Nora knows three things: she is a servant, her parents are dead, and she lives in the kitchen house with her adoptive family. But her world is torn apart when she discovers that her birth father has always been right there, living in the house she serves.
This discovery leads Nora to more questions. Why was she thrown in an ash-covered room for asking about her father? Why is a silver-bladed knife the only inheritance from her birth mother? Why is magic forbidden in her household—and throughout the province of the Runes? The answers may not be the ones Nora hoped for, as they threaten a possible romance and her relationship with the adoptive family she loves.
With the announcement of a royal ball, Nora must decide what she is willing to give up in order to claim her stolen birthright, and whether this new life is worth losing her family—and herself.
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I sat at the window with the sun on my face, slicing tomatoes I picked from the vine that climbed the back of the kitchen house. On the other side of the room, Greta hummed an old tune. The words tickled at the fringes of my memory, not quite making their way to my lips. I hadn’t heard them since she used to sing me to sleep almost seven years ago. When I was six, old enough to hold my knife, hearth-lit songs and dreams had been replaced with work.
Tomato juice sluiced across the cutting board as I bore down with my blade. The carvings that covered its handle had practically tattooed themselves on my palm. I imagined it had been the same way for my real mother—the knife had once been hers.
“Nora, Robert stopped by while you were outside,” Greta said, arm-deep in a bowl of dough. “He said there’s a new woman and her son coming sometime this week. They’re going to work here with us.”
“Why?” I said, glancing up from the mess of tomatoes on my board. The kitchen house already felt small with Greta, Peter, and me living there.
Greta shrugged. “Sir Alcander must have thought we needed the help.”
Bright pain burst through my hand. I drew a breath and looked down at where my knife had bitten into my finger.
“Are you okay?” Greta asked.
“I’m fine.” I hid my finger under the table until she turned back to her dough. I didn’t want her to take away my knife.
“Anyway, we’ll need to clear out some space in the loft.”
“Mm-hmm.” I held up my hand and stared at the red teardrop of blood glinting in the sunlight. It was beautiful, I decided. Like a jewel. I wrapped a rag around my finger before Greta could see it.
A chirrup of delight sounded outside. Siobhan and Annabelle had come out to play. Even though they rarely acknowledged me, I swore that the girls, the daughters of Sir Alcander and Lady Portia, played in view of the kitchen house just to remind me that they had the time and leisure to play when I did not.
“Greta!” Siobhan ran up to my window and leaned inside. “Do you have any chocolate?” Her voice was sweet, a voice that tried to please.
Greta knew better. “No dessert before tea.”
Siobhan’s innocent mask fell off. “I said give us some chocolate. I’ll tell mother if you don’t.”
There was a fleeting moment when I thought Greta might say no. Tell them to say please. Make them ask nicely like she would make me do if I ever talked to her like that. Instead she shook her head and went to the shelf to get the chocolate. She never would have given in to me, but my mother wasn’t the lady of the house.
“Ella-Della!” Annabelle peeked her head through the window as she reached for the chocolate.
“Not Ella-Della,” I said. “Nora.” Della was the name of the simple milkmaid in one of Annabelle’s favorite stories. Her stupidity always got her in trouble with the lord of her household. Once I had the misfortune of walking by with a bucket of water while Portia was outside, telling the story to the girls.
“Look, there goes Della now,” Portia said. At the time, I didn’t even know what the name meant, but the way she laughed let me know it wasn’t a compliment. Siobhan and Annabelle echoed her laughter and her words, and the name stuck.
“Ella-Della, we heard a secret,” Annabelle said through a mouthful of chocolate.
Siobhan shushed her. “I said I was going to tell her!”
She picked up a piece of tomato from my cutting board and threw it at my face. Warm, acidy juice trickled down my cheek. I wiped it off with my rag. Annabelle murmured in disgust at the blood that streaked the cloth.
“You’re going to want to hear it,” Siobhan said as I moved the cutting board out of her reach. “It’s about you.” She looked at Greta, who pretended not to pay attention, then back at me. “Meet us by the tree.”
“Race you!” Annabelle shouted and ran into the field. Siobhan followed. I imagined them tripping in their silk slippers and staining their dresses with dirt.
As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was curious about what they had to say. But I also knew Greta would not let me leave until my work was done. I picked another tomato out of my basket, cut a slit into the side, and squeezed it so the slit cracked into a mouth.
“I have a secret! It’s about you, Ella-Della. Now give me chocolate!” Pulp lolled out of the tomato-mouth.
I wished Peter were here. His stories full of chivalrous heroes, brave maidens, talking animals, and the occasional fairy always made time go faster. But Peter was up on top of the main house, patching the roof again. I wished I were up there with him, outside and above everything, but Greta had insisted I stay with her.
“What if you fell off the roof?” she said as we ate breakfast.
“Then you’d heal me and make me all better,” I replied.
“Lucky.” Peter grinned as he drank the last of his tea. “She’d leave me for dead.”
“You know that’s true,” Greta said, and we all laughed. She and Peter had been married for so long that she liked to say that their jokes about killing each other were sometimes serious.
I looked out the window at where Siobhan and Annabelle had settled themselves under the hazel tree in the middle of the field.
“Greta?” I said. “Can I go outside?”
Greta tsked and shook her head. “You know those girls don’t have anything worthwhile to say.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. I wanted Greta to be right, but there had been a wicked delight in Siobhan’s eyes that made me think that she really did have a secret to share. There was no way I was going to let her keep it to lord over me later.
Greta waved her hand. “Put the soup on, then go.”
I diced the rest of the tomatoes and carried the cutting board to the pot that hung over the fire in the hearth. The tomatoes went in on top of the carrots, parsnips, and rosemary that I threw in earlier that morning. I poured a pitcher of water on top of the vegetables and wiped my knife on my apron. The tomato pulp left an orange swath across the fabric.
Greta nodded. Her long braid fell over her shoulder as she worked. She pushed it back behind her. “Go. But you’re a glutton for punishment. And I’m not going to stop your soup from boiling over.”
I untied my apron and hung it over my chair by the window. I usually took my knife outside with me so I could use the handle to smash open the skins of the hazelnuts. Greta watched me with a raised eyebrow and the hint of a smile on her face. I left the knife behind.
I could feel Greta watching from the window as I crossed the field behind the kitchen house. Smoke meandered from the chimney, a reminder of the soup that would boil soon. The kitchen house was a squat brown-and-grey stone block compared to the massive size of the main house next to it. I could walk to the main house in minutes, but it felt like it was miles away. I’d never been inside. Greta always murmured something about my being too young when I asked if I could help bring in dinner.
Siobhan and Annabelle sat on the grass under the hazel tree. I bristled at their presence. I claimed the tree for myself long ago. It was close to the rest of the forest but set off by itself, pulsing with a secret, solitary life. I used to climb over its branches, rubbing my feet over the smooth bark and leaning my ear against the trunk to listen for a heartbeat.
It was my tree, alone and proud. I didn’t want them playing near it.
Siobhan sat with her legs tucked under her skirt, pulling up blades of grass, knotting them, and throwing them at Annabelle. She threw a clod of roots and dirt at me. It landed harmlessly an arm’s-length away. I was sure that if I hadn’t already gathered most of the hazelnuts from the ground that morning, Siobhan would be throwing them instead.
“What took you so long?”
“I had work to do.” I put my hands on my hips, trying to look imposing. Siobhan stood up and brushed off her skirt. Even though I was more than a year older, she was taller and always managed to look down on me.
“Of course,” she said, miming forgetfulness. “Ella-Della is our servant.”
“Della, Della, Ella-Della,” Annabelle sang. “Fetched some milk and met a fella.” She was ten, a year younger than Siobhan. Her face screwed up in an expression of intense concentration as she tried to remember the next part of the song.
“What is it?” I asked. “You said you had something to tell me.”
“You need to earn it, Ella-Della.” Siobhan pointed to the top of the tree where the tail end of one of Annabelle’s bird-shaped toys stuck out between the leaves.
“Why don’t you get it yourself?” I said.
Siobhan snorted. “Climbing trees is not ladylike, Ella-Della.”
Annabelle, having given up on the song, fit a chain of clovers on top of her golden curls. As she and Siobhan waited, ladylike, on the ground, I grabbed the lowest branch and swung up into the tree. There was a curved branch halfway up that I liked to sit on. I stopped there, balancing with one hand against the trunk. The toy was stuck between the branches far above my head.
“Just because it’s a bird doesn’t mean it can fly,” I called down.
Cocooned among the dark, jagged leaves, I couldn’t see Siobhan. But the leaves didn’t stop her voice from reaching me.
“Just because you look like a horse doesn’t mean you can run.”
I continued to climb. Greta was right. They didn’t have anything useful to tell me. They just wanted someone to get Annabelle’s bird.
The cloud-dappled sky came into view near the crown of the tree. The toy’s red body stood out from the green around it. I stood on my tiptoes on a thin branch and stretched to reach it. My fingers brushed against the painted wood, and it plummeted out of the tree, hitting branches and smashing to the grass below. I climbed down as slowly as I could.
Annabelle held the bird’s wooden body in one hand and the wing that had broken off in the other. Her cheeks were reddened with anger. She started to speak, but Siobhan brushed her off.
“Father will buy you a new one,” she said. “Tell him that Ella-Della broke it. He’ll take it out of her wages.”
I shuffled my feet, which smarted from landing on the ground. What did they even know about my wages? I’d never seen any of the money due to me—I always assumed Peter and Greta kept it safe for when I was older. What did I need it for, anyway? When he went to the Market, Peter used his own wages to buy me small toys or the charcoals and chalk I used whenever he or Greta had time to give me lessons. Did Sir Alcander take from my wages any time I did something he didn’t like? I’d only ever seen the man from a distance, but he seemed imposing enough that I could imagine him doing it.
“Ella-Della,” Siobhan said, “don’t you want to know the secret?”
“No.” I turned back to the kitchen house.
“I heard Mother and Father talking in the parlor. They thought I was in bed, but I was getting those black biscuits from the servants’ rooms.”
Annabelle dropped her toy back on the ground. “You said I could come with you! I wanted biscuits, too!”
“Those were for the house servants,” I said. Greta and I made the thin bilberry biscuits a week ago. It was my idea to smash up the berries to give the dough its dark color.
Siobhan went on as though she hadn’t heard me. “Mother and Father were talking and Mother said, ‘Someday she’s going to find out, and when she does, she’s going to want to know why, Alcander.’” She did a pitch-perfect impression of her mother, cocking her head just like I’d seen Lady Portia do.
Curiosity won out. “Why what?”
Siobhan opened her mouth to answer, but Annabelle got there first.
“Why you live in the kitchen house when your father is in the main house.” She gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth. Siobhan looked around. Her haughty expression was gone, replaced by guilt. She was not good at burying her thoughts. They were telling the truth.
Siobhan’s moment of humility didn’t last long. “I always thought your father lived in the oven,” she said. “That would explain why your arms are all messed up.”
I crossed my arms behind me, trying to hide the pink burns scarred onto my skin.
“You’re lying,” I said. Even if they actually heard Lady Portia say those words, what she said wasn’t possible. Greta and Peter were my parents. My real mother died in childbirth, and my father followed her to the World Apart soon afterwards. That’s what Greta and Peter always said. But the hazel tree brightened behind Siobhan’s head, and my feet felt lighter than before, like they weren’t quite touching the ground. It might have been hope.
“Am not,” Siobhan snapped. “I’m being nice. I just thought you’d want to know that your father threw you away in the kitchen house so he wouldn’t have to see your ugly face every day. See if I ever do anything for you again.”
She turned on her heels and hauled Annabelle back to the main house. I stood there for a moment, letting the colors of my small world return to normal. I couldn’t go back to the kitchen house, not yet, not if what they said was true. Why would Greta and Peter tell me that my father had passed? Was his presence the reason I wasn’t allowed in the main house? He could be there, waiting for me to come find him. Did he know who I was? Did he even want me?
“Nora!” Greta’s voice pierced through the fog of questions swirling around me. “The soup is burning!”
I ran back to the kitchen house and hefted the pot off the fire. I hadn’t put in enough water, and what I did add had boiled away. I poured in two pitchers this time and put the pot back on the hearth, hoping no one would notice the vegetables’ smoky taste. I barely heard Greta’s reprimands as I ran through the list of men who worked in the main house. There were three male servants: Matthew, Sir Alcander’s valet, was married to Sarah, the head maid. They came to work at the Runes when I was eight, so it couldn’t be Matthew. Victor, the footman, was only seventeen. The only one left was Robert, the butler. He began working at the Runes before Greta and Peter, and he was certainly old enough to have a daughter my age. He had only ever been kind to me when he came to deliver messages or get food from the kitchen house.
Someone knocked at the door. Greta opened it, and there he was. Breath caught in my throat.
“Robert.” Greta nodded, and he came inside.
“The new kitchen maid will arrive from the Vale the day after tomorrow.”
“From the Vale?” Greta sounded surprised, but I didn’t understand why. “Is she Kindred?”
“She and Alcander are like-minded when it comes to”—he glanced over at me—“the goings-on at the Vale.”
I held Robert’s gaze for as long as I could, scrutinizing his features. He carried himself with a dignified air, stately even. He took pride in his work, which was probably why he’d been employed at the Runes longer than any of the other servants. His hair was wiry and grey. I ran a hand through the scraggily, dark red tangle on my head. I’d never met anyone else with my thick, ratty hair. Greta’s braid, while heavy, was smooth and dark. Annabelle and Siobhan’s curls were always brushed to perfection. Robert’s hair reminded me of trees I had seen in the woods that had been struck by lightning, an image I often associated with myself when I looked in the mirror. I could imagine his hair being the same color as mine once upon a time. His eyes were grey instead of gold like mine, but I could have gotten my eyes from my mother.
Had Robert ever been married? He wasn’t now. Maybe he had a wife who died in childbirth, and he couldn’t bear to have the child near him because she—I—reminded him too much of her. It was all very romantic. I wanted to rush over to him, but I held back. What if I were wrong? I would just embarrass myself.
Robert and Greta’s conversation ended with the determination that Peter would meet the new servants in the woods west of the Runes proper the next day. Robert brushed past me on his way out.
“Nora.” He nodded at me.
I wanted to follow him back to the main house, but as soon as the door closed behind him, I turned to Greta.
“My parents,” I said. “My real parents—do you know who they were?”
She startled at the abruptness of the question. “Why are you asking this now? Did the girls say something?”
“I just want to know.”
Greta beckoned for me to sit down with her.
“You know the answer. The couple who worked in the kitchen house before us gave you to Peter and me.”
“But those people weren’t my parents,” I said.
“They didn’t say who your parents were,” Greta continued. “Only that they’d passed, and you needed someone to take care of you. We always wanted a child, and—” She stopped talking when it became obvious I wasn’t listening. This was a story I knew by heart, but it wasn’t mine anymore.
Greta narrowed her eyes. “What did the girls say to you?”
I stood up. “Nothing.”
I went back to my seat by the window, put my apron on, and began to mash up a pile of sprigberries that Greta had put on the table while I was outside. If she and Peter knew anything about my real parents, they would have no reason to hide it from me. They gave me my mother’s knife, after all. Sir Alcander and Lady Portia obviously knew, but I couldn’t ask them. Lady Portia’s visits to the kitchen house were rare and always came with demands. Less salt in the soup or an extra dessert tart for Siobhan and Annabelle. She gusted in and out, never staying for longer than her words and never looking in my direction. Sir Alcander never even set foot near the kitchen house. The only times I’d laid eyes on him had been through a window when I brought something to Peter while he was patching the exterior of the main house. I knew Sir Alcander more by his maps. Peter had one in the kitchen house, and he used it to teach me the geography of Colandaria. Sir Alcander’s intricate compass roses were more familiar to me than his face.
No, I would not get answers from either of them. But I would go to the main house. I had to talk to Robert.
“Good morning, early riser. Any chance you made breakfast while we were sleeping?” Peter said as he climbed the ladder down from the loft and joined me in the kitchen, where I’d been trying to quiet the pounding of my heart since before sunup. He put his arm around me and kissed my forehead. The bristles of his short beard tickled my chin. All fathers should feel like this, I thought.
I had to keep myself from trailing behind him when he brought breakfast to the main house. I would have to wait until everyone was doing their work before I could go inside. I’d seen Greta and Peter go in the back door of the main house as often as I’d seen Robert, Sarah, or one of the other servants come out of it on their way across the field. The servants’ quarters were supposed to be right near the entrance. There had to be something there that would tell me about Robert.
I picked at my breakfast. The nervous flutter in my stomach made me too nauseated to eat. I’d occasionally thought about my real parents resting in the World Apart. Their ashes would have been given to the wind somewhere meaningful. Someone would have held me nearby to ensure that their spirits would watch over me. Growing up, though, I had the parents I needed. Greta and Peter gave me a fire burning in the hearth, a garden to pick food from, and stories to fill warm nights in the loft.
Now, with just a few words from Siobhan and Annabelle, I needed more.
No one would be in the main house servants’ quarters after breakfast. I waited until Peter went outside to repair the fence around the chicken coop and Greta began making her daily bread at the counter that faced away from the window.
“I’m going to see if any more tomatoes are ripe,” I said as Greta took out caraway seeds and flour and put them next to the eggs that I gathered from the coop before breakfast.
She nodded, and I headed out, glancing back to make sure that she had started on the dough. While she was busy measuring ingredients, I ran across the field to the main house and went in the back entrance. Once inside, I cracked open the first door I came to. The room I entered was about the size of the floor of the kitchen house, large enough to fit six beds. Some belongings—probably Victor’s, since Peter always complained what a mess Victor was when he came back from bringing in supper—were strewn about the floor, while others sat on shelves or against the wall. The largest bed would belong to Matthew and Sarah. That left only a few beds that could be Robert’s. A green satin vest with gold edging hung on a stand across the room. That had to be his. He would wear it to serve at Sir Alcander’s and Lady Portia’s banquets. Robert’s shelves were bare except for a few books and a tin of my bilberry biscuits. I warmed at the thought that my father had a stash of my cooking. There was something else on the shelf, something flat enough that I couldn’t see what it was. I stood on my tiptoes and retrieved a palm-sized agate cameo. The carving was of a young woman not more than twenty years old. She was lovely, with long, wavy hair tied back with a large bow.
Was this my mother? In profile, it was difficult to make out anything specific about her features. I wished her image were in color so I could see if she had my gold eyes. I had to talk to Robert before I lost my nerve. I went back to the hallway with the cameo clutched in my fist. I didn’t know where to go, but I did know that I would be in trouble if I were caught roaming the halls. I picked a direction, glancing around each corner before proceeding as I looked for a shock of steely grey hair.
Portraits lined the hallway. All of the subjects wore the same shade of dark green that marked them as the noble family of the Runes. I stopped in front of a painting that depicted Sir Alcander and Lady Portia posing with younger versions of Siobhan and Annabelle. The artist captured the girls’ smug expressions well. The paint in Siobhan’s eyes shined with mischief. Lady Portia’s every hair was defined. The painter had arranged his light source to highlight her sharp, elegant cheekbones. Sir Alcander’s eyes were duller than those of Lady Portia or their daughters. Even Annabelle’s eyes twinkled with specks of white that were missing in her father’s.
I wheeled around to face Sarah, the head maid.
“What are you doing here?”
I looked at the floor. The grey and green grain of the marble flowed like the lines on one of Sir Alcander’s maps. I ran the tip of my shoe along one of the paths.
“I’m looking for Robert,” I said. “I need to talk to him. It’s important.”
“He’s taking dictation for Sir Alcander.” Sarah looked past me down the hall. “He’ll be done soon. Come with me.”
She put a hand on my back and ushered me in the direction from which I’d come.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” she said.
“I know.” I tucked the cameo into my pocket. “But it’s important. Don’t tell Greta, please.”
Sarah glanced behind us. The pressure of her hand on my back became more urgent.
“It’s not Greta I’m worried about.” She opened the door to the servants’ quarters and pushed me inside. “Stay here. I’ll get Robert.”
She left the door open a crack and hurried down the hall. I sat on Robert’s bed. A long piece of straw poked out of the mattress. I pulled it out from the fabric and broke a piece off the end. By the time Robert arrived, shutting the door behind him, there was a small pile of straw on my lap. I leapt off the bed, spilling it on the floor.
“Sorry.” I bent down to sweep the straw into my hand. Robert knelt to help me.
“Nora, what are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be—”
“I need to talk to you,” I said. “It’s about my—” The word stuck on my tongue. “Um, Siobhan and Annabelle said that…” I took the cameo out of my pocket. “Who is this?”
Robert snatched it out of my hand. “What are you doing with this?”
My cheeks burned. “I found it on the shelf. Is it your wife?”
The angry lines on Robert’s face softened. “No, it’s my sister. She died a long time ago. Why do you ask?”
I sat on the bed. I felt heavy enough that I might sink into the straw and never come out.
“Siobhan and Annabelle said they heard Lady Portia and Sir Alcander talking, and they said that my—” I choked out the word. “—father was in the main house. I thought that you might be—”
Robert moved away, dropping the straw into a bucket next to the bed. I sank farther into the mattress. Being poked with spindles of straw was preferable to the silence in the room.
“Your father?” Robert said. “Nora, the man who was your father is long gone.”
“But you have to be,” I protested. “Your hair, it’s just like mine.”
“What, this old mess?” Robert ran a hand through his hair and sat down next to me.
My voice dropped to a whisper. “It has to be you.”
“I’m sorry, Nora. I don’t have any children. Peter’s been a good father to you, hasn’t he?”
“Yes.” I could feel each razor of straw jabbing into my skin. “I just thought—”
Wait. What did he say?
“You know who my father was!” It came out as a statement, not a question. Robert jumped up from the bed.
“No, Nora, you misunderstood. I—”
“Yes, you do!” I leapt up after him. “You said he was gone, but you know who he was. Tell me!”
Robert’s eyes darted back and forth as if he were looking for a way to escape the conversation before fixing on a point behind me. Panic tinged his voice.
“She was just bringing a message from the kitchen house.”
I turned to see Lady Portia standing on the other side of the door. I hadn’t heard it open. Waves of anger passed through her cold ocean eyes. I had only ever seen Lady Portia angry, but this was different. This was rage, and it was aimed squarely at me.
Robert put a protective arm around my shoulders.
“I’m sending her back right now.”
“Eleanor.” Lady Portia’s voice was ice cracking. “You are not permitted in here.”
“I'm sorry,” I croaked. “I’ll go back.” This was different from Sarah’s confusion at finding me in the hall or Robert’s initial anger at discovering his cameo in my hands. Different, and infinitely more dangerous.
Before I could move, Lady Portia was in the room, grabbing my arm and wrenching me from Robert’s grasp. I could feel her breath on my cheeks as she pulled me close.
“You are supposed to stay in the kitchen house,” she hissed. She jerked me out of the room and down the hall.
“Ma’am—” Robert started after us.
“Stay where you are,” Portia said without turning to look at him. “This is none of your business.”
I looked back, panicked, as I flailed in my attempt to keep up with Lady Portia’s long stride. I heard the sound of the back door being thrown open. I could only hope Robert was going to get Greta or Peter.
Lady Portia’s fingers burned on my arm as she pulled me behind her, making a series of turns through the hallways. Anytime I opened my mouth to protest, to apologize, to cry, she jerked me forwards, and my words were swallowed in a yelp of pain. She finally stopped in front of a plain, wooden door. It felt out of place next to the other doors in the hallway, which were lacquered and covered in carvings. Its austerity didn’t belong, just like I didn’t.
My wrist glowed red when Lady Portia let me go, and I rubbed my arm to quell the pain. My mouth ran ahead of me, spitting out every apology I could think of. She ignored me as she sorted through the keys on a ring she took from her dress pocket and fit a large iron key into the lock. The door creaked open. I couldn’t make out anything inside—there were no windows to let in the light. The darkness in the room felt different than when the kitchen house darkened after sunset. This darkness was hungry. I turned to run.
Portia caught my wrist and shoved me into the room. I fell on my hands and knees. Small pieces of something—dust? ash?—rose up around me, making their way into my throat. I started to cough.
“Never ask about your father again.” She slammed the door, plunging me into the dark. The door fit so snugly in its frame that there wasn’t even a sliver of light shining at the bottom.
It was a moment before my shock allowed me to react. The room smelled scorched with death, like it hadn’t been opened in ages. I coughed again, trying to get out the pieces of the room that had infiltrated my throat, my nostrils, my eyes. I shuffled forwards until I reached the door and felt for the knob. It was cold to the touch. I pulled as hard as I could, but it would not turn.
“Robert!” I screamed. “Sarah! Peter! Greta!” I kept screaming their names until my throat was raw. The fine powder that covered the floor stuck to me wherever my body touched the damp ground. There were voices down the hall, but they were too far away for me to hear what they were saying.
“Father?” I whispered.
My arm ached where I could feel a bruise blooming around my wrist. I wanted Peter and Greta. I wanted my father and my mother, but I didn’t know their names. Only the darkness held me as I cried.
"Durant’s story is slyly whimsical as she builds up the world of Marbryn, a world where there are many wonders, but also threats to the existence of Blue’s tribe." - Jack Magnus From Reader's Favorite.
"The Blue Unicorn…reads like old time fairy tales…where life and death choices are made…" - From Fundinmental As The Eyes See It Blog
"The gentle reminders of the importance of acceptance and maintaining a sense of self worth are artfully woven into this fun adventure tale." - From The Reading Addict Blog.
This YA book is perfect for fans of science fiction/fantasy books like Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey and The Xanth Series by Piers Anthony or illustrated fantasies like Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and The Wizard of Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum. Mix in some Brother's Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale themes and you're good to enter this enchanting world of the metal horn unicorn tribe.
Everybody loves unicorns! OK maybe they don't but for those who do, they will love this story about a little unicorn who was born into a tribe of magical, metal horned unicorns. The little guy has no magic and he has no metal but somehow he must save the tribe from an evil sorcerer. Read this book for teens and older readers to find out if he can do it.
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THE ENTIRE TRIBE WAS IN THE COURTYARD WAITING FOR BLUE.
He should have already arrived. Now, he was twenty minutes late and they were getting restless.
“What’s so important anyway?” Cornum grouched. He looked across the room to where Alumna and Ghel stood alone.
The oracle was whispering in hopes no one else would hear but all ears swiveled her way at, “The Moon-star is coming.”
That was real news! All the others surrounded them, talking at once.
Flustered, Alumna found a break in the questions being thrown at her to ask Ghel to go see what was taking Blue so long.
Upon entering their stall, the gold-horned unicorn noticed something fluttering on the desk. It was the letter for her from Blue.
“Oh no," she cried, after reading it. “He’s left alone!”
She put on the necklace he had left her and raced out of the Halstable.
“He can’t be very far away yet. I’ll find him and bring him back,” she said to herself. She did not think it would take long so she left without alerting the others.
Ghel followed Blue’s hoof tracks for many miles until they ended in the hard rocky dirt. Looking up, she realized she was completely lost. She moved forward, stretching her neck to look around and tripped on a sharp rock jutting from the ground.
The sweet scent of blood flowing from a gash on her knee caught the attention of a very hungry manticore. He followed the smell until he came upon a natural land bridge right at the north-western point of the Kinubalu Desert. The bridge was a short-cut across a deep, wide canyon. It ended near the edge of the Guarded Forest.
On the other side of the canyon, the manticore saw a blue unicorn standing a few feet from a thick green wall made up of huge spiky vines.
“There’s my prey,” the manticore grunted, thinking the unicorn was trapped.
He dashed across the bridge, hoping to catch the unaware unicorn. Halfway across, he skidded to a stop. “What happened to the scent of blood?” he wondered. It was gone and he was confused.
As he tried to figure it out, the vines loosened up and opened a space just big enough for the unicorn to step through. “Arrgh! Lost him,” he groaned, as the thorned vines closed up tight. His empty belly rumbled.
The blue unicorn was safe. The Guarded Forest would not let a predator like the manticore in. Disappointed at losing his dinner, the beast turned back across the bridge.
To his delight, the scent of blood reappeared. Just a few yards away was the gold-horned unicorn, head down, stumbling his direction. She was wounded, paying no attention her surroundings.
The manticore wetted his lips. This one would make a good meal and there was no way she could escape.
A shiver ran along Ghel's spine. She felt like someone or something was watching every stumbling step she took. Intense fear gripped her heart, making it beat faster. “Something dangerous is out there and it’s close,” she thought.
She stopped and looked around, trying to find the source of the danger.
The manticore smiled to see how fear made her eyes glow white against her honey-colored coat. He smiled because fear gave the meat a better flavor. Abruptly, he asked, "Do you want a moment to say your prayers before I send you to your maker?"
Ghel's eyes snapped up to meet those of the ugly beast. The look she saw frightened her out of her wits. There was no way to escape.
"Oh, where can Nix be?" she blurted out. "Doesn't he know I'm in serious danger?"
Nix always arrived in the nick of time when a unicorn was in trouble. His powerful horn could detect a unicorn in distress from twenty miles away.
Indeed, Nix did detect that Ghel was in big trouble all the way from the crowded Great Room of the Halstable. A huge warning tingle forced Nix’s head to swing abruptly around. His nickel horn aimed in the direction of Ghel like a compass needle.
With a shake of his dark gray mane, he nodded a salute to Silubhra, saying, "Ghel is in danger but never fear, I will rescue her in the nick of time.” A blaze of light filled the air with silvery sparkles as he disappeared into the brightness.
Upon hearing Ghel’s words, the manticore twisted his neck around, trying to see who she was talking about. Seeing nothing, he thought, “The silly thing has taken leave of her senses!”
Laughter boomed from his terrible throat. It stopped when he caught glimmers of light just behind the frightened filly.
When Nix fully materialized, he took note of the dangerous situation, saying, "Stand aside, Ghel, while I nix that needle!"
The manticore had heard of Nix, the great unicorn defender. He skittered away in fright, trying to escape. Nix aimed a powerful blast from his nickel horn toward the brute. It was meant to destroy the scorpion stinger at the end of its tail but Nix missed his target.
The land bridge was hit instead. It loudly crumbled away into the giant hole it had spanned. The short cut across the canyon was completely destroyed.
Nix was angry he had accidentally destroyed the only easy path to the Guarded Forest. He caught up to the manticore and tapped his stinger with his spiraled horn. To the manticore’s horror, the tip of his tail completely disappeared.
“Now beat it buster, before I nix your nose, too,” Nix said, looking fierce.
The manticore answered meekly, "Thank-you, kind sir, thank-you," then ran away on jellied knees, with what remained of his tail tucked protectively between his legs.
Rebeca’s family looks for a new life in the suburbs of Chicago. Unfortunately, the move puts Rebeca in a new home, new place, and new school right at the beginning of her high school career. Ink High presents challenges from the beginning, but none more menacing than Shelby – the aspiring “Queen of the School.” Shelby decides to make Rebeca’s life a nightmare – and succeeds, forcing the new girl into a life of seclusion and fantasy. By her sophomore year, Rebeca loses her ability to sleep and sinks further into a morass of imagination and internal pain. Why she cannot sleep presents a mystery. But, the real question lies in whether or not Rebeca can cling to any shred of a will to live.
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Good Boy, Achilles! is based on the idea that, because we human beings are flawed and fouled-up, God has given dogs the task of helping us along. The story opens on a small farm, where a boy named Jeremy discovers that his family’s dog, Ginger, has finally given birth to her long-awaited puppies. Ginger explains to her puppies that they must leave the farm for new homes where they will take care of their own humans, for that is the Father’s plan. Jeremy’s parents tell him that the family can afford only one dog, Ginger, and will have to give the puppies away. As the story progresses, however, Jeremy and his favorite puppy, Thunder, or, as Jeremy calls him, Achilles, become best friends, and Thunder comes to believe that he will remain on the farm as Jeremy’s dog. Will he? On the way to finding out, he and Jeremy learn some basic Christian theology and some important life lessons.
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“Sit down on that couch, young man,” ordered Audrey.
“Exactly what were you trying to pull—putting
that box over that poor, little puppy?” his mother demanded.
“I just didn’t want her to pick him,” Jeremy said. “For all
I care, she can have all the others; I just don’t want anybody
to take Achilles.”
“Well, you listen to me . . .,” Audrey stopped. Her voice grew softer. “Achilles? You’ve named them?”
“Not all of them. Just Achilles. He’s my favorite.”
“Why would you name him Achilles?”
“We read a story about Achilles in school,” Jeremy half
mumbled, half moaned. “He was a great warrior. I thought
any dog as big and strong and pretty as him deserved a name
• Excerpt from Chapter 25:
Seconds later, Thunder stood at Jeremy’s side. He nudged Jeremy’s head with his nose, but Jeremy did not move. He barked, whined, and pawed at Jeremy’s shoulder, but Jeremy did
not respond. Thunder licked Jeremy’s face. He could smell and hear Jeremy’s breathing, but Jeremy’s skin was colder than it should be. Thunder’s instinct told him to stay with Jeremy, keep
him warm, and protect him. He knew he could do that, for the Father had given him a warm coat, big teeth, and powerful legs and jaws. He grasped the sturdy collar of Jeremy’s coat in his teeth and dragged him out of the water onto the creek bank. He stretched his massive body over Jeremy and lay on top of him. Surely, in the morning, when the Dawsons discovered that Jeremy
was gone, they would search for him. Until someone arrived, Thunder’s body would keep Jeremy warm, and anything that wanted to hurt Jeremy would have to get past Thunder.
As Thunder waited, alert to every sound and smell, ready to fight any enemy, once again the white snow seemed to turn gray, and the shining messenger stood before Thunder.
“Thunder,” he said.
“I did what you told me,” Thunder answered. “I found Jeremy.”
“Yes,” said the messenger. “You have done well, but your work is not finished. Jeremy is hurt very badly. He needs more help than you can give him, and he must have it very soon. You
must stop a vehicle.”
“The Father has made me very strong, and I can drag Jeremy easily,” Thunder said. “If I move him to the side of the road, a vehicle will stop.”
“No,” answered the messenger. “This is very rough ground, with many rocks, fallen trees, and thorns. If you drag Jeremy, you will hurt him more. You must stop a vehicle.”
Thunder’s ears drooped. “But my mother taught me to stay away from moving vehicles. She said they were dangerous.”
“Thunder, you must stop a vehicle.”
Then the messenger was gone. Thunder’s ears told him that the road was just a short distance away, up a small hill. He scampered up the hill and, just as he found the pavement, the lights of a car came into view. Thunder ran along the shoulder of the road toward the approaching car, barking and wagging his tail. As the car passed, he spun in his tracks and gave chase, but soon the car had sped out of sight.
“I’ll stop the next one,” he shouted. He didn’t have long to wait before a pick-up truck came rumbling along the road. This time, Thunder stepped into the truck’s lane and charged
toward it, barking wildly, ears pricked and eyes glowing in the headlights. As the truck swerved into the other lane, Thunder ran off the road and watched it pass, helpless to stop it. Thunder
stood panting and hung his head. What good were his thick coat, his powerful legs and jaws, and his big teeth now? He remembered his mother’s warnings about moving vehicles. He
remembered the words of the shining messenger. Then he remembered something else his
mother had told him: “If it was not too much for the Wounded One, it is not too much for us.”
Thunder stepped into the road. “The next vehicle will stop,” he said.
Eastway Academy, a shadowy organization steeped in espionage, values obedience above all else. Although a well-trained agent in his third year, 16-year-old Davy Prince struggles to find his morals when every mission seems to put innocent lives at risk. How will Davy react when sabotage turns an already risky job into an all-out struggle for survival?
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“Camelot is ready. The operation is a go,” a voice crackled through the transceiver in my ear. The mission was being initiated and a part of me was annoyed. Only halfway through my fried chicken, I was still pretty hungry. I hadn’t eaten since the night before, since the plane ride down that morning served no breakfast. Given that I was going to meet with a drug kingpin in a few minutes, the last thing I wanted was for my stomach to be growling.
I sat in the first-floor food court of the Franklin Building, El Paso’s premier commercial block and the headquarters of the global fast-food chain Beef n’ Wings. It was just after noon and the area stirred with visitors eager for their lunch. From my position I could see two other field agents, the only other two in the building. Far off to my right, just outside the crowds and colorful cacophony of restaurants, a hulking teenage boy seemed to have the same idea I had as he snacked on a beef hot dog from one of the stands. He wore a blue hard hat with matching blue overalls and heavy-looking harnesses which clung to his body. At his side he loosely held a squeegee as well as some napkins, presumably for his meal. After taking a big gulp, his lips began to move. It was much too noisy in the food court to pick up any word he was saying naturally, but on the transceiver I could hear him perfectly. “Percival is ready. Let’s get this over with.”
At the booming sound of Leon’s voice, I covered my ear nervously, realizing that there was an elderly couple the next table over. There was a good chance they heard nothing, and an even greater chance that they wouldn’t have cared anyway, but one could never be too careful, especially with jobs in public areas. Far off to my right, near the elevators, a small boy lay crouched in the corner, trying his best to stealthily fiddle with an air vent grate next to him. I was only two years his senior, but people most often mistook him for being far younger. He had long, greasy hair and pale skin, products of his indoorsy lifestyle. Out of the three of us in the building, his T-shirt and shorts were probably the most appropriate for the balmy weather outside. His high-pitched voice rang up in my ear, “Kay’s ready. The grate’s off.”
“Proceed with caution,” a young female voice ordered. It belonged to Mabel, one half of this mission’s ‘Camelot,’ or control center. She and another operative, Charlie, gave orders from a different, undisclosed part of town. On their computers, they watched live feeds of the Franklin Building and the surrounding area taken from security cameras and other hacked equipment.
With the go-ahead, Ozzy checked the area directly around him carefully. Then, he swiftly slipped into the air duct, replacing the grate once inside. I made sure not to look at him directly while he did this, as I didn’t want him to attract unwanted attention. It was at this point I realized that it was my turn to check in. Taking one last swig of soda, I said, “Galahad’s ready. Looking for a visual on the target.”
Our target today pertained to Garret Beauregard, the CEO of Beef n’ Wings himself, whose products I was currently sampling. Since the Academy’s clients are allowed to stay anonymous, we almost never know whom we’re working for or for what reason.
As I scanned the first floor for our very special guest, one final voice rang over the transceiver. This one was female like Mabel’s but much deeper, as well as much more mature, practically adult. “Lancelot is ready. I have a visual of the office,” she said. It was Johanna, who at eighteen was the oldest member of our team. As our sniper, if and when things got ugly, she was the first one to pull the trigger. Even on a crackling transceiver, one could still detect the soft yet ambiguous tone of voice. It was very hard to tell if in the next sentence she was going to compliment you or warn you of your imminent death. “Galahad, the Fisher King’s car was just sent down to the parking lot,” she continued. “He should be in there.”
“Just a sec,” I insisted, practically standing on my seat, trying to look through the ocean of people before me. Then, like the Red Sea obeying Moses, the crowd seemed to thin just long enough for me to spot a bigger-looking man with a white cowboy hat. He, along with a couple of men next to him, wore an expensive-looking suit, not unlike the one I donned that day. “I see him. I have a visual on the Fisher King,” I whispered into my transceiver. “He’s with . . . three other guys. They armed?”
“This is Texas, man,” Charlie replied. “What do you think?”
“Lovely,” I sighed, standing up and throwing away my half-eaten lunch. “He’s headed to the elevator. Permission to pursue?”
“Granted,” Mabel said. Her voice became higher, as it usually did when she knew danger was afoot. “Now hurry up; five men can’t fit in that elevator.”
“Roger,” I responded. Speeding across the food court, I wove my way through the people until I found myself by the shiny elevator doors, standing next to Beauregard and his well-dressed friends. As I waited for the doors to open, I tried my best to avoid eye contact. Beauregard, on an impulse of hospitality, said, “You’re pretty dressed up, sonny. On a hot date?”
I gave one last silent mental grimace before lighting up my face with a bright smile, turning to the wealthy gentleman. Enthusiastically, I spouted, “Haha! Very funny, sir. I’m starting an internship upstairs, so obviously I have to look my very best.”
“Internship? Where?” the CEO pressed.
I produced a crumpled slip of paper from my pocket and read, “Floor thirty-five, room three. It’s with Beef n’ Wings. You know them? The super-famous-surprisingly-nutritious fast-food chain? I love all their meals.”
“Huh,” the president gave a tentative smile. He extended his hand, “Well isn’t this your lucky day? Garret Beauregard, president of Beef n’ Wings, at your service.”
I sucked in, trying to contain all my feigned excitement, “The Garret Beauregard? Founder of Beef n’ Wings? Inventor of the $1.50 menu? Restaurant Monthly’s ninth most powerful man in fast food? David Jones, I’m, like, your biggest fan!” I shook his hand fervently.
Beauregard chuckled, maybe amused by my antics. “I didn’t even know I had fans! Pleasure to meet you, boy.”
“We’re going radio silent on Galahad,” Charlie buzzed in my ear. “Keep on his good side and look for an opening.”
I absentmindedly scratched my ear, switching off my transceiver. My only connection with the rest of my operatives was severed. Now, I was all alone.
The elevator to the right gave a faint ding and the doors quietly spread open. Beauregard, two men from his entourage, and I crammed into the elevator. Just as Mabel had predicted, one of the gentlemen volunteered to stay outside, promising to take the next lift up. Right before the doors shut, I managed to spot Leon, squeegee in hand, breaking from the crowd and departing the building.
As I felt the elevator lift us, there was a twinge of anxiety, realizing that I was now stuck in an enclosed space with three armed men. I was allowed to be nervous. A little nervousness was fine; I was pretending to be a student on his first day as an intern.
“This your first time in the city, blondie?” he asked me, reminding me that I was wearing a blond wig in addition to thick-rimmed glasses to hide my identity.
“You bet!” I said, keeping my enthusiasm high. I brushed my artificial bangs to the side. Out of all the wigs I’d worn over the course of hundreds of missions, this was my least favorite. It was long, got in my eyes, never fit my head right, and suspiciously smelled of cottage cheese. Regardless, wig selection at the Academy was limited, and every one had to be worn once in a while.
“So, you’re from the country, then? Don’t look like much of a country fella . . . which town?”
“Um, it’s a real small town, south of here,” I said, trying my best to stay vague.
“South of El Paso?” Beauregard gave me a very confused look.
“I mean north! Just a little north,” I corrected myself, rubbing my head. “Sorry, my mind’s not working straight today. Still trying to process the fact that I got to meet you.”
“Right, right,” Beauregard nodded understandingly. “Yeah, it’s pretty easy to tell that you’re not south of the border. Be able to smell you a mile away!”
The three men laughed heartily. I forced a light chuckle while the hunger in the pit of my stomach changed to disgust. With another ding we arrived on floor thirty-five and stepped off. For an extravagant fast-food brand, their headquarters looked pretty ordinary. The walls and carpets were white, and the faint but stinging odor of hand sanitizer wafted through the air. “Welcome to where the magic happens!” Beauregard extended his arm toward the lobby, looking like an artist revealing their magnum opus.
“Gee whiz!” I exclaimed.
The president, still flanked by his two men, who I presumed were his bodyguards, approached the front desk and rang the bell, getting the secretary’s attention. “Yes, Mr. Beauregard?”
“Got an intern with me,” the man declared. “His name’s David Jones. I was wondering where I could put him.”
“Intern? Sir, new internships don’t begin until the summer.”
My heart skipped a beat. The moment of truth had arrived. “They said I was a special case when they drove me over here,” I said, injecting myself into the conversation. “Please, just check your computer.”
Marcy shifted her mouse around, making a quick series of clicks. “Okay . . . here it is. David Jones, intern, arriving today . . . ” She looked up at me and then back down to her screen. I whispered a silent prayer to Charlie, the master hacker. A few clicks later, the secretary looked up again. “Yeah, everything looks good. Funny, I don’t remember—”
“Well, everything checks out!” I interrupted. “Where should I go?”
Beauregard gestured to one of his guards. “Samson here will take good care of you, kid. Now, I’ve got a little meeting to go to, but I’ll see you around, okay?”
Not counting on it. “Okay!” I cheerfully chirped. “Oh my gosh, this is all so exciting!”
I followed Samson down a hallway, away from Beauregard and the lobby. He directed me through a door, into a room darker than the hallway. Chairs lined the walls and a vacant table with a picnic cloth sat in the center of the room. “Um, this is where we usually bring interns in the summer. There’d be, like, food on the tables and we’d get someone to give you an introduction. Usually it’s this hot brunette from marketing.”
“Uh-huh,” I absentmindedly nodded, no longer bothering to keep up my fake excitement. As the door closed behind us, I began to fiddle through suit pockets.
Samson, clearly unsure of what to do, continued to ramble. “Yeah, I actually used to be an intern here, once. I was raised right up in Anthony. Wait, where did you say you were from again? ’Cuz I remember—”
Samson’s sentence was cut off as I stabbed a syringe into the side of his throat—one swift and precise movement. As I injected him, the man managed to make a few gargled sounds before collapsing to the floor. I immediately checked for a pulse. Toxins were always difficult, because they needed to be the perfect amount. Too little would have no effect. Too much and you kill the poor guy. After confirming a heartbeat under my fingertips, I quietly dragged him under the table and switched my transceiver back on. “Galahad here. I’m in.”
“Excellent,” I heard Charlie say. “Kay? Do you copy? Time to shine.”
“Roger.” Just as Ozzy’s voice registered in my ear the already dark room went pitch black. I heard the gentle hum of the air conditioning die, leaving a vacuum of silence.
The power to the floor had been cut.
I stepped back into the hallway, listening to the murmurs of confusion in some of the office rooms as I made my way back to the lobby. Beauregard’s office was down the opposing hallway to the right, just out of the view of a befuddled secretary.
“Security cameras are now running on reserve power. We have a visual of you, Galahad. The conference was supposed to last until one thirty, but who knows how Beauregard will react to a blackout. Just get in and get out.”
“Roger, Camelot.” The room itself differed greatly from the rest of what I’d seen from the floor. Looking beyond the expensive chairs and enormous desk you’d expect from an egocentric executive, an array of mounted cattle heads dominated the wall to my right while a single enormous painting was to my left. I thought the latter was actually a pretty nice picture until I realized it depicted a native getting clubbed to death by a settler with the stock of his shotgun. The wall opposing me filtered noon sunlight into the otherwise dark office, making the “art” that occupied the walls cast eerie shadows. I stood for a moment, dumbfounded.
“Galahad, we see you in the office. What’s your status?”
“I’m fine,” I assured, trying to collect myself. “This guy . . . he’s really something, isn’t he?” Trying to ignore the Texan stereotypes around me, I approached Beauregard’s desk and rummaged through the papers left on top of it.
“Find anything?” Mabel asked.
“What do you think?” I said, now making my way to the cabinets. “Why would he just leave it on his desk?”
“I don’t know, maybe he has a bit before going to his conferences,” Charlie suggested. “I mean, have you seen the new Beef n’ Wings commercials? The person who conceived those was clearly high.”
Allowing myself a small chuckle, I furiously tore open every cabinet under and around the desk. All were unlocked and all contained meaningless folders and files; nothing I was concerned with. “The Grail’s not anywhere near the desk,” I said. “Are you sure it’s in here?”
“The intel’s good, I swear,” Mabel retorted, her voice getting excited. “I have the transaction data right in front of me. The pickup isn’t until tomorrow, and it definitely entered that room. Where else could it be?”
Feeling a knot grow in my stomach, I meticulously scanned the room, trying to look in a new perspective as I stood behind the desk. The painting was still horrible, the carpet was the same, and the ceiling was the same. The mounted busts, now to my right, were a different story. As my eyes studied the vacant expressions on the cattle’s faces, it became evident that something was wrong. “One of the heads is crooked.”
“One of the cattle heads is crooked,” I repeated, advancing toward the busts. The more I focused and the closer I got, the clearer it was that my hunch was correct. “The white bull in the center. It must be…” Firmly grasping the horns of the trophy, I began to pull. It was much heavier than I had imagined—causing me to pause to catch my breath at one point while it was halfway out of the wall—but I managed to have the head at my feet within a minute. In its place, I was greeted with a pleasant new surprise. A black, open hole; a gaping wound in the wall. “Can you guys see from your camera what I see?”
“I see it!” Mabel said excitedly, now for the right reasons. “What’s inside?”
My hand reached into the newly opened gap. It wasn’t a built-in compartment, rather a crude cavity created by someone smashing the wall open. As my hand wrapped around an object, I felt my heartbeat quicken. “I have something. Heavy. Leather. Maybe rectangular.”
“Sounds like the Grail to me . . .”
My arm was now almost out of the hole, awkwardly handling the package that had been lodged in the wall. With one final tug, a briefcase slid out of the wall and fell with a soft thud on the carpet. A tepid smile growing on my lips, I brought it over to the desk for a closer inspection in the light. Looking near the handle, my small grin immediately dissipated. “It’s got a lock on it. I repeat, the briefcase has a lock.”
“’Cuz hiding it in the freaking wall wasn’t secure enough for this guy,” Charlie remarked, irritated.
“Yep, there’s a latch here. It needs a three-number code,” I confirmed, examining the mechanism closely.
“Okay, let’s think this through,” Mabel said, now practically panting. “I can . . . I can access old security archives! Yeah! Yeah, maybe one of them has him with the briefcase, and we can zoom in on the numbers . . . ”
Mabel’s thoughts came to an abrupt end when I smashed the briefcase into the corner of the desk, shattering the lock.
“ . . . Or you can do that.”
Taking a deep breath, I opened the case. I was greeted by what we were calling in this mission the Holy Grail, all twenty kilos of it, packed together in six different plastic bags.
“Do we have confirmation?”
“Well, pretty sure this isn’t chicken seasoning,” I commented. “Percival, are you there? It’s time to go.”
Just as I spoke, the office door opened. I turned around, realizing it was Beauregard. The two of us stared at each other, shocked. The room was now dead silent, so quiet that Beauregard could probably hear Mabel buzz, “Green Plan AA-01 has been compromised. Initiate Green Plan AA-07.”
Beauregard was the first to recover from the initial shock. He peeked back into the hallway and, making sure everything was clear, shut the door. “I don’t believe you’re supposed to be in this wing, boy.”
I remained silent, seemingly speechless. Inside I had regained focus, but chose not to show it on the outside. Waiting for him to make his move, I observed his hands and facial expressions, trying to get a read on what he was going to do next.
“Galahad,” Johanna softly crackled on the transceiver. “Get down so I can take a shot. I believe it’s time for the Fisher King to exit our fable.”
“Roger,” I muttered under my breath.
“Well son,” Beauregard sighed, reaching into his coat and pulling out a white pistol. “Sorry ’bout this. Some things are best left secret, hm?”
“Couldn’t agree more,” I said, dropping to my knees.
Just as the president readjusted his aim down at me, the window behind us broke. A dash of crimson burst onto Beauregard’s chest and the man shifted awkwardly. There was a slight pause and a light groan before he collapsed to the floor. Hearing a commotion begin outside from the noise, I hastily grabbed a chair and blocked the door before grabbing the briefcase and waiting by the now-shattered office window. Leon—still dressed as a window washer—descended in a cradle.
“Going down?” he asked, his voice echoing through the transceiver.
“Right,” I nodded. Then I gave one last look around the ransacked room. From the angle I was standing at, only the soles of Beauregard’s expensive shoes were visible as he lay dead on the floor. “Think we’ve done enough here. Let’s go home.”
Clutching the Holy Grail and braving the urban winds outside the building, I descended down to the street, and with it, the promise of escape and safety.
In the midst of a raging storm aboard a stolen sailboat, Scott and Aiden fight for their lives on the open sea against modern day pirates, hunger, a rapidly disintegrating boat, and mother nature herself. The two desperate teens must find a way not only to survive, but to navigate back home. Their only hope is to salvage a sinking friendship and work together. Their survival depends on it. Red Skies is from Survive, an EPIC Press series.
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Scott lost sight of his best friend, Aiden, between colliding walls of gray seawa-
ter. Had Aiden been washed overboard? Was he dead?
The icy curl of the latest wave pounded into their sailboat, knocking Scott down hard. With the boat’s deck now slick with seawater, Scott lost his footing and smacked his head into the now empty metal cleat next to him. Only minutes ago the rope that had held the torn main sail had been ripped away from the cleat by the force of the winds.
His ears rang. As Scott drifted in and out of con- sciousness, his mind went back to a time earlier that day when life was normal, almost boring.
Even at fourteen years old, Scott knew the harbor wasn’t just filled with boats; it was packed with the dreams and hopes of grownups. Some sailboats were drifting along, shiny and new, and some had not left the harbor in years. A few of the boats were in disrepair from neglect, while some were just well- worn from many adventures. Scott knew when they visited the sailboat that “just stopping by,” as his dad would say, really meant they would be there at least a few hours.
Scott looked out his parents’ car window at the winding road down to the sailboat harbor. The boats lining the dock baked in the afternoon sun
of a blue, cloudless sky. Scott was a passenger along with his mother, and his old friend Aiden. His dad drove, all the while radiating a child-like energy as he talked to them about his newly purchased sail- boat now tied up in the harbor.
“Today we seal up any leaks, boys. Then we do more preparation for our maiden voyage.”
Scott looked over at Aiden, whose face was buried in a computer tablet game. After watching Aiden feverishly tap the touch screen, Scott said, “Looks like we are almost there. What level are you on?”
“Oh, man! I just got another bonus chest with 400 gold and a protection spell.”
“Awesome. Thanks for coming along.”
Aiden didn’t answer, but scrolled through sev- eral screens before finally looking up and saying, “Huh?”
“Thanks for finally coming along to see my dad’s sailboat.”
“Your dad has a sailboat?” Sometimes Scott was embarrassed that Aiden was even his friend. He caught his dad looking at them in the rearview mirror. He must have heard Aiden’s stupid question.
Scott let out a breath. “Yes, Aiden, he has a boat! We’ve talked about it almost every time you’ve been over this summer. Seriously dude, do you even care what’s up with us, or do you just come over to use my computer because your parents banned you from playing anything online?”
“Um . . . little of both. Hey, a boat sounds cool.”
One thing about Aiden was his honesty. Sometimes it was infuriating, but Scott always came to appreciate it eventually. He and Aiden had been friends since kindergarten. Aiden had stood up for Scott against Jimbo Tykes, a third-grade thug who had it out for Scott. Even though Aiden sometimes acted stupid, he had moments of brilliance. And Scott felt bad for Aiden; his parents were basically letting him raise himself.
Aiden looked back down at his computer tablet
as Scott’s dad pulled into a parking spot. When Scott exited the car, he noticed how many people had already come down to the dock to work on their boats. Some families ate picnic meals while others walked along the shore admiring all the boats tied in their slips around the floating dock.
Scott’s dad headed toward the trunk of the car. “Dad? Do you want help?”
“Of course! Let’s put Aiden to work, too.” His
dad turned back and rummaged around a short while in the trunk. He gathered a few supplies and headed toward the dock while Scott’s mom stayed back with the boys.
Aiden looked up at them in confusion and Scott’s mom extended her hand to ask for the com- puter tablet back. Scott thought he seemed sincerely baffled.
Scott’s mom smiled knowingly. “Aiden? It’s best to let me have that so it doesn’t get in the water.”
Aiden handed over the pad and headed after Scott’s dad toward the sailboat. Scott didn’t know if he should stay with his mom or run after them. His mom seemed to know what he was thinking.
“Go on, Scott. Your dad loves it when you help him work on it.”
“Okay, Mom. See you down there?”
“I’ll be right there. I’m going to say hello to Mrs. Hernandez first.”
Scott didn’t need to hear more than that. Mrs. Hernandez would talk his mom’s ear off for an hour, and he would be stuck there with them if he stayed. He bounded over to catch up with Aiden.
The way along the wooden dock smelled like the worst part of the sea to Scott, with barnacles and some kind of greenish slime growing along the sides of the path. When it was hot like this, with no afternoon breeze and a heat that sat over the water, the smell got concentrated in his nose. Aiden and Scott hopped on the boat after his dad and watched as he took out a few things he’d saved to add to the boat’s cabin supplies.
“We’ll be able to take her out for the first time, soon. I figure we can gradually move some of the cans of food and things that won’t spoil anytime soon into the cabin while we clean her up.”
Aiden looked impatient, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He brushed the long strands of black hair from his face. Scott went to the side of the deck and started to scrub the portal of the cabin. This was one of many tasks his dad had assigned him last time they visited the boat.
Scott was so focused while cleaning that he man- aged to tune out Aiden’s obvious boredom for a few minutes. When he glanced up at his friend, Scott was surprised to see Aiden looking with some inter- est at the ropes that kept the sailboat in its place against the dock.
“Do you think you’ll ever actually take this thing out, sir?” Aiden asked Scott’s dad.
“Of course, we are going to take it out, Aiden. There are just steps you have to do first to be ready for any voyage.”
“Couldn’t we go out today, just for a little while?”
His dad paused. “No, Aiden, she’s not ready.”
“But what’s the point of having a boat if it just sits here?”
Scott watched his dad’s patience strain. Aiden sometimes talked like this; he liked to push peo- ple’s limits. Most of the time, Aiden didn’t notice he was doing it. Afterwards, when Scott tried to explain, Aiden’s response was always, “But I was just curious!”
“We’ll take the boat out when it’s ready,” Scott’s dad calmly replied.
“What kind of knots did you say those were?”
Aiden pointed at the nearest knot that held the 1978 Ericson sailboat’s slick white hull in place against the bobbing of the sea.
“That is a cleat hitch. That’s the best kind of knot to use to attach a line from the boat to the dock.” Scott’s dad was smiling; he seemed pleased that Aiden was showing an interest.
“Why don’t they just make a knot? Why do there have to be fancy, special knots for stuff?”
“Because each knot can accomplish a different type of task. If you like, I can show you how to tie one of those.”
“Sure,” Aiden said enthusiastically, and Scott moved over to watch as well. Scott’s dad soaked up the attention—he was practically beaming.
“First, you have to untie it, of course. Why don’t you try it? It will make it easier to show you how to do up a knot if you see how to undo it.” Scott’s dad encouraged Aiden with a wave of his hand in the direction of the dock.
Aiden leaned over and started to pull at the knot. Scott realized this was going to take a long time doing it this way so he bent over the edge of the boat and showed off his skill by quickly undoing the cleat knot.
“Scott! Hey, I was going to do that,” Aiden protested.
Scott’s mom called out to them. “You forgot that
new table for the boat radio you bought the other day, honey. It’s up in the car. I can’t bring it down by myself. Someone want to help me out with it?”
Scott’s dad was up and out of the boat to help her.
“I’ll be right back boys. Then we can take a look at sealing the portals.”
Aiden moved over to the other cleat knot hold- ing the sailboat in the dock and started to undo it. He must have watched how Scott untied the knot and copied him because the rope came undone in seconds.
“Aiden! Dude, what are you doing? You can’t undo both knots or we’ll drift out of the dock. Put it back.”
Aiden popped back up and looked very guilty. Scott felt a wave of panic come over him. He looked up to the parking lot and saw that his mom and dad were now walking to their car with their backs to him. Scott went to yell for them, but knew
they would never hear him now—it was way too noisy, and they were too far away. His dad’s sail- boat, named The Long Wavy Home by its previous owners, was made for the sea. It answered its call once it was untied from its moorings like a race- horse to the field. It started to drift out of the dock quickly.
Scott ran for the rudder. Aiden laughed. “Come on let’s just take it out for a little bit.” “No! Absolutely not!” Scott grabbed the wheel
as the boat slipped out of the dock toward the open sea.
“Come on. You’re the one who says you know so much about sailing. Prove it”
“I know how to sail. That’s not the point!”
Scott looked back at the dock. His dad was a dot in the parking lot, but he could tell that dot was moving quickly back toward the dock.
“Aiden, we need to go back.”
“Come on. You should be able to do this. Just around here.” Scott saw his dad make it out to the dock where his beloved sailboat had been. He was shouting, but Scott could barely hear him. “Scott! Get back here!”
“Dad! Wait there, we will be back in . . . ” Scott looked to Aiden for the rest of the information.
“Half an hour.” “Half an hour!” “Tops.” “Tops!”
He saw his dad wildly waving his hands. The boat was picking up speed away from the dock now. Scott thought he would just take it out for a bit since Aiden had already gotten them out there. He figured maybe he’d use the outboard motor to show Aiden how it was done. By the time his dad had a chance to cool off and see Scott had everything under control, he’d just bring it back into the dock. His dad might even be proud of how well his son handled the boat.
What could happen? he thought as he turned to start the motor that would guide them around and
back to the dock. He wouldn’t be in that much trouble.
It was Aiden’s fault, after all.
The sound of a pulled rope greeted Scott’s ears as he looked over the outboard motor.
“Hey, this knot is a lot easier to loosen than the ones holding the boat.” Aiden smiled as the rope holding the main sail came untied. “Cool.” Aiden continued, grinning. “Okay, you know so much. Show me how you paid attention to all that stuff your dad talks about.”
The silky, white fabric billowed out then gath- ered the wind and pulled the sailboat out into the sea far away from the dock. This was the moment Scott realized that he didn’t really know how to sail at all.
Animal Graph by M. Black
This novel came to her in a dream.
Set in the Amazonian jungles of South America, M.Black weaves an action-packed tale in this original YA Amazonian Eco-Fic Dystopia set forty-two years after a nuclear war. Jin—a prisoner of King Borran—and Adan—another Graphed—have to fight for their survival in a utopia gone wrong. In a world where animal cells and neural tissue have been grafted into humans, and humans are connected by brain waves to chosen animals from the Amazon, will Jin and Adan survive? Will they ever find their Animal Graph counterparts? Can the Earth find harmony with humanity and the animals or will those wanting to destroy it all win?
Socially relevant, dark and sexy, with themes that hang on environmental concerns and animal welfare…ENTER TOMORROW with ANIMAL GRAPH. A novel along the lines of Hunger Games meets X-Men. If you’re a fan of The Treemakers, The Sowing, Simulation, Age of Order, A Brave New World or A Canticle for Leibowitz, you may also enjoy this novel.
My feminine bottom slides down the wet, slippery cliff at the end of the path of foliage, dropping me forty meters into the abyss below where I thrash, arms flailing about me in a sure drown, water gulping down my tight throat in a struggle for air. My long, auburn hair is drenched to my side like a second skin. I barely know how to swim, but I have no other choice but to sink down where I won’t be seen. They’re on my trail and the choking gas has almost reached me.
Glancing skyward, under a thin layer of water, I see a cake of the pinkish fog choke the plants and moss above, that grows off the dark stones there—the only elegance out here. Water cascades into a beautiful waterfall toward me in a steady stream, and I hear the loud fog horn-like sound from my pursuers alerting everyone in the vicinity that I’m nearby.
They’ll need to find me before sundown or risk encountering the savage wildlife of the Amazon rainforest, like Radguars, a mutated form of the Jaguar which began to appear after the radiation hit. No one ever lives after facing one. They’ll tear a man to shreds.
I hear them coming, five of them—they always come in fives—their thick boots hitting the forest floor in a scratch-scratch as they approach the end of my path. I’m not even sure how I do this—hear them. The distance is more than thirty meters away and the rush of water interferes with my ears. I never would have been able to do this before they took me.
Taken in the middle of the night by Borran's soldiers while asleep in my cell, a two-by-three-meter room in which I’d been locked for a year, since I was sixteen, after I’d stolen a loaf of bread from a village vendor. Too many of us end up behind bars for petty crimes, to ensure as a whole we comply with the laws. When they registered me for prison, they scanned the bar code on my upper arm, denoting my full name, region of residency, and any prior arrests. I didn’t have priors before, but now my bar code will always show I was in prison.
Block D, Cell 47; D47 was my designation. Hadn’t heard my real name—Jin Maharaj—in a year. Even my cellmate referred to me as D47. By cellmate, I mean he shared the concrete cell next to me and we could speak only through a barred opening between us, the size of my hand. We all got used to calling each other numbers. When they first took me, I’d sit in my cell for hours daydreaming about my family, about Lila—our good family friend. She was married to a medicine man and tried to help Papa and my sister May when they got sick. I’d remember her words of encouragement, ‘Nature has all the answers. Stick to nature.’ But I’d always be interrupted by our mandated chores: washing clothes, floors, toilets, gardening, or working in the shops to make rubber. Slop three times a day was pushed under the cell door to keep us alive for all the work.
Prisoners were the first to undergo the Graph procedure to enhance human abilities by grafting animal cells and neural tissue into humans. As a side effect, electrical pulses from animal brain waves would fuse—or Graph—into the human’s brain waves and form an intuitive bond with the animal. I struggled, kicked, and maybe even screamed before a team from Borran’s Animal Graph facility injected me with a sedative, their faces growing fuzzy, my hands grappling for something—anything—to hold on to, before I fell asleep in the arms of my enemy.
From under the thin layer of water, I watch the edge of the cliff, forty meters away, where two soldiers turn their heads left and right in a frantic search for me. I can see so much detail I shouldn’t, like the lines over their left chest pocket designating rank, and the mud splattered on the sides of their boots. Even the freckles splayed across the nose of one of them. They’ve been ordered to hunt me—to find me and then kill me, as part of their training. I feel weak, as if I could drown at any minute, because I can’t hold my breath any longer; surely I can’t. My brain tells me I need to breathe, and breathe now! Yet I’ll have to ignore the incessant thought creeping into my mind.
Maybe the water can take me, take my breath and end me, make it all come to a close. I’m exhausted, tired of running, and it’s been a year since I’ve seen my mother—Ariana, and my younger brother—Carlos. They were forbidden to visit me in the cell, as all visitors are nowadays. My padre and older sister, May, both died from illness six months before I was thrown into prison. It’s easy to die in this world where medicines are kept only for the Prestige—the upper class that makes up 3% of the nation’s population. The rest of us poor live in sporadic villages or face the nights alone, and food is hard to come by. Meat, including fish that survived all the radiation from the Atlantic or rivers, is supposed to be given to the village guards when they come in for their monthly visits. Villages only get to keep 5% of their catch. That’s why I stole that loaf of bread for my brother. He’d gone two days without eating. Some villages grow flax or chia seeds, and others wheat or barly, still some lucky ones have chickens and eggs—but it’s never enough. If we try hiding our fish or eggs, if caught—we’re killed on the spot. I’ve seen a family murdered when I was just ten in Guiana for storing forbidden meats. Because of the radiation, good meat is hard to come by.
Graph Secrets by M. Black
"I READ IT IN A FEW HOURS!" -Von
"ALL FIVE STARS, NO SURPRISE THERE. IT IS A GREAT STORY." -Marina
"I HAVE NEVER READ THIS CONCEPT BEFORE!" -Amazon Reader
Check out a new Survival-Fiction!
Animal Graph is an original, NEVER BEFORE SEEN CONCEPT, a YA Amazonian Eco-Fic Dystopia with themes on wildlife and nature conservation, which asks questions about what happens when a greedy dictatorship rules the nation, and the harsh consequences to the Earth of a nuclear war.
Animal Graph series is the third ebook release from author M.Black (Simulation, Exotiqa, Animal Graph) whose brand is ENTER TOMORROW, if you dare. Enter http://MBlackDystopianThrillers.blogspot.com for more dystopian thrillers that will take you into our future.
In Graph Secrets, Jin finds out her Madre, Marina, is kidnapped by King Borran Khan and she learns the truth about her origins, and she is propelled back into the Amazon...this time to hunt Borran down. Will she rescue her madre in time? Will she get her capture? Find out in this breath-taking, fast-paced unique thriller about survival and fighting for freedom---book 2 of Animal Graph.
Inking our backs with Borran’s mark feels like a betrayal to everything I believe in, a permanent stain to remind us that we belong to Borran—whether we like it or not. And if we’re caught, Borran has one more reason to kill us. Inking is illegal in the villages, to prevent any false Borran marks on Graphs.
I close my eyes, and focus on Mama’s photos as the needle pierces my back, leaving trails of blood to sink to the crevice of my bottom and splashing on the cave floor beside me. Memories of blood flood my mind.
…Blood slides down my inner leg and my palms clasp my round belly. Six months in this hell hole and I’m showing. I’ve kept my pregnancy a secret for months, afraid of being transfered to the white building. No one returns from the white building. No one ever sees their baby again.
As the inking needle pricks my back, I’m jolted back to the present. Juan inks me—performs yet another illegal thing—I begin to suspect that he was the one who leaked the Graph technology to the world. Who else? He’s obviously brilliant, and had mixed feelings about what he was doing. Ostir already confessed that he and she were both at a PAPE meeting.
As I wash up in the waterfall basin, Juan needles Klen and Ostir. By the time I return to the cave, the siblings are heading to the basin to bathe and Adan is biting on another branch. Seems all Adan does around me lately is get torn up somehow.
“Stay still,” Juan implores while leaning into Adan’s back. “I was stung by bullet ants once. Hurt like hell. Not going through that again.”
“I’ll stay still,” Adan says firmly, the bite over the branch harder as the needle goes into his back in a precise poke, poke, poke. Juan keeps both hands on the needle, instead of one on the back as he did with me. Afterward, Adan’s back is soaked with blood and he exits for the falls fast. Juan turns to Lila and she shakes her head vigorously.
“No way I’m getting one of those on my back. I won’t be flaunting my nudity anyhow.”
Juan half grins. We can all imagine what that image is.
I lean into Adan’s chest at the falls after he’s washed off the blood and shirted himself. I hang there like I could stay all day, letting my forehead and cheeks rub his stubbled chin.
Adan looks down at me, half-grinning, satisfied, but with a brow arched as if to ask ‘what the hell?’
I’m not sure what else to say. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“I do.” Adan explains.
I’m almost hopeful.
“But you’ve got to learn to control your urge to mark.” He laughs, and then I laugh with him.
“Don’t be. It’s cute.” He clears his throat. “And makes me feel guilty about being so curt with you when we first met in the Amazon.”
“Yea, what was up with that?” I glance up, my eyes meeting his.
“Impatience at needing you to keep up, and pressure. Lot’s of killing of people I knew, led me to save you that day. I guess a part of me was angry at you for being saved.”
“But you helped save me.” I feel my brows twist as I gaze up at him.
“Still, too many mixed emotions. You got to live. Friends I knew died. I couldn’t kill another illegal Graph, and yet looking at you reminded me of everything my dead friends would never have. I guess I expected you to learn quick—to be worthy enough.”
“And did I?”
“Yep, you did.” He grins, and leans his lips over mine, close enough to almost feel him, but not close enough to touch—to contract my blue dart poison.
We’re all exhausted and haven’t slept for over twenty-four hours, but we have to do this. Spider and Borran’s soldiers won't give up and we don’t have time to rest. We should wait until we’ve gained more distance. At least we all ate soup at Lila’s.
Before we head out, I grab Juan’s wrist.
“Wait. You need to take a sample of my blood.”
Adan nods. “Smart. Keep evidence here of your birthright.”
Ostir keeps her hand over my shoulder. “When you challenge him, you’ll definitely need proof.”
“And a fight to the death,” Klen adds. “We all know that’s how things are done nowadays. Borran won’t just give up his kingdom to his half-sister.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” I stretch my arm to Juan. “For now, I need a vial of my blood.”
After Juan shambles for a tube and needle in his supplies, he sticks my vein and withdraws enough blood to run several tests on my DNA to prove I’m a Khan. He adds some kind of fluid to the vial of blood, and then hands it to me to hide. I keep the blood in the basket with Mama’s things. Then, we head out to make new friends.
If we’re going to ambush Borran and his BAG facility, Juan is right we’ll need more than just us. Juan takes us to the outskirts of Annai, further southeast, to where several illegal Graphs that he’s performed operations on live. They keep quiet and off the grid. Living outside the cities and villages allows the illegal Graphs to avoid being discovered by Borran’s guards and killed. Getting to where we need to be to meet them is almost a diagonal path downward from the waterfall and takes about three hours. We arrive at just about two p.m.
After Jade sniffs the air, I hear a man shout “Over here!” He’s a robust man with no shirt on, shouting to another man of almost equal stature, girth and attire; except that the first man has black, matted hair and the other’s is blond. Both have dark complexions and are too muscular to go unnoticed. The blond man throws a small pinecone into the air and yells “Incoming!”
When the pinecone comes dangerously close to hitting the matted-haired man in the face, he whips out a long stick and bats the pinecone away, sending it across the field and hitting a palm tree trunk, the cone shattering.
“You are going to have to throw better than that!” the matted-haired man grunts in a chuckle.
“Right you are, Cai, right you are.”
Juan waves his hand, drawing attention to himself, causing both men to turn in our direction and jump into an attack stance. I then notice the matted-haired man’s set of teeth. His jaw crunches open and shut with an awkward smile on his face, as normal human teeth become sharp and long. Juan leads us ahead, toward them, gesturing with his hands in a downward motion for the two men to calm themselves.
Graph Lies by M. Black
A YA Amazonian Eco-Fic Dystopia!
HUNGER GAMES meets X-MEN!
JUNGLE BOOK meets DR. MOREAU!
Safe in San Felipe, the team will have to scrounge for food to survive which leads them to the lost girl who draws them into Guambi mountains with the Prestige. After Jin, Adan, and the misfit band of Graphs head to the Experiment Facility in the jungles on the Amazon to rescue friends, they'll have to face Borran head-on and their greatest nemesis, spider.
An action-packed series that leaves readers guessing. "Unputdownable!" "This Series Rocks!" and "I can't wait for the next book!" are just some of what reviewers are saying!
Pick up your copy and find out why!
“Dammit! They’re still coming!” Adan yells, entwined in a few vines. I toss up my head and glance back, my bottom still on the ground and my knees scraped with wet grass stains. My auburn hair whips around and slaps my cheeks. Sum frantically pulls vines off Adan to untangle him, but my eyes can only zero in on the oncoming madness.
Behind the thicket of swamp titi, I hear the booming screams of howler monkeys warning us to stay off their territory. I scramble to my feet, gripping on to a low-rotting branch. My neck is tilted back to keep my eyes on them. So many of them with spear-like teeth aiming for us, and their eyes—their eyes are crazy! Sum grabs Adan’s arm and yanks him forward.
“Come on!” I race in front of Sum shouting, Adan close to his side. “Get moving!”
I don’t hesitate. The monkeys look ravenous. My feet dart across the wet grass beside the Orinoco River in an anxious padding as we race toward Puerto Carreno.
“Just leave the raft?!” I ask worriedly. It took a long time to reinforce after our trip from Manaus. We lost about half the raft by the time we reached San Felipe.
“We’ll pick it up on the way back!” Sum shouts from behind, his voice gravelly, while I turn my head forward. My eyes catch the warm afternoon sun in the sky. It took just half a day to get here, but getting what we need and getting out will take longer.
I listen to Sum; next to Carlos, he is the closest thing I have to a brother, and I’m not sure when I’ll ever see Carlos again. Though Mama and I want to send for him, we know he’s safer where he is.
The large, embracing hand of Adan plops against my back when he and Sum catch up to me. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Glancing to Adan, half teasing, I respond, “And you said we’d be in and out before the day ended.”
“How could I have known?” His cheeks glisten in the sun and rise with his trademark half-smile.
“What the hell is going on? Monkeys don’t act like this.” I see the worry line between his brows, the furrowing, like they did when we landed in San Felipe and found Cai’s village nearly empty. An illness spread through the villages there, killing three-quarters of their inhabitants. Vendors had been cleaned out by surviving village folk, leaving no food to spare. We ran out of our Amazonian supply in a day.
Adan shakes his head. “It’s like they’re drugged.”
“Crazed,” Sum adds.
I must stay focused on the goal ahead, and forget that we’ve become prey to a savage pack of hungry, wild beasts. They don’t look Burned, but they act like they are. We keep up our pace, but the loud screeches of howlers aren’t far behind, and the warning call reverberates throughout the shaking trees as they jump from limb to limb.
There are large mountains in the distance, some within the Puerto Carreno boundaries and most to the east where the Guiana Highlands sit, where the Prestige live high and mighty. We just need to make it to Puerto Carreno, and then we can steal a crate of food meant for the Prestige and return to San Felipe. Our friends haven’t eaten all day. We at least had some Brazil nuts and dwarf bananas on our journey. We even managed to illegally catch two fish from the river. Most of the area near San Felipe is barren, fruits and nuts picked daily and packaged weekly for delivery into Puerto Carreno, and there is no one left in the villages to make bread. If we can’t get this crate of food, we’ll risk starvation. There are just too many of us to rely on the sparse resources in this area. That’s why it’s so barren of people.
Suddenly, Adan pushes into me, knocking me over into more red and black titi. Two howler monkeys leap out of the trees, and all I can see are their sharp, pointy teeth as they pound on top of Adan and Sum. Sum’s apricot hues stain with dirty howler pawprints and I hear a thunderous scream before the monkeys open their mouths to bite, but Adan quickly expels his leathery bat wings, and the heavy flapping pushes one monkey off him.
When the other monkey is about to bite Sum, Sum instead bites the monkey in the neck, and the small primate howls in agony before leaping off Sum and scurrying away in a panic. Adan pulls me to my feet as Sum yells, “Keep going!”
The three of us traverse across the wet terrain, interspersed with shrubs and river plants. All I can think about is how pissed I am that the Prestige get all the goods. Even in Colombia, it’s no different than in Guyana—worse, even. At least in Guyana there are still sporadic trees with fruits. Of course, all the tasty food like guavas we have to give up to Borran. Exhausted, sweating, and hungry, I just want to get to our destination so we can head back to San Felipe. The sooner we return to our new home, the sooner we can devise a plan to free our friends, and the sooner I get to face Borran again. This time, it’ll be to kill him.
When we meet another thicket of trees, another howler lunges towards us, but this time at me, and lands on the back of my neck. It screeches like it’s caught a coveted meal, and bounces up and down on my back. I react instinctively, lost in the moment. I grab its neck with one hand twisting behind me, and grab its leg with my other hand. I yank the monkey forward, pulling it off me and tossing it with a jerk to the ground. Adan just stares at me, as dumbfounded as I am.
The monkey writhes on the ground as if I’ve twisted something in him—and maybe I have without realizing how hard I’d thrown him. When the monkey’s mouth falls agape, tongue sticking out and body lifeless, I can’t believe what’s just happened.
“How did I do that without feeling anything?”
“No pain?” Adan confirms.
“None. It’s like I have no Connection to it whatsoever.”
“I didn’t feel anything either when I hit the monkey with my wings.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” I turn to Adan, while Sum just watches us a few meters away, unsure of how to relate to all this mysterious disconnection. He never had the Connection anyway.
“Maybe it’s us? Maybe something happened to our Connections?” Adan says fearfully, his almond-shaped eyes bending to mine.
I shake my head. “No, I can still feel my harpy, my Bengal. I’m still Connected.”
Adan’s contorted expression leaves me with no answers until Sum suggests something. “It’s not you two, it’s the animals. Look at ‘em. They ain’t normal. Something’s wrong with ‘em.”
“But what?” The three of us poke our heads closer to the monkey, now dead on the ground, a white foam sticking to its crooked mouth’s corners. “I think we should hide him, take him back with us for Juan to examine,” I suggest, as I tuck the dead monkey under a bush, and Adan nods.
We trek further up along the side of the river, keeping to the trees, and almost to the gates of Puerto Carreno. Howlers scream in the distance farther behind us, and I can even hear a few of them biting at each other and maybe even killing each other. At least they seem to have lost interest in us. We had to vacate our raft because of the monkeys, the moment we passed Puerto Ayacucho. Riding the raft on the mini river from San Felipe for a few hours worked, and then we had to walk till reaching the second mini river that took us into San Fernando, blending into the Orinoco.
We followed the Orinoco all this way, only vacating once when we spotted a BAG patrol heading downstream. Probably sent to pick up a crate of goods from Puerto Carreno. But things got bad after Puerto Ayacucho. More BAG patrols and crazed howler monkeys. Still, we had to leave our raft eventually anyway, because there is no way the Puerto Carreno port patrol will allow Adan and me through this time. Both of our arm barcodes surely now read wanted: dead or alive.
When we reach the gates of Puerto Carreno, I look to Adan. “What are we going to do?”
“The gate is made of wood,” Sum answers, “maybe silk floss. Can’t be too tough.”
“You suggesting we break it down?”
Adan shakes his head. “No, no, we need to climb it.” He points left. “If you look at the western wall, there aren’t many guards. Just one there, and one towards the end.”
Sum looks at Adan’s stump of an arm and his forehead twists in disbelief. Even with a wooden peg sewn into his sleeve, he can’t climb with that.
I squint, using my eagle vision.
“We can scale the wall,” Adan repeats.
“How?” I ask, perplexed, with Sum still eyeing his stump.
“You can stand on my shoulders and I’ll lift you up. You can reach the ledge if you stretch. I’ll stand on Sum’s shoulders. He can’t get in anyway. They’ll identify him as a Burned in no time.”
Sum looks at Adan, his brows all ruffled, like he must still be joking.
“This can work,” Adan insists.
Sum argues, “And how do we avoid being seen? There’s a guard right there.”
Adan’s face lights up. “I’ve got an idea.”
After Adan turns from us and races back into the thick trees, I shout, “What are you doing?!”
“Just follow me,” Adan insists.
If he were any other man, I wouldn’t. But we’ve been through so much together and he’s always come through for me. So, I follow him, with Sum beside me, both of us unsure of where this will lead and what Adan’s getting us into. After all, he told us that this excursion would be quick. He should know, being from Truezuela and having ridden the Orinoco many times. A quick trip to Puerto Carreno to steal a crate of food so that we could have food for the next few days while we rest, heal our wounds, and devise a plan to rescue our friends.
Sounded easy enough.
“What are we doing?!” I demand in a huff as I catch up to Adan. He looks up and I see the howler monkeys just staring at us, salivating. Drool spills from their mouths and onto my sleeve. “Howlers?”
“They’ll be our distraction.” Adan throws a fallen twig at two of them, which immediately stirs a reaction—the reaction he wants, I guess. After the two monkeys drop from the trees to chase us, another four monkeys come racing behind them, their movements erratic, eyes bloodshot, and mouths covered with white foam.
“Our distraction, or our death?” I ask as Adan, Sum, and I all sprint back toward the wall. When we push through a cluster of bushes, where the wall sits, Adan pulls me aside with his good hand and we duck with Sum behind a large Brazil nut tree.
The monkeys dart forward in reckless abandonment, leaving the safety net of the forest, and hurdle at full force into the wall, scaling crazily upward like ravenous beasts and toward the unsuspecting guard sitting in a chair, smoking a cigarette. The event takes less than thirty seconds. Before I blink, four howlers are toppling the guard while the other two are screaming in a frenzied dance on top of the wall. The two dancing monkeys snarl before lunging at each other, and the guard at the far end finally hears the commotion. When a crazed howler savagely bites his neck, the first guard screams and falls backward off the wall.
Adan looks to me. “Now’s our chance.”
All Carrie Roberts wants is to be a little bit smaller.
To fit into the perfect dress for the Valentine’s Day Dance. To look beautiful for her boyfriend, the school’s star basketball player. To keep his jealous ex-girlfriend, a rival cheerleader, away from him. And to be noticed by her classmates.
Exercising and dieting don’t work, but an advertisement for weight loss pills promises a quicker solution to her problem. As time runs out, she takes more than the recommended dose until she’s just a few inches slimmer. Heads turn when she arrives at the dance, and the wonderful night with her boyfriend is beyond what she dreamed it would be.
Days later, Carrie discovers that her body is changing in ways that should be impossible. While her doctor searches for a cure, she desperately turns to her friends and family for support. Everyone is noticing her now whether she likes it or not, and even the media is intrigued by her incredible story. Getting everything she once wanted has created new problems—problems that are growing more terrifying every day.
Because Carrie Roberts is shrinking.
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After Trish posted photos of me and Todd on her various social media pages, there were comments about how wonderful I looked. My glorious night had gone viral, and everyone knew that Todd and I were a couple. There was a part of me—an admittedly catty part of me—that wanted to rub it in Janelle’s face, so I couldn’t wait for that Monday’s basketball game.
However, I had difficulty finding clothes that fit properly. Almost every skirt and pair of pants I owned was loose. Only my tightest skinny jeans fit comfortably around my waist, but not as tightly as they should have. I didn’t need a new wardrobe or anything like that, but it was clear that I was a little bit slimmer than I was before the dance.
I rushed to the bathroom scale and was startled to see I had lost eight more pounds in only two days. I checked to make sure the scale was working right, and I walked away and came back to it, but it still gave the same weight. Even though I had stopped taking the pills, my system mustn’t have fully purged the effects of the heavy dosage I had taken.
Looking at myself in the mirror, I noticed that my body seemed to be in the same proportions as always. I didn’t look particularly thinner, so I wasn’t sure where I had lost the weight. More so, if losing that much weight wasn’t making me look emaciated, how could it possibly be bad? Everyone was saying that I looked great that night, so what was the point in complaining?
That afternoon in the locker room, Lauren brought up the dance after she had changed. “Everyone’s saying you looked so good you had Janelle speechless.”
“She’s still speechless,” said Trish, chomping on a chocolate bar as she joined us. “You shoulda been there, Lauren. You’d be so proud of our little Carrie.”
Not accustomed to being the subject of gossip, I simply smirked and shrugged while I took my cheering uniform out of my bag.
“I guess those pills worked,” said Lauren, a slight tone of condescension in her voice.
“Yep.” I unfastened my belt, and without removing it from the belt loops, I found myself sliding easily out of my jeans.
“Diet pills?” Trish quickly turned to me. “My mom has tried that kinda stuff before. Worked for a bit but then she was chunky once again. If they worked for you Carrie, then that’s cool.”
“Now that the dance has passed, you stopped using them, right?” asked Lauren.
“Well, yeah.” I shrugged as I took off my shirt. One of my bra straps slipped off my shoulder, so I fixed it.
Lauren crossed her arms. “What do you mean well, yeah? What’s going on?”
The other bra strap slid down my other arm. Had I accidentally bought a larger bra and not noticed until then? Had I clasped it too loosely that morning? Pulling at the cups until I could feel the clasp dig slightly into my back, I looked down into my cleavage. Just like my pants, the bra was definitely loose; my breasts didn’t seem to fill it like they usually did.
“Carrie, you haven’t answered me.” Lauren was glowering at me.
“I don’t think their effects have worn off yet.” I put on my cheerleading skirt, but its elastic waist band didn’t cling to me as tightly as it usually did. “I’m still losing weight.”
Trish took a step back to get a full look at me. “You don’t look any thinner. You have the same great shape you had at the dance.”
“I noticed that too.” I sat down to tie my sneakers and noticed myself tying them tighter than usual. “Strange, right?”
As I reached for my cheerleading sweater, one of my bra straps slid off again.
“Then where are you losing it from?”
“No idea.” I put the sweater on, and it not only seemed baggy on me but longer too. “Can sweaters stretch in the wash?”
“Shrink in the wash?” asked Trish. “Totally. I had this really cute pink one that’s now more of a crop top—”
“She said stretch, not shrink.” Lauren rolled her eyes at Trish and then stepped over to me. “I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”
“Look at my sleeves.” I stood and held out my arms. Only days before, the sleeves ended at my wrists instead of reaching to the bottoms of my thumbs—a difference of about an inch. “They’re longer.”
“Maybe, I guess.”
The locker room had emptied except for the three of us. Trish said, “Come on shorties, game’s gonna start.”
Lauren looked me straight in the eye. “Aren’t you forgetting to put your sneakers on?”
“They are on.” Puzzled, I looked at her and then down at the sneakers on my feet. When I looked back at her and found her looking straight back at me, I understood why she had asked. We were at the same eye level.
I slowly turned to Trish, who normally stood at a height about halfway between me and Lauren, but it was clear that she was slightly taller than me.
We stared at one another in awkward silence. I wasn’t sure what to say, and I could tell they weren’t sure either. We all knew for a fact that I was supposed to be taller than both of them, and I doubted that both of them sprouted up a few inches over the weekend. But if they hadn’t grown, then the only other explanation was that I must have gotten shorter. Before I could dwell on that unlikely possibility, Janelle appeared in the doorway and hollered at us to get out to the gym.
I tried keeping my mind on the game instead of worrying, but every time I bounced, a bra strap would slide off, constantly reminding me that something strange had happened to my body.
It was worse during our half-time routine. Toward the end, the squad split up into groups, each holding someone up in the air and letting her fall back into our arms. I was part of a group of five girls helping to lift Trish. My job was to cup my hands underneath Trish’s right foot while she was raised into the air. Two of the other girls held her calves in place, a third spotted from behind, and Janelle had her left foot since she and I were supposed to be the same height. I found myself having to stretch my legs and arms more than I should have needed to keep Trish’s feet even.
When Todd found me after the game, I clung to him, and he innocently said, “Stand up straight so I can rest my chin on your head.”
“I am standing up straight,” I mumbled.
Then came an awkward moment where we both looked at my legs and feet to verify my claim. I was definitely shorter than I had been the week before. Todd simply stared at me, not knowing what to say.
Lauren witnessed the incident, and we gave the details to Trish in my car, after I adjusted the driver’s seat forward one click. Keeping one hand on the steering wheel while the other wiped away tears collecting in my eyes, I asked, “What’s happening to me?”
From the back seat, Lauren put her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t panic. There’s got to be a logical reason why you’ve gotten shorter.”
“People don’t get shorter!”
“It might be some weird side effect of those pills. You did take a lot of them.”
Her voice had a told-you-so tone to it, but she was right. How could I have been so stupid, so careless, so desperate? “What should I do?”
Sitting in the passenger seat, Trish turned to me and flailed her arms as she spoke. “If you stopped taking them, the effect will reverse itself. That’s how it works with my mom. She always puts the weight back on no matter what diet she tries.”
In my rearview mirror, I could see Lauren roll her eyes before asking, “You still have the pills, right? First thing you’ve got to do is tell your mother—”
The car swerved as I exclaimed, “No way! I can’t tell her! She’ll freak out when she finds out what I did.”
“She’s going to figure it out. She knows how tall you’re supposed to be. Look how quickly Todd noticed.”
“There are ways to make you look taller,” said Trish. “All it takes is the right pair of shoes until this wears off.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. I was pretty sure Lauren and Trish were wondering the same thing I was wondering: what if it didn’t wear off?
Hannah McCauley doesn’t look at herself in the mirror anymore.
After a rebellious past, she now attends a strict private school in a new town, where her recently divorced mother has put her on social lockdown. No driving. No bad grades. No skipping classes. No unapproved friends. No makeup. No boys. And the subject of her best friend from her old school is definitely forbidden.
Hannah is being punished for something that happened a year earlier, something that she would like to put behind her. But strange occurrences frighten her, and she’s accused of breaking rules and doing other terrible things without any recollection of them. No one believes her, so she starts distrusting everything, even her own reflection.
Is she being haunted by her past? Stalked by someone with a grudge? Or is it all in her head? If she doesn’t figure out what’s happening fast, her existence could end up irreparably shattered.
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> Chapter One <
I don’t like the way the reflection in my bedroom mirror judges me. I try not to look at her too closely, but I know I have to now and then or I won’t be able to brush the tangles out of the mousy brown hair hanging past my shoulders. To avoid direct eye contact, I give her only a sideways glance. The eyes are the windows to the soul, they say, and it’s not that I refuse to look at hers, but I don’t want her looking into mine. She knows me too well, and I know that when she glares right back at me, she’s at her most judgmental.
So when I finish with my hair—it’s the straightest it’s going to get, but I know there are strands out of alignment anyway—I stay frozen for a moment and simply breathe in and out. My palms are planted flatly on the dresser, and I keep my focus away from the glass and on the mahogany surface instead. It’s a family heirloom that belonged to my grandmother and her mother before it. The nicks and scratches show its age, and when we moved to the townhouse, my mother insisted it be placed in my room. Either she wants its history to persuade me I come from a caring family, or she wants the large mirror, with finely carved leaves around the frame, to taunt me.
“Hannah,” my mother calls from outside my door before she knocks twice. “I can’t be late this morning.”
I imagine her standing there, sighing in contempt and checking her sparkling silver wristwatch. It’s all about keeping up proper appearances with her, although I really shouldn’t complain. The townhouse is in much better shape than our old house, which had been in disrepair from years of my father’s neglect before he left us. I’m still surprised at how my mother managed to sell it, and I credit that to her impressive skills as a real estate agent. Our new neighborhood is somewhat secluded—as closed off as several rows of adjoining townhouses can be. And I guess I’m in a better school now.
Glancing at the mirror to avoid any glimpse of my face, I see the trade-off for the supposedly improved education. A uniform: a black pleated skirt with its hem just above my knees, a stark white button-down blouse, and a silly black and gold plaid girly short necktie thing. Fashion choice has also been taken away from me, but I can impose some individuality with shoes and tights or socks. I’m opting for black combat boots and leggings today, only because there’s still a chill in the late-April morning air.
“I’m serious, Hannah.” She knocks again, three times, each one louder than the one before. I can hear her tapping her black patent-leather pumps on the hardwood floor in the hallway. “I’ve got an early closing.”
I groan and reach to the right to grab my phone. Even though it’s a couple of years old and the screen is cracked, it’s the one luxury I’ve been allowed to keep. But my hand comes up empty, and my knuckles rap the dark wood. Shaking the sting away, I stare at the spot where I’ve left my phone every single night since moving here, but it’s not there.
Ready to storm out and confront my mother about confiscating my phone, I turn toward the door, but I see it face down on the left corner of my dresser. Snatching it up, I enter the passcode to check for any messages. Nothing since Grace rescued me from my late-night AP U.S. History homework meltdown. Maybe in my exhaustion, I dropped it in the wrong place. I’m not as well put together as my mother, and I probably never will be, no matter how she thinks she’s trying to fix me.
I sling my school bag over my shoulder, its weight pulling me down a little, and I trudge through the door. My mother stands in the center of the hallway, focused on the oval wall mirror above the small table where a vase of fresh flowers sits. She preens herself, doing one final check that her hair bun is secure. Her dark brown hair has a slight auburn sheen to it, and as some of my hair drifts in front of my eyes, I’m convinced her hair looks younger and healthier than mine. All for appearances.
“You were up late last night,” she says, never looking away from her reflection.
“Senior year,” I mumble. “Tough courses.”
“No excuses. It’ll all be for the best.” She finally turns to me and cups my chin and cheeks in her palms.
I fake a smile because that’s what she wants to see, and I tell her she’s right because that’s what she wants to hear. We’re about the same height, but I can’t look her in the eyes. They’re the same green as mine.
She turns to the mirror to finish putting on a pair of pearl earrings to match the string around her neck that plunges into her meticulously calculated amount of cleavage. In her blue business suit and skirt, she’s the model of professionalism, a woman who threw herself head first into her career and left me to fend for myself for the first three years of high school. Our ultimate upgrade to the townhouse included moving almost halfway across the state and transferring me to a private school for senior year. Does she think that giving me a different life and different friends will create a different me?
In one fluid motion, she starts down the stairs and opens her purse to remove her keys. She holds the front door open for me while I slouch past her and out to the car. It’s a white two-door coupe with a sunroof, and if the tall townhouses weren’t in the way, the reflected sunlight off the car would blind people. I swear she gets it washed at least once a week.
I slump into the passenger seat—the closest she’ll let me get to driving—and buckle myself up. The car’s almost a year old, but it still has that nauseating new smell as if she uses an air freshener with that scent. I plug in my earphones and am about to put them on, when my mother enters the car, spots me, and slightly shakes her head. “You know the rules, Hannah.”
Dropping the earphones into my lap, I stifle an audible groan by taking a deep breath. Mom and her car rules. She has no problem with an occasional informational text sent, like if I have to ask Grace for a ride home from school because she can’t pick me up, but otherwise, devices are off-limits while she’s driving. She especially forbids me to tune her out with music, explaining that we should use the drive time for mother-daughter bonding rather than spend it in two different worlds.
I release the breath and turn toward my window. I’d rest my head against it, but she doesn’t want me dozing off on the way to school either. She backs the car out of the driveway carefully and then drives slowly to the entrance of the townhouse community with only the occasional speed bump to provide any variety.
“What homework was keeping you up last night?” she asks once she turns right onto the main road.
“History.” I squirm at the small talk. “I don’t get why we even have to learn it.”
“History’s where we’ve been, Hannah. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
I roll my eyes. My history teacher has said the same thing several times in class, but when my mother says it, there’s a lilt of condescension in her voice. I can’t shake the feeling that she’s talking about me—about my own history that I might be doomed to repeat. Whether I’ve learned my lesson or not, she’s doing everything to make sure it couldn’t possibly happen again.
She stops at a traffic light, and there’s a large yellow house at the corner of the street. A white picket fence runs the perimeter of the property. Hanging from a post in the front yard is a For Sale sign with my mother’s photo on it. She’s in a red framed area in the corner, her arms folded across her chest and her smiling face tilted ever so slightly to the side. With the agency name and telephone number, the sign’s like an oversized business card combined with the glamor shot of an actress. She’s attractive and successful—I can’t deny that, nor am I bothered by it—but my heart sinks when I’m reminded of the name she goes by. Kathryn Reed, not Kathryn McCauley. She reverted to her maiden name, under the guise of it sounding more professional. I know it was to distance herself from my father, but it also distanced herself from me.
“But you are passing the class, correct?” she asks when the light turns green.
“With Grace’s help, barely.”
“I like Grace. It’s a good thing that the two of you met and became friends.” She pauses while she turns the car right, and I know exactly what she’s thinking. She wants to remind me that Grace has been a positive influence on me, but she surprises me with her actual words. “I know how difficult moving before your senior year has been, but it really is all for the best. For both of us.”
Her statement is more declarative than sympathetic. This isn’t the first time she’s acknowledged it’s been hard, but it’s been months since the last time. I wonder if she really understands what I’ve been going through. I don’t really miss that much from my previous school; I actually have better teachers now, and I care even less about some of the immature popularity games of school, but I miss Nikki more than I let on.
“You know she’s doing fine, right?” asks my mother, as if she’s reading my mind. She sure knows me too well.
“Yeah.” I shrug.
“The two of you were headed down different paths. Anyway, you’d go off to college, where you’d be exposed to new ideas and people, and you’d eventually outgrow her. It happened a year earlier. Look at it that way.”
Gritting my teeth, I hold back a swear-filled outburst. Nikki was my best friend, and she doesn’t deserve to be marginalized by my mother or anyone else. People get to choose their own friends, right? Although my mother never approved of Nikki, she doesn’t understand how badly I needed someone of my own to help me deal with the split. My father was gone, and my mother was coping by working more, but at least I had a friend who could relate. Unlike here and now, where I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow behind the scenes, my mother had handpicked my friends.
I shouldn’t complain about Grace because she’s a genuinely kind person, and she’s done nothing but support me. I don’t know if I would have made it this far through the year without her, even if she seems more tailor-made for my mother’s personality instead of my own. But she doesn’t know my real personality any more than I think I do.
My mother pulls up in front of the school, and we exchange saccharine goodbyes as I climb out of the car. I blend into the sea of black and white clothes and drift toward the entrance under the gilded letters that spell out Eastfield Academy. Without looking back, I know my mother is still parked at the curb and watching me, making sure that I pass through the front door. I haven’t skipped school since I came to Eastfield, and with just over a month left, I’m not going to start; the punishment for it is much more strict than at my old school, and I won’t do anything to ruin either of our reputations.
That was the promise I made her.
Seventeen-year-old Alexa Cross is desperate to get to Broadway, but when she receives a failing math grade, hopes of a scholarship disappear. Now she’ll need her father’s help to achieve her dream. The only problem is he doesn’t consider her choice of careers to be sensible and after the pain her family has suffered, Alexa can’t go against his wishes. Trapped between a family she loves and her love of the stage, Alexa will have to find another way to achieve her dream or settle for what her father wants.
West Howell does his best to keep his head down and go unnoticed. It’s easier to be cut off than to try to explain to people why he’s so screwed up. After all, he can’t afford to get into any more trouble. When he’s recruited to tutor the hot, prissy girl from math, he never expects to fall in love with her. Or that she might be the one person who can relate to him.
Together, they may find a way to heal each other and get what they both desperately need, as long as Alexa’s father doesn’t decide that the one thing worse than his daughter’s love of the stage is her love for West.
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Mr. Guin gave her a moment to adjust to the news and then continued. “Now, I know you’re capable of doing the work. You’re a smart girl, but you’re going to have to buckle down and put in some serious hours or you won’t have enough time to pull your overall grade up before the end of the semester.” He stood and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m afraid you need more help than I have time to give, and that’s why I’ve spoken with the person in the class with the highest average. He’s going to be tutoring you at my request.”
He. Please don’t let it be West Howell. Please don’t let it be West Howell. Of course, it wouldn’t be. He wasn’t smart. Or was he? The truth was she had no idea. She didn’t know anything about him.
A shadow filled the doorway, and she didn’t have to look up to know her worst nightmare had come true. She could sense his presence like a deer in the woods can sense a predator.
“Ah, here he is now. Miss Cross, I believe you know Mr. Howell?”
She swallowed the lump in her throat and sat up straighter. “Yes, sir.”
“West, I’ll leave it up to the two of you to work out your own schedule.”
West nodded, but remained quiet. Alexa was working hard not to stand up and pull her hair out like some sort of animated character in a cartoon while laughing hysterically. This could not be happening.
Mr. Guin continued on, unaware she was one step away from hysterics. “I’ll expect the two of you to work together four days a week.”
Alexa’s mouth dropped open, but no sound came out.
“I’ll evaluate your progress by the extra assignments you’ll be required to turn in at the end of each week. Also, if Mr. Howell feels you aren’t doing your absolute best to succeed or if he feels you aren’t taking this second chance seriously, he’s been told to report to me immediately. You will not fail this class because you weren’t given every opportunity to succeed. The only way to fail is to give up.” Mr. Guin leaned down toward her. “And we both know you’re not a quitter.”
While she appreciated the chance and his opinion of her work ethic, she was having a hard time concentrating on anything other than having to spend time outside of class with West four days a week. And now, he also knew she was an idiot. Perfect.