Read an Excerpt From Lauren Beukes’ Afterland

Most of the men are dead. Three years after the pandemic known as The Manfall, governments still hold and life continues—but a world run by women isn’t always a better place…

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Lauren Beukes’ Afterland, a new thriller about how far a mother will go to protect her son from a hostile world transformed by the absence of men—available July 28th from Mulholland Books.

Twelve-year-old Miles is one of the last boys alive, and his mother, Cole, will protect him at all costs. On the run after a horrific act of violence-and pursued by Cole’s own ruthless sister, Billie—all Cole wants is to raise her kid somewhere he won’t be preyed on as a reproductive resource or a sex object or a stand-in son. Someplace like home.

To get there, Cole and Miles must journey across a changed America in disguise as mother and daughter. From a military base in Seattle to a luxury bunker, from an anarchist commune in Salt Lake City to a roaming cult that’s all too ready to see Miles as the answer to their prayers, the two race to stay ahead at every step… even as Billie and her sinister crew draw closer.

A sharply feminist, high-stakes thriller from award-winning author Lauren Beukes, Afterland brilliantly blends psychological suspense, American noir, and science fiction into an adventure all its own—and perfect for our times.


 

 

Chapter 2
Vanishing Point

A city skyline is visible through a haze of heat in the distance like a mirage in the desert, promising junk food, a bed, maybe even TV—if all that still exists, Miles thinks. The roads are coated with bright yellow sand and scored with at least one set of tire tracks, so someone must have been through here before them, and they’re not the Last People Left on Earth, and they didn’t make The Worst Terrible Mistake leaving the safety of Ataraxia, even if it was like being in the fanciest prison in the world. #bunkerlife. It was definitely better than the army base, though.

“The sand looks like gold dust, doesn’t it?” Mom says, with her on-off telepathy. “We could pile it up and swim around in it and throw it over our heads.”

“Uh-huh.” He’s tired of being on the run already, and it hasn’t even been one day. His stomach clenches, although maybe that’s from hunger. He needs to get over his absolute hatred of raisins and eat the snack bars in the kit Billie put together for them. His mind does a record scratch on his aunt’s name…

There’s a thickness in his head he can’t shake, trying to piece together what happened last night, how they got here. He has to wade through his thoughts like Atreyu and Artax in The Neverending Story, sinking deeper into the swamp with every step. The fight with Billie. He’d never seen Mom so angry. They were fighting about him, because of what Billie said, her big idea, and he flushes with shame and disgust all over again. So gross. And then: nothing. He fell asleep on the couch, wearing headphones, and then Mom was driving like a maniac and crying and all the blood on her t-shirt and a dark stripe across her cheek, and now they’re here. It’s probably fine. Mom said it was fine. And she’ll tell him all the details, when she’s ready, she said. When they’re safe. Keep trudging through the swamp, he thinks. Don’t drown here.

He stares out the window, at a field of handmade crosses, hundreds and hundreds of them, painted in all different colors. More memorials to the dead, like the Memory Tree at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where everyone could put up photos of their dead dads and sons and brothers and uncles and cousins and friends who had died of HCV. Miles hated that stupid tree, him and his sorta-sometimes-kinda friend Jonas, the only other kid his age at the army base.

A pale square against the sky resolves itself into a faded billboard as they get closer, featuring a silver-haired guy and a blond lady wearing golf shirts and staring out across the desert with devout joy, like Moses and Lady Moses, looking toward the promised land, except someone has scrawled all over the man’s face, x-ed out his eyes, put scratchy lines over his mouth, like a skull or stitches. But why would you stitch up someone’s mouth, unless you were making shrunken heads? The image is letter-boxed with bold type: “Eagle Creek: Where Living Your Best Life Is Par for the Course!” and “Hurry! Phase Four Now Selling. Don’t Miss Out!”

Don’t miss out, Miles mouths to himself, because that’s how advertising works, and it’s got into Mom’s head too, because when they come up to the sign two miles down the way, the one that reads “Eagle Creek: Now On Show!,” she takes the turn.

“We’re going to check this out. Hole up for the rest of the day.”

“But the city’s right there!” he protests.

“We’re not ready for civilization yet. We don’t know what’s out there. It could have been annexed by a colony of cannibal bikers who want to turn us into tasty, tasty human bacon.”

“Mom, shut up.”

“Okay, sorry. There are no cannibal bikers. I promise. I need to rest for a bit. And I want you to have time to practice being a girl.”

“How hard can it be?”

“Hey, sometimes I don’t know how to be a girl.”

“That’s because you’re a woman.”

“Fair enough, but I don’t know that either, or how to adult. We’re all faking it, tiger.”

“That’s not exactly reassuring.”

“I know. But I’m trying.”

“Yeah. Very trying!” It’s a relief to fall back on their old routine of witty banter and snappy comebacks. It means not having to talk about The Other Stuff.

“Hilaire, mon fils.”

“I think you mean fille.” He knows this much from six months of studying French at the school in California, which he sucked at, because back home in Joburg they did Zulu at school, not stupid French.

“Yeah, of course. Thank you for the correction, Captain Sass-pants.”

The arch above the boom gate to Eagle Creek has two concrete eagles perched on either side with their wings spread, ready to take flight. But the raptor on the left has been decapitated somewhere along the way, like a warning. Beware! Turn back! Phase Four now selling! Don’t miss out! Don’t lose your head!

Past the gates, a giant excavation pit with barriers and a digger halfway up a mound of gray dirt with its claw half-full (or half empty) with the same yellow dust, like the guy operating it up and walked away, or died right there in the driver’s seat, and his skeleton is still sitting in the cab, with his hand on the lever and the job forever unfinished. And yeah, okay, there are completed townhouses, all alike, high up on the hill, and half-finished ones with ripped and flapping canvas in the rows in front, but the whole place gives him the effing creeps.

“It’s abandoned,” Miles says. “It isn’t safe.”

“Better than inhabited. And maybe there are supplies here that haven’t been picked over because that’s exactly what everyone else thought.”

“Okay, but what if there are actual cannibal bikers here?” He tries to keep it light, but he’s thinking: or crazy preppers, or sick people, or desperate people, or people who would hurt them without meaning to because sometimes that’s the way things play out—or people who want to hurt them, because they can.

“Nah. No tracks. Ergo, no cannibal biker ladies.”

“But the wind is so bad, this sand could be piled up from yesterday.”

“Then it will blow over our tracks too.” She climbs out of the car, leaving the engine running, and goes to heft up the security boom.

“Give me a hand here,” she shouts, and he reaches over to turn off the ignition because it’s irresponsible to leave it running, then clambers out to help her. But as he’s trying to help her lift it, something hisses and clicks nearby. His first thought is rattlesnake, because that’s a thing out here in the desert, and wouldn’t that be perfectly their luck, to get this far and die of snakebite? But it’s only the automatic sprinklers, popping their heads up and going click-click-click, dry over the dust where the lawn was supposed to be.

“Means the electricity is still up and running. Solar panels, look. Guess they were going for an ‘eco-friendly’ golf estate. Which is not a thing, by the way. Oxymoron.”

“But there’s no water.”

“We’ve got a couple of gallons in the car. We’re fine. We’re safe, we have everything we need, especially each other. Okay?”

Miles pulls a face at the cheesiness of it all, but he’s thinking about how he shouldn’t have turned off the car, because what if they can’t get it started again? The door to the security booth is locked and it’s a relief, because now they will have to go somewhere else. Like, the city, maybe? Or back to Ataraxia and his friends—well, friend. Singular. Ella at Ataraxia, Jonas at the army base.

They could just go back and explain what happened. (What did happen?) He’s sure the Department of Men people will understand. Always saying how special he is, how they all are—the immune. Jonas said they could do whatever they wanted. Get away with murder. That’s why his friend was such a jerk-face to the guards.

It wasn’t murder, was it? Did Billie and Mom kill one of the guards? He can’t stand the not knowing. But he can’t bear to ask. It’s like one of those old school sea mines from World War II bobbing between them, full of spikes and waiting to blow if either of them brushes up against it. Don’t ask, he thinks.

Mom has managed to wedge the window of the security booth open and she wiggles her arm through and jabs the button to open the boom. She gets back in the car, drives them through and closes it again behind them, sweeping her jacket over their tracks in a perfunctory way.

“There,” she says, as if that pole is going to protect them from whoever might come looking, like they couldn’t just reach in through the gap in the window the way she just did. But he doesn’t say anything, because sometimes talking is worse, because naming something makes it real.

The SUV crawls all the way to the ridge at the top of the estate, past the giant pit and the digger he can’t look at, in case he sees the skull of the driver grinning back, the frames with canvas flapping in the wind that is getting worse, kicking up swirls of yellow dust that cling to the windshield and get in his nose and sting his eyes when they climb out of the car at the second row from the top, where the houses have been completed and some even look recently occupied.

“Did Dad ever tell you about Goldilocks planets?” She does this, brings his father into things, as if he’s ever going to forget.

“Not too hot, not too cold. Just right for human habitation.”

“That’s what we’re looking for. Somewhere that hasn’t been looted previously. I shouldn’t use that word. Not looters, requisitioners. It’s not looting if no one is coming back for it, if you need it to survive.” She’s talking to herself, which means she’s tired. He’s tired, too. He wants to lie down, and nap, for a million years maybe.

“This one,” she says. The window on the front porch is broken, the curtains threading between the burglar bars, tugged by the wind. She climbs up onto the elevated deck. The curtains are drawn, but you can see the lattice grill of the security gate, one of those quick-slam ones everyone in Johannesburg has but he hasn’t seen much of in America, which makes him anxious about what the original owners were worried about protecting themselves from. Mom gathers the billowing fabric to one side so they can both get a look in. He can see a bottle of wine on the table, with two glasses, one lying on its side, a stain like blood beneath, and another half-full (or -empty, depending whether someone drank half of it or only filled it up halfway, to be logical), as if the inhabitants have popped out for the afternoon, maybe to get in a round of excavation pit golf. But the yellow dust like glitter over the slate gray tiles gives the lie to that, likewise the picture frame facedown in a halo of broken glass.

“Bars means no one has been inside here.”

“And we’re not getting in either, Mom.”

“Unless…”

He follows her around the back to the double garage with a cheerful ceramic palm tree mounted on the wall beside it. A narrow panel window runs along the top of the aluminum door. She jumps up to look inside. “Nobody’s home. No cars, although there is a kayak. Think you can climb through that if I boost you?”

“No. No way. What if I can’t get out again?” What if he cuts himself and bleeds to death in an empty house with a ceramic palm tree on the wall and other people’s photographs and Mom stuck outside?

“All right. No problem.” She backs down, because she can tell he’s serious. But then she slams both palms against the crenellated aluminum of the garage door, sending it shuddering like a giant metal dog shaking itself.

“Mom!”

“Sorry. How strong do you think this is?”

“I don’t know. But you scared me. Cut it out.”

“I’m going to bust through. Go stand over there.”

She jumps in the SUV, backs it up and revs the accelerator. He can’t watch. The car leaps forward and crashes into the door. There’s a huge smash and a screech of protest as the aluminum buckles over the hood like cardboard.

“Mom!” He runs over and finds her sitting in the front seat, pushing down on the fat white jellyfish airbag and laughing like a maniac.

“Fuck, yeah!” she says, tears running down her face, gulping and sobbing.

“Mom!”

“What? It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything’s fine. Stop worrying.” She swipes at her eyes.

“You broke a headlight.” He inspects the front of the vehicle, and okay, he’s impressed that it’s the only thing that’s broken. She seems to have judged it well, the toughness of the vehicle, the momentum, hitting the brakes at the right moment so she didn’t punch right through the back wall like Wile E. Coyote and keep going. He’ll never admit that to her, though.

They squeeze past the crumpled remains of the roll-down and through the unlocked interleading door and into the house. It feels like stepping into a first-person shooter and his fingers twitch for a gun, or, truthfully, for a controller, so he can press X to access the drop-down menu to click on random items for information, like the healing values of the tin cans scattered all over the kitchen floor. In a video game, there would be boxes of ammo, various weapons, med-packs, maybe even a llama piñata or two.

Of course, in a video game, you wouldn’t get the smell. There’s a dark, sweet reek from the broken jars spilling their black sludgy guts across the tiles among a scatter of feathers from where a bird got in. Mom is grabbing cans, checking the dates on them, piling up the ones that are still good, taking assorted knives, a can opener, a corkscrew out of drawers. She opens the refrigerator and quickly closes it again. “Well, that’s a big nope.”

“I’m going to look around.”

“Don’t go too far.”

More feathers in the living room, where the window is broken and the curtain puffs and billows. He pulls out one of the stuffed leather chairs and uses it to anchor the fabric down and try to block out the wind, which is low-key screaming around the house, rattling at the windows. He picks up the picture frame lying broken on the ground, shakes out the glass, and turns it over to look, trying to assemble clues. The photograph is of a proud gramps crouched down and holding his catch aloft, with a five-year-old kid standing next to him, in waders and a floppy hat, side-eyeing the dead fish with a look of WTF-OMG-gross-what-even-is-this.

“Welcome to vegetarian life,” he tells the kid in the photo. But he can’t tell if it’s a real photo or the stock art that comes with the frame.

He opens up all the cupboards, hauls out the half-empty bottle of whisky, because you can use spirits to clean wounds if you’re out of antiseptic. In the bathroom, a mummified spider plant crumples under his fingers. The medicine cabinet is already standing open, the contents shambled. Reaching for a Hawaiian-print toiletry bag, his fingers graze over a set of dentures, pale pink and shiny in their plastic case, and he squawks in clammy panic and flicks them away. It’s the same feeling he got from Cancer Fingers. He hasn’t thought about him in ages. Not since The Army Base and Boy Quarantine. Don’t want to now, thank you very much, dumb brain.

He scoops up the medicines without bothering to check the labels and dumps them in the toiletry bag, because that’s what you’d do in a game unless your inventory was already full. On reflection, he also grabs the roll of toilet paper, the half-squeezed activated-charcoal toothpaste.

He finds Mom about to walk into the main bedroom, dark, except for a bright crack of sun between the curtains. It brings back a sharp memory of Dad, dying, and how the air was heavy, and the smell in the bedroom. No one tells you about that.

“We don’t need to go in there,” Miles says, firm. He has visions, now, of a lump in the unmade bed, rising like dough in the oven.

“We need cash, buddy. Don’t worry. I’ll be respectful.”

The closets are already open, emptied out. Mom clicks her tongue, irritated, gets on her knees and reaches under the bed. And it’s dumb kid stuff to be afraid of things under the bed, but his stomach flips anyway. She hauls out a narrow box and opens the latch. “Huh.”

“What is it?”

“A record player. Wind-up. Want to play some music?”

“I want to go. Can we go? Now?”

“In a bit,” Mom says, shifty-calm. “It’s hot out there in the desert. We should make like the Tuareg, travel at night.”

“Are they looking for us?”

“They can try. Rule One of being on the run, do the last thing anyone expects you to. Like having a Kenny G dance party at Eagle Creek.”

“Is it Kenny G?”

“Oh god, I hope not.”

It’s worse. When she lugs it into the living room and hooks it up to the portable speakers, on their last legs of battery, pumps the handle, and then lowers the needle onto the record, it’s not smooth jazz, it’s some kind of German opera.

“Augh!” he yelps, clowning. “My ears! They’re bleeding!”

“At least it’s not Ed Sheeran. C’mon, dance with me.” When he was little, he used to waltz standing on her feet, but his hulking great boy paws are too big to do that now. So, he does a half-hearted funky chicken, and they shake it off, and he tries to show her how to floss, again, but she’s hopeless.

“You look like a drunk octopus.”

“Still better than Ed Sheeran,” she shoots back. They dance until they’re sweaty, because dancing means you don’t have to think. Mom flops down on the couch, the razor energy driving her all used up.

“Ah, man. I think I need a nap.”

“Okay,” he says. “I’m going to do a perimeter check. Keep watch.”

“You really don’t need to,” she says, but this is coming from the woman who has already lined up a golf driver and a very large kitchen knife next to the couch.”

“It makes me feel better.”

Miles picks up his own golf stick and walks through the house, opening all the cupboards, lightly tapping important objects with the head of the club.

Maybe one day people will come tour the ruin of this golf estate townhouse. And here, the guide will say, is the very house where the notorious outlaw Miles Carmichael-Brady, one of the last boys on earth, took shelter with his mom that fateful day after busting out of a luxury bunker facility for men. The tourists will take their own happy snaps, and maybe there will be a commemorative plaque.

He checks the whole townhouse three times over, then he curls up in the overstuffed chair watching Mom sleep, and despite himself, he drifts off too, the golf club across his lap.

“Hey you.” Mom shakes him awake and he realizes he’s slept for ages. The light is dim outside, gloaming. “You want to put that driver to good use?”

With the dusk creeping in, they climb onto the patio and whack golf balls off the deck into the rising dark, until they can’t see their trajectories anymore, or only for a moment before they’re swallowed by the night.

“Vanishing point,” Mom says, then corrects herself, going into art teacher mode, like he doesn’t know. “Not really. It’s a perspective thing, where the lines converge on the horizon.”

“Maybe we need less vanishing, more perspective,” he says. He still hasn’t been able to bring himself to ask.

“Oof. Too smart for your own good.” She reaches out to cup the base of his skull, and he nudges his head into her hand like a cat.

 

Excerpted from Afterland, copyright © 2020 by Lauren Beukes.

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