Breath by Breath is the explosive conclusion to the near-future, science fiction thriller trilogy Step by Step from the bestselling author Morgan Llywelyn and follows the events of Drop by Drop and Inch by Inch.
In Breath by Breath, book three in the trilogy, the residents of Sycamore River have weathered the Change and the nuclear war it provoked. They emerge to try to build a life from the shattered remains of their town.
But for some, the very air has become toxic.
The people of Sycamore River have to survived the unthinkable. Can they build something new from the ashes?
Llywelyn blends her signature character-driven portrait of small-town life with the appeal of William Fortschen’s One Second After.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Breath by Breath by Morgan Llywelyn, on sale 04/13/21!
As the double doors slid open the people inside the barn waited, eager yet fearful to see what the daylight would reveal. They had spent months underground waiting for this moment. The fecund smell of the earth still coated the insides of their nostrils.
They hungrily gulped their first breaths from the outside world.
Hot summer air scorched their throats.
Bathed in buttery light, a hilly, sun-parched pasture sloped down toward a rambling white farmhouse built for a large family and encircled by a rail fence. Beside the front gate an unobtrusive sign identified the property as tilbury farm.
Close to the back of the house was a kitchen garden. Parallel rows of dry, cracked earth testified to the onions, carrots and lettuce, the tomatoes and cabbage and bush beans that once flourished there. Gone now; all that remained were a few dying weeds, the stubborn survivors of months without rain. At one end of the garden dead raspberry canes drooped from a wooden lattice. Beyond this was a small orchard of apple and pear trees, with a few brown leaves clinging to otherwise bare branches.
There was little sign of life. No birds were declaring their territory with song. The cacophony of insects that should accompany a summer morning in the country was curiously muted.
Edgar Tilbury shook his grizzled head. Guessing his age would be difficult; it might be anywhere between sixty and eighty. Below tangled eyebrows were sharp features and bright eyes that revealed a keen intelligence. “There you have it,” he growled in a voice like a rusty hinge. “My first wife and I planted that garden; I’ve tended it all these years since she died, though I never had her green thumb. It was that produce we lived on underground, but it looks like global warming’s finished it off now. If that wasn’t bad enough, the land may have taken a dose of radiation too. Damn all the megalomaniacs and their pissing contests. This time the whole world lost.”
A three-legged Rottweiler bumped its muzzle against his thigh, seeking attention. Edgar reached down to rumple the animal’s ears. “Don’t worry, Samson,” he told the dog. “You’re not to blame, humans cause all the trouble.”
“Amen to that,” agreed Jack Reece. A tall, lean man with dark hair and a hawkish nose, he possessed a sinewy strength. Smile lines bracketed his pale gray eyes but he was not smiling now. “We won’t know how bad things are until we do some investigating.”
“Can’t you feel it in your bones, Jack? I damn sure can. The war’s come and gone and we’re all that’s left. What’s happened to the birds and the butterflies? You can’t tell me another damned heat wave carried them off.”
A small blond woman laid a supplicating hand on Tilbury’s arm. “Edgar, you assured us there would be plenty of other survivors.”
“There will be, Nell.” He tried to sound more convinced than he felt. “Everybody’s not dead, we’ll find them soon enough. Or they’ll find us. It’s just that things seem different now; even the light looks different. Yellower; meaner.”
“Don’t let your imagination run away with you,” Jack said. “There’s been a drought, that’s all; there’s nothing mean about sunshine. Never bleed before you’re wounded, that’s my motto. C’mon, let’s see if there’s been any damage around here and look for something to eat. Tomorrow we can go to Sycamore River and find out what it’s like over there. It may not be as bad as we think.” He squared his shoulders and stepped into the sunlight. A dozen people, several dogs and a small troop of cats followed him.
They saw no visible danger.
The invisible threat was terrifying.
Edgar Tilbury’s wife used her forefinger to adjust the gold frames of her spectacles on the bridge of her nose. Before her marriage she had been Beatrice Fontaine, chief officer in the Sycamore and Staunton Mercantile Bank. An air of authority had been necessary for the job and the spectacles were part of that image, augmented by her silver hair and ramrod spine.
“You children stay in the barn until we decide it’s safe to come out,” she called over her shoulder.
A youthful protest—it might be either Flub or Dub, the twins’ voices were as identical as their faces—retorted, “We’re not kids, we’re breeding age!”
“Since when did pubescent mean breeding age?” Gerry Delmonico muttered to his wife.
Gloria looked up at him. “Philip and Daniel may be smartalecks, but they’ll do what they’re told. I don’t want to bring any of our family outside until we’re sure.” Since adopting the twins she had been trying without success to establish the use of their proper names. Even her husband resisted, though he adored his wife and gave way to her in most things.
After a decade of marriage the handsome black couple still held hands.
Walking behind them, Lila Ragland remarked to Shay Mulligan, “This must be what it was like to come off Noah’s Ark two by two.”
Shay, who had never outgrown the freckles that accompanied his red hair, said, “You suppose Noah had a doctor on board?”
“Not one as good as you.”
“I’m just a small town veterinarian. I hope I won’t have to take care of elephants and ostriches; we didn’t study exotics at the college I went to.”
“If any ‘exotics’ did survive there may be some strange mutations among them. They’d appear fairly soon too. Other animals have a shorter lifespan than we do.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“None of us know what we’re facing,” Lila responded. “We can’t even be sure we’ll survive today.”
Shay’s son, Evan, followed them from the barn. Taller than his father, he was a lithe young man with a mop of red-gold hair and gentle brown eyes. Before he stepped into the sunlight he glanced back, looking for Jessamyn Bennett.
He found her sitting cross-legged on a bale of straw amid a clutter of farm machinery. A willowy girl in faded blue jeans, with a cotton shirt knotted beneath her small breasts, Jess wore her curly hair pulled into a ponytail. While Evan watched, she wiped the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her wrist.
Just seeing her made Evan feel warm inside.
As far as he was concerned, there was no comparison between Jess and Lila Ragland. Lila was ancient by his standards, late thirties at least, with slanted green eyes and a heavy mane of auburn hair. Men like his father turned to look at her in the street but she did not appeal to Evan. When he dreamed it was always of Jess.
One of his favorite fantasies involved a picnic where they spread a blanket on the ground and she sat with his head pillowed in her lap, smiling fondly down at him while she stroked his hair.
In Evan’s dream two moons were in the sky above them, Phobos and Deimos; the moons that beamed down on Mars Settlement.
At the moment, Jess Bennett’s lap was occupied by a massive black cat named Karma. The cat had been a gift to Shay from Lila. The Bennett family’s Irish setters, Sheila and Shamrock—who was affectionately known as Rocky—lay at her feet, only pretending to be relaxed; they were keenly aware of the cat’s presence. The dogs had had no experience of cats until they had found themselves in an underground bomb shelter with Beatrice Fontaine’s seven felines. Their period of adjustment in the subterranean labyrinth Edgar called his “bolt-hole” had not been easy
Karma was well acquainted with dogs; Samson was an old friend from the time they had spent together in Shay’s vet clinic. The black cat was fearsomely armed with fang and claw. No mere canine could intimidate her, a fact she had amply demonstrated to the setters on more than one occasion. Jess had been given the job of keeping the potential combatants apart.
When she felt the weight of Evan’s gaze, the girl smoothed her hair with the palm of her hand.
Kirby, at nineteen the oldest of the Delmonicos’ four adopted sons, was the last to leave the barn. He also glanced back toward Jess, then hastily turned away. Those who had been with him in the shelter were used to his appearance, but he still tried to shield them from the sight of his disfigurement. Severe phosphorous burns had scarred the left half of his face and pulled that side of his mouth into a rictus grin. At the time of the accident he had raised his hands to protect his face, otherwise it might have been worse. But although he could use them, both hands were twisted into claws. His speech had been slightly affected by his injury, resulting in a faint sibilance when he was excited; another handicap he struggled to overcome.
There had been discussion of plastic surgery to repair the damage done when Robert Bennett’s factory exploded, but the onset of war had intervened.
Jess was the person whose opinion Kirby cared about most. He could never tell her that. In his heart he saw himself as a monster.
“You think it’d be okay to let the horses out to graze?” Evan was asking Edgar. “They’ve been living on dry straw for weeks and they’ve lost a lot of condition.”
“There’s not much nourishment left in that dead grass, but there could be some radiation. We’ll know soon. Those four horses are our only reliable transportation, we can’t afford to take chances with them.”
Evan was indignant. “I’d never take chances with Rocket!”
“You almost rode her to Nolan’s Falls and got caught up in the bombing,” Edgar reminded him. “Shay, you have that Geiger counter ready?”
“Turn it on, then, You go down the left side of the hill and I’ll take the other side. Walk slow, do it like a grid. The rest of you hold back until we get to the bottom and have a definitive reading.” He turned a knob on his own counter.
The machine responded with the kind of faint, chitinous clicking that might come from an insect; an insect with a venomous bite.
“Does that mean . . .”
“It doesn’t mean anything, Nell, it’s natural background radiation. Long as it’s no louder than that we’re all right.”
“What if your counter’s wrong?”
“That’s why I have two counters, I’m a natural-born beltand-suspenders man. Both counters wouldn’t fail; in fact the signal’s fading now. Looks like it’ll be safe to use my house. If you want to, you’re all welcome to stay there until we find out what’s happened to your own homes. Bea and I will do our best to make you comfortable. After all those weeks underground you must be sick of living in tunnels.”
“At least it was cool down there,” said Nell. “I’ll always be grateful you shared the shelter with us; you saved our lives.”
Edgar gave a negligible shrug, as if it was nothing at all.
Like children following the Pied Piper, the little group picked its way down the slope of the hill. The footing was uncertain, hummocky in some places and rocky in others.
Gloria Delmonico paused to untie the laces of her sandals and remove them. Knotting the laces together, she hung them from the leather belt around her waist. “I love walking barefoot on the grass.”
“It’s safe enough,” Shay assured her. “I’m not getting a dangerous reading.”
“Watch where you’re walking, though,” Evan called. “There are a few dead birds lying on the ground, I almost stepped on one.”
“Today’s going to be another scorcher,” Gerry predicted as he rolled up his sleeves.
Nell agreed. “The air’s awfully heavy. I hate hot weather. Has it always been this hot in the summer?”
“Not always; according to the met office our weather’s been getting more extreme year by year,” said Gerry. “We’ve been having hotter summers, colder winters, more frequent storms and worse floods. Hurricane and tornado season start earlier too, and last longer . . . not to mention the increase in volcanic and seismic activity since the last century.”
“The air smells odd to me,” Lila remarked. “Not really clean . . . but sharp.”
Jack lifted a single eyebrow. “What did you expect?”
“After a nuclear war? Radioactive clouds, I suppose.”
Jack shook his head. “Nothing may be the way we thought it would be, we’ll have to take it as it comes. Keep your expectations low. We’re alive; everything else is a bonus.”
At the foot of the hill the two-storey farmhouse was waiting for them. Untouched by destruction, it still had walls to embrace a family and a roof to shelter them. Windows to let in the daylight; shutters to keep out the night.
A house designed for normal life in a normal world.
The word had a special meaning for every person in the group. Home might be a new house in a leafy suburb, with a bicycle lying beside the driveway, or the residence of grandparents in a long-established neighborhood, where a lawnmower awaited use on the weekends. It could summon a mental image of a modern apartment or an old-fashioned boarding house.
Home was where you could shut the door and leave the world outside.
The little group stood silent for a moment, as if in homage.
“Looks like there’s no harm done,” Edgar said with relief. “When I bought this place I got fifteen acres including the house and barn, and I’d damned sure hate to lose any of it. We may need this farm to support us for a while, so it’s a good thing we have the garden and a woodlot. Any of you know if we can restore the vegetable garden?”
Gerry said, “My wife can make anything grow, she even talks to her plants.”
Laughing, Gloria gave him a gentle punch on the arm. “I do not.”
But she did.
In keeping with rural custom the house faced the road to town, rather than the barn on the hill. The foundation was concealed by shrubbery wilting in the heat. A flat-roofed back porch shaded the kitchen door and the downstairs windows from the summer sun. The porch, which ran the width of the house, was furnished with an old rocking chair and an assortment of wicker armchairs.
Gerry bounded up the steps. “My grandmother used to have chairs just like these!”
Edgar stopped him with an upraised hand. “Don’t sit on one until I get a reading.”
“You have to measure everything first? I doubt if the . . .”
“We can’t be too careful, Gerry. Being bombarded by radioactive particles can break your DNA apart.”
“The war ended months ago.”
“That wouldn’t matter to residual radioactivity. And I don’t think you can say it ‘ended.’ Both sides agreed to an armistice, but that’s only another word for truce, not a binding declaration of peace. Words matter. Truce means ‘we’ll hold our fire until we have a better chance of winning.’ There was an armistice at the end of the First World War; the one they called ‘The War To End All Wars.’ It wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, and neither is the current truce. The damage is ongoing because the half-life of . . .”
“Don’t give me a lecture on the effects of radiation, Edgar. We’ve had time to learn more about that than we ever wanted to know. We can’t do anything about the situation but adjust to it as best we can, and hope evolution will take care of future human generations, if any.”
“If any,” Edgar echoed. He did not sound hopeful.
One of the Irish setters scratched on the screen door, seeking admittance.
The screen door was not latched but the door behind it was closed. Jack jiggled the handle. “It’s not locked.”
“We never locked our doors,” said Edgar. “Never needed to, that’s one of the things Veronica and I liked about living out in the country.” He gave a deep sigh. “Come on in.”
Kirby said to Bea, “I heard him mention Veronica when we were in the shelter. Who was she?”
“She was his first wife; her name was Mary Veronica Tilbury but he just called her Veronica. She died a dozen years ago.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Edgar was too. He sold his engineering firm; it was almost like he gave up on life for a while.” Bea gave a tiny smile. “He’s better now, though.”
Veronica had been gone for a long time yet her touch remained; she had turned a large but basic farmhouse into an elegant rural retreat. The kitchen was fully equipped with urban conveniences but its waxed pine paneling evoked the countryside. A swinging door gave access to a formal dining room; beyond that was an inviting living room papered in a sophisticated blue-and-white-striped pattern. The soft furnishings were deeply upholstered in Williamsburg blue; the huge fireplace could have held a roast ox. The floor was carpeted wall to wall in pearl gray wool. From the raftered ceiling hung a perfectly scaled bronze and crystal chandelier. Empty bookshelves gave mute testimony to a large personal library that had been relocated elsewhere. A well-worn recliner upholstered in coppercolored velour stood beside a large floor lamp. In the center of the room was a low glass table with chairs on either side. The table held an assortment of dusty magazines ranging from Vogue and Architectural Digest to Engineering Today.
Edgar extended his Geiger counter and cocked his head while he listened. “It’s okay, safe enough. We could make this a staging area. What do you think, Jack?”
Edgar Tilbury was a generation older than Jack Reece, yet during their time in the bomb shelter the unsought mantle of leadership had settled on the younger man. In a crisis Jack was calm and steady, inclined to think before he acted. He was thorough about whatever he did. He never ignored a fact but simply filed it away—nothing was trivial. His memory was not photographic but it was inclusive, and his curiosity extended to a wide variety of subjects. “Jack of all trades, master of none,” was how his Aunt Bea described him; she did not necessarily mean it as a compliment. He was an adventurer by nature and his inability to settle down had been a sore point between them.
Jack had enjoyed many women but never thought he was an emotional man. He could not explain his feelings for Nell. He only knew that her skin felt right and her hair smelled right; the sound of her voice resonated in his bones. When she touched him a spark leaped between them that he had never experienced before.
As a test for the limits of his courage, occasionally Jack tried to imagine what he would do if anything happened to Nell. He always lost his nerve at the last moment. Without her there would be, could be, nothing. He did not tell her this; his vulnerabilities he kept to himself.
Others saw only the image Jack chose to project: his public face. Thinking he understood the man, Edgar said of him, “Jack’s a natural leader, folks follow him the way metal filings gravitate to a magnet.”
“I agree about the staging area,” Jack told Edgar now. “We should start bringing things up from the shelter. One item we’re going to need right away is your industrial generator. The air’s cool enough down below, but in this weather we’ll be thankful for that big fridge-freezer in your kitchen.”
“What do we have that’s going to need chilling?”
My wife thinks candlelight’s more romantic anyway.
“Nothing right now, but we will,” Jack said. “We might even find a few vegetables hidden among the weeds in your garden. We’ll keep using our oil lamps so we can conserve fuel for the generator until we locate a source for more. And we have candles, there are boxes of them left.
“We’ll bring the candles along with anything else we might need right away. We’ll load up the horse-bus with enough for a couple of weeks; no more until we have a better idea of how things are. And be sure to check them with one of the Geiger counters before we carry them into the house. How many bedrooms do you have here, Edgar?”
“One downstairs and three upstairs, plus what we called ‘the spare room’ because we dumped everything into it. There’s a foldaway bed in the cedar closet on the landing too. We wanted to be prepared for guests but we didn’t encourage any; we were happy just being with each other. We can put pallets on the floor if need be; it’ll be a lot better than huddling underground, waiting for World War Three.”
They knew what it was like to wait for World War Three; to expect death to come winging toward you at any moment and know you were helpless. Ordinary, everyday life had once seemed like the norm. Circumstances had proved it was the brink of an abyss. A word, a smell, a casual reference were enough to bring the darkness flooding back.
A sudden thud overhead startled Nell. Invisible pins and needles pricked her skin. “Is someone else here, Edgar?”
“A ghost, maybe?” Kirby suggested
At his words Bea glimpsed a brief flicker of excitement in her husband’s eyes. She and Edgar had not been married long, but it was long enough for her to realize there were three in the marriage. Bea knew a woman in her sixties could never compete with a girl who had died at the height of her youth and beauty.
Veronica was a perfect butterfly held in the amber of Edgar Tilbury’s memory.
“I’ll go up and see what’s what.” Jack took the carpeted steps two at a time and disappeared beyond the turn of the landing. Edgar followed him. Samson started to go after them but changed his mind.
The Rottweiler sat down on his haunches at the foot of the stairs and whined.
Copyright © Morgan Llywelyn 2021
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