Here is a sneak peak of my upcoming book, The Edge of Endless Grass. I am so excited for you to read it that I could not wait. Here is the first chapter, entitled “A Day in that Village”.
By the time that Sebby arrived, the sun had started creeping over the grass, and Valerie was waiting for him. He stood at the foot of her family’s old home, hands on his knees, huffing and puffing the late-autumn air as orange light painted the sky a hundred shades.
“Still sick?” he asked.
She nodded once again, but before he could catch his breath, Valerie was off down the paths, bare feet thumping through the damp morning dirt. Even if he hadn’t been winded, he wouldn’t have been able to keep up.
She didn’t run like someone who had been sick all her life. There was a strength to her movements, as if every step she took had to make up for the ones her bedridden years had taken from her.
Though the plan had been to play together, he lost track of her as she slipped between the rows of identical clay homes.
Sebby smiled. He had wanted to hold her hand. Her fever might have made her skin burn to the touch, but Sebby wanted to be with her, tying his fingers into hers. He wanted to be a support to steady herself on in the swirl of everything else. But Valerie lost him quicker than ever, and whether that was because her health was improving or because she was just that desperate to get out and run, Sebby couldn’t help smiling.
After the sound of her footsteps had disappeared into the distance, he slowed down and found a spot on one of the houses where the clay jutted out in irregular blobs, oddities on the buildings’ usual smooth corners. Sebby grabbed the bumps tight, smoothed by the rain, and pulled himself up onto the roof to take in the view. Hundreds of houses sat in regular rows stretching to the field in the south and the orchard in the north, wrapping around the larger buildings in the center of the village. Beyond the houses and fields, surrounding everything on all sides and stretching as far as the gold and purple sky, the grasslands whispered with life. Every time he grew another day older or another millimeter taller, he thought he could feel the tall stalks creep that much closer.
His focus turned back onto the village, watching between corners and cracks, listening past the sound of the chilled breeze rustling the grass in a wash of tiny brushes and taps. Finally, he heard a whistle. Looking in its direction, he could barely make out Valerie standing on a distant roof, waving tauntingly. Her hair danced in the wind, burned yellow with whisps of brown and red. As quick as he could, Sebby slid down and ran after her.
His lungs hurt as his heart beat through his ears, and again, he lost track of her. So, he climbed onto the nearest roof, one on the eastern edge of town. Only this time, no matter how long he waited or which streets he stared down, there was no sign of her. No whistle. No wave. In every direction, nothing. The village was still asleep.
He changed his perspective, standing so close to the roof’s edge that the breeze nearly pushed him off. Still, nothing.
Sebby felt the blood rush out of his head, knees wobbling on the lip of the roof. It would have been reasonable to assume that Valerie was still somewhere in the village, hiding in some alley amongst his thousands of blindspots, or collapsed somewhere from her fever, but before his eyes found her, his stomach had already sunk down off the roof, breeze whisking the remnants of heat off from his cold skin. He turned to the east and saw her there—Valerie—standing by the edge of the grass.
Sebby ran as fast as he could—faster than he ever had before. It didn’t matter that he twisted his ankle jumping down off the roof; he could worry about that later. The only pause he took was to cry out for help, hoping anyone would wake and save her.
He had heard the stories about the grass. The monsters. The unknown. She had heard them too. She should have known not to get too close.
His screams echoed back to him. Everyone was still in bed—it would take time before they could rise and come to help. So, Sebby kept running, limping when he had to, stumbling up the bank of dirt and stone past the edge of the village, hoping that Valerie would still be there when he reached the top.
Crossing that bank, every warning, every story, every thought—all of it disappeared. Sebby’s mind went blank at the still and perfect view.
He stared out at the sea of shimmering streaks. Like a puppet with strings broken from years of neglect, his hazy eyes could only stare forward, unable to move or act the way his subconscious screamed for them to do. Like Valerie, he had heard the warnings and still ran straight into the trap.
There, his eyes wandered onto her, still fifty feet away. She was just a few feet from the tall grass looming overhead. Slowly, she turned, her golden, shaking eyes finding him, her body shivering with weakness for the first time. That one look was all it took. Sebby was repaired. Before his feet were back under his control, he was already stumbling toward her, crawling, then running, then screaming.
“Valerie! Get away from there!” he called.
No response. Thirty feet away.
“Valerie!” he screamed. His body felt hollow. His limbs weak.
Valerie’s eyes shined a little brighter, but still, she stood still as the wind returned, blotting out his screams.
His ankle spiked with pain, his head spun, but he continued forward until he grabbed her by both arms, crumpling her sleeves up under his grip as he pulled her back down to him. “What are you doing out here?” he asked. “We have to go.” He pulled away, but she refused.
“I saw someone,” she said, “when I was up on the roof. I thought I could just peek up over the bank.”
Sebby looked back at her, back to the village, and finally, toward the grass reaching out above their heads.
“You mean…in there?” he asked. The grass bristled in the breeze. Valerie nodded, shaken, but certain.
“Above the grass,” she said, “He was staring at me.”
Sebby kept his gaze locked on the twelve-foot stalks, blown too fast to make out anything hiding behind their first few layers.
She nodded again.
“It wasn’t a monster?” Sebby asked.
“He looked human.”
Sebby felt his body relax a bit again despite his efforts to stay tense. They stared at the long tan threads, and for just an instant, they blew and parted in a thin line stretching far back. Deep in the dark, Sebby could have sworn he saw the shine of an eye staring back at him.
The wind became more frantic—obscuring everything beyond the first few secretive blades—but the shadows sank deeper, and the eye couldn’t be forgotten. Inch by inch, the two felt it creeping closer, silently turning the sweet air sour and rotten.
Sebby couldn’t get his legs to move. They could not flee.
The grass shivered as it emerged fingers first. Nails half-peeling away, skin mottled gray and brown, a nearly human hand came quietly out of the grass, resting in the space in front of the two of them with its palm facing up, fingers stretching softly out. As large as Sebby’s torso, it was the biggest hand he’d ever seen, with long, bony fingers and a thin arm stretching back into the grass.
Faintly, Sebby could hear the far-off sound of some familiar song whistling through the grassland, wafting through the thick, warm air that enveloped the two of them. His eyes lost focus, the stench disappeared. The hand seemed pointed at Valerie, calling to her like it didn’t even notice Sebby was there.
Valerie answered the call, stepping to the hand. The sun had risen high enough to start peeking thin rays through the grass, painting Valerie in sun dappled gold as she reached out for the limb in front of her.
Gently, its fingers began to wrap around Valerie’s. She turned back to Sebby, smiling, her eyes a wide, shimmering pool.
Deep in his mind, he was screaming, but Sebby smiled back. The air made him be at peace, and staring at Valerie’s contented face, he wondered if her smile was real or forced too. Still, part of him felt that if that moment had gone on forever, he could have been happy. But the drums sounded from the center of the village, pulling the smile off both of their faces, knocking them back to reality with each thunderous blow.
By the closest homes, Sebby could already see the first signs of people heading out to prepare for the morning’s loss.
He didn’t want to go back. He didn’t want to follow that drumbeat home. Every morning meant he was that much closer to saying goodbye to another brother or neighbor, to losing Valerie.
The wind picked back up through the grass, half disguising the drums’ heartrending call, allowing Sebby one last chance to look back at Valerie and stick that moment in his mind forever.
But there was no one in front of Sebby when he turned back around. Valerie and the hand were gone, leaving just a patch of dried-up dirt as the grass waved mockingly in the breeze. For a moment, he could only stare at the empty space and picture it—the way the hand must have grabbed her, fingers wrapping around her face to keep her quiet before it pulled her away. He wanted to vomit, but the best he could manage was a scream.
He had to go after her.
One step took him to the edge of the tall blades, his head spinning worse the closer he got. His eyes filled with tears. What coThe Edge of Endless Grass – Chapter 1uld he do on his own?
He turned back and tripped, falling in the dirt facing the village, bellowing out with every ounce of breath he could muster—
“Help us! Please help! Something took Valerie!”
Through his wet eyes, Sebby could only make out the rough blobs of color that made up the village. As his tears pooled and fell, the colors he saw stirred, but whether that was help on its way or just the light dancing to trick him, he couldn’t tell.
Even if someone had heard him and was coming to help, they were still hundreds of feet away. Sebby was weak, dizzy, and terrified, but there at the edge of the grasslands, he was Valerie’s best chance at making it back alive. He dug into the dirt, clutching desperately onto that village that he despised, the village that he had wanted to save Valerie from all her life. There was no time to cry or feel helpless. At thirteen years old, Sebby already felt the weight of someone else’s life in his hands.
The first thing he noticed when he stepped into the grass was that he couldn’t feel anything. From the wet ground on his feet to the dry grass clinging onto him from all sides, everything went numb. His toes must have stuck in the mud and tangled in the roots, but unable to feel them or his twisted ankle, Sebby could only stumble.
The earth tried to tear him down. He watched his steps closely, but it wasn’t enough. A few yards into the grasslands, Sebby fell into the muck.
With no feeling in any of his limbs—no sense of up, down, or forward—the world spun. There, with his head sunken into the soggy earth, he saw them coming. Burrowing out of the ground in a frenzy, the worms wriggled toward him through the slop, first a few, then thousands thrashing in their amalgam of slimy filth and teeth, chirping dissonant tones as they reached toward Sebby like one monstrous limb.
They were larger than any of the worms that had ever burrowed out around his home. And they were fast. Sebby managed to push himself up onto his feet, but his head spun again and nearly pulled him right back down again. Holding back vomit, he tried to figure what way led home and what way Valerie might have been taken in. In his second of indecision, the worms found his leg.
The fastest ones bit into his feet and his ankles, draining his blood one drop at a time. They dug their tails into the mud, rooting Sebby in place, making it impossible for him to step away. The stench of rot reached Sebby again, but any pain was still numb.
The next wave writhed further up his leg, past where the others were feeding, finding their own places before the boy was picked clean. They wriggled between each other, hundreds or thousands of worms, tearing into Sebby’s leg, climbing ever higher, tying themselves into a tight knot. He tried to claw them away, but recoiled as they latched onto his hand. All he could do was helplessly pull, rooted to the ground, lightheaded and senseless as he watched the worms overrun him. Saving Valerie seemed very far away.
In the distance, he heard a shriek—the deep, monstrous cry of some abomination lurking in the brush. In an instant, the worms pulled away, sinking back into the dirt. Those that hadn’t had their fill began biting onto those that had, but within seconds, all were gone, leaving Sebby alone, sweating in the ever-rising morning heat with a pincushion leg bleeding into the mud. His breath was unsteady, his mouth turned sticky and dry, and he began heading toward the shriek he had heard, his stride quickly turning into a limp as his shredded leg failed to keep up.
He wasn’t sure if he would find Valerie, but he hoped that following the shriek would lead him to the creature that had taken her away. The dew of the deeper grass intermingled with his sweat, weighing down his every sloppy step. He couldn’t feel his own body begging him to stop, to turn around, and to hobble away before he couldn’t hobble anymore.
It took something else to finally get him to stop. His ears, too numb to notice until then, finally picked up the sound of something pushing through the grass up ahead, rushing toward him from the direction of the monster’s shriek. He had noticed it too late. Whatever was coming was already there.
Sebby tried to prepare himself for anything that might come popping through, but he was caught off guard when Valerie ran straight into him, very much alive and on her own.
She must have been just as surprised to see him, but hardly a second after she had knocked Sebby off his feet, she was already pulling him away.
Dragged through the grasslands, for the first time since he had entered the endless field, Sebby felt his senses starting to return. If Valerie hadn’t been pulling him forward, he might have crumpled on the spot. The horror came in many shapes—as the chirps and roars of creatures, as the pain in his leg, as the eyes behind every whisp and shadow. It came as the burning, feverish heat of Valerie’s hand in his, and the ground convulsing beneath his feat. It was enough to shatter his courage in a second. Saving anyone from the grasslands was impossible.
Yet somehow, Valerie was escaping on her own, and would save him along the way.
The dark beyond the brush finally began to lighten and the two of them ran out, the only people Sebby could think of to ever return from the grasslands alive.
As the panic passed, Sebby’s right leg failed him. He fell, taking Valerie down with him before scrambling on all fours another few yards from the edge of the grass.
Pushing off with his good leg, Sebby threw himself onto Valerie, clinging to her and knocking her down onto her back. With his senses still returning, the numbed heat of her burning body and the feeling of his arms around her was more comforting than ever.
“What happened?” Sebby asked.
Valerie shook her head, clearly too overwhelmed or unsure to respond.
“How did you get away?”
“Something hurt it. I’m not sure.”
“What was it?”
She tightened her grip around Sebby. “I could only make out the eyes.” The wind slowed down and Valerie barely whispered, “It wasn’t human. It had a face before, but this time…just eyes.”
For a moment, neither said anything. With the wind gone, all was silent, and the two laid tangled into each other, alive.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Sebby said. It didn’t matter how it had happened. All that mattered was that he could stare into her, and wrap her tightly in his shuddering arms.
But it was cut short as the drumbeat found his ears once again. Lifting his head to the village, seeing the sanctuary they had escaped back to, Sebby held Valerie even tighter.
He hadn’t expected much when he’d called for help, but of all the people now out on the streets, no one so much as looked in their direction.
It wasn’t shocking. There would always be extra children, unnecessary, and a few of them going missing early wouldn’t bother anyone. But once again, Sebby didn’t want to be home. He hated what the future held in store, more real now than it had ever felt.
Sebby let Valerie out of his hug, and the two sat face to face for one last moment before she stood up.
“We should go,” she said, gesturing toward the drums. She had the same pained look on her face that he did.
Staring at her eyes, still trying their best to glow brighter than the morning sun, he wondered again what it was that had tried to take her away, and why it had let go. He wondered how she had known which way to go to get back to the village, and how she had had the strength or sense to run. Taking her hand as she helped him up to his feet, he wondered why she wasn’t soaked from sweat and dew like he was, why his hand hurt in hers, and why red marks had started to form under the holes in her torn up shirt.
But Valerie didn’t know anything either, and right then, the meeting called out for them—they needed to see who they would lose that day. Was it a neighbor or a friend, or maybe a sibling who had lost count of the days? Who would give up their lives so that Valerie and Sebby could eat?
He didn’t last one step toward the village’s beating heart before the pain in his leg caught up with him, knocking him headlong back to the ground. The hungry chittering of the grass sang a chorus to the drum’s ominous beat. Sebby realized that he couldn’t move.
“Are you okay?” Valerie asked, crouched by his side. With one hand on him, she stared at the undulations of the field still looming over them, keeping track of every shifting blade, every noise.
Nothing came, and once Sebby had failed for the third time to get up on his own, Valerie hooked one arm under his shoulder and pulled him up over hers, helping him limp away, never once taking her eyes off of the unknown.
It took until they had slipped back down the bank and stepped past the outermost homes for Valerie to gawk at Sebby’s leg and let him rest.
“Will you be okay?” she asked.
Sebby stared hesitantly at her. “I’m fine,” he said. He tested his leg, but couldn’t imagine standing on his own anytime soon. “I just need to lie down.”
Valerie nodded attentively, pulling half of his weight back on her shoulders and limping him home. No one along the way called out to them—no one offered to help or asked if they were okay—but the worst always came as they crossed the shadowy entrance into Sebby’s home. His parents glanced at him and went back to their happy breakfast. If he squinted, he could almost pretend to see a glimmer of concern in their eyes. But right then, that breakfast and their sweet words were only for Dillon, their eldest son.
Their family was large. Dillon, Marco, Miranda, Sebby, Jordi, and Nel all had to share what little their parents got. So, without any words or questions, Sebby let himself be carried past breakfast to the room he shared with his other abandoned siblings. It was dark and windowless, cracked dirty brown walls running up through the ceiling and the floor. The only furniture allowed for them was a wide bedframe covered in a thin coat of dried grass to rest on.
Faintly, he could hear Miranda snoring deeply in the bigger room across the hall, the room she shared with Dillon. Whenever she managed to pull herself out of bed, she would be welcomed to breakfast alongside him. The rest of them had only been given a slice of bread or a yam and sent out to work, to play with friends, or to go to the morning meeting.
The others weren’t in, so Sebby laid down on his corner of their rigid bed, wincing as Valerie pulled his leg up after him. He rested his head against his pillow, thinly woven out of grass, wishing he could have one of the stuffed, hide pillows that his parents and their chosen children had.
Listening to the voices wafting in cheerfully from the other room, it was hard to feel like anything more than a pest, unwelcome, unwanted, and soon to be rid of. But in spite of the atmosphere, Sebby smiled wide at Valerie. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m good now. You shouldn’t miss the meeting.”
“You’re joking, right? I’m not leaving you here.”
“It won’t be long, and I want to know what happens. You can fill me in after.”
Valerie gave him a long, concerned look. “There’s no one to help you if you need anything.”
He knew that she wanted nothing more than to stay by his side, and his smile almost crumbled as he ignored the pain in her eyes. “It will be over if you don’t hurry,” he said.
Her brow betrayed one last protest, but she left it unspoken and stood up. “I’ll be back soon,” she said.
“See you soon.”
She left, passing silently through the other room, and when he heard the door open and shut, Sebby finally lost control. His barely convincing smile fell into a trembling heap as he mouthed silent sobs so that his family wouldn’t hear, tears falling quickly, unrestrained.
He had really thought that he could save Valerie, but twice, he had nearly died. Twice, he had been completely helpless and had only gotten in Valerie’s way. Staring up at the ceiling, he clenched his fists and wiped as many of his tears away as he could, but no matter how tightly he shut his hands, there was too much that he couldn’t hold on to.
No one else was coming to help, and as it stood, he was much, much too weak to save anyone.
The Meeting Hall was the only building with two floors, and stood prominently at the center of the village, every home and storehouse sitting within its watchful gaze. Inside, both windowless levels overlooked the central platform. There must have been a time when their clay benches were all packed with spectators, anxious for the day’s loss. However, for as long as Valerie could remember, only a few dozen people attended the meetings each morning.
By the time she crept quietly up to the second floor, the meeting had already begun.
“—and her husband, Lyndon, will venture into the grasslands to seek fertile ground,” Elder Markhel said, his voice booming without any real emotion. “May you return with your lives and good news.”
The Elder stood in the center of the platform. Even hunched over with age, his frame, closer to seven feet than six, towered over anyone else who came close. His black hide cloak hid most of him, turning his body into a dark silhouette, a towering pillar with only his gentle, wrinkled face sticking out on top. Even from up on the second floor, he still felt eerily close.
Surrounding him were four of his councilors, with Lyndon and his wife standing further down by the edge of the platform—today’s sacrifices.
Lyndon had a smart and sturdy look to him, one of only a handful of men in the village who could still almost look impressive next to the Elder. He looked healthy and strong, and there was something about the way he stood tall, surveying the audience that Valerie couldn’t help but be drawn to—he didn’t look ready to die.
His wife, on the other hand, looked dazed and unaffected. It was a strange sight to see them together like that, and hard to imagine them married for the last thirty-some years. Yet, on that morning, one of them had turned 50, too old to feed, so both would die in the grass.
Elder Markhel pivoted to talking about the harvest of that week, already finished with the couple’s pronouncement, ignoring Lyndon as he tightened up, his face screaming hate as clear as day.
It was always hard for Valerie to watch. She liked it when the people being banished took it easy. When they went quietly, it almost made it feel like the grasslands weren’t that bad.
But now, she had been there. She had tasted a few minutes of what the grasslands had in store, and watching Lyndon struggle within himself, not ready to give up on life, Valerie pitied him, careful to save enough for herself. She barely had another month before she would follow him.
Elder Markhel had told the stories enough times for Valerie to know them by heart. The grass had come slowly at first, eating away at the old world, consuming countries, destroying dynasties, until nothing but their village remained. Even stripped back down to dirt, any lands the grass had touched turned baren, good for nothing. The only two fertile patches left were the field and the orchard, their harvests altogether capable of feeding just short of 4,000 mouths a year.
The harvest never grew, and the flesh of grassland monsters was tainted and deadly. If the next generation was too large, everyone would starve, so the Elder at the time created rules to keep the village from falling apart.
When a child turned 18, their parents would decide whether to save them or send them away. Each family could only select two of their children to live, to replace the parents who came before, and since they would always choose their strongest, smartest, and most well-behaved children, every generation would be even greater than the last.
Once two children had been selected, the leftovers would no longer be needed. They would be banished into the grass.
One of Valerie’s brothers had already been selected, and her parents made it no secret that in a matter of weeks, when her sister Aurora turned 18, they were going to select her too. Valerie was the third of five children—a girl who had been forced to stay in bed half her life. Worse than disobedience or foolishness, sickness was the greatest weakness anyone could have. To her parents, she must have never even been an option.
It made sense. All of it was for the sake of “survival.” No one could live unless others made room. But surviving was hard to get behind when she was the sacrifice.
Elder Markhel twisted his wrinkled face into one of his smiles. “Tomorrow, there will be no meeting,” he said. “Please, return to your work.”
The stale air stirred as those gathered to watch stood up to leave. The councilors turned to remove the couple from the village. Valerie kept her eyes on the platform.
Faster than the flicker of a candle, Lyndon stepped and swung his fist at Markhel. He put more than just his body behind that punch, not lashing out in frustration, but as rebellion itself.
The Elder didn’t flinch. In spite of Lyndon’s speed and stature, before the strike could find its mark, three of the councilors had brought him to the cold, stone floor as Markhel smiled on.
Valerie gripped the banister tight, blood rushing out of her fingers and into her lips, pulled tight into a weak smile. It was easy to imagine how Sebby’s thin face would have lit up if he had been there—from his curled brown hair that bounced above his ears to his pretty pink eyes that he insisted were just a light shade of brown.
She loved the way the world looked reflected in those eyes, the way they never seemed to give up. When she saw herself reflected in them, she almost looked like she would be okay.
Of course, Valerie wanted to live, but in the end, she was glad that Sebby wasn’t there. If he had seen the way Lyndon had swung his fist or that others wanted to resist as well, he might have done something stupid.
As much as Valerie resented the village’s rules and wished she could live there, even if it would damn future generations, she knew that without that spot of life in the endless wasteland, Sebby wouldn’t have a way out. So long as someone went on surviving, there was a chance that that someone could be Sebby. He was an idiot, the kind of person who would charge into the grass to try and save her. But he wasn’t sick, he wasn’t that slow, and he could learn not to be stupid—so long as he stayed out of trouble. He just had to prove his worth within the next two years, before his siblings got selected. Sebby could survive.
Lyndon was taken outside, never to return.