My current project is another short novella, about the length of The Plagiarist. I’m really enjoying working with the constraints of 10,000 – 15,000 words. Developing characters and an interesting story in this frame is a challenge, but the reward is a piece of fiction readers can digest in a sitting. This is film adapted to books, rather than the other way around. And e-readers and print-on-demand make it possible to share these works at the right price.
So here’s a very rough draft of the first three chapters of WOOL. Enjoy!
The kids were playing while Holston climbed to his death. He could hear them screaming as only happy children do. Taking his time, each step methodical and ponderous, Holston wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, his worn boots ringing on the metal treads. The treads, too, showed signs of wear. The small diamond shaped bumps had been worn nearly flat across the center of the steps. Only near the edges could he see what they once looked like: high and crisp, made for grip. But untold years had passed and metal had been rubbed away, molecules at a time, a handful with each shuffling step. Holston thought, not for the first time, that the tight staircase couldn’t have been meant for such traffic, for so many years of abuse. Like much of the silo, it seemed to have been built for other purposes, for functions long since forgotten. What was used as a thoroughfare for thousands seemed more apt to be used in emergencies only, and by dozens.
Another floor went by one step at a time—a pie-shaped division of dormitories. As Holston ascended through the great buried silo that was his home, squeals of childlike delight rained down from above. This was the laughter of youth, of souls who had not yet come to grips with where they lived, who did not feel the press of the earth on all sides, who in their minds were not buried at all, but alive! Alive and dripping happy sounds down the stairwell, trills that were incongruous with Holston’s actions, his decision and determination to die.
One young voice rang out in particular, squealing with delight, and Holston remembered being a child in the silo—all the schooling and the games. Back then, the stuffy concrete cylinder had felt, with its floors and floors of apartments and workshops and hydroponic gardens and purification rooms with their tangles of pipes, like a vast universe, a wide expanse one could never fully explore, a labyrinth he and his friends could get lost in forever. Those days seemed far more than thirty eight years distant. Holston’s childhood felt like something two or three lifetimes ago. His lifetime as silo sheriff weighed heavy, seeming like something he was birthed into and years ago died from. More recently there was his third life, a secret life beyond childhood and being sheriff—the lifetime of the past three years. Three years spent silently waiting for what would never come, each day longer than any month from his happier lifetimes.
At the top of the spiral stairway, Holston’s hand ran out of railing. Here, the curvy bar of painted steel was worn shiny, raw and reflective, from untold generations of sliding palms. It ended, and the stairwell emptied into the widest rooms of the entire silo complex: the cafeteria and the adjoining lounge. The squeals were level with him now. Darting bright shapes zagged between scattered chairs, playing chase. A handful of adults tried to contain the chaos. Holston saw Donna picking up scattered chalk and crayon from the stained tiles. Her husband Clarke waved from across the room; he sat behind a table arranged with cups of juice and bowls of cornflour cookies.
Holston didn’t think to wave back, didn’t have the energy nor the care. He looked past the adults and playing children to the blurry view beyond: projected on the cafeteria wall, it was the largest uninterrupted vista of their inhospitable world. It was a morning scene. Dawn’s dim light coated lifeless hills that had hardly changed since Holston was a boy. They sat, just as they always had, while he had gone from playing chase among the cafeteria tables to whatever he was now. And beyond their stately rolling crests, the top of a familiar and rotting skyline caught the morning rays in feeble glints. Ancient glass and steel stood distantly where people—it was suspected—had once lived aboveground.
A child, ejected from the group like a comet, bumped into Holston’s knees. He looked down and moved to touch the kid—Susan’s boy—but just like a comet, the child was gone again, pulled squealing back into the orbit of the others.
Holston thought suddenly of the lottery he and Allison had won the year of her death. He still had the ticket; he carried it everywhere. One of these kids—maybe he or she would be two by now and tottering after the older children—could’ve been theirs. They had dreamed, like all parents do, of the double fortune of twins. They had tried, of course. Night after glorious night of attempting to redeem that ticket, other parents wishing them luck, other lottery hopefuls silently praying for an empty year to pass.
Meanwhile, he and Allison had invited superstition into their lives, looking to anything for help. Tricks like hanging garlic over the bed that supposedly increased fertility, two dimes under the mattress for twins, a pink ribbon in Allison’s hair, smudges of blue dye under Holston’s eyes—all of it ridiculous and desperate and fun. The only thing crazier would have been to not try everything, to leave some silly séance or tale untested.
But it wasn’t to be. Before the year was out, the lottery passed to another couple. It wasn’t for a lack of trying; it was a lack of time. A lack of wife.
Holston turned away from the games and the blurry view and walked toward his office, situated between the cafeteria and the silo’s airlock. As he covered that ground, his thoughts went to the struggle that took place there, a struggle of ghosts he had to walk through every day for the last three years. And he knew—if he turned and hunted that expansive view on the wall—if he squinted past the ever worsening blur of cloudy camera lenses and airborne grime, if he followed that dark crease up the hill, that wrinkle that worked its way over the muddy dune toward the city beyond, he could pick out her quiet form. There, on that hill, his wife could be seen. She lay like a sleeping boulder, the air and toxins wearing away at her, her arms curled under her head, perhaps, but it was difficult to see, hard to make out clearly even before the blurring began. And besides, there was little to trust in that sight. There was much, in fact, to doubt. So Holston simply chose not to look. He walked through that ghostly struggle place where bad memories lay eternal, that scene of sudden madness, and entered his office.
“Well, look who’s up early,” Marnes said, smiling. Holston’s deputy closed a metal drawer on the filing cabinet, a lifeless squeal singing from its ancient joints. He picked up a steaming mug, then noted Holston’s solemn demeanor. “You feeling okay, boss?”
Holston nodded. He pointed to the rack of keys behind the desk. “Holding cell,” he said.
The deputy’s smile drooped in a confused frown. He set down the mug and turned to retrieve the key. While his back was turned, Holston rubbed the sharp, cool steel in his palm one last time, then placed the star flat on the desk. Marnes turned and held out the key. Holston took it.
“You need me to grab the mop?” Deputy Marnes jabbed a thumb back toward the cafeteria. Unless someone was in cuffs, they only went into the cell to clean it.
“No,” Holston said. He jerked his head toward the holding cell, beckoning his deputy to follow. He turned—the chair behind the desk squeaked as Marnes rose to join him—and Holston completed his march. The key slid in with ease. There was a sharp clack from the well-built and well-maintained inner organs of the door. The barest squeak from the hinges, a determined step, a shove and a clank, and the ordeal was over.
Holston held the key between the bars. Marnes looked down at them, unsure, but his palm came up to accept.
“What’s going on, boss?”
“Get the mayor,” Holston said. He let out a sigh, that heavy breath he’d been holding for three years. “Tell her I want to go outside.”
The view from the holding cell was noticeably less blurry than elsewhere, and Holston would spend the last day of his life considering why this was. Could it be that the camera on that side of the silo was more out of the toxic wind? Did each cleaner put extra care in preserving the view they’d enjoyed on their last day alive? Or was it a gift to the next cleaner, who would spend their final day in that same cell? Holston preferred this last explanation. It made him think longingly of his wife. It reminded him of why he was there, on the wrong side of those bars.
He thought long and hard on Allison as he sat and stared out at the dead world some ancient peoples had left behind. It wasn’t the best view of the landscape around their buried bunker, but it wasn’t the worst, either. In the distance, low rolling hills stood a pretty shade of brown, like coffee mash with just enough pig’s milk in it. The sky above them was the same dull gray of his childhood and his father’s childhood and his grandfather’s childhood. The only moving feature on the landscape—and Holston figured this was true across all those generations—were the clouds. They hung full and dark over the hills and roamed free like the herded beasts from the picture books.
That scene of the deadly outside world filled up the entire wall of his cell, just like all the other walls on the silo’s upper level. Each wall full of a different slice of the blurry and ever blurrier view of the wasteland. Holston’s little window out on it all reached from the corner by his cot, up to the ceiling, to the other wall, and down to the toilet. And despite the soft blur—like oil rubbed on a lens—it looked like a scene one could stroll out into, like a gaping and inviting hole oddly positioned across from the forbidding prison bars.
The illusion, however, only convinced from a distance. Leaning closer, Holston could see a handful of dead pixels on the massive display. They stood stark white against all the brown and gray hues. Shining with ferocious intensity, each pixel (Allison had called them “stuck”), was like a square window to some brighter place, a hole the width of a human hair that seemed to beckon toward some better reality. There were dozens of them, now that he looked. Holston wondered if anyone in the silo knew how to fix them, or if they had the tools required for such a delicate job. Were they dead forever, like Allison? Would all of the pixels be dead eventually? Holston imagined a day when half of the pixels were stark white, and then generations later when only a few gray and brown ones remained, then a mere dozen, the world having flipped to a new state, the people of the silo thinking the outside was on fire, the only true pixels mistaken for malfunctioning ones.
Or was that what Holston and his people were doing?
Someone cleared their throat behind him. Holston turned and saw Mayor Jahns standing on the other side of the bars, her hands resting in the belly of her coveralls, wrists cocked on the wide pouch of her traditionally and comically too-large wardrobe. She nodded gravely toward the cot.
“When the cell’s empty, at night when you and Deputy Marnes are off duty, I sometimes sit right there and enjoy the view.”
Holston turned back to survey the muddy, lifeless landscape. It only looked depressing compared to scenes from the children’s books—the only books to survive the uprising. Most people doubted those colors in the books, just as they doubted purple elephants and pink birds to have ever existed, but Holston felt that they were truer than the scene before him. He, like some others, felt something primal and deep when he looked at those worn pages splashed green and blue. Even so, when compared to the stifling silo, their cylindrical home burrowed deep beneath the earth, that muddy gray view outside looked like some kind of salvation, just the sort of open air men were meant to breathe.
“You get your pick for dinner,” Mayor Jahns said. “It’s tradition—”
“You don’t need to tell me how this works,” Holston said, cutting Jahns off. “It’s only been three years since I served Allison her last meal.” He reached to spin the copper ring on his finger out of habit, forgetting he had left it on his dresser hours ago.
“Can’t believe it’s been that long,” Mayor Jahns murmured to herself. Holston turned to see her squinting at the clouds displayed on the wall.
“You miss her?” he asked. “Or do you just hate that the film has had so much time to build?”
Jahn’s eyes flashed his way a moment, then fell to the floor. “You know I don’t want this, not for any view. But rules are the rules—”
“It’s not to be blamed,” Holston said. “I know the rules better than most.” His hand moved, just a little, toward the missing badge, gone like his ring. “Hell, I enforced those rules for most my life, even after I realized they were bullshit.”
Jahns cleared her throat. “I won’t ask why you broke them now,” she said sadly. To Holston, the crack in her voice sounded genuine. His head spun as it groped for something to latch onto. It seemed a dream, the predicament his life had become. None of the last years seemed true.
He turned back to the tan hills to gaze on something unchanging. In the corner of his eye, he thought he saw another pixel die, turning stark white. Another tiny window was opening to his fate, perhaps. Perhaps it will be my blessed salvation, Holston thought savagely, when I die out there tomorrow.
“I’ve been Mayor too long,” Jahns said through the bars. Holston half turned and saw both her old hands wrapped around cold steel. “Our records don’t go back to the beginning, don’t go back before the uprising just a century and a half ago, but since then no Mayor has sent more people to cleaning than I have.”
“I’m sorry to burden you further,” Holston said.
“I take no pleasure in it. That’s all I’m saying. No pleasure at all.”
Holston swept his hand at the massive screen. “But you’ll be the first to watch a clear sunset tomorrow night, won’t you?” He hated the way he sounded. Holston wasn’t angry for his death, or life, or whatever came after tomorrow, but resentment over Allison’s fate still lingered. He continued to see inevitable events from the past as avoidable, long after they’d taken their course. “You’ll all love the view tomorrow,” he said to himself.
“That’s not fair at all,” Jahns said. “The law is the law. You broke it. You knew you were breaking it.”
Holston looked at his feet. The two of them allowed a silence to form. Mayor Jahns was the one who eventually broke it.
“You haven’t threatened yet to not go through with it. Some of the others are nervous that you might not do the cleaning because you aren’t saying you won’t.”
Holston laughed. “They’d feel better if I said I wouldn’t clean the sensors?” He shook his head at the mad logic.
“Everyone who sits there says they aren’t gonna do it, but then they do. It’s just familiar—”
“Allison never threatened not to do it,” Holston said. But he knew what Jahns meant. He himself had been sure she wouldn’t wipe the lenses. And now he thought he understood what she’d been going through a lot better. There were larger things to consider than the task at hand. Most prisoners sent to cleaning were caught at something, were surprised to find themselves in the cell, their fate mere hours away. Revenge was on their mind. Obstinacy. But Allison and now Holston had bigger worries. Whether or not they’d clean was inconsequential. All that remained was the curiosity of it all.
“So you’re planning on going through with it?” Jahns asked, her desperation leaking into the holding cell.
“You said it yourself. Everyone does it. There must be some reason, right?” Holston pretended to be disinterested in the why—the motivation everyone sentenced to cleaning eventually found once they were outside—but in reality, he had spent most of his life, the past three years especially, agonizing over the why. The question drove him nuts. And if his refusing to answer Jahns caused pain to those who had murdered his wife, he wouldn’t be sad.
Jahns rubbed her hands up and down the bars, anxious. “Can I tell them you’ll do it?” she asked.
“Or tell them I won’t. I don’t care. And it sounds like either answer will mean the same to them.”
Jahns didn’t reply. Holston looked up at her, and the Mayor nodded.
“If you change your mind about the meal, let Deputy Marnes know. He’ll be at the desk all night, as is trad—”
She didn’t need to say. Tears came to Holston’s eyes as he remembered that part of his former duties. He had manned that desk twelve years ago when Donna Parkins was put to cleaning, eight years ago when it was Jack Brent’s time. And he had spent a night clinging to the bars, lying on the floor, three years ago when it was his wife.
Mayor Jahns turned to go.
“Sheriff,” Holston muttered before she got out of earshot.
“I’m sorry?” Jahns lingered on the other side of the bars, her gray, bushy brows hanging over her eyes.
“It’s Sheriff Marnes, now,” Holston reminded her. “Not Deputy.”
Jahns rapped a steel bar with her knuckles. “Eat something,” she said. “And I won’t insult you by suggesting you get some sleep.”
·3·Three years earlier
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” she said. “Honey, listen to this. Did you know there was more than one uprising?”
Holston looked up from the folder spread across his lap. Around him, scattered piles of paper covered the bed like a quilt—stacks and stacks of old files to sort through and new complaints to manage. Allison sat at her small desk at the foot of the bed. The two of them lived in one of the silo condos that had only been subdivided twice over the decades. It left room for luxuries like desks and wide (non-bunk) beds.
“And how would I have known about that?” he asked her. His wife turned and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Holston smiled at her and shrugged. “All day you’re unlocking secrets hundreds of years old and I’m supposed to know about them before you do?”
She stuck out her tongue. “It’s an expression. It’s my way of informing you. And why don’t you seem more curious? Did you hear what I just said?”
Holston shrugged. “I never would’ve assumed the most recent uprising was the first. No crime or crazy mob is ever original.” He picked up a folder by his knee. “You think this is the first theft? Or that it’ll be the last?”
Allison’s chair squealed on the tile as she turned to face him. The monitor on the desk behind her blinked with the scraps and fragments of data she had pulled from the silo’s old servers, the remnants of information long ago deleted and overwritten countless times. Holston still didn’t understand how the retrieval process worked, or why someone smart enough to come up with it was dumb enough to love him, but he accepted both as truth.
“I’m piecing together a series of old reports. If true, they mean something like our old uprising used to take place regularly. Like once every generation or so.”
“There’s a lot we don’t know about that time,” Holston said. He rubbed his eyes and thought about all the paperwork he wasn’t getting done. “Maybe they didn’t have a system for cleaning the sensors, you know? I’ll bet back then, the view upstairs just got blurrier and blurrier until people went crazy, there’d be a revolt or something, and then they’d finally exile a few. Or maybe it was just natural population control, you know, before the lottery.”
Allison shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m starting to think—” She paused and glanced down at the spread of villainous paperwork around Holston. The sight of all the logged transgressions seemed to make her consider carefully what she was about to say. “I’m not passing judgment, not saying anyone was right or wrong or anything like that, I’m just suggesting that maybe the servers weren’t wiped out by the rebels during the uprising. Not like we’ve always been told, anyway.”
This got Holston’s attention. The mystery of the blank servers, the empty past of the silo’s ancestors, haunted them all. The erasure was nothing more than fuzzy legend. He closed the folder he was working on and set it aside. “What do you think caused it?” he asked his wife. “Do you think it was an accident? A fire or a power outage?” He listed the common theories.
Allison frowned. “No,” she said. She lowered her voice, looked about anxiously. “I think we wiped the hard drives. Our ancestors, I mean. Not the rebels.” She turned and leaned close to the monitor, running her finger down a set of figures Holston couldn’t discern at a distance. “Twenty years,” she said. “Eighteen. Twenty-four.” Her finger slid down the screen with a squeak. “Twenty-eight. Sixteen. Fifteen.”
Holston plowed through the paperwork at his feet, putting the files back in stacks as he worked his way toward the desk. He sat on the foot of the bed, put a hand on his wife’s neck, and peered over her shoulder at the monitor.
“Are those dates?” he asked.
She nodded. “Just about every two decades there’s a major revolt. This report catalogued them. It was one of the files deleted during the most recent uprising, our uprising.”
She said “our” like any of them were alive at the time. Holston knew what she meant, though. It was the uprising they had been raised in the shadow of, the one that seemed to have spawned them, the great conflict that hung over their childhoods, over their parents and grandparents, and filled whispers and occupied sideways glances.
“And what makes you think it was us, that it was the good guys who wiped the servers?”
She half turned and smiled grimly. “Who says we’re the good guys?”
Holston stiffened. He pulled his hand away from Allison’s neck. “Don’t start. Don’t say anything that might—”
“I’m kidding,” she said, but it wasn’t a thing to kid about. It was two steps from traitorous, from cleaning. “My theory is this,” she said quickly, stressing the word “theory.” “There’s generational upheaval, right? I mean for over a hundred years, maybe longer. It’s like clockwork. But then, during the great uprising, the only one we’ve known about till now, someone wiped the servers. Which, I’ll tell you, isn’t as easy as pressing a few buttons or starting a fire. There’s redundancies on top of redundancies. It would take a concerted effort, not an accident or any sort of rushed job or mere sabotage—”
“That doesn’t tell you who’s responsible,” Holston pointed out. His wife was a wizard with computers, no doubt, but sleuthing was not her bag, it was his.
“What tells me something,” she continued, “is that there were uprisings every generation for all this time, but there hasn’t been an uprising since.”
Holston sat up straight. He glanced around the room and chewed on that. He had a sudden vision of his wife yanking a bag out of his hands and making off with it.
“So you’re saying—” He rubbed his chin and thought this through. “You’re saying that someone wiped out our history to stop us from repeating it?”
“Or worse.” She reached out and grabbed his hand with both of hers. Her face had deepened from seriousness to something severe. “What if the reason for the revolts was right there on the hard drives? What if some part of our known history, or some data from the outside, or maybe the knowledge of whatever it was that made people move in here long, long ago, what if that information built up some kind of pressure that made people lose their marbles, or go stir crazy, or just want out?”
Holston shook his head. “I don’t want you thinking that way,” he cautioned her.
“I’m not saying they were right to go nuts,” she told him, back to being careful. “But from what I’ve pieced together so far, that’s my theory.”
Holston gave the monitor an untrusting glance. “Maybe you shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “I’m not even sure how you’re doing it, but maybe you shouldn’t be.”
“Honey, the information is there. If I don’t piece it together now, somebody else will at some other time. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
“What do you mean?” Holston asked.
“I’ve already published a white paper on how to retrieve deleted and overwritten files. The rest of the IT department is spreading it around to help people who’ve unwittingly flushed something they needed.”
“I still think you should stop,” he said. “This isn’t a good idea. I can’t see any good coming of it—”
“No good coming of the truth? The truth is good. Trust me.”
Holston looked at his files. It’d been five years since the last person was sent to cleaning. The view outside was getting worse by the day, and he could feel the pressure building to find someone. He could feel all kinds of pressure, like steam building up in the silo, ready to launch something out. People got nervous when they thought the time was near. It was like one of those self-fulfilling prophecies where the nerves finally made someone twitch, then lash out or say something regretful, and then they were in a cell, watching their last blurry sunset.
Holston sorted through the files, wishing there was something in them. He would put a man to his death tomorrow to release that steam. His wife was poking some great, overly full balloon with a needle, and Holston wanted to get that air out of it before she poked too far.