Thank you to everyone who has pre-ordered this book and supported me so far on my author journey! Today is release day, and for anyone who pre-ordered, your copy should have arrived to you by now. To celebrate it being my release day, I would love to share chapter one with you all!
“Why do you look so glum? This is meant to be an exciting day for you.” My mother’s voice is far warmer than the cold morning air as we walk across town, our arms linked.
“I know, Mum, I’m just nervous.”
“About what?” She stops and takes my hands in hers, staring up at me. Even though I’m only fifteen, I’m already a whole head taller than her. “You know you can talk to me, right, Jeremy?” Her long, black hair is wrapped around her neck to protect her from the day’s chill, like some sort of silk scarf.
I nod. “I’m just not sure I’m ready for this.”
“I’m sure the others all felt like this too their first time. But remember, you’re doing this for our people. We rely on men like you to survive.”
We continue across the cobbled streets and stop once we reach a row of huts as small as sheds.
Mike steps out from under a gazebo with a checklist in hand when he sees us. “Ah, Jeremy, Lill, nice to see you both.” He turns to me. “Happy birthday, mate. Was going to say ‘young ‘un’, but guess you’re not so young anymore, are you?” He winks and ruffles my hair. “Got your eye on any woman in particular?”
I look at the pictures on each hut, each one showing a portrait of a woman, and I shake my head.
“That’s fine. Ummm… how about Gloria? She’s been at it for years now, proven herself reliable many times.” He licks his thumb and flicks through the pages of a document lying on the table next to him, until he finds a page with Gloria scrawled across the top in big letters. “Ah, wait, I forgot, she’s not taking on anyone new right now, plus she’s your… surrogate. Maybe not her then.”
My breath catches in my throat a little as I process what Mike just said. It’s not a shock or news to me that one of these women would have carried me for nine months, but I never knew or even thought of asking which one it was before now. Lill’s always been my mum. An amazing, loving one at that.
My eyes flit from picture to picture as I look for Gloria, and I find her, fifth hut from the right. Her picture shows that she has a cleft palate and for some reason—maybe her forward-facing angle—I can’t see any ears. But I quickly look away when I notice her slightly too-far-apart green eyes that look very similar to mine, before reality can hit me even harder than it already just has.
Mike bites the inside of his cheek and continues scanning his checklist. “Hmmm. How about Sandy? She’s new. You’d be her first. She’s been looked over by Fliss and we know she’s capable of carrying a child and has extremely healthy eggs, so there shouldn’t be any issues there.”
“Yeah, sure, Sandy will do.”
“Great.” Mike smiles and places his hand on my back, leading me over to a hut with Sandy written on the front in thick, black pen. There is no photo of her on the door yet. I wonder if we’ve finally run out of ink for our printers, or if she’s just so badly mutated that they don’t want to scare me off in advance.
But Mike soon confirms it’s not the second of the two when he leans over and whispers, “You’ve really got lucky with this one, and not even in a best of a bad bunch way. She’s beautiful, as in seriously beautiful, if you can overlook the no legs situation, of course… plus the fact she doesn’t talk. Or, at least, I haven’t heard a word from her yet.” He laughs before continuing, “You know, I don’t even think she’s mutated. More… disabled. But when you’ve got her brother wheeling her up to the front gate, wanting just some live chickens in exchange, you’re hardly going to decline, are you?” He winks at me as he opens the hut door. “Now just remember to enjoy yourself, you lucky boy.”
I walk into the hut and Mike immediately closes the door, locking it behind me. I wonder whether it’s to keep her from escaping, or to stop me from backing out of my duty. Probably the second one as straight away I’m feeling completely trapped and in over my head.
Sandy is sitting in a wheelchair, turned away from me, gazing out of the only window in here. It just so happens to face away from our town. I wonder what she’s thinking; if she’s missing her home. Her dark blonde hair that’s bordering brown is pulled into a neat French braid that finishes at her waist, hanging over the back of her wheelchair. She doesn’t greet me, or even acknowledge that I’ve entered.
I clear my throat. “Uh, hi there.”
I wait a while, but she doesn’t turn around, and I wonder if she’s deaf as well as mute.
“Soooo…” I bite my lip as I consider what to say next. No point asking her how she is—her brother just sold her to us for some chickens; she’s hardly going to be feeling pleased. Sandy’s bed creaks as I perch myself at the end of it. Her mattress is hard, unlike the one I’m used to at home. “Do you enjoy reading?” I ask, trying to break the ice. Once again, I wait for a response and receive no indication she’s even listening. “I know a lot of people think it’s boring, and books should belong in the past, but I rather like them. I think if I was born before the war, I would have been a writer.” I smile to myself, my head in a different era. “Sometimes I wish I had a time machine so I could travel back to when there were libraries. I heard some libraries even had cafes in them. My mum swaps some of our food for books every now and again when the traders come to visit; not that they often bring books. I could bring you something to read, if you’d like? I have horror books, picture books, fairy tales… well, I have a bit of everything to be honest.”
I’m still staring at Sandy, but she hasn’t even adjusted her sitting position since my arrival, and I know I’m overtalking to try and cover the awkwardness.
I sigh and lean back on her bed. I’m used to pillows that have been filled with chicken feathers, but her pillow clearly has been stuffed with rags and is lumpy and uncomfortable.
I look up at the ceiling, at the spiders that hang in most of the corners, and wonder how she can sleep with them just above her head each night. I’ve always had a fear that if a spider is above me, it will come down on its web once I’ve fallen asleep and crawl all over my face. I count the legs of each spider—some have three legs, others four, others six. I have a book at home from before that teaches you all about English insects and it says in there that all spiders have eight legs. I’ve seen spiders with any number of legs, but none with as many as eight. I can’t even begin to think about how much scarier the spiders must have been back then. Hopefully the spiders now have less eyes too, because I’ve seen close-ups of their eyes in that book and ended up with nightmares for weeks. There’s no way I could get close enough to a spider to count their eyes though.
Sighing, I turn my attention back to Sandy. I know I’m meant to have sex with this girl, but there’s no way I’m feeling up for it, especially after memorising each and every spider here. Or maybe, deep down, that’s just my excuse. Next time, I tell myself.
I get up from the bed and knock on the hut door to be let out.
Mike opens it. “That was quick.”
I don’t know what to say, so I just nod.