blow her cover. She narrowed her eyes at him, but Dave didn’t back down.

“All right,” she answered softly, “I’ll tell you the truth.”

“Do we really have to stop here? It’s so dinky.”

“Shush. The Order was last noticed around this way.”

Chris looked longingly back at the hill they’d parked the flier behind. “Okay, fine.”

The walk up the road hadn’t taken long, but both of them were already covered in dust. The marketplace, though, made them both look clean.

It was a paltry place compared to city markets, and this one was grimmer than usual. Having the Purifiers next door had sucked away some of the trade, from the looks of it, but it wouldn’t have been much even without them draining the trade. The fabric was grey and coarse, there weren’t many trinket-sellers, and everyone else had very practical loot on display.

A few people glanced suspiciously at them as they strolled in, baskets on their arms. The brothers exchanged a glance; without saying it, both of them shared the same burst of gratitude that it wasn’t night. Their eyes wouldn’t give them away in broad daylight—a small mercy. Chris shrank back at the glare, but Arthur pressed a hand to his shoulder.

“Where do we start?”

Chris closed his eyes and tried to feel the minds around him. “Over there. The one who looks shaken. With the jars and the apples.”

Arthur nodded once. He casually walked to the stall next to the woman’s and examined a poorly-made brass pot. The ‘tweener there scowled at him, xis features creasing.

“Good make. What’s the price?” The ‘tweener replied, and Arthur offered a counter. It was a fine distraction.

Chris walked right up to the produce seller’s stall and examined a jar of applesauce. He didn’t have to glance through it, because the jar was made of clear glass, but he did glance at the woman’s mind.

The images were as indistinct as the apples through the glass. He caught a feeling of hesitation as an old man gripped a young woman’s wrist, but that was it. Nothing concrete.

Chris sighed in frustration. Arthur, his bargaining ineffectual, sidled up to Chris.

“Excuse me,” said Chris brightly. “Can we get some winter apples?”

“Oh, I don’t have those.” The woman pointed to a man leaning against a wagon. “Just the sauce. But I think Dave might still have some.”

Chris’ eyes widened as he recognized the old man from the woman’s mind.

“Thanks,” said Arthur, giving the woman a small smile. He threw down a few coins for the applesauce and put the jar Chris had been holding in a bag.

“Have a nice day,” said the woman, frowning. She turned to the person beside her. Xe shrugged and polished one of xis pots, unsure what to make of the strangers.

Arthur slipped ahead of Chris. “Pardon me, sir. My brother and I were wondering if you had any winter apples left.”

The man was slumping against his cart, and jumped perceptibly when they came to him. He looked startled, almost frightened, at their intrusion into whatever private world he’d been in.

“Er, yes, all right,” he said distractedly. He patted a barrel in the back and opened it, as though startled to find it still there. He lifted out one warm, shining apple to them, its skin an even crimson.

“My wife’s got a good touch.”

“They look wonderful,” said Arthur. He took one to examine it. “Much nicer than average.”

Chris skimmed against the man’s mind. He looked through the wagon, but no-one was hiding under the stuff in the back. No-one hiding behind it, either. He decided to check out the old man’s mind, see if anything could be turned up. Even with his paltry talent, the memory of the girl was sharp and bright. He jumped a little at it

“My, those are magnificent,” said Arthur in a low, impressed voice. “We’ll take two dozen,” he added. “Between the two of us, we have hungry wives and three children.”  Well, it was almost true.

The man gave them a sharp look. “My, lotta strangers round these parts today. Been a while since I saw so many new faces. I don’t suppose you’re lookin’ to go to the city to trade pots too, are ya?”

Chris cocked head to the side innocently. “Huh?”

The man scrutinized him. “Well, naw, I reckon I’m just being foolish. Had a funny thing happen…strangest girl passed through here. Little older’n you, but younger’n your brother. She said she was from a kettlesmith family, but she wasn’t with no Nation caravan or no family, nothin’. And she got mighty scared when witch burnings and the Purifiers crossed the conversation.” He chuckled, but there was a look of fear in his eyes. “’Course…why’m I telling you folks all this?”

The old farmer seemed to have aged a decade in moments, looking at them with hungry, frightened eyes.

“Please,” he begged them. “I’ve already said too much. She didn’t mean no harm, really. She was strange, but…”

“We’re looking for strange people, too,” said Arthur. “But we’re not out to hurt anyone. Can you tell us more about her?” The seriousness in his face seemed to reassure the man. Finally, Arthur withdrew their largest coin. The man could take it no longer, and nodded.

In a low voice, and at great speed, he related the tale of the mysterious girl who had appeared and disappeared in the space of two days, the movements of the Purifiers, and the odd things he’d seen. He told them of the way he’d seen her strike fire without a spark to catch, and reach into it without burning her skin. The way her eyes had flashed like a cat’s in the night, and the way she moved—too quietly, too well, even for a good hunter.

“What else happened?” asked Arthur, raising his voice above a half-breath.

“, it’ll sound crazy.”

“Like what?” asked Chris. He could feel the man’s anxiety, little flashes of memory bleeding through, without even trying.

“She said somethin’, only her mouth didn’t move. She said, ‘please. Don’t let them get me.” He tapped his temple. “I heard her—felt her, I guess, in here. And she had this look in ‘er eyes, even when it was daytime…this old look. Like she’d seen more even than I had. Old eyes.” He paused, inspected the two youths seated there with unexpected ferocity. “You have the same kind of gaze, you two,” said Dave, speaking under his breath. “And I’ll bet they shine like hers in the night.”

“Where did she go?” Arthur’s voice trembled with hope.

“Towards the city. Well, she might still be around here. Trouble is, them Purifiers are moving towards the city, too.” He looked at them, and suddenly took Chris by the hand, betraying emotion. “If you see her, make sure she doesn’t get hurt. She weren’t truthful, but I don’t think she was all that bad.”

“We will,” answered Arthur. “But I’d appreciate it if we kept this quiet.” He handed the man a full dollar, and Dave squeezed it.

“Sure. Only ones’d care are the Purifiers. You take care, now. And keep an eye for her.”

They almost ran through the market and back to the flier. Arthur flew low and took a few circles around the town, but they couldn’t see anyone walking. Finally, though, the fuel guage was getting low, and there was no way the town would have the kind of pure water the flier need. With a disappointed sigh, Arthur flew back into the city.

They hardly spoke on the way homeward. Each was lost in their own thoughts.

It was late afternoon by the time they got home, but supper was laid out. When they walked in, scrubbed clean of dust but still dressed like farmers, the table went silent.

“We’ve been checking out the advancement of the Purifiers,” began Arthur. “We stayed in a satellite town for a while, and we overheard a rumour that was—”

“We think there might be someone else like us.” There was a long silence as they all absorbed the weight of his words. Chris continued. “And I think we should go back tomorrow to search for her. She’s coming to the city, but if a few of us go out, we might be able to find her.”

What do you know about her?” Eva asked, her round, wide eyes curious. “What does she look like?”

“Kinda medium skin, thick dark hair, and almond-shaped brown eyes—kinda gold, from what the man saw,” Chris said. Callagn and Kerrick glanced at each other, both exchanging startled looks, but didn’t interrupt.

“Thing is, he said they flashed like a cat’s in the night,” said Arthur.

Chris nodded vigorously. “I saw his memory. They did. She has to be one of us.”

Karine whistled. “I wonder what her talent is.”

“If she’s one of us, we have to go for her,” said Hamza. He got to his feet and leaned forward. “We can’t just leave a Bearer out on her own.”

They all glanced at Karine, who nodded in agreement. “Not even a question,” she said.

“And you’re sure she’s not a blank slate?”

“No way. He mentioned talents and he mentioned the eye thing, and that she looked old. And everyone found her strange. They treated her like they treat us, so she has to be a Bearer,” confirmed Chris.

Arthur nodded. “The plan is to track her down and try to talk to her.”

Callaghn spoke up. “It could be dangerous. Remember, we don’t know what her talent is yet, and that’s double-edged.”

“I think we could do worse than asking outright. I mean, we always recognise our own, and it beats letting her wander around until someone picks her up and whores her out,” pointed out Hamza. Callaghn’s mouth twitched in a gesture of discomfort.


Prologue & Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five

Check out Michelle Browne’s website for more information on the author and her work.

Preview: After the Garden by Michelle Browne (5)

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…


Chapter 5

Morning broke in slow motion, a languid dawn that brought Ember a renewed longing for her horse. She still remembered the cats’ bright eyes and the staff—she’d had to set it alight, and it had been enough—but she’d barely gotten away.

She shuddered. She’d had a few nightmares about the wildcats. The fire she’d fended them off with came to her as she watched the sunrise stretch lazily across the horizon. Claws on stone, ivory teeth in black or sandstone muzzles, whiskers stirring, white as blades of sunlight, eyes green-gold and shining like her own. It was dusk, when it happened. She’d been able to feel their hunger rising from their minds like steam, hot and primal.

She’d tried touching their minds, but even beginning to summon the power necessary had been too exhausting. If she’d failed or fainted, she’d be done for, so she’d taken her packs and abandoned her beast. He’d been a good horse, and fast enough to get by on, even with all her delays. Even so, she was lucky he’d lasted this long, and that she was so close to her destination.

She paused, trying to remember where she’d come from—a small test. Sure enough, the memories were remote, vague, dreamlike. She had forgotten names already. It had been her choice, but had it been wise? The longing for—who were they? A family? People she shouldn’t forget…and yet, they’d let her forget them, and she’d chosen it…because she needed to get to the city.

Guilt nipped at her heels, increased the length of her stride. She didn’t know where she was headed, but as the thin sound of running water reached her ears, a river was the next best thing to a destination. She strode through the grass with a renewed purpose and thirst.

It wasn’t a river, as she’d thought, only a pond connected to a dribbling creek. Its source could only be the river network, but this creek was too remote and too small to support the most agile of the light trading canoes. There was no-one around; Ember retrieved the bar of soap from her satchel. After having washed her clothes, she applied the coarse grainy stuff to her own skin. She washed her hair, using a sturdy comb to pick the knots it had formed, and dried by lying in the sun. Her clothes, hanging from the branch of a stunted tree, sagged damply, water dripping from the dangling hems.

She knew dimly that silk had once been a luxury of the highest order, but it seemed so ridiculous, so foreign, that her mind could but dimly grasp it. Thick silk, each strand the width of a piece of old embroidery floss, a millimetre or so in diameter, the structure weaker than it had been, once. The spiders, like their tiny ancestors and relatives, still lived in colonies: enormous webs woven by feral spiders spanned the old skyscrapers in some cities.

Cities. She longed to be washed away into a sea of humanity, there to go unseen and unnoticed. Loneliness ached, and she hungered for the comfort of a family. She sensed that the place she was drifting towards would be like this, a large city, or the remains of one. Her memories had given her information about those, much as the disabling fragments were frustrating.

As she walked, reciting bits of knowledge, and a pastiche education to herself, she found that the fields were giving way to dirt roads and cracked, fragmented grey asphalt. The asphalt twisted like a garter snake’s shedded skin towards houses damaged beyond repair.

A town, then, creeping from the horizon and getting closer, home to more ghosts than men. It was too small even for a surrounding wall or a city guard.

She knew well what it would look like before she came to it. Alleys and scrubby wilderness of lawns grown wild, suburbia returned to the grasslands primeval. Drifting through the gateways of rotting, unsalvaged fences, twisting the grasses and plaiting them through rusty hinges, she stepped from reality to dream and back again, April hollyhocks guiding her between worlds with dusty, gold-breathing blooms and fluttery petals. Ember noticed a small herd of woolcattle browsing through the verdant, lush remains of what had once been a playground. The low sun bathed them in gold from one angle and casting long shadows. There were about fifty there, brown-tinged with dirt over their fluffy, tough hides. This group, though, didn’t look as though a farmer would be allowed to get within kicking range—they were wild, all right. Her second sight alerted her; using it, she saw something coming around the side of the house.

The wildcat sidled up calmly, watching her with more curiosity than hunger. Her bow and arrows bumped against her back reassuringly, a steely ring of exposed blade glittering from the sheath of her knife.

The wildcat paced, walking through the yard of the house, watching her cautiously. She lacked the ruff of fur most males had encircling their necks—if Ember had to use her knife, it would be easier. Better than killing her the other way, anyway. She was high up enough that the cat couldn’t jump at her; she couldn’t know how smart it might be. Ember remained as still as possible.

She heard the mournful bleating before she saw the lone woolcalf wandering too close. The cat was upwind and it didn’t smell her in time—a golden bolt of movement, a crack, and the calf’s neck was broken. Light as smoke, light as a temple dancer. The cat settled in for its supper. Ember slipped away.

The soles of her leather shoes were silent as she crossed the playground field and headed towards a farmer’s territory.  Nearly out of town, now; home free if she could find some food. Glancing at the sun, Ember saw that it was getting near nightfall, and she would have to make a kill before the sun fell. Her empty stomach was eloquent.

From the corner of her eye, she noticed movement. Ember withdrew and notched the arrow. The game, a mere ten feet away, sat on its hind legs, whiskers and nose twitching. Closing one eye momentarily to train the weapon on a rabbit, she felt the strength of the wood as it protested, aching to be loosened. Ember exhaled sharply and let the arrow fly; it struck the bull’s eye and she heard the crack of a skull. Pleased, she trotted over to retrieve it.

“Hey! This is our land! What’s that you’ve caught?”

Ember froze and then straightened, holding the rabbit up innocently. The man walking briskly towards her was armed with a quiver of arrows, but a leather holster bounced against his hip. A beaten plasteel gun’s handgrip protruded, and his hand coiled around its shape. The gait of the man was even and fluid, but held a peculiar military stiffness, probably from an old injury. His weathered face, sun-bleached hair, and roughness skin matched his oft-mended clothing. Ember thought he was likely a farmer; in any case, she smiled politely and knelt, baring the back of her neck. This was the mercy stance, and the hostile look he had been giving her seemed to make it the best greeting.

“Who are you?” Now that she was in sight, he was less aggressive; he came closer and she assumed the mercy position, kneeling and exposing her neck.

“Someone,” she said quietly. “I hope I’m not stealing your property. I didn’t know I was on your land, and I’m hungry. If it’s yours, I apologize for killing it.” After all, there was the possibility that this was one of his farm animals, not a wild specimen, as she’d first thought.

“Nah, that’s all right. Don’t worry about the rabbit. It’s just that we’ve been having a lot of vandals and looters round here of late. You don’t look like trouble to me,” said the man, and his smile was quite kind this time.

“Is there any way I can earn a meal and a night’s rest here?” asked Ember hopefully. “If you have any children, I’d be happy to mind them, and I can certainly—”

The man smiled at her again, much more deeply, and interrupted. “No, no, my youngest daughter’s away and married, and my eldest already has three children. Ain’t no kids running around no more. I think we can afford to let you stay for one night, anyway. Follow me.” He turned, and she followed him through the field.

The house they soon reached was decent enough, well-cared for despite its plainness. Already Ember could see a woman within it, her visage distorted by the cheap glass of the window.

“Come in,” said the man. “By the way, I go by Dave.” He waited for her to reply with a name.

“Call me Fiona,” she said.

“Ain’t got a family name?”

She smiled and said nothing.

“Well, if you don’t want to tell me, that’s your business. Still, you’re welcome to stay for a night or two,” he reminded her, opening the door. Ember felt his thoughts pawing at her. Too skinny, said his mind, but she would do. Ember made a note to give him plenty of space that night. Her small knife was still in a sheath around her neck, and she had another at her hip. She touched it meaningfully as she felt his eyes peruse her ass.

Ember stepped into the kitchen. The house was a comfortable sort of place inside, too, with few luxuries and decorations. A plump woman with grey hair and muscular arms stood before the cast-iron stove.

“This is Diya,” said Dave, gesturing to his wife. “Diya, we’ve got company tonight.”

The woman finally looked up from her oven, from which she was removing what looked rather a lot like pork and root vegetables. Ember’s mouth watered at the scent.

“I’m sorry to intrude,” said Ember. She tried not to sway under the power of the rich, delicious smells of the cooked meat. “I didn’t mean to interrupt—this must be a special occasion. It’s just that I shot a rabbit on your land.” she produced the rabbit from her satchel.

The woman squinted at her. “Well, now, that’s all right. Ain’t ours—didn’t you check, you old fool?” She glared at her husband for a moment. “Ain’t got the notch. “Anyway, young miss, tell you what. Give me that rabbit and I’ll give you some salted meat for it in trade. That sound fair?”

“Very,” said Ember, smiling with relief. “What can I do in exchange?”

The woman paused. “Eat first, we’ll negotiate later.”

Ember set her bag down inside the door and trotted over to the sink, where she gave her hands a brief rinse.

Diya opened the cupboard and retrieved three earthenware plates. She piled them with he took three plates and laid them with boiled potatoes, green beans, turnips, and yams. She did the same with the pork roast simmering in the baking pan. Ember praised the food and savoured it, forcing herself not to gobble it too quickly.

Ember treated them to a warm smile. She decided it wasn’t cheating too much to stir feelings of warmth and happiness in their minds. Sure enough, their smiles loosened and Diya’s shoulders relaxed.

They chatted over dinner. Diya and Dave spoke about their children and extended family. Ember hid her pangs of longing at that. She wracked her brain for scraps of information about the towns over the mountain, but it had been a long time since she’d run into traders. For their part, they cared little. She made a few inquiries about the city and the town, saving the scraps of knowledge in case they were useful for trade.

A little brandy was brought out, and mint tea from a dented, heavy kettle was poured into dense ceramic cups. Ember asked them more about the region, about the city, and for some reason, her innocent question brought taut looks to the faces of both Diya and Dave.

“Well…” Dave drank back his tea in a powerful swig, then re-poured it, adding more brandy this time. “I think you’ll be safe enough around here…” His wife automatically began to nod in agreement, but hesitated.

“Thing is, pretty young girl like you could still get some trouble from The Order of Ezeriah,” said Diya, picking up the plates from the table and taking them to the sink. Before Ember could ask, Diya added, “horde of lunatics in a cult over this way. Keep talking on about the demons, a bunch of people who were born after The Crash with strange powers. Nonsense—there ain’t no such thing, and they’re a bunch of wackos, if you ask me. Round here, we call them the Purifiers. Lotsa strange hang-ups, they have, but they got influence enough—you don’t wanna get on the bad side of the Purifiers.” She was dismissive, but Ember felt her throat stick.

“Really,” she said slowly. “So, what kind of things do they say?”

“Oh, they blather on about magic and the end of the world and the rebirth of demons after the apocalypse. Don’t you mind them, young lady; but I hear their leader likes…well, likes things that decent folk…”  Diya trailed off suggestively, shaking her head and pursing her lips.

“I’ll stay on my guard,” Ember promised them.

They finished the supper and Ember set to work. She prepared the rabbit with Diya, helped her clean up and tidied the house, and even helped her mend some clothes. She rubbed Diya’s arthritic hands and told her to soak them in hot water, or wrap them in bandages warmed by the fire. Diya made more tea, and they traded songs by the fire. Ember washed herself in an old tub and finally headed off to bed.

She spent the night on the bed of one of Diya’s long-vanished daughters. She rested easily at first, but her dreams were troublesome. There were shades and shadows lurking in corners; moonlight through a broken window illuminated the body of a girl, lying prone and bloody on the floor. A soft voice whispered, They are unclean; death to them, over and over, crooning the words like a lullaby.

She woke to find the room silent, eerily so. She rocked herself to sleep beneath the thin blankets, missing body heat, and searched within for a few precious memories. A vague ache, and nothing more. She stilled her own panic with a reminder that she’d get them back. At least the fragments were still clear.

She got up and fetched herself water from the sink. It sputtered for a few moments before dispensing water. Footsteps creaked; she whirled around to find Dave standing in the doorway of the kitchen. The light of his candle made her eyes flash, reflecting green. She blinked.

“Sorry. Couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I’m going to bed now.”

He grunted. “Hmph. Night.” She felt his eyes drill into her back as she tiptoed back to her room.

She rearranged the covers, hoping her heart would stop pounding. She’d managed to escape a witch-burning so far, but she’d heard rumours. Though most things about the temple were blurred, they’d left her with knowledge to protect herself. Shivering at the thought of the rumours she’d heard from the south, she drifted back to sleep.

The next morning, Ember bounced out of bed and towards the washing area behind a curtain outdoors. It felt good to be clean and civilized. She rinsed herself of the night’s memories and came in for breakfast, where she found Diya and Dave arguing under their voices.

“She’s an odd girl,” he growled to his wife. “Saw her in the night gettin’ water. In the candlelight, her eyes shone like a cat’s. An’ she walked real quiet-like. Soundless. It’s confounded odd.”

“Odd, but harmless,” she snapped back, and headed to the stove. They hadn’t noticed Ember yet. Diya muttered a few unladylike words to herself as she bent to stoke the fire.

“If you have some matches or a bit of flint and metal, I’d be happy to help,” said Ember.

“Thank you,” said Diya, groaning. “This old back is of mine has had about enough.” As Ember knelt before the stove, Dave watched her over his wife’s shoulder, as though keeping watch.

She handed Ember a lump of stone and a knife blade, and Ember accepted it cautiously. She struck it once or twice for good measure before setting to work. She stirred the rubbish inside with her finger, transferring a spark and blowing on it, mostly for appearances—it didn’t need much help to catch. The flame blazed up, turning into a small, crackling fire in moments—she jerked her hand away, but not quickly enough. Fire licked her fingertips, almost friendly, like a dog would. She made as though she’d jerked her hand away in just barely enough time, and squealed as if in pain.

“Careful!” she exclaimed, pulling Ember away. “Did you burn yourself?”

“Oh, no,” said Ember. “It came close, but I’m fine.”

“Let me look,” insisted Diya. She reached for Ember’s unblistered hand, and Ember reluctantly extended it. At their contact, Diya jumped for a moment.

“My, your fingertips are still hot!” she said, laughing nervously. Diya’s eyes flickered over to her husband’s, and Dave frowned slightly. Ember listened to his thoughts.

I didn’t see that spark catch before she had a look at it. Why didn’t she have to relight it? And her hand was in the flames for a moment, I’m sure of it. You don’t just see things like that. What’s going on?

Dave looked at Ember again, his creased face furrowed deeply across the brow and at the corners of the mouth. He said nothing, though, only pulled out his chair at the table and waited for breakfast.

Ember helped with the cooking, mostly so that she could avoid Dave’ gaze. After the meat and vegetables had been fried in fat, Diya went to the cellar and retrieved some canned fruit and milk. The rich cream mixed with the tea like fog and snow; it was silky on Ember’s tongue. She ate neatly, but faster than she had the previous night.

“My, you’re in a hurry,” remarked Diya.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! Ember reprimanded herself. “Well, truth be told…I want to try and get going before I run into trouble in town. Those Purifiers you told me about…I’ve heard the most awful things about witch-burnings down south…”

“Shush now. Just give their camp a wide clearance and you’ll be fine.” Diya’s light tone was belied by the suspicion in her eyes.

“So, where are you headed, anyway?” Dave sounded mild, but Ember could sense his suspicion.

“My family is from quite far away—the north—and they wanted to negotiate a trade deal with a company. Unfortunately, the caravans have all been sent out, and with things being so competitive, well, they wanted to have a quiet look around before they signed on with a supplier. That’s why I didn’t come the usual way, with one of the Nations.”

“What sorta trade? Not glitterjuice, I hope?” Dave’s eyes were sharp. “We don’t need no glitterjuice trade here. It’s startin’ to be a problem in the cities, and I’d sure hate to hear that someone wanted to expand. Especially down here.”

Ember shook her head vehemently. “Goodness, no! We sell metal pots.” It was a bald-faced lie, but with the truth tucked away and concealed from her own memory, it was as good as the truth.

He relaxed. “All right. That’s fine then, I reckon.” Diya had been gripping a broom handle too tightly, and she relaxed as Dave did.

“I have to get there soon, though,” said Ember brightly, “because they’re expecting me before the end of the month.”

Dave gave her a sidelong look. “Well, we’ll see you into town proper, anyway,” he said. “I need to take a load of vegetables in.”

“Thank you very much,” said Ember, smiling. Her heart thudded with alarm. Glitterjuice and Purifiers—what next?


Prologue & Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four

Check out Michelle Browne’s website for more information on the author and her work.

Preview: After the Garden by Michelle Browne (4)

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…


Chapter 4

Ezeriah frowned at the sound of music from the courtyard. He reclined on the finest silk cushions, one of his Magdalenes sitting alert beside him. She was shapely, young, and fierce; she had been a recent choice, her mother almost reluctant to give her daughter up. Ezeriah knew the girl’s mother was probably one of the music makers, he let it go. Temptation was everywhere, and just because music was a string of irritating tones to him, didn’t mean others weren’t entranced by it.

Lust, except in very controlled circumstances, had to be reined in.  Even he, immortal angel, could be tempted. He shuddered, thinking of the demoness, and steeled his soul.

Still, there had been unrest. He could only channel their impure hungers, their lust and need for music, into chanting and prayer for so long. And more, there had been muttering, of late. He looked over at his Magdalene and raised the left corner of his mouth. To some, it would have seemed like an expression of amusement, but this girl was cunning, far more than her fourteen years suggested, and she knew what it meant. Find out what’s going on, said his body language. For good measure, Ezeriah reached within her mind, used the high language of ceremony to impress his point.

[Investigate, my Magdalene. Thou didst say thou wouldst prove thy worth to me if I allowed thee to join with these holy sisters.]

The girl fumbled, her eyes widening in fear, but he sifted through her brain (how crude, simple, like an animal’s) and stroked the the pleasure centre. He saw her quiver, the spasm that passed through her fabric-shielded thigh, the momentary arching of the back.

[That is the holy bliss of following the commands of the Untainted One.] He intensified it for just a moment, and slowly withdrew his mind from hers. She rushed off like a greyhound.

A few moments later, the girl was back, dragging her mother in by the arm. The woman had had her daughter late in life, and she was grey-haired already.

“She was making a commotion,” said the girl. Her voice was flat, but an eyelid twitched uncertainly. Ezeriah watched her. Despite her fervour, he sensed clear unease at the thought of seeing her mother punished. It subsided as she made cool calculations about her position. Ezeriah approved.

The woman tore her arm out of her daughter’s grasp and threw herself to the floor at Ezeriah’s feet. “My saviour, spare my daughter, I beg thee! She is too young for a holy maiden.”

“Woman, this position is one of great honour. May I remind you that it was your daughter herself who came forward?” He kept his voice at the level of gentle chiding. The woman lifted her head in disbelief, anger crossing her features and making them hard, deepening the creases.

“Kata is too young! She doesn’t know what’s best yet!”

Ezeriah looked down at her with gravitas and pity in his face and manner, but he was already inside her dissident mind, plucking the strings of pain and stimulating warning spasms in her back. Sure enough, he sensed the touch of demons in her. It was early, the corruption; but he felt a vague regret in realising the cost of another purging.

“The Untainted One will punish you,” he intoned. “Thou hast sinned.” He lifted his hands to his chin and twisted the fingers together in the complex ceremonial gesture to indicate a calling upon higher powers. He reached into her mind and killed her.

It was not a painless death; with her last reflexive movements, the woman’s bladder emptied and the back of her robe was soiled. The eyes stared at the world unseeing as she twitched a few final times, then lay still. The Magdalene flinched as the woman curled and writhed.

“Go fetch one of the Unearthers, Magdalene,” said Ezeriah softly. He drew his mind across hers, soothing the temptation and pain away. “You have proven yourself. Now the body of this sinner must be disposed of.”

“No need to cushion me. I know she gave me life, but she had to pay for her impiety,” said the Magdalene severely, and Ezeriah knew he had chosen well.

The rest of the day would be required to soothe the flock with doctrine, to send his Magdalenes around with comfort, and explain why one member of the Order had gone missing. That night, he would take the new Magdalene to his bed, and seal her ordination within the sisterhood.

It was the least he could do.

Mealworm larvae, fried and combined with a basic salad, were the main course for supper. Eva pushed her plate away delicately; Kerrick noted with amusement that she had devoured every salad leaf and left nearly all of the mealworms on her plate. “I’m full, thanks; may I be excused?”

“I’d like to see a few more of those mealworms disappear first,” Karine replied. “You need the protein.” Reluctantly, Eva speared three with her fork and lifted them into her mouth. She chewed fast and swallowed gingerly.

“I don’t know why you hate them,” remarked Chris, “they’re nice and crisp.”

“It’s not the texture she objects to, Chris,” Hamza said. “Next time, Eva, I’ll make it steak tartare, instead of larvae.”


“At least it would be easy to prepare,” muttered Kerrick. The others laughed, but Callaghn glanced furtively at the others and cleared his throat. He twitched, but managed to speak.

“Speaking of raw food, any word on what that guy wanted with the fertilized spider eggs? That Jared guy said something about the request…”

Karine mollified him immediately. “I know Jared; he’s a cousin of mine. He’s another silk worker, remember? You saw him at the last trading fair, six months ago.”

“Oh, yes,” said Callaghn, placing a hand over his brow. “It’s just—I heard the most awful rumours.”

“Where from?”

“I—an old acquaintance.”

“Someone I would know?”

Callaghn shot him a black look. “Not unless you were a—” he couldn’t say the words. He never could.  The air around him tensed, and the others drew back, giving his secrets room. “Anyway, I heard somewhere that the Order’s head has the most disgusting dishes on a nightly basis. This could be a bit of vicious gossip, but I’ve heard he likes everything raw.”

“Ugh,” Eva interrupted. “No, not really? I mean, the legs are nice, but anything else, well—”

A grin on Callaghn’s face, the jack-o-lantern grin that spread from ear to ear almost maliciously. “Yup, I hear Ezeriah has a taste for the most delicate meats, and I’m not talking about the tarsal cuts.”

“I don’t imagine it would be the hearts, and the brains aren’t substantial.” This was Karine. “Eyeballs, maybe? They’d be interesting, anyway.”

“Okay, now I am so leaving the table,” Eva said, jumping up.

“Thanks,” muttered Chris. His arms and legs tangled like a bamboo wood chime as he followed her, stumbling over the couch. “Wait up, Eva!”

The others brought their plates to the sink, and Kerrick watched as Callaghn cleaned the dishes. He didn’t miss the longing sigh Callaghn let out, glancing in the direction of Eva’s room, but he ignored it. Hamza was looking dark at the mention of the Order, and a game of chess would be just the thing to get both of their minds out of the shadows.


Prologue & Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

Check out Michelle Browne’s website for more information on the author and her work.

Preview: After the Garden by Michelle Browne (3)

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…


Chapter 3

Hours passed, and it was night again. The town was waking up, and even from the manse, they could hear the noise and lights beginning to rise in the central south.

“So, Hamza,” said Karine, “You look sharp. Plans for the evening?”

“Why, yes,” said Hamza. “I was thinking, go out to the closest pub, order a drink, and see if I can find a piece—and quiet.”

“Hamza,” said Karine, “You are a scoundrel.”

“Why, thank you.”

“And doesn’t he know it,” muttered Callaghn.

“Oh no. You know, if nothing else, I do have standards. I always play fair—if I go to bed with them, they think it was their idea. Perhaps you’d like to come along, boys? Especially you, Kerrick. You haven’t had a good fuck—”

“—in some time, I know. I’m just not in the mood.”

Hamza raised his eyebrow in disbelief. “’Here comes Romeo, here comes Romeo—without his roe, like a dried herring. O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified!’”

“’A gentleman that loves to hear himself talk, and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month,’” Kerrick snapped.

Karine turned away so they wouldn’t notice her grin.

“I told you, Hamza, I’m not in the mood. Enough of the riddles.”

“Oh, come off it! I’m sure there’s something on the leg buffet that’ll catch your interest.”

Kerrick shook his head. “I don’t have the appetite for it tonight.”

Hamza blinked.  “Something bothering you? You are not yourself.”

Kerrick drew his hand to the back of his neck. “I can’t put a finger on it. I just have the feeling that something’s going to happen…”

“Well, the better the reason for you to join me! You know women go for dark, brooding types, and if you’re going to be sulky, you’ll have the perfect look. And sex will certainly get your mind off whatever’s ailing you.”

He couldn’t help laughing in return. “I’ll have to pass,” said Kerrick. “It’s not a sulk, this time.”

“No woof-woof?” Karine asked.

“No woof-woof,” Kerrick confirmed. No ‘black dog’, as they called it. “But I still don’t feel like going out.”

“I’ll come,” offered Callaghn.

“All right,” Hamza answered. He glanced distractedly at Kerrick again. “Well, see you soon.” He went out the doorway with Callaghn; Kerrick lifted a hand without turning.

The moment Hamza and Callaghn left, Karine walked over to Kerrick. “What’s eating you? You’re even more laconic than usual tonight.”

“I really don’t know. I know it’s not particularly like me.” He distractedly rubbed at the scar on the side of his face. “Could be the black dog again, but it hasn’t bitten me, so to speak, in years.” Karine nodded. “It’s just that—well, you recall that we were used for target practice an evening or two ago. I thought people around here didn’t mind us. And no one knows, but…”

“They’re still TRs. We’re odd to them. And chance attacks, drunks getting sloppy with their bows, happen often enough.”

“What do we have to steal, though?” Kerrick brushed aside unwelcome memories of breaking and entering. Evaluating it with his old thief’s eye, he didn’t see much. Food, sure, but they made a point of not having much wealth out in the open. There were a few colourful wall-hangings, silk that could be sold, but little else. Silk… “Hey, wait a minute. Where are the others?”

“Oh, Chris and Eva were down at the marketplace, shopping. Arthur came along to make sure they didn’t get into trouble.” She glanced at their mechanical clock, and paused to wind it for a moment. “They’ll be back very shortly. What are you going to do tonight? It’s only seven o’clock.”

“I think I might read a bit. If you need me, I’ll be in the tower.” Without waiting for her answer, he padded silently down the hallway.

He wasn’t having a fragment episode—though if there was time, he often sought privacy for those—but he wondered if it was the ‘black dog’ coming back after all. It felt different, though; it was a sense of foreboding.

Below him, neat, precise Karine was probably tidying something. Her medical training in both the last life and her current one had made her positively fanatical about cleanliness. He wondered if she was feeling self-conscious, running her hand over the back of her neck. He knew his moodiness was irritating her, but couldn’t bring himself to care.

Kerrick smiled as he reached the door to the tower. The others would be back soon, but a book and some peace sounded like an excellent way to spend the wait. He considered Shakespeare, but he still had the Achebe book sitting out. Listening to the spiders scrabbling in the rooms below, he opened the latch.

His patchwork haven awaited. Lighting a small gas stove, he tapped some of the reservoir water from his collection and filtration barrel, retrieved some herbs, and prepared himself tea.

The house was far in the distance now. She had been glancing back continuously, almost wondering whether it was following her, but it was just a speck now, a dash of pepper on the horizon. The town, in contrast, was larger, closer, and more distinct. Time to get some rest.

She walked over to a copse and laid her coat on the ground. It would be warmer under tree cover. The sun was low in the sky, ripe and succulent, like an orange. She took her knife out of its sheath by her hip and sliced a few branches neatly from their connection to the main arm. Notching them together into a frame, she then chose some slender branches from a white birch and wove them over and through it. It took her half an hour to complete the shelter, and only a moment or two to assemble a ring of stones around some kindling for a fire.

Touching the air above the wood and stirring it lightly with a finger, the pale warmth of orange flames sprang up. She picked up a handful of flame and balanced it on her palm. She smiled to herself as she worked with it, confining it to her hands but enjoying the pleasant, tingling warmth. When the hour grew too late, she blew on the fire, and it fizzled out. Pulling her coat close, she began to hum a soft song to herself. She tried to remember the lyrics, but she couldn’t grasp them. Memories of the temple and her family flickered, but she pushed them back. They were fading already; better not to dwell on the loss. It was enough, though, to kill her good cheer, and she ate her dried meat and berries very slowly and sadly. The only thing left to soothe her to sleep was the tune, spiraling away into the emptiness like smoke in the night.


Prologue & Chapter One
Chapter Two

Check out Michelle Browne’s website for more information on the author and her work.

Preview: After the Garden by Michelle Browne (2)

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…


Chapter 2

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.


Link to the Prologue & Chapter One

Check out Michelle Browne’s website for more information on the author and her work.