by Brenda Marie Smith
Grandma Bea thinks she’s prepped for an apocalypse, but in a world of scarcity, troubled teens may be her undoing. #A #PitPROM
Dear Agents and Editors,
Granny’s got a gun, and her whole world’s come undone in the speculative sci-fi novel, THE DEATH OF US, told in the voice of a take-charge grandma as she loses control. The close-family story embodies elements of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD and Pat Frank’s ALAS, BABYLON, but with the distinct difference of a woman’s point of view.
Bea Crenshaw sees disaster looming. She’s amassed secret stockpiles of food and gear and dug a hidden cistern that holds enough water to see her big family through a long Texas summer. She thinks she’s ready for the worst, and it comes with a poison-spewing train wreck beside her Austin subdivision. The air’s still murky with ash when the city is slammed by a solar pulse.
Left alone with four grandkids, Bea struggles to keep them from harm in the months that follow. She must endure toxic surroundings, roving marauders, and starving neighbors without power, cars, phones, or running water. Worse still, she has no idea if her husband and adult kids will return. Her one source of news is a radio ham who tells her the entire U.S. grid has been fried.
Bea shares her stockpiles with neighbors but insists they farm and collect rain in exchange for rations. Her work brings her close to an old flame, Jack Jeffers, and back into his bed. But desperate teen hookups lead to a disastrous pregnancy, an exploding house, and an armed showdown. If she can’t get her crops, her unstable heart, and her failing memory to behave, what’s left of Bea’s family will end in the Texas dust.
THE DEATH OF US is 122,000 words, and a sequel is in development. The book is well-suited to a women’s upmarket audience, as attested by beta readers and a professional editor who aided in polishing the story. It follows norms of the post-apocalyptic genre and could hold its own when compared to the ONE SECOND AFTER and LAST STAND series, pleasing fans of the genre without alienating women who are drawn in by the family drama.
I studied fiction in the UCLA Writers Program with Caroline Leavitt and Dennis Foley. Living off the grid for nearly a decade helped me bring authenticity to the story. I’ve written another novel, SOMETHING RADIATES, a paranormal thriller, which had a modest readership and solid reviews.
I appreciate your consideration and look forward to your reply.
Wishing you well,
Brenda Marie Smith
First Ten Pages:
The day came when Nature lashed out against us, her ungrateful children. Because no matter how desperately a mother loves you, she can only put up with so much.
I understood where Nature was coming from. My family never listened to me either, which is why I didn’t tell them about all the guns I bought.
It was early October, and the young adults in my family had gone to the Oklahoma-Texas football game up in Dallas, leaving me here in South Austin with my grandkids. A big deal in our family, that Red River rivalry. The game contingent took my husband Hank the Crank along with them.
At the time I was glad to see Hank go, because he’d been making me crazy since he retired, hovering over me as if I were the only thing of interest in the entire household. I’d become someone for him to micromanage, to bitch and moan at concerning the most miniscule of things: How many scoops of coffee did I put in the coffeemaker? How high did I round the scoops? How much decaf and regular roast did I use? Lord, I needed a break from that man. The three-day trip to Dallas seemed like just the thing.
Since their parents and grandpa left for Dallas Friday morning, in the afternoon I picked up my four grandkids at three different schools around town. I brought them to my comfy home with its leather couches, spacious rooms, and colorful Southwestern décor, and I fed them a large pot roast that I was sure would give us leftovers. But the kids devoured the whole roast and all the trimmings. I don’t know how many hollow legs and extra stomachs they had between them, but I needed a small army of cooks to keep those kids fed.
I wasn’t one of those built-in-babysitter grandmas, though I had great respect for them. But I worked and didn’t have good health, so I usually saw my grandkids once or twice a month, and I only saw the four of them together a few times each year.
For weeks I had been looking forward to spending a nice chunk of time alone with all my grandkids.
A cruel trick sometimes, having your wishes come true.
After dinner, as dusk turned to darkness, my seventeen-year-old grandson, Keno, finished his calculus homework and started tinkering with a small robot he was building for school. Milo, who’d been playing Frisbee out back with Harry the dog, came inside acting bored, closing the door quickly before the whimpering dog could get in. Harry pressed his nose against the door glass, smearing it with dog slobber and giving me a pleading look. I shook my head at him.
“Keno,” Milo said, “let’s play a game on the Wii.”
“Hmm?” Keno kept tweaking the robot. His real name was Joaquin, but we called him Keno because he was so clever with number games.
“The Wii! Let’s play the Wii!” Milo said, exasperated.
“I bought a new tennis game for you guys,” I said.
“Tennnisss? I don’t wanna play tennnisss!” Milo moaned. Like so many twelve-year old boys, he would have preferred a game with explosions.
“Oh, come on. It’ll be fun.”
I already had the game set up, so I switched on the TV and game console and gave a quick demonstration of how to play – or more like how to flub up – the game.
“No, Nana. Not like that!” Milo grabbed the controller from my hands. Keno set his unfinished robot and tiny tool kit aside and jumped up to join Milo in the game. Soon they were bouncing around in front of the TV and laughing, flapping their arms in perpetual motion.
“I wanna play,” said six-year-old Mazie from her seat on the floor, surrounded by her dolls and their regalia. “Why can’t I play?”
“You can play next, Mazie. Tasha, don’t you want to play?”
“Naw,” said fifteen-year-old Natasha, not even looking up from where she sprawled across an easy chair, flicking the screen on her iPhone, her long legs draped over the seat’s arm.
“You don’t want to miss out, do you?” I said, but Tasha was too absorbed in texting to answer me. “Tasha, I’m talking to you.”
“What?!” She tucked her phone under her arm and scowled at me.
“I want you to join the rest of us.”
“Whatever,” she said and went back to her phone.
“Watch your attitude,” I said, but the little snot ignored me.
Tasha and Keno looked so much like their mother, my daughter Erin – same dusky skin and dark hair, same big eyes and Roman noses. But Milo and Mazie, my oldest daughter Jeri’s kids, looked more like their dad, except for Mazie’s blonde hair. For some reason beyond me, none of my three stepsons had kids yet.
I sat down in Hank’s rocker, which the rest of us were forbidden to use, but he wasn’t home, so too bad for him. The boys played virtual tennis while I flipped through the latest magazine from Greenpeace on my laptop, half-enjoying the kids and half-worrying about the overly warm, acidic oceans. I wanted to lighten my mood, so I switched to checking important paperwork online. Keno had just beaten Milo in the first game and plopped on the couch to retie his sneakers.
Milo jumped in behind me, scaring me to death by hollering in my ear, “What’s a deed?”
“Nothing!” I snapped the laptop shut.
“Must be a secret.” Milo pointed at me and snickered. “Nana’s got a sec—”
A hideously loud crash-bang erupted outside. A brilliant light flashed across the night sky and lit up the room. The house windows rattled, even the walls. We all shot to our feet, screaming questions.
An ear-smashing roar and clang rose from the direction of the train tracks, half a mile away. I often heard loud bangs from those tracks, but this cacophonous crunch of metal on metal, coupled with an interminable screech, sounded like a train wreck.
To the accompaniment of the unrelenting noise, the kids and I ran out the front door. A fireball shooting high above the tracks was so bright it nearly blinded me. It illuminated South Austin’s tree-covered sprawl like a phalanx of klieg lights at the Super Bowl.
A great, hot gust slammed into us, filling my lungs with scorched air. I coughed and slapped at my head, thinking my hair might have caught fire, then frantically counted my grandkids, half-expecting to see them ablaze.
Blinking repeatedly, trying to clear my vision of remnants of white balls of flame, I shouted, “Get in the house, kids! Now!” Keno herded them inside.
Neighbors also rushed out their doors and gaped at the fire. We’d had so many fast-moving fires around Austin in recent years due to the drought – whole neighborhoods going up in flames in only minutes. And I’d waited at the crossing for enough trains to pass to know that many of them bore signs saying: “Hazard!” “Danger!” “Poison!”
The head of our neighborhood watch, Jack Jeffers, came jogging toward me beneath a cloud of smoke that looked green in the glare of the halogen street lamps. A shower of sparks and embers rained down a block or two behind him.
“Y’all better get out of here, Bea,” he said. I looked him in the eye and swallowed.
“On my way, Mr. Jeffers. Thank you.”
He ran off, hollering to others along the block, “Please evacuate the neighborhood now! That fire could spread real fast.” I glanced back at the fire. I couldn’t see much with all the trees in the way, although it looked like the fire was on the tracks and not the houses that sat nearer to us. But it could spread like, well, like wildfire.
My old shaky heart galloped like a run-away stallion. I ordered myself to calm down. At least the rest of the family was two hundred miles away. That helped. But my grandchildren. God.
“Put your shoes on,” I said to the grandkids, who were staring out the front window when I hurried back inside. “Grab your bags and jackets, and let’s go for a ride.”
Mazie, that wispy little blonde thing, cried out, “Oww! My eyes!”
My racing heart plummeted. I bent down to the child. The skin around her pretty blue eyes was bright red where she’d rubbed it raw. She blinked at me, having trouble keeping her eyes open.
“Someone get me a wet washcloth. Quick!”
Tasha darted into the bathroom. Lately this girl never volunteered for anything, but she did love her little cousin.
“Mazie, do your eyes hurt? Can you see?” I held my breath, dreading her response.
“There’s pink spots all over,” she cried. God Almighty, did she burn her retinas?
“Does the pink go away when you close your eyes, honey?”
“Only a little,” Mazie whimpered. Tasha returned with a damp wash cloth.
“Close them tight, Mazie,” I said. I tilted her head back and gently pressed the cloth over her eyes. “Keep them closed, and we’ll see if resting them makes them better.”
“I want my mommy,” she whined.
“I know, sweetheart. You can call your mom and dad after we get on the road. Tasha will help you get your shoes on.”
“I don’t wanna go out there!” Mazie hollered.
“You don’t need to be afraid, honey,” I said, wondering if I was telling the truth.
I ran to the kitchen and snatched up a jug of water, my purse, my bag of medications, and a change of clothes from the dryer. I looked around for my glasses then found them on my face. I switched off the TV and most of the lights.
“Ready, kids?” I felt I was forgetting something important, but I couldn’t think what.
Keno and Milo came sliding down the banister, loaded down with bags, two of which tumbled to the floor ahead of them. Tasha tromped down the stairs after the boys, lugging a wad of jackets and Mazie’s big stuffed bear. I picked up her favorite doll from the floor.
“Here, Mazie,” I said. “This doll will help you feel safer, won’t she?”
“Maybe,” she said quietly. I took the washcloth from her eyes and tucked it into her hand.
The kids and I gathered at the front door.
“Okay, here we go. Do not look at the fire, whatever you do!”
The three oldest kids stared at me, wide-eyed. Mazie covered her eyes with her hand.
Though it had only been minutes since the crash, the outside air was already smoky and rank. Squealing sirens filled the night, speeding from several directions and converging on the nearest train crossing. Mazie hesitated with her eyes shut tight in the doorway, so I took her quivering hand and hustled her to the car.
I didn’t see any houses ablaze, but I couldn’t be sure that there weren’t any. The houses in our neighborhood were not fire-prone, and they were spread apart on quarter-acre lots. Most had Hardie Board siding with additional stone or brickwork, all built around thirty years ago and well-cared-for, except for the Belding house.
On this night the wind blew from the west, which put our house right in the path of any toxic fumes that might be coming off that train. The fire seemed as bright as a gigantic welder’s arc. I had to close my own eyes for a moment before I could see to put the key in the ignition. My fingers trembled, jangling the keys.
I backed the car out to aim us to the east just as Jack Jeffers ran past, gesturing at me to roll down my window. “I’d be surprised if the fire gets to our houses,” he said. “Should be okay to come back tomorrow.”
I was hoping the same thing until I reached the intersection at Dittmar Road, the little boulevard that borders my neighborhood. A throng of squealing emergency vehicles was stacking up on Dittmar in front of us, including a slew of hazmat trucks.
“Gotta turn around, kids,” I said, lowering my window again and motioning for the car behind me to back up. The street was jamming up with cars, so I had to jockey to and fro a few times to get turned around.
As I drove back down our street to leave the almost-upscale neighborhood by another route, I passed three men in front of the Belding house, unloading a big ice chest from their truck. One scraggly guy had a bottle under his arm. It looked like Cuervo tequila.
They were settling in to party? Now? Dumbasses.
The Belding’s teenage daughter ran out the front door, screaming so loud that we heard her through our closed car windows.
“I’m going whether you do or not!” she yelled. Then she ran up ahead of us to jump in to a car full of teenagers, who were hanging out windows, shouting and waving,
Mr. Belding stood on his door stoop in his greasy coveralls, his long hair in a messy ponytail. He waved a dismissive hand at the girl and lit a cigarette.
We’d just made it out of our neighborhood when Tasha said, “Where’s Harry?”
My chest squeezed. Harry was still in the backyard.
“Oh no! Harry! I’ll have to go back.”
Why did I have to forget our dog? But I might need to rush Mazie to a clinic.
“Mazie, how are your eyes?”
She squeaked a nonverbal response.
“No pink blobs or pain?” I asked. “Your eyes are better?”
“Yes, Nana,” she said, sighing.
Okay, next priority: Harry.
I slowed my SUV, waited for some cars to pass, then did a U-turn and headed back toward home.
“How did you forget Harry, Nana?” Keno asked, sounding disappointed in me.
“I don’t know. I just forgot.” I was too busy chastising myself to say more.
When we reached the first street entrance to our neighborhood, it was blocked by two police cars. I drove a quarter-mile to the next entrance, but two more squad cars blocked it as well, their lights blinking ominously with a couple of policemen milling about. I drove up beside the policemen and hopped out of the car.
“We’re evacuating,” I said, “but I forgot our dog. I need to go get him.”
“You can’t go in, ma’am,” said the tallest cop.
“How could you forget your dog?” said the other.
I scowled at the short, stern-faced man. “Because I’m a stupid old woman, frantically trying to save my four grandkids from a fire and God knows what all. Now, please let me back in for five minutes.”
"We can’t, ma’am. I’m sorry,” the tall cop said.
“Why on Earth not?”
“Because of the fire and God knows what all.” The short cop sneered at me sarcastically.
“I can walk in and get the dog while the others wait,” said Keno, leaning out the car window. So gallant of him.
“No. No, I can’t be responsible for that,” the nice cop said.
“Then I’ll walk in,” I said, wondering if I could even do that. “You’re not going to say no to a woman twice your age, are you?”
“Ma’am, I have to say no. I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t out-argue this guy. I couldn’t think of a way to sneak in to get Harry. Keno could probably manage it, but, like the policeman, I could not be responsible for that. As I climbed in my SUV, I looked off toward the flames and smoke half a mile away.
“Think they’ll get that fire put out before it burns down the neighborhood?” I asked the cop.
“Probably. So far they’re keeping it confined to the train.”
“Thank God. You know, some of my neighbors aren’t leaving.”
“The Belding family,” I muttered, and gave him their address. The cop got on his radio, and I put the car in gear to drive away, defeated.
“I want Harry!” Mazie cried out.
“I know, honey. Me, too, but Harry will be okay.” I hoped.
“But there’s fire and smoke!” Mazie said, practically shouting in her distress.
Watching the little girl in my rearview mirror, I wanted to hug her. “Harry’s very smart, Mazie. He’ll find a place to hide, even if he has to run away from the neighborhood.”
“But he’s locked in the yard!” she squealed, flapping her hands.
“He knows how to get out though. He does it all the time.”
“Well, I don’t want him to run away!”
“He’ll come back, sugar, when it’s safe. He loves you too much to run away for good.”
From the front seat, Tasha reached around and patted Mazie’s knee. I felt like beating myself about the head for forgetting that poor dog.
“Mazie, are your eyes still okay?” I asked.
Yeah,” she said, closing those eyes and leaning back in her booster seat.
I drove due north for a ways so that I could cut back west and get to the other side of the fire, upwind. Everyone had a cell phone, even Mazie. The kids tried to call their parents while I drove, but no one answered. Shoot. I was hoping that talking to the other adults in my family would calm me down.
Though we seemed to be out of immediate danger, I had a deep foreboding in my gut. Did the train derail? What crazy thing could have caused that? It was a flat, straight track with no hills or curves. Could it have been warped somehow? Did someone mess with the signal? I’d lived next to that track for more than twenty years, and nothing like this ever happened before.
“I bet your parents went out to eat with Grandpa,” I said, “and he made them turn off their phones.”
“Yeah, Grandpa’s mean,” Milo grumbled.
Welcome to the final round of pitches!
Agents and Publishers,
please vote on your favorite pitches.
Simply request your favorites in the comments on that particular post!
To see the individual pitches, click the title below in "Categories" or you can scroll down. The Sci Fi category will take you to all the Sci Fi pitches and same with Fantasy.