Internationally-bestselling author Leigh Russell is known for taut psychological thrillers. In Rachel's Story, Leigh Russell brings her skill for suspense and incisive knowledge of human behavior into a dystopian novel told from the point of view of a young girl.
In Rachel's world, trees are a thing of the past, planes are artifacts, and monsters are real. When she loses the one person who protects her, Rachel must choose her fate: the monsters outside the city walls, or the ones within them.
Read on for an excerpt from Rachel's Story, and then pre-order the book!
Alarmed, I searched the pocket of my waistband, but my food card had gone. In a panic, I scanned every inch of the dirt floor of our room, staring into each of the five dusty corners, but there was no sign of my card. Flinging myself down on the bed, I hugged my knees, sobbing, but crying would not save me from disaster. Even as I wept, I was aware that time was running out. If my food card failed to materialise before my mother returned, it would not be long before she stumbled on the truth. And then, after all she had done to protect me, my mother would be forced to hand me over to the Guardians.
‘Do you want to starve to death, like your father?’ she would hiss at me. ‘How do you think you are going to survive without a food card? Do you think I can support you, all by myself?’ And then she would weep, tousled dark hair falling over her face. Raising her head, her eyes blazing, she would continue in a low voice. ‘How could you be so careless? This is your life we’re talking about. What am I supposed to do now? You know the law. You leave me no choice.’
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She would be right. If she attempted to share her rations with me, we would both be seized by the Guardians. The Council took good care of us, keeping our enemies outside the city walls during the day, so that we could walk the streets in safety, but without our regulation pills we would starve. The responsibility for taking our pills rested on our own shoulders. Every day Guardians patrolled the streets, their announcements loud enough to be heard from indoors: ‘Keep your card safe’, ‘No card no pills’, and ‘Without your card you starve’. If my mother tried to share her pills with me, it would not take the nurses at the clinic long to detect that something was amiss. As soon as my mother’s weight dropped, she would be investigated, and once they discovered that my weight had also fallen below the prescribed limit, our transgression would be exposed.
Frantically I tore off my tunic and shirt and trousers and felt every inch of them between my fumbling fingers, but my food card had not slipped into a fold of the fabric. I shook them violently, but nothing fell out. Quickly pulling my clothes on again, I scrabbled through the bed covers, and searched the rest of the room, crouching down to peer under the bed. I even pulled the door open in case my card had somehow become lodged in the dirt underneath it. My red and black food card should have been easy to spot, but all I could see were piles of dust in the corners of the room. My mother swept the mud floor every day but whenever the door was open, flecks of grit blew in from the wasteland beyond the city walls.
As I hunted desperately for my card, I tried not to think about Clare, who had lived next door to us, the sole friend of my childhood.
As a last resort, I pulled the sacking off the trestle bed that my mother and I slept on and shook it. To my surprise, a small white card fluttered out and landed at my feet. Dropping to my knees, I picked it up, and stared in amazement at an image of an odd face. On the back of the card there was a row of indecipherable symbols. I looked at them for a long time, hoping their meaning would mysteriously become clear. Eventually I gave up and turned the card over.
The woman’s face bore a marked similarity to my own reflection, which I had seen in polished metal trays at the food clinic where we went to be weighed and measured. Although she was approaching middle age, and her cheeks were oddly puffed out, she had my round blue eyes, turned up nose and slightly protruding upper lip. Given our resemblance, I guessed we must be related. Apart from my mother, every other member of my family had died before I was born.
Those who had survived the Great Sickness had starved to death in the subsequent World Famine, so it was hardly surprising that my father had died before my mother bore me, his first and only child. With the whole world starving, family members had been forced to pool their limited food supplies so that at least one of their number could survive. As she was expecting a child, my mother had been the person our family had chosen as their sole survivor. Since then, more than twelve years had passed and, along with other survivors, we were looked after by The Council. Although it was not my fault that my birth had saved my mother’s life, I do not think she ever forgave me.
The picture my mother had kept hidden under our mattress was disturbing. The woman’s face was oddly distorted, her cheeks so full and round that no bones showed through her skin, and her arms looked unnaturally thick. She appeared to be bloated with some horrible disease, yet her skin looked healthy, and she was smiling. Her protruding tongue was attached to a shapeless pink blob in a tapered conical cup, and I could not imagine why she might want to touch it with any part of her mouth. Presumably she was using her tongue for protection, but it would have been far easier to have simply shut her mouth. Even if nothing passed between her open lips, whatever her tongue was touching must be dirty, yet she was smiling, as though she was enjoying herself. It was unnerving.
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Absorbed in looking at the picture, I had not noticed how fast the daylight was fading and, just before dusk, the front door opened. My mother was home. In a panic, I threw the sacking back on our bed and slipped the picture into my waistband.
As I did so, my fingers brushed against my food card which had been there the whole time, concealed behind a slit in the fabric. Shaking with relief, I looked up and greeted my mother. I wanted to ask her about the woman in the picture, but was afraid she would be angry with me and take the card away.
‘What have you done to the bed?’ she demanded.
‘If you lie down, you must tidy the bedding when you get up. You can’t always expect me to do everything for you.’ She paused to study my expression. ‘You have that guilty look on your face. What have you done?’
She was bound to discover the absence of the picture sooner or later. Defeated, I explained that my food card had been temporarily mislaid, and in my search I had come across a picture of a woman. Ready to defend myself against a scolding for losing my food card, albeit briefly, I was surprised when she fixated on my discovery. The safety of my food card ought to have been of paramount importance, yet she did not even mention that.
‘What picture? What are you talking about?’ she demanded, scowling suspiciously at me.
‘It’s just a picture.’
‘Picture? What do you mean, “a picture”? Give it to me.'
Reluctantly I drew the card from my waistband, and she snatched it from my hand. ‘Is that my grandmother?’ I asked. ‘What’s she putting in her mouth?’
Without warning, my mother slumped down on our bed, her shoulders bowed. ‘Where did you find this?’ she asked in a low voice. She was no longer angry. This was not like my mother at all.
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