by J.S. Breukelaar
RELEASE DATE: June 22, 2021
GENRE: Speculative Fiction / Dark Fantasy
Meera and her twin sister Kai are Mades—part human and part not—bred in the Blood Temple cult, which only the teenage Meera will survive. Racked with grief and guilt, she lives in hiding with her mysterious rescuer, Narn—part witch and part not—who has lost a sister too, a connection that follows them to Meera’s enrollment years later in a college Redress Program. There she is recruited by Regulars for a starring role in a notorious reading series and is soon the darling of the lit set, finally whole, finally free of the idea that she should have died so Kai could have lived. Maybe Meera can be re-made after all, her life redressed. But the Regulars are not all they seem and there is a price to pay for belonging to something that you don’t understand. Time is closing in on all Meera holds dear—she stands afraid, not just for but of herself, on the bridge between worlds—fearful of what waits on the other side and of the cost of knowing what she truly is.
After I wrote the story in Marvin’s notebook, I wound my hair into a bun, pulled on a skirt and my thin coat and raced toward the bridge. I balked at the spot where the spiked claws—neither human nor animal—had crooked themselves around the rail. They were not there now—but I knew better than to trust either my faulty imagination or my crappy memory. Best just to pretend they never were. My feet kept moving and if my racing brain calibrated two dark smears at the lower edge of the railing, it stored the image for a rainy day.
I did not slow until I got to the other side.
A velvet mystery hung over the cobbled streets of Wellsburg, and it wrapped around me like a cloak. My whole being leaned into the history lurking around the corners, behind the walls, the listing road signs. My soul dipping into a cool clear stream of a reality that I could steal and make my own. I breathed in the truth of this place—smells of coffee and expensive perfume, and sounds of music and peals of laughter—and felt the cracks inside me fill with possibility.
Backlit water tumbled in the fountain at the center of the Quad. It was warmer on this side of the river, similar to September in the Rim, balmy yet with an edge to the breeze. The fickle nature of the weather had revved up my cough, and a few people looked up as I passed, curious maybe about what kind of weak constitution could be unwell on such a night as this? One look at me, at what I was, told them all they needed to know: cult survivor—endangered species. Their faces glowed with health and flawlessly applied makeup—lipstick that never smeared, mascara that never ran. Their expensive, casually assembled couture clung like a second skin. I felt like a plucked bird, a bad joke with my war paint and kohl-black wings, and I kept my head down.
There were some others like me. Mades and other special-program students from the Tower Village, dancing clumsily to and from electives or from jobs they had in taverns and shops, keeping to the shadows, insisting on their own planned obsolescence.
I didn’t want to be a bad joke.
I passed under the maple and through the granite arch to the Writing and Culture Office. Pagan had said that she would be in class. I was counting on that. Walking through the streets of Wellsburg had jangled my nerves and mixed up the words of the story in my head. I wanted to make Pagan believe in me—see that I was real enough to keep. Invisible in the Blood Temple behind Kai’s larger-than-life protection, only half real in the Starvelings where Narn never forgave me for being the wrong half—all I wanted was to dangerously imagine myself through the gaze of another. To prove that Narn was right, after all, not to throw me in the trash.
Distant music played from the Music and Technology rooms. Someone was practicing a strange diminished chord over and over again. I climbed some stairs and passed a landing illuminated by a huge leadlight window that depicted Eve leading a shamefaced Adam from Eden. Laughter tickled down from the level above and I balked. Kai’s ugly shoes echoed on the stairs. The laughter turned to something else. A moan. The stunted arpeggios from the music room quickened. Adam buried his face in his hands.
I wandered down a wide hallway lined with sconces. The ceiling receded into shadow. I smelled expensive weed, and the moan turned to a sob, getting louder as I neared the restroom. I kept walking. Room 225 was to my left. The door was ajar and I stood on the threshold looking into a small classroom dominated by an oaken table which students sat around with typewritten sheets and notebooks like mine. The walls were of age-defying stone and a stern old-fashioned clock hung behind the instructor, the second-hand juddering. I identified two other Mades, but otherwise it was all Regulars. Pagan lounged with her friends, a gaggle of swans with long necks and lush feathers that caught the light. I sat down facing a high window against which the maple branches flung themselves in the rising wind. Sweat pooled at the small of my back.
The instructor was a nervous Made a few years older than me, with emerald streaks in her hair and a small fierce freckled face. She wore a department store Bohemian skirt and earrings that jangled. She nodded at me, checked my name on the roll, and explained the workshopping process for the benefit of the “latecomers.” We would read from our work, she said, and the class would offer their critique, beginning with the student to her left, and concluding with feedback from Jacinta herself. The other two Mades and I avoided eye contact. There was a quota, but I didn’t know how many places were left, and I wondered if they did either. Were we all competing for the same thing—protection? I felt something in me rise to the ugliness of the game.
There were only females in the class. No males. My heart sunk. Was there no damn place in this whole campus where one could meet a nice young drover, take him upstairs into a room with faded wallpaper like in the Five-Legged Nag? Unbutton his jeans before he knows what you are?
Someone read a chapter from the start of a novel about the end of the world. Another student read a poem about antique tools. The instructor made notes in a yellow pad and everyone commented on the pieces, lies mostly, how much they enjoyed it and how they couldn’t wait to read more. The Regulars were looking aggressively bored or were on their phones, and even then I knew that Jacinta couldn’t have stopped them if she tried. Everything about their attitude suggested that they were less students than paying customers, with a line of credit as long as their necks—she served them. We all did. This was the tomorrow we were being re-Made for. I felt my hopes plunge, my power drain.
Pagan had not acknowledged me. The readings were muffled beneath the roaring in my ears. I was rigid with anxiety. A few Regulars read stories about bad dates and true detectives and dead mothers, none of which we Mades knew anything about. I was to read last, and by then Pagan was asleep with her head on her hands and her sandy quiff flopped over her eyes. I almost felt a sense of relief. At least this way, she couldn’t laugh at me. If she laughed at me, I thought I might die.
I didn’t know whether to stay sitting or stand up. I stayed sitting, kept my eyes on Marvin’s notebook, without really seeing it. At first when I began to haltingly read, nothing happened. I knew my lips were moving, but in my anxiety I could hear no sound. Faces turned to me, pale and tense. I was making no sense. It was all just mumbo-jumbo, a bad joke after all. I heard a titter, saw someone swiping the screen of their phone. I stopped rushing. Tried to slow down to make space for the out-of-joint meaning.
Once I asked Kai what we were, exactly. What the fragments of our being amounted to. “Tell me and we’ll both know,” she’d said.
The story I read was and wasn’t the same as Narn told me on the bridge. It was both more than that, and less . . . There is a man with a raven’s head pulled over his own like a mask. He uses his beak to peck the faces off little girls in their sleep. They wake up every morning with something missing—a-tongue-a-tooth-an-eye, and every night the man-raven returns one thing—a nose haphazardly affixed to an earhole, an eyebrow ripped away and replaced with an upper lip—only to take something else instead.
“Their eyeballs,” I finished very slowly, “squish like grapes between my beak.”
Silence slammed down on the room. The clock stopped ticking and it was no longer a clock but a map. Across the map, place names—Demos, Kokylus, Akheron, Elysion—materialized in symbols I didn’t know I knew. The play of moon-cast shadows through the maple branches bounced the map across the faces in the room, refracted contour and form-lines with no earthly reference, the blur of tongue-twister toponyms, impossible sea levels and nightmarish elevations—a shifting restless map showing directions to nowhere. Pagan smiled in her sleep. Another student rushed from the room and there was a bang of the lavatory door, moaning that I suddenly realized I had not so much heard as foreseen. Jacinta, her freckled forehead sheened with sweat, jumped up from her chair and the markings were stark across her face.
“Stop!” she cried.
A door banged again. Open or shut. Giant wings flapped past the window casting the room in sudden utter darkness, and when they passed in the blink of an eye, the map had gone. The clock was just a clock. The faces of my classmates just pale, stunned faces.
“Why should we listen to this?” Jacinta asked, trembling.
“If someone lived it,” Pagan answered without raising her head. “We should at least be able to listen to it.”
- What inspired you to write this book?
It started with a short story inspired by storytelling itself, by the anxieties we all face at college, and by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is how so many of us feel, especially if we straddle countries, identities, genders, genres, colliding histories. Once I wrote the story I wanted to learn more about this world between the future and the past, between science fiction and magic. So I stayed there. I stayed on the bridge.
2. What, if anything, did you learn when writing the book?
That it’s incredibly difficult to turn a short story into a novel. I can’t tell you how many times I just wanted to give up and start something from scratch.
3. What surprised you the most in writing it?
The place surprised me. The more I explored it, the more I learned about the history of witches, of goddess and demons, of darkling futures that are always present.
4. What does the title mean?
The Bridge refers to a bridge in the novel that connects the old and new campuses of Wellsburg College. The old campus which is where Meera wants to be, and the new campus, purpose built for Mades – survivors of the Blood Temple paradise cult, and made to replicate it in ways that Meera wants desperately to escape.
5. Were any of the characters inspired by real people? If so, do they know?
There’s a lot of me in Meera. If I didn’t know that at the start of the novel, I know it now.
6. Do you consider the book to have a lesson or moral?
7. What is your favorite part of the book?
That changes depending on my mood. Right now it’s the end.
8. Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
Meera. The main character. She hid from me. I know now why – we have a lot in common. And neither of us wanted to admit it.
9. What are your immediate future plans?
To keep writing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: J.S. Breukelaar is the author of Collision: Stories, a 2019 Shirley Jackson Award finalist, and winner of the 2019 Aurealis and Ditmar Awards. Previous novels include Aletheia and American Monster. Her short fiction has appeared in the Dark Magazine, Tiny Nightmares, Black Static, Gamut, Unnerving, Lightspeed, Lamplight, Juked, in Year’s Best Horror and Fantasy 2019 and elsewhere. She currently lives in Sydney, Australia, where she teaches writing and literature, and is at work on a new collection of short stories and a novella. You can find her at thelivingsuitcase.com and on Twitter and elsewhere @jsbreukelaar.
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