There came a point in my writing career when I got frustrated with rejections. My 9-to-5 job was as a national magazine editor, so I was pretty sure I had learned how to write. Well, I knew the basics anyway. You can always learn more. But a recent rejection of one of my manuscripts stung more than I expected, especially when the acquisitions editor said the story was too internal.
That was the kind of story I liked to read, where you got deep inside a character and learned what he or she thought and felt.
I almost wanted to quit writing fiction. Instead, I decided to write one more manuscript, breaking all the rules (that I had been told) and creating my own way to tell the story. The result was AFTERLIFE—my first novel, published by Harper Voyager. Since then I’ve had reviewers call the book experimental, which it was in a way.
I decided I would have scenes with lots of action and forward motion, but interspersed between these would be the occasional scene that was complete back story, told from one character’s point of view. These scenes allowed me to world build and to be as internal as I wanted, so it allowed me to write the story the way I wanted to.
While writing this book, I took other chances too. I had decided this would be my farewell song, my last manuscript, and so I didn’t care if anyone else liked it or not. Surprisingly, when I decided to write the book my way, breaking every rule that had bothered me, other people loved the result.
So, today I’m going to share one of those “rule-breaking” chapters from Afterlife, where I let the main character speak in his own words about the resurrection process that his family employed. In my mind, this book is science fiction, although it has been labeled urban fantasy. I hope you enjoy this snippet!
I was eleven years old the first time I saw a Newbie, the first time I saw life and death trade places. I guess my life had been pretty sheltered up to that point.
A state-appointed teacher came to our Cell, wearing one of those government suits with the high collar, his breath a mixture of coffee and mint. My brother Russell and I, we sat in the back and pretended to pay attention while the guy peddled the Ideal Plan, we even made faces at each other behind his back. We only had seven kids in our Cell, but we could tell that we made him nervous. Seven kids in one room was enough to unnerve almost anyone. I’d heard of Cells with as many as 16 kids, but personally I don’t know if I really believe it.
We each had two bodyguards inside the room, armed and able to kill with their bare hands in less than three seconds if necessary. And outside the room there were at least 15 more. A crackle of handset communications buzzed continuously between the teacher’s sentences, a hoarse whisper of monotone voices.
“—Sadie took her medicine, yes, I will get her there in time—”
“—piano lessons at three. Of course—”
“—Jeffrey is listening to the teacher, Mrs. Damotta—”
The Ideal Plan had been enforced for the past 15 years, so I had to study it just like everybody else, whether I wanted to or not. The teacher did his best to explain everything, all the way from Life Number One to Life Number Nine, covering everything from sterilization to college to the legal procedures involved in fighting a death cert case, then he gave us each a contract. My best friend, Pete Laskin, signed his that same day. I heard that his mother cried for a week when she found out, but it didn’t matter. They kept us separated from our parents for a full month, so we could think about it without their influence. Sadie Thompson, a 12-year-old, dream-come-true who barely knew my name, laughed and signed hers almost immediately, dotting the ‘i’ in her name with a heart. Russell, who was 13 and of an age to make his own decision, immediately folded his contract into quarters and handed it back. Unsigned. No thank you, Mr. Government Man. Can I go home now please?
At eleven years old, I was the youngest in our Cell. Everyone else had to make up his mind within our month of isolation. But I had a full year to make my decision.
So that was when Dad started taking me to work, on the pretext that it was time for me to learn about the family business. I’ll never forget that first day. Mid-October. Dry leaves whisked across the streets, crackled beneath my feet and turned to dust. The sky burned blue and bright overhead. A cool breeze poured between the buildings like fresh water, a welcome respite after the unending summer. People had been dying all over New Orleans from an abnormally long heat spell. Mostly old people, but a few babies had passed too.
Fresh Start had been busy, everyone working double shifts. Two extra crews had been flown in from Los Angeles. I’m sure that’s why it happened. Somebody was too tired and the out-of-state crews didn’t know our procedures.
I have to believe it was a mistake. The other possibility, that my father let it happen on purpose to teach me a lesson—well, I just can’t go for that. Russell, in one of his dark moments, said that Dad did it to show us that life is, and should be, unpredictable, that we never should have pretended to be God.
Mom refuses to talk about it. I have to admit I admire her for not taking sides. I know she had an opinion about all of it, she always did. But for whatever reason she let Russell and me make our own decisions, about Fresh Start, about the Ideal Plan, about what happened to the Newbie on that October day.
The inside of the plant was everything I hoped it would be. All stainless steel and molded plastic in the industrial sections; all luxurious leather and ceramic tile in the public areas. Not that anyone would want to, but you could eat your lunch on the floor anywhere in that 200,000-square-foot facility back then. It was that clean. And the smell was a bizarre mixture of dentist-office-scary and new-car-exciting.
For years, whenever anyone found out that I was Chaz Domingue, of the Fresh Start Domingues, a hush would sweep through the room almost as if something just sucked out all the oxygen. A long quiet would follow. And then when people started to talk again they would be ever so polite, opening doors for me, asking me if I would like some candy, asking my opinion about the weather. I liked the attention at first, but by the time I was a teenager I realized it was based on a combination of fear and envy. So I quit telling people my last name. Sometimes I pretended to be someone else entirely. When I got older I even pretended to be a Stringer, just because I wanted to fit in.
But on that October afternoon, when the sunlight was slicing through the warehouse at a steep angle, when the sounds of the city seemed muted because so many people had died, on that day I decided that I never wanted to jump. No matter how much I wanted to be like other people. No matter how much I wanted to live.
That day, one of the Newbies got stuck in between lives. In some nether world, where dark swirling creatures spin traps like spiders. She got caught. Her old body, withered and white with decay, lay discarded on the other side of the frost-etched glass. Her new-cloned body, as beautiful as Eve herself, lay expectant on a metal gurney, modestly covered in white linen. Neither body breathed, neither had life. All the equipment was suspiciously silent, no beeps to register heartbeat or brainwave patterns. Too much time had passed. The technicians began to get nervous, but Dad just raised one hand to quiet them.
“Give her a minute,” he said, a tone of assurance in his voice.
But several more minutes passed and the clone continued to stare, sightless, at the ceiling.
And then, like it was straight out of a nightmare, she started to talk. The machines refused to admit there was life in either body, yet some alien consciousness caused the clone’s mouth to move and a hollow voice to speak.
The things she said have haunted my dreams, might just follow me all the way past Judgment Day into the great beyond. Might bring torment with me, like shackles, into God’s kingdom, whether he likes it or not.
“I can’t ... I can’t break free,” she said, still staring up at the concourse of pipes and ducts that traversed the warehouse ceiling. “I’m tangled in something. It feels like a web.” Tears streaked her face. Slow, glycerin-like streams. “They’ve been chasing me and I’m so tired of running, of trying to hide. Oh, please get me out of here! I don’t know where I am. There’s no light, just a dark glowing horizon, like fire in the distance. And these creatures—” She moaned, a heartbreaking cry, long and low and inhuman. I found myself wondering if we were really listening to a woman or if some spirit from beyond had commanded an audience. “They’re like spiders, but much bigger. I saw one of them eat a man. It ripped his head right off.” Her eyes closed.
Meanwhile, my father ran around the room, fiddling with dials, gesturing to the other workers to try and save her.
“It’s so dark. So cold,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. “And I’m so alone.”
Most of them stood frozen, like me. Listening.
Then she turned toward one of them, looked right at him. Allen was his name. She reached one arm out, then shrieked. And she was gone.
To this day I still imagine her trapped in a twilight world, waiting for someone to rescue her. But I know now that no one ever will. God wouldn’t have left her there if she were one of His. Even if we had messed with His plan, with His order laid down from the beginning, He still wouldn’t have abandoned one of His chosen.
That’s the only way I can rationalize all of it.
Merrie Destefano is represented by Natalie Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency. Merrie’s published work includes Afterlife and Feast (both with HarperVoyager), Fathom, The Plague Carrier and Waiting For Midnight (with Ruby Slippers Press), and How To Draw Zombies (Walter Foster). She’s also the editor of Victorian Homes magazine and founding editor of Cottages and Bungalows magazine. She is the founder and owner of Ruby Slippers Media and Ruby Slippers Press, and her website is here.