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The Starving Years

The Starving Years

The Starving Years by Jordan Castillo Price

Series: Standalone
Length: Novel - 96,000 words - 320 page PDF
Cover artist: Jordan Castillo Price - see larger cover
ISBN: 978-1-935540-43-4

 

$6.79
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Summary

Imagine a world without hunger. In 1960, a superfood was invented that made starvation a thing of the past. Manna, the cheaply manufactured staple food, is now as ubiquitous as salt in the world’s cupboards, pantries and larders.

Nelson Oliver knows plenty about manna. He’s a food scientist—according to his diploma, that is. Lately, he’s been running the register at the local video rental dive to scrape together the cash for his exorbitantly priced migraine medication.

In a job fair gone bad, Nelson hooks up with copywriter Javier and his computer-geek pal Tim, who whisks them away from the worst of the fiasco in his repurposed moving truck. At least, Nelson thinks those two are acquainted, but they’re acting so evasive about it, he’s not sure how they know each other, exactly.

Javier is impervious to Nelson’s flirting, and Tim’s name could appear in the dictionary under the entry for “awkward.” And with a riot raging through Manhattan and yet another headache coming on, it doesn’t seem like Nelson will get an answer anytime soon. One thing’s for sure, the tension between the three of them is thick enough to cut with a knife...even one of those dull plastic dealies that come in the package with Mannariffic EZ-Mealz.

 

Excerpt

Chapter 1


The room was warm. Too warm. The molded plastic stacking chairs had grown profoundly uncomfortable. On the buffet at the far wall, the picked-over remains of the manna samples, tiny cubes stuck through with toothpicks, were going dry around the edges. The air smelled worn out and used up, stale and slightly ionized, as if the convention center was pumping pure oxygen into the ventilation system in an attempt to keep the Canaan Products, Inc. hopefuls from drooling onto their laminated all-day seminar passes, then keeling over and toppling out of their seats.

Nelson Oliver filled in all the letter-O’s on his glossy Canaan Products brochure, then moved on to the spaces in the a’s and e’s. He was so far beyond bored he was practically in an altered state of consciousness.

The guy on his left with the name tag that read Randy in large, assertive letters, the guy who took up way more space than he needed, was actually asleep—really, deeply asleep. Even asleep, he managed to elbow into Nelson’s comfort zone. A couple of hours ago he’d started to nod, jerking his head back up each time it drooped, and forcing his eyes open wide. And then there was lunch—a working lunch, standing at the buffet, trying to look as if it wasn’t tempting to casually spit some of the stranger new flavors into a napkin. Once they were through cramming themselves full of manna samples, a weird hodgepodge of sweet and savory they could potentially have the responsibility of tweaking, packaging and selling for the company’s next big rollout, Randy finally gave in and let his full stomach usher his brain past alpha waves, and deep into a full-on theta sleep.

Marianne, as proclaimed by her quickly scrawled name tag—the cute redhead on Nelson’s right—was not bored. She was doing her own thing, texting so fast, he could hardly see her thumbs move. The job fair literature had clearly stated that PDAs and Smartphones weren’t welcome. Nelson wished he hadn’t let the literature convince him to leave his Droid at home. The presenter was counting down the history of manna at a level even a child could understand—explaining manna to Nelson: a manna specialist.

Nelson glanced around the room at the sea of strangers. Was anyone there capable of keeping their attention on the tedious presentation? Every one of them held an advanced degree, or the real-world equivalent. There were marketing gurus. Entrepreneurs. Even other scientists, like him. And all of them were scrabbling to be picked for the Canaan Products elite development and marketing team that was the buzz of the entire food industry. Regaling them with the history of manna—what next? A blow-by-blow demonstration of how to tie your own shoes?

“Can anyone here tell me,” said the slick Canaan Products guy on stage, “the ten top-selling manna flavors of all time?”

“Chocolate,” someone called out. 

“Chocolate. That’s number three.” He strode back to his box of tricks from which he’d been pulling visual aids all morning, and found a plain envelope inside. From that, he drew a bill, though Nelson was too far away to see its denomination from where he was sitting. “You’ve earned yourself one hundred dollars.” He set the bill on the edge of the stage. A whisper ran through the audience, and suddenly the whole shuffling, shifting, half-asleep crowd was on high alert. The man who’d called out “chocolate” leapt up and marched to the stage to collect his prize.

“Okay,” said the presenter, “I’ll take another guess—but raise your hands now, don’t just blurt it out.” Hands shot up all around the room. “Second row, in the blue shirt.”

“Rice.”

“That’s right. Rice has been the top-selling flavor in Asian markets since its invention in 1961, and remains so to this day. Overall, rice comes in at number two.”

The other two job-seekers at Nelson’s table had their hands up. Marianne’s tush was up out of her seat as she jabbed her raised hand toward the acoustic drop-ceiling, hoping to be noticed over the crowd of mostly men, who towered over her. Of course, Nelson could name the top ten flavors (and who wouldn’t want a hundred bucks?) but the thought of being made to dance in his seat like a trained macaque was insulting enough to keep him from raising his hand. Instead, in the spaces between the words, in the margins and the paragraph breaks of the brochure, he began to draw.

A cacao pod with its plump ridges. Tiny oblong grains of rice. A wedge shape that represented cheese. A hairy circle with three eyes—coconut, another big seller in Asia and the Caribbean. A three-lobed, sawtoothed cilantro leaf to stand for verde, Latin America’s top flavor, a combination of herb essences, chili flavors and a hint of tomatillo, a flavor combo that gained popularity fast because its flavor complimented manna’s naturally greenish hue. A similar elliptic leaf for mint. Nelson didn’t much care for it, but it sold well in warmer climates. Mushroom…those were easy enough to draw. Green onion, not so much. What else? Ah. Feet, wings, beak, wattle….

“Chicken,” a man announced. The audience groaned. Nelson glanced up—the guesser was a generation older than him, somewhere around sixty. Not only would an American that age remember meat-flavored manna, he’d probably even eaten it himself. Not the manna, the real thing. Chicken bodies.

A disapproving murmur went through the crowd. A college-aged kid two tables over mimed gagging himself.

Nelson finished the chicken drawing with a dot to represent its eye.

The speaker drew out a crisp hundred with a flourish. “That’s absolutely correct. Although only a few small specialty factories produce it today, chicken was the undisputed market leader worldwide from 1963 to 1972.”

And then there was one—a single remaining flavor the crowd hadn’t yet named. Nelson considered the best way to draw it a moment longer than he had the others, because this was a more conceptual idea. He smiled to himself; he always enjoyed a good challenge.

Around him, the audience attempted to guess what the single most popular flavor of manna could be. Was it honey? Bread? Green apple? Legume? Yes, those flavors were all fairly common, but none were so ubiquitous as to be at the very top of the list.

Nelson pondered his drawing as more people guessed: tamarind, barley, snap pea, almond. Ridiculous. The answer was so simple, and there they were, reaching farther and farther away from it. He considered and dismissed a number of visual representations, and finally decided to keep it simple, himself.

He drew an empty box.

To his left, the man named Randy, who’d been asleep only ten minutes before, surged up out of his seat. “Yes?” the presenter said, pointing. “You want to give it a shot?”

Randy squared his shoulders, looked around the room in triumph, and said, “Plain.”

A collective groan surged through the crowd. The presenter beamed. “That’s right—plain. Think of all those billions of government-fed mouths: India. Russia. Indonesia. Bangladesh. The whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Beggars can’t be choosers, and the majority of the manna they get is good, old-fashioned, inexpensive, minimally processed plain.”

“He copied off you.”

Nelson found Marianne staring down at his doodle-covered brochure. “Copied?”

“Plain.” She jabbed her finger at the empty square. “It took him a second to figure out what that symbol meant, but now look at him.” At the edge of the stage, Randy didn’t pick up the 100-dollar bill from the stage floor like everyone else; he took it right from the slick presenter, who shook his hand and gave him a big smile. “Acting like it was all his idea. Like he’s so smart.”

“Thanks for the concern, I guess, but it’s not that big a deal.”

“Not that big a deal? Look at him, all smug, and he didn’t even think of it himself.”

Nelson gave a half-shrug. “Welcome to the world of manna.” A hundred bucks would have allowed him to seriously upgrade his pre-work coffee that month, from the daily grind to one of those fancy things with whipped manna and flavored syrup on top—but he’d be damned if he would make a huge spectacle of himself to earn it. If he needed the cash that badly, he could pick up a few extra shifts at his crappy dayjob—which was just as boring as the seminar, though thankfully, not nearly as insulting.

Although, Nelson realized, if he looked at the bigger picture, the Canaan Products bigwigs were probably paying more attention to the applicants who walked up to that stage, and not the ones who stayed back in their seats doodling the answers on the promotional material. Seminars like that weren’t for potential employees to learn about the company; they were for the company to put a bunch of poor schmucks like Nelson through their paces like a bunch of manna-bloated lab rats.

What use was it? He’d never be able to do the corporate act, not even for the few seminars and interviews it would take him to get his foot in the door. He spotted an exit behind the coffee cart. Too far. In the divider that split the conference room from the adjacent room—yes, another one there. That door wouldn’t lead directly out, but even so, it was tempting to go sit in the adjoining empty conference hall, alone in the quiet and the dark, until the Canaan Products recruiters and all the desperate hopefuls fawning over them packed up and went home. Nelson eyed the doors, but he stayed where he was. If he ever wanted to quit clerking at the video store and put his degree to work again, he’d probably need to act like one of those dancing apes—at least for the duration of a seminar. 

He shook his head in disgust.

Marianne must have thought he was disgusted about Randy stealing his answer, not his own inability to fake corporate dronedom for a single day—and she seemed determined to be upset in his honor. She rose from her chair. “I’m going to tell the event coordinator. I see her right over there, refilling the carafes.”

“Seriously. Don’t—”

“And now for our next teambuilding exercise. It’s time to open up the green envelope from your welcome packet.”

Please, Nelson thought. Just shoot me.

When the presenter spoke, Marianne sat back down, clucking her tongue in annoyance as she dug through her welcome packet for the correct envelope.

Nelson checked his watch. Two more hours to go, and then…how long until he’d be notified that of the picks for Canaan Products’ new dream team, he ranked somewhere around fifty out of fifty? Coming to the open call had been a stupid idea. Nelson wasn’t a people-person, a showman. And that’s what you needed to be to look like a winner in a sea of interchangeable faces.

“Inside you’ll find a puzzle piece.”

So stupid. Unbelievably stupid. Who thinks of these exercises? If he could ever get over his loathing of the whole corporate culture, there might be money to be made in thinking up some better games. Not that Nelson thought he could ever get beyond that initial stumbling block.

“Your piece represents one of the top flavors of manna—except plain, of course…because we had a little trouble finding a symbol for plain.” The crowd laughed, all except Marianne, who glanced down at the empty square on Nelson’s brochure, then gave him a pointed look.

On Nelson’s other side, Randy sat down and began to dig for his green envelope, still grinning about his big score. Nelson tipped a puzzle piece into his palm. Green leaf, serrated edge. Mint.

“Be the first to find someone whose puzzle piece fits yours, and you’ll each take home one of these.” The announcer held up a box covered in plain paper. It looked about the size of Canaan Products’ Exotic Spices line—a spectacular flop. Thirty dollar value when it first came out, but now that it was in every clearance aisle, you could score it for under twelve. “Ready? Set?”

Nelson rolled his eyes—and then noticed that Marianne was holding her puzzle piece so he could see if it fit his. She had half a piece of cheese on hers. He shook his head slightly, and she scowled.

“Go!”

Marianne and Randy were off like rockets. Nelson sat for a moment and wondered if he should just put himself out of his misery and go back home, sneak out the way he’d come in now that everyone was milling around, but he figured he’d already wasted six hours of his life in the futile endeavor, so what difference was a couple more? He stood, turned, and managed to collide with one of the jigsaw-clutching hopefuls yearning to find the other half of their souls. Honestly, were they so eager to dance for the monkey-masters they didn’t even look where they were going? 

Nelson turned to glare at the guy who’d jostled him…and stopped dead in his tracks. The guy couldn’t have been looking where he was going, because on that side, he had an eye patch—and not a disposable-looking “I’m recovering from a speck of dirt in my eye” eye patch. A very permanent black eye patch. With a scar that extended out from below it, down his cheek, all the way to the corner of his mouth. Less than a second ticked by as Nelson took it all in, but he dropped his gaze fast, like he’d been caught staring, to the other Canaan Products hopeful’s name tag. 

Javier.

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Reviews

...you know what the best thing about this book was for me? It cut me no slack. There was a story for me to figure out, there was bad stuff for me to see, there were harsh realities that were not going to be glossed over for me to get a perfect ending. Nope, not here. This was edgy, brutal at times, so different, and simply good writing. -The LL's Word

Ms. Price is an expert world-builder, and that shines in this book.... I was fascinated not only by the somewhat repellant product [manna] itself but also by its social and economic impact on the world. - Book Wenches

This story is part corporate greed, part social activism–whistle blowers who use the media to their advantage, the supposedly fair and unbiased media that uses good and honest people as playthings to manipulate and boost ratings and to sensationalize the news. This is the story of corporate America and the way in which the general public relies on those corporations to conduct their business fairly, when all the corporations truly care about is their fiscal well being. -The Novel Approach

I finished it. It moved along. It was good. Except the balls. -Jordan's ex

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