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The Moreva of AstorethTitle: THE MOREVA OF ASTORETH
Author: Roxanne Bland
Publisher: Blackrose Press
Pages: 607
Genre: Science Fiction

Moreva Tehi, scientist, healer, priestess of the Goddess of Love and three-quarters god, is a bigot. She hates the hakoi who are the Temple’s slaves. When she misses an important ritual because the enslaved hakoi are participants, her grandmother, the Goddess Astoreth, punishes her by exiling her for a year from her beloved southern desert home to the far north village of Mjor in the Syren Perritory, (where the hakoi are free) to steward Astoreth’s landing beacon. But Astoreth forbids her from taking with her scientific research on red fever, a devastating scourge that afflicts the hakoi. She does so, anyway.

The first Mjoran she meets is Laerd Teger, the hakoi chief of the village, who appears to hate her. She also meets Hyme, the hakoi village healer, and much to Moreva Tehi’s surprise, they form a fast friendship. This friendship forces her to set upon a spiritual journey to confront her bigotry. While doing so, she falls in love with Laerd Teger, who returns her love. She eventually has a revelation about the meaning of love, and rids herself of her bigotry. And she develops a cure for red fever, and is the first healer to do so.

But there is a price for her love for Laerd Teger, and that is her certain execution by the Goddess Astoreth upon her return home because she has broken her sacred vows. But then, through Laerd Teger, she learns a terrible secret about her gods, that they are not gods at all, but aliens, and rather than being part god, she is part alien. Her world destroyed, she turns on Laerd Teger for showing her the truth. They eventually reconcile. But there is still the problem about her love for Laerd Teger. Astoreth will know what she has done and will execute her. She formulates a plan, involving the erasure of her memory, in which she will bargain for her life by giving Astoreth the formula for red fever. Astoreth agrees. For breaking her vows and disobeying a direct order not to take her red fever research to Mjor, Astoreth strips her of her morevic status and exiles her again to Mjor. Back in Mjor, she recovers her memory and sends the red fever formula to Astoreth. Now freed from the constraints of being a Moreva, Tehi and Teger embark on a new life together.

For More Information

  • The Moreva of Astoreth is available at Amazon.
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First Chapter:

“I could have you executed for this, Moreva Tehi,” Astoreth said. My Devi grandmother, the Goddess of Love, scowled at me from Her golden throne in the massive Great Hall of Her equally massive Temple.

Sitting on my heels, I bowed my head and stared at the black and gold polished floor, trying to ignore the trickle of sweat snaking its way down my spine. “Yes, Most Holy One.”

“You blaspheme by not celebrating Ohra, My holiest of rites. And this one was important—the worthiest of the hakoi, handpicked by Me, celebrated with us. ”

“I can only offer my most abject apologies, Most Holy One.”

“Your apologies are not accepted.”

“Yes, Most Holy One.”

“Where were you?”

“I was in the laboratory, working on a cure for red fever. Many hakoi died last winter—”

“I know that,” my grandmother snapped. “But why did you miss Ohra? Did you not hear the bells?”

“Yes, Most Holy One. I heard them. I was about to lay aside my work when I noticed an anomaly in one of my pareon solutions. It was odd, so I decided to investigate. What I found…I just lost track of time.”

“You lost track of time?” Astoreth repeated, sounding incredulous. “Do you expect me to believe that?”

“Yes, Most Holy One. It is the truth.”

A moment later, my head and hearts started to throb. I knew why. My grandmother was probing me for signs I had lied. But She wouldn’t find any. There was no point in lying to Astoreth, and it was dangerous, too. Swaying under the onslaught from Her power, I endured the pain without making a sound. After what seemed like forever the throbbing subsided, leaving me feeling sick and dizzy.

“Very well,” She said. “I accept what you say is true, but I still do not accept your apology.”

“Yes, Most Holy One.” I tried not to pant.

A minute passed in uncomfortable silence. Uncomfortable for me, anyway. Another minute passed. And another. Just when I thought maybe She was finished with me, Astoreth spoke. “What do you have against the hakoi, Moreva?”

The change of subject confused me. “What do you mean, Most Holy One?”

“I’ve watched you, Moreva. You give them no respect. You heal them because you must, but you treat them little better than animals. Why is that?”

The trickle of sweat reached the small of my back and pooled there. “But my work—”

“Your work is a game between you and the red fever. It has nothing to do with My hakoi.”

I didn’t answer right away. In truth, I despised Her hakoi. They were docile enough—the Devi’s breeding program saw to that—but most were slow-witted, not unlike the pirsu the Temple raised for meat and hide. They stank of makira, the pungent cabbage that was their dietary staple. From what I’d seen traveling through Kherah to Astoreth’s and other Gods’ Temples, all the hakoi were stupid and smelly, and I wanted nothing to do with them.

I did not want my grandmother to know what was in my hearts, so I chose my words carefully. “Most Holy One, I treat Your hakoi the way I do because it is the hierarchy of life as the Devi created it. You taught us the Great Pantheon of twelve Devi is Supreme. The lesser Devi are beneath You, the morevs are beneath the lesser gods, and Your hakoi are beneath the morevs. Beneath the hakoi are the plants and animals of Peris. But sometimes Your hakoi forget their place and must be reminded.” I held my breath, praying she wouldn’t probe me again.

Astoreth didn’t answer at first. “A pretty explanation, Moreva. But My hakoi know their place. It is you who do not know yours. You may be more Devi than morev but you are still morev, born of hakoi blood. You are not too good to minister to the hakoi’s needs, and you are certainly not too good to celebrate Ohra with them.”

I swallowed. “Yes, Most Holy One.”

“Look at me, Moreva.”

I raised my head. My grandmother’s expression was fierce.

“And that is why you let the time get away from you, as you say. You, Moreva Tehi, an acolyte of Love, are a bigot. That is why you did not want to share your body with My hakoi.” She leaned forward. “I have overlooked many of your transgressions while in My service, but I cannot overlook your bigotry or your missing Ohra. I will not execute you because you are too dear to My heart. The stewardship for Astoreth-69 in the Syren Perritory ends this marun on eighth day. You will take the next rotation.”

My hearts froze. This was my punishment? Getting exiled to Syren? From what I’d heard from morevs serving in Astoreth’s other Temples, the Syren Perritory in Peris’s far northern hemisphere was the worst place in the world to steward a landing beacon. Cold and dark, with dense woods full of wild animals, the Syren was no place for me. My place was Kherah, a sunny desert south of the planet’s equator, where the fauna were kept in special habitats for learning and entertainment. As for the Syrenese, they were the product of one of the Devi’s earliest and failed experimental breeding programs, and were as untamed as the perritory in which they lived.

But I knew better than to protest. Astoreth’s word was law, and it had just come down on my head. “Yes, Most Holy One,” I said, my voice meek.

“Mehmed will come to your rooms after lunch tomorrow so you can be fitted for your uniform.”

“My uniform, Most Holy One? I will not be taking my clothes?”

“No. As overseer of the landing beacon, you are the liaison between the Mjor village as well as the commander of the garrison. Your subordinate, Kepten Yose, will report to you once a marun, and you are to relay the garrison’s needs to Laerd Teger, the Mjoran village chief.”

“Yes, Most Holy One.”

“I will make allowance for your healer’s kit and a portable laboratory, but you are not to take your work on red fever. I’m sure you have other projects you can work on while you are there.”

“But—”

“No, Moreva. It is too dangerous.”

“I can take precautions—”

“No. That is my final word.” Astoreth leaned back in Her chair. Her eyes narrowed. “One more thing. You will be the only morev in Mjor, but that will not prevent you from observing Ohra. And you will do so with the garrison stationed there. Go now.”

I stood on shaky legs, bowed, and backed out of the Great Hall. Once in the corridor, I turned and fled to my quarters. I threw myself on the bed and sobbed. It was bad enough to be exiled to the Syren Perritory, but Ohra with the garrison? Only the hakoi served in Astoreth’s military. I felt dirty already. And not allowing me to work on my red fever project was punishment in itself.

A few minutes later I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Tehi, what’s wrong?” a worried voice said. It was Moreva Jaleta, one of my friendlier morev sisters.

“I-I’m being sent to the Syren Perritory to steward Astoreth-69,” I wailed.

Jaleta sat on the bed. “But why?”

I sat up. “I missed the last Ohra and n-now Astoreth is punishing me.”

Jaleta gave me an unsympathetic look. “You’re lucky she didn’t have your head. Be thankful you’re Her favorite.”

I sniffed but said nothing.

Jaleta patted me on the shoulder. “It won’t be so bad, Tehi. The year will be over before you know it. Come on, it’s time to eat.”

 

<<<>>>

 

The next day after the morning service I walked along the hallways of the Temple, avoiding eye contact with everyone I encountered. Jaleta could be kind, but she had a big mouth, and by the time dinner had concluded last night everyone had known about my punishment for missing Ohra. “About time she was punished for something,” someone said. Holding my head high, I ignored the snickers and other snide remarks as I made my way along the corridor.

Instead of going to my lab, I headed for the Temple’s cartography section. Morevi Reng, our chief cartographer, was an ass but a brilliant one. No one in Kherah made maps more accurately and seamlessly than he did, and the other Temples paid dearly for his talent. But Reng hated me. Until I came along, he’d been the best at all of our sports, dancing, music, and other skills the morev were required to learn. My extra dose of Devi blood gave me the ability to top him, and he was jealous.

I wound my way around the cubicles where Reng’s students were working until I reached his office. I knocked on his door, wondering if he would help me. He could be stingy that way. I’d have to resort to flattery if I was to get anything out of him. “Come in,” a voice said. I opened the door and stepped inside.

Reng looked up and gave me a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Greetings, Moreva Tehi. I hear you’re taking a little trip.” His voice dripped with false good cheer.

“Greetings, Morevi Reng. Yes, I am.” I smiled back, my grin just as fake. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Reng’s grin faltered a bit. He obviously wasn’t expecting my reply. “So,” he said, recovering his composure, “what can I do for you?”

“Well, I’d like to know more about the Syren Perritory. Everyone knows you have the best maps in Kherah, and I’d like to take a look at it before I leave.”

Reng preened a little. “Of course. Just let me get the projector.”

I waited in silence while he cleared his cluttered desk. Then he stepped over to an enormous cabinet. Opening the door, he pulled out a squat, black box with five striations on one side. I watched him set up the projector and switch it on. Nothing seemed to happen. Even with my Devi-enhanced hearing I couldn’t hear anything from the black box, not even a quiet hum.

Turning back to the cabinet, he studied its contents. Then he removed a small tube from its slot. Twisting off the lid, he shook an even smaller clear cylinder into the palm of his hand. Walking back to the desk, he dropped the cylinder into a little round hole on top of the projector I hadn’t noticed. As soon as he did so, a picture bloomed on the other side of his office. It was like looking through a window.

“Ready?” Reng said.

I nodded. Together, we walked across the office to the picture. I halted. “Now what?”

“Step inside.”

I did and wished I hadn’t. I was at least a thousand šīzu above the ground. I windmilled my arms as if that would do anything to keep me from falling.

Reng grabbed one of my arms. I looked up. He was smirking. “Relax. This is just a holo, remember?”

I ducked my head, feeling sheepish. “Sorry—it seemed so real.”

“I aim to please.”

I gazed down at the land, crisscrossed by paved roads and bridged rivers. Peris’s three suns—in the hologram, it was summer—reflected off the water, bright pinpoints of light that winked in and out like a festival display. I was surprised. I’d expected to see dirt paths instead of roads and certainly no bridges.

“So where do you want to go?” Reng said.

I raised my brows. I hadn’t thought about that. “I don’t know…I guess I just wanted to see it.”

“Let’s go for a walk, then. Here—hold on to me.”

I took his hand, and we floated downward. Along the way, I marveled at how life-like everything looked. We reached the ground and landed on a wide, paved road with a light green stripe snaking along its middle. We walked. I took a deep breath. I smelled the trees and flowers. Birds sang. The pavement was hard beneath my slippers. A slight breeze ruffled my hair. I would never have believed I was inside a hologram.

“Reng, how do you know what the Perritory smells and sounds like?”

His face lit up with a delighted smile. “I don’t. I made it up based on what others have told me.” He turned. “Do you like it?”

“It’s amazing.”

Reng preened again.

We had walked about seventy or eighty nindan when I stopped in my tracks. A series of huge caves had been cut into the mountainside, dwarfing the pieces of what looked like machinery crawling before them. I gasped. “What is that?”

“The thalin mines. Most of our supplies come from here.” He turned to me. “Not much more to see in this segment. Want to go back? I could show you Mjor, the village where you’ll be staying.”

I shook my head. “That’s all right. I just wanted to see what the Perritory looked like, that’s all.” A rumbling sound, very close by, made me turn. My eyes widened. A blue, monstrous-looking vehicle was bearing down on us, and it was too late to run. “Reng!” I screamed.

He turned around and smiled. He spread his arms wide. “Watch.”

I couldn’t have looked away if I’d tried. My feet were rooted to the spot. All I saw was the vehicle’s grill growing closer and closer until it was all I could see. I waited for the impact.

There was none. I goggled and spun around. The huge vehicle trundled away. It had gone right through us as if we weren’t there.

Reng grinned. “We’re in a holo, Tehi. Did you forget again?” He sniffed. “I can’t believe they still use wheels. Air vehicles are so much more superior. Well, they are a little backward up here. You’ll see.” He looked at me. “Ready?”

“Yes.” We rose from the pavement. I watched the perrain recede. We glided through the air and in moments were back where we started. “All right, here we are,” Reng said. “Just step forward.”

I did so, and then I was back in Reng’s office. I turned. The holo map was still there. Reng walked over to his desk and behind my back. The window disappeared before my eyes. I looked over my shoulder. “You mentioned this was a segment. Are there more?”

“Yes. When I’m finished making this portion of the map, I’ll put them together so you could go on for da-na.”

I nodded and made to leave. “Thank you, Reng. That was simply wondrous. You really are a genius.” My admiration was heartsfelt.

Reng narrowed his eyes as if judging whether I was serious or not. He apparently decided I was, because a wide grin split his face. “Anytime, Tehi. Anytime.”

I left Reng’s office and made my way back through the cubicles. It was past time for me to be in my lab. Thank Astoreth I wasn’t on clinic duty today. All those stupid, stinking hakoi… I cut off the thought. That kind of thinking was what got me into trouble in the first place. I exited the cartography department and took the elevator down to the basement floor, where my lab was located. Pushing the door open, I noticed several of my morev colleagues hovering over their stations, their expressions intense. I arrived at my station and put on my protective jacket. I wouldn’t be working today, but habits are habits. I picked up my electronic tablet, opened a new page, and wandered about my station deciding which items to take. I spoke my needs in a normal voice, disturbing my colleagues without a care on my part. Of course, I wouldn’t be taking anything from this lab. I couldn’t. A portable lab is just that—portable. The equipment is half, and sometimes a quarter of full-sized. The only equipment that was full-sized was things like forceps and droppers. But by judicious choosing, I could have a full-fledged lab in Mjor, if only in miniature. My lips twisted. What difference does it make if I can’t work on finding the cure for red fever? I’ll lose a year’s worth of effort, and someone else might find it before I do. Then my eyes widened. Wait. I can still work. If I take a portable sterile environment, the lab will have everything I need. And the red fever vials are small enough I can easily sneak them out of here. Besides, I only need one. Well, maybe two. And I need hairless skratzes for other experiments, anyway. Then I thought about Astoreth’s order not to take my project with me. If I find the cure while I’m in the Syren Perritory, I doubt she’ll punish me. And if I’m the first to develop it, my cure could make the Temple a lot of talents. She might even make me the head of research. I smiled at the thought.

The bells rang for lunch. I put down my tablet, took off my jacket, and hung it on its peg. Then I followed the other morevs to the dining room. When I arrived, I saw Moreva Quora, my archenemy, sitting in my accustomed seat. Fifteen years older than me, Quora detested me because until my birth she’d been Astoreth’s favorite.

“Out of my seat, Quora.”

Quora looked up and smiled. “Why, Tehi—we’d thought you’d be in the Syren Perritory by now.”

“You know very well the supply airship doesn’t leave until the day after tomorrow. So out of my seat.”

“No. I don’t see your name on it. What are you going to do, run to our Most Holy One and complain?”

Now it was my turn to smile. Standing at the far side of the round table, I placed my hands on the table’s edge and leaned forward. “If you don’t, I’ll put a simi in your bed. Maybe two.” Simi were long, thin, harmless snakes with a penchant for hiding in crevasses. A bed, with its sheets, mattress, and pillows, was an ideal place for them. And Quora was afraid of snakes.

Quora’s face paled. She knew I’d do it, too.

Without another word, Quora rose from my seat and went to find another one. I straightened, walked around the table to my chair and plopped into it. I looked around. Everyone was staring at me. “What?”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Morevi Sabo said. Sabo worked in the lab with me.

“She was in my seat.”

Just then, our food arrived, and conversation ceased. I sniffed the delicious aroma of my plate of sagra, maeli, and other assorted vegetables. I was famished. I wanted to devour it, but we had to wait for the blessing. Morevi Prian rose from his chair. I let out a little groan. He was one of the older morevs, well-respected for his work in astronomy. The only problem was that he tended to ramble.

After what seemed like an hour, the blessing had been given, and we were allowed to eat. Now, instead of hot, my food was just warm. Normally, I would have sent it back to the kitchen for reheating but I was hungry enough not to care. I finished before anyone else at the table. Etiquette dictated I should wait until at least two other morevs had finished eating before getting up from the table, but I didn’t feel like being polite. I rose from my chair and took my plate to the cart positioned at one end of the dining room. One of the kitchen hakois would come for the cart when it was full of dirty dishes.

I returned to the lab. I had only a few more decisions to make before I’d deem my portable lab workable. I put the finishing touches on my list and was just about to drag one of the trunks from the closet to start packing when the round, faceted jewel below my right shoulder holding my robe together beeped. I tapped it. “Moreva Tehi.”

“Moreva, this is Mehmed. Please come to your room. I am ready for your final fitting.”

“Can’t we do this later? I was just getting ready to pack up my lab.”

“No, Moreva. I must have enough time to make your uniforms. Any later than now and you will not be ready to leave on the supply airship. The Most Holy One would not be pleased.”

“Oh, all right.” My grandmother was already angry with me, and it wouldn’t do to anger her even more. I set the trunk down in front of my workstation and left the lab. My lab mates were just coming back from lunch. I didn’t speak to them nor did they speak to me. I walked along the hallway until I came to the bank of elevators. Pressing the button, one set of elevator doors whisked open. I stepped aboard and rode to the main floor. Exiting this elevator, I traversed another, longer hallway until I came to another bank of elevators. These would take me to the morev dormitory. I pushed the call button and waited, growing more irritated by the second. The dormitory elevators, unlike the elevators in every other part of the Temple, were notoriously slow. A cab arrived four minutes later. I stepped inside. “Three.”

Reaching my floor, I exited the cab and walked to my room. The door was standing open, which meant Mehmed was already inside. My lips tightened. There was precious little privacy in the dormitory. Our rooms had doors, but they didn’t lock. Anyone could walk in at any time. Everyone knew better than to walk into my room without being invited because, with my extra dose of Devi blood, I could not only sense someone had been in there but her identity, too. That person might enter their room next to find clothes strewn about on the floor, or the mirror smashed. But Mehmed, though a hakoi, was a special case. He made all of our clothes and could easily alter a garment so that it did not fit perfectly, which is what the Most Holy One demanded from her morevs. A morev in ill-fitting clothes was subject to punishment in whatever way suited Astoreth’s whim. Sometimes those whims included torture—the kind that left no marks.

I entered my room to find Mehmed and a fitting robot standing before a three-way mirror they’d brought with them. “Here is your uniform,” Mehmed said, handing me a dark red blouse and a matching pair of trousers. “Please put it on.”

I stripped to my undergarments and put on the uniform. The legs were slightly too long, as were the sleeves. It was made from some heavy material that felt uncomfortable given that I usually wore light gowns beneath my robe. “Stand here, please,” Mehmed said, indicating a small stool positioned in front of the mirror. I took off my slippers and mounted it.

“Do not move, please.”

I centered myself and pretended I was one of the metal flagpoles in front of the Temple. “Excellent, excellent,” I heard Mehmed’s voice. He spoke in whispers to the robot, which I assumed was dutifully storing my exact measurements into its memory. “Now please hold your arms out to the sides.”

I did so. Mehmed whispered some more. Just when I was getting bored with being a flagpole, Mehmed announced he was finished. “This is your winter uniform. You will also have summer uniforms made of a lighter material. You will have plenty of each to last you a year. Your uniforms are embedded with an enzyme that will keep them fresh and crisp for about five days before you must change into a new one. I will also include extra uniforms in case you need them.”

I looked down at a small dark rectangle sewn into the blouse under my right shoulder. “What’s this?”

“It is a timepiece. All of the timepieces on your uniforms will be set to Syrenese Perritory time before you go. It will also be set for the time for Temple services. It is touch activated. Tap it once, ask for the time and it will give you the time. Ask how long before services begin and it will tell you that, too. It is also your alarm.”

“How will I know it’s on?”

“It will light up.”

“All right. How do I turn it on?”

“The timepiece will activate when you put on your uniform and stay activated until the battery wears out. The battery will last for half a marun, like the enzymes in the fabric.”

I took off my new uniform. After I had, I folded the blouse and the trousers once and gave them to Mehmed. He took them from me and made ready to leave.

“Thank you, Mehmed. May the Most Holy One turn Her face to you.”

“And to you, Moreva Tehi.” Mehmed nodded once and, with his fitting robot trundling behind carrying the mirror, left my quarters.

I dressed in my gown, sat on my bed, and blinked. This is really happening…I’m leaving Uruk for the Syren Perritory in less than two days. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’d been hoping Astoreth would change hers, but I now knew it wasn’t going to happen. Tears sprouted from my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Soon I was sobbing again, except this time there was no one around to hear it.

Eventually, my tears dried and I rose from the bed. If I was to be sent into exile, I needed to get my portable lab packed. I left my room and retraced my steps to the basement lab. Inside, I opened the trunk I’d placed in front of my table and picked up my tablet. I looked over the notes I’d made. Then I started packing.

I didn’t think as I packed. Like an automaton, I simply followed my notes, retrieving conical flasks, beakers, pipettes and the like, and stowing them away in the first of two white trunks. By dinnertime, I was almost finished. Just a few more pieces of equipment and the vials of red fever and the portable lab would be ready to go to the Syren Perritory.

But would I?

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Miracle Man 7Title: Miracle Man
Author: William R. Leibowitz
Publisher: Manifesto Media Group
Pages: 428
Genre: Cross-genre Thriller
Format: Paper/Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

REVERED REVILED REMARKABLE

The victim of an unspeakable crime, an infant rises to become a new type of superhero.

Unlike any that have come before him, he is not a fanciful creation of animators, he is real.

So begins the saga of Robert James Austin, the greatest genius in human history. But where did his extraordinary intelligence come from?

As agents of corporate greed vie with rabid anti-Western radicals to destroy him, an obsessive government leader launches a bizarre covert mission to exploit his intellect. Yet Austin’s greatest fear is not of this world.

Aided by two exceptional women, one of whom will become his unlikely lover, Austin struggles against abandonment and betrayal. But the forces that oppose him are more powerful than even he can understand.

First Chapter:

Prologue

A tall figure wearing a black-hooded slicker walked quickly through the night carrying a large garbage bag. His pale face was wet with rain. He had picked a deserted part of town. Old warehouse buildings were being gutted so they could be converted into apartments for non-existent buyers. There were no stores, no restaurants and no people.

“Who’d wanna live in this shit place?” he muttered to himself. Even the nice neighborhoods of this dismal city had more “For Sale” signs than you could count.

He was disgusted with himself and disgusted with her, but they were too young to be burdened. Life was already hard enough. He shook his head incredulously. She had been so damn sexy, funny, full of life. Why the hell couldn’t she leave well enough alone? She should have had some control.

He wanted to scream-out down the ugly street, “It’s her fucking fault that I’m in the rain in this crap neighborhood trying to evade the police.”

But he knew he hadn’t tried to slow her down either. He kept giving her the drugs and she kept getting kinkier and kinkier and more dependent on him and that’s how he liked it. She was adventurous and creative beyond her years. Freaky and bizarre. He had been enthralled, amazed. The higher she got, the wilder she was. Nothing was out of bounds. Everything was in the game.

And so, they went farther and farther out there. Together. With the help of the chemicals. They were co-conspirators, co-sponsors of their mutual dissipation. How far they had traveled without ever leaving their cruddy little city. They were so far ahead of all the other kids.

He squinted, and his mind reeled. He tried to remember in what month of their senior year in high school the drugs became more important to her than he was. And in what month did her face start looking so tired, her complexion prefacing the ravages to follow, her breath becoming foul as her teeth and gums deteriorated. And in what month did her need for the drugs outstrip his and her cash resources.

He stopped walking and raised his hooded head to the sky so that the rain would pelt him full-on in the face. He was hoping that somehow this would make him feel absolved. It didn’t. He shuddered as he clutched the shiny black bag, the increasingly cold wet wind blowing hard against him. He didn’t even want to try to figure out how many guys she had sex with for the drugs.

The puddle-ridden deserted street had three large dumpsters on it. One was almost empty. It seemed huge and metallic and didn’t appeal to him. The second was two-thirds full. He peered into it, but was repulsed by the odor, and he was pretty sure he saw the quick moving figures of rodents foraging in the mess. The third was piled above the brim with construction debris.

Holding the plastic bag, he climbed up on the rusty lip of the third dumpster. Stretching forward, he placed the bag on top of some large garbage bags which were just a few feet inside of the dumpster’s rim. As he climbed down, his body looked bent and crooked and his face was ashen. Tears streamed down his cheeks and bounced off his hands. He barely could annunciate, “Please forgive me,” as he shuffled away, head bowed and snot dripping from his nose.

1

Edith and Peter Austin sat stiffly in the worn wooden chairs of Dr. Ronald Draper’s waiting room as if they were being graded on their posture by the receptionist. Edith’s round cherubic face was framed by graying hair that was neatly swept back and pinned. Her dress was a loose fitting simple floral print that she had purchased at a clearance sale at JC Penny. Their four year old son, Bobby, sat between them, his shiny black dress shoes swinging from legs too short to touch the floor. Edith brushed the boy’s long sandy hair away from his light blue eyes that were intensely focused on the blank wall in front of him. Peter, dressed in his construction foreman’s clothes, yawned deeply having been up since five in the morning, his weathered face wrinkled well beyond his years. Looking down at his heavy work boots, he placed his hand firmly on Edith’s knee to quiet her quivering leg. When they were finally shown into Draper’s office, the receptionist signaled that Bobby should stay with her.

Ronald Draper was the Head of the Department of Child Psychology at Mount Sinai Hospital. A short portly man in his late forties, the few remaining strands of his brown hair were caked with pomade and combed straight across his narrow head. His dark eyes appeared abnormally large as a result of the strong lenses in his eye glasses and his short goatee only accentuated his receding chin. Glancing at his wrist watch while he greeted Peter and Edith, Draper motioned for them to take a seat on the chairs facing his cluttered desk. Draper had been referred by Bobby’s pediatrician when Bobby’s condition didn’t improve.

“Describe to me exactly what you’re concerned about,” Draper said.

Edit cleared her throat. “It started about a year ago. At any time, without warning, Bobby will get quiet and withdrawn. Then he’ll go over to his little chair and sit down, or he’ll lie down on the window seat in the living room. He’ll stare directly in front of him as if in a trance and then his lids will close halfway. His body will be motionless. Maybe his eyes will blink occasionally. That’s it. This can go on for as much as forty minutes each time it happens. When visitors to our house have seen it, they thought Bobby was catatonic.”

Draper looked up from the notes he was taking. “When Bobby comes to, do you ask him about it?”

Edith’s hands fidgeted. “Yes. He says, ‘I was just thinking about some things.’ Then, when I ask him what things, he says, ‘those things I’m reading about.’”

Draper’s eyes narrowed. “Did you say, things he was reading about?”

Edith nodded.

“He’s four, correct?”

Edith nodded again and Draper scribbled more notes.

“Do you question him further?”

“I ask him why he gets so quiet and still. I’ve told him it’s real spooky.”

“And how does he respond to that, Mrs. Austin?”

Edith shook her head. “He says he’s just concentrating.”

“And what other issues are there?”

“Bobby always slept much less than other children, even as an infant. And he never took naps. Then, starting about a year ago, almost every night, he has terrible nightmares. He comes running into our bed crying hysterically. He’s so agitated he’ll be shaking and sometimes even wets himself.”

Draper put his pen down and leaned back in his worn leather chair, which squeaked loudly. “And what did your pediatrician, Dr. Stafford, say about all this?”

As Edith was about to reply, Peter squeezed her hand and said, “Dr. Stafford told us not to worry. He said Bobby’s smart and imaginative and bad dreams are common at this age for kids like him. And he said Bobby’s trances are caused by his lack of sleep, that they’re just a sleep substitute—like some kind of ‘waking nap.’ He told us Bobby will outgrow these problems. We thought the time had come to see a specialist.”

Tapping his pen against his folder, Draper asked Edith and Peter to bring Bobby into his office and wait in the reception area so he could speak with the boy alone. “I’m sure we won’t be long,” he said.

His chin resting in his hand, Draper looked at the four year old who sat in front of him with his long hair and piercing light blue eyes. “So, Robert. I understand that you enjoy reading.”

“It’s the passion of my life, Doctor.”

Draper laughed. “The passion of your life. That’s quite a dramatic statement. And what are you reading now?”

“Well, I only like to read non-fiction, particularly, astronomy, physics, math and chemistry. I’ve also just started reading a book called ‘Gray’s Anatomy.’”

“Gray’s Anatomy?” Draper barely covered his mouth as he yawned, recalling how many times he had met with toddlers who supposedly read the New York Times. In his experience, driven parents were usually the ones who caused their kids’ problems. “That’s a book most medical students dread. It seems awfully advanced for a child of your age.” Walking over to his bookcase, Draper stretched to reach the top shelf and pulled down a heavy tome. Blowing the dust off the binding, he said, “So, is this the book that you’ve been reading?”

Bobby smiled. “Yes, that’s it.”

“How did you get a copy?”

“I asked my Dad to get it for me from the library and he did.”

“And why did you want it?”

“I’m curious about the human body.”

“Oh, is that so? Well, let’s have you read for me, and then I’ll ask you some questions about what you read.”

Smiling smugly as he randomly opened to a page in the middle of the book, Draper put the volume down on a table in front of Bobby. Bobby stood on his toes so that he could see the page. The four year old began to read the tiny print fluently, complete with the proper pronunciation of medical Latin terms. His eyes narrowing, Draper scratched his chin. “Ok, Bobby. Now reading words on a page is one thing. But understanding them is quite another. So tell me the meaning of what you just read.”

Bobby gave Draper a dissertation on not only what he had just read, but how it tied it into aspects of the first five chapters of the book which he had read previously on his own. By memory, Bobby also directed Draper to specific pages of the book identifying what diagrams Draper would find that supported what Bobby was saying.

Glassy eyed, Draper stared at the child as he grabbed the book and put it back on the shelf. “Bobby, that was very interesting. Your reading shows real promise. Now let’s do a few puzzles.”

Pulling out a Rubik’s cube from his desk drawer, Draper asked, “Have you ever seen one of these?”

Bobby shook his head. “What is it?”

Draper handed the cube to Bobby and explained the object of the game. “Just explore it. Take your time—there’s no rush.”

Bobby manipulated the cube with his tiny hands as he examined it from varying angles. “I think I get the idea.”

“OK, Bobby—try to solve it.”

Thirty seconds later, Bobby handed the solved puzzle to Draper.

Draper’s eyes widened as he massaged his eyebrows. “I see. Well, let me mix it up really good this time and have you try again.” Twenty seconds after being handed the cube a second time, Bobby was passing it back to Draper solved again. Beginning to perspire, Draper removed his suit jacket.

“Bobby, we’re going to play a little game. I’m going to slowly say a number, and then another number, and another after that—and so forth, and as I call them out I’m going to write them down. When I’m finished, I’m going to ask you to recite back whatever numbers in the list you can remember. Is that clear?

“Sure Doctor,” replied Bobby.

“Ok, here we go”. At approximately one second intervals, Draper intoned, “729; 302; 128; 297; 186; 136; 423; 114; 169; 322; 873; 455; 388; 962; 666; 293; 725; 318; 131; 406.”

Bobby responded immediately with the full list in perfect order. He then asked Draper if he would like to hear it backwards. “Sure, why not,” replied Draper.

By the time Draper tired of this game, he was up to 80 numbers, each comprised of five digits. Bobby didn’t miss a single one. “Can we stop this game now please, Doctor? It’s getting pretty monotonous, don’t you think?”

Draper loosened his tie. He went through his remaining routines of tests and puzzles designed to gauge a person’s level of abstract mathematical reasoning, theoretical problem solving, linguistic nuances, and vocabulary. Rubbing his now oily face in his hands, he said, “Let’s take a break for a few minutes.”

“Why Doctor? I’m not tired.”

“Well, I am.”

Taking Bobby back to the waiting room, Draper apologized to Peter and Edith for the long period during which he had sequestered Bobby.

“Is everything alright, Doctor?” Edith asked.

“Why don’t you take Bobby to the cafeteria for a snack and meet me back here with him in thirty minutes,” Draper replied.

When the Austins returned to Draper’s office, Draper had two of his colleagues with him. He advised Peter and Edith that his associates would assist him in administering a few IQ tests to Bobby.

Peter’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Draper. “What does that have to do with the nightmares and trances, Doctor? We came here for those issues – not to have Bobby’s intelligence tested.”

“Be patient, please, Mr. Austin. Everything is inter-connected. We’re trying to get a complete picture.”

Draper and his associates, one a Ph.D in psychology and the other a Ph.D in education, administered three different types of intelligence tests to Bobby (utilizing abbreviated versions due to time constraints). First, the Slosson Intelligence Test, then the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Revised (WISC-R) and finally, the Stanford-Binet L-M.

By the time the exams were concluded, Draper’s shirt was untucked and perspiration stains protruded from beneath his arms even though the room was cool. He brought Bobby back to the reception area, and took Peter and Edith into a corner of the room, out of Bobby’s earshot. “Your child isn’t normal. Are any of your other children like this?”

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Naked in Havana 7Title: Naked in Havana
Author: Colin Falconer
Publisher: Coolgus Publishing
Pages: 164
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Format: Paperback, Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

18 year old Magdalena Fuentes is lying naked next to her perfect lover when he tells her he is marrying someone else. It is soon clear her destiny lies with another man, even though she says she doesn’t believe in fate.

But fate doesn’t care whether we believe in it or not…

Havana, 1958. Magdalena Fuentes knows that Angel Macheda is the only man for her, even after he takes her virginity and then tells her he is engaged to someone else. She knows they are meant to be.

So why can she not stop thinking about Reyes Garcia? From the moment I saw you, he says, I knew there would be no one else.

From the moment I saw you, she tells him, I knew you were arrogant, conceited and rude.

Magdalena is a girl who will not let sentiment stand between her and love. But as Fidel Castro’s rebels tighten their grip around the city and she watches her family and her whole life come apart, she learns hard lessons about love and about life.

Against the backdrop of the boleristas and the gangsters, the music and the guns, Magdalena discovers just how dangerous love can be.

Naked in Havana is the first in a three part series, a sprawling epic of passion and destiny, stretching across three decades and two continents.

First Chapter:

You want Havana?

I’ll give you Havana.

I have Havana right here, in this old photograph album I keep up here on the bookshelf. It’s a little tattered and the photographs are all black and white, I can’t even see them these days without my glasses. But it’s the most precious thing I own, apart from my wedding ring. Reyes had to smuggle it out for me. I don’t have much else left of those days. I left Cuba with the clothes on my back and not much else.

Here’s my papi. Isn’t he handsome? He’s standing outside his nightclub, the Left Bank, down on La Rampa. I was sixteen then. Yes, stunning – that’s what everyone says. Being beautiful is a blessing and a curse. When you’re young you think you own your beauty like you think you own your youth. You don’t realise that you’re just borrowing both and that someday life will come to take them back. Perhaps I would have done things differently if I was smart enough to know that.

Or perhaps not. What a lowdown, spoiled bitch I was. You really want to read this? Don’t. Do yourself a favour, find some other book to read, because I swear, you’ll want to throttle me when you learn the things I did. But I learned my lesson. Take some comfort in that; life paid me back, in full.

Here’s my mother. I didn’t know her well. She died when I was ten. We are on the Malecón, by the sea wall, back in the early fifties before everything went to hell. Look how she’s holding me. She must have loved me but I can’t even remember her face now, not without this photograph to remind me.

People treat you like a princess, because they love you, because you’ve lost your mother. And because your daddy’s rich, you think it’s always going to be like that. But life always finds a way to keep us honest, that’s what I found anyway.

And if life doesn’t, death will.

But I got lucky. Reyes Garcia came along, and changed everything.

But first there was Havana.

Cuba, 1958

So there I was, naked. In Havana.

On the bed.

Angel, bless him, waited until he’d slept with me before he told me he was marrying someone else.

In fact, he waited until he’d had me on three separate occasions before breaking the good news. For now he sat there on the windowsill, smoking a cigarette, listening to the scratchy sound of Beni Moré on the old Victrola singing Santa Isabel de las Lajas. We were in his father’s apartment on San Lorenzo, where Senor Macheda brought his own mistresses: I suppose, in Angel’s mind, he was just carrying on family tradition.

My thoughts were in quite another direction. I imagined finally telling my father about us, wondered whether we would have the wedding at the club or in the garden at home. I knew papi wouldn’t agree to one of the big hotels, he hated those guys taking over his country like that.

I lay on the tangled sheets, feeling the wetness on my belly turning sticky and cold as the overhead fan stirred the treacly air. He was always careful like that, my Angel; being late home from shopping was easier to explain than being pregnant. I admired the lean bands of muscle on his chest. He was a beautiful boy, a comma of inky black hair fell over his forehead and resisted all his efforts to push it back. His half lidded eyes made him appear more sensual than he really was.

My clothes were scattered over the floor. The room smelled of sweat, sex and the French perfume my papi had bought me for my eighteenth birthday.

Angel’s hand went to his penis, stroked it casually, then he looked at me and one corner of his mouth twisted in a self satisfied grin.

‘I’m getting married,’ he said.

I raised myself on one elbow, stared at him. ‘What?’

‘Father’s idea. Nothing I can do about it.’ He shrugged his shoulders, as if this was a minor inconvenience that no one could have possibly foreseen.

‘Married? When? To who?’

He drew on his cigarette, watched the long stream of smoke as he exhaled. ‘Some girl from America. He says it’s important for the family, that it’s my duty. Can you believe it?’ He laughed. ‘My fucking father would marry me to my sister if there was a dollar in it.’

He looked at her, tilted his head, like: you should feel sorry for me, Magdalena.

‘How long have you known about this?’

Another casual shrug. He examined the tip of his cigarette, the glowing ash I would have liked to have mashed in his eye. ‘Does it matter?’

Time stopped.

I could hear the waves crashing on the Malecón, children playing football on the cobblestones in the plaza below. Someone was playing a guitar and singing, quite badly. The brown barrio girls were laughing and clapping along.

I reached for the glass of iced lime juice beside the bed and threw it at him. My aim was off. If I hadn’t been so angry it would have hit him on the head and sent him toppling down into the street. Instead it missed him by a slender few inches and smashed on the cobblestones down in the plaza. The guy playing the guitar cursed us and the girls screamed.

Angel ducked his head and ran for the door.

I looked for something else to throw. The lamp. Now the bedside table. I hauled a picture frame from the wall and hurled that as the door slammed shut behind him.

I wiped myself with his shirt and tossed that into the plaza as well. I found my clothes, got dressed. I didn’t walk out, not then, not straight away. Take deep breaths, Magdalena. Don’t let him see you cry.

I don’t know why, but when I got downstairs he was still standing by the door, naked, cupping his balls with one hand. Perhaps he was hoping that I’d calm down. You should not tell a naked girl you’re getting married to someone else and hold even the faintest hope that she will calm down anytime soon.

He saw the look on my face when I came out of the bedroom and panicked. He ran out of the door and down the steps into the plaza, bare-assed. The barrio girls started laughing and whistling, thinking this was a great joke.

Angel was trapped, halfway between me and the rest of Havana. He made to run back inside, then saw me coming down the marble staircase. I kicked him and punched him while he cowered against the wall. But how much damage can a girl do?

Not nearly enough, nothing like what he deserved.

There was a crowd gathered, hooting and cheering on the pretty chica beating on the rich kid. This was much fun as anyone had seen at that end of San Lorenzo for a while. Eventually I let him run back inside.

Luis was waiting with the car on the other side of the plaza. I kept my head down so he couldn’t see me crying and jumped in the back. He knew enough not to ask questions. He started the engine and put his foot on the gas. We headed back down San Lorenzo towards Vedado.

I stared out of the window, my hands balled into fists in my lap. I needed to calm down before I got home, I couldn’t let papi see me like this.

Angel might think he was going to marry someone else, but he was wrong.

This wasn’t over. Magdalena Fuentes would see to that.

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Naked in Havana 7Title: Naked in Havana
Author: Colin Falconer
Publisher: Coolgus Publishing
Pages: 164
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Format: Paperback, Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

18 year old Magdalena Fuentes is lying naked next to her perfect lover when he tells her he is marrying someone else. It is soon clear her destiny lies with another man, even though she says she doesn’t believe in fate.

But fate doesn’t care whether we believe in it or not…

Havana, 1958. Magdalena Fuentes knows that Angel Macheda is the only man for her, even after he takes her virginity and then tells her he is engaged to someone else. She knows they are meant to be.

So why can she not stop thinking about Reyes Garcia? From the moment I saw you, he says, I knew there would be no one else.

From the moment I saw you, she tells him, I knew you were arrogant, conceited and rude.

Magdalena is a girl who will not let sentiment stand between her and love. But as Fidel Castro’s rebels tighten their grip around the city and she watches her family and her whole life come apart, she learns hard lessons about love abd about life.

Against the backdrop of the boleristas and the gangsters, the music and the guns, Magdalena discovers just how dangerous love can be.

Naked in Havana is the first in a three part series, a sprawling epic of passion and destiny, stretching across three decades and two continents.

First Chapter:

You want Havana?

I’ll give you Havana.

I have Havana right here, in this old photograph album I keep up here on the bookshelf. It’s a little tattered and the photographs are all black and white, I can’t even see them these days without my glasses. But it’s the most precious thing I own, apart from my wedding ring. Reyes had to smuggle it out for me. I don’t have much else left of those days. I left Cuba with the clothes on my back and not much else.

Here’s my papi. Isn’t he handsome? He’s standing outside his nightclub, the Left Bank, down on La Rampa. I was sixteen then. Yes, stunning – that’s what everyone says. Being beautiful is a blessing and a curse. When you’re young you think you own your beauty like you think you own your youth. You don’t realise that you’re just borrowing both and that someday life will come to take them back. Perhaps I would have done things differently if I was smart enough to know that.

Or perhaps not. What a lowdown, spoiled bitch I was. You really want to read this? Don’t. Do yourself a favour, find some other book to read, because I swear, you’ll want to throttle me when you learn the things I did. But I learned my lesson. Take some comfort in that; life paid me back, in full.

Here’s my mother. I didn’t know her well. She died when I was ten. We are on the Malecón, by the sea wall, back in the early fifties before everything went to hell. Look how she’s holding me. She must have loved me but I can’t even remember her face now, not without this photograph to remind me.

People treat you like a princess, because they love you, because you’ve lost your mother. And because your daddy’s rich, you think it’s always going to be like that. But life always finds a way to keep us honest, that’s what I found anyway.

And if life doesn’t, death will.

But I got lucky. Reyes Garcia came along, and changed everything.

But first there was Havana.

 

Cuba, 1958

So there I was, naked. In Havana.

On the bed.

Angel, bless him, waited until he’d slept with me before he told me he was marrying someone else.

In fact, he waited until he’d had me on three separate occasions before breaking the good news. For now he sat there on the windowsill, smoking a cigarette, listening to the scratchy sound of Beni Moré on the old Victrola singing Santa Isabel de las Lajas. We were in his father’s apartment on San Lorenzo, where Senor Macheda brought his own mistresses: I suppose, in Angel’s mind, he was just carrying on family tradition.

My thoughts were in quite another direction. I imagined finally telling my father about us, wondered whether we would have the wedding at the club or in the garden at home. I knew papi wouldn’t agree to one of the big hotels, he hated those guys taking over his country like that.

I lay on the tangled sheets, feeling the wetness on my belly turning sticky and cold as the overhead fan stirred the treacly air. He was always careful like that, my Angel; being late home from shopping was easier to explain than being pregnant. I admired the lean bands of muscle on his chest. He was a beautiful boy, a comma of inky black hair fell over his forehead and resisted all his efforts to push it back. His half lidded eyes made him appear more sensual than he really was.

My clothes were scattered over the floor. The room smelled of sweat, sex and the French perfume my papi had bought me for my eighteenth birthday.

Angel’s hand went to his penis, stroked it casually, then he looked at me and one corner of his mouth twisted in a self satisfied grin.

‘I’m getting married,’ he said.

I raised myself on one elbow, stared at him. ‘What?’

‘Father’s idea. Nothing I can do about it.’ He shrugged his shoulders, as if this was a minor inconvenience that no one could have possibly foreseen.

‘Married? When? To who?’

He drew on his cigarette, watched the long stream of smoke as he exhaled. ‘Some girl from America. He says it’s important for the family, that it’s my duty. Can you believe it?’ He laughed. ‘My fucking father would marry me to my sister if there was a dollar in it.’

He looked at her, tilted his head, like: you should feel sorry for me, Magdalena.

‘How long have you known about this?’

Another casual shrug. He examined the tip of his cigarette, the glowing ash I would have liked to have mashed in his eye. ‘Does it matter?’

Time stopped.

I could hear the waves crashing on the Malecón, children playing football on the cobblestones in the plaza below. Someone was playing a guitar and singing, quite badly. The brown barrio girls were laughing and clapping along.

I reached for the glass of iced lime juice beside the bed and threw it at him. My aim was off. If I hadn’t been so angry it would have hit him on the head and sent him toppling down into the street. Instead it missed him by a slender few inches and smashed on the cobblestones down in the plaza. The guy playing the guitar cursed us and the girls screamed.

Angel ducked his head and ran for the door.

I looked for something else to throw. The lamp. Now the bedside table. I hauled a picture frame from the wall and hurled that as the door slammed shut behind him.

I wiped myself with his shirt and tossed that into the plaza as well. I found my clothes, got dressed. I didn’t walk out, not then, not straight away. Take deep breaths, Magdalena. Don’t let him see you cry.

I don’t know why, but when I got downstairs he was still standing by the door, naked, cupping his balls with one hand. Perhaps he was hoping that I’d calm down. You should not tell a naked girl you’re getting married to someone else and hold even the faintest hope that she will calm down anytime soon.

He saw the look on my face when I came out of the bedroom and panicked. He ran out of the door and down the steps into the plaza, bare-assed. The barrio girls started laughing and whistling, thinking this was a great joke.

Angel was trapped, halfway between me and the rest of Havana. He made to run back inside, then saw me coming down the marble staircase. I kicked him and punched him while he cowered against the wall. But how much damage can a girl do?

Not nearly enough, nothing like what he deserved.

There was a crowd gathered, hooting and cheering on the pretty chica beating on the rich kid. This was much fun as anyone had seen at that end of San Lorenzo for a while. Eventually I let him run back inside.

Luis was waiting with the car on the other side of the plaza. I kept my head down so he couldn’t see me crying and jumped in the back. He knew enough not to ask questions. He started the engine and put his foot on the gas. We headed back down San Lorenzo towards Vedado.

I stared out of the window, my hands balled into fists in my lap. I needed to calm down before I got home, I couldn’t let papi see me like this.

Angel might think he was going to marry someone else, but he was wrong.

This wasn’t over. Magdalena Fuentes would see to that.

 

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Then Like the Blind Man 7Title: Then Like the Blind Man: Orbie’s Story
Author: Freddie Owens
Publisher: Blind Sight Publications
Pages: 332
Language: English
Genre: Historical Fiction/Coming of Age
Format: Paperback & eBook

Purchase at AMAZON

A storm is brewing in the all-but-forgotten backcountry of Kentucky. And, for young Orbie Ray, the swirling heavens may just have the power to tear open his family’s darkest secrets. Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie’s Story is the enthralling debut novel by Freddie Owens, which tells the story of a spirited wunderkind in the segregated South of the 1950s and the forces he must overcome to restore order in his world. Rich in authentic vernacular and evocative of a time and place long past, this absorbing work of magical realism offered up with a Southern twist will engage readers who relish the Southern literary canon, or any tale well told.

Nine-year-old Orbie already has his cross to bear. After the sudden death of his father, his mother Ruby has off and married his father’s coworker and friend Victor, a slick-talking man with a snake tattoo. Since the marriage, Orbie, his sister Missy, and his mother haven’t had a peaceful moment with the heavy-drinking, fitful new man of the house. Orbie hates his stepfather more than he can stand; this fact lands him at his grandparents’ place in Harlan’s Crossroads, Kentucky, when Victor decides to move the family to Florida without including him. In his new surroundings, Orbie finds little to distract him from Granpaw’s ornery ways and constant teasing jokes about snakes.

As Orbie grudgingly adjusts to life with his doting Granny and carping Granpaw, who are a bit too keen on their black neighbors for Orbie’s taste, not to mention their Pentecostal congregation of snake handlers, he finds his world views changing, particularly when it comes to matters of race, religion, and the true cause of his father’s death. He befriends a boy named Willis, who shares his love of art, but not his skin color. And, when Orbie crosses paths with the black Choctaw preacher, Moses Mashbone, he learns of a power that could expose and defeat his enemies, but can’t be used for revenge. When a storm of unusual magnitude descends, he happens upon the solution to a paradox that is both magical and ordinary. The question is, will it be enough?

Equal parts Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn, it’s a tale that’s both rich in meaning, timely in its social relevance, and rollicking with boyhood adventure. The novel mines crucial contemporary issues, as well as the universality of the human experience while also casting a beguiling light on boyhood dreams and fears. It’s a well-spun, nuanced work of fiction that is certain to resonate with lovers of literary fiction, particularly in the grand Southern tradition of storytelling.

CHAPTER ONE

EVERYBODY ON EDGE

Thursday, June 6th 1959

Momma and even Victor said I’d be coming to St. Petersburg with them.  They’d been saying it for weeks.  Then Victor changed his mind.  He was my stepdaddy, Victor was.  It would be easier on everybody, he said, if I stayed with Granny and Granpaw in Kentucky.  Him and Momma had enough Florida business to take care of without on top of everything else having to take care of me too.  I was a handful, Victor said.  I kept everybody on edge.  If you asked me, the only edge everybody was kept on was Victor’s.  As far as I was concerned, him and Momma could both go to hell.  Missy too.  I was fed up trying to be good.  Saying everything was okay when it wasn’t.  Pretending I understood when I didn’t.

Momma’s car was a 1950 model.  Daddy said it was the first Ford car to come automatic.  I didn’t know what ‘automatic’ was but it sure had silver ashtrays, two of them on the back of the front seats.  They were all popped open with gum wrappers and cigarette butts and boy did they smell.

One butt fell on top a bunch of comic books I had me in a pile.  The pile leaned cockeyed against my dump truck.  Heat came up from there, little whiffs of tail pipe smoke, warm and stuffy like the insides of my tennis shoes.

It rattled too – the Ford car did.  The glove box.  The mirrors.  The windows.  The knobs on the radio.  The muffler under the floorboard.  Everything rattled.

We’d been traveling hard all day, barreling down Road 3 from Detroit to Kentucky.  Down to Harlan’s Crossroads.  I sat on the edge of the back seat, watching the fence posts zoom by.  Missy stood up next to the side window, sucking her thumb, the fingers of her other hand jammed between her legs.  She was five years old.  I was nine.

I’d seen pictures of Florida in a magazine.  It had palm trees and alligators and oranges.  It had long white beaches and pelicans that could dive-bomb the water.  Kentucky was just old lonesome farmhouses and brokeback barns.  Gravel roads and chickens in the yard.

Road 3 took us down big places like Fort Wayne and Muncie.  It took us down a whole bunch of little places too, places with funny names like Zaneville and Deputy and Speed.

Missy couldn’t read.

“Piss with care,” I said.

“Oh Orbie, you said a bad word.”

“No.  Piss with care, Missy.  That sign back there.  That’s what it said.”

Missy’s eyes went wide.  “It did not.  Momma’ll whip you.”

Later on we got where there was a curve in the road and another sign.  “Look Missy.  Do not piss.”

“It don’t say that.”

“Yes it does.  See.  When the road goes curvy like that you’re not supposed to pee.  But when it’s straight, it’s okay; but you have to do it careful cause that’s what the sign says.  Piss with care!”

“It don’t say that.”

“Does too.”

We crossed a big pile of water on a bridge with towers and giant ropey things looping down.  On the other side was Louisville, Kentucky.  After that was just small towns and little white stores with red gas-pumps, farm houses and big barns and fields, empty fields and fields of corn and fields where there were cows and horses and pigs and long rows of tobacco plants Momma said cigarettes was made of.

I had me a war on all the towns going down.

Tat Tat Tat Tat!  Blam!  There goes Cox Creek! 

Bombs away over Nazareth

Blam! Blam! Boom!  Hodgekinsville never had a chance!

“Let’s keep it down back there!” Victor said.

“A grenade rolled into Victor’s lap!” I whispered.  “BlamOOO!  Blowed him to smithereens!”

I wished Momma’d left him back there in Toledo like she said she would.  She was always threatening around like that, but then she would get to feeling sorry and forget all about it.  She’d been mad ever since Victor spilled the beans about Daddy.  Victor was mad too, drinking his beer and driving Momma’s Ford too fast.  After Louisville he started throwing his empties out the window.

I liked to watch them bust on the road.

“Pretty country, Kentucky,” Victor said.

**

It was the end of daytime and a big orangey-gold sun ball hung way off over the hills, almost touching the trees.  The Ford jerked over a ditch at the foot of a patchy burnt yard, thundering up a load of bubble noises before Victor shut it down.

“Get off me,” Missy said.

“I ain’t bothering you.”

“Yes you are.”

“But Missy, look!”

A big boned woman in a housedress had come to stand in the yard down by the well.  She was looking into the sun – orange light in her face – standing upright, sharp edged and stiff, like an electrical tower, one arm bent like a triangle, the other raised with the elbow so the hand went flat out over her eyes like a cap.  She stared out of wrinkles and scribbles and red leather cheekbones.   Her nose was sunburned, long but snubbed off at the end, sticking out above a mouth that had no lips, a crack that squirmed and changed itself from long to short and back to long again.

Missy’s eyes widened.  “Who is that?”

“Granny,” I said.  “Don’t you remember?”

I saw Granpaw too, sitting squat-legged against Granny’s little Jesus Tree.  He was turning in one big hand a piece of wood, shaving it, whittling it outward with a jackknife.  The brim of a dusty Panama shadowed his eyes.  In back of him stood the house, balanced on little piles of creek rock.  You could see jars and cans and other old junk scattered underneath.  It was the same dirty white color as before, the house was, but the sun ball had baked it orange, and now I could see at one end where somebody had started to paint.

As we got out of the car, the big boned figure in the housedress let out with a whoop, hollering, “Good God A Mighty!  If it tain’t Ruby and them younguns of hers!  Come all the way down here from Dee-troit!”  Blue-green veins bulged and tree-limbed down the length of her arms.

Victor stayed out by the Ford, the round top of my ball cap hanging out his pocket.  A gas station man had given it to me on the way down.  It was gray and had a red winged horse with the word ‘Mobilgas’ printed across the front.  Victor had swiped it away, said I shouldn’t be accepting gifts from strangers.  I should have asked him about it first.  Now it was in his back pocket, crushed against the Ford’s front fender where he leaned with an unlit cigar, rolling between his lips.  The sun was in back of him, halfway swallowed up by a distant curvy line of hilltop trees.

“Hidy Victor!” Granny called.  “Ya’ll have a good trip?”

Victor put on a smooth voice.  “Fine Mrs. Wood.  Real fine.  You can’t beat blue grass for beauty, can you?”  A long shadow stretched out on the ground in front of him.

Granny laughed.  “Ain’t been no farther than Lexington to know!”

Granpaw changed his position against the tree, leaned forward a little bit and spat a brown gob, grunting out the word ‘shit’ after he did.  He dragged the back of his knife hand sandpaper-like over the gap of his mouth.

“I want you just to looky here!” Granny said.  “If tain’t Missy-Two-Shoes and that baby doll of hers!”

Missy backed away.

“Aw, Missy now,” Momma said.  “That’s Granny.”

Missy smiled then and let Granny grab her up.  Her legs went around Granny’s waist.  She had on a pink Sunday dress with limp white bows dangling off its bottom, the back squashed and wadded like an overused hankie.

“How’s my little towhead?” Granny said.

“Good.”  Missy held out her baby doll.  “This is Mattie, Granny.  I named her after you.”

“Well ain’t you the sweetest thang!”  Granny grinned so big her wrinkles went out in circles like water does after a stone’s dropped in.  She gave Missy a wet kiss and set her down.  Then her grin flashed toward Momma.  “There’s my other little girl!”

Momma, no taller than Granny’s chin, did a little toe dance up to her, smiling all the way.  She hugged Granny and Granny in turn beat the blue and red roses on the back of Momma’s blouse.

“I just love it to death!” Granny said.  “Let me look at you!”  She held Momma away from her.  Momma wiggled her hips; slim curvy hips packed up neat in a tight black skirt.  She kissed the air in front of Granny.

Like Marilyn Monroe.  Like in the movies. 

“Jezebel!” Granny laughed.  “You always was a teaser.”

They talked about the trip to Florida, about Victor’s prospects – his good fortune, his chance – about Armstrong and the men down there and that Pink Flamingo Hotel.  They talked about Daddy too, and what a good man he’d been.

“It liked to’ve killed us all, what happened to Jessie,” Granny said.

“I know Mamaw.  If I had more time, I’d go visit him awhile.”  Momma looked out over the crossroads toward the graveyard.  I looked too but there was nothing to see now, nothing but shadows and scrubby bushes and the boney black limbs of the cottonwood trees.  I remembered what Victor’d said about the nigger man, about the crane with the full ladle.

 “I want you just to look what the cat’s drug in Mattie!” Granpaw had walked over from his place by the tree.

 “Oh Papaw!”  Momma hugged Granpaw’s rusty old neck and kissed him two or three times.

“Shoo!  Ruby you’ll get paint all over me!”

Momma laughed and rubbed at a lip mark she’d left on his jaw.

“How you been daughter?”

“All right I reckon,” Momma said.  She looked back toward Victor who was still up by the Ford.  Victor took the cigar out of his mouth.  He held it to one side, pinched between his fingers.

“How’s that car running Victor?” Granpaw called.

“Not too bad, Mr. Wood,” Victor answered, “considering the miles we’ve put on her.”

Granpaw made a bunch of little spit-spit sounds, flicking them off the end of his tongue as he did.  He hawked up another brown gob and let it fall to the ground, then he gave Victor a nod and walked over.  He walked with a limp, like somebody stepping off in a ditch, carrying the open jackknife in one hand and that thing, whatever it was he’d been working on, in the other.

Granny’s mouth got hard.  “Ruby, I did get that letter of yorn.  I done told you it were all right to leave that child.  I told you in that other letter, ‘member?”

“You sure it’s not any trouble?” Momma said.

Granny’s eyes widened.  “Trouble?  Why, tain’t no trouble a-tall.”  She looked over my way.  “I want you just to look how he’s growed!  A might on the skinny side though.”

“He’ll fill out,” Momma said.

“Why yes he will.  Come youngun.  Come say hello to your old Granny.”

“Orbie, be good now,” Momma said.

I went a little closer, but I didn’t say hello.

“He’ll be all right,” Granny said.

“I hope so Mamaw.  He’s been a lot of trouble over this.“

Veins, blue rivers, tree roots, flooded down Granny’s gray legs.  More even than on her arms.  And you could see white bulges and knots and little red threads wiggling out.  “I’ll bet you they’s a lot better things going on here than they is in Floridy,” she said.  “I bet you, if you had a mind to, Granpaw would show you how to milk cows and hoe tobacco.  I’ll learn you everything there is to know about chickens.  Why, you’ll be a real farm hand before long!”

“I don’t wanna be no damned farm hand,” I said.

“Boy, I’ll wear you out!” Momma said.  “See what I mean, Mamaw?”

“He’ll be all right,” Granny said.

The sun was on its way down.  Far to the east of it two stars trailed after a skinny slice of moon.  I could see Old Man Harlan’s Country Store across the road, closed now, but with a porch light burning by the door.

A ruckus of voices had started up by the Ford, Granpaw and Victor trying to talk at the same time.  They’d propped the Ford’s hood up with a stick and were standing out by the front.

Victor had again taken up his place, leaning back against the front fender, crushing my ball cap.  “That’s right, that’s what I said!  No good at all.”  He held the cigar shoulder level – lit now – waving it with his upraised arm one side to the other.  “The Unions are ruining this country, Mr. Wood.  Bunch of meddlesome, goddamned troublemakers.  Agitators, if you catch my drift.”  He took a pull on the cigar then blew the smoke over Granpaw’s head.

Granpaw was stout-looking but a whole head shorter than Victor.  He stood there in his coveralls, doubled up fists hanging at the end of each arm, thick as sledgehammers – one with the open jackknife, the other with that thing he’d been working on.  “Son, you got a problem?”

“The rank and file,” Victor said.  “They’re the problem!      They’ll believe anything the goddamn Union tells them.”

Granpaw leaned over and spat.  “You don’t know nothin’.”

Anything,” Victor said.

“What?”

Victor took the cigar out of his mouth and smiled.  “I don’t know anything is what you mean to say.  It’s proper grammar.”

“I know what I aim to say,” Granpaw said, “I don’t need no northern jackass a tellin’ me.”  Granpaw’s thumb squeezed against the jackknife blade.

Cut him Granpaw!  Knock that cigar out his mouth!

“Strode!”  Granny shouted.  “Come away from there!”

Momma hurried over.  “Victor, I told you.”

“I was just sharing some of my thoughts with Mr. Wood here,” Victor said.  “He took it the wrong way, that’s all.  He doesn’t understand.”

“I understand plenty, City Slicker.”  Granpaw closed the knife blade against his coveralls and backed away.

“Ain’t no need in this Strode!” Granny said.  “Victor’s come all the way down here from Dee-troit.  He’s company.  And you a man of God!”

“I’ll cut him a new asshole, he keeps on that a way,” Granpaw said.

Momma was beside herself.  “Apologize Victor.  Apologize to Papaw for talking that way.”

“For telling the truth?”

“For insulting him!”

Victor shook his head.  “You apologize.  You’re good at that.”

Over where the sun had gone down the sky had turned white-blue.  Fireflies winked around the roof of the well, around the branches of the Jesus Tree.  Victor walked around to the front of the car and slammed the hood down harder than was necessary.  “Come on Orbie!  Time to get your stuff!”

I couldn’t believe it was about to happen, even though I’d been told so many times it was going to.  I started to cry.

“Get down here!” Victor yelled.

Momma met me at the car.  She took out a hankerchief and wiped at my tears.  She looked good.   She always looked good.

“I don’t want you to go,” I said.

“Oh now,” Momma said. “Let’s not make Victor any madder than he already is, okay?”  She helped bring my things from the car.  I carried my tank and my box of army men and crayons.  Momma brought my dump truck, the toy cars, my comic books and drawing pad.  We put them all on the porch where Missy sat playing with her doll.  Momma hugged me one last time, got Missy up in her arms and headed to the car.

Victor was already behind the wheel, gunning the engine.  “Come on Ruby!  Let’s go!”

“You just hold on a minute!”  Momma put Missy in the car and turned to hug Granny.  “Bye Mamaw.”

“Goodbye Sweetness.  I hope you find what you’re looking for down there.”

“Right now I’d settle for a little peace of mind,” Momma said; then she hugged Granpaw.  “I’m real sorry about Victor Papaw.”

Granpaw nodded.  “You be careful down there in Floridy.”

“Bye Momma!  Bye Missy!”  I yelled.

Momma closed her door and Victor backed out.  I hurried down to where Granny and Granpaw were standing.  The Ford threw dust and gravels as it fishtailed up the road.

Granpaw tapped me on the shoulder.  “This one’s for you son,” he said and handed down the piece he’d been working on.  It was a little cross of blond wood about a foot high with a burnt snake draped lengthwise along its shoulders.  Granpaw moved his finger over the snake’s curvy body.  “Scorched that in there with a hot screw driver, I did.”

It was comical in a way, but strange too; I mean to make a snake there – right where Jesus was supposed to be.  Like most everything else in my life, it made no sense at all.  Momma’s Ford had disappeared over the hill.  Pale road-dust moved like a ghost into the cornfields under the half-dark sky.  It drifted back toward the skull of Granpaw’s barn, back toward the yard.  I stood there watching it all, listening as Momma’s Ford rumbled away.

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External-Forces-2Title: External Forces
Author: Deborah Rix
Publisher: Dime Store Books
Pages: 268
Language: English
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Format: eBook

Purchase at AMAZON

Treason, betrayal, and heartbreak.

A lot can happen to a girl between her first kiss and her first kill.

It’s 100 years since the Genetic Integrity Act was passed and America closed its borders to prevent genetic contamination. Now only the enemy, dysgenic Deviants, remain beyond the heavily guarded border. The Department of Evolution carefully guides the creation of each generation and deviations from the divine plan are not permitted.

When 16-year-old Jess begins to show signs of deviance she enlists in the Special Forces, with her best friend Jay, in a desperate bid to evade detection by the Devotees. Jess is good with data, not so good with a knife. So when the handsome and secretive Sergeant Matt Anderson selects her for his Black Ops squad, Jess is determined to figure out why.

As her deviance continues to change her, Jess is forced to decide who to trust with her deadly secret. Jess needs to know what’s really out there, in the Deviant wasteland over the border, if she has any hope of making it to her 17th birthday. Because if the enemy doesn’t kill her first, the Department of Evolution probably will.

Prologue:

I haven’t slept in forty-eight hours.

It’s part of the Special Operations Assessment and Selection course, twenty-eight days of grueling work. The two days of no sleep are meant to disorient us, part of discarding our former selves. There are three hundred of us trying to figure out how to do what we’re told, when we’re told to, and how to do it correctly. Jay and I weren’t assigned to the same platoon, which was unexpected. I’m in the “civilian” platoon; we’re the ones with skills that don’t generally require brute force. I think Jay is in some kind of elite group because I haven’t seen him, I’ve only seen the G-men platoon. They are all about brute force; they’re the ones that opted for genetic enhancement at age thirteen without the supervision of the Devotees. But Special Forces is, well, special, so they have to prove they’ve got more than muscle and I’ve gotta prove I’ve got more than a quick mind.

If I don’t make it to Special Forces, my life expectancy in the regular army could be pretty short. And if I’m a complete washout, I’ll have to go to my assessment with the Devotees and they’ll find out about me, making my life expectancy even shorter. I seriously need to pass.

Zero dark thirty is when I have to haul myself out of bed in the so-called morning. My drill sergeant has been yelling at me for most of the past two days. The word “why” has been surgically removed from everyone’s vocabulary. Any individual hesitation in following orders means at least one private is getting smoked, if not the whole platoon, which usually means push-ups. We’ve done a lot of push-ups. I stare straight ahead as the drill sergeant walks by me and continues down the row of privates. I made the mistake of “eyeballing” him yesterday.

Never. Eyeball. A drill sergeant.

First Chapter:

Three weeks earlier – May, 2125

My mother thinks I’m a Deviant.

It’s the kind of thing that can really throw a girl for a loop.

The Devotees missed it when I was born, she said, but one day they would come for me. That was a few years ago, she didn’t know I was home when I overheard her; I got out of there lickety-split.

And it’s not as if I haven’t noticed the way my mother looks at me sometimes. If they had taken me when they had the chance, maybe her other baby would still be with her. I’m pretty sure that’s what goes through her head when she looks at me.

So the early assessment notice wasn’t entirely unexpected. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Lots of kids are called for early assessments and nothing happens; they show up at school the next day. Some of them are all excited because they got called to become a Devotee.

But some of them, well, they don’t come back.

I’m in the parking lot of my high school, West Liberty. It’s prom night, and I came with my best friend, Jay. He’s still inside; he likes this sort of thing. I haven’t told him the early assessment notice came this afternoon. I didn’t want to ruin tonight for him. The humidity has made my dress even more uncomfortable than it was inside. Jay owes me. At least he won’t mind if I go home; it’s not that kind of date.

A car door slams shut. There aren’t a lot of kids who can afford the fuel to drive their own car to the prom.

Uh-oh. Blake.

I take a step back. Blake is a popular kid, with the right look, the right home, the right pedigree.

Right.

Despite my attempts to blend in and stay in the background, Blake noticed me this year. When I didn’t respond like all the other girls do, I became his target.

His car keys jangle as he drops them in his jacket pocket. I stand still; maybe he hasn’t seen me.

“Hey, freak,” he calls as he comes around the blue pickup I was hoping would shield me. “Not leaving, are you?”

I smell alcohol as Blake backs me up against the truck.

His slicked-back hair smells slightly astringent, and his tongue slides over his upper lip as he looks me over from top to bottom. A shiver of revulsion goes through me. I can’t imagine what girls like about him. I can hear some voices, but they’re at the other end of the parking lot. It’s just me and Blake.

“I’ve got an early graduation present for you,” he says quietly. His face is close to mine, and I can see beads of perspiration on his forehead. Slick from the humidity, his hand glides down my bare shoulder, as if he’s entitled to touch me.

I don’t think I want a present from Blake.

I’m surprised when my hand moves. There is a wet sound as Blake’s head snaps back.

Blood spurts, and it seems as if time has gone into slow motion. The blood sprays toward me. I move my head to the side to avoid it, and watch it slowly drift by, suspended in the air.

I turn back to Blake and a thrill zips through me. Thick, glossy blood creeps down his chin from his mashed nose. His mouth is open in shock; blood colors his teeth and gums. He moves sluggishly, and each blink seems to take effort.

Drip by slow drip, the blood falls from his chin onto his shirt. Fascinated, I watch each droplet burst on his crisp white collar.

A wet plonk hits my forehead as a sudden coldness envelops me. The grin I’m shocked to find on my face sags. Fat droplets of rain release the pressure in the air and mix with the blood on Blake’s shiny shoes.

Hands to his face, he doubles over as time suddenly speeds up again. The rain pelts down now. I take two steps to the side and run. I hear a sob and realize it’s me.

What just happened?

It’s the morning after prom, and Jay saunters along beside me as we walk back to my house. I met him half way, as per my usual. His t-shirt is a bit wrinkled, but that’s on purpose, to go with jeans that are a little baggy in back. He’s over six feet and gets asked if he’s a model, which he laughs at, but I know he’s pleased. He could be quite popular if he wanted, but he hangs out with me instead.

Jay and me are Fifth Generation. We’re the ones born between 2100 and 2120. We found each other in the seventh grade. We were the last two kids left when we all paired up for gym class. He asked me why I wasn’t moving when we were supposed to be heading out to the field. I explained that I was trying to activate my special powers so that I could use them to transport me far away. Usually that kind of talk would send kids running, and they’d whisper that I must be a Deviant. But not Jay. He blinked at me, then asked if I would take him with me, should my special powers ever actually work. We’ve been best friends since, and tell each other pretty much everything.

“So, can you come to the thing?”

Uh oh.

I think I’m supposed to know what he’s talking about.

“Uh, when is it again?” I stall for time. What thing?

I push my hair behind my ears to help me think. It doesn’t always work. I have shoulder-length brown hair, parted on the side. My no-nonsense look is how I think of it. I still don’t know what the thing is.

“Wait. Jess. You’re joking, right?” Jay says with a laugh that’s on the edge of anger.

“I’m sorry.” I do my best pleading cringe. “I’m a little distracted.”

The early assessment and whatever that was with Blake last night are the distractions. I can’t quite believe I punched him, broke his nose by the look of it. He’s probably going to have two black eyes. But more than that punch, as surprising as it was, is the way time seemed to slow down around me. I want to say it was shock, or some kind of temporary fugue state, but that’s not what it was. Something happened.

“My mother’s thing, remember?” Jay practically yells at me.

“Oh, that,” I say with relief. Jay’s mother is hosting a party to celebrate his seventeenth birthday. That’s what the thing is. It’s going to be awful.

“We met up, what? Five minutes ago? And you’re already trying to drive me crazy?” He pinches my butt. Hard. He’s pretty worked up about this party.

I yelp and dance around. “No way. You are not blaming your crazy on me.” I give him a solid punch in the gut. “You had years of exposure to your mother before we even met.”

I go rock climbing, so my arms are strong. I’ve never needed to go to the gym to work out and “stay in shape” like some of the other girls do. I’m five feet ten and a half inches and the coach at school said I have an athletic body; he tried to get me to go out for track and field. I don’t like the idea of people watching me like that.

But hitting Jay is like hitting concrete. He doesn’t even notice my punch.

“And of course I’m coming, I already told you. That’s why I didn’t know what thing you were talking about. I thought you meant some other thing.”

“You didn’t actually confirm with my mother,” he complains, “and I know how you feel about people, in general.”

“I don’t have a problem with people, in general. Just the idiots,” I say. “And your mother.”

It’s kind of a toss-up, I suppose. A mother like mine, who actively avoids you and has already decided you’re not worth the effort, or one who pays too much attention and has too many expectations.

Jay nudges me as an unfamiliar dark-haired boy, a bit younger than we are, walks toward us. He doesn’t look right at us, but he flashes us two crossed fingers with his right hand.

I look up ahead and see them coming our way. Three Devotees. Jay and I mumble the greeting in unison, “Blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh, soul of our soul,” and we look down as they brush past us in their crisp white lab coats. It’s best not to be noticed.

The Devotees work for the Department of Evolution —everyone just calls it Devo— and they do the work of Creation in partnership with God. The Department of Evolution is under the direction of Secretary Galton. Basically, she’s God’s voice here on Earth. In the midst of the genetic revolution a hundred years ago, when the Genetic Integrity Act closed America’s borders, strict protocols for border biosecurity were instituted to stop genetic contamination. But we were still in danger of being overrun by the Deviants on the other side. Galton took control, ordered the fortification of our borders and gave the military the authority to do what they needed to do. Most people agree; she did what was necessary for our survival by relinquishing certain powers to the military to ensure our protection. Including the ability to create proprietary, genetically enhanced soldiers. The G-men. Since then, Galton has been leading us through the current stage of evolution, Regenesis, removing unwanted traits and improving and enhancing our best traits with the guidance of God.

In Social Biology class, Devotee Theresa taught us that we must all work for the common good, whether we like it or not. The less intelligent are more fertile and must be discouraged from breeding. Only those with desirable traits are allowed to produce the next generation.

There’s this section, practically a whole semester of tenth grade, where we studied pedigree charts, and DNA, RNA, proteins, and ribosomes. DNA is a double helix that carries the genetic information for all life. If only one part of one gene is wrong, it can create a whole generation of imbeciles, and that is not in God’s plan. Or in Devo’s plan. All Devotees have that DNA double helix tattooed on their forearm, as a constant reminder of their purpose in life.

That’s what the crossed fingers warning represents, the double helix tattoo.

We come up to the old Palace Theater. It’s been shut down for a long time, and the large sign that hangs out front lost its first A, so it says PLACE. Someone found a way in down the side alley, and now kids hang out there. They say, “Meet me at the place.” If they’re overheard or an adult sees a message, it only says “the place.” So far it’s stayed secret. I’ve heard they have illegal sim-seats in there, ones that can scramble the biometrics and mask what you’re doing.

“Jess,” Jay says as he slows right down, “something’s wrong.”

“It’s time to wake up!” a skinny boy with curly red hair yells. He’s standing on a wooden crate, and people are hesitantly milling about. “People are dying! Out there, children are starving, and you send them poison. People are sick, and you send them plagues. The blood of our blood is on your hands!”

There are gasps at his blasphemy, but a few people cautiously move toward him in morbid fascination. His eyes are wild, there’s spittle on his lips. Jay grabs my arm to tug me backward.

When the bullet enters the boy’s left temple, it’s as if he doesn’t know it’s there for a moment.

He’s about to yell, his mouth opens, his lips form a word he will never say. Then he topples backward, and I hear the terrible thud as his head hits the ground. The people closest to him quickly step back. No one screams, no one looks up to see the Guardian with the rifle on the roof across the street. Everyone wants to blend in.

Another Guardian comes toward the Palace. The Guardians work for Devo and protect us from Deviants. The stiff collar somehow makes his slightly rumpled, brown uniform shirt look crisp. The yellow double helix is on the front of his cap, and above his left shirt pocket.

“Move along,” he says. “It was just a Deviant.”

We all know that the plain fact of his yelling out crazy stuff in the street like that is proof of his deviance. It’s what happens sometimes, but it’s most prevalent during adolescence. The deviance manifests and people become dangerous, psychotic Deviants, intent on our destruction.

The Guardian rests his hand on the butt of the holstered pistol hanging from his belt and waits for the brown panel truck with the whooping siren we can hear approaching.

Jay swears at him under his breath and keeps hold of my arm. We hurry off with the rest of the crowd, wanting to move as far away as possible. I look back in time to see somebody dart in behind the Guardian, dip a hand in the boy’s blood, and leave an angry red handprint on the front of the Palace Theater. A red hand. I’ve heard the whispers but never thought it was true. As I stare at it, I bumble into Mrs. Yamoto, one of my neighbors. She walks fast, gripping her daughter’s hand tightly. Last year, I saw the brown truck with the double helix on the side parked in front of her house. The Guardians had come to take her son.

Wes.

That was his name.

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Weak at the Knees smTitle: Weak at the Knees
Genre: New Adult Contemporary Romance
Author: Jo Kessel
Publisher: CreateSpace
Pages: 292
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1490397604
ISBN-13: 978-1490397603

Purchase at AMAZON

We got so busy living life that we forgot to live our dreams.”

Danni Lewis has been playing it safe for twenty-six years, but her sheltered existence is making her feel old ahead of time. When a sudden death plunges her into a spiral of grief, she throws caution to the wind and runs away to France in search of a new beginning.

The moment ski instructor Olivier du Pape enters her shattered world she falls hard, in more ways than one.

Their mutual desire is as powerful and seductive as the mountains around them. His dark gypsy looks and piercing blue eyes are irresistible.

Only she must resist, because he has a wife – and she’d made a pact to never get involved with a married man.

But how do you choose between keeping your word and being true to your soul?

Weak at the Knees is Jo’s debut novel in the new adult, contemporary romance genre – a story of love and loss set between London and the heart of the French Alps.

First Chapter:

I don’t like being English. I never have. It’s always felt like such an un-sexy nationality. Let’s face it, if any foreigner were asked to conjure up a vision of the typical male Brit, most likely they’d be thinking of someone slightly overweight, over-boozed and over sunburned. Most other Europeans fare better. The Italians are all considered hot-blooded Romeos whilst the Scandinavians are a blonde bunch of Adonis’s. As for the French, granted they have a reputation for being curt and unfaithful, but deep down the rest of the world respects their infidelity, crediting the lot with being expert lovers even though most of them probably aren’t. The most flattering of British descriptions is that of an English Rose, but that wouldn’t fit someone like me. Far from being a sinewy blonde with a porcelain complexion, I’m more a pint-sized pre-Raphaelite – short, with waist-length brown curly hair and far too many curves. Not that being an English rose is a particularly flattering description anyway. Yes, it might be a beauteous flower, but it’s also got prickly stems which snare. No, in my opinion, whichever way you look at it, on a global, sexual scale, being English isn’t often an asset.

Hugo’s English. He’s as stiff upper lip Hooray Henry as they come. He’s tall and good-looking in that pretty, public schoolboy, foppish kind of way and he’s a charmer to boot. Think Hugh Grant and you’re not far off the mark – although if it was a toss up between Hugh (particularly the Four Weddings Hugh) and Hugo, there’d be no competition. It would be Grant all the way. I’ve always had a bit of a crush on him. Ironically, many women from all over the world would probably jump at the chance to jump on my Hugo because he’s English. Not because he’s the typical Brit though, but because he’s got the Hugh Grant factor and foreign females fall for that kind of thing. It’s the look, the manners and the self-deprecation. For me, however, nothing beats your language being spoken by somebody who’s not from your country. It’s undeniably sexy. It’s why I like foreigners.

Hugo is what you’d call a catch. My mother definitely thinks so. I’m sure she’s secretly hoping we’ll end up together. Son-in-law material doesn’t come any better. She could show him off and brag away till the cows came home. “My Danni’s Hugo” she’d boast to all her friends, with an air of smug superiority, “He’s a Barrister. He’s ever so clever.”

Indeed he is. Apparently you need to be fluent in Ancient Greek and Latin to get a first in Classics at Oxford like Hugo. Now, that might seem a useless skill to the less educated of us – after all there are no more ancient Greeks or Romans with whom to converse – but you’ve still got to be bloody brilliant to master it. You try making head or tail of a page of Homer’s Iliad! You’d soon understand why they coined the phrase ‘It’s all Greek to me’.

We met when I was fifteen. He was a couple of years older. “Danni Lewis” he’d remarked, at the end of our first proper conversation at some run-of-the mill teen party we’d gone to. “I think you’re great. You’re so original. You’re so enigmatic.”

“Well, thanks very much,” I’d replied. “You’re pretty nice too.” What I’d really wanted to ask was ‘what the hell does ‘enigmatic’ mean?’ I didn’t dare though because I didn’t want to come across as intellectually inferior. He’d clearly assumed that I was as clever as he was, which meant knowing a word like enigmatic even at the age of fifteen. These days I work hard at not making assumptions, although most of the time I fail dismally. I suspect we all do.

Anyway, as soon as I got back home I’d fired up my computer and checked the meaning of the word ‘enigmatic’ on an on-line dictionary. ‘Deliberately mysterious’ or ‘puzzling’ were the definitions I got. I’d liked that. It conjured up a vision of someone beautiful but unobtainable, a woman over whom you could obsess but not possess; a woman about whom one could never assume.

It took us ages to get together. We indulged in hours of what we called phone sex. In truth there was nothing remotely sexual about it. A typical late night, tucked up in bed conversation would go as follows:

HUGO: “Watch you doin?”

ME: “Mmmmmm, I’m just lying here, thinking about you lying there. Where are you, watch YOU doin?”

HUGO: “I’m just lying here on my bed, thinking about you lying there.”

ME: “U ON your bed or IN your bed?”

HUGO: “I’m on it.”

ME: “Well, why don’t you get in it?”

HUGO: “Why?”

And so the scintillating dialogue would continue – although you’d have thought that a bloke who was destined to get a first from Oxford might be able to make slightly more dynamic conversation. I think the reason it took me six months to secure a date was because I kept being too enigmatic. The deliberately mysterious and puzzling me was quite clearly sending out the wrong signals. Hugo assumed I wasn’t interested.

Eventually one day, we were both sitting on my box room bed at my parents’ house in Hendon, north London, playing this stupid truth yes or no game when he came clean and I came clean and it was all very sweet and a date was put in the diary.

—————————————————————

I was ten years old and having lunch with my grandmother. I think I’d just dared to ask (even though she was eighty-two) if she was still having sex with my grandfather. She never answered the question, but decided it was time to offer some useful advice. She must have got this from a Mills and Boon novel, because she sure as hell didn’t get it from her marriage. She was a Polish immigrant and married the first man she’d met on British soil. She spent the rest of her life trying to make the best of it. The conversation was remarkably one-sided and as usual, she kept getting her V’s and W’s mixed up. It’s a common Eastern-European linguistic affliction apparently. Anyway, the mentor-like chat went a bit like this.

“Danni darling.”

“Yes grandma?”

“Now I vant to tell you something and I vant you to try to remember it ven you get older.”

“Ok Grandma”.

“If a man ewwer makes you wery dizzy ven you kiss him, make sure you newwer let him go. You vant to make sure you marry him.”

“Why? Does Grandpa make you wery dizzy?”

“Eat your lunch Danni”.

I was on the brink of repeating my original ‘are you and grandpa still having sex’ question, but thought against it, gagging myself with a forkful of lamb and mushy peas. With hindsight, I wish I hadn’t held back. I mean, do most octogenarians still have sex? If so, what are the chances of cardiac arrest mid-orgasm?

——————————————-

Anyway, Hugo didn’t make me wery dizzy when he kissed me, but it was still very nice and he did make me happy. Phone sex progressed to pillow talk and we had a really good, solid relationship. He knew me inside out and always had an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what I was thinking, which often got me in a lot of trouble.

I loved his company. He made me laugh and he stimulated me intellectually. I mean, how many other seventeen-year olds do you know who are nicknamed Ariadne? That’s what he’s always called me. It took a while for me to pluck up the courage to ask who Ariadne actually was. It turned out she was this Princess from Greek mythology who fell in love with a bloke called Theseus who was due to be offered as a sacrificial victim to the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster. But in order to save her loved one from his horrible fate she’d stuffed a ball of thread into his pocket as he was led into this prison of a labyrinth, meant to be impossible to escape from. But thanks to her (and the thread) he did escape and was never sacrificed and they lived happily ever after.

Hugo said he hoped an imaginary trail of string would always lead him to me, which is why he’d called me Ariadne. I think he was secretly hoping that I’d embrace this story with a bit more enthusiasm by calling him Theseus. But I couldn’t. It all felt a bit too un-cool. I preferred calling him Achilles, which really pissed him off because it didn’t demonstrate the same level of love and commitment. He hated the thought that he might be my Achilles heel. “Lighten up”, I’d said. “Don’t take everything so bloody literally.”

I’ve got to hand it to him though. He’s the only person who’s ever got me into a bath under the auspices of scientific experimentation. One day he’d told me to bring my bikini with when I went round. I’d hoped that meant we were going to his parents’ posh health club, and was frankly a bit miffed when I got there and he said we were staying put. “Why did I bring my bikini then?” I’d protested. “My fault” he apologised. “You probably don’t need it. But we are doing something with water.”

He led me into his parents’ bathroom. The tub had been filled to the brim. Curiously there were a whole load of plastic measuring jugs strewn across the floor. He explained that he’d been learning all about this Greek mathematician, Archimedes, the first person to work out that the volume of an object placed in a fluid was equal to the volume of the amount of fluid displaced by that object when submerged.

For some bizarre reason, Hugo wanted to work out my body mass Archimedes style. He’d drilled a small hole just above the water line. The plan was that when I got in the bath, my body mass would trickle out the hole and Hugo would be waiting to collect it in the measuring jugs.

“I don’t give a toss what my body mass is Hugo. I don’t even understand what you’re going on about.”

“Don’t be such a killjoy Danni. It’ll take five minutes.”

So off I went to put on my swimsuit and came back to stand hovering by the bath.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” I was no scientist, but felt pretty certain all would not go according to plan.

“Of course it will” snapped Hugo.

I stepped gingerly into the tub. A little bit of water trickled into a jug Hugo was holding up to the hole. “OK, you can sit down now Danni. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do it so slowly, it’s all under control.” So I plonked myself down and Hugo looked on in horror as the volume of my body mass cascaded over the edge of the bath onto his parents’ cream shag pile, bypassing his too small hole entirely.

“Achilles, I think you should stick to the Arts,” I laughed.

“Oh shut up Ariadne. You never wanted it to work in the first place!”

See, told you he always knew exactly what I was thinking. Anyway, never one to miss out on a golden opportunity, and seeing as I was already in the bath, he told me to shove up and let some of the water out. He took off his clothes and sloshed himself beside me. Secretly I think the whole thing had been about getting me half-naked in the bath with him. Christ knows why he hadn’t just suggested that in the first place.

—————————

Even by the age of eighteen Hugo and I had spoken loads of times about marriage. “Do you think we’ll end up together” he’d ask.

I’d pondered and then joked about a possible scenario. “I don’t know. If you ever asked me I’m sure I should say yes, but probably wouldn’t. I reckon I’ll be more intent on screwing up my life. Maybe I’ll come crying to you when I’m mid-thirties and divorced, by which time you’ll probably be blissfully married to somebody else and I’ll have to live with the fact that I had the chance of happiness but turned it down.

I don’t know what it is about Hugo. Many people would dream of having what we have. It’s just sometimes I find myself in the kitchen of our Highgate flat (technically his flat, but we both live in it) sticking lemon sole under the grill when I should be out being wild and reckless.

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