You had to search to find this, and thank you.
Hard decisions had to be made to ensure Critical Habitat's pacing was specific to the story's needs, and the narrative had to be economical and deliberate. Unfortunately, some scenes had to be cut. Scenes I love.
But Book One had to be brisk.
For those who care, there is extra content here.
If you loved Critical Habitat and would love more of it, especially before Book Two comes out, I hope you enjoy these raw, un-edited segments provided for fans of the source material, to be added to this site over time.
If there is ever to be a reason to create a second edition incorporating any parts of these scenes, I'd do it!
Stifled air hung in the kitchen, invisible storm clouds of torment that Mel Custode had become accustomed to. Then, Alvarium Penitentiary was a place that allowed such unstable thunderheads to form, their downdrafts often flowing rich with tiresome predictability and rotten odors.
With a sigh she wiped her brow with her bare arm and resumed using the dull cutting knife with the efficiency of a master chef, double-chopping the island’s last precious green peppers with skillful, swift strokes. Careful not to sneak a bite. A bead of sweat creeped down her smooth head, like a small itch crawling down her skin. She tried to ignore it as she chopped, at this moment hating absolutely all beads of sweat. Back when she had been a free civilian, cutting off a mere inch of her thick, black hair had made her feel lighter, free of dead weight. A buzz-cut meant her hair couldn’t be pulled during unwelcome prison scuffles. It took no soap to clean, when there was little. Also, she didn’t have to concern herself with managing unruly curls growing out.
The prison downstairs was an ugly place, the inmates often fighting over limited resources within dismal walls that were both cold and cruel. Eventually every prisoner would learn the walls were detached to purgative yells and cries, permitting such releases to continue on in silent contempt. Laughing, judging. Staring at the thick concrete slabs wouldn’t change things, no matter the long hours. Alvarium Penitentiary’s sewage stench was commonplace despite the aged penitentiary’s weekly flush of the pipes. Air they used, with little running water in the oft-useless sinks or toilets due to the never-ending shortages. Also, the prison food was bland and routine and awful, a dark sludge devised of mysterious contents and neglect. One day, somehow, she would taste real food again.
Instead of long days in detention, she’d been allowed to prepare daily meals for Warden Miriam up on Alvarium’s top floor. Indeed, it was true fortune to be separated from the prison population hours at a time, away from inmate clashes and lawlessness disguised as order. Away from the unkempt cafeteria. Instead she managed this unnecessarily large kitchen, sterile and bare, with broad stainless steel tops that swept under the glistening clean glass cupboards. They glowered, taunting her with their proud gleam. It was like being on a faraway island that shunned visitors who were never invited to stay and eat.
The sun often hung outside the barred window, high and free, and the humongous ceiling fan’s long, wooden blades gently circulated the warm air like it had in her mother’s kitchen. She could pretend she was in a different place and time during the churning hours. Like time didn’t exist. Before she had made that terrible mistake.
She moved to cut tomatoes, the rare fruit wind or hand-pollinated by inmates on the island, and one of the few existing delicacies Warden Miriam loved. Juicy and red, they fell apart on the counter in between her fingers, their mushy seeds spreading like jam. She tried not to think about them in her mouth. Not allow herself to be tempted.
Then there was a view. Unlike the dark prismatic cells downstairs, where all the inmates spent their non-field-hand hours, the view over the removed island’s coast was spectacular. At night when virtually all activity died, and there was no light at all off-grounds, the jagged cliffs and ocean-torn rocks lit only by the moon provided a grand sight that few on the prison island had the opportunity to see. A dreamy night-cap. When Mel was lucky enough to be called to prepare a late-night snack, she would sneak a glance of the amazing land and seascape, the natural beauty temporarily relieving her anxieties being around inmates, guards, and really, people.
Although the meals Mel prepared were bland compared to standards before the war, she had gotten used to using spices, select herbs, and actual meat. Since honey had become impossible to come by, and Warden Miriam was allergic to any of the scarce sugar substitutes, Mel’s duty was to create dishes for the warden with available foods and tastes, without making her sick.
But it was the food preparation keeping her out of the fields. The hard physical work of planting, seeding, excavating, and re-soiling had hurt her bones, their centers. Especially in her arms and back, often feeling like they were rotting inside like split corn stalks. Only twenty, she was too young to have pain like this. Bad enough, the harsh sun brought out the freckles of her milky, pale skin, the uneven pigments sticking around long after her sunburn left no tan behind. This all contributed to poor sleep, contributing to longer, more painful days. On the worst days, the warden’s isolated quarters were her own, a world away. Her family was there, content in the humorless routine of forging and cleaning, their eyes meeting now and then with no pain and no disguise.
She cringed at the warden’s grating voice, caterwauling like out of a tin can. If only she could cook for the warden and never have to take in her voice, a trade-off she continually questioned.
A young man emerged from the warden’s bedroom door immediately adjacent to the grand kitchen, unable to avoid Mel’s inquisitive eye as he skirted for the exit. Quick to bolt out like a scattering desert bale roach. Warden Miriam sauntered from the bedroom behind, wearing pink rubber slippers and a lavish robe. What Mel would give for a robe like that. Her own drab prison uniform was coarse and disagreeable, another deliberate tactic to deny aggressive inmates creature comforts and keep them in order. Here in the warden’s private kitchen, she was at least allowed to shed the rough and boxy shirt’s top layer, exposing only an oyster-shaded Authority-issued undershirt, providing her movement painless freedom.
“Custode,” the warden said again, ignoring the young man leaving, “would you be a lamb and make that tomato soup again? I’d love to sip on it as I daydream of days past.” She breathed a slow sigh and looked out over the fields where male and female prisoners were harvesting lettuce, punished by the sun’s ruthless rays.
“Making it now,” Mel said, motioning to the steel pot on the stove. There was much work to do before winter came, and she would make great efforts to stay out of those fields. “I’m making extra pieces for you.”
“Of course you are,” Miriam said with an agreeable grin. “Your awareness.” She took a small piece of juicy tomato off the steel counter and plopped it in her mouth as Mel ignored the savoring taste. “I really do appreciate your ability to predict my savory requests. Tell me,” the warden said, following Mel to the sink, “how is it that you’ve been cooking for me for over two years now, and you don’t ask me any questions about the men coming and going from my quarters?”
“Not my business,” Mel said, washing her hands in the icy water trickling from the tap. Trying to hide her nervous shaking.
“I learned long ago not to get involved in other people’s stuff. Life’s a lot easier that way.”
“But you’re not even curious.”
“I don’t get involved,” Mel said, wishing the tomato caught in the warden’s throat, quick to the choke.
While Mel didn’t have to communicate much with the other inmates, she preferred to not be around them at all. If creating luxurious meals for the warden provided her this luxury, she would continue to experiment with the few ingredients she had and the limited crops the island could produce.
Pollinating bees no longer existed, as far as anyone knew, so the island’s crops relied on self-pollinating plants. Ones benefitting from winds off the coast, or hand-pollination from hard labor. Lettuce, eggplants, tomatoes, corn. These would grow, some better than others at different times of the year. Crops requiring bee pollination were extinct. Mel had never seen a blueberry, tasted an onion, or held a strawberry. Nor had she ever poured a cup of coffee due to its shortages or even felt a cotton ball, as no one else had who lived through the war. These things existed only as dreams of storytellers and know-it-alls who insisted they had experienced them decades ago, or perhaps lied that they had done so.
“You don’t have a boyfriend here at Alvarium, do you?” the warden asked, watching Mel carefully. “I’ve never heard about you with anyone.”
She didn't want to have anything to do with the scourge of anyone under the Authority’s rule. Providing any pleasure for the warden made her disgusted with herself. If only she could get out of this place.
“A girlfriend?” the warden teased, her anticipating eyes bulging. “Keeping to yourself so much can’t be good for your health, your anxieties,” she said, eyes on Mel’s trembling fingers. “Talk to anyone around this place.” A knowing smile emerged from the corner of her mouth. “Things would really be better for you if you did.”
“The soup will be ready in four minutes, Warden.”
“And so efficient!” the warden said, adjusting her robe. She inspected the loose produce on the counter and yawned. Wheat, corn, and lettuce. Stuffing a bigger chunk of tomato in her face and gobbling it down. Mel wondered if she even tasted it. “Then, staying out of trouble hasn’t really been your goal since you’ve been at Alvarium, has it?”
How had she had let herself get in this position, answering to the stinging impulses of the prison queen? Each demand was more frustrating than the last.
“All the results of your decisions,” Warden Miriam said, stuffing her face. “Those brilliant choices that got you here.”
Mel said nothing.
“So you’ve made another one, Custode,” the warden continued as she grabbed a small unlabeled jar of water from the cooler. “I’ll make the decision for you. Pull more water from the well tomorrow. We need to keep a surplus up here.”
Custode nodded in silence. Warden Miriam was toying with her, testing boundaries. And always watching.
“And see what you can do different for dinner tonight to serve my palate,” the warden said dryly. “Get yourself out of isolation and get with everyone downstairs and figure it out. I don’t want eggplant again, no matter how you prepare it. A pity we have no honey.” She strolled back to her quarters, dragging her slippered feet. “Of course, you knew that already,” she said, slamming the bedroom door behind her.
Most inmates, and even the guards, resented her for her quality of work in the warden’s lair. She’d likely have to barter again, have to trade time credits, the most valued currency among Alvarium inmates, trading out their thirty minutes a day out of their cells. Before things got out of hand again. Getting out of the field-hand work had a cost, and she always felt caught between the inmates she avoided and the Authority she despised. Then, she despised so many things.