The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing. Read an excerpt below from Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted—available February 4th from Tor.com Publishing.
“That girl’s got more wrong notions than a barn owl’s got mean looks.”
Esther is a stowaway. She’s hidden herself away in the Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her—a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.
As Esther breathed in the sweet, musty smell of the horse blankets in the back of the Librarians’ wagon, she chewed on the I-told-you-so feeling that had overwhelmed her ever since her father had told her with the news about Beatriz. She’d known that none of it would come to any good. She’d told Beatriz as much. Tried to tell her, anyway.
But Beatriz never did listen. She always was stubborn, as stubborn as a hot day, the kind that comes too long before a storm breaks, and so she hanged. She swung by her neck while Esther’s father, Victor Augustus, made a speech about the dangers of deviance. Silas Whitmour had stood a few feet behind the podium with his fists clenched in his pockets. His lips had been pressed together tight, his eyes on Esther.
Not on Beatriz. He wouldn’t hardly look at Beatriz at all.
His eyes were on Esther, who had lied to her father and told him she’d make the whole thing right.
The Head Librarian didn’t find Esther Augustus until they were two whole days outside of Valor, Arizona. She swore so loud and colorful that it snapped Esther right out of the Beatriz-dream she’d been having, and by the time Esther was sitting upright, the Head Librarian’s revolver was pointed right at her face.
“Don’t shoot me,” Esther said, her voice raspy. Her mouth tasted foul from two days without only the bottle of water she’d brought, two days without a toothbrush and without food. “Please,” she added, because her mother had raised her right and because manners seemed like a good idea when a gun was involved.
“Give me a single good reason.” The Head Librarian’s badge glittered in the early-morning sun. It was a hammered copper star with three columns etched into it— one for virtue, one for knowledge, and one for patriotism. It shone as bright as Beatriz’s eyes had.
Esther wasn’t sure if the Head Librarian was asking for a single good reason to shoot or a single good reason not to, but she decided to play her only card.
“My name is Esther Augustus,” she said. “My father is Victor Augustus. He’s—he’s the Superintendent of the Lower Southwest Territory,” she added uncertainly.
The Head Librarian surely knew who Victor Augustus was, but her face didn’t change at the sound of his name. Her square jaw was set just the same as it had been, her flinty gray eyes were just as furious, and her finger was still awfully close to the trigger of her six-shooter.
“Leda!” The Head Librarian didn’t yell, but her voice carried all the same. After a few seconds, Esther heard unhurried footsteps crunching toward the wagon. The Head Librarian didn’t take her eyes off Esther as those footsteps approached, her gaze matching the unblinking eye that was the barrel of her gun. All three of those eyes watched Esther Augustus, and she watched them back, too dehydrated to sweat and unable to draw a full breath.
“Damn it, Bet, if you can’t start dealing with scorpions on your own, I’ll—oh.” A second woman appeared next to the Head Librarian. Bet, Leda had called her. The two women couldn’t have looked more different. Leda was tall and wide where Bet was somewhere between wiry and scrawny. She was pale where Bet was brown, her skin smooth where Bet’s was scarred. Leda’s eyes were gentle. At least, they were. Until they landed on Esther’s little nest among the saddle blankets and dry goods, that is. When she saw Esther’s hiding place, those gentle eyes flashed hard, then went wary and darting.
“Now, Leda,” Bet growled, her eyes still on Esther like a snake watching an approaching ankle, “didn’t I ask you to check this wagon when we left town?”
Leda didn’t answer, but her face told the story well enough: asked to do the task, didn’t feel like doing it, said it was done to move things along.
“Please don’t shoot me,” Esther said, coughing as the words hit her dry throat. “I don’t mean any harm, it’s just—”
“It’s just that you’re running away,” Bet intoned flatly. “You’re running away to join the Librarians.”
“Well, I’m not… I’m not running away from anything,” Esther stammered, the lie loose on her tongue. “I’m running to something.”
“Give the girl some water,” Leda muttered to Bet. “She’s delirious.”
“She’s Victor Augustus’s daughter,” Bet replied. Leda’s eyes got big as she looked back to Esther.
Those eyes were canaries, Esther realized—they sang everything that passed through Leda’s head, loud and clear enough for anyone to catch. “Shit,” she hissed. “We don’t have time for this.”
“Does your father know where you are right now?” Bet asked. Esther hesitated, then shook her head. Bet mirrored the movement. “No? Stupid to tell me so,” she said. “If he doesn’t know you’re here, there’s not a chance of a consequence for me if I shoot you dead and dump your body in the desert.” She sighed, lowering the revolver, and Esther took in a full breath at long last. “Get out of that wagon before you sweat fear-stink all over my horse blankets. Leda, this water is coming out of your supply.” With that, Bet walked away and out of sight.
Esther slid out of the wagon on weak legs, her feet slipping in the gravel. She’d worn her most practical shoes, but she could already tell they wouldn’t keep her upright on the trails the Librarians rode.
Not that good shoes should be her immediate concern, she thought. She couldn’t rightly say that this wasn’t going according to plan, since there hadn’t been much of a plan in the first place, but it certainly wasn’t going the way she’d hoped it might. She couldn’t think of why a Head Librarian would need to carry a revolver instead of a rifle. A rifle would do just fine for whatever might be in the desert, whatever might come across the horizon to make a woman nervous. A revolver was too close-up for a woman to carry, her father’d always said. A revolver was a man’s weapon, made to end an argument.
A Librarian, Esther thought, shouldn’t ever have need of arguing. That was the whole point.
A strong, callused hand caught her by the elbow before she could stumble again. It was Leda holding a canteen. Esther would have sworn she could smell the water inside of it. She drank too gratefully, and that strong hand slapped her on the back hard to make her cough up the water she inhaled.
“You don’t want to lie to Bet, you understand?” Leda whispered, her mouth close enough to Esther’s ear to stir the hair near her temples.
“I wouldn’t,” Esther replied. She decided not to remember the last time Beatriz had been that close to her ear, the things they’d whispered to each other then.
“I mean it,” Leda said. “She’ll know if you lie, and if you do, you can forget about her letting you stay.”
Esther nodded, her heart pounding. If she played this thing wrong, she had no idea what might happen. Maybe Bet would take her home to face her father’s wrath. Maybe Bet would turn her loose in the scrubland to wander, lost and alone. Maybe Bet would pull that iron out again, and maybe this time, she’d use it.
But, Esther reminded herself, that was only if she screwed up.
If she did everything right, on the other hand? Well, then she might just get to become a Librarian.
A full canteen of water later, Esther was sitting on a rock across from Leda and Bet, and she was lying harder than she ever had before.
“I’ve always wanted to be a Librarian,” she said, looking Bet right in the face, making her eyes wide and earnest the way she did whenever she talked to the Superintendent about the importance of the flag and the troops and the border. Her long hair was matted with sweat in spite of the tight braid she’d bound it in before climbing into the back of the wagon, and she felt like something that had gotten stuck on the tread of a tank, but none of that would matter if she could make herself shine with earnest dedication to the cause. “Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed of joining an Honorable Brigade of Morally Upright Women, doing Rewarding Work Supporting a Bright Future for—”
“—the Nation’s Children,” Bet finished flatly. “You memorized the posters.”
“I hate those things,” Leda muttered, and Bet shot her a sharp look.
“Of course I memorized them,” Esther said. If she didn’t blink for long enough, she could get her eyes to water a little, so she’d look like she was overcome by passion for the Librarians’ work. She clasped her hands together in front of her and let her shoulders rise. “I had one of the recruitment posters hung over my bed since I was a little girl. I love everything about Librarians.”
“What’s the part that appeals most?” Bet asked.
“I just admire the work you do so much,” she gasped, and there it was: her eyes were burning and she knew they’d take on a real shine soon. “Helping to further the spread of correct education is so important. If it weren’t for the Librarians, no one would have up-to-date Approved Materials to read and watch and listen to. My father always said”—Bet made a soft sound at this, and Esther reminded herself not to bring up her father again for a little while—“he always said that when boredom takes hold, that’s when people get up to trouble. So, I figure that if it weren’t for the Librarians, people would probably be coming up with dangerous new materials all the time.” She looked down at her feet and gave a soft sniff. “I just want to help. I want to be part of something that’s bigger than I am. I want to be a Librarian.”
Esther flushed a little with pride. Surely that little speech had done the job.
When she looked back up, Bet didn’t seem impressed. “That was a fine performance,” she said, running her finger across the thick, cruel scar that cut through her left eyebrow. “I don’t doubt you put a hell of a lot of effort into it. Would you like to try a different tactic, though? Telling the truth, maybe.”
Esther glanced at Leda, who gave her an “I told you so” smile. Her heart pounded hard and fast and high in her chest. That had been her best angle, the speech she’d been practicing for those two overheated days under a pile of saddle blankets.
She stared at Bet, aware that the longer she waited, the more it would be obvious that she was trying to come up with a lie. She closed her eyes and gave her head a little shake.
“Alright,” she said. “The truth is, my father was gonna try to marry me off. To a man I don’t—I don’t love him, I don’t even know him, and I couldn’t stand it. The idea of becoming his wife, after—” She stopped short, because she couldn’t talk about what had happened, not without giving everything away. And she couldn’t tell the Librarians all of it. If she did, they’d never let her become one of them. They were some of the most dedicated civil servants on the State payroll— they’d report her for sure.
Bet’s eyes flashed. “After what?”
Esther swallowed painfully. Careful, now. “My best friend,” she said. “She was engaged to him before, but she just… she was executed for possession of Unapproved Materials. Some kind of pamphlet about Utah. I didn’t know,” she added hastily, and it was true. She hadn’t known. Beatriz hadn’t seen fit to share the Unapproved Materials with her. Hadn’t trusted her enough, maybe, or wanted to protect her. No reason could make it less bitter, though, knowing that Beatriz had kept such a huge secret. “I didn’t know she had them, or I would have tried to stop her. I would have tried to make it right. I think she was going to tell me, the night before she… the night before she was caught. She said she wanted to tell me something, but.…” Esther trailed off, because there was nothing good could come of her talking too much about Beatriz. She returned to the better part of that detail, the part she thought would make them like her more. “I never knew she had Unapproved Materials, I swear it. I would have done something if I’d known.”
Leda coughed into her fist. Again, Bet shot her a look. “You alright over there?” Bet asked.
“Just fine,” Leda said. “Dusty out here, is all.”
“So, your friend died,” Bet said. “Happens to the best of us. You oughta pick your friends better, maybe.”
Rage flared suddenly in Esther’s chest and throat, pounded hot in her temples. “There’s no such thing as a better friend than Beatriz, you have no damn idea what you’re—” She stopped herself. That wasn’t the way to do this. She forced herself to exhale. “You’re right,” she said, straining to sound calm. “I suppose I should have seen it sooner. I should have been more careful.”
Bet leaned her elbows on her knees, stared intensely at Esther. That outburst had caught her attention, it seemed. Damn. “So, she hanged,” Bet said, her voice suddenly soft. “And you ran off.” Esther nodded. It was close enough to true. Bet continued, speaking low and gentle, and as she did, Esther found herself leaning forward, too. “You couldn’t stay there anymore, is that right? You didn’t want to marry that boy, and you didn’t want to stay there if Beatriz wasn’t going to be there?”
Her words drew something up out of a deep and locked-up place in Esther’s belly, something unplanned and uncareful. “It’s not just that I didn’t want to stay there,” she said, the words coming slow. “I couldn’t stay there. It was too dangerous for everyone.”
“Why was it dangerous?” Bet whispered, her gaze intent. Over her shoulder, Leda had gone very still, but everything that wasn’t Bet’s eyes seemed far-off as the horizon.
“Because Beatriz died and they were gonna marry me to someone important,” Esther said. “I would have had so much power to spread my poison to so many people. So, I thought that if I joined the Librarians… no matter what happens to me, at least I’d be able to do some good before the bad finds me.”
“Like it found Beatriz?” Bet asked, nodding.
“’Course it found Beatriz.” Esther’s cheeks were hot again, and it wasn’t until she felt a splash on her knee that she realized the heat was from tears, a steady spill of them. She went on whispering to Bet, unable to stop herself, unable to hold back the confession. “We knew it’d find us. People like us, we draw the bad in. There’s no good end, not for us. We knew better, we read all the stories—read them too much, probably. We knew that the bad would find us if we didn’t…” She trailed off, because there was no word for the thing Esther knew she should have done.
She’d talked to Beatriz about it a thousand times, with their legs knocking together as they sat on a porch swing or with their backs in the grass by the creek outside town, or with Beatriz’s sweat still stinging her lips. We have to fix it, they’d agreed over and over again. We have to be better. We can’t do this anymore. The last time they’d had that conversation, a week before Beatriz died, Esther had said, I don’t feel that way about you anymore. A desperate attempt to rescue them both. Saying it had felt like dying, although not as much like dying as the fate she’d feared would come for them.
It was the worst lie she’d ever told, and it hadn’t even been enough to save Beatriz.
She struggled to find a way to explain this to Bet, a way to explain how she and Beatriz had brought it all on themselves. “It wasn’t that we should’ve known better,” she said at last. “We did know better. I knew better. But I didn’t fix it in time, and so Beatriz got hurt. Who knows who else I would have hurt if I hadn’t left town?” More tears fell onto her thighs as she thought of her father, her fiancé, her future children. How many people would she have brought down with her if she’d stayed? “There’s something inside me that’s wrong,” she said, “but I thought if I joined the Librarians, maybe I could wash it out. I could learn how to be better from y’all, and then maybe… maybe I wouldn’t have to hurt anyone, after all.”
There was a long silence then, punctuated only by Esther’s wet sniffs. Her vision was blurred with hot, relentless tears, tears that she hadn’t let herself shed at the hanging. Tears for Beatriz, and tears for herself, too, because the thing she had to do felt so huge and so hard. She would have to dig out the broken part of herself, the part that had made her kiss Beatriz that first time and then every time that came after. She would have to dig it out, and she would have to kill it, and she would have to kill the small secret part of her that loved the broken thing, that had loved the way it felt to tuck Beatriz’s hair behind her ears and lick the hollow of her neck and watch her sleep.
Neither of those parts of her could survive, if she was going to keep herself from meeting the tragic end that she knew was promised to people like her.
“I think I understand,” Bet said. “You wanted to come and join the Librarians, because we’re chaste, and morally upright, and we’re loyal to the State no matter what. And because we don’t give in to deviant urges. You wanted to come and join us because you wanted to learn how to be like us. Do I have that right?”
Esther nodded, gasping. “Yes,” she said. “Please. Please teach me how to be like you.” She looked up, wiping her eyes, letting herself have the smallest splinter of hope that Bet wouldn’t report her for what she’d confessed. That hope dissolved when she saw the grim set of Bet’s jaw. “Please,” she whispered one more time, fear tart under her tongue because she knew this was it, this was her last worst hope and this woman who could turn her in to the reaper was looking at her with precisely zero mercy. “I know I’m not supposed to be like this. I want to be like you.”
Bet shook her head, then turned away from Esther, her chest hitching. When she turned back, a small, rueful smile was breaking through the grim line of her mouth. She laughed, a laugh she was obviously trying hard but failing to suppress. She reached a hand out to one side, and for one awful moment, Esther was sure that she was waiting for Leda to hand over her revolver— but then, instead of a gun, Leda put her palm over Bet’s, and their fingers laced together.
“Well, Esther,” Bet said, that irrepressible laugh trying hard to shake her voice, her thumb tracing the back of Leda’s. “Well. I’ve got good news for you, and I’ve got bad news.”
Excerpted from Upright Women Wanted, copyright © 2020 by Sarah Gailey.