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Natural Selection

Today is bathed in the shadow of yesterday.

The year is 2051. Almost three decades have passed since the Devastation destroyed civilization. Only the strong and wise survived; the weak and intellects perished. New societies emerged, forging a future with skills from the distant past.

In Green Wood, Eloise has lived in seclusion with her uncle for 12 years. While they receive visitors to Larkspur Cottage, the number of friends they have can be counted on one hand. When strangers arrive and capture her uncle, she is forced to run, but who can she turn to when she doesn’t know the land outside Green Wood or where her friends live?

I classify this story as dystopian / adventure / action / romance in that order. Given the absence of swear words, sex scenes and graphic violence, I also consider this young adult.

Published by Quarter Castle Publishing October 2021

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Chapter 1, Scene 1

Year 2051

Eloise’s first memory of her mama was of sunshine sparkling on her hair on a warm spring day while they tended to plants in the garden. She was not yet strong enough to walk, so she reached the moist dirt on her hands and knees. Her mama smiled at her eagerness to help, then frowned at the stains on her dress. A warm breeze returned the smile and the memory faded.

Eloise’s last memory of her mama was of moonlight glimmering on her hair on a cool fall night while they exchanged frantic hugs and kisses at the door of a shabby cottage. Worry lines etched deep into her mama’s brow as she spoke the words Eloise was to repeat in her mind many times since: Never forget from where you came. It will give you strength when you believe you have none.

Then her mama was gone like a candle snuffed by a gale. The man she had been left with was her uncle, her mama’s older brother, a man she’d never met nor heard of until that dreadful night. His name was Archie, but everyone called him Gristle of Green Wood because he wore a rough beard and seldom left the meadow in which he lived. Over the years, few travellers visited, leaving Eloise, only eleven years old on the day of her arrival, alone with a man who spoke little and went about his daily affairs as if she wasn’t there.

As years passed, Eloise had come to appreciate the lack of supervision offered her. Her days were free to wander, explore and dream as she grew from child into adulthood. Gristle’s demands were few: keep the water bucket in Larkspur—the name he’d given his cottage—near full, sweep the floor daily, wash your clothes, listen intently when I give a life lesson; tend to your needs, and never, ever, not under any circumstances be away from home after dark.

This last expectation enticed her to run faster on the deer trail. Distracted by ducklings on Hideout Pond, she hadn’t noticed the sun had slipped towards the horizon and now in twilight, she was still a good distance from home. Her heart pounded in her chest as she leapt over thorny vines that grew indiscriminately in her path. This section was the worst, one she could have avoided by taking the route through the stand of oaks, but that would have added ten minutes to her lateness.

She sucked in short, quick breaths to battle both the dizziness of physical exertion and the prickliness of the thorn embedded into her heel. Each time her foot struck the ground, pain shot up her leg like the sharp sting of a bee. She attempted to run on the ball of her foot but when she struck a thick tree root, the collision sent her reeling in agony. She rolled several times and ploughed down a span of lush ferns before slamming into a towering elm. The remaining wind in her lungs expelled, and she gasped for breath. Sputtering and coughing, she clutched her foot, grasped the thorn and drew it out quickly.

“Ah! Ow! Ow!” The pain of removing the thorn was greater than stepping on it. She rubbed the sore roughly, then scrambled to her feet and staggered towards home. Almost at full speed, she caught a glimpse of a shadow up ahead on the trail. She squinted to sharpen the image and identify it in the dim light. It moved swiftly, and she slowed her pace. Fear leapt into her throat, making it difficult to draw much-needed air. The shadow blocked her path and travelled directly towards her.

Reduced to a fast walk, at two hundred feet she noticed the shadow did not touch the ground. It skimmed the top of the low bushes on a collision course. In seconds, the form took shape. It was a…a…an owl?

She dropped to the forest floor, and the great-winged bird flew over her, leaving in its wake a rush of wind that sucked the remaining air from her lungs. On her hands and knees with her vision fading, she fought to stay upright, keep her mouth open and her throat clear for oxygen to rush in once her lungs regained function. An eternity passed, and the ground rushed forward. Smashing into the dirt, her lungs slammed into gear, and she gulped life-saving oxygen. Moments ticked by and the lingering light slipped from the sky, leaving her in darkness.

With the meagre amount of strength remaining, she propped herself up on all fours. Three breaths later, she rose slowly to her feet. The owl was gone. She had spotted it many times during her stay at Green Wood but never this close. Her uncle called it Shepherd without an explanation. His only comment was, Stay away from Shepherd. He won’t bother you if you don’t bother him. Until now, she had managed to respect the personal space of the great bird that travelled only at night.

A snapping branch brought her attention to the trail behind her. If it was Shepherd returning, she didn’t want to wait to see what further damage he could inflict. Stumbling towards home, feeling her way in the dark, she glanced back many times, hoping it wasn’t Shepherd, yet hoping it was him and not another great beast.

Tripping and stumbling, she found the mouth of the trail that opened onto the meadow. Her strength returned, she jogged through spring grass and blooming flowers towards the glowing window of Larkspur. She’d sneak behind the cottage and pretend to gather wood for the evening fire and use that as the excuse for why she was outside after dark. Technically, she was not away from home, only outside of it, performing a favour for her uncle.

Nearing the cottage, she slowed and crouched low, scanning the front of the dwelling for Uncle Gristle. He was nowhere in sight. Mapping her route, she slipped by the well and went directly to the woodpile. Upon reaching it, she stood straight and acted casually as if she’d been here all along. She straightened her dress and brushed twigs and dirt from the material. Perfect. She drew deep breaths in an attempt to slow her heart rate. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she leisurely filled her arm with several sticks. One more breath, and she was ready. She turned and walked towards the front of the cottage, feeling pleased she had once again avoided a lecture.

Sudden movement grabbed her attention, and she whirled to find the shadow she had thought was a log leaning against the woodshed moving towards her.

“The wood box is full.” Uncle Gristle walked past without looking into her face and disappeared around the front of the cottage.

Her mouth hung open for several seconds before she clamped it shut. Marching to the wood pile, she threw the sticks onto it and progressed to the front door where she expected solemn words awaited. In an unhurried manner with her chin up, she stepped inside the warm room and closed the door behind her. The single lantern illuminated the space, including the haggard face of her uncle, who poked the fire.

Measuring the distance between her and her curtained room, she took several steps before the aged voice broke the silence.

“It won’t happen again.” He cast a long gaze in her direction. “See it is so.” He turned back to the fire and busied himself with the hot kettle.

“Yes, sir.” She crossed the space quickly, slipped behind the curtain and flopped onto her mattress stuffed with straw and feathers. If not for Shepherd, she’d have not been late; or at least not as late. She released the tension and sunk deeper into the mattress, allowing her uncle’s words to replay in her head. The onus was on her to not let it happen again. Why hadn’t he lectured her? She wiped cooling sweat from her forehead and found dirt and twigs stuck to her skin. Why indeed? It was unlike him. Then she remembered the single-sentence reprimands in the past. They accomplished what drawn-out lectures failed to do: make her think and put those thoughts into action. She groaned and rolled to her side, drawing her pillow beneath her head. He had come to know her too well. It was as if he read her mind, saw her actions before she did. Today was no different, and a voice deep inside told her tomorrow would be the same.

Natural Selection