I’ve been getting some enthusiastic feedback about “The Culling,” my dystopian thriller about a woman on the run from an unjust death sentence and the mercenary assigned to hunt her. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, here’s the link.
Below is a brief scene from the novel. It takes place just after Maren meets her neighbor Ven at a small party and he offers to show her his homing pigeons. You can get a sense of the story world, the starring characters, and the tone of the book. And I don’t mind asking: get your copy if you haven’t already, and share this post with others who might be interested.
Why did I write a dystopian novel? Here’s why.
— 11 —
Maren rode with him in the elevator to the seventy-sixth floor where the pool was located. He led her down a corridor marked Service Only. Ven raised his forearm to align his screen with a lock on a door signed for maintenance staff. The door hummed open. She didn’t ask how he managed to have the proper code to perform that task. Not her business.
She followed him up a stairway to a second door that opened onto the roof. They stepped out. The night was humid and warm, no breeze even at this height, the sky overcast, low, and misty, tinted a yellowy gray. Somewhere behind the light, pollution and cloud cover hid the stars.
Infrastructure dominated the roof: a water-holding tank, air conditioning condensers, pipes, and vents. The flat surface was constructed from poured building composite that felt slightly spongy under Maren’s feet. They could see only above them to the upper floors of the higher towers and the hazy sky. The parapet around the building’s perimeter rose ten feet high to dissuade anyone from jumping. That had been a problem in the early days of the Lottery, a form of protest by people selected in the Lottery and even some that weren’t, which left a visible and disturbing result on sidewalks and led to punishments for the jumpers’ relatives.
The pigeon loft was tucked behind one of the condensers, under an overhang hidden from drone surveillance. Two pigeons nested in the loft, which was constructed of wire and real wood. The birds woke and began to coo when Ven and Maren approached.
The loft had side-by-side door openings, and Maren asked why the birds didn’t fly away. Ven explained these were homing pigeons and they stuck to their home base but could find their way back from hundreds of miles away. Pigeons just like these carried messages during wartime. They were common in World War I, even World War II. British pilots and paratroopers would carry the birds with them and release them with messages attached that they would fly back to headquarters, often reporting on enemy positions or troop movements.
Some pigeons were awarded medals for heroism, Maren said.
You knew that?
I studied history for a while in school.
Ven grasped one of the birds with both hands and brought it out. He asked Maren if she wanted to hold it.
When Hollande was a toddler, they’d had a cat that contracted feline leukemia and died. That might have been the last animal in her hands. Ven placed the bird in her two open palms. It fluttered its wings once and then settled in place as if her hands were its nest.
The bird was much lighter than she’d expected. Its body lacked density but was warm, and she could feel its tiny heart beating. Maren held the bird close to her chest. Its coppery button eye stared at her.
They’re actually my brother’s pigeons, Ven said.
Garrett. He lives with me.
Why didn’t he come to Leah’s with you?
He’s not big on parties. Or leaving the apartment, except to come up here to feed the birds and clean their loft.
Maren didn’t ask more. There were many people who didn’t leave their homes ever. They stayed behind closed doors. They had their food delivered. They lived on the minimum stipend. There was an epidemic of agoraphobia among the population that scientists couldn’t explain.
I just visit them, Ven said. And take them out for training flights. I’ll bring one somewhere and release it. I do it for my brother. He says it’s part of their nature, this need to navigate back to their lofts.
She gave the bird back to Ven. His hand lingered under hers for a moment. His palm was dry and tough, the fingers long and knuckles knobby.
So you live on the same floor as Leah, she said.
Just upstairs from you. We’re neighbors.
Yet I’ve never seen you before.
Thousands of people live in Atria Tower, Ven said. And hundreds of businesses are located here.
Still, just one floor apart. I might have seen you.
I’m very forgettable.
Somehow, I don’t think so.
They were bantering. Flirting? It didn’t seem possible.
I keep odd hours, Ven said.
As a carpenter.
His response was a half grin. She didn’t know him. He seemed capable and resilient, not drooped and defeated the way most people were—the way she often was and tried not to be.
I think I might have seen you once, though, Ven said. Were you running on the stairs?
That was probably me, she said, and changed the subject. She didn’t want to talk about her stair running, which she considered as private as a therapy session would be.
What are these? Maren asked. She pointed to stringed pouches hanging from hooks on the side of the coop.
That’s where you put the notes, Ven explained. And you wrap and tie the pouch to their legs.
Can we send someone a message?
Not from here, Ven said. This is the pigeons’ home base. You can travel with the pigeon and use it to send a return message, but you can’t send an outgoing message. Their navigating ability only works one way—finding their home. And no one’s sure how they do it. The common theory is they follow the earth’s magnetic field lines. Or they have a hyper sense of smell that directs them.
The pigeon fluttered its wings, and Ven guided the bird back into the coop.
Why do you and your brother keep the pigeons?
It’s something left over from the military. For a while there was still a unit that trained pigeons. Garrett was assigned there until the unit shut down.
Your brother served in the military?
We both did.
Maren instinctively tightened. So many former military were in law enforcement now or worked as spies or troopers or Mercs.
Worst thing that ever happened to me, Ven said.
I thought former military had immunity.
Not automatically, but you can qualify. The immunity rules are complicated.
No kidding. She thought about her own brush with the Lottery when her birthdate was drawn and how her immunity saved her.
I have it, Maren blurted out, shocking herself for sharing this information. People didn’t discuss their immunity status with strangers. It was like talking about how much money you made.
Then you’re one of the lucky ones, Ven said.
She said she hardly felt lucky. Alive, yes, if that’s the same as lucky. She said she had immunity because her husband proffered to protect Maren and their daughter for as long as he could.
You have a daughter?
Another reason she didn’t like to reveal her immunity: it would segue into mentioning Peter, and then Hollande, and she didn’t talk about her family. She felt a scratch of shame for mentioning Hollande. She didn’t want anyone’s pity. Pity did not soothe. It was not a balm for the shattered heart.
And yet she found herself speaking up, and she couldn’t stop, as if she’d held her finger in the dike for too long and now the crack had burst. Ven had gotten her talking, but he’d done nothing to prod her. She’d had too much wine. She didn’t know how much. It seemed her glass was constantly full. Frankie was an expert at topping off his guests.
She told Ven that Hollande had gotten caught in a stampede one morning on her way to school. There had been an explosion on a street corner, right at the entrance to the metro. She was small for her age.
Maren was facing the pigeon loft as she spoke, so she didn’t have to look at Ven.
He cleared his throat when she finished and said, That’s a lot to deal with.
Maren nodded. Everyone had a lot to deal with.