We are so excited to share with you the amazing cover and 1st chapter of The Ninth Life by Taylor B. Barton, out September 15th, 2020!
About The Ninth Life:
What if your deepest wish came with dark consequences?
At the end of Caesar’s feline life, he makes a deal with the goddess Zosma to rejoin Ophelia, the girl he loves, for his ninth and final life.
However, waking in the body of seventeen-year-old Austin Price isn’t what he anticipates. Neither is Austin’s handsome roommate, Cooper—a boy who moves him in unexpected ways. And coming face-to-face with a messy past Austin can’t remember living makes being human even harder than he thought.
The chaos and wonder of his ninth life urges Austin to get to know Ophelia on human terms, and sends him stumbling into complicated friendships that might mean more to him than he ever imagined. But his wish has a price, and even as Austin is pulled in two impossible directions, the very heart beating in his chest is on a countdown of its own—a countdown he has no control over.
In the beginning, there was light.
Bright, full, ethereal light manifested in tones of pink and mauve and yellow behind his eyelids. That was what it was like to be born into a first life, to become something out of nothing. It was brilliance turned inside out. He remembered it, the first breath, the second, and the shattering presence of here and now that came with the third. Life had rushed into him. Star nurseries had smiled. The universe had sighed.
Caesar clung to the edge of that memory—being the youngest he would ever be. He remembered sunlight beaming through tall trees, the taste of rain and mist and moss, and the black stripes that hooked across his mother’s orange face. Her fierce eyes had stayed with him after all this time, watermarked on a life he knew he’d lived but could not go back to. Phnom. The name rang in him.
Life after life, Caesar had adopted new bones and faces, names and genders. He’d bounded through temples with stone guardians carved in his likeness and peered through wooden slots on a ship as he crossed faraway seas. Snow had gathered on his whiskers as he watched the northern lights dance between white peaks, and human hands had tickled his naked back as he dozed by an old, stone fireplace. He’d seen the world, so much of it, wearing different pelts, but lately he thought of one more than the others—cavernous valleys and dense, humid jungles—the light of his first life.
“You look like a statue up there,” Missy said. Caesar glanced down at her from the windowsill. She sat on her haunches, beige ears perked atop her face, and licked her muzzle, smile wide and toothy below black eyes.
Outside Ophelia’s bedroom window, wicked branches gouged the air in every direction, speckled with pumpkin leaves and purple flowers—bruises against a gray sky. Autumn had arrived early this year. Frost webbed the glass and wilted the potted plants nestled on the front porch of their redbrick row house. Home had never been a place for Caesar, not entirely. He’d carried it with him for long enough to accept it as part of him. An extra bone. Until this life, in this house, with Missy and their people.
Eight lives, he thought. Eight beginnings and endings. Yet here, now, for the first time, his home lived inside someone else.
Caesar’s black tail swished back and forth. He batted his paw at Missy. “You’re just jealous because you’re too big to sit with me and enjoy the view.”
“That isn’t true and you know it.” She made a dismissive noise, a bark that sounded more like a boof. “Our people aren’t home yet and you’re too boring to play with me.”
“I don’t like fetch, Dog.”
“Well, I don’t think you like much of anything, Cat.”
Every life had been different. Some wild and wonderful, others painful. Caesar and Missy had met in the aftermath of cruelty, when Caesar had been young, afraid, and alone. He’d hid in closets and trembled beneath beds, ran from heavy fists and squirmed under boots. The first two years of this life had changed the way he looked at humanity. He’d found kindness before, in lives long gone, but after he’d been captured, especially after they’d placed him in a cage, Caesar hadn’t trusted humans.
That changed when he met Ophelia. She’d arrived at the shelter with her father, Jaiden, and said, “Black kitties don’t get adopted as much as other kitties.” Back then she was all hair—long, wiry curls, red and black and brown and gold. He remembered her watching him with wide eyes. “He’s perfect!”
Thankfully, Ophelia had gotten her way, they had taken him home, and he had fallen into friendship with their playful akita.
“What are you looking for out there anyway?” Missy placed her paws on the windowsill and stood on her back legs, following his gaze toward the dark sky.
Beginnings of old lives revisited him, as they always had before the start of a new one. Fourteen years was long enough to make Caesar wonder what came next, but the lives he’d left behind were restless. Memories nipped at him, insistent and cautious. They knew what he felt in the deepest places, the sore spots and scars his soul had carried since his very first breath. All seven lives knew he did not want to leave. Not this time.
He watched stars blink to life on the horizon. “When our lives end something new begins, right?”
“That’s what everyone says, but you still haven’t told me what you’re looking for.” Missy’s tail wagged and her tongue hung sloppily from her mouth.
“Do you remember your past lives, Missy?”
“For all I know this could be my first. No one truly remembers what came before, everyone knows that. My mother told stories about glimpses from past lives, but memories? Never. Wouldn’t that be something, though? I bet I was a fierce timber wolf—”
“I can,” Caesar said. Cars rolled over wet concrete and birds chirped on bare branches. Missy went quiet. Her muzzle shut and she tilted her head, watching him with perked ears and tense paws. In all his lives, he had never told another soul about his memories, afraid he’d be called a liar. “I remember my lives. Some are blurry now, but they’re still there. I know where I lived, what I was, how I felt. They stayed. All of them.”
“All of them? How many, Caesar? And why haven’t you told me this until tonight? We’re supposed to be friends, you know. My grandfather told stories of creatures like you—legends.” She shook out her fur and barked again. “I’ve talked to other dogs about life and afterlife. Rabbits, even! No one ever said they remember their past lives. No one.”
“I was born a tiger.” Moonlight crept across the sky from a great, yellow face rising over the buildings on the horizon. “Then I lived high in the mountains as a leopard. I was stolen after that…” The third life pained him to think about. “I lived with humans sometimes, I died young once, I—I have lived—” Wild. He closed his eyes and remembered moist soil and jagged rock beneath his paws. “I want to know what comes next this time. The unknown is a frightening thing.”
Missy’s silence stretched until the air turned tense. She nosed his cheek. “Twelve years is not long enough to be talking about what comes next.”
Twelve years with them, he thought. Twelve years of Ophelia patting the place beside her on a bed with rosy sheets. Eleven Christmases, eleven New Years, eleven Easters, fourteen dance recitals, and one hidden piercing on Ophelia’s thirteenth birthday. Five fights with Jaiden over dresses that were too short. Two boys sneaking into Ophelia’s room on her fourteenth and fifteenth birthdays, one ruined Trepak vinyl, a closet filled with at least twelve outgrown pairs of ballet shoes, and too many leotards to count.
“You asked me what I was looking for? Someone who might be listening,” he said, but the truth was more complicated than that. Caesar had found a place he never thought he would. He had lived a life he never thought he could, one bursting with endless amounts of love. No matter how wild his heart happened to be, he knew home would always be with Ophelia. “I love her very much, Missy.”
Missy huffed. “I love her, too.”
The life he couldn’t fathom leaving was almost over, and even if endings always came with beginnings, he didn’t want this one to end. They watched night fall across the sky together. Missy’s gaze drifted toward him, but she didn’t speak. Even when her ears folded down and a whine built in her throat, she stayed quiet, honoring Caesar’s privacy. They walked the house together as they always did, chasing each other down the stairs and into the living room. He walked along the kitchen counter, reminiscing on family get-togethers around the table and barbecues on the back patio. Found his favorite perch on the couch and took advantage of Missy’s warmth when she curled close to him.
Hours later, Caesar woke to Jaiden’s deep voice booming through the house and Ophelia’s shoes squeaking on the wood floor. Missy was gone in an instant, howling and yipping as she bounded down the hall.
Caesar retired to the windowsill in Ophelia’s bedroom, etching names and faces into the hidden side of his heart that death couldn’t erase. He remembered the photo of Genevieve, her green eyes crinkled above a grin, her bright red hair flowing over her shoulders. How Missy had nudged the picture frame the day he’d been adopted and said, Ophelia’s mother brought me home when they found out she was sick.
He remembered how small he’d felt in Jaiden’s wide, dark hands. How he’d hissed at Missy after she’d shoved her furry head under Ophelia’s bed. Come out from there, you coward. I don’t bite. How Ophelia’s laugh had changed year after year.
“I don’t want to go,” he said. Moonlight came through the window. Missy’s heart-shaped tag jingled on her collar as she galloped up the stairs. Jaiden’s voice ruptured the quiet—“Good night, O.”
Missy peeked into Ophelia’s bedroom. Her eyes softened. “Good night, Caesar.”
“Good night, Missy.”
Caesar knew it was time. The anchor of old age had been dragging him down for months, but he’d ignored it. This night, and every life before it, forced him to pay attention.
Footsteps thumped on the floor. Heel to toe. There was a pause, the curl of toes on carpet as she spun, and then Ophelia twirled into her room. Year after year he’d watched her grow into a young woman. At sixteen years old, she was fearless, constantly reaching for the unreachable.
“Hi, Caesar,” she cooed. Her curls were smoothed into a bun. She plucked chunky silver jewelry from her fingers, slipped out of her dance clothes and into pajamas, and ran her hand along his back as she walked by.
You saved me, he wanted to say. Kind humans had found him in that run-down apartment, half-starved, beaten, and afraid. They’d shielded him, cared for him, but they hadn’t saved him. They hadn’t given him a home. He remembered every time she’d said it, to friends and neighbors, family and crushes. “Oh, that’s Caesar. He’s a rescue.”
And it was true.
He watched her step on a scale next to her dresser. Numbers appeared like they did every night before bed and every morning after she woke. Her head tipped back. A whispered curse fluttered from her. She kicked the scale and smacked wetness off her cheek.
A moment passed. Caesar meowed at her from the windowsill, and Ophelia sniffled. He never understood this routine: the scale didn’t tell the truth, yet Ophelia always believed it.
She hit the light switch and flopped on her bed. Caesar followed. He perched on her stomach and listened to each breath she took, purring contentedly as her dark eyes flicked around the ceiling, darting from one neon star to the next. They’d been stuck there for years, her own tiny star nursery, and barely glowed anymore.
“Isn’t it crazy? There’s so much out there.” Ophelia stretched her arm up and up, reaching for the edge of her ceiling solar system. “I think Neptune would be a beautiful place to visit. I bet there’s so many colors. Ones we’ve never even seen before. Blue that isn’t blue, purple that isn’t purple, pink that isn’t pink.”
Ophelia’s voice lulled him. He closed his eyes, stitching every sound into his core.
“Do you think stars actually hear wishes? Like, do they listen when people throw their dreams into the universe?” She scratched behind his ears and giggled when he rubbed his head against her chin. “I bet they only hear the good ones, huh?”
Caesar had gazed at the night sky between wide canopy leaves a long, long time ago. He remembered watching a meteor shower, perched on a snowy branch beside an owl, and again, huddled close to his siblings on the open savannah. In a courtyard near the Eiffel Tower. Here, from Ophelia’s windowsill, on the night he wished would last forever.
Please. Let me stay.
“Maybe my mom wished on a star,” Ophelia whispered. “Maybe she’s out there.”
Let me come back. Let me come back. Let me come back.
Ophelia’s finger stayed curled behind his ear. She held him close, his head tucked beneath her chin, her palm settled between his shoulders. This was the worst part of living a life as full as he had. A life that had taught him kindness and brought him friendship, a life where he loved a girl who loved him back, and that made death feel like an impossible bridge to cross.
He opened his eyes to look at her, set his ear to her chest and listened to her breathe.
I don’t want to go.
Caesar pressed his forehead to her chin one last time. He died after fourteen years of a life he couldn’t imagine leaving. When it ended, he dug his claws in, he thought of all those stars, watching, listening, and he wished, and he held on.
Please. Let me come back to her.
In the end, there was darkness.
Caesar opened his eyes. Thick mist encroached on all sides. Heavy air pressed on his haunches and between his shoulders. His racing heart stuttered as he looked around, taking in the vast, ample nothing.
This was not rebirth, he decided. This was what lingered between lives—all-encompassing night.
He looked at his feet and gasped. Orange and white toes curled. Black bolts striped his legs. Strength radiated through his body, an ancient power tethered to life after life filled with stubborn recognition. Phnom. He had not forgotten who he’d been, who he was at the beginning, a seed of light and hope. But here, in a place devoid of scent and sound, and now, as a soul caught between life and death, Phnom couldn’t pin down his own thoughts. They ran together, overlapping and clashing. Where am I, what will I become, where is she, how do I get back, where do I go—
“A soul will always return to the first vessel.” A creature manifested from the shadows like water running upside down. The sharp points of her ears bled into an oval face. Her cheekbones jutted from beneath her eyes, dusted gold and gray, flecked with shimmering orbs that resembled beads of frozen water. She walked upright on two legs. Time made room for her. Light rippled beneath her feet, disrupting the ever-darkness with each step she took. “Yours is one of my personal favorites, Phnom.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Zosma.” Her legs went on for eons. Slender arms folded leisurely across her chest, aurous claws tapping like chimes. A bronze necklace hung around her neck, graceful edges that twined around and around into the shape of a crescent moon. “The cosmos is a great and quiet place, and your wish was too loud to ignore. It echoed all the way to the constellation Leo, where I live, and I knew I had to meet you.”
His body was strong, corded with muscle and familiar in a way he’d yearned to experience ever since he’d left it. He’d missed his claws and Cambodia. The first place he had ever called home. Everything rushed at him, needle sharp under his skin. Gibbons swinging from thick trees, birds singing on temple walls.
“I wished on you as Caesar, the body I took in my eighth life. I wished to be close to…to…” He didn’t know the word for what Ophelia, Jaiden, and Missy were to him. “My pride,” he decided, leaning on memories from his third life. “My family.”
Galaxies made a home in her eyes, shaped like raindrops, full of meteorites crashing, combusting, and shattering. She regarded him with a tilted head, snout set tightly. Her nostrils flared, and her long, golden-banded tail whipped. Zosma leaned closer, inspecting him. “Do you know what you are?”
“I am Phnom,” he said softly. “And I was Bilhana, I was King and Monty and Dior and Aziza and Caesar. I was nameless once, when death came for me before I opened my eyes.”
“Yes,” Zosma said, tone deep and rich. “Do you not remember me from that nameless life, Phnom? You remember the impossible, yet you’ve forgotten my voice already?”
Memories from that life—his fifth life—were difficult to gather. He’d barely taken a breath before he was ripped from his mother by human hands. Hands that tossed him into a sack with his littermates, tied it shut and threw them carelessly into a lake. All he’d known then was fear and confusion and water, so much water, until someone appeared. He always thought he’d dreamed it, that soft purr, those warm palms, gathering him and his siblings to her chest. Your next life will be better, Zosma had said, I promise you. He hadn’t known who or what she was, but he’d found comfort in her voice and touch and presence, even as he drowned.
“That was you?” Phnom whispered.
She bowed her head. “It was. Now, I will ask you again. Do you know what you are, Phnom?”
Zosma’s smile curved like Saturn’s rings. “Never,” she assured. “You have been mine to protect, and I have guided you through eight segments of nine lives. Your first life—” her clawed hand cupped his face “—all the way to the one you just left. Fate is an ongoing destination, my tiger. A place you have seen in many shapes, over many lives, with one soul. And somehow, through it all, you’ve kept your lives with you.”
“This is my last life?”
“As a child of Leo, yes. Then you will be given to another star on another constellation.”
“Why did they stay? My lives, I mean. What does that make me?”
“An anomaly.” She rested a single claw on her jaw, chin cradled in her narrow palm. “Fate is older and wiser than us all, and I cannot argue with what they have in store for you. Lives are complex. No matter how new birth may seem, breadcrumbs from past lives still linger, forging paths, granting guidance. Yours, however, have…grown. They have changed your destiny. Because of that…” She flicked her wrist, conjuring gold rope from the darkness. It glowed, looped through her strange, long hands, forming the silhouette of a tiger, a leopard, a lion, a Maine coon, a kitten, a sphynx cat, a cheetah, and lastly, a Bombay, before going limp. “I can see the threads tied to you, but I do not know where they end.”
“Did you…” He looked from the rope to her iridescent eyes. “Did you consider my wish? Will you grant it?”
The darkness pulsed around them. He noticed far away stars, their tails streaking white in the distance. It was as if they hovered just beneath the surface of a galaxy, a place where life and death could deliberate. Zosma twined the rope around her wrist. Fine, golden dust swirled in her hand. She flicked the dust and it bent, dancing and tilting, until a batch of glowing orbs floated there, suspended.
“Fate has plans for you. I can’t argue with that, but what you’ve wished for is dangerous,” Zosma said. “It’s powerful. And powerful things, things like you, always come with consequences.” She looked down at him, godlike and ethereal. “Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Yes,” he blurted. “Whatever Fate has in store for me, it starts where my eighth life ended. I’m sure of that.”
“You’re foolish to think you know your own destiny. But I will give you this, Phnom the fierce tiger, if only to see where your threads end.” Phnom stood impossibly still, gazing at the goddess. The universe encircled her like a halo. She spun the orbs in her palm. “I’ve found you a body. It’s close by. If you want it, wish on me again.”
“I wish for a life with Ophelia,” Phnom said, the words rushing from his mouth.
Zosma watched him. She was magnificent.
“So be it,” she said, her voice was a thousand whispers. She laughed, and a solar flare erupted around him.
He clung to the memories of his eighth life. Missy’s toothy smile. Jaiden’s rich voice. The tree outside Ophelia’s window. Ophelia. The resilience he’d found at the beginning, the resistance he’d found at the end. His past lives clamored for purchase on bone and spirit, clinging to him. He felt snow beneath his paws again. Heard the roar of crowds and the crack of a whip. Ophelia. Thought of sunlight skimming across the porch in summer. Tasted foliage in the Cambodian jungle. Smelled savannah dirt on his snout. Pieced together an image of the windowsill where he used to sit. Remembered home.
I am coming back to you.
He thought of Ophelia, and he closed his eyes.
About the Author:
Taylor Brooke Barton (they/them) writes Queer books filled with magic and attitude. After an exciting career in Special Effects Makeup, they moved to Oregon and settled in the mountains with their plants and one-toothed cat. Their New Adult catalog (FORTITUDE SMASHED, OMEN OPERATION, SHADOWS YOU LEFT) is available anywhere books are sold. Look for their Young Adult debut THE NINTH LIFE coming from Inkyard Press September 15, 2020.