NOTE: This is just a sample chapter. It is also NOT the final draft. It will continue to be edited and improved. Enjoy!
Beneath the waning glow of a damaged Everlit lamp, red-headed, twelve-year-old Samra McAdams backed deeper into a dark, puddle-ridden alleyway.
“Leave me alone,” she said to the kids pursuing her. She pointed a scolding finger at them, but they didn’t seem to mind. They didn’t flinch, let alone cower in fear. Still, she kept pointing. Kept pretending to be tougher than she was.
What else could she do?
The Everlit lamp flickered off. A brief darkness enveloped them, but the lamp sparked back on, and its yellow glow illuminated the walls of the narrow alleyway once again. Samra shuddered. She was small for her age, and thin, but she was quick and agile. If she broke into a sprint now, she might be able to escape? She turned to try, but two kids stepped out of the shadows, cutting off her exit.
“Please,” she said to them and then again to the others behind her. “I haven’t done anything to any of you.” She spun in a circle, looking at each of the dirty kids surrounding her, seven in all, until she stopped on Bradley Nufstutler, their ringleader. “Especially not you,” she added, though her voice faltered.
Bradley, the tallest and, at sixteen, the oldest of the group, had blond hair that dangled over his face. It did little to hide his mischievous grin. “You were born defective,” he said. “I’d say that’s doing something.”
Samra dropped her gaze towards Bradley’s bare feet. Thunder rumbled above.
“Oh, yeah, but wait,” Bradley added, looking at his friends as if their amused expressions fueled him on. “You were also born royalty. I almost forgot that, silly me. I mean, why are you even here? Aren’t settlement chores beneath you?”
Beside him, a girl Samra’s age, but thicker and taller and certainly meaner, tipped over a rusted trashcan. It splattered in the mud, spilling its contents out on Samra’s feet.
Bradley pointed at it. “Oops. Would you mind picking that up, your highness?”
Samra’s eyes flickered from Bradley to the trash then back to Bradley, but she didn’t move.
“What?” he asked. “You have more important Founding Family matters to attend? I thought you were here to help us with settlement chores?”
He stepped closer, his friends converging along with him. Samra tried to step back but found herself pressed against the cold wall with nowhere to go.
“Help me understand,” he said, the amusement draining from his voice. “Do you think we like you more because you help with settlement chores even though you don’t have to? Because we don’t.”
Samra flinched. She helped because the settlement needed all the help it could get. Never mind the early arrangements her great grandfather made to ensure the settlement would always provide for his “Founding Family”, she wanted to contribute. She was no better than anyone else, Founding Family member or not.
“Or,” Bradley continued, “do you think everyone should automatically like you and respect you and bow in your stupid presence because your great grandfather founded this cursed place?”
She tried to respond but fumbled her words.
“What?” Bradley asked. “Did the Dream Reaper spare your dreams but snatch your tongue? Serves you right. First, your great grandfather tricks everyone into coming here to—”
“He didn’t trick anyone,” Samra said, anger boiling up in her. “He… he saved us.”
“Us?” Bradley looked at his friends, then back at Samra. “Wow,” he said. “That’s exactly how I feel every night when I go to sleep afraid that the Dream Reaper’s going to come for me. Saved.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“No, you meant he saved us by providing us this oh, so fantastic safe haven. But how do you know we’re not here as part of an evil science experiment?”
She looked up, searching the ever-present clouds above as if for a solution to escape. Aside from a ripple of lightning that illuminated them from within, she got nothing from the clouds. No answers. No cause for hope. This was so pointless, so tiresome. Every day, at least every day that Bradley saw her, he insisted on tormenting her about a past she had nothing to do with. The same speech, the same complaints… over and over.
“Well?” he pressed.
“I just do. I just know.”
“Ohhh,” he said, feigning a sudden realization. “I get it now. You’re saying you’re a lot older than you look and that you were here fifty-years ago when they built this place and that you somehow saw it all with your own eyes. Is that it?”
Stupid, stupid, stupid, Samra thought. He’s goading me on, and I’m playing right into it. Just shut up. Let him say what he has to say so he’ll leave.
“So were you really?” he asked. “Were you here? Did you help decide who originally got to come and who had to stay behind? Who lived? Who… died?” Bradley turned away from her and faced his friends. They looked at him in anticipating silence until he addressed them. “I’m guessing she’s also why none of us have ever seen the sun.” He pointed to the dark sky where clouds had clogged the sight since before any of them were born. He turned back and addressed Samra directly. “Then, to rub it in our faces, I’m guessing you helped build the walls to trap us in here. Am I right?”
“No, of course not.” Samra answered.
That was ridiculous. The walls were built there in the beginning as a precaution. If Bradley payed attention in class, then he would have known that. Besides, she thought, everyone should be thanking her great grandfather. If he hadn’t of had the foresight, then there’d be nothing to protect children from the creatures, Kremen, so they were called, that lurked outside the walls now.
Bradley leaned in and whispered, “I bet, you know, before he died, that you two sat up in that fancy house on Founder’s Hill and laughed as the Dream Reaper started snatching dreams away. Your great granddaddy probably even invited it here.”
Samra shoved him and turned to flee. She barely managed two steps before some of the kids blocked her path. She tried to push passed, but they were too strong.
“Admit it,” Bradley said. “Your family’s plan has always been to sacrifice us like sheep. One at a time.”
“That’s not true.”
“Sure it is. Your great grandfather began the sacrifice with his own wife.”
Samra gritted her teeth.
“And then his only son…”
“And after sacrificing both your parents, too, he finished off with his own life.”
“I mean it. Shut up, Bradley. That’s not even true. That’s not how it happened.”
But it was grounded in truth. Samra didn’t know the details herself, but her great grandmother, her grandfather, and both her parents did die mysteriously. The only “Founding Family” members left were her and her dear old grandmother, who was married into the family.
“Just admit it,” Bradley said. “I’m right. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, that witch of a grandmother of yours—”
Samra lashed out, fingernails clawing into the right side of Bradley’s face and tearing downward. “Leave her out of this,” she shouted. “Leave her—” She made to claw at him again, but he grabbed her wrist and held it over her head. She swiped with her other hand. He grabbed that wrist as well, pinning both of them to the wall and bringing his face so close to hers that their noses touched.
“Your granny,” he said, ignoring the blood dripping down his cheek, “isn’t normal.”
“She is too,” Samra said, a whimper to her voice.
“She is whatever I say she is. Or,” he added with a sly smile, “whatever I say she isn’t.”
“I agree,” said a kid in the group.
“Yeah,” said another. “She’s not normal.”
“Oh, yeah?” Samra asked, thinking about the other adults they were comparing her grandmother too. “And what’s normal?”
“Normal means she ain’t like the others.”
“Yeah. She’s a big ol’ doo-dee head,” a little red-headed girl added.
Bradley looked at the little girl and shook his head. “Anyways,” he continued, “your grandmother struts around, coming and going, doing whatever she wants without a care in the world.” His nostrils flared. “Do you think that’s fair?” He squeezed Samra’s wrists until her fists unclenched. “Well, is it?”
Samra made to speak, but she shut her mouth. Everything he said was true, yet it wasn’t. There was no denying that there was something wrong with their settlement, something fundamental, something absolute. She’d never seen the sky without clouds. Never seen the sun except in fading picture books. And because of the Kremen that lurked beyond the walls waiting to prey on children, she’d never even stepped foot outside the settlement, since the adults forbid it. Even without any of that, there was still the Dream Reaper to torment them. But there was also no proof of why or who was actually to blame for any of it. Only stories. Lots and lots of stories, most of which pointed at her family.
“Come on,” Bradley said, irritation in his voice. “Let’s just cut to the chase. Do that weird thing you do.”
“Yeah, do it,” said another boy. “Zoink out for us.”
Samra tore her wrist free from Bradley’s grasp and glared at him.
Someone nudged Samra in the side, causing her to again spin, pointing her oh-so dangerous finger in warning. But she pointed it too high. The girl who had nudged her, Samra noted with annoyance, was the little girl who had called her grandmother a ‘doo-dee head’. At eight-years of age, she was the youngest person in all of Ni Ci, the so-called
“Settlement of Dreams”. What was her name? Sally? Susie? No, Sasha.
“I’m not joking,” Samra said, turning her gaze to the others because she couldn’t bring herself to threaten a child. “Stop. Stop or… or else.”
The kids laughed. “Or else?” a few of them said. “Or else what?”
“Or else she’ll tell Bradley’s daddy,” Sasha said, putting her hands on her hips and poking out her tongue.
Sure, Bradley’s ‘daddy’ may have been the settlement sheriff, but Samra certainly had no intentions of telling him. He was crueler than his son.
“Is that what you’re going to do?” Bradley asked.
Another flash of lightning lit up the sky. A clap of thunder followed. Suddenly, a flicker of hope spread through Samra. Maybe a downpour of rain would scatter the children and spare her the embarrassment to come? But that was doubtful and silly of her to even consider. A downpour, in their always overcast settlement, may have been highly likely, but she couldn’t count on it bailing her out of trouble. No, a downpour would only give them all much needed showers.
At the far end of the alleyway, where there was much better lighting, a group of adults gathered. A couple were shop-owners, distinguishable by their settlement-mandated yellow attire. A couple others were patrolmen dressed in dark blues. And the remaining few, dressed in light blues and bickering among each other, were something scientific or medical related. She could have distinguished which by the color of their collars, but they were too far for her to tell.
Still, none of the adults seemed concerned in the least about what mischievousness was going on in the alleyway. Typical. Adults were never eager to improve someone else’s predicament. Dreamlessness caused a lack of quality sleep, which grew into full out sleep deprivation. Nowadays, adults didn’t indulge themselves with smiles, or laughter, or gleeful moments to reminisce because to them, living without dreams, meant living without hope.
As her grandmother said, “They were slow to please, but quick to anger.” So, Samra realized, what she needed was for one of them, just one, to get annoyed…
She smiled then, big and wide so that her cheeks pulled back and showed the sides of her teeth as much as the fronts. This was the smile of all ages, the grin of grins. Her lips stretched back so far that she felt as if she could loop the corners around her ears and hook them into place.
At the sight, the children scrunched up their faces and tilted their heads, peering at her with uncertain expressions.
“I think she’s finally lost it,” one of them said.
“Who cares, just get her to zoink.”
Samra opened her eyes as wide as she could and pushed out a laugh, loud and robotic. Adults hated laughter; hated it because “Lives were no longer a laughing matter”. And so, Samra forced her expression into an even bigger smile and pushed out an even louder laugh, hoping all the while that an adult would stomp on over and put an end to this “happy” occasion.
“Someone shut her up,” Bradley ordered.
Sasha—little bitty Sasha, with her blond-as-corn-kernel pigtails— dropped her broom handle and grabbed a handful of muddied gravel. Somewhere in the second that this took place, Samra thought she registered a bit of doubt in the little girl’s mind. But whatever doubt Sasha had, it was won out by peer pressure. She tossed the gravel into Samra’s mouth. Samra stopped pretending to laugh and choked. She spat pebbles out and wiped at her face, trailing bits of dirt and spit along her cheek.
Through tears swelling in her eyes, she looked at the children. A few were hunched with laughter. Some high-fived each other. The little girl, Sasha, turned to Bradley for recognition, but Bradley just stood with his arms folded across his chest as if he was humored but not yet satisfied.
It’s not their fault, Samra told herself. They’re just scared. We all are.
She looked at each of the children, then towards the adults at the end of the alleyway who seemed at last annoyed about their antics. The children looked as well. She heard their breaths catch, felt the unease in the air. Had her plan succeeded?
No. No it hadn’t, she realized, a heaviness sinking to the pit of her stomach. Why did things have to be this way?
For a moment, the other kids had retreated, prepared to run, but now they stepped forward again. Samra groaned as they formed a circle around her and joined hands. What they were about to do was such a young child’s game, but they had, after all, done it ever since they were young children. They’d probably do it long after they had grown into adults, dreamless or not.
Samra closed her eyes. It’ll be okay, she told herself. Teasing me is just a way to brighten up their dark days, but I can take it. I know I can because I’m strong. I am. I’m strong.
Eventually, the words moved from that place within her mind out onto her tongue where they accidentally exited her lips. “I’m strong,” she heard herself say, immediately regretting it.
“We don’t care ‘bout how strong you think you are,” shouted a kid from the group. “Just hurry on up and do it already. Do the trick.”
Sasha shouted, “Yeah, oink like a piggie!”
“It’s not oink,” said Bradley, staring hard at Samra. “It’s zoink. And it’s the only way to get us to leave you alone.” His eyes squinted. His lips tightened. “So do it you lil’ weirdo. Right here, right now. Zoink.”
“I can’t!” Samra answered, letting her anger erupt out in those two simple words. “I can’t, because I can’t control it. It just… just happens. It isn’t a, a talent or something. It’s a sickness. Can’t you see that? Don’t you care? I need medicine for it. I need—help.”
Bradley tucked his hair behind his ears and smirked. “Well,” he said, “that’s all you had to say. We’d be more than happy to help.”
No other words had to be spoken, and no directions had to be given for the group of kids to know what to do next. After all, this was, so it seemed to Samra, one of their more favorite pastimes.
They hooked their arms and circled clockwise around her. “Ten,” they said in unison, a wickedness in their eyes. “Nine…” They knew they had her now. “Eight…” While they had spun slow at first, they gained speed at each pass, each number. “Seven…” This is what her life was, Samra realized, for the hundredth time. And this is how it would always be. “Six…” In a place like Ni Ci, a place shrouded by clouds and left in the dark year-round. “Five”, where dreams were snatched from children when they became of age. “Four…” In a place like that, the odds were stacked against everyone. “Three…” At least, everyone who—stayed. “Two…” By now, the children had spun around her so much, and so swiftly, their faces had each blurred into… “One.”
Samra had felt wide awake by the time they finished, but it was as if she were under some hypnotic spell. Her eyes closed and her body went slack. From somewhere in the darkness that encompassed her, she heard Bradley’s voice, giddy with excitement. He said, “Here it comes… She’s zoinking!”
And sure enough, standing right there in the center of their circle, amidst their restrained cheers and applause, Samra McAdams fell asleep.
NOTE: That was just a sneak peak of a book I’m attempting to get traditionally published. I hope you enjoyed it! I will not be posting a chapter 2.