Afterland

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By Lauren Beukes

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Children of Men meets The Handmaid's Tale in this "smartly written" and "splendid" thriller about how far a mother will go to protect her son from a hostile world transformed by the absence of men (Stephen King).

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.

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.

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PART 1




1.

Cole: Naming Rights

“Look at me,” Cole says. “Hey.” Checking Miles’s pupils, which are still huge. Shock and fear and the drugs working their way out of his system. Scrambling to remember her first-aid training. Checklist as life buoy. He’s able to focus, to speak without slurring. He was groggy in the car, getting away. But soon he’ll be capable of asking difficult questions she is not ready to answer. About the blood on her shirt, for example.

“Hey,” she says again, keeping her voice as even as she can. But she’s shaky too, with the comedown of adrenaline. Seeing Billie hauling his body like a broken punching bag, thinking he was dead. But he’s not. He’s alive. Her son is alive, and she needs to hold it together. “It’s going to be all right,” she says. “I love you.”

“Love you too,” he manages. An automatic call-and-response, like an invocation in church. Except their cathedral is an abandoned gas station restroom, where the rows of empty stalls gape like broken teeth in the predawn light, toilet seats long since wrenched off by vandals.

Miles is still shaking, his thin arms wrapped around his rib cage, shoulders hunched, teeth clicking like castanets, and his eyes keep jerking back to the door, which has been kicked in before this, judging by the scuffs and dents in the plywood. She, too, is expecting that door to burst open. It feels inevitable that they’ll be found and dragged back. She’ll be arrested. Miles will be taken away. In America, they steal kids from their parents. This was true even before all this.

In the shards of mirror, her skin tone is gray. She looks terrible. She looks old. Worse, she looks scared. Cole doesn’t want him to see that. Maybe that’s what superheroes are concealing behind the masks: not their secret identities, but the fact that they’re scared shitless.

  

The glassy blue tiles above the sink are broken into mosaic, the pipe half-wrenched from its mooring. But when she opens the faucet, it creaks and groans and water sputters out.

This is not blind luck. She spotted the water tank on the roof of the looted gas station store before she slid the car around the back and under the tattered shade cloth. Devon was always the organizer in the family, the planner, but she has learned to live thirty seconds ahead of wherever they are, calculating all the possible trajectories. It’s exhausting. “Live in the moment” was always a philosophy of luxury. And damn you, Devon, Cole thinks, for dying with the rest and leaving me to do this on my own.

Two years later and you’re still mad, boo?

She still hears her dead husband’s teasing voice in her head. Her own homemade haunting. Lot of that going around these days.

Better hope your sister doesn’t join the ghost chorus.

She splashes her face to banish the thought of Billie, the sickening sound of metal against bone. The cold water is a shock. The good kind. Clarifying. She can feel all the guilt in the world later. Once they’re out of here. Once they’re safe. She peels off her bloody shirt, stuffs it into one of the sanitary bins. It’s seen worse gore than this.

The mirror is a fragment of its former self, and in the reflection, the light glancing off the tiles makes her son’s skin look beige. Coffee with too much cream. What did Billie give him? Benzos? Sleeping pills? She wishes she knew. She hopes the drugs were the kind that induce amnesia, like wiping an Etch-A-Sketch clean.

She rubs his back to warm him up, calm him down: both of them needing human contact. She knows him so well. The dent of his MMR vaccination, the white twist of a scar that runs up from his elbow, from when he broke his arm falling off the top bunk, the movie-star notch on his chin, which he gets from her dad (rest in peace, old man, she thinks on autopilot, because she didn’t get to say goodbye). And somewhere deep inside Miles, the errant genes the virus couldn’t latch onto.

One in a million. No, that’s not right. One of the million left in America. The rest of the world has more than that, but barely. Less than a one percent survival rate. Which makes all this so dangerous, so stupid. Like she had another choice.

Holy living boys, Batman. Gotta catch ’em all! And keep ’em, forever and ever. Future security, the Male Protection Act, for their own good, they keep telling her. Always “for their own good.” God, she’s so fucked.

“Okay,” she says, trying to be cheerful, the resolve like lead in her gut. “Let’s get you into clean clothes.”

Cole digs through the black sports bag that was in the trunk of their getaway car, along with water, a jerry can of gasoline—all your basic fugitive essentials—and pulls out a clean sweatshirt for her, and for him, a dusky pink long-sleeved tee with a faded palm tree overlaid with bedazzled studs, skinny jeans with too many zips, and a handful of sparkly barrettes. What are little girls made of? Unicorns and kittens and all things that glitter.

“I can’t wear that,” Miles rouses to protest. “No way, Mom!”

“Buddy, I’m not fooling.” She was always bad cop in the family, setting rules and boundaries as if parenting wasn’t the worst game of improv ever. “Pretend it’s trick or treat,” she says, pinning the barrettes into his afro curls. She remembers the workshop she dutifully attended when he was a toddler—White Moms: Black Hair.

“I’m too old for that.”

Is he? He’s only eleven, no, twelve, she corrects herself. Almost thirteen. Next month. Can it have been that long since the end of the world? Time dilates and blurs.

“Acting, then. Or con artists.”

“Con artists—that’s cool,” he concedes. She takes a step back, evaluates the look. The slogan picked out in pink glitter over the faded palm tree design reads “It’s How We Do” and “California.” Except the W has come off so it reads “ho” instead of “how,” or maybe that was intentional, even in the twelve- to fourteen-year-old section. The slim-fit jeans make his legs look even more gangly than usual. He’s shot up, that gawky phase of being all limbs. When did that happen?

She checks Devon’s watch, too big on her wrist and it’s hard to read the numbers between the constellations engraved on the face. An astronomical anniversary gift. Engraved on the back: “all the time in the universe with you,” except that turned out to be a big fat lie.

I mean, I would have preferred not to die horribly of man plague. Just saying.

Focus. The numerals. Six oh three in the morning. Forty-eight minutes since she found Billie hauling Miles, his slumped body, into the back of the Lada. Forty-eight minutes since she picked up the tire iron.

Don’t think about it.

Yeah, okay, Dev. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

The SUV was exactly where it was supposed to be, in the parking lot of the nearby deserted mall, where their abandoned getaway car would blend in with all the other forlorn vehicles. She and Billie had gone over the plan again and again. She was so impressed by her sister’s foresight, the attention to detail. Bust out, switch cars, drive to San Francisco. The keys were under the hubcap, gas tank filled, supplies in a lockbox under the back seat: water, change of clothing, first-aid kit.

Cole did it all on autopilot, wired and dumb with terror, covered in blood. Except she drove the SUV in the opposite direction than the one they’d planned, away from the coast and Billie’s rich benefactors who had set up the whole thing, inland, toward the desert. The route less traveled, less obvious, less likely to lead them straight into a waiting roadblock and women with machine guns.

Racking up the felony charges over here. They’ll take him away from her—for good this time—arrest her, throw away the key, or worse. Is the death penalty a thing again in the current climate, what with the Reprohibition Accord to preserve life? Reckless endangerment of a male citizen is probably the worst crime. Worse even than what happened with Billie back there. Forty-eight, no, forty-nine minutes ago. She was so angry, so scared.

  

I never liked that sister of yours.

“Mom?” Miles says in the smallest voice, reeling her back from the memory, from going full panic stations.

“Sorry, tiger. I got lost there for a moment.” She holds his shoulders, admires his reflection. Tries to smile. “Looking good.”

“Really?” Sarcasm is healthy. Higher functioning. Not brain-damaged.

“You don’t have to like it. But this is who you have to be right now. You’re Mila.”

He flutters his thick eyelashes, purses his lips at the mirror. The duckface of contempt. “Mila.” She should get mascara, Cole thinks, distracted. Add it to the list. Food, money, gas, shelter, probably another car, keep switching them up, and then they can hit up the local Sephora for all the girly cosmetics a boy in drag could require.

“Wash your hands, you don’t want to get sick.”

“I’m immune, remember?”

“Tell that to all the other viruses out there. Wash your hands, tiger.”

When she cracks open the dented door to the outside world, there are no drones, no choppers, no sirens, no women in Kevlar with semiautomatics surrounding the perimeter. They haven’t found them—yet—and the SUV is still parked where she left it, under the shade cloth, ready to go.

“All clear.” She hustles him toward the car. Sorry, her. Get it right. She can’t afford to make a mistake. Any more mistakes.

Miles clambers into the vehicle obediently. She’s so grateful that he’s going with the flow, not asking questions (yet), because she’ll break if he does.

“You should lie down,” Cole says. “They’ll be looking for two people.”

“But where are we going, Mom?”

“Home.” The idea is ridiculous. Thousands of miles, whole oceans and now multiple felonies between them and ever seeing Johannesburg again. “But we gotta lay low in the meantime.” She says it for her own benefit as much as his. Hers.

“On the run. Like outlaws,” her daughter says, trying to rally.

“Even better than conartists! Cowgirl Cole and Mila the Kid.”

“Isn’t it ‘Billie the Kid’? Won’t she be mad I took her name?”

“You’re holding onto it till she catches up to us. Think of it as joint custody.”

“That’s not how names work.”

“Hey, last I checked, end of the world means normal rules don’t apply.” Levity as defense mechanism: discuss.

“Mom, where is Billie? I don’t remember what happened.”

Shit.

“She got in a fight with one of the guards when we were leaving.” Too glib. She can’t look at him. Sorry, her. “That’s why my shirt was messed up. But don’t worry! She’s fine. She’s going to catch up with us, okay?”

“Okay,” Mila says, frowning. And it’s not. Not really. But it’s what they’ve got.

They peel away from the gas station. The sky over Napa is a pastel blue with dry paintbrush swipes of cloud over vineyards run wild. Pale fields of grass twitch and shiver in the wind. These things make the fact of a murder distant and unseemly. Beauty allows for plausible deniability. Maybe that’s beauty’s entire function in the world, Cole thinks: that you can blind yourself with it.




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 Sasspants.”

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.

Genre:

  • Named one of the Hottest Books of the Summer
    Goodreads * Entertainment Weekly * Good Housekeeping * Milwaukee Journal Sentinel * Publishers Weekly * PopSugar * Literary Hub * CrimeReads
  • “A smartly written thriller that opens with a satisfying bang . . . Beukes is all about turning assumptions and expectations upside down. . . . Think of a world where Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have gone to their reward, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg keeps on trucking. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”
     —Stephen King, New York Times Book Review
  • "Bowstring-taut, visceral, and incredibly timely: Beukes's plague-tale is a parable about the glory and terror of Americanism in times of calamity."—Cory Doctorow, author of Walkaway and Little Brother
  • "Part thriller, part science fiction, and all amazing"—Good Housekeeping
  • “Beukes is such an idiosyncratic writer — one who deftly mashes up suspense, sci-fi, horror, time travel, and, yes, dystopian fiction — that she’s hard to ignore. . . . Beukes imbues what could have simply been a sensational thriller with psychological depth and sharp detail. For those whose taste for dystopian suspense is undiminished, Beukes’s tale of a mother and son making their way across a post-pandemic-ravaged landscape is prescient and taut.”—Maureen Corrigan, Washington Post
  • "A post-pandemic gender-spun thriller that's sharp-as-a-pin and manages both urgency and relevancy in equal measure. Gripping prose from the first page that made me want to be a better writer. Beukes always moves to the top of my must-read list."—Chuck Wendig, author of national bestseller Wanderers
  • "A harrowing tale that ably explores grief, motherhood, and gender roles . . . Beukes is a gifted storyteller who makes it thrillingly easy for readers to fall under her spell as she weaves a hypnotic vision of a fractured world without men. A propulsive and all-too-timely near-future thriller."Kirkus Reviews
  • "Lauren Beukes is a writer with a startling imagination, and a masterful ability to rewrite the rules of whatever genre she turns to; and now, right on time, she has turned to dystopian plague."—Ben Winters, author of Underground Airlines and Golden State
  • "Eerily relevant . . . Beukes' tender, insightful treatment of the relationship between mother and son is significant, and the interplay between feuding sisters is fascinating, as well."—Booklist
  • "Deeply compelling . . . I haven't been able to stop thinking about Afterland. Beukes brings a deep tenderness to the tangle of humanity that comes with widespread grief and clumsy attempts at coping with the weight of loss. This is really something special."—Sarah Gailey, author of Upright Women Wanted and Magic For Liars
  • "I'm an enormous fan of Lauren Beukes. She's an endlessly interesting writer, able to bend and weld genre to ask provocative questions and bring light to the shadows of the human condition. Afterland is a thoroughly gripping, imaginative thriller about a mother protecting her son, a rare survivor of a devastating plague that wiped out most of Earth's male population. In this new world, women exercise power for and against each other--the power of love, the power of violence, unleashed in the absence of men."
    Steph Cha, author of Your House Will Pay
  • "Beukes nails the speed of the unraveling, and the strangeness of living in a suddenly altered world. I hope none of the rest of it comes true."—Emily Temple, Lit Hub
  • "A timely postapocalyptic tale"—PopSugar
  • "Intriguing and all too timely . . . Fans of high-concept feminist SF thrillers will be enthralled. . . . A worthy addition to the pandemic fiction subgenre."—Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Jul 28, 2020
Page Count
416 pages
Publisher
Mulholland Books
ISBN-13
9780316267847

Lauren Beukes

About the Author

Lauren Beukes is the award-winning and internationally best-selling author of The Shining Girls, which has been adapted by AppleTV+, as well as Zoo City, Moxyland, Broken Monsters, and Afterland. Her novels have been published in twenty-four countries, and she's also a screenwriter, comics writer, journalist and award-winning documentary maker. She lives in London with two trouble cats and her daughter.

Learn more about this author