Novella Excerpt: ‘Never’

Author’s note: I have decided to release the first chapter of Never, my novella, in my professional portfolio as a teaser/sample for the new draft I’m working on. The 2010 draft of Never is password protected, but message me if you would like to read it. It isn’t very good, at least not compared to my current draft.

Note that “Eim” is pronounced “Aim” and the first i in “Kilin” is a long vowel.

This material is unofficially Copyrighted by Joel Wilcox, 2012. Please do not re-post this anywhere. I’m very protective of my fiction, and if you claim credit for it I shall be forced to murder your pet poodle.

Never: A Novel

Prologue

This story begins and ends in Garden. According to some, the city was christened by a mayor with a  bitter streak. He was a man, they said, who resented being reassigned from a modern and comfortable metropolis to a mining town in the middle of a vast desolation. By the accounts of those storytellers, he named the outpost Garden out of a bitter longing for something better. Nothing would grow in Garden, not even on the most carefully tilled land, not even in pots and planters, in fact. One could easily imagine the man laughing bitterly after spitting out the name of the city he ran in any speech he had to give—which would have been rare, to say the least. Garden had never had a very large population.

That was one story, at least. Eim Halsan, who was admittedly a late arrival to Garden, claimed that the town was named out of hope rather than bitterness. She never could explain why she said that, and hope was quite honestly out of character for her. Eim was a schoolteacher who had internally given up all optimism, and only exuded grace at all in order to hide how she truly felt. She had one son, a boy named Gatrij. He was actually adopted, and had the surname Niel to prove it. Eim never spoke about how she had come to adopt him. She told Gatrij that she had left him with his parents’ family name in memory of them, because they had been good friends of hers for years; other than that, he had no choice but to wonder about his childhood in the time before memory.

Gatrij didn’t mind. He loved Eim and called her Mother because he couldn’t remember anyone else who had ever been a mother to him, while the term Father was totally alien to him in spite of the few fathers that worked the mines in Garden. Mining towns, like any industrial center, do have children in their population, but in Garden, there were not all that many. Eim could have given the exact ratio of men to women—she stored libraries worth of knowledge, both esoteric and practical, in her mind—but the numbers don’t matter so much as the facts, which were that Gatrij’s entire school had 23 students in it, and 5 of them were too young for Eim to successfully teach.

In short, families were there in Garden, but they were few, and they were close-knit. Gatrij and Eim were no exception, but the difference for them was that they didn’t interact with the other families. The boy had no friends, and his mother was all business with everyone. It didn’t help that they were foreigners with foreign names. The entirety of Garden’s population came from Posa, and nobody from Posa had ever heard of names like Gatrij and Eim. In Garden terms, the two were also recent arrivals: Gatrij was only one year old when Eim brought him to the outpost, and was twelve at the point when his life actually began.

This story begins in Garden, even though Gatrij wasn’t born there, because a life worth recording does not always begin at birth. It was striking to him, later in life, that everything at the beginning of his life, his real life, that is, began quite suddenly. Two unrelated events occurred in the same week. One of them set the scene for the future, and the other destroyed it entirely.

Chapter 1: Two Heresies

Mother and son were sitting facing each other across the large travel trunk that served as a both dinner table and desk, finishing up the evening meal wordlessly. Eim was reading a book, as usual, and humming a piece of music to herself as she did. Gatrij scraped the last of the potatoes off his plate and scooted his chair back, grinding the metal legs against the concrete and making Eim glare at him. He muttered a sheepish apology as he started to clear the table. Eim’s piercing gaze softened into a smile as he did so. She had the sort of kind eyes that made it hard to believe she was actually angry, anyway, and Gatrij knew quite well that she never really would get upset with him. The boy had nothing to fear from his mother; she doted on him as only a good mother can, usually by giving him books that he ran through almost as fast as she could order them. There was always a box of them arriving with the monthly train that brought the supplies needed to keep Garden alive. It was Eim’s greatest joy to pass her knowledge along to her son. And he knew it. It surprised him, then, how upset she became when he asked her to clarify something from his Posan history narrative.

“Mother, what is the Kilinic Heresy?”

“Where did you hear that phrase?” Eim snapped.

“In my history book…” he replied hesitantly.

“Nothing I gave you, I’m sure,” Eim said acidly.

“I was just asking,” Gatrij said in an injured tone.

“Sorry, honey, I’m—” Eim took a deep breath and tried to collect herself. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have given you that book. Where did you get it?”

Gatrij turned a bit red and admitted, “I took it off the top shelf from your bookcase.” Eim breathed in sharply, then thought better of whatever it was she was going to say. Her brow furrowed a little and her eyes took on a strangely distant look that Gatrij hadn’t seen very often before. It was like she was staring at something far beyond the walls of their little one-room house. “Mother?” Gatrij queried carefully.

Eim started to pace, and began speaking with a deep sigh. “The so-called ‘Kilinic Heresy’ is a term that was invented by a few ignorant … bastards … about two centuries ago in Posa. It erupted as an intellectual disease that took over most of the schools of thought of the day and persists in the modern era as … sorry, I’m lecturing.”

Gatrij knew he would have to tread carefully, if Eim was resorting to calling people “bastards.” She was never so uncivil in her intellectual and moral assessments of people. This was his mother—she kept to herself, sure, but she was the gentlest person he knew and never had anything but admiration for the people around her. What was bothering her? “Keep talking,” he said quietly. “I want to know.”

Eim smiled at him, but it was a very sad smile. Torn between teacher and mother, she continued to pace and said “Gatrij, there are some people in the world who don’t understand that everyone is human and everyone deserves a good life. The people who call Kilins heretics are that kind of person.”

“What are Kilins?”

“I came to Garden because I realized the world had gone insane,” Eim continued, “and I thought that the best place to be when the world is insane is outside the world entirely.”

“What are Kilins?”

“Ssh,” Eim shushed him. “Anyone who calls someone a heretic deserves to die by their own hand, do you understand?” she almost yelled.

“No.”

“Good, I’m glad you do,” she said bluntly, and dropped down on her bed.

“I said no,” Gatrij protested, distressed for quite a few reasons. None of his questions had ever struck such a nerve with Eim, and he asked a lot of difficult and even controversial ones. His mother was never one to abandon logic in her answers. Her comment about Garden’s location was strange enough, but he would have to let that pass for now. “I said no,” he repeated, when Eim didn’t respond.

“You did? Oh.” Eim contemplated the ceiling. “Kilins are people just like you and me. They just have … they have capacities … they’re wise in ways that other people are not, and some people think that’s unholy.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does, anymore. I had a friend who wrote an entire thesis about it. He died,” she said cryptically. “You would have liked him. He reminds me of you—I mean, you remind me of him.”

“Why?”

“He was—he was your father.” It was a reference to the life before Garden that she never talked about and that Gatrij couldn’t remember. Now, as he sometimes did, he resented the fact that children are born without the ability to remember. If only…

“You still didn’t tell me what a Kilin is.”

“I think it’s time for you to go to bed,” Eim announced.

Gatrij changed tactics. “How did he die?”

“Who?”

“You said my father wrote something and died. How did he die?”

Eim shook her head. “It’s time for you to sleep. Tomorrow’s a train day.”

“I want to know!”

“No you don’t.”

“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want to know,” Gatrij protested.

Eim sighed. “Someone took a knife to him.” She stumbled over the word knife in a way that was very strange.

“Oh.” Tears welled up in Gatrij’s eyes, and soon he was crying heavily and gasping for breath. He ran across the room to Eim and hugged her. “Please don’t die, please don’t die,” he sobbed.

Eim held him for a while, then led him to his bed. He hiccupped as his tears slowed. Eim told Gatrij to breathe deeply and got him a glass of water while he calmed down. She started humming a soothing tune and tucked him in once he finished the drink. “Gat, love, there are some things I just don’t want you to know about,” she finally admitted. “They’re too ugly to mention. Some things … I just don’t know where they’re supposed to be talked about. They’re too gory for surgeons, too ugly for artists, and too terrifying for soldiers.” Gatrij was too tired to try to make sense of her words. He started to drift off to sleep as she continued to talk, and though he remembered her words later, he would always wonder if she had actually said them or whether it was part of a dream.

“I’ve seen things I wish I could forget,” she was saying. “All the things I wish I could remember are wrapped up in nightmares I wish I could forget. Everyone I love is only alive in memory, and in my memory they’re also dying.” She sighed. “But we can’t choose what to remember, and we can’t choose what to forget. Only God could do that, and I don’t believe in God.”

*****

Gatrij woke up the next morning to find a note beside his bed labeled “Do not Open.” Eim was asleep across the room, tangled up in her sheets and only half-covered by her quilt. She had fallen asleep with her work clothes on. The sun was already alive, though low in the sky, which meant they had overslept. Eim usually set her clock for an hour before sunbirth. Gatrij for a moment thought they were late for school, but then remembered it was a train day. He debated waiting for his mother to wake up so they could collect the foodstuffs and other supplies allotted to them, but after a half hour of pacing, he decided to go on his own. He stuffed the note in his coat pocket and headed out into the autumn chill.

Train days were always a flurry of activity, and this train had brought special visitors. They were already gone by the time Gatrij arrived at the depot, but word was in the air that they were quite important. They’d have to be, considering the carriage they had come in—the few passengers that came to Garden always slept in bunks with the engineer, but these men had come in an opulent sleeper car. The mayor and the foreman of the mines had rushed them off to somewhere-or-another as soon as they stepped off the train, but Gatrij wasn’t all that interested in finding out where the men had gone or why they had come to Garden. He had heard from one of his classmates that the men were dressed in white suits and white hats, which didn’t make an ounce of sense in a dusty, grime-ridden industrial town. Anyone who was so self-important as to arrive in Garden wearing a suit and tie, was someone who was too self-important for Gatrij Niel to bother with.

So Gatrij collected the boxes addressed to him, and the boxes addressed to Eim, and the boxes addressed to the school, and lugged them to their proper locations. The personal boxes, he left in the storage unit behind the house, so he didn’t end up going inside to see his mother until after he dropped off the boxes at the school. And when he did come home, she was off on some sort of errand. He never found out what it was, though it struck him as odd that she would be running errands on a train day. The entire population of the town would be busy with personal details, collecting their own supplies and not worrying about what other people wanted or needed. Train days were days when everyone was out around town together, yet nobody had a word or minute to spare for anyone.

Lacking any duties, and his mother absent, Gatrij decided to leave town for the day and go hiking. He took along a notebook, sandwich, canteen, and a lantern, just in case he got caught out after the sun died for the night. Not that that had ever happened before, but he always was interested in playing it safe. Although he was adventurous, he wasn’t stupid. A half hour’s walk took him to the edge of the Labyrinth, a veritable maze of boulders that Gatrij, and only Gatrij, knew how to navigate. Kids had tailed him out here from time to time, probably intending to throw rocks at him as they sometimes did. Or maybe they were just curious. Whatever the case, he could always lose them before he got to the center of the Labyrinth. It was his secret place where he could go when he needed to get away from everyone, even Eim.

He had once gotten permission to camp out here, about a year ago, and since then he had considered it his second home and went whenever he could manage it. A ledge at eye level made a shelf for his favorite books. On one wall, he had scribbled some poetry, and on another, he had chalked a set of marks that made a shadow calendar of sorts. Each day, he discovered, the sun birthed in a slightly different position, and it made a slow rotation around Oath over the course of the year so that it birthed directly in the east at the new year and directly in the west on midyear’s day. The shadow calendar also meant that he had a good way to track when the sun was due to die, so that he could make it home before dark. At seven years old, he was disappointed that Eim wasn’t surprised by his discovery of basic astronomy, but her praise of his ingenuity made up for his disappointment at the unoriginality of his idea. Now, at twelve, he had to laugh at his seven year-old self. After all, independently coming up with well-worn and well-known facts was better than not realizing the obvious at all.

And so, chuckling to himself, he rounded the corner and entered the clearing that was his second home. The sound of footsteps trailed him in, and though he at first thought it was an echo, when he turned around he found that one of the men in white had followed him. “What are you doing here?” he demanded. He was upset that someone would invade his private happy place, and it made sense to him to insist on finding out the man’s business in coming after him.

“My apologies, I didn’t know you would object,” the man answered. “I am a gentle soul, you know, but curiosity has gotten the better of me, I suppose.” He smiled in a way that seemed both fatherly and angelic. “I was taking a walk to clear my heart and I saw a young lad wandering off into the wasteland, and it seemed … well, it piqued my interest.” His eyes were kind in a way that made Gatrij dislike him immediately. There was something duplicitous in the way he exuded such kindness. Gatrij had always prided himself on his sense of the inner motives of others, which made him innately distrusting of just about anyone.

“I meant to come here alone,” Gatrij stated.

“And I am aware of that,” the man said, “but isn’t it best for children to spend time in the company of compatriots?”

“I have no need of them,” Gatrij argued. “And don’t patronize me.”

“Bright boy,” the man said to himself. “Come, tell me your name.”

“Stephen,” he lied. “And you are?”

“I am Balaam. Not the most pleasant of names, I’m afraid, but I can’t argue with the people who named me. Besides, it has an air of prophecy to it, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t believe in prophecy,” Gatrij said. “The future doesn’t exist yet.”

“A philosopher too,” said Balaam, ignoring Gatrij’s claim. “I appreciate intelligence in the young folk. Who taught you so well?”

“My mother is an excellent teacher,” Gatrij said a bit too proudly. “She probably knows more than you ever will.” His own rudeness surprised him, but he honestly didn’t care. This man didn’t belong here in this sanctuary.

“Clearly she is an intelligent soul,” Balaam answered. “You’ll have to introduce me to her. But tell me, what brings you to this sanctuary?”

Gatrij had the eerie feeling that the intruder was reading his mind, which made him dislike the man even more. “It’s mine. Go away.”

“You really should be more respectful, my child,” the man chided. A disconcerted look was starting to show on his face. He clearly wasn’t used to being argued with.

“You followed me here. I don’t like being followed when I want to be alone. Besides, I have no reason to like you. Yet, at least. And you’re not giving me much reason, either. If you know so much, why don’t you go teach someone who needs it?”

The man’s temper finally broke. “Where I come from, children are happy to be taught, and they already at least know how to respect those wiser than them. You, dear child, could afford to learn this: Respect those who know they are holy. You know less than you think. I don’t care to sell this knowledge, so I’ll give it for free, that God told me you would be here and told me to follow you. Now he is telling me why. I came here to learn an object lesson in folly. I’m going to look into your soul here and take a wild guess that you don’t believe in God, and you don’t believe in me. I am Balaam Thresher. I’m sure you’ve heard of me.”

“Who?”

“You lie,” the man said. “Liars deserve worse than death.”

“No,” Gatrij said honestly, “I actually have never heard of you.” He felt the need to at least defend his truthfulness from this man’s accusations. “I live in the most godforsaken town in the world. How am I supposed to know about someone who’s never bothered to come here until now. You’re only a man, anyway.”

“Ha!” the man spat. “I am far more than a man. I was around long before your father had his first gray hair. I could have you mauled by a bear right now, although I won’t because you don’t deserve that yet. Besides, you probably don’t even know what  a bear is, ignorant child.”

“Bear: Genus Ursus, large hairy beast, omnivorous, quadruped except when angry.”

“Bare,” Balaam countered, “transpose the letters and you have your soul, naked, blind, and poverty-stricken. You have no reason to hate me, yet you do because your soul is filled with hate. I could end your hate now if you so desired it…”

“No,” Gatrij muttered, “I don’t think you could.”

“Speak up, boy.”

“I think you don’t know as much as you think you do. I think you couldn’t find your way out of here without me!” He darted down an exit path that he knew was the wrong way out. Two turns left, one to the right, spin around a U-turn, double back, right right left turn … Gatrij knew he was faster and small enough to squeeze through the crack in the next rock. He wriggled his way through, then reached the hardest part, where he had to climb up a vertical face to reach the top of the boulder field. Finally managing it, he hopped across a gap and dropped down into the route that was the true exit. The boy sprinted back toward town, leaving Balaam lost in the maze, he hoped. He stopped before getting into town, though, when he realized he had left his backpack in the center of the Labyrinth, along with his lantern. Cursing his foolishness, because he knew he needed to go back and get them, he slouched back toward the boulders.

Once Gatrij reached the middle of the maze, he found Balaam standing, arms folded, staring at the entrance. “God told me you’d come back,” the man announced.

“The stuff I forgot here might have told you the same thing,” Gatrij muttered angrily. “Besides, you can’t prove that you didn’t just stay here because you couldn’t find the way out.”

“And you can’t prove that you felt sorry for the poor prophet you left behind in the wilderness,” said Balaam.

“Prophet,” Gatrij snickered. “Nobody believes in prophets anymore.”

“Who told you that?”

“My mother.”

“Then she is a fool as well,” Balaam claimed. “I tell you the truth when I say that the created world knows that prophecy is real. What I say, I mean, and what I do, I do because God told me to do it. Incidentally,” he added, “I believe you forgot something rather important when you made your untimely escape.”

“I never forget anything,” Gatrij said. “I even remember the day I was born.”

“Now that, my son, is a lie. And you did forget something that I think you will regret.” He brandished the note that Eim had written the previous night, the one labeled “Do not Open.” It was open. “I know we will meet again. God told me that, too.” He stalked out of the exit, taking the note with him.

Gatrij was shaken by the revelation of the open envelope. Unfortunately, he knew he couldn’t do anything about it. The man, for all that he probably would get lost on his way out of the maze, could easily keep the note from the boy’s grasp. Besides, he had already read it, Gatrij imagined, and that … that was almost certainly an ill omen.

He moved out of the maze a bit hastily, now that the sun was lower in the sky than he had planned on when he set out on his hike. Following the route he had memorized, he exited the maze to see several figures approaching. All four were dressed in a white that reflected the setting sun. Hiding in the maze did not seem like a good option, but neither did facing the men. The one option would frighten Eim unnecessarily. The other option would give her a good reason to be frightened. Gatrij cursed himself for being rude to the man and wondered if he could have done better to keep his mouth shut.

The men, strangely, stopped to confer with each other and then abruptly changed directions to head back into town, in the direction of the mayor’s house. Apparently they didn’t want to be caught out after sundeath either, Gatrij mused. He ran home, dodging through town along the way and hoping that nobody was watching where he went.

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About Joel Wilcox

I'm a writer, photographer, visual artist, and world traveler who is also currently an academic slave (read: Graduate student). I put the (de) in the fine lines.
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