I will be releasing my first novel in late 2022, an as-yet unnamed collection of four intertwined novellas best described as gothic fantasy mixed with speculative memoir. (I do love a good genre-blend.) The world it is set in and some of the characters it involves are introduced in the short story “Rabbit” which you can read here.
The novellas are best described as being separated into “seasons” which span across generations and a collection of characters/events.
The following extract is another piece of the puzzle (with some parts left deliberately vague) that makes up the whole.
(Featured image: “Call Signs” original art by me, © 2020)
Extract “Once More We Rise” © Copyright Tabatha Wood, 2022
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. No reproduction may be made, whether by photocopying or by any other means, unless a licence has been obtained from the publisher or its agent.
Once More We Rise (extract)
There are slivers of glass in the flesh of my palms. Fragments embedded deep in my skin, the pain bringing tears to my eyes. My fingers shake as I tweeze them out with my nails and a myriad of slices ooze red. I lick the wounds and suck the swell. Warm and strangely sweet.
I curse my stupidity and lack of coordination. I should have been much more careful.
The shadows in the alley leading to my hut grow long in the evening light. From inside the hut, a furious voice emanates, buzzing like a bee caught in a bucket. Pausing at the doorway to catch my breath, I scowl as I recognise the speaker.
“We now see the impact that these dreadful factions have on our community! A community we have worked so hard to keep safe from the evils of the world! See how words can be weaponised to split us into fractured echoes of ourselves and destroy the sanctity of family! Such deep wounds should never be ignored or allowed to fester. Our survival relies on our unity! On repopulation! We must ensure…”
I hear a click and the tirade stops.
The propaganda machine is on good form, I note. Prime Leader Denver Marshall spouting hatred as if it were the highest gospel. Shame about how many women seem to agree with him now. Encouraging his foolish tirades. A sign of the troublesome times, I suppose. Disappointing, but to be expected. He preaches almost daily about the “evils of the world.” How ironic, then, that to many, he is one of them.
Elaina’s in the kitchen, peeling veggies at the sink; potatoes, carrots, squash, perhaps. The silenced radio is balanced on the window-ledge, flecked with water from Elaina’s hands. Little Rebbie is sitting cross-legged on the floor, shelling peas in the shadow of the door. She looks up occasionally and flicks the empty shells at Hobie, our black and grey rescue mutt.
No sign of Kallie, as usual. Sometimes I wonder why she ever comes back here at all. A bluster of skirts and hair and perfume, and then she’ll run out on us again. That’s if she and Elaina don’t get to arguing first. Kallie questions our decisions, how we have chosen to live. The privilege of the young that they have been spared certain horrors. She never saw the monsters roaring over the hills. The Seekers come to steal our lives.
The curfew call wails to bring everyone home. The sirens shrill and piercing, like the cries of a terrified child. I’ve heard it a thousand times before. Still, I am dragged unbidden to twelve summers long ago, before little Rebbie was barely a twinkle in Elaina’s eye. Strange how what seems like half a century ago is still so close. So devastatingly raw.
I remember the alarm bell; it woke us with a scream, slicing through the dead hours of the night. We scrambled from our makeshift beds. Rendered blind by the darkness and made clumsy in our panic, we dressed quickly in whatever we laid our hands on first. We grabbed our backpacks and boots, and we ran.
There was a stone at the end of my too-big shoe. With every step I could feel it rubbing the skin between my toes. It hurt, and it should have been annoying, but instead, I welcomed its distraction. It allowed me to focus on something else. Ignore what was happening around me. To drown out the panicked grunts of the other women as they all surged forwards and shoved one another. As they stumbled and fell and cried out in fear.
As we all tried to outrun the flames.
The fires are getting closer. Smoke slithers around me in toxic ripples. I tear the hem off my shirt and tie it as a makeshift mask across my face, but the air is so thick and foul, I must fight for every smothered breath.
I am lucky. I have trained for this. They trained me for this. Marshall’s marines in the Plague Camps before the entire world went to shit. Unlike some, who refused to listen to the reports, who laughed at those who spoke of its inevitability. I had practiced and prepared and knew what to do. And yet, I am still taken almost completely by surprise when it finally arrives.
I scramble downhill to the river. I know if I cross the water, I can perhaps outrun the flames. Most head uphill towards the mountains. No doubt they think the trees will give them better cover or more places they can hide.
I know better. There is no safety in the woods. The Seekers will burn them all out.
Rebbie lays a hand on my shoulder. “Mama Jean, are you okay?”
I shudder and pull her close to me. She squirms in my embrace and gasps a little as I squeeze.
“Mama Jean, you’re like a python!”
I realise with surprise what I’m doing. I jerk my hands away and release her, panting softly. My eyes warm and wet like my palms.
“Jean, what’s the matter?” Elaina stands above me, wiping her damp hands on a cloth. I shake my head and turn away. She sees the blood and huffs angrily under her breath. “What have you been doing?”
“Nothing. Nothing!” I purse my lips and hum.
“You fell again?” she asks, accusingly. I know the subtext hidden behind the words. You old fool, you can’t be trusted anymore. You need to stay inside where we can watch you.
Rebbie follows her mother’s gaze and gasps. “Mama Jean! You’re hurt! What happened?” Elaina takes hold of her shoulders, steering her away. I catch Elaina’s eye and she gives the tiniest shake of her head. A stark warning reflected in her dark irises.
“Nothing, small one,” I say with a smile. “I’m fine. Go back to your chores.”
She knows I’m lying and is unimpressed. She wrinkles her nose in disgust at my dishonesty and stomps across the kitchen floor. Hobie whines, keen for attention, and she pitches a husk at his head.
Elaina turns, arms crossed, her face like stone.
“Out with it,” she says, low-voiced, but the fire in her tone could bend steel.
“I went for a walk,” I reply with a shrug. My nose starts to itch like it always does when I’m nervous or telling a lie. I resist the urge to scratch it. She knows and can read me far too well.
“A walk,” she repeats, the words drenched in distain. “A walk where? To the wall? Oh, no. Did you climb it again? Is that how you got hurt?”
The itching grows almost impossible to ignore. I wriggle my nose like a rabbit might, screwing my face into knots. She takes that as an affirmative.
“Jean! Why? You’re too old and empty to be useful to them anymore, but what about me? What about Kallie and Rebbie. They’ll kill you and they’ll take us! You know they’ll…”
Frustration wells up and I can’t help but snap. “All right! I’m sorry. But you know damn well why, Elaina. Don’t tell me you don’t ever do otherwise!” I push past her, cross the kitchen to the sink, and plunge my hands in the bowl. Slim, orange peelings flurry to the top, flickering like goldfish around my wrists. A weak burst of scarlet taints the water and the cuts on my palms start to sting.
“Did they see you?” she calls from behind me. “Were you at least safe?”
I feel the flutter of my heart as it speeds up in my chest. The tension grips my spine and jaw. I answer her without turning around.
“How can you ask me that? After all…”
“After all we’ve been through,” she echoes. “For crying out loud, Jean, I know! I was there too! Or did you conveniently forget that?”
She’s right, of course. Sometimes I do forget. My brain likes to torture me with other things. Bury me in guilt and shame. The memories get harder to make sense of now, to keep track of the truth and not the trauma.
My fingers seem distorted, bent all out of shape, a trick of the light and the liquid. I wiggle them, watching them shrink and grow as the movement makes ripples on the surface.
He slips my hand as I enter the water. He is scared. He can’t swim. He doesn’t want to follow. The banks are swollen from the rain and the river’s flow is much stronger and faster than usual. Grey foam bubbles around the rocks. Twigs and leaves hurry past in a jagged whirl, forming unruly clumps when they meet resistance. I see the glow in the distance rising to the sky, and I know we cannot go back. I reach out and grab the sleeve of his jacket and pull him down beside me.
He thrashes and squeals and tries to escape, smacks me dead in the eye with his fist. He’s small but he’s strong and a burst of stars explode in the back of my head. My foot slips, my body lurches hard to the right, and something solid hits my temple. The impact breaks both my fall and my grip as my head plunges under the surface.
“No. No one saw me. I was safe.” I lift my hands from the bowl and let them drip. “Can you get me a rag, please?”
“You need proper bandages for those cuts. Stay there. Let me sort it. Rebbie, can you..?” Rebbie nods and scrambles to her feet; hauls the metal first aid box from its shelf in the pantry. Elaina rummages amongst the contents and finds gauze and strips of sun-bleached cotton. I stand rigid, awkwardly, as she cleans the wounds and wraps them tightly.
“Have you seen Kallie recently?” I ask her.
She sighs deeply before she replies. “Not today. Or most of yesterday.”
“She was gone overnight?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure. You know I can’t stop her, Jean.” She rolls her eyes and parodies how Kallie speaks, “I’m ‘not her real mother,’ remember.”
“Neither of us are, but we’re the mothers she’s got. Does she at least understand the dangers? What will happen if the Seekers get a hold of her?”
“She’s seventeen. As far as she’s concerned, she’s omnipotent and immortal. You must remember how that feels?”
I chuckle wryly. “A little. It was a long time ago.”
“Was it really, though?” She stares at me and holds my gaze, her expression softer now. “Did I miss a date, my love? An anniversary, perhaps?”
I know what she’s asking, and I’m not surprised. “Truthfully? I wouldn’t know myself. I don’t keep count anymore.”
Now it’s her turn to laugh. “That’s bullshit. Don’t do that to me.” She puts her hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “The sun and the moon don’t lie, I know how far we’ve come. How old would he be now, huh?”
“Twenty-one,” I say without pause. “Old enough to be a Seeker.”
I hear the shock and quaver in her voice. “You think he is?”
“I don’t know. Do you think that would be worse?”
“You’re right. It doesn’t do me much good to think like that. But if he is…” I trail off, unable to finish the sentence. I am aware of Rebbie watching us, the peas now forgotten in her lap. Hobie is curled up beside her, his giant head resting on his paws. “What’s the matter, small one?”
“Is that why you go to the wall, Mama Jean? To look for him?”
There will be no easy way to placate her, I can see it in her eyes. I look to Elaina for help, maybe advice, but she blinks and turns away. I go and sit beside the girl, rest my back on the frame of the door. Outside is dark and uncomfortably still; the air feels heavy, thick with heat, devoid of any breeze.
“We built the wall to keep us in, as much to keep them out. Whatever goes on outside of it, we have agreed to no longer be a part. What came before cannot be forgotten, but also, must never be repeated.”
“I know all this, Mama Jean. This is our sanctuary, it keeps us all safe,” she says, as if reading from a pamphlet. No doubt she remembers the earlier years when such things were handed out with a smile. “But if we are safe in here and not safe out there, why do you climb the wall?”
“Because, small one, all good things eventually end. Because not everyone feels the same way forever. Because people like Denver Marshall still get listened to, followed, and believed. He tells people it is our fault that the world is still broken. That we have a duty to uphold. That’s a lie. You don’t have a duty to anyone. Your body and your life are your own.
“In the blink of an eye, everything can change. No one warns you, or not in ways you expect. So, you get used to looking for the signs yourself, watching for the things that don’t make sense.”
“Are you seeing signs now?” Elaina asks me.
I close my eyes and nod my head.
“How soon?” she says.
“Soon. Twelve summers ago, soon.”
“Shit.” She curses softly, but I can still hear the fear beneath. “Where will we go?”
“The only place we can go. Across the water.”
“That would be suicide. You know that’s impossible.”
“And if we stay here, we will die too. In one way or another. Nothing is impossible, Elaina. Some things are simply more difficult than others.
“I climbed the wall at its southern-most point. I hadn’t been there in a while. The broken glass we set into the top is as sharp as when the cement was still wet. I saw camps in the distance at the foot of the hills. Machines, perhaps, kept covered. I saw Seeker patrols, armed with black paint, marking the Wall with slashed strokes. Beyond that, I saw crops that are barren and scorched; food that will never be tasted.”
“All of that… Just like before,” Elaina says sadly.
“Yes. Just like before.”
“When will we go?” Rebbie asks, as Hobie wakes up and whines. “Will we take Hobie too?”
I scratch the dog behind his ears and his back leg twitches in unison. “Of course we will. Hobie’s one of us.”
“And Kallie?” Elaina asks, pointedly.
“She’s family too. Maybe not by blood, but that doesn’t matter. We didn’t leave her behind last time. This time we give her the choice.”
“If she comes back.”
I sigh. “Yes. If she comes back.”
“And what about the others? They’ll wonder where we went. They’ll know we’ve left the sanctuary.”
I pick at the bandages with my nails, feeling the glass cuts prickle beneath the fabric as I flex the skin of my hand. “I can’t be responsible for everyone, Elaina. The smaller the group, the less chance we’ll be seen. Besides, if I speak out and it lands on the wrong ears, the Seekers will be on my back quicker than flies on Hobie’s shit. Marshall will be out for my blood.”
She huffs at me and flares her nostrils. “And if you don’t? Can you live with that? Really?”
“Why not?” I spit back. “I did before.”
“That was different. You couldn’t save them then. This time you can do so much more!”
They drag me from the water and slide me through the mud, to a damp patch of tall grass by the trees. I cough and vomit a full stomach’s-worth of river sludge, and my head starts to spin again. Strong hands turn me onto my side and rub the length of my back. Other, smaller, more delicate fingers hold my hair away from my face. I retch again, but there’s nothing left, and then panic strikes like lightning. I scramble to be upright, yelling his name. Over and over again.
But he is nowhere to be seen, and the hands try to hold me, calm me down as best they can. On the wind, I smell the sharp tang of wood-smoke, and beneath it, something putrid and pervasive. My mind fills in the blanks before I can stop it. I know that smell; like charred meat.
A voice in my ear says we must go now. The fire is spreading fast. I am pulled to my feet as my stomach churns, and the three of us run as fast as we’re able. Hand-in-hand, fingers locked, we run away from the heat and the screams…
“I’ll tell them what I know,” I say finally. “But it’s up to them to decide what they do.”
“Good,” Elaina says, and throws her arms around me unexpectedly. Rebbie hugs me from the side, and even Hobie nuzzles his way through entwined arms and elbows and places his head in my lap.
“We cross the water,” Elaina says, and kisses me.
Beyond the doorway, like a portal to the sky, I see the full moon pinned to a blanket of stars. It looks redder than usual, as if it were feeling the day’s lingering heat, or if great fires raged on its stark surface. Perhaps, like the flesh of my bandaged palms, it too was once bathed in blood.
My heartbeats flutter like the dried grass on the hills, like a memory of a winged creature now long dead. I wonder if I’m strong enough to run again. How much fight is left in these bones. Denver Marshall is right about one thing, our survival will rely on our unity.
“We cross the water,” I repeat, and take both their hands in mine, pulling them close to my chest. Their touch sparks a fire in me, a surge of faith. They give me all the courage that I need.
“All of us. Together,” I say softly, as I hear the rustle of skirts at the door. “My family.”