Author: Jeff Sweat
Pub. Date: May 8, 2018
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Formats: Hardcover, eBook
Jemma has spent her life scavenging tools and supplies for her tribe in the their small enclave outside what used to be a big city. Now she’s a teen, and old enough to become a Mama. Making babies is how her people survive—in Jemma’s world, life ends at age seventeen.
Survival has eclipsed love ever since the Parents died of a mysterious plague. But Jemma’s connection to a boy named Apple is stronger than her duty as a Mama. Forced to leave, Jemma and Apple are joined in exile by a mysterious boy who claims to know what is causing them to die. The world is crumbling around them, and their time is running out. Is this truly the End?
Jeff Sweat has made a living from words his entire career, starting out as an award-winning tech journalist for InformationWeek magazine and moving into marketing.
He led the content marketing team for Yahoo and pioneered its use of social media. He directed PR for two of the top advertising agencies in the country, Deutsch LA and 72andSunny. He now runs his own Los Angeles–based PR and marketing agency, Mister Sweat.
He grew up in Idaho as the middle of eight children—seven boys and one girl—and attended Columbia University in New York. Jeff lives in a big blue house in Los Angeles with his wife Sunny and their three kids, two cats, and a racing greyhound.
He loves to travel and writes everywhere he goes, even when there’s not a desk. He likes karaoke, motorcycles and carpentry. He was once shot in the head with a nail gun, which was not a big of a deal as it sounds. But it still hurt like crazy.
The Holy Wood
All your years are marked. At thirteen, the changes come, the Olders tell you. At fifteen, you become a Mama. At seventeen, you begin to End.
The words beat through her head as if they’ve always been there, because they have always been there. Only now she understands what they mean. She’s breathing calm on the promontory above the Holy Wood, but the words make her feel as if she’s scrambling through the village, legs pumping and lungs burning.
The sunrise breaks over the ridge and lights the roofs below, soft and gold. Jemma can make out all the shapes of her life as the sun blankets them in warmth, one by one: the kitchen, the Smiths’ hut, the Gatherers’ house. And then the Little Doctors’ house, where Zee died, and Jemma is cold again.
There’s a cough in the Daycare, and then another. Jemma soaks in the quiet because it’s about to shatter. Crying, yelling, fighting, laughing . . . there’s nothing noisier than a village full of Children.
The quiet breaks for good, with a baby’s wail, and Jemma stirs. She should get out before Trina sees her. Before Lady sees her. Buddha Teevee Jesucristo, before anyone sees her.
The sky is bleeding white, and she can see the ruined city just beyond the ridge protecting the Holy Wood. She forgets that there’s a city down there, that there’s a full world beyond this village. She’s relied on the Holy Wood to keep her safe, but Zee reminds her that the world still cuts in. She’s not any safer behind the Bear Wall.
Maybe it’s time to join the world.
Jemma winds her way down to the village, padding softly instead of running like her body wants her to. There’s nothing unusual about a Gatherer getting an early start on her day, even if that Gatherer is fifteen and should have other things on her mind.
She glides through the streets, ignoring the early risers and amazed at how easily they ignore her. All these years, and so few people care if she’s coming or going. Until she reaches the house of the Muscle, the guards of the Holy Wood. The Muscle are mostly boys, because boys start to get stronger than the girls in their Tweens, and that strength is useful in a fight.
The house is boxy, mostly greasy glass. It used to be white but looks gray, as if generations of boys have overwhelmed it. Chicken bones and orange peels line the sidewalk. As she creeps by, two Tweens stumble out, hitting each other. She doesn’t know what they’re arguing about, but it doesn’t matter. Tweens—and Muscle—are always hitting one another.
“Oh hey,” one of them says, and he disentangles from the other. His name is Jamie, she thinks, but he’s only thirteen. “You want to roll with me, chica?”
“You can’t handle me,” she says. “I’m more Muscle than you.”
His swagger only seems to get more swaggy. “C’mon, chica, you look like you need it.”
She scoops a rock from the curb and throws it at him. It just misses. “Not from you. I heard about your little pecker.” She hasn’t, but it’s a safe bet.
The Muscle pauses, then punches his friend.
Jemma stops in the Circle, the ring of houses at the heart of the village that beats along with the Holy Wood in work or anger or joy. She fills her water bottles, the Long Gone ones they call litros, clear plastic with red lids. Everything that came from the past they call Long Gone. She watches for the Olders or the Muscle, and her eyes rest on one of the grand old houses, white walls and orange tiles dripping with creeping fig. But her eyes keep sliding into the sooty pit next to it, charred timbers clawing their way out of the earth. The blackness crawls along the ground into the street, and she can’t quite see where it ends.
It was a house that caught the flu, fell so quickly to the disease that the Children couldn’t leave. The Little Doctors couldn’t save them–they never could–so the Muscle barred the door. When it was finally quiet, they burned the house and everything in it where it stood. Now it sits on the street but doesn’t, and the Children pass by it without glances, just tiny shivers and hitches in their step. It’s there by not being there.
The embers from Zee’s body fire were still glowing last night when Trina, the Oldest, cornered her. “You fifteen tomorrow,” she said. As if Jemma had forgotten she was fifteen, as if she didn’t have every last year etched in sharp lines. “A good Day to you.”
They’ve forgotten everything else, but they know when your Day is.
“It’s time for you to become one of the Mamas,” Trina said.
“Just like that?” Jemma had asked Trina.
“Oh, Jemma,” Trina said. “Our whole life is just like that.”
And suddenly childhood felt so short and the rest of her life even shorter. Even if she survived the baby—fifteen now, a baby by sixteen, and a year feeding it before life is all gone. Two years left, and none of it for her.
Jemma steps away from the water barrel when Lady catches her arm, almost spinning her around. Her hair, curly where most of the Holy Wood’s is straight, is wild from her pillow. “Where you going, mija?”
“Gathering,” Jemma says, and it’s true enough. Gathering is her role in the Holy Wood.
Lady is her best friend. She’s named for one of the ancient priestesses who lived in the Teevee, their most important god, but Jemma doesn’t see the priestess in her. Lady lives squarely in this world, fierce and open. She studies Jemma’s face and says, “By yourself?”
You don’t gather by yourself, not even in times of peace, and Lady knows it. Finally Jemma says, “Just today.”
“I miss her, too.”
Yes, but you ain’t fifteen today. You wasn’t walking with Zee when she doubled over in agony, when blood stained her dress. You didn’t run screaming to the Little Doctors.
Jemma can’t stop thinking about Zee. Zee was the last person you expected to want to have a baby. She led the Gatherers as if it were the most important job in the Holy Wood, and with her you thought it was, as if all it took to keep the village alive was the fruit and shoes and rice in their bags. But no—what really mattered to everyone was in that belly when she got pregnant.
Zee loved it. She did. When she became a Mama, the roundness got rounder, the flush in her cheeks got brighter. A girl in there, she said, a warrior or a Gatherer or a priestess. The other Gatherers were drawn to her, this beacon of life. And then—
She wasn’t old enough to End, even. But Zee Ended all the same.
Jemma’s not sure she can ever say this about Zee aloud. So instead she simply says to Lady, “You didn’t see me today, okay?”
“Okay, this time. But you don’t come back by dark I’m gonna kick your ass.”
“Deal,” Jemma says, just glad to be free before Trina grabs her, too.
A Tween almost clips her with a battered bicycle, and she moves toward the iron gates. They’re tall and spiked. They once held off whatever evils kept the Parents awake at night, but now they work just as well against the lions and bears that grow more fearless all the time.
Wagons are rumbling down from the Great Field to pick up the last winter spinach. Their people have claimed every flat space chiseled out by the Parents: their lawns and parks and sacred places turned from grass to vegetables and fruit, their swimming pools holding fish and water for drinking and growing. For all they built, the Parents could never have imagined building a world like this.
The lake below looks like god’s hand, blue fingers pushing aside the trees and the dirt, and the Bear Wall a bracelet around its wrist. Maybe the gods did place it there behind the Wall, because in all the hills only the hand holds fish, and water that lasts through the summer when the desert winds slice through the valley. That’s why they guard it. That’s why it’s the Lake of the Holy Wood.
And there is the Holy Wood sign on the mountain, with an aytch as tall as ten Children. You could see it from across the valley, Jemma thinks, see it calling all to the Holy Wood when the priests still walked the hills and the god Teevee talked to Children in their homes.
Today Jemma doesn’t want to speak to the gods. She barrels down the hill and doesn’t stop until she sees the Bear Wall, a long curved dam that spans the canyon with bears’ stone faces guarding the face of it.
Her legs stretch out to cross the Wall, but strong arms grab her from behind. “Not that way, Jemma.” The voice is starting to deepen. It will not last, she thinks, and she turns toward Apple. Of course Apple saw her leave. Apple is the best Muscle in the Holy Wood, not because he’s the strongest but because he sees everything.
“I need to leave,” she says.
“I know,” he says. “I saw you at Zee’s fire last night.” Yes, he sees everything.
“We getting low on fruit.”
“Really? I know you your whole life, and you try to tell me you looking for fruit?” He steps close to her, so much taller than she is—even though she’s the tallest girl—and still growing at almost seventeen. His chest and shoulders are bare, now that the rains have gone, and she counts the raised scars on his bicep from the lion that mauled him. Gods, she asks, how do we still live?
“I’m not going back.” She feels the fight starting in her stomach, and it has never let her be. Any other Muscle, any other Gatherer, he would have hit her and dragged her back, but this is Apple and Jemma.
“Believe it or not, Jemma,” he says as he looks to see who’s watching them, “I don’t always think like a Muscle. I’ll go with you.”
Her heart climbs in her chest a little at that, and she pushes it back down.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
Jemma thinks Apple of all people knows what she meant when she said she missed Zee. He was as close to her as Jemma was. That’s the reason she doesn’t have to say it.
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