A marijuana farmer undertakes a dangerous journey in Alison Stine’s new novel, Road Out of Winter. When spring doesn’t come for the second year in a row, it causes chaos in a world on the brink of a dystopian collapse. Forced to search for a new home, the farmer must decide who she can trust in a saga marketed as the “suspense of The Road” meets the “lyricism of Station Eleven.”
Here’s the description of the novel, which hits shelves this fall:
Wylodine comes from a world of paranoia and poverty—her family grows marijuana illegally, and life has always been a battle. Now she’s been left behind to tend the crop alone. Then spring doesn’t return for the second year in a row, bringing unprecedented extreme winter.
With grow lights stashed in her truck and a pouch of precious seeds, she begins a journey, determined to start over away from Appalachian Ohio. But the icy roads and strangers hidden in the hills are treacherous. After a harrowing encounter with a violent cult, Wylodine and her small group of exiles become a target for its volatile leader. Because she has the most valuable skill in the climate chaos: she can make things grow.
MIRA Books will release Road Out of Winter on September 1st, and you can pre-order it here. But you don’t have to wait to begin reading! We’re excited to share an exclusive excerpt below from the first chapter along with the cover reveal.
Cover design by MIRA Books
I used to have dreams that Lobo would be arrested. The sheriff and his deputies would roll up the drive, bouncing on the gravel, but coming fast, too fast to be stopped, too fast for Lobo to get away through the fields. Or maybe Lobo would be asleep, and they would surprise him, his eyes red, slit like taillights. My mama and I would weep with joy as they led him off. The deputies would wrap us in blankets, swept in their blue lights. We were innocent, weren’t we? Just at the wrong place at the wrong time, all the time, involved with the wrong man—and we didn’t know, my mama didn’t know, the extent.
But that wasn’t true, not even close.
I sold the weed at a gas station called Crossroads to a boy who delivered meals for shut-ins. Brown paper bags filled the back of his station wagon, the tops rolled over like his mama made him lunch. I supposed he could keep the bags straight. That was the arrangement Lobo had made years ago, that was the arrangement I kept. I left things uncomplicated. I didn’t know where the weed went after the boy with the station wagon, where the boy sold it or for how much. I took the money he gave me and buried most of it in the yard.
After his station wagon bumped back onto the rural route, I went inside the store. There was a counter in the back, a row of cracked plastic tables and chairs that smelled like ketchup: a full menu, breakfast through dinner. They sold a lot of egg sandwiches at Crossroads to frackers, men on their way out to work sites. It was a good place to meet; Lisbeth would come this far. I ordered three cheeseburgers, fries, and coffee, and sat down.
She was on time. She wore gray sweatpants under her long denim skirt, and not just because of the cold. “You reek, Wil,” she said, sliding onto the chair across from me.
“Lobo says that’s the smell of money,” I said.
“My mama says money smells like dirty hands.”
The food arrived, delivered by a waitress I didn’t know. Crinkling red-and-white paper in baskets. I slid two of the burgers over to Lisbeth. The Church forbade pants on women, and short hair, and alcohol. But meat was okay. Lisbeth hunched over a burger, eating with both hands, her braid slipping over her shoulder.
“Heard from them at all?” she asked.
“You think he would let her write you? Call?”
“She doesn’t have her own phone,” I said.
Lisbeth licked ketchup off her thumb. The fries were already getting cold. How About Somethin’ Homemade? read the chalkboard below the menu. I watched the waitress write the dinner specials in handwriting small and careful as my mama’s.
“Hot chocolate?” I read to Lisbeth. “It’s June.”
“It’s freezing,” she said.
And it was, still. Steam webbed the windows. There was no sign of spring in the lung-colored fields, bordered by trees as spindly as a bread line. We were past forsythia time, past when the squirrels should have been rooting around in the trees for sap.
“What time is it now?” Lisbeth asked.
I showed her my phone, and she swallowed the last of her burger.
“I’ve got to go.”
“Choir rehearsal.” She took a gulp of coffee. Caffeine was frowned upon by The Church, though not, I thought, exclusively forbidden. “I gave all the seniors solos, and they’re terrified. They need help. Don’t forget. Noon tomorrow.”
The Church was strange—strange enough to whisper about. But The Church had a great choir; she had learned so much. They had helped her get her job at the high school, directing the chorus, not easy for a woman without a degree. Also, her folks loved The Church. She couldn’t leave, she said.
“What’s at noon?” I asked.
She paused long enough to tilt her head at me. “Wylodine, really? Graduation. Remember? The kids are singing?”
“I don’t want to go back there.”
“You promised. Take a shower if you been working so my folks don’t lose their minds.”
“If they haven’t figured it out by now, they’re never going to know,” I said, but Lisbeth was already shrugging on her coat. Then she was gone, through the jangling door, long braid and layers flapping. In the parking lot, a truck refused to start, balking in the cold.
I ordered hot chocolate. I was careful to take small bills from my wallet when I went back up to the counter. Most of the roll of cash from the paper bag boy was stuffed in a Pepsi can back on the floor of the truck. Lobo, who owned the truck, had never been neat, and drink cans, leaves, and empty Copenhagen tins littered the cab. Though the mud on the floor mats had hardened and caked like makeup, though Lobo and Mama had been gone a year now, I hadn’t bothered cleaning out the truck. Not yet.
The top of the Pepsi can was ripped partially off, and it was dry inside: plenty of room for a wad of cash. I had pushed down the top to hide the money, avoiding the razor-sharp edge. Lobo had taught me well.
I took the hot chocolate to go.
In the morning, I rose early and alone, got the stove going, pulled on my boots to hike up the hill to the big house. I swept the basement room. I checked the supplies. I checked the cistern for clogs. The creek rode up the sides of the driveway. Ice floated in the water, brown as tea.
No green leaves had appeared on the trees. No buds. My breath hung in the air, a web I walked through. My boots didn’t sink in the mud back to my own house in the lower field; my footprints were still frozen from a year ago. Last year’s walking had made ridges as stiff as craters on the moon. At the door to my tiny house, I knocked the frost from my boots, and yanked them off, but kept my warm coveralls on. I lit the small stove, listening to the whoosh of the flame. The water for coffee ticked in the pot.
I checked the time on the clock above the sink, a freebie from Radiator Palace.
“Fuck,” I said aloud to no one.
Before the cold came, my mama and I used to fake-lock the driveway gate, looping the chain but not fastening the padlock, so it only looked locked to outsiders, in case Lobo was late and had forgotten his keys again. If he could just push on it to get it open, instead of kicking it in, or throwing his whole body against it, or yelling so loud we would hear from the farmhouse, that would help, some nights. He might not be as angry when he made it up the drive, frustrated at the world, looking to blame someone. But Lobo was gone. Those nights were over. I locked the gate for real and headed down the roads into town.
High school graduation was a big deal, to have made it that far in this small town—little more than a holler, really, a dip between foothills—where no one would check up on you, no one would notice if you made it to class or not. And where there was always the pull of other work, work that would pay you, that seemed to matter more.
Lisbeth had given all the graduating seniors solos. I wished she had given herself one. How long since I had heard her sing?
The high school looked the same. It had only been four years since I had walked the halls myself, head down, not wanting anyone to stop and ask me for anything. People still asked, of course. Could I get them something, did I have anything, would I bring it to this party? In four years, people might have gone to college, gone away. But that was what people in other places did, not here.
Appalachian Ohio, the heart of nothing at all.
It was illegal, so Mama shielded me. But she loved Lobo, or thought she did, so we’d moved out onto the property to be with him. We had our own place, a tiny shack in a field away from the main house where all the plants were: a safeguard in case the sheriff came. The sheriff never came. A small, narrow house, built on a trailer, it had a skinny kitchen with a gas-powered fridge and a propane stove, a woodstove for heat, a ladder that led to a loft. By the time I was fifteen, the shack was my place, and I slept alone there every night; Mama had moved into the farmhouse. She said it was because the tiny house was cramped for two people—but I knew the real reason: she had chosen him over me.
By the time I was eighteen, I was working alongside of Mama and Lobo. They didn’t pay me, and I had small, fast hands.
When they left a year ago to make a go of it in California, the farm in Ohio became mine, mine alone—at least, mine alone to manage. I had talked about classes at community college, but who had the money, who had the time, there were chores. What would I do with a degree, except farm? There was a harvest to get in, there was trimming and weighing. There was work in the way of any plans. Money to be made.
At the high school, I parked in the senior lot out of habit. The football field looked dead, brown and tufted. The air cut my lungs, cold but with an undercurrent of wood smoke, as I joined the trudging crowd.
They were holding this thing outside.
Nobody had dressed up—only warmly. My Carhartts wouldn’t have looked out of place, though I had changed into clean jeans before leaving the farm, washed my hair under the faucet, scrubbing at the plant scent, heady and woodsy, that clung to my skin. The smell wouldn’t come off. I kept a vial of lavender oil on the windowsill to douse myself for days like this. I had dragged a comb through my hair, teeth snagging on stems, put on sneakers in place of my mud-gummed boots. Lisbeth didn’t like it if I looked too country; her folks didn’t like it.
But we all were country, even those of us living in duplexes and houses, like Lisbeth’s, with garages and green lawns. Black rat snakes still found the cracks in cinder-block foundations and slithered into kitchens, boxelder bugs still hatched in the sills. In spring, even driveways in town could lose their ends in the rising, brown waters of floods. At least in the springs we used to have.
I felt lighter, less encumbered, without the heavy coveralls, but the chill found its way into my joints. My wet hair crackled around my ears. In the field beyond the high school, the graduates shivered in their thin robes.
Generation to generation, nothing really changed. I knew these kids. They fetched water from springs, were familiar with stalling the electric company. But how many of them had grown up with a handgun duct-taped beneath the dining room table and canisters of money buried in the yard? How many of them slept in the woods some nights? It was safer than being too near the farmhouse with the raving men: customers, friends of Lobo’s, who had brought pills or mushrooms; safer than my house with its thin, bum door. How many of these kids ate deer meat for months straight because that was how the hunters bartered for their weed?
I saw Lisbeth’s folks. “You couldn’t find a dress?” Lisbeth’s mama said. Her lips pressed together until they disappeared.
Her parents looked like two pillars in church clothes, clean and pale. They thought my mama was a drunk. I had heard them whispering about it, years ago. And that Lobo was a saint, for taking us in. It was safer to let them think that than to know the truth: we were all growers.
My jeans were clean. I swept a hand around my hair and felt no leaves. I sat down next to Lisbeth’s folks. We faced the stage, a platform shrouded in mist.
“They always have this outside,” Lisbeth’s daddy was saying. “They did last year, even though…”
He didn’t finish. It had no name.
Last year had been a late spring, the slightest thaw, and the coldest summer. It had snowed in September. And kept on snowing. This year, more For Sale signs had appeared in the windows of shops in town. More of the windows of houses were dark or broken: dingy, one- or two-roomed shacks. Plastic sheeting ballooned out of doorways, porches sagged into rot. Every house still occupied had a fire going, smoke chugging from the chimney. There were no children playing in the yards. On my drive to the high school, I had passed another gas station that had wrapped its pumps in tarps, yet another farm with chains across its driveway and a house that looked cold and empty, a greenhouse with windows smashed. Farms were taking the cold the hardest.
Ushers from the student council had wiped the folding chairs with towels, so the seats weren’t damp, but a chill began to seep into my shoes from the ground. I wished I had worn my boots.
“Here, honey.” Lisbeth’s mama pulled two flat, foil-wrapped packages from her purse.
I slipped the hand warmers into my coat pockets, and my fingers closed around them, cracking them.
The choir had prepared for cold. They wore scarves and hats. Some of the girls had fur muffs, maybe from rabbits their daddies had shot. When the singers assembled on the front of the stage, they looked like something out of Charles Dickens, a band of winter ragamuffins. I was almost surprised when they didn’t sing a Christmas carol.
Lisbeth had a great voice: high and true. When Lisbeth sang, people would sit up. People would pay attention. Being part of The Church meant she had to wear shirts that covered her shoulders and arms. It meant that I had never gone over to her house on Saturday night—she had services early the next morning. It meant that we had to meet places in secret like Crossroads.
She never drove out to the farm; she couldn’t be caught around that stuff; she shouldn’t be caught around me. They prayed before meals at households in The Church. What Lisbeth believed herself didn’t seem to matter. Singing was the reason she stayed, she said. They taught her other things she couldn’t seem to unlearn: marriage was coming. Jesus was coming in a fireball that would divide the Earth into the good and the lost. She would have to decide. She would have to be ready to go with Him. She wore sensible shoes, kept her hair long. She was always waiting for men.
I didn’t know the song they performed at what would be the last graduation ceremony, the final graduating class; the last time the platform groaned under the risers; the last time the wind tried but could not unsettle the principal’s hair, buzzed short on his flat head. The school building behind us was already freezing, empty as a factory. I only listened to Lisbeth’s voice, clear and strong alongside the choir, guiding them, blending, but sometimes rising above them.
By the time the principal’s send-off to the class rolled around, a few families had left, back to their trucks. The speeches had been interminable in the cold. The sky looked gunmetal gray, a color that seemed familiar but also wrong. The wrong time of year for it.
The principal said, “Go forth. Go forth and don’t just plant seeds of change. Let yourself take root.”
What was he saying, who was he talking about or to? Go where? Do what? There were more eighteen-year-old local girls in jail than there were in town. I knew if I lingered at the reception in the gym, which I wasn’t planning to—red punch that stained, dead boys staring out at me from photographs in the trophy case—some of the new graduates would ask me for work. Or weed.
The principal had a white jutted jaw, a way of droning on. And in the middle of his speech, it began to snow.
The crowd murmured. The principal broke off mid-word. Whatever he had to say, he would never finish it. Some of the seniors stuck out their tongues or turned up their palms to catch the snow, like children.
Snow in June. It was thrilling for a second, before we thought about it. From her seat onstage with the choir, Lisbeth and I exchanged a glance. No spring again. No spring this year.
June passed. The gray sky deepened. Every morning I woke in my tiny house, telling myself I would not have to light a fire, not this morning, not this late, not in summer. But then I felt the ache from shivering all night. I felt the air, crisp as bones. I swung the quilt around my shoulders and crept down the ladder. In the dark I fed wood into the stove.
Through the narrow window, I could see the big farmhouse on the hill, sharper than ever since the trees had no leaves. I could almost imagine a vein of blue smoke above the roof. But no smoke would come from the farmhouse chimney now unless I lit it.
It was quiet on the farm, always, but I began to notice it more. The house and purple finches, nuthatches, cardinals, the birds that would come to the sill for breakfast crumbs—my mama knew all their names—where were they? Morning after morning I stood at the window and realized other things were gone. No woodpeckers thrummed in the trees or thudded their beaks against the house. No owls whooped like boys in the night. I still heard the coyotes, high and cold, that sweet-howl call and response that made my heart freeze, tight in my chest, both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
But I heard no peepers. Where were the frogs? The two ponds on the property looked low and stagnant. No ducks skimmed the water’s surface. Nothing came from the sky except cold rain. Then snow.
My livelihood, my very life, depended on summer, on warmth and sun. Lobo had left me in charge of the farm knowing I could handle it. I could water and rotate, I could keep the plants alive. I could kept my mouth shut and stick to the deal with the boy.
But in July, it didn’t get colder, it just kept on not getting warmer, not getting better.
It was strange to celebrate the Fourth without cookouts, Popsicles, and tank tops. I made vegetable soup to bring to Lisbeth’s house, and when the sky, which was perpetually dull and heavy like a fistful of dirty wool, darkened, her neighbors set off fireworks. Roman candles, bought across the border in West Virginia.
Then it snowed again.
I didn’t want to believe they could happen at the same time, fireworks and snow. The Roman candles dissipated, their sparks extinguished in the cold, wet air. Snow gathered, lacy as ash but mounting on sheds, on the roof of my truck parked in the alley between the houses and an old bar. A man poked his head out of the bar, looked at the sky, then stumbled back into the dark and pounding bass, throwing his drunken arms out for balance like an ice skater. Lisbeth’s neighbors were grilling. I heard sizzling as flakes struck the coals. This snow was going to stick.
Lisbeth was quiet. How much longer could we do this, anyway, sit around in lawn chairs in her folks’ backyard? People our age were signing leases. If I didn’t have the farm to manage, the crop to sell, maybe she and I could do that, get an apartment together in a city, Chillicothe or Marietta. We could take sandwiches to the river where the barges battened kayaks, and fishing lines, threaded with lead weights, hung from the trees, dangling in the water like a girl’s long hair.
Instead, here we were, watching the neighbors’ thermal underwear stiffen on a clothesline. More than ever, I felt trapped. By my family, by the plants, by Ohio.
“Should’a brought that in,” Lisbeth’s daddy said about the laundry, taking a pull on a cold lemonade.
In August, people in town, when I shopped for groceries and fertilizer and diatomaceous earth, had finally stopped saying, What a ridiculous year. What an unusual year. This is one for the record books. By August, it wasn’t funny anymore. The buds never unfolded. The flowers never came.
A letter came to everyone in the county. I opened it at the mailbox and trudged up the quarter-mile driveway back to the lower field. By the time I reached my tiny house, I had read the letter a few times.
In response to the unprecedented cold weather our nation is experiencing, and under the advisement of a committee of parents, educators, and administrators, the school board has voted to suspend school until October 1, at which time this situation may be reassessed. We will contact you with further updates.
The letter wasn’t a huge surprise. I remembered the high school didn’t turn on the heat until the end of October, and I doubted they could afford two extra months of heating, especially not knowing how cold it would get. The part of the letter that concerned me was the last line.
We encourage you to spend this time with your families.
My pocket shook. Lisbeth was calling.
I didn’t have reception in the driveway—most of the farm didn’t—but my tiny house sat on its own hill, which caught some weak signals from the tower in town. She didn’t bother with hello. “Did you get the letter?” she asked.
I set the rest of the mail on the shelf inside the door. “Yes.”
I paused. “I don’t think you have to worry about those altos this year.”
Lisbeth fell silent.
“Come on,” I said. “It’ll be like a long vacation for you. We can hang out together so you won’t get bored. Why don’t you come over right now?”
“You know I can’t do that. I can’t come out there.”
“Come to Crossroads at least. Get your grease fix.”
She didn’t answer, and I glanced out the window by the woodstove. The metal roof of the farmhouse looked silver in a new freckling of snow. In its basement, I knew, the lights glowed warm and white, and the air smelled like a mossy jungle, heavy and spicy and wet. Now, the basement was the only place anything could grow.
I placed my hand above the top of the stove. It was ice-cold. “Lisbeth, I guess I should go. The fire’s out. I have to get more wood. In August.” I tried to laugh.
Lisbeth didn’t laugh back. “Wil, wait.” She took a breath, and I knew something big was coming; she inhaled, then spoke in a rush when she delivered bad or hard news. I pictured her holding on to her braid, squeezing it, as she did for reassurance. She didn’t even know that she did this. “We’re getting out,” she said. “The Church is going away and we’re going with them. I want you to come with us. My folks want you to. The Church said it was okay.”
“Getting out? Where are you going?”
“South. That’s all I know.”
The news, when I watched it at Lisbeth’s house—we didn’t have cable or internet on the farm—showed cars waiting to cross into Mexico. The line stretched for miles, longer and longer every cold day, the cars laden with suitcases, gas cans, children’s bikes. Whole lives strapped to the roofs. Most of the cars were turned away at the border. Where was Lisbeth going to go?
“What about your job?” I said.
She did laugh then, but it came out barking like a cough. “What job, now?”
What about me? I thought. Us? I said, “The entire church is moving together?”
“Yes. The Migration, that’s what they’re calling it.”
“Wil, you can’t tell anyone about this, okay? You can’t tell your mama or Lobo, when they call. The invitation is only for you. The Church talked about it, and that was the decision.” Silence from me, which Lisbeth felt uncomfortable with and tried to fill. “It’s just, we’re taking these vans, and there’s only so much room, so many seat belts. And there’s only so much food.”
“You’re taking food? What place are you going to that has no food?”
“The Church is prepared. We’ve been preparing for something for a long time. Not this specifically, but in case something should come, someday, we’ve been ready. My parents love you,” Lisbeth said. “I love you. Come with us. We can protect you.”
“Protect me from what? Do you know something? What’s causing this?”
Lisbeth paused. “God.”
Copyright © 2020 by Alison Stine