BHC Press 2018 Fantasy & Science Fiction Sampler

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BHC Press Fantasy & Science Fiction 2018 Sampler Hearthfire Copyright © 2018 Emmie Mears Wired Copyright © 2018 Caytlyn Brooke The Weeping Books of Blinney Lane Copyright © 2018 Drea Damara When the River Ran Dry Copyright © 2018 Robert Davies Remeon’s Destiny Copyright © 2018 J.W. Garrett IA: The Origin Novels Copyright © 2018 John Darryl Winston A Mound Over Hell Copyright © 2018 Gary Morgenstein Compilation Copyright © 2018 BHC Press All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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Hearthfire Emmie Mears Wired Caytlyn Brooke The Weeping Books of Blinney Lane Drea Damara When the River Ran Dry Robert Davies Remeon’s Destiny J.W. Garrett IA - The Origin Novels: Book 1: Initiate John Darryl Winston A Mound Over Hell Gary Morgenstein

About the Book Carin has never known hunger. Born into the Hearthland, a lush world of fertile fields and abundant resources, her biggest worry is whether she and her three friends will find their true names on their Journeying. But when one of them is murdered on the morning of their departure, Carin’s peaceful world is stained with blood. As they travel north, Carin and her friends discover a horrible truth: their land’s bounty is no mystery. An ancient spell cast by their ancestors is draining the very life force from the lands across the northern mountains, withering the earth and starving its people. Forced to confront the truth, Carin must decide her own fate. Remain silent and allow the murder of the earth itself—or risk her own life in exile and break the spell. The hearths of home have only ever nourished. Now the Hearthland will see just how hot fire can burn. All choices have consequences.

1 There was something, Carin always thought, in the way Dyava’s skin caught the sunlight. The whole of him soaked it up as if he could make magic of it. Light revealed, darkness concealed, and with the rays that fell upon his face, Carin saw only love. “If you keep staring at me,” he said, “I might turn to dust before sunset.” “If I don’t keep staring at you, how do you expect me to still remember your face when I return?” Carin teased. “High Lights is some time away.” Her tone was much lighter than her heart felt, but Dyava knew her, and she knew him, and neither of them would give way to the weight of tomorrow when today was here now. His eyes, warm and brown, twinkled as he smiled at her. Dyava reached out to take Carin’s hand, kissing it. His long black hair tickled the side of her arm. He even smelled like sunshine. For a moment, Carin allowed herself the thrill of it and the wicked moment of remembering the youth Dyava had been only one cycle past. Dav, he had been. Before he set out on the same Journeying she herself was about to, returning to Haveranth new-named. Dyava. Her Dyava. Carin caught his hand in hers and turned it over, kissing his even as he’d kissed hers. “I saw Jenin heading toward Lyah’s roundhome,” she said. “They’ll be together these next moons and still they steal moments today.” “You’re jealous,” Dyava said. He pulled Carin close to his chest. “I suppose there’s no hope for it. I’ll have to join you lot.” Carin let out a laugh that was almost a snort, even though her heart soared suddenly at the idea of Dyava by her side for the Journeying. “Merin would have you trussed to the village hearth-home, possibly on a spit.” “Good point.” The silence that followed threatened to sink lower. Carin pulled back to look at Dyava. His face was quiet, with the stillness of a forest pool. As if he was suddenly

miles away. Carin thought she knew what he was thinking. Jenin and Lyah had been inseparable since they had all been hysmern, children with no appellation of their own. Carin had not understood it, then, though as Dyava’s Journeying had approached the cycle before, she had found herself dreading his absence. When he returned days before High Lights, thinner and quieter and stronger, Carin had known nothing like the relief she felt. She had struggled to catch even a glimpse of him for the days that followed, until the sun claimed its longest day and the village toiled under its heat and that night, oh, that night. Exhausted and aching as always, Carin had taken her cup of ashes and turned at the sound of Dyava’s soft voice addressing her. “I failed you, Carin,” he had said. “In all those moons walking, each step reminded me that I had forgotten to make something clear between us. I hope you will forgive me.” “Forgive what?” Carin’s hands had nearly dropped her cup. “Simply that I care for you,” said Dyava. “More than simply for a friend. I should have told you sooner.” Carin had dipped her whole hand into her cup, covering her palm with ashes that stung her skin. Without speaking, she placed her splayed hand over Dyava’s heart and met his eyes. The next morning, with the whole of the village nude and covered in the ashes of forgiven wrongs, Dyava and Carin leapt into the Bemin River together, the cold-flowing water reviving them anew. Carin thought that until that moment she had never been alive at all. Now, no ashes coated her palm or Dyava’s tunic-clothed chest, but she looked him in the eye and knew he remembered. And, true to Dyava, he smiled, kissed her, and changed the subject. “Once you return, we will have to prepare for the High Harvest.” Any other person would simply mean preparations for the feasts, the dancing, the festival in which villagers from Cantoranth and Bemin’s Fan would arrive and set up colorful tents surrounding the whole of Haveranth for the whole waxing and waning of Harvest Moon. This time, though, Carin knew what he meant. “I’m not sure I can think about that yet,” she said, “or if I will truly do it.” Carin had chosen her appellation at her fifteenth cycle, like everyone did. But

for some time it had not set well for her. She had gone from being child to woman, just as Lyah had, but now, two cycles past and on the verge of true adulthood, Carin could not be sure that she had been true to herself. High Harvest would be the time to make it right. At her trailing silence, Dyava seemed to come back to himself, pulled her closer. “Sometimes people need to leave something behind to do what is right. Be you,� was all he said. He did not use her name, and in that moment, Carin loved him for it. Tomorrow she would go search for the name her village would know as her true name forever, but today she was trapped in now. Carin el Rina ve Haveranth. Was that who she was? In the warmth of the arms around her, she had no need of a name at all. The sun sank toward the horizon, and after a time, Carin bade Dyava a bountiful night, knowing he went to his parents. Jenin’s parents, too. Dyava and Jenin were sahthren, born of the same blood a cycle apart. Dyava gave Carin no lingering goodbye, only a flash of a grin as he turned back toward Haveranth, leaving Carin to slowly turn back herself.

2 Ryd al Malcam va Haveranth hated being sat on. It may have been one of the unfortunate effects of being smaller than everyone else, but the other village children seemed to think it was a fine past time. Never mind that he was due for his Journeying and only two harvests away from being a full adult. Never mind that the rumps pressing into various parts of his body belonged to squeaks ten harvests his junior. Never mind that even the grown folk in town found it amusing. Ryd didn’t. He struggled against the weight of six bodies—a giggling whump of new pressure made it seven—pinning him to the lush blue grasses. “Geroff!” he hollered. No one listened. They never did. Ryd looked overhead through the wiggly cluster of sweaty children, catching glimpses of the bone-white halm tree’s trunk. Against the blue of the sky, the halm was dotted with deep red buds that would soon open to the sun. A knee punched into Ryd’s side, bony and probably covered in dirt. This is it, Ryd thought. This is how I die. A startled squawk from one of the children cut through their giggles, and suddenly the weight of seven squirmy bodies vanished. Ryd gulped a breath of the warm spring air, scrambling to a sitting position just in time to see the kids— carpenter Stil’s brat wouldn’t even pay for hys idea of a joke at home later— scamper off into the town square. None of those squeaks had even reached the age to declare their appellation, and no one cared that Ryd was on the cusp of becoming full-fledged adult, with a place and a name and a purpose. “You’re welcome.” A whoosh of air brought Carin’s muscular frame down hard in the grass beside him. She plopped an apple into his lap, its skin redder than the halm’s leaves and as shiny as the sun on the Bemin River. “You don’t always have to rescue me, you know,” Ryd said. The words came out more cross than he meant them to, and Carin sniffed.

“You’re right. I don’t. Want me to call them back?” He shook his head. In spite of her joking, Carin had the look in her eyes that said she had just come from Dyava. Half dreaming, half present. Even half present for Carin was enough to send the village hysmern scrambling away from their usual hobby of sitting on Ryd, though. Ryd thought he should resent that they fled her presence and laughed at his, but he couldn’t. Ryd took a bite of the apple, licking the juice from the skin where it seeped out around his lip. It danced on his tongue with a slight tartness that quickly vanished into the silken sweetness of candy or syrup. They were called Early Birds because the trees that bore them flowered with the first frost and offered their slowgrowing fruits just as the spring’s daffodils opened their golden trumpets. This was the first Ryd had eaten this season, and perhaps the last before the Journeying. The thought soured his next bite. “You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?” Carin’s voice was quiet, punctuated only by the ringing of the blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil across the square. The rest of the village had gone silent in meditation for what would come on the morrow, but apparently the children had decided sitting on Ryd escaped the cause for solemnity. “How can I think of anything else?” Carin didn’t answer, but she took a crunching bite of her own apple. A trill rose from the halm tree. A whitfinch with its trr-dee-trr-dee-dee-dee. Carin pointed past the town square where the road rose toward the foothills. The hills themselves wore the deep blue of spring, blazing bright in the yellow sun. The road curved around Kinnock’s Rise and vanished, but Ryd could have drawn the map of the route under the darkness of the Veiled Moon with the stars hiding their faces from the night. “Speak for yourself,” Carin said softly, letting her hand drop. They sat with their bodies touching in easy friendship, but somehow Carin was leagues away. Ryd still looked where she had gestured. Past Kinnock’s Rise to Haver’s Glen. Up the cleft of the glen along the banks of the Bemin to its source, a high and shining lake known simply as the Jewel. Skirt the shores of the Jewel to the west and climb, climb, climb the Mistaken Pass to the

Hidden Vale where the Hanging Falls floated, dripping crystalline drops hundreds of feet to water the grasses beneath. Beyond the falls, on the westernmost slopes of the vale, was a cave. It was to that cave he was supposed to journey tomorrow. Not just a journey. The Journeying. To seal his passage into adulthood. To mark his growth. To find his name. By harvest time, he and Carin and the others would be starting their trades, new-named and ready to prove themselves to the village. Not quite full villagers, not until their twentieth harvests, but closer. Named. Respected. Ryd linked his elbow with Carin’s, and together they looked into the west. When he found his name, he wouldn’t let anyone sit on him again.

3 On the banks of the Bemin, far from the sun-warmed grasses overlooking Haveranth’s surrounding hillocks, Lyah el Jemil ve Haveranth wove her fingers through her lover’s hair. Jenin’s dark locks flowed over Lyah’s lap, lustrous and shining in the light of the setting sun. “Suo vo dyu, dyu vo suo,” Lyah murmured. Light from darkness, darkness from light. “Spoken like a true soothsayer.” Jenin teased, but hys eyes lit with pride. Lyah had been apprenticed to Merin, Haveranth’s soothsayer, at the last Night of Reflection—a celebration of her reaching her seventeenth harvest and the coming of her Journeying with the following spring. She’d known for some time that Merin would take her as an apprentice, but it was finally official. Lyah would one day be soothsayer. As such, she’d taken to learning the lore of the village and found herself uttering proverbs even when she didn’t mean to. As the first apprentice Merin had chosen in her three hundred cycles of long life, Jenin couldn’t often disguise the pride sy felt at Lyah being the one chosen. And Jenin’s pride in her made Lyah glow like the backlit maha trees that dotted the horizon, their leaves glowing deep blue with the gold of the sun behind them. Jenin went still beneath Lyah’s gentle touch on hys hair. “Tomorrow,” sy said after a long pause. Tomorrow was the Journeying. Lyah tried to disguise the skip in her heart that came with the thought of being off with Jenin for turns on end as they traveled. Of course, Carin and Ryd would also be there, but that wouldn’t stop Lyah’s excitement. Carin and Lyah were fyahiul, pillow-friends, practically family without sharing blood. Ryd would tag along, as he always did. Like a bug clinging to a falling leaf. Both Carin and Ryd seemed apprehensive about the Journeying, their thoughts rotting with the fear that they wouldn’t find their names and would be cast out of Haveranth as Nameless, but Lyah had no fear on that score. Nor had Jenin, but the tension in hys shoulders, even as Lyah ran her fingers through hys

hair, told Lyah that perhaps something had shifted. Jenin’s chin was stubbled with whiskers, and sy turned to lay hys head on Lyah’s knee, the roughness of hys chin through the thin fabric of her leggings sending a tingle of excitement through her. Jenin fell silent, hys posture tensing as sy lay across Lyah’s lap. A question hovered in hys eyes, but sy didn’t speak. Instead, Jenin’s dark eyes searched hers. For the space of a breath, it looked to Lyah as if Jenin’s eyes bore the weight of a thousand mountains, quashing their dark warmth with nothingness. After a moment, sy blinked and smiled and reached out hys hand to touch Lyah’s face. “Why do we have to go on the Journeying?” sy asked. “To find our names and join the village as adults,” Lyah responded automatically. “That’s all?” “The Journeying proves us worthy to join the village. It’s arduous but necessary.” Jenin broke eye contact, hys gaze focused on Lyah’s midsection. Not in the way Lyah hoped; there was no lasciviousness in Jenin’s face, only a quiet vulnerability that made the tingles of excitement in Lyah’s stomach turn sour. “Jenin?” Lyah placed her hand on Jenin’s chest, her fingers seeking out the solidity of Jenin’s flat planes and strong muscles that came from hys toil in the fields. For all sy came from the same womb as Dyava, Jenin could turn serious with the changing of the wind. “I have to tell you something,” sy said. Hys eyes darted to the skyline of the village, the low curved roofs of the roundhomes clustered at its center. A breeze ruffled Lyah’s hair, pulling long strands from her hasty plait that stuck to her lips. The sour nervousness in her stomach grew, like fermented plum juice gone past enjoyment. This was not what was supposed to happen on the eve of the Journeying. “Jenin,” she began, putting all the love she could into the speaking of hys name, only to have it die on her lips as she remembered that sy would only shortly bear it, that the name she’d come so accustomed to speaking in love would be eschewed for a new one. Now Jenin yl Tarwyn vy Haveranth—then who? Who would Jenin be in three moons’ time?

Jenin scrambled to hys knees and took hold of Lyah’s shoulders, sensing her discomfort. “It’s not about us, fruit of my heart. It’s more than us. More than the Journeying.” Alarmed, Lyah felt her breath come faster into her chest, even as the breeze rose to become well and truly wind around them. “What is it?” “I can’t say yet.” That weight returned to hys gaze. “Then why say something now?” Lyah’s tongue felt dry like the clay that caked her mother’s worktable. Jenin’s hands tightened on her shoulders. “I ought to have kept quiet. I’ve not spoken of this to anyone, but I’ve learned things and—” The bell tolled in the village, one loud, reverberating note that spread out through the fields and hills around Haveranth. Sure enough, the sun had dipped below the horizon to the west, its rays following the Bemin to the sea where it bid farewell to the folk of Bemin’s Fan before sleeping in darkness for the night. To the east was Cantoranth, where only the slightest haze of smoke betrayed the presence of their neighbor-village. Strange that this cycle no one would join them from Bemin’s Fan or Cantoranth for the Journeying; no others came of age. There were whispers in town that fewer folk had been born in recent cycles, that two thousand cycles back the Journeying had brought as many as a score of young folk searching for their names. Now there were only four, all from Haveranth. For the first time a true vine of fear spread through Lyah’s core, writhing like a worm at the center of an apple. Someone called out from the village, and Jenin, whatever sy’d been about to say lost, rose to stand, pulling Lyah to her feet. “One day,” sy said. “One day, I’ll be able to explain to you. Don’t worry on it.” Lyah felt that spoiled pit in her stomach grow heavier and sourer. “Jenin,” she said. “Ahsh,” sy said, hushing her. “Remember one thing for me.” “Always.” “There is always the choice. As children, we choose the things we love and the village nurtures them. As youths we find ourselves and declare our appellation to our families, man or woman or hyrsin, declaring not just who we are but who we will become. As adults there will be the choice as well. I’ve made mine. Lu dyu, pah,

artus lu suo dyosu suon.” Sy smiled as if to say sy could quote proverbs too, but it didn’t reach hys eyes. “I choose you,” Lyah said, her voice full of a vehemence she didn’t know she possessed. “And I will never be far from you,” said Jenin, kissing Lyah’s lips with softness like down. Sy left Lyah on the banks of the Bemin, the rushing of the water over its time-smoothed stones not full enough to make the proverb Jenin’d spoken less hollow. In darkness, birth. Light reveals all for good or ill.

4 Carin’s thoughts as she watched the shadows lengthen arm in arm with Ryd had less to do with getting sat on and more to do with trepidation. By the time she removed her arm from Ryd’s—her own was now cramped at the elbow and sore to the shoulder—she gave serious thought to plunking right back down in the grass where their twin rump-marks had left double dents in the early spring growth. She bid Ryd a bountiful night and made her way home to her roundhome, though it wasn’t hers yet. The lamp was not yet lit, the shutters not yet open. This night was the last she would spend with her mother in their house. When she returned from her Journeying, she would be new-named and free to pursue her trade. Whatever that might be. Whoever she might be. Its rounded walls curved back from where she stood, inviting. She could picture the wide central room, its hearth and chimney painstakingly constructed from the Bemin’s smooth stones and mortar she’d mixed herself. Carin looked up at the domed roof, its clay shingles kiln-fired and glazed by her own hand. Her fingers closed around the door’s latch, the handwrought metal curving gracefully out from the polished wood that she herself had shone to its current warm gleam. The windows she had framed and set herself as well, the panes of round glass snug in their encircling bands of wood. Carin could still feel the strain of the wet maha as her fingers closed around it, warping the wood with its grain, molding it around the metal template, binding it with clamps so it would dry snug and tight. She had made this home with her hands. As much as Dyava had wanted to help, she had not let him, though she had acquiesced to him bringing her fresh pockets of curried goat in soft bread and dried berries in conu juice. Her home had needed to be hers alone. Now, though, she wished some mark of Dyava’s had worked its way into the building of it. Her fingers trailed away from the latch, the metal now

warmed by her heat. Carin walked the path to her mother’s home, unable to help but notice that she already drew a dividing line to show that her ownership of that home had lapsed. It hasn’t yet, she thought fiercely. Try as she may, though, she could not bring herself to think that she was going home. She only hoped that when she returned from her Journeying, she’d think herself home in the house her hands had raised. Perhaps someday Dyava would make his home there with her. Perhaps. Grey smoke piped from her mother’s chimney, bringing with it the scent of herbs and spice. Two figures showed silhouetted through the window as Carin approached, and she knew without closer inspection that one would be Merin. The eve of a Journeying. It was seldom these days that four villagers were to make the trek in one season, and tonight Merin, the village soothsayer, would pay respects at each home. Carin felt a chill that spread from the metal latch on her mother’s door shoot through her hand to the top of her spine where it sent tendrils down her back and up her skull. Merin knew all their names. What if I can’t find mine? Every child asked that question at least once, and the adults always laughed. Every Journeyer found her name. There were no Nameless in the Hearthland, and there hadn’t been for cycles. Entire High Harvests had passed since the last, each five cycles apart. Every child asked that question, but not on the eve of the Journeying. Perhaps they all kept their asking only within the confines of their skulls. Carin pushed down on the latch and opened the door. A gust of warm, spicescented air greeted her, and she closed the door behind her before turning to face her mother. “Favor find you,” Merin said first, her crackly voice reaching Carin’s ears from the direction of the hearth. Carin paused, doing her best to wipe any apprehension from her gaze. When she turned to face the soothsayer, she had made sure her eyes were relaxed and open, coaxed a small smile into tugging the corners of her mouth. “And you, Merin. May the planting this Harmonix eve bear bounty for the good of

Haveranth.” The old woman’s face folded into a knowing grin, as if Carin’s careful rearrangement of her own expression could not fool anyone. Carin’s mother was nowhere to be seen, but after a moment, she came bustling in from her bedchamber with a long parcel in her hand. She set it on the trestle table and turned to face her daughter. Rina ve Haveranth was built for her smith’s trade. Standing of a height with Carin, her broad shoulders drew her out to double Carin’s width. Where Carin’s muscles were lean and long, her mother’s were short and strong. She didn’t often show emotion, but when she looked over the trestle table at her near-grown daughter, Carin was almost sure she saw Rina’s eyes glimmer. She wore a furrow between her brow, and she didn’t look away from Carin’s face for several long moments. Finally, Carin forced herself to turn, embarrassed at her mother’s stare. At the hearth, Merin clunked a wooden spoon in the cook pot that burbled there. “If the two of you are done staring at each other like a couple cats, why don’t you set the table?” No one else could have gotten away without a skinning telling Rina ve Haveranth what to do in her own home, but Rina and Carin both took deep ceramic plates and heavy clear glass goblets from the open shelves on either side of the hearth and placed them dutifully on the table. Carin tried not to look at the long parcel. It took up nearly half of the sturdy wooden table, a table that had always been far too large for only Rina and Carin. As Carin laid the last spoon and fork next to a plate, her mother caught her arm. Rina said nothing for a moment, but her callused hands dug into the bare flesh of Carin’s forearm. When she pulled back, pale white impressions quickly faded from the bronze of Carin’s skin. Carin was so transfixed by the strength of her mother’s grasp that she almost missed the shining tear that escaped Rina’s right eye, captured quickly by Rina’s left hand and obliterated into the dark blue woolen folds of her tunic, to be remembered only by the blue-black smudge it left behind. “That’s a good child,” Rina said. Her voice gave away no clue of the tear, nor any acknowledgment that any such liquid had ever spilled from her eyes. Those were the final words spoken until the stew spilled from Merin’s ladle into

the deep plates and Rina splashed deep blue iceberry wine into the goblets. It shone like twilight stone in the light from the hearth, and the colors it cast on the table turned purple-bright against the polished red cast of the wood. The glassworkers of Bemin’s Fan had come to Haveranth for the Night of Reflection and exchanged the goblets for Rina’s expertly forged knives and kitchenware. Merin hung the pot back over the hearth, her movements as sure as if she shared the home and wasn’t simply a guest. The older woman sat down first, looking expectantly at Carin and Rina until they joined her at the table. The stew steamed in Carin’s plate, the scent sweet and spicy. Dots of purple oil from the cave chilies speckled the creamy white surface, and Carin breathed in the humid warmth. She was a dismal cook. This might be the last home-cooked meal she got before the Reflection Vigil on the darkest night. She ran her hand along the edge of the table. Strong wood. Dense wood. The same maha she had used to frame the windows in her new roundhome. Tooled into the edge were runes of home and hearth. Carin would miss this table. “I’ve never known either of you to lack for words, Carin and Rina ve Haveranth. If one of you doesn’t start eating soon, I’ll switch out your tooth scrubs with mashed cave chili seeds.” Merin picked up her spoon and slurped a mouthful of the spicy-sweet conu broth. “Carin may have gotten her wits kissed out of her, but you, Rina, ought to be joyful on the eve of this Journeying.” Rina said nothing, only dipped her spoon into her soup herself. Carin hurriedly followed suit, plucking a chunk of white fish from the stew and popping it into her mouth. “Thank you for sharing your cooking with us, Merin.” Merin waved a hand. “Are you ready for tomorrow, child?” Oddly, her eyes were on Rina as she said it, though not even Merin could get away with calling Rina “child.” If there was anything Carin looked forward to without any accompanying anxiety, it was returning from the Journeying to never being called “child” again. She swallowed her bite and washed it down with a sip of wine. “Ready as one can expect,” Carin said. Merin’s eyes still held Rina’s, but she broke the look to give Carin a tight smile. Something seemed to pull the air in close and tight. Carin’s shoulders had

drawn in with it, whatever it was, and she tried to relax. Her mother’s expression, still stamped between the eyes with her worry, was not the way a mother ought to look on the eve of the Journeying. Proud, nostalgic, fierce—but not troubled. The question rose again in Carin’s mind, bubbling to the top like water just about to boil. Rina reached over and picked up the long parcel and handed it to Carin. Confused by her mother’s action, Carin set down her spoon to take it. The parcel was long and bulky, wrapped in thin, rust-colored wool and secured with leather thongs in surprisingly intricate bows. Carin tugged on the thongs to untie the bows, almost sad to watch as the loops shriveled into kinked strands. The wool was good quality, and there was enough of it to make a cloak. Or perhaps it already was a cloak. Carin turned over one edge to reveal a hood and a lining of soft, cured leather. She sniffed at it—pimia oil. Very rare and expensive, but excellent for waterproofing. Carin looked up at her mother in shock. The cloak was a gift suitable for the High Harvest, not a Journeying. The High Harvest wouldn’t come for half a cycle yet; every Harvest Harmonix was special, but this one would be different. Only once every five cycles did the Harvest Moon share the sky with its satellite and the sun, the three orbs dancing across the sky as one. This would only be the third High Harvest Carin had ever seen. If she was getting such a gift now, what might her mother have in store for later? Her fingers had stilled on the oiled leather, and Rina’s barked command jerked her out of her thoughts. “Keep on,” Rina said, voice gruff. Carin pulled back the sides of the cloak. And again. There was something stiff beneath the folds of wool and leather. Her first glimpse was of a white, gleaming curve. She followed that curve as it bent beneath the leather, her hand chasing its smoothness. A gut string brushed her knuckle. She pulled back the final fold of wool and leather to reveal a glorious bow, a recurve crafted from fine white halm. Halm was a sacred tree, a powerful tree. Dense and strong and enduring, yet resilient. This bow could be a day old or a thousand thousands. Unable to speak, Carin ran her hands along the length of it. It was a gift out of legends. And it was hers.

5 Merin left shortly after, saying nothing about the bow or the cloak, only bidding Carin and Rina a bountiful night. But to Carin, formulaic though the farewell was, something seemed to lurk beneath it, flickering between the old soothsayer and her mother. Something that deepened the crease between Rina’s eyes. Telling herself it was all in her mind, Carin watched Merin cross the pavilion that housed the village hearth-home and knock soundly on Ryd’s door. Jenin and Lyah tended the fire; Carin could see them in the central village hearth, their faces lit with flickering light, not paying Merin any heed as she walked by them. At high night, Clar el Novah would come to take over the tending of the fire—how she would do so all cycle was a mystery to Carin. Merin vanished into Ryd’s home, and Carin closed the door. All those undertaking the Journeying would play host to the village soothsayer that night. Rina took her leave only moments later, leaving Carin alone to wash up and wonder how her mother had come across such a gift. Both gifts. Even now, they sat in a sturdy chair across from where Carin washed the night’s dishes. The bow she’d laid across the chair’s arms, and the fire cast pale orange flickers across its length. Just before her mother had closed her bedchamber door, Rina had produced a leather hip quiver full of halm arrows. The wood was dense enough that no heads were needed. Honed to a deadly point and barbed at the sides, each arrow could pierce flesh or rend bone. Carin felt a prickle of unease, compounded by these items coming into her possession. She had never heard of such splendor given to Journeyers. Not for the last time that night, she wondered what would come of her if she could not find her name. Her mind would not quiet, nor would her thoughts be calmed that night. Carin tidied the kitchen, polished the trestle table, and banked the fire for the evening, each domestic movement a shadow of her own future when the roundhome down the path would be hers. She shuttered the windows, as was proper for the home of Journeyers.

When she finally retired to her bed, the woolen coverlets felt at once familiar and foreign. Tomorrow would dawn in only a few short hours. The rest of Haveranth would rise early; Carin had seen it before. They would rise before the sun and begin their work. Planting Harmonix, the day when the sun and moons danced equally through the turning of the earth. Night and day gave way to one another, and the planting for the cycle began. The Journeyers would set forth without fanfare, while those in the village plied their trades and skills to work the land just as every other day. If Merin was correct, the Discovery Moon would be well overhead as the sun rose, her sister beside her, always present, always circling. And Carin would leave Haveranth behind her to set off into the Mad Mountains to find her name. An insistent tapping at her window made Carin jump in her bed. She rose on warm feet that shied away from the cold of the wooden floor and unshuttered her window. Lyah leaned on the sill, an impudent smirk lighting her face. Carin threw the window open. “Get in before someone sees you,” she hissed. Lyah wore only her night robe and leather-soled woolen house clogs, and she leaped the sill with the practiced ease that came with having done the precisely same action at least once per turn for twelve cycles of the moons. She doffed her clogs and shuttered the window again herself, turning to face Carin. She was taller than Carin by a knuckle’s length. Her eyes were green-flecked gold, and her dark hair was a ratted mess, carelessly plaited over one shoulder. She smelled of spring and the river grasses that told Carin Lyah had spent her day by the banks of the Bemin as always, most likely with Jenin at her side. Woven over those scents was the smoke from the hearth-home fire. The dark gold in Lyah’s eyes was almost the precise color of her skin, which gave her an almost unnerving sense of cohesion about her. The rest of Lyah, however, assuaged any fears of being too together. Her hair was always only half done; her eyes held that glimmer that said mischief was only moments away. She seldom wore shoes, and she was the best fisher in Haveranth with a spear.

Now she hefted herself into Carin’s bed with her usual familiarity, and after a bemused moment, Carin followed. “Pull the coverlet up,” Lyah said. “It’s always so cold in here.” Carin pulled the coverlet up higher and nestled into the mattress. Silence crept through the chamber, long enough that Carin thought Lyah had gone to sleep straightaway. The bedding gave and rustled, and Carin felt and heard Lyah’s sigh at the same time, a puff of vanilla-scented sweetness from the resin she chewed at night to clean her teeth. “Are you frightened?” Lyah asked. Had anyone else asked her that question, Carin would have turned her face to a mask and answered in the negative. “Yes,” she whispered instead. She’d forgotten to clean her own teeth, and she could smell the spiced conu broth souring already on her breath. Lyah didn’t seem to notice. “As am I.” “You?” “Yes, me.” Lyah turned and snuggled into Carin’s shoulder. “Jenin said something today,” she trailed off, shaking her head against the pillow with a rustle of fabric Carin heard rather than saw. Carin felt a pang at the mention of Jenin. You’re jealous, Dyava had said. Another three moons without him, watching his sahthren with her friend grow closer in love with every day spent walking. Carin tried to shake the feeling off and laid her cheek on Lyah’s hair. After a moment, though, Lyah propped herself up on one elbow. “Are you still thinking about the High Harvest?” Carin held the breath she had just inhaled. There it was again. High Harvest. It was a day of feasting and ceremonies, for villagers to declare new bonds, new bulging bellies of coming babes, new appellations. That last had never seemed like such a momentous thing, though she had seen others do it, their faces relaxing with some profound relief. Carin had hinted to Lyah some turns before, but she had immediately regretted it. It was too much to think of on the eve of the Journeying. With Dyava she could simply be. It used to be so with Lyah, too.

Carin let out the breath and simply said, “No.” She knew Lyah would know the lie and the reason for it. There was no light in the room with the window shuttered, but Carin knew Lyah’s expression would be consternation, her straight eyebrows pulled together as though stitched at the center of her forehead, her mouth tight and a little lopsided. After a moment, Lyah moved back to the subject of the Journeying. “Ryd and Jenin said Old Wend told them about the last Nameless in Haveranth, back when our parents were children. They said he’d been a favorite, that he was a charismatic leader and a master woodsmith by the time he chose to abjure the syr form. Overnight they shunned him, forced him out of Haveranth. They loved him one day, disowned him the next. Only the elders remember him. Jenin said sy tried to ask Tamat about it while sy tended the fire and Tamat went silent and said there had been no Nameless that cycle. What if we don’t find our names? What if we return Nameless? What if they forget us?” We won’t, is what Carin ought to have said, would have said if anyone else were present. But with Lyah… “I don’t know.” The last Nameless to leave Haveranth had gone cycles ago. Carin was familiar enough with how Nameless were treated, but she hadn’t known any details of the last. If one came back from the Journeying having not found her name—or reporting the wrong one; Merin always knew—they were exiled. Some went north, back toward the cave, into the Mad Mountains to wander and die in the hundreds of leagues of peaks. Others would travel south, past the plains and into the other range of mountains beyond. None ever returned. It was said in the Hearthland that if one traveled far enough to the south, through the wildlands of plains and past the southern unnamed mountains, the sea would greet you as it did at Bemin’s Fan to the west. But those were only stories, and the folk of Haveranth never traveled far enough to the south to discover its truth. The older villagers sometimes spoke of lands across the sea, where the earth went on far enough for the land to grow warmer, then cooler again if one traveled across its length from south to north. All had ventured to the foothills of the Mad Mountains for the Journeying, but there it is colder, not warmer, and thus most

believed these tales to be naught but falsehoods and spun sugar stories. Carin didn’t know what happened to the Nameless or to where they wandered. All she knew was that they never came back. “It won’t happen to us,” she said finally, her voice cracking in the stillness of the night. She thought she heard a hitch in Lyah’s breathing, but it may have been the shifting of the sheets on the mattress. “It won’t,” Lyah echoed. She lowered herself back down to the bedding, pulled her pillow close to Carin’s. “Will you braid my hair tomorrow? I want to look presentable when we leave.” “Of course.” Carin knew exactly why Lyah wanted her hair to look nice, and it wasn’t for the benefit of the villagers. She thought of the way Jenin had looked at Lyah over the winter fires and how sy’d shared the first of the Early Bird apples from hys tree with her. For a brief moment, Carin wondered what that would be like. Then she sloughed off the thought and turned over. She had far more pressing things to fret about. Their breathing became slow and deep, but an hour passed before either could drift into the realm of sleep.

6 The fire of Jenin’s family hearth lay banked and ashy, giving off little warmth. Hys parents, Silan and Tarwyn, each clasped one of Jenin’s hands in their own. Something wild and raw and full of storms gathered in Jenin’s breast. Hys time of tending the village hearth-home’s fire had ended, turned over to his cousin Clar, who would spend the next cycle tending the village hearth in ignorance, as she should. Dyava had gone home, as was expected, for he no longer shared their home. Hands held tight to hys parents, Jenin felt as if sy were alone on all the earth. Sy wished Lyah could be there. Jenin felt a pang when sy thought of Lyah’s own ignorance, but sy could not allow hyrself to pursue the emotion. Time for that had long passed. What would happen would happen. The windows sat shuttered, so there was little need to fully bank the fire, but Silan had said that they could not allow the chimney’s smoke to show their continuing wakefulness. Not now, not this night. It whispered through the air in the roundhome, the prickles of magic that Jenin now recognized. It had been the same for turn upon turn now, but tonight was different. Silan’s usually gentle face grew determined and set like the slow hardening of clay in a kiln. He grasped Jenin’s hand tighter, as did Tarwyn, her angular features every inch as sure of what she did. Merin’s visit that night had hardened them, fired their certainty, burned away any remaining doubt they might have had about what they meant to do. Jenin had hardly been able to bear it. The prickles crept through Jenin’s hands like the needling sensation that followed a sleeping foot’s numbness. At hys shoulders, Jenin took one last clear intake of breath as the prickles wove like vines through hys chest and stifled his exhale, turning it shaky. Jenin had chosen this. This was hys to bear. Jenin concentrated hys thoughts on the hearth, on the stones that sy had pulled

off one by one to inscribe their insides with runes, replacing them with new power of cloaking, for no one outside this roundhome could know what the family did, or what awaited the village on the morrow. They had to be surprised. They had to believe. Even when the sun rose and the Journeyers departed, they would not know. But by then, Jenin knew that the first unfurling tendril would greet the dawn— for sy would be the one to make it. With the Journeyers’ first unknowing steps toward the mountains and their names, Planting Harmonix would bring true seeds of change to sprout in Haveranth. Jenin had seen to it, and tomorrow it would be hys choice that changed the world.

7 Only four times in a cycle did the great bell toll out the morning, and on the morn of Planting Harmonix came the first for that cycle. The bell struck three times, and its resonant hum hung in the crisp morning air. Carin sat straight up in bed, brushing a lock of Lyah’s hair from her face. “Lyah!” She poked the still-sleeping young woman with her forefinger. “You have to go. We’re not supposed to see each other until the Journeying!” “Tosh,” Lyah muttered. “They’ll never know.” “That was the third bell!” Lyah bolted out of the bed so fast that she tripped over her clogs where she’d left them. “Third already?” The fourth bells began to ring through the village. “Rot.” Lyah threw her feet into her clogs and scooped up Carin’s hands in hers. “I will see you in the hearth-home.” “Go out the kitchen door—Mamo might not be awake yet.” “I will.” Lyah flung open the door to Carin’s room and slid across the floor in her clogs. Carin closed her eyes and tried to steady herself. She felt as though the down from her coverlet had crept into her skull over the few short hours she’d slept. “Morrow, Rina.” Lyah’s voice came out like a squeak, and Carin heard the slide of Lyah’s leather clogs on the floor as she skidded to a stop. “You’re not supposed to be here, child. Get to your home. This isn’t a day for bending rules.” “Yes, Rina.” To Carin’s surprise, Lyah actually sounded contrite. Poking her head out her door, Carin met Rina’s glance. The older woman’s face was sober, unamused. “Joyous Journeying, fruit of my womb,” she said, sounding as though she believed nothing of the sort. Rising from her chair by the fire, she set down a cup of

steaming red bush tea that smelled of honey and spice. “You had best get ready.” The new woolen cloak was folded neatly on the edge of the table, the new bow strung and sitting next to the cloak. As Carin filled her ceramic mug with tea from the kettle, her new possessions tickled at the corner of her eyes. There was not much she could do to prepare. Journeyers were allowed only weapons, a waterskin, and a bundle of clothing and provisions. No pack animals, no coin. She gathered up the gifts from her mother and returned to her chamber, mug clasped in her free hand. Three cycles before, Tilm al Hadeer, who had been injured in a hunting accident at nine harvests, had been carried in a litter by the other two Journeyers who left with him. That cycle had been a somber one, a fearful one beneath the smooth surface of the villagers of Haverath. Everyone had tried not to show their apprehension—would Tilm return Named or Nameless? Would they return by High Lights? Would he return at all? The days of spring had marched forward. Seeds sown burst through the loam and snaked upward, budding then blooming then bearing fruit as always. As the days continued toward the longest light, the High Lights ritual of atonement and amends, the tension had grown like a new bowstring pulled to its notches. Tilm’s parents, Hadeer and Almin, stared down anyone who looked their way as if daring their neighbors to suggest their son would be branded Nameless. But then, on the third day of the Stem turn under the Toil Moon, one day before High Lights, one day before Merin would have to declare Tilm and his fellow Journeyers lost and Nameless, a young shepherd spotted them in Haver’s Glen as they descended the Mistaken Pass. Three Journeyers, all on foot. The litter was nowhere to be seen. Tilm al Hadeer va Haveranth strode into the village on two healed legs. While whispers made waves through the people gathered around the central village hearth, Merin closeted herself in her roundhome with the three Journeyers for three hours. When they emerged, no one had said a thing until the Naming at High Lights, when Tilm had become Tillim va Haveranth, Named and welcomed home. No one spoke of what had happened on his Journeying, or how the legs that had

kept him from walking for eight cycles sparked once more to life, but strange things happened on a Journeying. Carin shuddered at the chill that snaked up her spine, and she drained the remainder of her tea. In her reverie she had piled half her clothing on her unmade bed. With anxiety-numbed fingers, she sorted her belongings. Three sets of hose, two of brown bavel and one of soft leather. One pair of wide-legged trousers of a thick weave. She pulled on one pair of bavel hose and a light linen tunic with sleeves that fell to her wrists. Carin belted the tunic with a wide leather strap, adding her sheath to one side and a pouch of fishing line and hooks to the other. She bundled the remaining clothing into her leather rucksack. After a moment of chagrin looking at the quiver, Carin discovered that her mother had gotten Jemil—Lyah’s mother must have done it, for Rina herself couldn’t stitch a single swatch without sewing her own finger into it—to sew a pocket onto the side of the rucksack. The quiver fit into it perfectly, and two leather buckles held the quiver firmly in place. With her rucksack on her back and her bow slung across one shoulder, Carin quietly made her bed and returned to the kitchen, knowing she would find it empty. She washed her mug. She took a long look around the home of her mother. And Carin el Rina ve Haveranth left home behind. Click here for more information about Hearthfire

About the Book When Maggie Stone straps on the Vertix H2, an innovative device that creates a social media and online experience unlike anything she’s ever known, she quickly becomes a fan. Able to control virtual reality with her mind, the rush is intoxicating. But soon the device begins to take over her life. Immersed in a colorful and explosive world of technology, she finds it impossible to disconnect. As her addiction grows, Maggie’s world spirals out of control, endangering and pushing away reality. Can she kick the social addiction, or will the thrill of the connection pull her under?

1 The first time had been a dare. The turquoise liquid had looked like Kool-Aid, but in the split second the numbing liquid splashed against the back of his throat, Joe knew it wasn’t. He looked down at the little plastic cup where more green-blue liquid waited and bit his lip. The first time had been fun, the effects harmless enough. It reminded him of being high—if weed also unleashed incredible powers, like vision that allowed one to see through walls into the apartment of their ex-girlfriend. It was the craving that followed that he disliked, worse than caffeine or carbs. “So, what are you waiting for?” Ryan asked, arching his eyebrows. “Have another taste.” Sometimes Ryan reminded him of Eve corrupting Adam. A gentle chime sounds and my eyes dart to my wrist, abandoning the gritty manuscript on my screen. Above my iJewel, a glistening hologram of my roommate, Sarah, materializes. Her pixilated hand rests on her curvy hips as the message delivers. “Hey, Mags! Andy and I just got to the Cheesecake Factory. I’m wearing that off-the-shoulder gray top that makes my boobs look awesome, see!” The miniature version of Sarah thrusts out her chest. Frowning, I glance down at my own and note with disappointment that Sarah’s miniscule hologram has bigger boobs than me. “Anyway,” Sarah continues, “put down that creepy novel and get over here! Fast, but not too fast!” She winks and my iJewel chimes once more to signal the end of the message. A wave of annoyance replaces my contented mood. She just won’t quit. She can have any guy in Boston, but no, of course she wants my brother. Andy wants her back, too. I know I should let them hook up, or whatever it is they want to do. But I don’t want to become the awkward third wheel and get pushed out of the way while they have a fling that will likely end in disaster, given their dating histories.

I look back at the manuscript and sigh. “Must be nice,” I grumble, doubletapping the screen to create a comment. “To be out on a date…to have cute clothes…to have boobs bigger than a pair of Reese’s cups…” I stop and frown at the words I’m typing. “Focus, Mags.” I backspace, wondering if I’m currently winning or losing at life. I used to be fun and wild. I used to date. Then, a year ago, I’d forced myself to try and grow up and do things on my own without the crutch of my parents to bail me out. It had paid off, moving me from lowly assistant to Literary Agent quicker than most. Authors weren’t interested in agents who stumbled into work late, stinking of the Axe body spray from the latest frat boy they’d hooked up with. Those days were far behind me now. Yeah but no one likes a brown-nose either. “Margaret, are you all right?” I jump out of my chair and spin around, mortified. Had I been talking out loud? My boss, Ms. Robins, stands behind me, staring over the rims of her white-framed glasses. The frames throw me off every time I see her. No one wears glasses anymore, not since Cannon Eye came into the picture five years ago. “Oh, y-yeah,” I stutter, tucking a long strand of light brown hair behind my ear. “Sorry, I was just, uh, talking to myself.” Ms. Robins chuckles. “Yeah.” I grin awkwardly. “Well, I’ll just get back to work.” This is so embarrassing. “No, wait, Margaret. I know what time you got here this morning, and I know what time you left last night. Every night in fact,” Robins says, cocking her head to the side. “Ever since I promoted you, you’ve been killing yourself over this manuscript. Go home; be with your friends and family. The story can wait until morning. And when I say morning I mean like nine. I don’t want any more of this coming in at six-thirty, all right? All your overtime is killing me!” I blush. “Yes, ma’am. I’m actually meeting my roommate and brother for dinner downtown to celebrate my promotion tonight.” I lean over the back of my chair and hit the save button three times before closing Word. I swipe my fingers in a pattern across the screen and my computer shuts off.

“Oh, how nice. Hopefully you’re going to a place that serves strong drinks,” Ms. Robins says, waving me forward. “Come on, I’ll walk you out.” I pull on my coat and grab my messenger bag, slinging it over my head and situating it so the bulk of the weight rests against my backside. We walk in silence for a few minutes until we reach the elevators. “So, I guess I don’t have to ask you how you like being an agent so far,” Ms. Robins teases, pressing the dull number one until it glows to life under her touch. “I just love it,” I say in a rush. “Thank you so much for the opportunity. I hope that I can make you and Red Leaf proud.” Ms. Robins smiles. “Yes, well I’m sure you will. I noticed that you chose to rep the same YA novel that I myself tossed away, even after I told you it wasn’t a good fit for us.” Her dark green eyes study her fingers. I fumble for the right words in my head. It wasn’t that I wanted to go behind her back with the story or rub it in her face that I was right, but the connection I felt with the manuscript had been too strong for me to pass up. I want to tell her this, yet nothing but awkward syllables spill from my lips. “Well, I, you, um—” “Relax, Margaret.” Ms. Robins chuckles. “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. I actually think that it was very brazen of you to reach back out to that author. You knew it was a good story all those months ago and then, when you finally had the opportunity, you went out there and fought for what you wanted. It’s very impressive.” Warm color spreads across my face once more. “Oh, well thank you very much, ma’am. I’m so thankful that I have the chance to discover the next great stories for our youth and that a few are still interested in reading.” The elevator doors ping open and slide apart to reveal the deserted lobby and the darkening night beyond. “The next great stories,” she repeats. “What a lovely idea.” Before I can ask what she means, she gives me a curt wave and briskly walks across the shiny tile toward the bustling streets of Boston. I consider running after her to continue our conversation, but my iJewel chimes again. This time, my brother Andy’s goofy lopsided grin greets my gaze.

“Hey, Maggie. We got your favorite table reserved for when you get here. Sarah and I will be hanging out at the bar until then. Just tell the hostess to grab us. Oh, and the Q train isn’t running. Try catching a ride through UPick or rent a hoverbike. There’s a station right around the block where you can return it. And, Mags…take your time.” Andy laughs and waves before ending the message. I roll my eyes and groan. “Great. Way to be subtle, Andy.” My promotion was probably just an excuse for a date. I shake my head and push the awkward situation from my mind. Tonight is about me. I’m going to celebrate, damn it! “Hoverbike rental,” I state, alerting the iJewel to fulfill my need. Instantly, four rental sites ding and the device maps out the closest one with the expected stepdistance away. They’re convenient, but I’m wary. My love handles are already softening because of all the crap I’ve been ingesting at the office. I need to skip rides on a gliding seat running along a fabricated rail as often as I can. “You don’t even have to pedal,” I scoff, shaking my head. Acey, the old security guard, tips his hat to me as I approach the double doors. “Good evening, Miss Maggie, last one as always. Off to have some fun I hope.” He gives me a wide smile that exposes the few teeth he has left. “Off to dinner actually,” I say, wrapping my scarf around my neck tightly. “My brother and roommate are meeting me there to celebrate my promotion.” Acey’s smile widens and he reaches out a weathered hand to me. “Well, congratulations, Miss Maggie. That sure is wonderful news to hear,” he says warmly, giving my hand a gentle squeeze. “Thank you, Acey. Well, have a good night. I’ll see you tomorrow,” I call over my shoulder as I step from the tile floor to the concrete stairs. He waves back, pulling the door shut behind me and locking the thick deadbolt with a solid clunk. I inhale deeply as the late August evening envelopes me. Summer has just started to release its hold, giving way to slightly cooler nights, but warm air still lingers over the city during the day. The wind blows, carrying the slightest chill from the harbor. A shiver tickles my spine and all the hairs on my arms stand erect. I pull back the left sleeve of my coat, exposing my silent iJewel. “Weather Cat,” I command, shivering again. The beautiful machine chimes to life at the sound of my voice. A holographic

tabby cat leaps out of the screen, suspended a few centimeters above it. Weather Cat regards me with indifference, its silver eyes glowing. “Yes, Maggie?” Weather Cat purrs, licking a paw. Every time I use him I’m reminded of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. “Weather report, please. What’s the temperature?” I ask, walking down the wide stairs to the sidewalk below. “Temperature is warm. Seventy-four degrees Fahrenheit,” Weather Cat replies. “You’re wearing a coat?” I frown and narrow my eyes. “I didn’t ask for your opinion.” I turn left and begin heading downtown but leave the app open. It’s nice to talk to someone after staring at a screen all day. “Was it an opinion? I thought I was simply stating a fact,” Weather Cat argues lazily. “If you’d like to know, there’s also a light breeze about five miles an hour coming from the north. I’d get home quick, you wouldn’t want to blow away.” I roll my eyes at the cat’s dramatics. “Thank you, but I’ll be fine and I’m not going home.” “Not going home? But you’re heading west,” Weather Cat insists. “Yes, but the restaurant is only a few blocks away from my apartment,” I counter. Why am I arguing with Weather Cat? “A restaurant, eh? I hope you have a scarf in that bag. Most restaurants have an interior temperature of sixty-two. Don’t want patrons getting too comfortable,” the cat purrs. “As always, thank you for your insight, Cat,” I say with a grin. Using the tip of my index finger, I close the app and the smug tabby vanishes. I double-tap the black screen and select Sarah’s name from the small list of contacts as I pass an empty hoverbike station. Glancing up, I see at least a dozen people riding the bikes, their eyes glued to their iJewels as the smart machines glide in and out of traffic. Damn. I wish there was one left. As much as I want to walk off all the empty calories I consumed today, I could wrap up the chapter from my client’s manuscript and still get to the restaurant faster than if I walked. Why does nothing ever work out for me? I keep walking and hold my left arm out, pointing the iJewel

screen toward my face. “Launch,” I command. A pale white light glistens, beginning the broadcast. “Hey, Sarah, I got your message. Your boobs do look awesome…like always,” I praise. “I just left the office, but there aren’t any hoverbikes so I’m walking to—oh —” I stop as I collide with a very solid object and look up to see a young kid, no more than eighteen, holding out his hands and blinking rapidly. “Sorry about that,” I say. “I was broadcasting and didn’t see you.” The kid doesn’t reply. His dark brown eyes look oddly glazed. “Hey, are you okay?” I ask. “Did I hurt you?” The kid reaches up, touches the back of his neck, and resumes a slow walk. I turn to watch and see the dark green metal machine partially lodged beneath the skin on his neck. He’s wearing a Vertix. “Oh, that explains it.” I sigh, turning back to my iJewel. I double-tap the screen and resume my broadcast. “Sorry, Sarah, I just ran into a kid wearing one of those Vertixes. He didn’t even see me. I bet he thought I was a pole until I started talking. Are you sure you still want to get one?” I glance away from the screen and twist my body, just missing a large blue mailbox. One of the very last in the city. “Anyway, I should be there in ten minutes, I know I know, walk slow,” I finish. “Bye.” I hold my index finger on the front of the screen for three seconds and release. Hoisting my bag strap back onto my shoulder, I focus on avoiding other potential hazards in my path. There aren’t many people out for a Thursday night. I listen to my heels clack against the concrete and think about the kid and his Vertix. The first edition came out last fall. The papers called it “Revolutionary!” and “An incredible advancement for a new era!” “Vertix,” I command. I swipe my finger to activate the speaker once the search engine, Jet, displays an article on the screen. “Vertix. A technological feat designed by Ramsey Coon in 2029. First sold in stores in 2030, the Vertix is promised to be an experience unlike any other. The device is worn by the user on the back of the neck with sensors that connect the device to the spinal cord. From there, the device uploads to the brain stem,

flooding the occipital lobe with unimaginable information. Sold at all cellular retailers,” the smooth voice concludes. “Huh.” I frown. I get it’s supposed to submerge you into a new world of social media and data, but it seems pretty intense. Sarah got one when they first came out, but she hadn’t kept it for very long. I’m not sure why she wants the new model. “Vertix latest news,” I instruct Jet. Several articles ping and the smooth masculine voice speaks again. “The Vertix H2 premieres tomorrow, August twenty-seventh. It is the second generation of the Vertix. Remastered to enhance the digital visualizing experience and give the user a split screen experience, rather than the original option. The Vertix H2 has—” “Cons of Vertix,” I interrupt, narrowing my search. The iJewel recalculates and launches into a new article. As the male speaker begins, my heart melts at the deep baritone and slightly southern accent. Man, I’m glad I picked him. “With the Vertix H2 launching this week, some reports have gone viral regarding potential side effects of usage. These reports highlight the negative effects the Vertix has had over human interaction. With more and more people switching to the new technology, reports have shown a decrease in sociability and an increase in the amount of time people spend alone. The studies also measured the quality of social interactions and found that, compared to several years ago, in-person conversations have become shorter and revolve solely around money or social media,” the speaker explains. “One study, based at the University of Cambridge, even found similarities between Cocaine addicts and—” “Stop,” I say, feet from the large ornate doors of the restaurant. The article disappears as I take in the large crowd milling around the doors. Thank God Andy reserved our table. “Excuse me,” I say, pushing through the stagnant mob. Most of them don’t move, eyes glued to iJewels and other devices. Hunching my shoulders, I flex my elbows and barrel through the people. A few groans and grunts are expelled as I go by. Sorry not sorry. At last I reach the doors and slip inside. My iJewel softly chimes again and I tap it to release the message. Holographic Sarah appears. “Hey, girl. We just left the bar. Have the hostess bring you to our

table,” she says with a squeal. “Say hi, Andy!” Sarah grins and aims her iJewel at my brother. A small holographic Andy waves and takes a drink before she ends the broadcast. “Perfect timing, I’m starving.” I sigh happily. I let my wrist fall to my side and scan the interior crowd for the hostess stand. Nothing but large stomachs and hyper children fill my gaze. I bend down and peer through the bodies and catch a glimpse of a large wooden block. “Excuse me!” I say loudly over the hum and crescendo of the action movie someone is streaming. Sirens and a growl similar to the Hulk answer me. Clutching my bag in front of me like a shield, I wind and weave my way through bodies packed together like a herd of cattle. It feels like days have passed when I tumble out of the crowd toward the hostess stand, completely out of breath. I reach up and feel my long brown hair sticking up in sweaty patches. Great. The young blonde hostess looks bored. “Welcome to the Cheesecake Factory. Can I help you?” “Yes, hi. I’m meeting my friend and brother here. I got a broadcast saying that they were at their table. Name is under Stone,” I relay. The blonde nods and touches a large Torch, the more commercial tablet. She clicks on the correct table and alters the yellow symbol to neon green. “You’re all set. Head to the left and look for the green light,” she says, her eyes already on to the next group. “Thanks,” I say, hiking up my bag again as I turn to the tightly clustered labyrinth of tables. I swear there’s more crammed in here than last time. Four servers swerve out of my way, balancing a large tray between two of them as the others stop to dole out their piled-high plates. I look up and lock eyes with a handsome guy walking toward me. Oh no, I’m so terrible at this. Whenever I try to flirt it always comes out so awkward. My cheeks blush and I flip my hair over my shoulder, trying to appear confident and relaxed. The cute guy raises his hand and waves. Oh, my God. He’s seconds away; we’re going to bump into each other. I rack my brain for something to say as my palms start sweating. Crap, please don’t think I’m always a

sweaty mess! Yeah, that’s a great opening line. I straighten my shoulders and try to push out my non-existent chest. “Hi,” I whisper as the guy steps in front of me. “Talk about claustrophobic!” “Kina, hey baby!” the guy says easily, staring blatantly over my shoulder. “I’ll be right there.” He moves past me, brushing me aside gently like one might an overeager child. It catches me off guard and I stumble into a table. “Oh no!” I manage to cry as I catch myself on the fresh plates of food. My right hand crushes a perfectly square dinner roll and my other hand splashes into a bowl of French onion soup. “Oh!” I yank my hand out of the steaming liquid. “Hey, what the hell is wrong with you?” the male diner yells. A piece of halfchewed broccoli hangs out of his mouth. I throw up my hands. “I’m sorry, so sorry, that guy pushed me and—” A manager appears and is already moving me away. “Please continue to your table,” he says out of the corner of his mouth. “Evening folks, I’m so sorry about that. Allow me to add fifteen extra minutes to your Torch gaming time for the inconvenience.” Curious, I lean around the manager’s side and notice the couple staring at their table. I stare too. Large bubbles ranging in color float all over. Their plates sit on the edge of the table, allowing more room for the screen. I scoff. “So that’s why it takes three hours to get a table,” I mumble under my breath. The manager’s eyes narrow. “Is there anything else I can help you with, miss?” “No.” I shake my head and spin around. What am I doing? Oh, yeah, looking for a green light. I resume my search of the maze, looking for a green light or the familiar faces of my roommate and brother. Like the couple I bumped, each dining patron and family sit with their heads down, their eyes glued to the large screens, their fingers frantically trying to squash mutant bugs or stack uneven blocks. I also notice their plates. “The Cheesecake Factory is going to have a ton of food to throw out tonight,” I say aloud. No one looks up. “Maggie! Maggie, over here!” Sarah’s high-pitched voice rings out amongst the sound of clattering forks and beeping machines. I spot her and head to my right, relieved. “Hey!” My high heels clack against the

smooth stone floor and I collapse into the semi-private booth. “Oh my God, that was an adventure!” “I know! It’s packed tonight. It took us ten minutes just to find the damn table,” Sarah agrees. She looks down at the large screen and checks the awaiting box. “This is handy at least. Now this weird green light can calm down.” She draws a checkmark with the tip of her finger and instantly the tabletop screen fades from alien green to normal black. The Cheesecake Factory initials are intertwined, roaming around the confines of the screen. “I hope I didn’t keep you guys waiting too long,” I say, shrugging out of my coat and looking across the table. Andy shakes his head. He’s wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap backwards. “Nah, we just got here,” he says, winking at Sarah as he lifts the bottle of Corona to his lips. He’s wearing a dark red shirt with a faded white insignia. I can’t make out the design because the table’s in the way, but it accentuates his biceps and triceps and all the other kind of ceps being a personal trainer has given him. I nod in his direction, pointing to the side of my head. “You shave it again?” Andy grins, removing his hat. He runs his hand over the shaved sides of his head then combs his fingers down the length of the brown hair on top. “You know it! I can’t have it any other way. The hair tickles my ears. I almost shaved it completely this time.” “Gross!” Sarah chimes in, swatting my brother’s shoulder. “Don’t do that. You’d look so weird. So how was your day, Mags?” My roommate tosses her raven black hair to the side, but it’s cropped so short it doesn’t go anywhere. I squint as a flash of blue winks near her ear. Sarah sees me staring and laughs. “Like it, I just got it this morning!” She lifts her fingers to the side of her neck, tracing the small navy blue rose with her triangular nail. “Isn’t it so cute?” I force a smile, wishing this didn’t bother me. “I love it, but I thought we were going to get them together?” Sarah waves a dismissive hand. “We were, but you take forever to decide,” she stresses. “I’ll just get something else when we go, kay?” “Fine…is that my lipstick?” I point, noticing Sarah’s crimson lips. “Maybe,” Sarah says, smiling beautifully.

My stomach growls. “Damn, Maggie, did you eat anything today?” Andy laughs, throwing me a piece of bread from the center of the table. I catch it. “I had a few Hershey’s Kisses and a pack of pepperoni slices.” Sarah rolls her slate eyes. “Well at least that’s better than yesterday! I swear all I saw this girl eat was a handful of Cheerios before she left for work. You’re working way too hard, Maggie.” I sigh, knowing where this conversation is heading. “I know, I know.” I nod, biting into the white bread. Even without butter it’s glorious. “As soon as I get through the editor’s notes it’ll calm down.” “And speaking of the relentless agent, let’s toast to your promotion!” Andy cheers, raising his almost empty Corona high in the air. “Sorry it’s taken us a few weeks to do this but I’m really proud of you, Mags! My baby sister is finally a big shot literary agent, people!” Sarah laughs at his antics and smiles at me. “I’m proud of you too, Maggie! I can’t wait to read your first represented novel! But let’s be honest…I say I will but I’m really not going to!” She winks and raises her beer. I look around the table for a fun drink to toast with as well, but the only liquid available is a glass of lukewarm water. I wrap my hand around it and join the toast, fighting to keep my happiness from overrunning my face. “Thanks guys. I’ve wanted this for so long and I can’t believe it’s finally here!” “Tell me about it. I remember when you would steal the birthday cards I made for Mom and Dad and go over them with red crayon, telling me how I should fix them.” Andy laughs. “Well, I saw opportunity and I wanted to help you make it better,” I say defensively. “You were six,” Andy retorts, cocking his head. “And you were a lazy ten-year-old who didn’t know how to spell birthday,” I shot back. “All right, enough, siblings!” Sarah commands. “This is Maggie’s night. To Maggie!” “To Maggie!”

“To me!” We all clink our glasses together and drink, delighting in the moment. “Let’s eat, I’m starving! Can we order?” I ask, craning my neck for any sign of a server. “Isn’t it weird that they haven’t come over yet?” “They don’t do that anymore, Mags.” Sarah scoffs. “They stopped taking orders like a year ago.” “Oh, guess I haven’t been out much,” I say with a laugh. “You have, just not to places that are brightly lit with comfortable seating.” Andy grins, jabbing my love of clubs and bars. Sarah directs me to the Torch at our table. “Here, pull up the menu on the screen and select what you want. There’s a spot to customize it so you can get your food without spices and all the healthy crap they try to sprinkle on it. Twelve cheese pasta, right?” “Yes,” I say, dragging out the word. “If they ever get rid of that I don’t know what I’ll do.” They laugh and quickly select their meals from the endless menu. “Does anyone want another drink?” Sarah asks, navigating to the long list of beverages. “Another beer for me,” Andy chimes. “Can I get an amaretto sour?” I volunteer. “Done and done and a margarita for me! Timetable says two minutes for the drinks and fifteen for the food.” Sarah sits back, partaking in the bread slices. “So are you excited, Maggie?” “Of course! Mr. Bruit, the author, is creating the perfect soundtrack to his novel so as readers explore the story, a song will trigger when they flip certain pages. It’s really cool because—” “Whoa, Maggie, slow down!” Sarah laughs. “I didn’t mean about your job. We all know how excited you are about that. I meant are you excited for tonight? In just a few hours we’ll be like the pretty models on the app ads, a beautiful Vertix H2 decorating our necks.” Disappointment descends as I realize what she’s saying. I don’t have a problem with the Vertix, but I don’t see why we have to go to the release rave. Frowning at my silence, Sarah shakes her head, setting her empty beer down.

“Come on, Mags, we talked about this, remember? We’re all getting one together! It’s going to be so much fun!” I smile weakly and nod just as a server approaches our table with a tray of drinks. She places the beer and cocktails in the center of the table, collects the empty glasses and walks away without a word. I draw the small square glass toward me, smiling wider as the juicy cherry lolls around on the surface of the golden liquid. I love when they remember. I withdraw the cherry from the liquor and pop it between my teeth. Instantly my tongue sets to work separating the fruit from the stem, eager to tie a few knots. “I heard this new model is insane,” Andy says, his blue eyes lighting up. “Jay from the gym said they’re only releasing a few thousand to start—just to enhance the craze.” “Well that’s why we’re going early. What time is it?” Sarah asks no one in particular. She glances down at her sleek, black iJewel and issues a command. “Display Scarlet Meadows Plaza.” Immediately a looping image of the large shopping plaza dances on her screen. Sarah taps an arrow on the iJewel screen and transfers her display to the big screen at our table so we can all see. “Ah, man, it’s already filling up,” Andy observes, pointing to the gathering crowds surrounding Yeti, the biggest telecommunications store in Boston. “Is that a virtual reality course? No freaking way!” My eyes roam everywhere, spinning in their sockets like a pair of loose marbles. There’s so much to see and hear. There’s at least four different bands competing to out-do one another and the pulsing beats give me a headache. Great, wait until I’m standing in the middle of it. “Wow! Is that R.C. Mills on stage?” Sarah gasps as a twenty-something girl with purple dreadlocks jumps up and down. “Why is the food taking so long?” She cranes her neck for a second and then looks back to the captivating image. I try looking at the bright colors, try to find something to get excited about, but there’s too much noise and movement. It looks like one of those chaotic pictures my grandmother showed me last Christmas where you end up searching for a tall guy wearing glasses and a white- and-red-striped shirt. A small ache begins behind my eyes and I look away, shutting them for a moment.

“Oh hey, look at that!” Andy exclaims, and I look back. “They even have weights. Jay was telling me about a new app that shows you how the workout affects each muscle. I’m definitely trying that out.” I begrudgingly watch as Sarah inches closer and closer to my brother. Their heads are almost touching now and I smirk as Sarah points to more cool stations. Her lavender-sprayed nails bump Andy’s nonchalantly. Soon she’ll be sitting in his lap. I sigh at my thwarted attempt to keep my best friend and brother away from one another and take a long sip of my drink. The sweet amaretto makes me shiver and before I know it, I’m holding the glass upside down, licking the last few drops from the bottom of the glass. I wish there was a way to magically refill that. I set the glass down with a frown and glance around at the nearby tables, listening to Sarah and Andy talk. Seated all around us are friends, families, children, and couples, all enjoying their dinners and the 6J laser screen tables. Fingers are moving so fast across screens that one couples’ water glasses threaten to tumble off the edge of the table. I study the couple, wondering if it’s a first date. Vaguely I recall what my high school boyfriend, Chaz, looked like. Light blond hair and pale brown eyes. I tried to convince him to tag them turquoise when I got mine done but he refused. I wrinkle my nose. We didn’t last very long. He never wanted to do anything fun. “Mirror,” I command my iJewel. The black screen brightens to a silvery sheen, reflecting my oval face. I’m not beautiful or alluring like Sarah with her surgically enhanced cheekbones and heart-shaped lips, but my eyes are unlike anyone else’s. For my sixteenth birthday my mom had taken me to get my irises tagged, changing them from dull brown to electric purple. Guys had started noticing me. “MAMA!” I shift my gaze to another table, where two young kids sit moving their hands around the large screen, maneuvering fighter jets through narrow passageways. A younger boy beside them is waving a napkin in the air. “Mama, look, look, I colored it,” he squeals. His mother doesn’t look up from her iJewel. I wonder what she’s looking at. “Mama, look it. Mama!” the little boy tries again. She seems to hear him at last and looks up, dazed. “Mama! Mama!”

“What? What do you want? The food is coming, now sit down and keep your mouth closed, all right?” she barks, ripping the paper out of the child’s hand and pointing to the chair. “Play with your brothers until the food comes.” The little boy whimpers for a moment and then bursts into tears, his face turning red. Sarah and Andy stop talking and turn to look. “What the hell is that?” Sarah demands. “A kid at the next table,” I say, pointing. He’s still crying. The rest of the family ignores him. I wish I could do the same. “That’s so annoying,” Sarah groans, covering her ears. “You’d think they’d tell him to shut up.” I nod. “See, this is why I go to upscale places. No kids allowed,” she says with a laugh. “Usually it’s not bad. I don’t even notice kids, but this is awful.” Andy frowns. “What did I say?” the little boy’s mother yells, grabbing him by the arm. “Stop crying. Eat some bread.” She tosses the full basket at him and then double-clicks her iJewel, resuming the video. At last he stops crying, turning his tear-streaked face down to the crumpled picture in his tiny hands. “Thank God.” Sarah sighs. “Some people just shouldn’t come out in public,” Andy agrees. “Have you heard about the split screen?” I stare at my glass, running my index finger along the rim as they discuss the features of the Vertix. Rebel T capabilities. Short switch. Optic channels. I hear all these words but don’t pay attention to the context, focused on not staring at the other table. It’s none of my business. “Yes, can we have to-go containers?” Sarah’s sweet voice asks, breaking me from my thoughts. “Mags, come on, we’re leaving.” I turn my head and see Andy and Sarah stuffing the contents of their plates into large Styrofoam boxes. “But we haven’t eaten yet.” “Yeah, but Scarlet is filling up. We need to get there now if we want even the tiniest hope of getting a Vertix H2 by midnight,” Sarah says, tossing me a box. I catch it before the bottom can slide over the top of my pasta. I look down at my newly arrived food. “They didn’t put the extra mozzarella on it,” I say to myself.

“Whatever, Mags. Here, have some of my cheddar to make up for it.” Andy pinches a small pile of yellow cheese between his fingers and tosses it onto my pasta. “There, all better. Let’s go!” With reluctance I pick up my plate and scrape the warm pasta into the box. My stomach growls, objecting. “How about I eat and catch up with you guys after?” Sarah reaches over and jerks the plate out of my hand, quickly dumping the rest of the noodles and marinara sauce into a messy heap. “Oh no you don’t,” she says, clicking her tongue. “Then we’ll never see you again. You’re coming and that’s final.” My empty plate clatters to the screen below and Sarah pulls me to my feet. “Come on, this is going to be so amazing!” I smile in spite of my starvation. Few can resist the charm of Sarah when she’s excited about something. “You’re right,” I say with a grin. “New job, new device! I can eat on the way.” “That’s the spirit!” Andy claps me on the back. “I’ll check UPick for any shuttles headed downtown.” “Good, but make sure it’s an actual person please. Those automated cars still freak me out,” Sarah cautions, shoving our takeout boxes into a plastic bag. “Yes, princess,” Andy concedes, touching her waist. Startled, Sarah jumps and bumps into me. “Andrew, cut it out,” she scolds. “You know I’m off-limits.” She squeezes my hand and bats her eyelashes in his direction. “Come on Mags, let’s get some fresh air while Andy pays.” She winks at my brother and pulls me away from the table. As we’re leaving, the crying boy looks up to stare at me and my loud friend. His cheeks are still red and he’s too little to wipe his tears away. He still holds the napkin with his picture on it. He hasn’t tried to show his mother again. The takeout bag swinging from Sarah’s arm hits my knee as she changes direction abruptly. “I can’t wait to get there!” “I know, it looks really cool!” Her excitement is contagious. The Vertix H2 launch is the biggest in history. Steve Jobs would have been blown out of his little white socks. My steps are light and the night is young. But the little boy’s face remains imprinted in my mind.

2 It’s a quarter past eight when we get to the massive traffic jam leading into the Scarlet Meadows Plaza. I scan the crowds already in line and wonder if we’ll even get in the store before tomorrow. Sarah groans and throws herself back against the seat like a frustrated toddler. “God, I hate these one-way streets! You’d think they would have come up with a detour to direct the flow of traffic better.” Andy looks over his shoulder into the back seat and grins. “Calm down, Sar. Everyone in Boston is coming here. We’re lucky we even made it this far.” “But what if all the H2s are gone? All of this would have been for nothing!” Sarah crosses her arms. “They’re not selling the H2 until midnight. We have plenty of time to get in line,” Andy says, turning back around like an exasperated parent. Sarah lets out a dramatic sigh. “Can’t you program this thing to go any faster?” Andy turns to his left. “Toyota? Can you go faster?” He frowns. “I’m not sure he understood.” “Your jokes are so funny,” I say dryly. Andy raises his hands in surrender. “I don’t know what you want from me,” he says with a laugh. “These things are programmed to follow the laws of traffic. I can’t punch the gas and start driving on the sidewalk.” “Why don’t we just get out and walk?” I ask. “Walk?” Sarah repeats. She considers this, peering out the window at the pulsing lights and loud music coming from the Vertix crowd, and then at the line of cars still in front of us. After a moment she looks down at the heels on her feet. “Oh man, my feet are so going to kill me.” “Come on, you big baby,” Andy says, opening the passenger door. “When they start to bleed, I’ll carry you.” Sarah and I climb out and wait as Andy matches the iJewel on his wrist up to the laser scanner built into the steering wheel to complete payment. It blinks green

and my brother slides out. “Look at that,” Andy says as he walks around the front of the car, pointing up. We both look and find a firework display of enormous proportions looming above. It thunders, booming like a rumbling cannon. The firework crackles, the gunpowder exploding in a shower of golden sparks as a giant letter V dominates the skyline. Vertix. In spite of my reservations about the new technology, I can’t stop the butterflies in my stomach as we admire the sights and sounds of this celebratory rave. This product is revolutionary; a virtual reality legend. I look back at my brother with a large smile that immediately begins to fade. Andy and Sarah had taken advantage of my momentary distraction to get some heavy flirting in. Their expressions are guilty as their hands slip away from each other. “Oh, go on then,” I say with a sigh. It’s pointless to fight this. I have to let it play out. “Really?” Sarah squeals. She crushes me to her petite body and I inhale her warm scent of jasmine. “Oh, Mags! We promise, nothing’s going to change between the three of us. Andy and I will just hold hands!” “Thanks, little sis. This is really cool of you,” Andy says with a grin, pulling Sarah back to his side and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Oh well. “Come on, let’s go.” We start in the direction of the Meadows, leaving our grid-locked automated UPick car behind. The sidewalk is now teeming with eager Vertix enthusiasts as others have decided to abandon their cars as well. We make it a little over a mile when Sarah cries out in pain. “Forget it! These shoes can go to hell!” she yells, plopping down in the middle of the sidewalk and fidgeting with the clasps on her strappy heels. “I feel like I’m stepping on glass.” “Wait!” I cry out, realizing the girls behind us don’t see Sarah on the ground. All three girls have their eyes focused straight ahead, their arms raised high so their iJewels are angled to capture their perfect strut. The one in the middle, with sky-blue curls to her shoulders and eyebrows to match, bumps into Sarah’s back.

She stumbles to the right, directly into her friend with black and white tattooed sleeves cascading down her arms. They both lose their balance, trying to catch themselves with one another, but it doesn’t work. Both girls join Sarah on the ground. The third friend, a stunning young girl, finally breaks her concentration and looks down at her mangled friends. “Can you two watch where you’re going for three seconds? This is the eighth time I’ve tried to capture myself,” she complains. A few startled gasps and curses echo around the small space the chaos has carved out, but for the most part, the gathering crowd behind us maneuvers the fallen girls easily, barely glancing away from their iJewels. I offer the tangled girls a hand. “Sarah, are you okay?” Sarah scrunches her features and puts a hand to her head. There’s no blood but I can see where her forehead scraped concrete. “Nooo,” she stresses, sounding like a little kid again. “We should just go.” I can’t help chuckling. “You are so pathetic.” I grin, helping her to her bare feet. The other girls are ignoring us, already checking their reflections and primping themselves back into perfection. They’re probably using that stupid Catwalk app. Andy appears. “Hey, what happened to you guys? I look back and you’re gone. I thought you were right behind me.” “Sarah ditched her shoes and then caused a minor traffic collision,” I report, stepping back. Andy brushes past me, enveloping Sarah in his muscular arms. “Are you all right? Did you get hurt?” he asks. Sarah’s eyes begin to well up with glassy tears. I roll mine. She’s such a drama queen. “I just can’t go any further. My feet are killing me and my shoes are gone. Can we just go home?” Andy leans in and kisses her lightly. Like he’s done it a thousand times already. I push the thought away. “You don’t want to go home,” my brother teases, swooping Sarah up in his arms as if she weighed no more than a notebook. “Come on. We’ll find you some shoes and get you a drink. Look how close we are!” He glances down at her and grins. “Or I’ll take you home if you want. We can always get the Vertix later—after

everyone else.” He turns around, walking against the flow of traffic. I remain where I am. I know how this is going to end. Sarah doesn’t like to lose, to be out of the loop. Sarah’s tear-filled eyes look over Andy’s shoulder, seeing everything she’ll miss if she leaves. “No, no, wait. I mean, we’re already here, like you said. I’ll be fine.” “Ready?” I call over the numerous bobbing heads between me and the lovebirds. Andy leans down and kisses Sarah again. “Get a room!” I cry, turning around. Feeling like an awkward third wheel, I unlock my iJewel and pull up the latest cover design I’ve been playing with for Just a Taste. I can’t decide how literal I want to go with it. The author hasn’t really provided me with much to go on so I’m kind of winging it until I hear from him. “Maggie! No more work!” Sarah giggles, back to her old self. She reaches out as Andy carries her by and covers my iJewel with her hand. “Let’s go have some fun!” I groan loudly as the three of us melt into the crowd, but my heart is racing. The flashing lights and pumping beats draw us like moths to a flame and the tips of my fingers tingle with nervous excitement. Maybe this will be fun. “Jump! Jump! Jump!” the crowd screams behind me as my toes curl around the edge of the rocky cliff. The beautiful turquoise ocean shimmers like a portal to another world and I’m standing on the edge, ready to break through. With a shaky breath, I lean forward, teetering a little. “Jump, jump, jump!” the crowd yells wildly, watching my adventure, eager for me to fly. I look down at the clear blue water splashing against the rocks. White sea foam sprinkles my legs even way up here. The deep roar of the ocean calls to me like a Siren’s song. The water looks so far away. It’s closer than you think, a tiny voice in the back of my mind whispers. “Jump, jump, jump!” the crowd cries even louder, sounding like a frenzied pack of hyenas after a carcass. I exhale and give in to their demands, stepping off the edge of the sheer cliff face. There’s nothing beneath my feet and I am falling, dropping, soaring back to the earth. My arms float above my head and my fingers create a ripple through the sky as they catch the wisp of a cloud. My long brown hair tickles my inner arm, the soft

tendrils weaving around my wrists like twisting vines. I am all alone, sailing through the endless blue sky. My long white dress billows up around me, exposing my stomach and white panties, but I don’t care. I squeeze my eyes shut. For the first time my mind is wondrously blank as I drift to the awaiting waves below. A second later, I hit the azure water, plunging beneath the lazy waves. My eyes open. The whole world has changed. It’s as if the sky has swallowed me whole. All around me stretches light blue water as far as the eye can see. My hands fan out and graze soft white sand. Thick ripples from the ever-flowing tide dance like ribbons on the sea floor, evidence of this strange world’s landscape. My arms and legs move easily through the water, passing through the sunlight’s rays as they pierce the vast ocean. My white dress twirls around my body and my long hair has taken up a life all its own. I feel like a mermaid. I don’t ever want to leave this paradise. You don’t have a choice, the same voice from before speaks up, shattering my perfect moment of peace. A steady beeping sounds and I twist around to look behind me. The beeping grows louder and my frail world blurs with each passing second. Faster and faster the beeping becomes, pulling me toward the surface with each new sound. My body arches, my head tilting back as I’m propelled upward. The beeping continues, louder, faster. At last, I breach the surface, gasping a huge lungful of air. My eyes flash open and my underwater world is gone, replaced instead with a thousand faces all watching me as I stand in the middle of a green screen, a brand new virtual reality app seducing me with help from a fitted eye mask. All at once, sound filters against my eardrums as an employee removes my mask, effectively disengaging the virtual reality. I take a wobbly step back, holding my head. I don’t even remember getting in line or putting on the mask. I close my eyes and try to go back to the cliff, to my silent bubble underneath the rhythmic waves, but I can’t. I’ve lost it for good. “And that ladies and gents was Acceleration! A brand-new app only available on the Vertix H2! Step up and let your mind go blank. Acceleration will infiltrate your

mind and make your deepest desires a reality!” the young representative yells loudly. His voice carries, echoing in the distance, but I don’t see a microphone or speaker attached to him. He’s suddenly right beside me, gripping my elbow, his other hand on my lower back. “I hope you enjoyed your experience,” he says with a smile. He has too many teeth. “Give them this when you buy your Vertix and they’ll give you a discount.” He hands me a card with the name Acceleration blasted onto it. His other hand has yet to leave my back and I feel his fingers dip lower, grazing the top of my panties. “Come back and see me later.” I step away, confused and still woozy from the experience. A girl with spiky red hair has taken my spot and the awaiting crowd whoops while they wait to see her paradise broadcasted on the green screen behind her, just as they watched mine. I walk away from the new technology, stunned by what I saw—what I felt. How did a machine do that? I felt alive, free, literally on top of the world. I want to do it again. I pivot on my heels and am heading to the back of the line when Sarah appears. “Maggie! Where have you been?” She grasps my shoulder for balance and attempts to spin around on the ball of her foot. “You find some tasty drinks, Sar?” I ask, holding her upright. Slyly I glance back toward the virtual reality station, trying to judge the length of the line. “I did! How did you know?” Sarah laughs loudly in my ear. I wince but don’t move away. “Oh, it was just a guess. Where did you find them? I’m so thirsty.” “Andy found this really cool bar!” Sarah says, pointing wildly in a random direction. “They poured the vodka and lit it on fire! And it went right into my mouth and didn’t even hurt.” Her eyes are huge. “It was amazing, Mags. What were you doing?” I gesture to the green screen behind us. “I tried out this virtual reality thing, it was really…wait, where’s Andy?” Sarah looks confused for a minute and squeezes her eyes shut. I recognize her look of drunken concentration. “Umm,” she starts. “He saw something and said he’d be back. He told me to stay at the bar, but I got bored and found you instead!”

I shake my head, surveying the endless sea of faces and wide eyes. There must be over two thousand people here, entertaining themselves until the mysterious H2 makes its midnight appearance. “Time,” I say, but my iJewel remains black. “Time!” I shout, louder this time over the symphony of voices and electric dance beats. At last my iJewel displays the time digitally in pale purple numbers. Eleven forty-three. Only a few more minutes until the H2 arrives. I bite my lip, curious as to where my anticipation is coming from. I’ve seen the ads and commercials a hundred times, but until I leapt into the virtual sea, I had no idea what the new technology could do, could make me feel. “Where did you see Andy last?” I ask Sarah, gently guiding her chin to look at me. “Umm, that way I think.” She gestures. We pass the crowd gathered around the virtual reality station and my mind longs to turn back. All I want is to stand on that cliff once more, feel the wind tangle in my hair as I fly toward the soft sea. “There he is!” Sarah shouts, instantly dispelling my daydream. “Where?” I stand on my tiptoes. “Over there! By that guy lifting the dumbbells,” Sarah points, sticking her hand directly between a couple leaning in for a kiss. She doesn’t notice. “Come on! Andy! Andy!” My brother doesn’t respond. He has a black eye mask wrapped around his head and a pair of large weights gripped in his hands. “What’s he doing?” “I don’t know.” Sarah shrugs, pulling me toward the edge of the red mat where Andy is standing. “Andy! Hey, Andy!” An employee dressed identical to the creep at the virtual reality station looks over Andy’s shoulder toward us. His eyes widen in appreciation as he looks Sarah up and down. That gray top really does make her boobs look amazing. He taps Andy on the shoulder and leans in close to his ear. I see his lips move but I can’t hear what he’s saying. Andy sets the heavy weights down and stands up, waiting for the rep to remove the black mask. He’s facing away from us, but he shakes his head and stumbles

backward, catching himself before he falls into an artfully arranged display of yoga mats. He turns, his mouth gaping open as he mouths the word, wow. “Andy! Hey, baby!” Sarah calls again, taking a step closer to him, her foot on the mat. For a split second I wonder where her flip-flops came from, then see the Vertix lettering. “Hey, guys!” Andy grins, walking off the mat as another guy takes his place. “Sorry I left you at the bar for so long, Sar. I saw the weights and all the machines and wanted to check it out. This tech is amazing! He tied that mask around my eyes and then made me do a few reps with the weights. Every time I pumped, I could see the way my muscles worked and expanded, stretching and contracting as blood pumped through them. It also outlined areas to improve on and a voice told me how at the same time. It was like having my very own personal trainer inside my head!” “I did something like that too,” I chime in. “Nothing with weights, but I saw myself on a cliff, diving into the ocean. It was the coolest thing.” “Yeah? I’d love to try that out!” Andy enthuses. “They have a ton of virtual reality here. I’ve never seen anything like it.” “Well, where do you guys want to go now? I haven’t really tried much out. Except I did get my nails sprayed again—see!” Sarah holds out her hands and instead of the lavender polish from earlier, her nails now sport a bright blue color. “It’s mood changing polish. Blue means I’m really happy!” She places a sloppy kiss on the corner of Andy’s mouth. “I bet you are,” he says with a laugh, kissing her forehead. He points toward the stage. “I did see another station with giant empty picture frames over there. Want to check that out?” “Time,” I say, bringing my lips close to my iJewel screen. My warm breath fogs across the cool black background causing the numbers to appear slightly blurry as they dominate the screen. Eleven fifty-seven. “Guys, it’s almost midnight. Should we get in line?” I volunteer, nodding to the store several hundred yards away. Andy leads the way, using his broad shoulders and over six-foot frame to clear a path as smaller patrons melt out of his way. I grip Sarah’s hand tightly, afraid to lose them in the packed crowd. It’s like New Year’s Eve in Times Square on

steroids. We pass by several stations I haven’t seen yet. One has several older couples sitting around a holographic spinning globe, suspended in the air. Their lips are moving and their eyes are blank as they whisper words in languages I don’t recognize. Another station spans the length of several stores as we walk around it, with huge blow-up obstacles littered about. The blow-up structures range from five to twenty feet tall and between them are long, twisting mazes. I try to see inside, but the walls are too thick. A sign on the outside wall challenges: Can you escape? “Andy, can we come back to this one after?” I call out, eager to ditch right now. “Sure! Anything you want! I just want to get a Vertix first, okay?” Andy shouts back over his shoulder. “We’re almost there!” We arrive at last to the front of the Yeti store only two minutes after midnight. I glance around at the other people assembled outside the glass doors. They all have looks of excitement and anticipation blazing in their eyes. “Where is everyone?” I ask Andy, surprised at how few people have made it this far. He waves his arm behind us. “Probably enjoying themselves too much. Don’t worry, this is good. Fewer people means we’ll get our Vertix faster.” “Yeah, good point.” I nod. A young mother holding a sleeping infant stands between us and the glass windows with YETI frosted on them. There’s a man in a crisp suit standing in front of the doors, a beaming grin on his fleshy cheeks. His dark, beady eyes scan each of our faces. “Welcome everyone, to the dawn of a new era in the ever-changing wave of technology! Last year we gave you the Vertix! An incredible device that allowed you to completely immerse yourself in your favorite apps and lose yourself in the flowing currents of social media. But tonight—tonight I give you something even greater!” He arches his eyebrows so high they almost disappear into his bushy brown hair. He gestures toward the growing crowd as well as the festivities beyond, his voice booming with help from a small microphone. “Imagine a device that can encapsulate all of this,” the man points to the

numerous stations littered throughout the plaza, “imagine a device that can take you to the clouds or the deepest parts of the ocean. A device that lets you rewind history, relive your friends’ memories, and visit exotic places all from the comfort of your own home. This is the future ladies and gentlemen. This is the Vertix H2!” The short man throws up his hands and colorful fireworks boom overhead to christen the new launch. I duck to avoid the falling embers but watch as others stand on their toes to grab them. Curious, I straighten up and reach my fingers into the pitch-black sky. The golden sparks tumble and twirl downward, falling like liquid gold. The sparks coil around my hand, snaking up my arm with the tiniest sizzle and then burn away completely. “Wow,” I whisper. Even the fireworks are something out of a dream. “Maggie, come on!” Sarah cries happily, waving me forward. I glance up and see the double doors to Yeti spread wide, trying to swallow as many patrons as it can. I follow mindlessly, the bustling crowd behind me ushering me in. The virtual reality technology stations have spilled in from the plaza and taken up residency throughout the store, reminding me of a spider draping its long silky web across every available surface. I’m three steps into the store and I’ve already lost Andy and Sarah, but I don’t mind. I meander through the maze-like set-up, passing by a 4-D movie screening and a pile of cardboard boxes with children scampering and crawling inside. Each one has a soft black mask draped over their eyes as they play. A large screen overhead depicts what each child is seeing. A young girl burrows underground chasing a rabbit while an older boy climbs slippery rocks overlooking a waterfall. “This is incredible,” I whisper. “May I help you?” a deep voice asks. I spin away to see a handsome guy to my left in uniform. He has short black hair cut close to his temples and bright green eyes that have to be artificially tagged. He stands a few inches taller than me and his name tag reads George. “Oh, hey,” I say, brushing my wild hair back from my face. “I was just—” George cuts me off. “Just looking for the H2?” “Yeah, I guess I am.” I smile again. Stop grinning like an idiot. Still my Barbielike expression sticks.

“Well you’re in luck because I just so happen to have one here with your name on it,” George says with ease, pulling a small white box out from behind his back. “Really? And how would you know my name?” I don’t know why I suddenly feel so flirtatious. George shrugs and steps closer, his cologne washing over me. I inhale and stumble back. He smells like a misty mountain over a tumulus sea. His eyes are dancing. “I’ve been waiting to hear your name since I watched you walk through that door. All I need is for your pretty lips to whisper it to me.” My heart pitter-patters rapidly. I can feel the heat from his body on my skin. He’s so close. Should I kiss him? “M-Maggie,” I stutter, feeling heat rise from my groin all the way to my cheeks. “Maggie,” George repeats, tasting my name on his tongue. “That suits you perfectly. Have you ever had the experience before?” I flush even darker as the handsome stranger looks me up and down. Of course I’ve done it before, I’m certainly no prude, but I can’t believe how direct he is, careless for the dozens of spectators around us. “Yes, of course, but it’s been…it’s been a long time,” I reply softly, tracing my lips with the tip of my finger. My pulse is racing. What’s he going to do? Wheel me away to a back room and have his way with me? Or pull me close and kiss me passionately? Snippets of romance movies and books filter quickly through my mind and I realize that I’d be fine with any of them. “That’s okay, Maggie.” I love the way he says my name. “All you have to do is give me your pretty little neck.” His strong hands are already moving my long brown hair, and a cool breeze tickles the sensitive skin at the base of my hairline, right above where his fingers hold me. “You’re going to love it. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.” “Oh, I have no doubt about that,” I whisper. “Do you want to do it now?” George asks, his warm fingers caressing my neck like a lover. “Oh yes,” I answer, practically groaning under his touch. I’m not sure how this is happening, but I want it to. I feel him press a cool square object into my hand, his eyes never leaving mine.

“Great. Brad will bring you to the room and guide you through it.” George grins seductively. “See you later, Maggie.” He lets go of my hair and turns away. I watch him go, his broad shoulders and muscular arms evident even through his light gray polo. I sigh, anxious to feel them beneath my touch. I better find Brad and get to the room fast. I step forward and then look down to the objects George thrust into my hands. I’m holding a small white box with a picture of the Vertix H2 branded on the cover and a black card with George’s name and number on it in neatly typed font in white lettering. Oh. My lust evaporates, replaced with humiliation and shame. He was selling you a Vertix and you thought he wanted to sleep with you. He was trying to make a sale! My cheeks burn a rosy shade of pink and I clear my throat, trying to appear unruffled. At least he gave you his number. Obviously he can’t leave with you now, he’s working. He wants you to call him later. Brightened by that fact, I take my Vertix and try to locate Brad through the hundreds of people clamoring around me for the same white box that I hold securely in my hands. When I first walked in, there were mountains of them, yet now the piles are dwindling like melting snow. “Maggie, there you are,” Sarah exclaims, grabbing onto my arm. “We’ve been looking all over.” I notice her breath smells like caramel. Are they giving out drinks in here too? In her other hand, she also has a white box. “Oh good, you already have one too! We were just about to go activate them. What’s that?” She points to the black card in my hand. “Oh, it’s nothing. A guy just gave me his number.” I laugh, trying to keep the excitement out of my voice. “Really? I didn’t know guys did that anymore. People don’t really call each other,” Sarah says nonchalantly. “Let me see it.” Reluctantly I loosen my grip on the sleek card, my happiness slowly leaking out like a hole in a water balloon. She’s right. I can’t remember the last time I talked on a phone. It’s been years. “Yeah, see, it’s only five digits long. Weren’t the old phone numbers seven?” Sarah continues, blind to my hurt. “Look, I got one too.” She pulls out a little red

card with black lettering. The numbers are different and so is the name. “Mica helped me with the Vertix. I think the numbers are like, their employee code or something. I would hope they get commission for all of these.” My heart plummets. She’s right. Of course she’s right. George wasn’t flirting with me at all. He was trying to ensure he got credit when I went to checkout. “Right?” I laugh, trying to play off my disappointment. “Maybe I should get a job here.” “Come on,” Sarah instructs, threading her fingers through mine. “Andy’s already at the counter.” I allow her to drag me through the countless displays, each one more creative and out there than the last. At last we make it to the register where an employee is ringing up purchases on a large Torch. Andy spins around. “Hey, great timing. Brad was just about to take us to the room.” “The room?” I say, imagining the back closet where I thought George was going to take me earlier. “For what?” Brad, I assume from his bold nametag, is opening Andy’s box, withdrawing a slim black chip. “The room is where we pair each device with the user and let you dive into the immersive experience together, with trained Vertix users nearby, in case you have any questions. We just want to make sure you’re comfortable before you take it home.” “Oh, okay,” I reply. “But is this the Vertix? The commercials made it look… bigger.” Brad nods, tilting his head at the slim black chip in his hand. “Yes, the H2 is much larger. Inside each box is a unique chip that is implanted inside the H2. Inside the room you get to pick what color you’d like and then we insert the chip. This chip is the brains behind the great device. After a few uses, the H2 will become familiar with you and your preferences, saving past sites and suggesting new ones as they are created. Without the chip, you’d have a simple shell.” “Cool.” Andy nods enthusiastically. “Can we head in?” Brad puts up his hand. “First we need payment. Once users connect to the H2, it’s difficult to keep track of who has paid and who is still required. Do you all participate with Enyo?” We all nod, swiping our iJewels to life. Once my iJewel is glowing brightly, I

carefully press my right thumb to the screen. A small green dot zooms along the edge to signal it’s ready. “How much are the H2s?” I ask, suddenly aware that I’ve never heard a price in all the hype. Brad doesn’t miss a beat. “Oh sure, each Vertix is $2150, plus tax.” Andy and Sarah are silent but I balk at the amount. “What? Two thousand dollars? I don’t have that.” “Actually, $2,150—plus tax,” Brad says to clarify. “Yeah, yeah. I heard you, but I don’t have that,” I say, shaking my head as I shut down the Enyo app. “That’s fine,” Brad reassures me. “We have very affordable payment plans, only $430 for five months, plus tax and interest obviously.” “It’s fine, Mags. I’ll help you out,” Andy offers. “No, I don’t want your money, Andy, it’s just—that’s a lot to pay for a device,” I explain. “You’re not paying for a device,” Brad interjects again. “You’re paying for the experience.” “Come on, Maggie! You never buy anything! And I’ve seen your bank statements. Live a little, girl!” Sarah bullies, offering her arm for Brad to scan. “Yeah, this is something you definitely don’t want to miss out on,” Andy adds as Brad scans his iJewel as well. I frown, toying with the idea. I finally got a good job and had planned on saving up money for a while. But I had promised to get one, and plus, I was supposed to be celebrating my promotion. “Fine, but this thing better be worth it,” I grumble, reactivating the Enyo app. “Great! Thank you so much.” Brad aims his scanner at my wrist. “We do accept cash but using Enyo helps create a stronger connection for the user and doubles as an easy way to track who has a H2 and who doesn’t. Marketing already has some cool ideas to reach those who resist,” he jokes. Hmm, and I bet they’ll charge an arm and a leg for those cool ideas. I pull my wrist back and glance down and see the total lit up in green and a standard message telling me that a whopping $2,572 has been deducted from my account.

“Hey, what’s this $250 miscellaneous fee?” I ask, pulling up the receipt. “Oh, that’s charged for the installation experience,” Brad says, pivoting to face the back of the store. “Now, if you’ll all follow me, we’ll head into the room and begin.” Sarah must see the sour look on my face. “Cheer up, Mags! Like he said, it’s going to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen! Totally worth it.” “Easy for you to say, you still get a weekly allowance from Daddy,” I say, not entirely without malice. “I’ve told him I’m fine on my own. It just makes him feel better knowing that I have money to survive,” Sarah says innocently. I picture the Mercedes OX3 parked in our lot that she never drives and the expensive diamond necklaces strewn about her dresser that she never wears. The poor baby. I could get money from my parents too, but I’m proud of my independence. “This way please,” Brad instructs, keeping us on track. We follow him through a horde of people, all of them either focused on an interactive game or staring down at their own Vertix box. These guys have a long night ahead of them. The reps will easily be here until the sun comes up. A few minutes later, Brad leads us through a single door into a very dimly lit room. I can just make out a circular table and chairs vacantly waiting for us. Brad closes the door and soft lighting materializes along the walls, shooting blue light toward the ceiling. Another long table is illuminated with sleek, circular H2s all lined up quietly on its smooth surface. They have every color imaginable and I find myself drawn to a shining copper one. It reminds me of a brand-new penny. Gently I reach forward and pick up the beautiful Vertix, staring in awe as the dim lighting still manages to highlight the sloping curves and fitted indentations. “Ew, a brown one? Really, Mags?” Sarah frowns, cradling a soft pink Vertix to her chest. “Why don’t you get one with more—I don’t know, oomph?” I shake my head and run my fingertips along the shining surface. “Not everything has to be a fashion statement, Sar,” I tell her nicely. “I like this one, and it’ll blend in with my hair.”

Sarah rolls her eyes. “Right, right. You’ll get a Vertix, you just don’t want anyone to know you’re wearing one.” I shrug again but don’t say anything. She is partly right. I’m not going to wear it all the time like that kid I bumped into earlier, but now that I’m standing here holding one, and experienced some of the virtual reality it offers…I don’t know, I’m not as opposed to the Vertix as I was before we arrived at Scarlet Meadows Plaza. “Which one did you pick out?” Andy asks, meeting us in the middle of the long counter. “This one! Isn’t it pretty?” Sarah becomes giddy, thrusting the light pink device before him. Andy pulls her close and kisses her softly. “Yes, it’s beautiful.” They stare at one another for several seconds before seeming to remember they’re not alone. “And what about you, Sis?” Andy asks, his arm slowly snaking away from Sarah’s small waist. “Copper.” Andy nods. “That suits you.” “Excellent,” Brad says before I can reply. “Now that you’ve all chosen a model color, will you all please insert your chips into the back of the Vertix?” He holds up a demo model and inserts the chip into a small slot on the back. A whirring sound purrs and a small red light appears on the front of the black Vertix. I withdraw my programmed chip from the box and click it into place, feeling the copper Vertix click and whir to life, humming with energy. “Wow,” I whisper as the small device’s warmth floods my hands. “If you’ll all have a seat then,” Brad instructs, “the installation will begin shortly.” I take a seat between Sarah and my brother and place the copper Vertix on the table just as the door we entered through opens to emit a much larger group inside. All of them holding the little white box and quickly flocking to the table of colored H2s to choose their favorite. “Excellent,” Brad says with a smile as he steps into the center of the circle, the demo device still in his hand. “Thank you all for coming to this historic occasion as

we release the Vertix H2 to you. If you have any questions during the installation, simply lift your hand in the air and one of my fellow teammates will assist you.” He pauses, gesturing to the three other Yeti reps standing along the walls. “Now, I know you all are excited to get started so let’s jump right in. For those of you who are familiar with the first generation Vertix, the implantation is the same. The differences lie in the dual screen feature once the H2 is connected. Any questions?” I glance around the dark room but everyone is silent, even a toddler. “Excellent. To begin using your Vertix, swipe your fingers downward to the base,” Brad continues. I follow the instructions and hear the content purr of the Vertix change to a slightly higher frequency. It sounds almost excited. As I hold it in my palm, the red light burns green and I feel a slight tickle on my skin. Curious, I flip it over and gasp in revulsion. Moving and clicking, extending upward, are four black insectlike legs wiggling like a beetle flipped onto its back. It takes everything in me not to drop the expensive machine onto the marble tabletop. I look around. No one seems to notice the terrifying legs except a ten-year-old, but he’s staring at it with awe. “Now, once you’ve activated the Vertix H2, place it on your neck so the implantation can occur.” In horror, I watch my brother lift his dark red Vertix to the back of his neck where it settles into place at the base of his hairline. Hesitantly, he slowly withdraws his hand, but the machine stays in place. “Is there a problem?” a rep with a ponytail asks in my ear, making me jump. “What? No, it’s just…none of the commercials showed this,” I say, aghast. The pretty rep shakes her head. “Yes, some people find it a bit unnerving at first, but, trust me, you’ll hardly notice it after the second or third time. Would you like me to do it for you?” I imagine her lifting the bug-like Vertix onto my neck, programming it to strangle me. “No, thanks, that’s okay.” The rep nods and steps back, walking over to the mother and toddler. The little girl starts to cry as the leg-like sensors touch her neck and she tries to escape her mother’s lap. The rep is faster though and she grabs the little girl and holds her in

place as another rep places the blue Vertix onto the girl’s neck. I watch as the girl flinches and cries out in pain, but then her light brown eyes grow cloudy and her rigid little body falls limp against her mother. All around me, I suddenly hear sharp gasps as the Vertix attaches. I knew the Vertix was an invasive device, but this is sick. Beside me, Sarah’s hands grip the table and she inhales a choked breath. I see the light pink Vertix glued to her neck, the once jittering sensors now submerged deep in her flesh. Thin rivulets of blood race down her skin, snaking along her vertebrae and disappearing down her back. A cold shiver courses through my body, making my hair stand on end. What is happening? “Do you need assistance?” Brad asks, suddenly directly in front of me. “I…I’m not sure I want to do this,” I admit, pushing back in my chair. “It’s going to be fine,” Brad reassures. “Trust me. Put it on your neck.” I look around at everyone seated. All of them are staring at me blankly, colorful H2s all implanted successfully on their necks. It’s like they’ve been brainwashed. My heart rate speeds up as fear grips my stomach. “I want to leave,” I whisper, pushing back further in my chair, but the feet are stopped and when I turn around, another rep is staring down at me. “It’s an incredible experience,” Brad says, his expression brightening. “And you’ve already paid for it. Just try it. If you still don’t like it, we will give you a twenty-five percent refund.” I can feel the rep behind me grip the back of my chair and I realize he’s sliding me forward, back to the table. The copper device still whirs in my hands, the green light seeming to grow brighter and brighter. A cool breeze grazes my neck and I stiffen as the rep pulls my hair away from my neck, depositing the heavy bulk onto my chest. “Have fun,” he whispers in my ear before stepping back. Brad is still staring at me, waiting for me to follow his instructions. With shaking hands, I lift the copper Vertix to the back of my neck, wincing as the searching sensors brush my fingers. It’s going to be fine, you’re going to be fine. I breathe through gritted teeth. Just do it for a minute, then they’ll let you go.

The device slips from my sweating fingers and lands with a solid thud onto the back of my neck. Involuntarily, my hands grip the smooth edge of the table and I close my eyes, anticipating the sharp pain I witnessed everyone else endure to make the connection. The bug-like legs dance atop my skin, settling into place. Then, without a sound, the sensors still and then plunge into the soft skin on either side of my spinal cord. My eyes flash open and my fingers stiffen into claws as a burst of pain washes over me. I can feel the sensors inside my body reaching for some unknown destination. A moment later, all four seize upon my brain stem and the H2 deepens its hold. My vision blurs and an eerie blue light spins and swirls as the Vertix infiltrates my brain. The connection has begun. Click here for more information about Wired

About the Book Welcome to Blinney Lane, a historical Salem shopping district controlled by a witch’s curse. Sarah Allister just wants a normal life running her bookstore and daydreaming about the handsome deliveryman. Contentment seems within reach, even if she has to deal with the daily phenomena that occur in her shop. But when her spirited nephew shows up to spend the summer, all bets are off. Now Sarah must keep Ricky from discovering the curse of Blinney Lane and awakening its full power. Will Ricky heed Sarah’s warnings? Or will he accidentally awaken the magical weeping books and send Sarah back to a land she swore to forget? Get ready for a modern fairy tale that will sweep you away to lands beyond your imagination.

1 Of all the comforting objects in this world, few things are as reassuring and accepting as books. Books keep and reciprocate our secrets, dreams, regrets, and hopes better than any friend in the world. Sarah Allister took comfort in this thought as she walked past the shelves in her bookstore. They were full of countless stories she knew by heart. When she passed by the books she had read, they would remind her of what had been happening in her life at the time, as well as the people who had been there. Living alone wasn’t lonely when you were surrounded by that much history. Sarah settled into the stool behind the old mahogany store counter and leaned back against its upholstered cushion. Glancing across the showroom floor, she surveyed the customers. They were a mix of regulars and Salem tourists—all of whom appeared content. She enjoyed quiet mornings like this in her store on Blinney Lane. It gave her time to catch up on paperwork and sift through the plethora of mail. Bill. Bill. Junk. Membership renewal. Sarah tossed the unwanted envelopes into an old wooden milk crate on the floor that served as her recycling bin. She turned her stool and tucked the bills into the narrow banker slots of the antique bureau behind her. As she swiveled back around, she noticed movement beyond the letters of her shop window. From the back of the painted burgundy-outlined cream letters of Allister’s Books, she spotted Francis Doltman hurrying across the cobblestone street of Blinney Lane from her own shop. Francis, or “Franci” as all the shop owners on Blinney Lane called her, wore one of her long, high-necked black dresses that were her usual attire. The spindly woman looked the same as every other day Sarah had seen her since their childhood—a tightly bound bun of charcoal-colored hair atop her head. Franci had brought her coffee every morning before their stores got too busy, for as long as she could remember. The sight of Franci racing on tiptoe with two

cups in her hands should be a dull replay to Sarah, but it made her chuckle. Her friend’s tall, slim stature and arms held high with a container in each hand made her look like one of the old-fashioned lampposts that lined Blinney Lane. Sarah got to the door just as Franci bounded up the two stone steps to Allister’s. The shop bells jangled as she pulled the heavy door open for Franci and smiled at her dear old friend. “Good moooorning!” Franci called. Her high-pitched voice was like a bird’s at an unwanted hour. “Fresh from the pot!” “What have we got today, Franci?” Sarah sniffed the steam rising from the coffee cup Franci handed to her, as she returned to her stool. Franci leaned against the edge of the counter, beaming through her thin lips, and peered at her over her round bifocals. Franci prided herself on her brewmaking skills and played an undeclared guessing game with her each morning. Sarah let the steam from her cup waft under her nose once more and noticed several of her customers gawking curiously at Franci. She could be an old schoolmarm or librarian, Sarah mused. No. Franci was too cheerful to be a schoolmarm. Librarian, Sarah thought as she watched Franci’s anticipation grow. That didn’t seem appropriate either, since she was the one who dealt with books, not Franci. Franci ran Spices and Stems across the street, specializing in herbs and flowers that she grew herself in a greenhouse behind her shop. She made a variety of tonics and brews that were either medicinal or mood inspiring, especially her teas and coffees. Sarah had often been her guinea pig for such concoctions over the years. Even after a few-day bout of paralysis several years prior from a “bad batch,” as Franci had called it, she still looked forward to being her friend’s secret taste tester each morning. When it appeared Franci was about to burst, Sarah finally took a sip of her coffee. “I’ve got it. Cinnamon, clove, and something else.” “Lavender and, yes, a little something else.” Franci smiled like she had a secret. Sarah raised a brow and pursed her lips. “Okay. What’s the deal? I know your premonitions for this mix and please don’t tell me it’s Blinney’s lavender,” she said, referring to the special qualities of the lavender that grew on Blinney Lane.

Franci gave an innocent shrug and simply said, “It’s Monday.” “Just like it is every day after Sunday…” Franci made an exasperated noise and gestured to the window. “I saw Henry Teager down the street making his deliveries.” Sarah gritted her teeth and rolled her eyes, as Franci jabbered on. “Have you noticed how he always wears uniform pants on Mondays but then if he makes another delivery later in the week he wears blue jeans? Seems to get more casual as the week goes on—” “Mm-hmm,” Sarah muttered unenthused. She began to flip through her mail again. Her territorial bubble was squeezed when she felt Franci lean on the counter, resting her chin to a fist. “—It’s like he’s saying he’s ready to let loose the closer it gets to the end of the week, when our true selves come out. I can’t decide what I like better, though: the uniform slacks or the jeans. The gray slacks are so tight in the buttocks because he wears a belt and it sort of cinches everything up, you know? The jeans, though, kind of rumple up in the front. Always makes me wonder just how much is going on down there.” Sarah was intoxicated by the inviting scent of the coffee and, as she raised the cup to her lips, breathed in the steam. Publishers Clearing House. Electric bill. She took another sip to involve herself in something other than Franci’s Henry monologue, but she felt a flutter in her stomach when Franci mentioned Henry’s butt. Sarah imagined Henry strolling down Blinney Lane, pushing his hand truck full of heavy boxes—his tanned biceps trying to breathe under the restraint of his polo shirt’s elastic sleeves, solid thighs effortlessly guiding the hefty load closer and closer to her shop door. Suddenly, she was sure her pale skin matched the hue of auburn in her hair. Damn it! “Franci! Really? Come on! He’s not a piece of meat!” A young couple looked over at them, and she couldn’t miss the sound of their giggling. Her cheeks grew hotter as she pinned her eyes on Franci, who remained unabashed where she rested her elbows on the counter. Sarah lowered her voice and said, “Why do you always do this? Is this what the lavender was for? Damn it!” She turned and spat some coffee-flavored saliva into

the garbage can, then slammed her coffee cup down on the counter, releasing her grip on it like it was on fire. She eased back against her chair, gazed out the window, and folded her arms across her chest. Her hands detected moisture that had seeped through her thin blouse under her arms. A dull burning began to dwell at the base of her sternum and she pressed her shirt inward between her breasts to apply pressure to the pain. “Ugh, I think you gave me heartburn,” she said, groaning. “What was this one supposed to do? Encourage hot-bloodedness?” “Oh, come on, Sarah. It’s powerful stuff, but coffee or not, you can’t deny the pull toward a man like Henry Teager. You two have danced around each other like school children for years,” Franci added matter-of-factly and laid a knowing stare on her. Sarah rubbed at the discomfort in her chest and sighed. “Franci, nothing changes here in our little part of the world. We both know that. I’m not going to insult years of friendship by denying that there’s…” “Yes?” “Okay! Some kind of pull, but you and I both know it’s not that. It’s just that I… choose to ignore it. I have to ignore it. And we both know why,” Sarah said firmly. Franci’s mood crumpled like a paper doll. She picked at the plastic lid of her coffee cup in silence, muttering dejectedly, “A girl can dream, can’t she?” Sarah fought back a laugh, shaking her head. If ever a bubble had burst. Poor Franci. The woman seemed to live vicariously through her and this obsession that she should end up with Henry Teager. In some ways it was flattering, but for the most part, it was just sad. Franci was thirty-eight and had lived her whole life with her widowed mother above their shop. Sarah pitied her plain yet hot-blooded friend more than most of the other shop owners on Blinney Lane. They were all trapped there by the same curse with only each other to keep them company. Any one of them looking for love was like a spider, waiting in its web for someone to venture down the dead-end street that held them all hostage. Sarah had never “built a web.” She’d had enough of a run-in with love to last her a lifetime. Franci, however, was a very hungry spider, but to her disadvantage, she

was an awkward, plain, old-fashioned looking spider. And those kinds of spiders didn’t turn many heads. To her credit, anything Franci lacked in beauty she made up for in compassion toward others. Her friend mostly fed her aching heart with the passing smiles and occasional compliments from the nerdier male tourists who happened through Spices and Stems and found her quirkiness appealing. Sarah was grateful she didn’t long for companionship, lust, love, or whatever it was that Franci so desperately wanted. Sarah was only two years her junior, but she never thought of herself as a doomed spinster. She was perfectly content with her solitary lot in life. Content except for the occasions when Franci vocalized her observations about Henry Teager. In spite of having to ignore Henry’s charm, kindness, and abundant sexuality, as she would never be able to divulge the secrets of Blinney Lane to him, she had other reasons to deny the annoying pull she felt to him. She had loved once in her life, maybe twice. The last time, she’d fallen for a handsome customer who loved books as much as she did, but as time passed, he grew less and less patient with her refusal to wander very far from Blinney Lane. She hadn’t been able to muster telling him why she couldn’t take vacations or go out for dinner more than three blocks away from her shop. He would have thought she was insane if she had, and he would have gone insane if she’d actually shown him proof as to why. And the first time she fell in love… There was no doubt that it had been honestto-goodness, head-over-heels love, but it had ended in such tragedy and heartache that she was sure she’d taken a second chance simply to erase the pain and memories of the first. In the midst of the memories, she became cognizant of the silence that sat between her and Franci as they stared out the window. Apparently, they had both become lost in their thoughts. She shifted her attention back to the mail for something mundane to do but there was nothing dull about the sight of the next letter in the stack. It was from her brother Richard in New York City. “That’s odd.” “Hmm?” Franci peered over at the letter. “From Richard?” “Yes. The only time I get a card from him is on my birthday or Christmas.”

She sliced the letter opener through the top of the envelope and pulled out two sheets of paper that bore the unmistakable penmanship of her brother. As she read the pages, her heart began to race. Franci clasped her shoulder. “He’s sending my nephew Ricky…here.” “Oh, how nice! He hasn’t been here in a few years. It’ll be nice to visit with him. How long is he staying?” Franci’s perpetual optimism shook Sarah from her trance. She met her friend’s gaze with a stern look. “Franci! He’s sending him here to stay with me…for the whole summer. By himself.” Franci’s exuberance crumbled from her face. “The whole summer? But that’s too long! Doesn’t Richard remember anything? He should know that’s too dangerous. It’s too long for an Allister to be here.” Sarah let the letter fall to the counter. “He should know, but apparently he seems to think Ricky will be safe, since I’m here to look out for him.” “Safe? Ha! What a fool! Men are just as susceptible to the curse of Agatha Bl—” “Franci!” Franci slapped her hand over her mouth and gasped. “Oh, goodness. I’m sorry.” It wouldn’t be the first time someone had nearly uttered the name of Agatha Blinney, nor would it be the last. A mere slip of the tongue could spark the everlurking energy of the curse that so tightly confined their lives already. Sarah let out an exasperated breath as Franci glanced around the room. She knew Franci was looking for signs that the curse had been fanned to fuller flames. She never worried too much about saying Agatha’s name. Sometimes nothing would happen. Other times it merely caused a few days of manageable chaos— books falling off shelves for no reason, complaints of blisters from customers who bought lotions at the holistic shop across the street, or bouts of shouting from people who drank Franci’s coffee. It created just enough havoc to remind the shop owners that Agatha’s power was still very present. Like they could ever forget. What worried her at the moment was the situation she was about to be faced with —the situation they were all about to be faced with. The arrival of another Allister could tilt the curse off course enough to make life temporarily unpleasant. No one

minded much when seasoned relatives visited Blinney Lane, ones who were aware of the curse and its rules. She and her brother, however, had never uttered a word about it to Ricky. They thought he deserved a normal life. Franci attempted her rant about Richard’s request again. “Men are just as susceptible to the curse as women. How old is Ricky now?” “Seventeen,” Sarah muttered; she could hear the defeat in her voice as she said the word. “Oh dear. Almost a man.” Franci grabbed the phone on the counter and shoved it toward her. “Call him. You call that silly brother of yours right now and tell him he can’t do this to you or to his own son!” “I can’t.” “What do you mean you can’t? What’s the number? I’ll call him myself! That Richard. What an idiot!” If she were in better spirits, she would laugh at Franci’s unintimidating display of hostility. “Ricky arrives tomorrow. Richard is leaving to go overseas on business this week.” “Tomorrow! He sure didn’t give you much notice, did he?” Franci adjusted her bifocals and then chewed on her thumbnail. “Yeah, it seems he planned the arrival of his letter perfectly. No time for rebuttals.” Freaking Richard. He was going to owe her for this. “What about Allison? Does Ricky ever see his mother anymore?” “No. She’s been out of the picture for four years now, and she wasn’t much of a mother to begin with.” Pity began to creep over her now that she’d had some time to absorb the situation her brother had relayed in his letter. He really didn’t have much choice but to send Ricky to Salem. Franci began to pace, but she stopped biting her nails to add, “Surely, they have friends in New York he could stay with or Richard could take Ricky with him on his trip.” Sarah picked the letter back up, knowing full well what it said. She spoke in her learned calm manner she used whenever one of her neighbors went into a tizzy about the curse. “Richard will be gone for three months, to six different countries, with the CEOs of his firm. And Ricky.” She let out a sigh. Maybe her tone wasn’t

so polished today. “My dear little nephew seems to have thought car theft and joyriding were rites of passage amongst his friends. ‘Court-ordered familial supervision and community service.’ I guess leaving the country for the next few months with all the work he has to do would limit Richard’s ability to properly ‘supervise’ Ricky. It sounds like Richard really didn’t have any other options. He told the judge I agreed to let Ricky work here and stay with me.” “Without your actual consent first? That’s—that’s illegal!” Sarah laughed, but it came out more like a cough, as she slumped into her chair and ran her hands through her long, thick hair. “No, Franci. That’s family.” She rested her elbows on the counter and dropped her face in her hands. “Ugh. I hope to hell nothing happens to him. What am I going to do with him? What if he gets trapped here like the rest of us?” She felt Franci’s hand pat her on the back. “Don’t worry, Sarah. We’ll help you. I’ll whip up the best protection blends I have, and Mary can do the same with her masking soaps. Do you want me to go ask her for you?” “Would you mind?” she asked, trying to sound hopeful. Really, though, she didn’t want to be the one to break the news to their neighbor, Mary. If Franci got shaken up over the news of Ricky coming, Mary would cause an earthquake. “No, no. Not at all. And we’ll get Ricky out of the shop as often as we can.” “Ha! So he can go lift cars downtown? How am I supposed to bail him out if I can barely make it to the jail?” she asked, lifting up her wrist and shaking the charm bracelet on it. The trinkets that dangled from it rattled together. Sarah watched Franci’s look of concern morph into one of anguish as the woman glanced at Sarah’s other wrist, which was covered up by the long sleeve of her blouse. Franci’s hand then went to the high collar of her black dress and rubbed at her neck, a far-off look in her eyes. Sarah filled with guilt instantly. She’d made the woman remember a lifetime of awful sensations. She pulled Franci’s hand away. “I’m sorry, Franci.” “It’s not your fault. It’s not like I could forget they’re there anyways.” She patted Sarah’s hand and smiled. “I’d better go before Mom reorganizes the entire inventory.” “Okay.”

“I’ll let you know what Mary comes up with,” Franci said as she started toward the door. “Thanks, Franci. And thanks for the coffee.” She picked up the cup and fanned herself with one hand in a swooning manner. Franci chuckled, but her lightheartedness was clearly gone for the time being. Probably because her damned charms had rattled again when she’d faked the swoon to cheer Franci up. Could she be a lousier friend? As soon as the door closed, Sarah let out a long breath. She rotated the bracelet around her wrist. Had she only imagined the twinge of pain she felt in the scars she had hidden under the thick leather band every day since the summer she had turned eighteen?

2 New York City Richard Allister paced back to the suitcase on his bed with a stack of undershirts in his hand. He tucked them into the remaining space and stared blankly at the contents as he fidgeted with his tie. He had everything he needed for his trip. He’d packed and repacked his suitcase three times already. He was just avoiding the obvious. Sarah was going to hate him. He couldn’t turn down this trip. It was supposed to promote new investors. He was the lead financial manager of the company. New high-dollar international clients were critical to taking his firm from the multimillion dollar to the multibillion-dollar level. Glancing in the mirror, he saw that it was too cruel to lie to him. The worry on his face was evident. He hadn’t slept well since the verdict on Ricky’s grand theft auto joyride. There were dark circles under his eyes. His black five-o’clock shadow, which matched the thick hair on his head, made his corporate appearance seem disheveled. Damn, Alison. Why couldn’t she have been more of a mother? Everything about his reflection said haggard, overworked single father. Maybe if he’d chosen a better spouse, one less materialistic, his life might not have ended up the way it had. Maybe then he wouldn’t have had to bombard his little sister with the sneaky way he’d duped her into doing him a favor. Richard dropped onto the bed and looked around his obscenely impersonal penthouse bedroom. His perusal halted on the awful monstrosity of a large, red, steel blob-like structure on the wall opposite his bed. Alison had insisted that it helped “balance the lines in the room.” It still made no sense to him. He should take that damned thing down once and for all. He didn’t even feel comfortable in his own home, not that he was ever there much. How had that happened? Sarah still lived in the apartment above the bookstore where they had grown up. He used to feel guilty that she was the one who was stuck there. As the years had

passed, however, he had grown to envy the coziness, the quaintness, and the history of Blinney Lane in that sleepy little corner of Salem. He shoved off the bed. Okay, maybe not all of the history. He hadn’t forgotten everything about the peculiar place where he had grown up. He hadn’t forgotten how nearly every word and every action seemed to have a repercussion, especially for his sister. It made her so tense and worrisome, but things had never been so severe for him on Blinney Lane. No. He had made the right decision about Ricky. No one, in the time he could remember before he left home, had ever fully figured out all of the quirks of Agatha Blinney’s curse. He was certain, though, that once it took hold of one family member of each of the shops on Blinney Lane, it left the rest of the family free to leave. The only time the curse claimed more than one family member was when someone was getting on in age. It’s as though it sensed a replacement would be needed soon. Sarah was still young and healthy. The curse had chosen her to replace their father. Unlike his sister, he’d been free to leave. The curse wouldn’t want Ricky. It already had an Allister. Curses. Good God. If his colleagues or another living soul ever heard him mention curses. He hadn’t thought about it in such a long time. Sarah. Sarah probably hadn’t been able to forget so easily. It was easy to tell whom the curse claimed—it caused the scars of Agatha Blinney to appear on the chosen ones. Sarah got marks around her wrists when they were just teenagers. He had assumed that she had read too many of the cursed books in their shop or said the name of Agatha Blinney too many times. The elder shop owners had always warned them that when they approached the age of eighteen they might get the scars of Agatha Blinney. He hadn’t believed it when his eighteenth birthday came and went, his skin unmarked. He barely noticed the red blob on the wall now as he stared at it and thought of the summer that Sarah got her marks. Their mother had been so upset, not wanting to see any of her children bound to the shop as their father had been. She questioned Sarah repeatedly about what she might have done to make the scars appear. Sarah had cried and sworn she’d followed all of the ridiculous Blinney Lane rules. When it became apparent that Sarah’s scars were there to stay, he’d

simultaneously felt guilt and relief. He’d been so self-centered back then, not wanting to be the one stuck on that niche tourist strip only ten shops long on a dead-end street. He didn’t even like books. It had been a relief to no longer worry about disappointing his father by not taking over the family business. There had been no need once Sarah was chosen to stay. He had wanted to see the world and meet normal people. He had wanted to live a life without fear of the unnatural things that occurred on that street. “You never believed all that hogwash,” he chided himself, as he tore his gaze away from the wall. What’s eating at you? If he was honest, he’d had to force himself to forget all the abnormalities he had witnessed on his home street. He’d done a good job of doing so over the years, except for the occasional dream. That’s what he always told himself the memories were. Sitting in his room, which so deeply contrasted the place where he grew up, he could no longer deny it. There was one memory he recalled with perfect clarity: Deronda. There was no fancying her a dream. As unreal as she had been, Deronda had been very real. Neither his sister nor he ever mentioned Deronda’s name when they spoke on the phone every few months. Sarah could never come to New York City; the curse wouldn’t let her. The few times he’d visited over the years, after he moved away for college and to start his new life, they hadn’t brought it up then either. Maybe the fact that he was sending his only child back there made the memories resurface. There was no denying it, as much as he’d fooled himself over the years. The time he’d spent with Deronda hadn’t been a dream. No. He was terrified to remember it, or he would have gone mad. The gnawing sensation inside of him now—he knew exactly what it was. What he did remember, as he reflected for the first time with such clarity about the place where he grew up, was that his little sister had saved his life and sacrificed so much for him. God, he hated himself. Richard groaned and pressed his fingers to his eyes. He rubbed away the sting of tears. He hadn’t avoided Blinney Lane or Sarah because he was afraid of the hocuspocus that went on there. He’d avoided them because there was nothing he could do to help Sarah. And this is how he was repaying her? “I’m such an asshole.”

The word reminded him of his dear teenage son who was supposed to be packing for Salem in the next room—the son who’d called him that when he’d told him he was sending him there for the summer. Richard walked down the hallway, and the rock music from Ricky’s room grew louder as he approached. There was a bright yellow hazardous sign on the door and several New York Giants stickers. He felt himself smile, thinking how they sure messed up the lines of the plain white walls of the penthouse. With a heavy breath he knocked on the door, prepared to do battle. “Ricky?” A squealing guitar solo and chainsaw bass sound emanated through the door, but no sound of Ricky’s acknowledgement. He pounded harder. “Ricky!” The door jerked open and his shirtless, ripple-chested teenage son glared up the three inches that he still held on him. How much more difficult would parenting the troublesome boy be when Ricky surpassed him in height? He took in the last look that he would get of his son for a few months. They had the same thick black hair, but Ricky’s was spiked stupidly upward and canted to the side. The same light gray eyes glared into his. How could he look so much like him and hate him so much? He’s a teenager; he hates everything. “What?” Ricky snapped in a tone that warned his time and privacy were being invaded. “Are you packed?” Ricky turned his back and retreated further into his hovel of a room. “Yeah.” “We went over this, Mr. Gone in Sixty Seconds! This is your own fault. I’m not happy with the situation either, but I’m not carting you all over Europe and Asia with my bosses. You want to go stay with your mother?” Maybe the threat would bring him down a peg. Ricky spun back around. “Why? If we knew where she was do you think she’d actually want me there?” “All right. Easy, Earnhardt.” Ricky scowled and turned his back on him again. “Look, don’t give your aunt any grief. You hear me? Turn that crap down!” Ricky hit the volume button on his stereo and stared out the window, hands on his hips. “She’s got a business to run. It’s a quiet little place not used to teenagers.”

“More like a retirement home,” Ricky muttered. “What?” Ricky shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. “Yeah. I got it.” Richard ran his hand through his hair. Maybe Sarah would have better luck with him than he had. “Just try to help her out as much as you can, will you? Keep your nose clean and don’t cause her any problems. She’s doing both of us a favor with this. Ricky, are you listening to me?” “Yeah, I heard you. Play nice with Aunt Sarah. Smile at the old ladies. Read a book. I got it.” Richard started to close the door. Staring at his defiant son, he realized it was the first time he was grateful that Ricky didn’t like to read. “No one expects you to read any books, son. Just do what you’re told.”

3 Sarah busied herself, making a list of things Ricky might need. She had never had guests stay so long in her apartment above the shop, nor had her parents from what she could remember. Ricky had visited only four or five times since he was born. He and Richard always stayed at hotels during their visits to keep Ricky safe from Blinney Lane. She had enough linens for him, though she’d have to add to her weekly grocery order. Would he question why she didn’t go to the grocery store or any place not on Blinney Lane for that matter? She hated lying, but a lot of lying was probably in her near future. Focus on the positive, Sarah. It would be nice to have someone else to cook for. She always ate alone. Richard had been a terrible cook, and he probably didn’t make many home-cooked meals for his son. Maybe Ricky would prefer to go out in town for junk food. At least that would get him away from the bookshop for a while. How was she going to keep him entertained when he was at the store? She couldn’t let him wander around the city by himself, especially after what Richard had said he’d done to get into trouble. Was he no longer the sweet little boy who used to love listening to her stories? Locks. Maybe she should get some more padlocks. She wrote the word down and then let her head rest in the palm of her hand. The scraping sound of slow footsteps against the wood floor approached. Sarah heard the phlegmy garbled voice of Mr. Wexton, one of her obnoxious regulars. She rubbed her temples to avoid eye contact. Mr. Wexton showed up at least three times a week to peruse her out-of-print section. His emphatic breath of exasperation was not to be missed as he called: “Nothing new. Let me know if you get anything new in Sarah.” The bell on the door jingled and she knew she was almost home free. Without looking up, she said, “Will do, Mr. Wexton.” When the door slammed shut, she let out a long breath. The shop appeared to be empty and she yelled, “What did I do

to deserve this?” “It’s Monday,” said a deep, wholesome voice she would know anywhere, causing the tiny hairs on the back of her neck to stand up. She peered through her fingers and saw a black leather belt on gray uniform slacks. Slowly lifting her flushed face, she saw a green polo shirt stretched across a wide chiseled chest. Her eyes did the rest of the work as she sat dumbly in her stool, taking in the Adam’s apple on the center of a tanned muscular neck, then a firm square jaw, and the supple lower lip of the most handsome smile she’d ever seen. She locked eyes with Henry Teager’s light green ones. With his relaxed high and tight haircut, Henry had that all-American-boy look. She loved that he never used gel—he looked naturally perfect. He smiled down at her, the corner of his mouth higher on one side in the shape of a happy, innocent smirk. It made her want to melt into a puddle and hide under the counter at the same time. Say something, stupid! “Hello, Henry.” She cleared her throat after her voice came out, sounding like a little girl’s. “Rough day already? It’s only eleven.” “Ha, tell me about it.” Henry lifted a clipboard off the top box on his hand truck and set it on the counter for her to sign. She looked around for her pen as though it required all of her attention. “How are you today?” “I’m great. Beautiful weather out there. Not too hot yet.” Easy for him to say; he didn’t have Franci’s coffee! She scribbled her name on the invoice, having to pause for a second to remember it. “And I’m on my favorite street on my route, so I can’t complain.” That got her to laugh and forget to avoid his dangerously sexy eyes. “What did we do to receive that honor?” Crap! Why was he still looking at her? He leaned on his hand truck, propping one of his brawny legs on the footrest. It didn’t look like he was leaving anytime soon. The way her nerves were jumbled today, she might not be able to handle a dose of Henry. He seemed to like lingering in her shop. “I love Blinney Lane. You know that. The people are so friendly, some of the

best you’ll ever meet,” Henry said with a smile and glanced out the window. It warmed her heart to hear her home and friends complimented. “I get the most unique orders from the specialty shops here. It sure breaks up the monotony of my day after all the office deliveries I make. Heck, the distributor I work for sells stuff I wouldn’t even know existed if it weren’t for the Blinney shops. I don’t know. I think I just love how nothing seems to change here. You can always count on Blinney Lane, even though the rest of the world moves on around it.” Sarah held back her private opinions on why Blinney Lane couldn’t change. Henry was an outsider. What did he know? It was actually one of the things she liked about him. He was her dream of the joy of the outside world—the one book she had never read. “Well, change is coming tomorrow, whether we’re ready for it or not.” “What? Barnes & Noble moving in?” “No. Worse, I think. My teenage nephew is coming to stay with me for the summer.” “Richard’s boy?” “Yeah. Little Ricky. Well, I guess he’s not that little any more. Gosh, I haven’t seen him in four years. He’s seventeen now.” “Seventeen? Yeah, that could be worse.” Henry pretended to wince. “I can’t imagine being seventeen and spending my summer in a bookstore.” “Hey, what happened to loving this place?” She would have given him a playful slap on the arm if it didn’t require touching him. His face turned red and he fidgeted. A man who blushes. How could someone so rugged-looking be so sensitive? “Oh, I didn’t mean any disrespect. I just meant I spent my summers outside playing ball and swimming. Heck, if I hadn’t been so busy trying to be a pro-athlete I probably would have been hanging around in here throwing glances at Richard’s little sister,” he said with a wink. She looked back to the clipboard and made an unintelligible sound that was meant to be a laugh. “I guess I didn’t do anything very productive…is what I meant to say,” Henry added and cleared his throat. He grabbed the clipboard from her after what seemed like an eternity and wheeled his hand truck to the end of the counter. She watched him slip the boxes

off with ease in a place that would leave her enough room to get by, as he did every week. Thoughtful. Everything about him had always been thoughtful. He looked at her. She thought he would say something, but it turned out to be another awkward silence. “Well, uh, you need me to order anything for Ricky?” “Yes, actually.” She grabbed her list. “Some Playboys and Def Leppard albums?” Henry smirked and reached for the note in her hand. “Def Leppard? What do kids even listen to now? God, I think you just made us sound old.” His fingers grazed hers as he took her note. “We’re not that old, Sarah.” The softness in his voice in combination with his good looks was simply cruel. He shouldn’t be allowed around women. Her breath caught in her throat. She never knew what to say or do when he said something flattering. She was far too plain, boring, and bookish for him to be interested in her, no matter what Franci said. Franci’s encouragement aside, she blamed any awkwardness between them on herself. What woman wouldn’t react the way she did to Henry? The harder she tried to not behave like a ninny when he was around, the more she failed. Still, it was difficult to deny that the compliments he threw out were specifically intended to remind her that she was a woman and he was a man. Maybe it was wishful thinking. The shop bell chimed like a savior. “Hi, Sarah!” A thin, blue-eyed teenager with dirty-blonde hair waved with one hand, the other gripping an embroidered backpack. The ruffle on the bottom of her jean skirt swayed above bright horizontally striped knee socks, complimenting her cute boho appearance. “Good morning, Shelby.” Sarah smiled in relief at the distraction. Shelby was her undeclared helper around the store. The slim girl walked with a bounce in her step over to the accent chairs by the front window, which served as a reading nook, and tossed her backpack down with familiarity. Shelby dropped into a chair and let her stripe-clad legs bounce up in the air with the motion. Her Converse sneakers tapped back to the floor with a thud. Henry looked from Shelby back to Sarah. “Okay, scratch the Playboys. Good

luck.” “Ha! That girl’s sixteen going on PhD. I doubt she’ll even notice him.”

4 Blinney Council Journal Entry of Baldwin Allister 5 June 1692 Let it be known to all who read these pages that this marks the first journal entry of the Blinney Council. Upon first council proceedings, the street formerly known as Hammond Lane, shall from this day forward be named Blinney Lane by unanimous vote of its residents. One fortnight has passed since the residents of Blinney Lane undertook with their own hands the execution of Agatha Blinney. It is clear now that the details of that horrific event, when my fellow neighbors and friends condemned this poor soul, must be recorded for posterity. The young Miss Blinney, aged eighteen years, was accused of witchcraft by Iris Chandler, the cartographer’s wife, and subsequently by other women who resided on Blinney Lane proper. Such charges were laid claim on the grounds of seductiveness and immoralities unnatural to a life of piety. It was later attested by Miss Blinney that she had become ensconced in an affair with Nathan Nurscher, the local cobbler, to which now Mister Nurscher has conceded such information to be truthful. Had he admitted such previously, the following events may well have been prevented. The madness that has swept over Salem Village found its way to Blinney Lane. The accusations against Miss Blinney likely fueled the hatred of our residents toward this woman. Enraged by weeks of suspicion and the growing stories of Miss Blinney’s evil workings, a group of villagers pulled Miss Blinney from her home and bound her by the hands and feet. Thereafter, they dragged her down Blinney Lane like a captive animal, all the while shouting a storm of unchristian slurs. When I heard the commotion, the crowd that gathered around the procession had already amassed in such a size that I could not say all who took part, aside from all of the shop owners who reside on Blinney Lane.

My ears will never forget the screams of anguish as she was dragged to the oak tree at the end of the lane outside of Nurscher’s cobbler shop. The procession participants flogged her and wielded stones as she was pulled toward her place of execution. They were deaf to her cries and appeared to become more incensed the more she pleaded. As though God himself were watching the cruelty of the people I have known as friends and neighbors, the sky cracked with thunder and rain began to descend on the scene, which caused the street to flood. Gregory Freedhof, the baker and my neighbor for many years, slung a noose around the neck of Miss Blinney, whilst another I could not see slung its rope over a high limb of the tree. Someone called without any affection for Miss Blinney to speak last words. From the back of the crowd, my vantage point was limited, yet I could see the crimson of blood streaming from her temple where she had been struck. Her clothing had become tattered and muddy. The flesh at her wrists seeped red through her bindings. She shivered, as did I, but her countenance was somber. Through the unnatural wind and thunder, I recall her statement as the following: “My only crime was to have given my love to a man who now refuses to claim it. You may take from me my soul, but I leave you my heartache.” The stool upon which she stood was then knocked away, and Miss Blinney sagged to her death, her head slumping to the side after a sickening crack resounded, and it was only then that the crowd fell silent. A magistrate arrived, but upon seeing that judge and jury had decided in his absence, he simply commanded everyone home. What followed the next morning still finds me heartsick and holds the reason why this council journal has been created. The morning after Miss Blinney’s execution, I awoke to the sound of my beloved Mildred screaming sounds of horror. I ran toward her cries and found her next to the bed of our youngest child, Clarie. Clarie’s face was as pale as cotton and stricken in horror where she lay lifeless in her bed. It became clear to me that she had gone to the Lord, as I witnessed my wife, my son, and my eldest daughter bereft with tears at her side. Aged twelve years and four months, Clarie had been in perfect health just the day prior. My shock and grief were disrupted when I heard similar sounds of agony from beyond the walls of our home. I went out the door to find that the rain had pooled at my doorstep, its water still

bloodied by Miss Blinney’s wounds that the storm had washed over. As I walked down the lane, weeping and wailing from many a home on Blinney Lane met my ears. We had not been the only family to lose a loved one in the night for reasons inexplicable. On that same day, many of the residents were marred with what appeared to be scars that have not yet subsided. When they attempted to bury their loved ones past the perimeters of Blinney Lane, they were afflicted with severe bouts of pain in these scars, forcing them to retreat homeward to find solace. It was deduced by Eunice Doltman that the afflictions bear the resemblance of the wounds Agatha Blinney received from where she was bound, flogged, stoned, and subsequently hung. My own son, Edward, now bears what resemble whip marks on the flesh of his back although he has never been subjected to injury there. Within the weeks that have followed that day, an immeasurable amount of other peculiarities have occurred. Books have opened and slammed shut in my print shop; several have emitted voices, as though the pages are narrating themselves. The apothecary claims that salves and elixirs have caused unusual effects. Gregory Freedhof suffered a tightness of the jaw so confining he could not speak for three days after sampling some of his freshly baked bread. The villagers agreed that while their claims of Miss Blinney’s seduction of Nathan Nurscher may not have been witchcraft, the promise of bestowing her heartache is certain evidence of some type of curse under which we now all suffer. A statue has been planned in Miss Blinney’s honor to replace the tree where she was executed in the hopes it may assuage her angered spirit. I myself will undertake to pen accurate accounts of her life and untimely death as a meager homage to what my fellow neighbors and I allowed to befall this poor soul. For now, Eunice Doltman, Gregory Freedhof, and myself have been elected to serve as the Blinney Council. Our mission is to document any forthcoming strange happenings that occur as a result of this unfortunate event, in the hope of determining how we may alleviate future suffering and misfortune for our families and the residents who are now confined to Blinney Lane by this unholy curse.

5 Sarah was elated to see Mary Millville and Franci arrive from across the street after they had closed up their shops. Hopefully, they would have suggestions on how to keep Ricky safe from the curse. She locked the store’s door behind them and turned off the main lights. The visiting women settled into the olive-colored sofa in the reading nook. Sarah pulled the front window shades down and then took a place in one of the accent chairs across from her guests. Mary sat straight-backed and chin up, clutching a basket in her hands. “Thanks for coming, Mary. I see you’ve come armed,” teased Sarah, who motioned to the basket full of products from Scents and Suds. Mary didn’t crack a smile just as she’d anticipated, but it was worth the try. Mary Millville was a former blonde, going gray in spite of the age-defying concoctions she created in her shop. Mary had once confided to Sarah that she had neither the face nor the figure a fifty-something woman would need to still look good as a blonde. She said that gray hair was indicative of wisdom, and so her customers were more likely to trust her products if she let the signs of aging show in her curls. There was little warmth to Mary’s outward appearance, especially with her permanently unamused facial expression. However, Sarah knew it was only a hard candy shell. Mary was crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside. Mary was in a colonial-style dress, adorned with a sheer neck scarf, which Sarah and probably only twenty other people knew was called a bouffant. Tucked in her bodice, it covered the top of her bulky bosom. Like Franci, Mary opted for an oldfashioned mode of dress to bolster the historical theme of Blinney Lane. It suited her dignified speech and complimented her gracefully aging appearance. Her ensemble was complete with a traditional linen scarf draped across the back of her shoulders and crossed about the waist. The scarf was held in place by a white linen apron she wore over her smoky gray dress, its wide bow tied in the back above the

curve of her rump. Sarah glanced at Mary’s lace-up black boots that peeked out from under the hem of her dress, along with her underskirts. That had to be hot as hell in the summer. You couldn’t pay Sarah to wear that many layers. She was content with the Marlene Dietrich-esque look she preferred. Most of her outfits consisted of suspenders or vests, long-sleeved blouses, and slacks. She assumed it gave her the look of a clerk, while still holding somewhat true to the historical fashion of her profession. Allister’s had originally been a printshop, and her ancestors were bookbinders. The sad thing about how they all dressed was that it was an excuse to hide their scars from the curse of Agatha Blinney. Mary cleared her throat. “Sarah, I must say—and without any disrespect to you, of course—my dear, but your brother is being most irresponsible with his son.” Sarah watched Mary shake her head. Her plump cheeks and the sag of her jowls made her look like a bulldog. It fit her personality. Mary was the thoughtful voice of reason and wisdom on Blinney Lane. She knew the history better than the other residents, with the exception of maybe Franci. When she spoke everyone listened, even if they’d heard it before. The dignity with which Mary carried herself was a way of the old, and her propriety commanded an audience. As much as Sarah wanted to entertain her musings on Mary’s appearance when she was upset, she kept her mouth shut and listened. “To come and put this on you and the community is simply inconsiderate to the very fabric of…” Mary paused, looking at Franci as though she could finish her flustered sentence. Franci nodded in anticipation, her mouth half-open, dumbfounded for the answer. “It’s inconsiderate to the very fabric of our society here!” “I know that Mary,” Sarah said delicately. “And I know you know, Sarah, which is why I would never consider that you had anything to do with this…unfortunate arrangement.” It was flattering that Mary treated her with the utmost respect. She assumed it was because she carried herself well; she was responsible, reliable, and calm no matter what befell Blinney Lane. Although, part of it may have been attributed to Mary’s respect for the part the Allister family had played in the history of Blinney

Lane. Like her ancestor, Baldwin Allister, Sarah was now a Blinney council member, as were Mary and Franci. She was grateful the women hadn’t called a full council meeting. How embarrassing that would have been. As Mary fretted on about the impending arrival of Ricky, she sat patiently and forced an understanding smile. She soon found herself tuning out Mary’s words and reminiscing on the story of their ancestors. She had read the historical council journals enough to know the tale by heart. The young and beautiful Agatha Blinney had become the lover of the local cobbler, Nathan Nurscher. It was shameful to think the relatives of people she knew and loved had concluded that the only reason a married man with four children would behave so sinfully was that Agatha must have lured him under a spell of witchcraft. It hadn’t helped that several other wives in the village had claimed that their husbands had also been tempted by the young woman’s charms. Today, they would just call someone like Nathan Nurscher an asshole and Agatha a fallen woman. Eventually, the villagers cut down the tree where they had hanged Agatha. They erected a statue in its place, which still stood at the end of the street. Sarah shuddered at the thought of having to live during those early days of the curse. How had the residents endured unexplainable deaths, books and boots that suddenly came to life, and all the other occurrences that had been documented? She was grateful that their ancestors had figured out many of the “rules” for them. The rules. She’d always followed the rules of the curse. Having another Allister show up on Blinney Lane didn’t seem like safely playing by the rules. Having another descendent of the original villagers stay on Blinney Lane for so long could shift the curse off-balance. She certainly couldn’t begrudge how Mary vocalized her shared concerns now. “In order to respect the…history of Blinney Lane, we want to avoid any blundering that an uneducated outsider might unintentionally bring.” Mary raised her voice on the penultimate word. Whenever something went haywire, Mary spoke as if the curse was a fly on the wall, listening to their conversations. She knew Mary was attempting to warn the curse that if Ricky did something wrong it wouldn’t be a deliberate attempt to invoke Agatha’s wrath. It was absurd; Sarah wanted to laugh but didn’t have the

heart to disrespect Mary. “Which is why, Sarah, I’ve brought you something as Francis has requested of me.” “Thank you, Mary. I appreciate that.” She waited patiently, hands between her knees, watching to see what Mary would retrieve from the old wicker basket on her lap. Mary pulled out a large glass jar and handed it to her. It was filled with a dark, creamy liquid. Sarah shifted the jar back and forth delicately; its contents slumped from one side to the other. She’d seen jars in Mary’s shop explode if they weren’t handled carefully. Luckily, effects like that usually only occurred in the presence of Blinney Lane residents and not the unsuspecting public. “Have Ricky wash his hair with that. He can use it like body soap, as well. You can funnel it into a less conspicuous bottle when he’s not looking,” Mary said, digging in her basket. Sarah curled her lip up. “Mary, is there any way you can make it not so dark brown looking?” Mary frowned. “No, dear. Believe me. I’ve tried. Just tell him it’s some new, expensive exotic thing from Calvin Clean or something.” “Klein,” Franci said, appearing happy to finally contribute to the conversation. “What?” “Klein. It’s Calvin Klein.” “Yes. Yes, that’s what I said.” Mary waved Franci off with her hand and squinted at the label on a small tube of salve she pulled from her basket. “It’ll protect him from harm as best we can hope. Now this is for his teeth.” Mary handed her the salve. “Being a teenager and foreign to our ways here, we can assume he’ll probably say something that might be unpleasant to say in such a place as this.” “I understand.” Sarah started to open the cap. “May I?” She knew little of potions and pastes or their power, but that some could be harmful if they weren’t used by those for which they were intended. “Yes, you can open it. These are both safe for you, Sarah. I made sure of that.” Sarah unscrewed the cap. The paste was yellow and had a waxy consistency. She held the tube below her nose and sniffed. “Ugh! It smells like citronella.”

Franci giggled but stopped immediately when Mary shot her a look. The older woman turned an arched brow on Sarah. “Well, it won’t keep the mosquitoes away if that’s what you’re thinking.” Sarah grazed her index finger across the top of the tube to catch a small dab of the paste. She dabbed it on her tongue and grimaced. “Ugh! Mary, it tastes like citronella.” “Oh? You know what citronella tastes like?” Mary asked. “I do!” Franci exclaimed. Mary rolled her eyes. “Don’t you have something to offer, Miss Know-It-All?” You wouldn’t know the two women were dear friends from the look of it. Franci reached into her pocket and pulled out a cellophane baggie of gray powder. She tossed it onto Sarah’s lap. “Sarah, you just mix that up like an Arab or Greek coffee. You remember how I showed you to make those? It’ll make him feel a little warm, which is the downside since it’s getting hotter out, but the heat means it’s working because it’s giving off protection.” Sarah opened the baggie and sniffed the powder. Her eyes began to burn, her nose twitched, and she sneezed. Good lord. It was worse than cayenne pepper! “Got a bit of a kick, doesn’t it?” Franci grinned and swung her arm in front of her. If this was her rescue squad, she was doomed. Be nice, Sarah. Be nice. “Mary. Franci. I’m so grateful to the both of you for doing this, but what if I can’t get him to use any of this stuff? He’s a teenager. I’m not his mother, and he hasn’t seen me in four years. I can’t make him use poop-brown shampoo or citronella toothpaste and drink jalapeño tea.” Mary’s features softened, and she stood, smoothing the wrinkles in her dress. She smiled and lovingly cupped Sarah’s chin in her soft hand. Sarah didn’t know what she was going to say but felt comforted immediately. In spite of Mary’s strict mannerisms, she was all heart. The woman was like a protective old aunt and had been ever since her mother died ten years ago. “Sarah, you’re absolutely right. He is a teenager, which means you’re the adult. Remind him that you’re the boss.”

Sarah forced a smile, squeezed Mary’s hand, and looked into her dark brown eyes. That was easy for Mary to say. Mary had a daughter, Valerie. The two argued like alley cats, but Valerie always inevitably complied. Valerie was twenty-six, so Mary had years of practice. Sarah had never commanded children in her life, only playfully entertained the children of customers who came into her shop. “What if he doesn’t want a boss, Mary?” “Well, then we go with plan B.” Mary nodded to Franci, and they headed toward the door. “What’s plan B?” She hurried after them, desperate to know the backup scheme she was sure she would need. As she stood in the doorway, she watched Mary study her descent of the stairs. Mary was eyeballing the place where the pool of rainwater and Agatha’s blood was said to have collected. Did she have to do this every time? She had to be the most superstitious person on the street. Mary gathered up her skirts, leapt over the front steps, and steadied herself as she landed on the sidewalk. Mary caught her breath and primped her curls. Franci walked down the steps like a normal person, bidding her good night over her shoulder, causing her to slam into Mary. Mary lost her balance and nearly toppled over into the spot she’d just avoided, uttering hushed curses. Sarah rubbed her temples, all reassurance gone. “Good night, Sarah,” Mary called. She opened her eyes to see that the two had already started across the cobblestone street. “Mary! Wait. What was plan B?” Without turning back, Mary called, “We give him an acne outbreak and tell him that stuff is the only cure.” “You can do that?” Mary laughed. “It kept Valerie from dating in high school!” “Mary Millville. You wicked woman,” she muttered. She’d have to ask Mary sometime if she’d ever done anything to her without her knowledge. If you couldn’t trust your neighbors, whom could you trust? She locked the door again and turned off the remaining lights. It was that much closer to tomorrow. She walked past the counter to where the showroom floor rose

to a mezzanine and ascended the three stairs to the shop’s upper level. She gave a cursory glance up the flight of stairs by the wall that led to her apartment and then back over the balcony railing to the darkened store. The front room was quiet and secure, so she continued onto the mezzanine, past the dividing wall that hid and separated this level from customers. She allowed very few customers in the back and for a very good reason. The rows of ceiling-high shelves were filled with rare, antiquarian, and out-of-print books, as well as manuscripts. She kept a few of them on the main floor, those she could bear to part with, for people like Mr. Wexton. However, her collection had been amassed over the years by her family and was her pride and joy. Only trusted scholars and historians who knew she possessed them were granted entrance into her archival room—strictly for viewing purposes. Like her, these books never left Blinney Lane. Sarah gave the bookshelves a motherly perusal, as though she was tucking them into bed, and she flipped the switch to the light that basked over them. Through the darkness, a dim glow from the very back of the room beckoned to her like a beacon. She didn’t need to check on it, but her feet moved forward, a nagging curiosity inside her. She walked past the first five shelves until she reached a display cabinet against the back wall of the building. Its thick glass doors sat behind iron bars, padlocked shut. Five thick leather-bound books sat on pedestals inside. One was the story of Agatha Blinney’s life that Baldwin Allister had written. The other four had been penned by her great-grandfather, Durley Allister. The books sat ominously under heat lamps inside the case. The lamps were working, but she felt no heat. A damp coolness wafted against her face like a chilly night breeze and her insides ached to lunge forward. Gone were the affectionate motherly feelings as she stared at what her family had come to call the “weeping books.” She watched as a bead of water fell from the bottom of one and ran down the metal base of the cabinet. A thin trickling sound tickled her ears as a thread of water dribbled down the angled channel to a small silver drain in the bottom of the case. A knot formed in her throat as she noticed the minuscule bits of dew, which clung to the book seams.

“You know he’s coming, don’t you?” she whispered to the glass. Sarah listened to her breath and the trickle of the drain. The heat lamps usually dried the tears of the weeping books enough to prevent them from pouring into the drain. This wasn’t a good sign. The books wanted someone to read them—to give them life again. “Please don’t hurt him. Don’t take him. You have me,” she said, pleading. Just then, she heard a clinking noise and felt something brush against the skin above her wrist. She looked down at her leather cuff bracelet. All of the charms attached to it dangled in their usual places, except for one that wasn’t really a charm but rather an old metal key. It flipped upward and shook, then stopped perpendicular to where her arm hung limply at her side like it was pointing at the case. It pivoted slowly to the right where it remained still in its unnatural position. She followed its point of aim to the last book in the case and saw the fading words across the cover: The Lands of Farwin Wood. “No,” she protested and pushed the key back down with her other hand. “I told you. I’m never coming back.” A large drop of water seeped out between the pages of The Lands of Farwin Wood and landed in the case’s gutter with an echoing plop. Sarah chided herself for feeling taunted by a damned book. The curse certainly knew something was coming. It sensed the impending presence of another village descendant. It had to feed something with this new burst of energy. Unfortunately for her, it appeared to be feeding the weeping books. She should have suspected this would happen. Why wouldn’t the book that had nearly killed Richard awaken with the arrival of his only child? Click here for more information about The Weeping Books of Blinney Lane

About the Book Earth, 2180. A century after the Fall, city-states soar above the wreckage of a distant past as the second rise of humanity nears its centennial. On the crowded streets of a sweltering, urban colossus, Ricky Mills runs the hustle, slipping past the police and Behavior Regulators to deliver illegal treasures his clients cannot find for themselves. But the numbing grind brings little joy, and a second existence—lived inside a powerful simulation—has become an unbreakable habit. When his money runs out, and faced with certain death in a callous game of survival to absolve his debts, Ricky’s life is forever changed by desperate fear, the sacrifice of another, and a promise to fulfill an old man’s dream.

1 Novum—May 2180 Long past midnight, Ricky Mills hurried from streets still swarming with night people, angling quickly for a row of three-room flats along the King’s Alley. Two days passed and still the hot, relentless wind funneled down Waterford Avenue, swirling dust and bits of rubbish into wandering vortices like drunken ballerinas in a wobbly, aimless dance; one chased another through narrow canyons between towering buildings reaching ever higher into the dense overcast. Barely a kilometer from the city’s central hub, Sector 4 was moving slowly into a quiet time when the clatter of traffic, sirens and gunfire seemed to ebb—imperceptible at first, but noticed with silent gratitude by those who worked the late shifts. The Novum metroplex was vast, even by Resurrection standards, rising up from lowlands on a temperate plain where one of the Old Cities once stood. A megalopolis like others built on the abandoned ruins of forgotten places that went silent after the Fall, Novum replaced a relic from an era on Earth no one alive could remember. The new Founders argued for re-naming the first settlement in recognition of its reclusive organizer, the arguably insane activist, Abraham Standvor, but public outcry forced them to abandon the idea. Despite the passionate efforts of Standvor’s acolytes, it was agreed a more ‘deserving’ name should be found when such gestures still mattered. They settled on a term evoking the new, but most understood it was little more than a thinly veiled move to erase the last of a trouble-maker’s dwindling influence. A hundred years on, Standvor’s optimistic New Order endured, but not in the way he intended. Instead of a world built on the myth of absolute equality within city-states scattered here or there across vast, sparsely populated land masses, the second rise of humanity had been guided first by the laws of simple survival. Later, distinct and unique societies emerged, each according to their own needs and desires. The cities had grown anew, but they were hardly a model of Standvor’s

vision. Some thrived, while others—including Novum—hadn’t fared as well, struggling to reconcile the aloof visionary’s master plan with soaring populations and limited resources. Many believed the city’s unavoidable class divide was disturbingly similar to those from a distant history they stopped teaching to school children. Whispered voices decried persistent overcrowding and preference given only to those above, but not within earshot of others; ‘the past,’ they declared with firm (and public) conviction, ‘was the past.’ Ricky held a hand to shield his face from the blustering wind, slowing as he turned into the alley. On the boulevard, haunting melodies made by synthesized qanuns—ethnic and foreign, yet strangely familiar—blended with monotone background chords pouring from advertisement holograms hovering above an intersection. Beyond, prone bodies of two “streeties,” the cast-off and forgotten ones who walked each day on the thin margin between life and death, lay motionless in their stupor at the edge of a worn, brick walkway. Beside them, spent injection ampules for a narcotic fluid neither could resist told of hopelessness and poverty. A preview, Ricky wondered? Perhaps the Old God remained after all to place before him a warning with magic hands no one could see. Kelleher, the grizzled caretaker from school used to say so and Litzi believed him, but those were days when they were young and no one challenged the word of grownups. And anyway, Ricky decided, it was unlikely they would notice; didn’t Gods concern themselves with better, more important things than street scum lying unconscious in a Sector 4 gutter? He shook away the disturbing notion, but tethered to the life he made for himself, Ricky knew it would always remain close-by. When he reached the door of the tiny flat, Ricky turned his head to one side— instinctive and automatic—to listen for their footfalls or the scrape of a knife along rough concrete blocks the way Bartel and Junkyard always did to pull the fear from its hiding place and remind him of his position. Thin, powdery grit carried on the blustering wind crunched like glass between his teeth and he spat in reflex, rolling his tongue around to gather any reluctant bits before spitting a last time. He held his breath and waited, but there was only the rising wind and a persistent rattle from loose shutters somewhere beyond the darkened alley. At last, a faded, green

indicator lit with a dull snap as the door went ajar, easing the tension made by hours of another night on the streets. Ricky sat slowly, ignoring his blank vid screen where it dangled from a flimsy, metal bracket the maintenance man screwed haphazardly into the wall; only reruns of old sex shows, or the brutal ‘challenge’ programs would be found there at so late an hour. In the sudden, stark silence, Ricky could feel the muted thump of his heartbeat and a painful throb behind reddened eyes, now pestering, steadfast evidence of his fatigue. Without the wind to draw it from his skin, sweat beaded across his face and neck in the sweltering, stale room, wicking slowly into a worn recliner’s threadbare upholstery. Before him, silent, empty walls seemed to mock his loneliness, staring out from the dark through rectangular discolorations where framed photographs or paintings hung long before. The sparse furnishings never mattered to him, but perhaps it was fitting, he thought sadly; a three-room hovel on the bad side of the Sector was hardly an advertisement for success. Instead, it was a place of decay—a forgotten enclave nestled in the bosom of an urban colossus that warranted neither costly renovation nor the trouble it would take to bring it down altogether. As it was for those who lived within its boundary, the neighborhood remained as it had always been; static and unchanged. Above, the ventilators stopped again. Mrs. Abber promised to call the fixers, but Ricky knew they wouldn’t show unless she relented and gave them what they wanted. The repair fee was never enough and the threat of inevitable, disturbing noises that would filter through the walls as they took turns with her made him reluctant to ask again. Outside, the wind made odd whistling sounds as each gust pushed its way through the narrow space between ancient, weather-worn buildings, calling out from the night like the shrieks of despair made by mythical wraiths or banshees. He closed his eyes as the details and terms of orders taken from clients appeared in his thoughts. It had always been easy for him, the knack for keeping note of intake and output and a parade of numbers scrolled through in his mind like a Ting-Ting machine’s token count in one of the gambling parlors along the Ninth Street corridor. Customer accounts with names and addresses appeared with a

mere thought so that hard records were needless. He had the skills—all good hustlers did—but Ricky’s were different. Since he began carrying tiny, hidden packets through the barriers and past Municipal Patrol Enforcement officers for Mister Anthony in his early days on the streets, he built a trade network few in the Sector could match. It was no secret the pale kid from the factory housing blocks could elude MPE cops and even they understood and appreciated his talent. Ricky knew everyone and they knew him; with a word, he would find and deliver what they could not. As the reputation grew, they saw one who moved with ease between opposing halves of a fragmented society; ‘Slider’ had emerged from the shadows at last. He shuffled in weary silence to his bed, determined to find sleep before the dawn poured in his only window. Soon enough, it would return through clouded, filthy glass and dust collected on a sill where dead flies and woody powder made by the damnable termites had gone untouched for years. His head fell like an anvil onto a stained pillow as he closed his eyes with grateful satisfaction the noisy shops on Rademacher Way would stay silent for another five hours. ***** By noon, the weather cleared. Ricky waited with a cup of watery chicken broth as one of the news network’s half-hour programs ran the Sector’s overnight updates. He listened with half-open eyes about break-ins at a Chinese food shop near the vacant lot where Barclay Towers once stood, and eyewitness accounts of a brawl inside the popular Vesuvius Club that sent three ironworkers to the clinics with ‘localized bruises and minor lacerations.’ The commentary continued, noting without emotion two others who suffered injuries from which they would never recover, now stiffened by rigor and cold inside a morgue’s lonely intake station. Ricky smirked at the description of an unlicensed prostitute detained for ‘suspected violations,’ but anyone who cared to look knew her troubles were more likely a mistake of refusing the advances of an MPE patrolman demanding her services without the usual payment she exacted from others. Only two homicides, he wondered? It was unusual, considering the time of year and tempers so often shortened by the suffocating heat, but another night could just as easily reverse the trend. Ricky listened to the rest of the report with little interest until the enticing

images of her delicate form seeped into his thoughts the way they always did in his idle hours. He stood in silence, surveying his flat with the same, dull emptiness that seemed to torment him most in those moments between visits. Did she wait somewhere? Had they created a place for her within the machine to pass the time before he returned? He knew better, of course, but still the question remained. He allowed himself one last thought, determined to conclude enough transactions so that money needed to pay for time with her would be plentiful. Driven by his most powerful desire, he considered his options and by a quick calculation, three accounts held by mildly important Uppers would, if called in early, buy Ricky six hours at the theater. He nodded with a renewed determination, pushed onward by a need that had become a part of his identity and a compulsion like no other; they would pay up or suffer. ***** The late morning heat was rising in the shadow of the mega-towers on a glaring, sun splashed day. At last, the pounding wind scoured low clouds away, leaving bare and exposed the staggering proportions of a city twelve million strong, no longer obscured by the haze. Ricky stepped cautiously from his flat, squinting against the harsh glare and careful to inspect the alley from both directions before aiming up the gentle incline toward Rademacher Way. He didn’t look, but there was little doubt Mrs. Abber watched him go from behind the faded, yellow curtains in her kitchen window. Would she be there when he returned, he wondered? Again, the nagging conflict flitted in and out, tugging at him like thorns beside a footpath. Would she resent his moments with another, beautiful and young, who had become dearest to him of all? There was no special understanding between them, of course, but Mrs. Abber never made a secret of her desires. Gorman, the retired delivery driver who lived in the adjacent unit made frequent, crude jokes about it, offering sarcastic warnings about their landlady’s amorous habits, but Ricky ignored him. Maybe in earlier days, long before he found his way to Reese Street Theater, he would’ve taken the offer; her bed was only a short walk away, after all. But now, in the present of a future he once dreamt of, Ricky’s attentions had been taken to another place. The

Starlight simulation program’s astonishing realism had made a paradise where Mrs. Abber couldn’t follow; a secret world where only he could feel the soft evening breezes, bathing in the fragrant scent from rare oils and perfumes beneath a crystalline, Egyptian sky. Once more, the elegant face emerged from deep within his thoughts; Neferure’s dazzling smile was framed in fine, jet-black hair, curled like a cat’s tail around delicate shoulders. From her neck a heavy, gold necklace inlaid with turquoise, emerald and obsidian to form the wings of a grand and magical bird seemed to aim the eye at breasts barely concealed beneath the flawless linen of her ankle-length dress. As it had always been, the image was compelling as a mysterious tonic—a therapeutic agent, perhaps—to lift his spirits and lighten his step as he crossed between clattering ground carts where they waited on the bustling avenue to unload their goods. Ricky made his way quickly along the grimy, littered street, turning north at the old transformer complex and his usual shortcut across a noisy, open air market to where the elevated station writhed with afternoon riders waiting for their pod trains. Above, the hum of magnetic brakes announced the arrival of a twenty-car express, dangling from its support rail like beads of morning dew on a spider’s web. Urged onward by a fresh sense of purpose, Ricky hurried through an identification gate and up the long ramp to take his place amid a growing line of passengers. After a fifteen-minute ride, the train eased to a halt above MacAllister Square in the heart of Sector 6. Ricky waited as a gaggle of chattering school children was herded carefully by their teachers along the high platform toward broad, iron steps that led to a labyrinth of streets and sidewalks. On all sides of the station, the hulking mega-towers—cities within a city—soared to two thousand meters on a day so clear, the steeples and spires of transmission antennae were clearly visible from the surface. Pedestrian walkways joining one building to another held fast to the giant structures at twenty-floor intervals where people crossed between and their utility relieved the millions above from a needless and distasteful descent to the filthy, crowded streets. The mega-towers had always been self-contained, vertical neighborhoods and within them, the Uppers went about the business of the privileged, unconcerned

for the dirt and vulgarity of an unsavory world far below they rarely saw and would likely never visit. On the comfortable end of a permanent divide between social strata neither sought to change, the Uppers had long ago accepted the restrictions and regulated life their opulence demanded. Flatwalkers—those millions who lived out their days on the surface—found the concept intolerable, preferring instead the freedom of ordinary labor and faceless obscurity to a regimented, antiseptic existence of checkpoints, location monitors and security cameras where nothing went unnoticed. At the gate, Ricky peered into a retinal scanner and waited until an attendant approved the unseen access request, nodding silently toward an elevated walkway and beyond it, a near-empty lift—mostly a stylish, oval greenhouse—hovered quietly on its pneumatic buffer. After a moment, more took their places along tinted glass panels and polished brass metalwork, anticipating a sudden lurch when the cool, conditioned elevator would rocket them skyward. His destination on the 148th floor would take only minutes to reach, but Ricky held tight to a handrail; external, high-speed lifts never held the fascination for him others seemed to enjoy. When they were young, Ricky and his friends would ride the ‘verts’ for sport until attendants or MPE cops ran them off. Now, he could board them any time he liked; the necessary (and frightening) tools of his trade. People in crisp, stylish clothing came and went at each stop, filing onto the vert or hurrying from it, concerned only with the glowing screens of wrist displays or private conversations they continued in front of strangers without a care. They were all Uppers, of course, standing at deliberate distances from Ricky where he waited alone. As it had been since his early days hustling, Ricky felt the cold, indifferent glances wash over him and a silent scorn they aimed at another unwanted Flatwalker invading their corridors on one questionable mission or another; he wasn’t one of them and the distinction was never allowed to blur. When the vert stopped on 148, Ricky moved quickly past the others through a lavish archway toward the floor’s network of passages, sidestepping a janitor’s cart where it sat on an angle at the entrance of a sky bridge. Near the crowded tube connecting Tower B with its identical companion on the north side, Xavier Antonelli waited in a lounge sipping cold, raspberry tea. A perpetually scowling

man who hid his insecurities beneath expensive clothes and overdone jewelry, Antonelli stood and walked slowly toward a high counter against the curved wall, suitably apart from the noisy lunch crowd jockeying for elbow room. “Is there a problem with the list?” he asked at once, pulling the long curls of his hair behind an ear the way he always did when something had gone wrong, ever nervous and petulant. “It’s workable,” Ricky replied blandly, “but we need to clear out your account before I can even begin looking; some of this stuff is…” Antonelli stopped him. “My account?” he snarled, narrowing deep brown eyes in sudden outrage at Ricky’s brazen display. “Maybe you need to be reminded of the money I’ve poured into it over the years, Slider!” Ricky moved quickly to hold his ground; he was in no mood to suffer contrived indignation, and least of all from a sniveling wretch like Antonelli. “You can spend it with another hustler any time you want, Xavier.” Antonelli blinked in disbelief, but Ricky continued without a pause. “Some of these items, especially the smaller ones, can’t be bought on credit; I have to pay up-front or no sale!” “What’s that to me?” Antonelli snapped, hissing at a near whisper so that others wouldn’t hear. “I don’t have any of this stuff in my inventory,” Ricky fired back; “I have to prepay! If you don’t want it after all…” Antonelli’s intolerance was boiling over. To his way of thinking, all hustlers were opportunists and swindlers who lived for the chance to take an innocent man for all they could get. He had little use for Flatwalkers in general, but it was especially galling when their ill-mannered demands spilled out across the floor in front of normal people—good people. “How much, damn you?” “Two hundred and twenty gets you back to neutral,” Ricky answered at last, “plus six hundred to cover the list.” “I’ve always paid my account on time, every month!” “I know you have, but this is not a question of your account.”

“Then why are you pushing for it early?” “These things are going to be hard enough to find,” Ricky lied, “and I have obligations from my other customers; I can’t use somebody else’s money!” Ricky waited while Antonelli processed the demand—and his willingness to meet it. Beyond the suspect appearance it made, there was no special risk in being seen with a Flatwalker, at least from the perspective of Behavior Regulators who kept close tabs on such comings and goings, particularly among the Uppers. Antonelli knew few, if any, would complain about it and surely none of his neighbors who also traded secretly against rule and policy with street hustlers. Still, the abrupt tone of a common Flatwalker in public could not be excused; Antonelli had a place in society to consider, after all. “All right, Slider,” he said in a voice dripping with contempt, “I’ll send down a thousand this evening, but understand this; if you come at me like you’re some kind of high and mighty commissioner ever again, I will make your life a worse option than hell!” Ricky smiled and cocked his head to one side, unmoved by a threat both knew was hollow. “On second thought, keep your money, Xavier; I’m sure you can find a better deal if you try.” He turned suddenly for the vert, keeping to the right and out of the traffic flow of Uppers trying to make it back to work before the one o’clock siren, but Antonelli’s silent tug at an elbow stopped him. “All right, damn it, you win! I said I’ll make the payment; what more do you want?” Ricky moved close and lowered his voice. “I don’t need your account, Xavier; I have plenty more just like it in every Sector of the city. Threaten me again and you can find this shit on your own, understand?” Antonelli looked away, held in the place between his outrage and the effort it would take to find and cultivate another provider. He wanted desperately to thunder out his frustration and distaste for the likes of Ricky Mills, but despite the embarrassment he would suffer by capitulating, the Regulators would notice if he

went searching for a new hustler. It was better to apologize and avoid being exposed. “Oh all right! I’m very sorry, okay?” The disingenuous tone didn’t matter to Ricky; a point had been made and accepted. He nodded silently and walked quickly toward the lifts. With fewer descending than those going up, they stopped only a few times until at last, Ricky went quickly to the transit station and a ride back to Sector 4. “High and mighty,” he muttered with a sneer. Antonelli’s bluster and severe tone made it all the more enjoyable to connive an extra six hundred Ricky knew perfectly well was needless for the transactions he would make. An Upper’s poorly concealed hostility toward street people was hardly surprising, but there were limits to what he would accept, especially from one who so often ignored the strident and controlling regulations applied to all who lived in comfort above the clouds. Hypocrisy came so easily to them, he thought quietly, and some deserved it when the opportunity to take advantage presented itself. Ricky moved on to the other customers, just as intent on prying out their money ahead of schedule. It was still early, but Pradesh would be the next stop; he was likely at the freight station down near the southern wire, overseeing his agents who waded through cargo manifests in a dark, cluttered office where land trains passed through on their circuit between the sectors. Unlike most Uppers, the diminutive, reserved man chose to visit the surface on a consistent, predictable schedule and watch over his operations personally. Ricky found him on a ruststreaked loading dock, pointing laborers dramatically toward a delivery van as if his oversight was important to the process. As he had done with Antonelli, a cautionary tale of delayed service unless prepayment was made worked well enough to compel the token transfer without complaint. Once finished with Pradesh, Ricky found Perreault and Markley in their turn. It would take the better part of the afternoon to navigate across three sectors, but between them—and the money Antonelli would transfer that night— Ricky would have more than enough to pay for the hours he so badly needed with Neferure.

At 6:30, the sun dipped beneath the spires of mega-towers enough so that shadows competed with shafts of light angling sharply across the streets east of the city. As he knew they would, Perreault and Markley paid their tabs with only annoyed expressions; it was far better to settle than complain when both knew Slider had the connections (and discretion) no other hustler could match. Markley, the self-styled aristocrat who deliberately ignored the truth of his humble, illegitimate beginnings, made a minor fuss about the accounting numbers until he relented and settled his bill. Payments were carried out with precision and few words until Ricky’s business was concluded in the late afternoon hours. Hidden and often illegal, trade in those shadowy corners went on unabated for decades and his evening’s work was no different. It took longer than he hoped, but there was still plenty of time. Ricky smiled, knowing the Starlight theaters ran 24 hours, catering to many who preferred going under cover of darkness in the absurd misperception their visits would go unnoticed. No one cared either way, but for some, the illusion of anonymity was important. Reese Street Theater was Ricky’s favorite, if only for the newness and comfort of its experience cocoons, upgraded just weeks before. It felt good as he rounded the corner and jogged across the intersection at 12th Avenue, skillfully dodging land traffic until he reached the doors as they parted automatically. Cool, conditioned air pouring downward from vents high above the building’s entrance brought a moment of relief from the oppressive heat as he turned quickly for the lobby where other customers waited at a high counter to pay their fees. He neither liked nor disliked Ellis Justman, the facility’s long-time manager, but Ricky preferred to avoid the customary and annoying banter so common at other Starlight theaters; at Reese Street, he could log-in and one of the attendants would show him to his cocoon without comment. At last it was time and in a few moments, he would be with her again.

2 Slowly, with the sensation people feel when they wake in a strange place after an overnight journey, the images cleared and gave way once more to the familiar— soothing and comfortable to ease the spirit. Thick mud along the shoreline smelled fresh and wet, while beyond, fields gifted the air with a scent of crops nearing harvest. Closer still, goat meat roasting on a dozen fires aside huts near the ancient river made for a pleasing, delicious aroma that seemed to welcome him back in the quiet and calm of early evening. As mighty Ra descended beyond the necropolis on the western shore of the Nile, Ricky waited atop the steps of Ma’at Palace, now in the form of his softwaregenerated alter ego; the soldier, Apheru. By the alchemy of the Starlight adventure simulation’s programming, he was a different man, living another existence; a warrior in the days of ancient Egypt and nothing like the struggling hustler trying to make his way in a harsh and indifferent urban expanse. Though his body lay still and quiet inside an experience cocoon, Ricky—Apheru—stood in a faraway place, both in distance and time, as though he had walked there three thousand years before. Unlike a cheap video in the arcades on Ninth Street, Starlight made a second life as real and tangible as his own, but it was so much more; beyond the notice of others, it offered the chance to be something better. The simulation—and the moment—resumed from where he left off days before, but he knew the program’s intuitive plot engine would advance the storyline automatically in his absence. A gentle, evening breeze wandered slowly through the city streets of Thebes, enveloping the royal quarters where the flames from delicate oil lamps danced and flickered in ornate, copper sconces. She was always late, but that truth carried no importance to one so much in love; the reward of Neferure’s touch made any delay pass unnoticed. An azure sky was especially beautiful on a night when only the quiet moments alone with her mattered, promising much-needed relief from battle and the duties expected of Pharaoh’s most skilled soldier. In the house of

Hatshepsut, Apheru enjoyed the special attention and welcome available only to those most close to the divine lady, already preparing for sleep and content to leave nocturnal pursuits of affection and desire to the young. The priests, persistent in their duty to direct the life of a princess in accordance with tradition, were absent; withdrawn discretely on her order so that she and Apheru could be truly alone. Perched at the end of a slender, teak peg set firmly into the stone wall, a favorite falcon preened in the dancing shadows, waiting too for his leave to sleep. At last, she appeared from behind sheer fabric curtains dyed in splendid shades of green and blue, moving effortlessly toward him with a smile so magical and captivating, Apheru felt the tingle along his spine when she reached for him. Princess Neferure, daughter and only child of Pharaoh Hatshepsut, held Apheru at an arm’s length, turning her head to one side playfully as she fought a compulsion to grin. “And now,” she began, “you must tell me, my love; how could it be that so many days have passed since last you came to my chambers? Is there another, tempting your spirit and beckoning from some hot and empty place far to the south? Should I worry that a beautiful rival has captivated you?” Apheru smiled at the notion, easing her gently toward an ornate, cedar settee swarming with pillows. “I’m sorry, Princess; I’ve been so busy.” “Oh?” she replied as she moved his hand to her waist. “Busy with the Ethiopians, or have the masters who rule from the strange place where you spend so much of your time delayed you once more?” “There are many obligations that won’t wait, Princess; I cannot turn away from my responsibilities,” he replied with a reassuring smile. “The ambassadors from across the sea who wait for an audience with my mother have no knowledge of this great metropolis that spawned you, yet it keeps you from me. Tell me, my beloved captain; are you growing weary of my affection?” Apheru let his fingers play through her hair, soft as the finest silk and pleasing to the touch. He leaned close and traced the curve of her ear with his lips, speaking softly in a whisper that belonged only to her. “You know that’s not true. There will never be a time when I could tire of this;

no one could ever replace you in my heart.” “So,” she replied with a coy smile, “may we presume you still belong to me, and I to you?” “It will always be so, Princess,” he answered gently; “always.” She moved him to her bed, drawing the curtains behind them with an obvious, telling smile. In her eyes, the fire of a need only Apheru could satisfy returned, arousing him at once as she tugged at his tunic with growing desperation that only made him want her more. Outside, the breezes ebbed beneath a vast field of stars and soon, only the sounds of urgent passion broke the silence where a princess to the throne of Egypt and her lover shuddered and groaned in unison, together again. Above the palace, lonely Khonsu had risen at last—brilliant and silver— watching over the kingdom where it slept as he traced his wide arc across the sky in the slow, imperceptible journey made only by the gods. Afterward, they lay close together, spent and glistening in the flickering lamplight. He regarded her naked form for a while, letting his eyes play along her curves in admiration like a precious statuette in a royal gallery. As he always did, Apheru reached for a pitcher of cool water and poured a hand into a tall, golden cup. He sipped twice before offering it to Neferure, careful not to spill. She took it and drank deeply, leaving only drops and Apheru refilled it quickly as she knelt on the wide bed and took his hands in hers. “It seems you have been a topic of discussion these last days,” she said with mock indifference. “Oh?” he replied cautiously, “Who would speak of me in this grand and honored place?” “Pharaoh and General Nehkbet,” she answered quickly. “I hope I have not disappointed them.” Neferure paused, merely to heighten the drama, but at last she relented. “You could never disappoint them. As it was recounted to me by the General this very morning, my mother has decided to give her attention to the question of your status as an approved suitor to my hand!” The excitement was clear in her voice, like a child suddenly permitted to reveal a

special and delightful secret. Apheru grinned, but he recovered so as not to be thought of as one who expected the news or believed himself entitled to its meaning. “Pharaoh discussed this with the General?” “She did, and he agreed; your position at court can now be established and declared.” “Tell me, Princess, does this please you?” “Of course it does! Do you not hear the voice of my heart in these words?” It was Apheru’s turn to tease. “I suppose so, but…” Neferure threw his hands aside with a laugh before leaping once more into his arms, locking hers firmly around his neck. “You should be more grateful, Captain! Once it has been announced, we needn’t confine our meetings to these hidden moments when the whole of the Kingdom slumbers. After we wed, you and I can take our pleasure together beside the pools with Ra himself looking on from above; no one would dare to speak against it!” He kissed her gently and cradled her face in his palms. “When will we know?” “They would not say,” she answered, but her expression turned suddenly. “Princess?” She laid her head softly on Apheru’s shoulder, lacing her fingers behind him to lock their embrace and defend against the torment he could hear in her tone. “The priests do not agree,” she whispered. He knew what it meant. “Thutmose.” She nodded in silence, but Apheru spoke the words she could not. “They still believe our union would injure Pharaoh’s bloodline.” “My mother will decide, but the priests—and Senenmut in particular—still favor my cousin.” “Senenmut should take care,” Apheru declared, “there are many who suspect his influence on Pharaoh’s decisions are more than those of an advisor. If the

noblemen fear his actions are made from selfish intent, he may find himself on the wrong end of a palace guard’s spear; they are pledged to protect Pharaoh, even at the risk of offending her. You are certain General Nekhbet agrees with my nomination as your chosen suitor?” “Yes,” she replied, “and he made clear his preference to Pharaoh.” “Thutmose has been an honored soldier far longer than I,” Apheru continued; “perhaps his candidacy will be considered with favor on that count alone.” “That is merely a pretense,” she sneered; “a carefully placed detail Senenmut hopes will sway my mother’s decision.” “Why does he resent my application?” Apheru asked in exasperation, “I’ve never given him cause!” “Thutmose is poisoned with jealous envy because he regards my womb as his possession by right as my cousin. He has never enjoyed it and he never will.” “And Senenmut? He is neuter in all respects; there are no such interests for a eunuch, regardless of position.” “His concern is political, and because you are…” He finished her thought. “Foreign.” “He opposes your interest because you are not high-born of this Kingdom, nor of our family,” Neferure replied sadly, “and that is more important to Senenmut than my love for you, or your heroic service to Pharaoh and Egypt.” “I’ve met and defeated adversaries far worse and more determined than him…” “Do not underestimate Senenmut, Apheru; he will challenge any threat to our traditions without regard for consequence. He works tirelessly to gain my mother’s ear, but the priests already have his.” “At least the General is with us,” said Apheru, but she could hear the ring of despair and resignation in his voice. “When do you leave for Canaan?” she asked. “In three days’ time,” he replied. She moved closer and said, “They will come to regret their foolish arrogance, and it will be your chariot they see when the General’s army sweeps through them like a great blade; my mother will hear of the exploits and the name trumpeted at

court upon your return will be Apheru. Thutmose can do nothing to change that!” He reached for her once more. “As long as I have your love and belief in me, nothing else matters. I admire and respect Thutmose, but the thought of you in his arms…” She placed a single finger to his lips. “Yours are the only arms that interest me.”

3 The black egg-shaped cocoon’s status display blinked amber as the program returned to its hold position, already calculating scenarios and adjusting scripts for the time it would be called upon again. The experience gallery’s lights remained dim where three dozen other cocoons sat in neat rows. Some were occupied by clients, but others waited empty to take a Starlight subscriber through to another world—a different life. Reclined in the soft padding of his seat, Ricky rubbed his face, allowing vision to clear and blinking reflexively as slender, metallic arms withdrew a crown of input contacts slowly from his brow. It took a moment or two for the images to fade before he tapped sequential controls to open the long access panel upward with a hiss. The session consumed nearly two hours, but a deep, quiet satisfaction buoyed him as he paid the administration fee and walked quickly for a side exit onto Barrington Road. Ricky scowled and blinked upward; the rains returned and with them, the familiar smell of wetted streets and rivulets of dirty water coursing steadily toward the storm drains. Thick fog hung motionless in the air, persistent and always clinging even to those most protected places, hastening the decay and corrosion that seemed forever ahead of Novum’s plodding repair crews. The narrow divide between mega-towers, built astride pavements and walkways in the last years of the Resurrection, made cliffs of glass and steel in all directions, holding the moisture in place as if stopped in time. It dripped in endless streams from overhangs and sky bridges, gathering in gutters with the garbage and refuse, but Ricky didn’t notice. MPE searchlights played slowly across the shimmering surface from ten stories above, sweeping long shafts of cool blue light through the intersections where shift workers scurried for their pod trains. The beams held position once or twice, allowing the Watchers to identify and record land cars and taxis huddled in groups, or parked illegally in the rare, precious spaces where nothing had been built. They said it was different in the Old Time when people came and went without

scrutiny, but Ricky ignored them and meaningless remembrances made by those who weren’t alive in a past they evoked as though the words alone would win them some measure of admiration. He looked upward to the cloud layer and another world beyond where the stars glittered above the haze—the Uppers enjoyed a different view that night, and one not meant for street people. The evening crowd was thinning, but the afterglow of his time with Neferure held him tightly, making it difficult to shift from the alternate life he left inside a Starlight theater. The sensation eased at last, returned to a numbing reality waiting on the streets outside—patient and always there. For those who were willing to meet its steep cost demand, Starlight remained the most popular diversionary software in the whole of Novum and a miracle of intuitive technology. But from it, a way to enhance the entertainment value of adventure simulations had been derived by enterprising marketers who understood its true potential. A full decade since it came online, the sophisticated, stunningly realistic program had become something more than a novelty. Now, it was a compelling, even unavoidable way of life for many seeking refuge from their ordinary existences in the teeming swirl of a metropolis still defining itself a century after the Fall. So long as they could pay, most subscribers had been granted a Starlight account regardless of social station, willingly giving themselves over to its lure and promise of adventure; a secret hideaway from reality where one could do—or be— anything. Without content limits or restrictions, Starlight was a safe, discrete place to live out a virtual fantasy so realistic, some found it difficult to continue away from the privacy of an experience cocoon. Despite fervent pleas from pockets of anti-technology zealots disappointed by Novum’s evolution away from the economic and cultural hegemony Abraham Standvor wanted it to be, more and more embraced Starlight each year. But with the phenomenon, nagging problems of addiction and social decay had become chronic. Ricky didn’t count himself among them, holding stubbornly to an illusion of control; he could enjoy it or not as he chose, but he was sure the decision was always his. When he crossed the square, his thoughts were only of her. Ricky looked at the

vacant streets but saw instead lingering images of pathways along the quiet Nile that always led to Ma’at Palace, or perhaps a chariot ride home to the General’s headquarters and the tents of his soldiers. It never rained there and the skies rarely brought even a hint of cloud. Winters in Thebes produced only longer shadows; there was no bone-chilling wind and snow that made Novum a frozen, icy wasteland. The Palace, caressed each day by calm waters flowing slowly on their way north was a better place, he decided, and one not congested, noisy and covered in filth. In every way, the Sector (and Novum) was the inescapable example of contradiction as an overcrowded, yet lonely nightmare. At Ma’at, he thought silently, they understood who he truly was and Neferure knew him better than anyone. ***** An hour later, as Ricky closed the door to his flat, he made the calculations in his mind: At eighty-thousand tokens per year, Premium Starlight membership and the unlimited hours privilege it offered was out of the question and such a luxury would remain forever beyond his grasp; only those above—the Uppers, their obedient Bosses, or perhaps even Antonelli—could ever accept so steep a payment obligation. Still, the hours he needed with her were never enough and changes would be made; more money had to be found. At once, he thought of Elden Fellsbach. Retired or otherwise, the former chief architect of exploratory software that would become the Starlight simulation’s programming still held sufficient influence to make an arrangement for additional time at any theater in Novum. It wasn’t necessary before, of course, but the need had never been so great or compelling. He couldn’t bear to hear the loneliness in Neferure’s voice, wondering aloud why the time between visits had become lengthier—their desperate, intoxicating encounters fewer. In the morning, Ricky thought with a satisfied grin, he would return to the old man’s apartment on the 80th floor, deep inside Marshall Center. Though it had been months since their last visit, Elden would have the answer. ***** By mid-day, the mist turned to a downpour. Ricky watched news feed images of a slow-moving weather system, obliging him to throw on a cloudy, plastic rain

cover that forever leaked through its hood and down the back of his neck. The muggy air would only make worse his misery from body heat trapped inside a vinyl cloak with nowhere to go, but as he turned for the door, a chirp from his communicator sounded suddenly at his wrist; it was Vinnie Bayle, no doubt calling to check on an order for a case of expensive Topaz in half-liter bottles Ricky promised to find at a discount. He touched the comm’s tiny faceplate and answered with a dull voice to imply he had been awakened; an old trick, meant to convince an unwelcome caller the moment was inconvenient. “Hullo?” “Slider, it’s me.” “What’s going on?” “Have you seen the info-nets this morning?” Ricky had, but there was nothing of interest beyond dire warnings of flooding near the river and at least four of the active canals up to the north already saw their banks threatened. “No,” he lied. “Turn it on; you need to see this.” Vinnie was easily impressed by street news, but the moment was ill-suited for idle distractions that seemed forever captivating to his childhood friend. “I was just on my way out; what’s on the ‘net that’s so important?” “Just turn it on,” Vinnie insisted; “this is big.” Ricky waited through a public safety message about the perils of wandering too close to the freight tracks until a video image showed two men being led away in handcuffs to a waiting MPE sky van. He recognized them at once, suddenly alert with a powerful, electric sense of urgency. An unseen commentator’s voice told of arrests and charges filed for possession of forbidden contraband in violation of municipal laws. As a camera drone hovered nearby, the men in custody turned and Ricky squinted in disbelief at the faces of Geraldo Espinoza and Benjamin Courtnall as they each stepped through the van’s narrow hatchway. A headline runner at the bottom of the vid screen showed their names and the sector where MPE officers found them in their hidden quarters. “I’ll call you back,” Ricky said in reflex, tapping off his comm’s link.

Others, held by the entertainment value of a rare spectacle, would have looked only at the prisoners or heavily armed MPE troopers, but Ricky knew better. Instead, his attention went quickly to the surroundings in order to gauge the images and scan them for clues. The blackened, cinder-covered dirt was uneven and strewn with mud puddles, but he looked closely at ancient, ramshackle buildings beyond, clad in cheap, tin panels and treated in the usual, drab shades of anti-corrosion paint. Rooftops, gently sloped with corrugated shingle plates, betrayed the structure as one of many in the seldom-used warehouse district where a few of the old surface factories stored machinery and out-of-date merchandise in a thin, desperate hope market fluctuations would one day return the forgotten goods to a status of value. Ricky looked again; it was years since they ventured into the Industrial Zone, but he knew at once where the arrests were made, smiling at a secret well-hidden, but now exposed. Every hustler in the sector would hear of it within minutes, if they hadn’t already; Ricky knew time and a window to move were both shrinking. After all, he thought with a satisfied grin, it wasn’t every day two of the Bosses—the mid-level administrators who stood as functional intermediaries between privileged Uppers and the teeming, less fortunate Flatwalkers—were taken away by the cops. Things had changed since the new Commission came to power, it was said. Before, the once bullet-proof Bosses did as they liked, but now, even they had been given limits. Ricky could not have asked for so opportune a moment, watching them speed Espinoza and Courtnall away to an uncomfortable arraignment hearing in front of the city’s unyielding magistrates. Fumbling quickly for his bag, Ricky felt the excitement and sense of possibility begin to grow. Perhaps they pushed their chances once too often, he supposed, but that error could change his luck dramatically. How could it be, he wondered? Courtnall and Espinoza were the controlling force for the entire Sector’s undercity rackets, with soldiers, snitches and ‘sweepers’ counting in the hundreds. If two so influential and powerful could be brought down in public, their indiscretions must surely have been grave. Ricky played out the scenario in his mind, moving cautiously through a mental checklist to avoid missing crucial details; there was too much at stake for a wrong step now. He grinned openly at the image of one

particular building in the news vid; the weathered structure was key, and Ricky knew it. The Bosses were thought by many on the hustle to have made and maintained secret places scattered throughout the Industrial Zone where no one went— dangerous places, frequented by desperate streeties who would kill lost or wayward travelers trying to make it inside the border from beyond the wire, simply for a handful of tokens or just the clothes on their backs. Still, no one found those most guarded places among the abandoned fabrication plants and disused storage buildings in all his days on the street. Some regarded it as little more than grandiose rumor, but none were brave (or foolish) enough to look and Ricky was grateful for the security an old legend had made. In a brief moment of fortune, the unwitting news cameras had done the work for him; Ricky had only to confirm that MPE’s hunt for evidence was concluded and he would take care of the rest. They would comb the area thoroughly, he knew, but cops were never bright enough to see the obvious; Ricky had always looked with better eyes. In the late hours, he would journey out to the Zone and poke around in places rarely discovered by the police. Suddenly unconcerned for the heavy rainfall, Ricky went quickly from his flat. The cityscape was hazy and dulled by sheets of rain, obscuring all but the most prominent mega-towers across the sector. In the daytime darkness made by a heavy cloud layer, even the streetlights had switched on and Ricky closed his eyes to drift away, taken by the ever-present thoughts and images from that faraway place. Was Neferure thinking of him, he wondered? Could she? There would be changes if he could manage a reconnaissance mission and bring back the riches he knew were hidden within a dank, lonely building on the edge of the Industrial Zone. ***** When the train arrived at a plaza where Ninth Street crossed Moss Avenue, Ricky waited for an automatic door release to open the pod’s wide hatch, stepping cautiously onto the soaked platform at last. He went quickly through the crowd, jogging first left, then to the right as he struggled to find his pace. The lines were thinning and he found an MPE kiosk where it stood at a busy intersection. The tall, tube-shaped enclosure shimmering in the rain was perched atop a single pillar

set deep into the concrete. A station officer leaned his elbows on an open window frame, offering directions to the Trade and Commerce Building for three travelers, but Ricky waited for them to go before hurrying beneath a conical overhang to escape the rain. Sergeant Walter Ritnour, an MPE beat cop on the Corridor for as long as Ricky could remember, noticed him at last. “Well, well, well; Slider Mills. What brings you all the way over here?” Ricky smiled and glanced behind to make sure no one could overhear. “Oh, just business; picking up, dropping off…the usual.” Ritnour eyed Ricky’s bag and said, “You wouldn’t have anything illegal in there would you?” Ricky held up the empty sack. “Nothing at all, see?” “I’ll take your word for it. Now tell me why you wandered down to Ninth in a driving rain; I know you’re not here just to say ‘hello’, are you?” Ricky shook his head and laughed a little so that Ritnour wouldn’t stray from his presumption that only street business was in-play. “Can’t a guy stop in and bullshit with his favorite cop?” “Sure,” Ritnour replied, “if that was the reason for his visit, but…” Ricky answered quickly; he couldn’t afford to appear tentative. “I need to check on a few things with the door guy at the Imperial; he’s been helpful finding new customers, and I have a few minutes to kill so I ducked in here. You’re a suspicious bastard!” “Uh huh,” said Ritnour with clear skepticism. “I guess that’ll have to do; you wouldn’t tell me if it was something else anyway.” “I’m legit; nothing to hide this time!” Ritnour nodded and smiled, knowing Ricky’s assurances were likely half-truths at best. “So, how’s your mom doing? I heard she had a bad time with her shoulder?” Ricky felt the relief at once. Ritnour may well have suspected other intentions, but he was willing to accept Ricky’s explanation and leave it alone, at least for the moment.

“Yeah, she fell at work and tore it when she landed wrong. The clinic couldn’t do much, so she had to wait for a slot up at the hospital. By the time those assholes called her in, her shoulder was so swollen she could hardly dress.” “Is she okay now?” “Doing a lot better, thanks. They gave her something to take care of the pain and inflammation, but she had to go back last month and they operated on her.” “Did she get a decent settlement, at least?” “They paid up pretty good if she agreed to stay on after she was better, so…” “No problems from the company?” “Not this time,” Ricky said with a smirk; “the people who run her shift at the plant stuck up for her; they made the managers cough up twice what she would’ve gotten on her own.” Ritnour shook his head knowingly. “The clinics aren’t worth shit, but I’m surprised they got her in at a Sector 4 hospital that fast; it usually takes months to even get a diagnosis.” “I know,” Ricky answered, grateful for the casual tone of the conversation. “I think the plant managers wanted to avoid any bad publicity, so they worked it with the doctors to see her sooner.” “Small favors, eh?” Ricky nodded and smiled. “So how’ve you been lately? I thought they were going to give you a desk job this year.” “Nope,” said Ritnour with a satisfied grin, “I refused it and asked to be left at my post right here. Can’t watch out for baddies when you’re stuck behind a goddamn desk all day, can you?” “Hell no!” Ricky laughed. “And anyway, this street would go to shit if you weren’t here to keep an eye on it; everyone knows that.” “That’s right—all you little hoodlums and streeties need a firm hand!” The banter was perfect. Ritnour liked trumpeting his disdain for the bureaucrats at MPE Sector Headquarters and once he started, his mind wouldn’t likely return to more suspicious thoughts. It was the moment Ricky had been waiting for.

“Hey, what the hell happened with Espinoza and Courtnall? The news vids said your guys finally nailed them out in the Zone at some warehouse?” “I heard about it this morning at our briefing. Hope you didn’t have anything in the works with those two; Investigations Section will be all over that place.” “Shit, I stay as far away from Bosses as I can,” Ricky said, holding up his hands in mock surrender; “I don’t want any part of them.” He waited for a moment, but Ritnour hadn’t taken the bait. He decided to steer the conversation gently, probing for what he needed. “I hear they found them inside an old storage building on the edge of the 217 Canal; the one with the green roof?” “Not that one,” Ritnour replied, “it was an empty machine shop. They kept some of their illegal stuff inside and our people found out about it.” Ricky tried hard not to smile; Ritnour confirmed the vacant building where Mister Anthony went to meet with Courtnall years before was indeed his target. He moved quickly to continue the conversation. “The detectives will have a good time when they get their hands on it, won’t they?” “They already have,” said Ritnour with noticeable pride. “I heard they brought in a dozen inspectors and really worked that place for hours.” “Still, it’s probably going to take days, right?” “Not for those boys; they scoured around non-stop and pulled everything out to the evidence vans—more stuff than anyone has ever seen in one place. Just like that —bang, bang, bang, then they locked it up and went downtown. You’d never know they were there!” At last, Ricky had what he needed. The MPE investigation was complete, paving the way for him to slip in under cover of night and look where no cop would’ve thought to try. “Damn! Well, it’s not going to break my heart if the magistrates send them to the cylinders; they’re both assholes and they made life hard on a lot of people.” Ricky had to pass through the obligatory small talk, simply to avoid tipping his hand. Begging off now, he reasoned, Ritnour might notice and wonder why. “Oh, they’re on their way, believe me.”

“How do you know?” “The stuff they found laying all over that building was more than enough evidence; they won’t be seeing daylight again any time soon, not if the Magistrate’s prosecutors have anything to say about it.” “Good!” said Ricky. “It’s gonna be interesting to see who fills the gap, now that these idiots are gone, especially Courtnall; he’d slit your throat for looking at the clock wrong.” “He won’t have the chance,” Ritnour declared; “When they get you with that much contraband, you’re pretty much screwed.” “Have you heard something else?” “Nothing I can tell you, Slider! I know your network goes all the way up, but my job is more important to me than your next score!” “That’s a shitty thing to say.” “Maybe, but it’s also true!” Ricky smiled again. It had been a nice chat, but Ritnour was still cautious enough to watch his words; the strange relationship between cop and street hustler hadn’t changed and Ricky’s signal to withdraw had been given. “I’m gonna head out.” “Okay, Slider; mind how you go.” Ricky paused for a moment before leaning close to whisper up at Ritnour. “You need anything from me?” Ritnour smiled and shook his head. “Not today, but thanks for asking.” Ricky nodded and stepped quickly through the rain, but as he went, Ritnour’s smile faded. He watched for a moment, waiting until the Slider disappeared before tapping a call code into his wrist comm. ***** The ride went slower than usual as maintenance crews struggled yet again with a pod train stuck on its overhead rail between stations in the pouring rain. When at last he turned down the alley for home, Ricky felt the excitement building with each step. The other hustlers, he thought with a grin—those saps who went along with the rest like stupid sheep—would never consider such a thing. If he could get

out to the Industrial Zone and search the old machine shop before anyone else thought to try, the bounty would be considerable and more than enough to stock his account at the theater for nearly endless sessions. As he tossed his bag on the floor beneath the window, Ricky ran through his mind the steps needed to make it to the Zone and home again undetected. The problem of enraging psychotic murderers like Espinoza and Courtnall had been removed by their timely arrests, but the Watchers could foul things considerably. Those dull, civilian misfits MPE maintained to stare at status displays and transit access records ‘round the clock from a bunker downtown might have been instructed to search for telltale signs inside system alerts. Perhaps, Ricky thought, anyone curious enough to go out that far, especially late at night, would show when their identification scans registered a trip on the pod train that made its turn near the borders of the warehouse compound. When they did, he knew, the Watchers would see it immediately and react. Instead, he would have to follow a different path, and one followed completely off the grid. It was far enough to the Zone to rule out trying it on foot, but that meant hopping a local land freight, or asking Vinnie to borrow his father’s delivery van. In the end, he opted for the guaranteed anonymity of the surface freight trains; Vinnie was another pair of eyes who would see and know—another risk to be taken and interrogated if MPE ever came to suspect. Ricky pulled his boots from tired feet and tossed them aside, intent on getting sleep before his journey that would begin in the hours after midnight. The rains would be heaviest in the early morning hours, the news vids insisted, making it unlikely his movements would be noticed; MPE rarely bothered to patrol on foot without a reason, especially in horrid weather. Once more, he settled and let his mind wander. When he faded, his last thoughts were only of Neferure. He remembered her excitement at the prospect of the fearsome Apheru, finally approved and named as her suitor. Soon, Ricky thought in the sweltering darkness, his rise through the layers of court politics would be secured by the word of Pharaoh herself; no one would stand between them again. ***** Ricky slipped quietly from his flat as the huge chronometer in the center of

Morrissey Square clicked over to 1:12. Despite the late hour, it would take time to walk the distance between his home and the low-speed tracks where cars of stillglowing alloy ingots were shunted through the darkness from the new foundry, destined for noisy rolling presses and hammers of metal processing plants on the border where the Zone met the canals—bleak, soulless and mostly deserted. Aboard an empty flat car, Ricky watched through the darkness as the train clacked and trundled beyond the Sector border into the wide spaces between habitat cells where identical, ten-floor apartment structures loomed in neat rows. It was mercifully cooler than the days before and a heavy blanket of fog had drifted in from beyond the wire to linger across the entire Zone, ghostlike and eerie. Most would dread the prospect, but for Ricky, the heavy mist was a silent ally that would frustrate the view for anyone who might have noticed on clearer nights. As the freight slowed around a wide curve, Ricky looked for his chance. The fields and vacant lots gave way to the first darkened structures where a footpath aimed directly and suddenly toward the Zone as Ricky’s comm clock showed 2:43. Well beyond the busier neighborhoods (and any nuisance an MPE checkpoint would make), he turned toward the old cracking plant where monstrous pressure vessels and connecting pipes stood in silence, silhouetted against the pale grey cloud cover. But it was not the blackened, malevolent shapes in the twilight that were disturbing to Ricky—he’d made the trip before. Instead, it was the likelihood others waited within that brought a nagging sensation of dread as he padded silently through soaked, ankle-high weeds between two control stations. Streeties —hungry, feral and desperate—often took shelter against the rain in old, empty structures where few dared to venture, especially at night. Once roused, they would gladly run down and attack a loner so far out from the safety of the Sector’s lights and MPE patrols. After twenty minutes, the angular shapes appeared slowly out of the fog as Ricky drew near. A heavy chain fence encircled a dozen structures within, three meters tall and fitted with elaborate, endless coils of razor wire; an effective barrier that kept out all who came without the lock codes to one of the gates or knowledge of another way inside, especially wanderers or streeties looking for a haven against

the weather. The complex went dormant years earlier when the Zone’s output dwindled. Each new plant moved deep below the surface into the cavernous, subterranean factory district meant one less on the surface. A handful of fabrication shops remained in the control of one property group or another, while the rest waited for a demolition team’s torches. Suddenly a deserted and forgotten place, the warehouse enclave’s solitude made for Ricky an ideal condition suited perfectly to searching about in the dead of night. Nearly a decade passed since Mister Anthony brought him along on a ‘business trip’ to meet with some of his associates, but Ricky understood when Courtnall waited for them at a narrow gate on a dark and blustery autumn day. Even then, Ricky knew Mister Anthony’s affairs were mostly illegal, but he kept quiet and took in all he could against the day when his first missions running for the old master brought him money no apprenticeship in the factories could match. In the dank, humid silence, Ricky paused again and remembered the stern faces of Courtnall’s men, dressed in cheap, shiny suits only thugs on the street seemed to wear, palming guns none of them felt the slightest compulsion to hide. As Mister Anthony chatted with Courtnall, Ricky had made a purposeful survey of his surroundings, determined to memorize the details in a place where remaining ever alert often meant the difference between life and death. In those early days, it was intoxicating for a kid from the housing blocks; plastic cartons full of new tokens were stacked beside tables heaped with the illegal treasures he would eventually route between the streets and the Uppers years later as a matter of course. A skinny, quiet boy who watched and listened more than he spoke, Ricky noticed everything, but mostly those places where Courtnall and Espinoza locked an office door behind them, or pulled back a stack of empty crates beyond the sight of others. He watched it all, flicking a thumb against his ring finger nervously in the silence, surrounded by five or six menacing brutes who did the unspeakable things the Bosses ordered—people like Junkyard. So long ago, he looked and learned, committing to memory a floor plate’s location here, or a collection of solvent barrels there. The early days brought thrilling and dangerous missions when Mister

Anthony entrusted him at last with those tiny packages, but he knew even then it was tomorrow that held more promise than today; Ricky was learning how to become the Slider. Ten years later, the effort was about to pay off as he found a rusted, metal hatch concealing a drainage culvert and slipped unseen inside, struggling to make his way in ankle-deep rain water and sand collected at the bottom of a two-meter, concrete tube. When he climbed crude, metal rungs set into the cement of a vertical pipe, feeling his way in the echoes and darkness, another hatch opened onto the muddy ground thirty yards beyond the barrier; at last, he was inside the fence. Ricky waited a moment, turning in a slow circle to inspect the wide apron between the ends of two warehouses. At once, he knew where the target building hid in the mist, making the short walk down a row of outbuildings and smaller workshops in minutes. Finally, the blood-red warehouse loomed, dark and quiet before him. A tiny hatchway, hidden behind an old freight container, had never been locked and when it gave way easily to his touch, Ricky smiled in silence. A moment later, he stood alone inside the building where only hours before, a swarm of policemen and investigators played the beams of their bright hand lamps in a vain attempt to find something more to help convict the two Bosses and add to an already lengthy jail term. Ricky knew the answer would be revealed near an office and the secret place it kept hidden from unwanted eyes. He moved quickly across the oil-stained floor, cluttered with cast-off junk and personal rubbish, avoiding shallow puddles of water made by leaks from the aging roof panels above. The place still held the stink of grease and chemicals, but he reached the little office where it sat, solitary and exposed on the north end of the building. At once, the memories returned; he could hear Mister Anthony’s strange twang, yattering with Courtnall in deliberate, careless tones. But more than that, he remembered the ancient, metal shelving where it lay flush against the office wall. With a knowing smile, Ricky pulled an empty rack forward a few inches, careful to lift it from the floor and avoid the metallic screech that might betray him to anyone lurking nearby. There, as it had always been, a small grate—heavy and serrated across its upper edges—lay neatly into a drain trough. It looked to the unsuspecting eye as if the filth, sludge and mud from decades of use had left it

completely clogged, but Ricky knew better. He positioned himself directly above and pulled. At once, it came free and he set it carefully onto the floor to look inside the trough. A thin, sheet metal pan filled with muck came free with little effort, revealing two small compartments recessed into one side of the trough’s concrete sides, confirming what he so desperately needed to see; the Bosses left behind a prized possession and MPE bunglers had missed it entirely. Wrapped in dark canvas, two small containers opened with ease and inside each were a dozen token transfer chips, data sticks and bits of jewelry. Ricky could only guess as to their value in the underground markets where burglars and stick-up men traded their stolen loot, but it followed that anything held and carefully concealed by Courtnall and Espinoza would necessarily be counted as rare or exceedingly valuable. Moving quickly, he stuffed the contents into his bag and secured it on his back, retracing his steps to the little hatch. A few minutes later, he was once again outside the fence line, resisting a temptation to run and determined to avoid being noticed should anyone linger unseen in the fog. A slow freight ride would have him back inside Sector 4 in an hour’s time. ***** It was nearing 4:30 when Ricky pushed open the door of his flat and slipped inside. If Mrs. Abber was watching, she would likely suspect only his customary return from normal, evening rounds, but it didn’t matter; he had what he needed and with it, the way to a better life. He laid the pack carefully behind his couch near a wall so that no one would notice. It had been weeks since Litzi’s last visit, he thought suddenly; it wouldn’t do if his sister saw and looked inside. He leaned wearily against the counter in his kitchen and opened a can of diluted fruit concentrate with a loud snap. In the silence, he sipped the cool juice, letting it slide down his parched throat slowly. It was best to wait, he thought, just to be sure; the cops could look and look, but the race had already been won. Soon, the infonets would tell a woeful tale of conviction for crimes against the people of Novum and life-ending jail sentences, putting Courtnall and Espinoza’s oncegrand syndicate out of business. With luck, the other Bosses would hesitate before moving in, if only to maintain a discrete distance until public outrage from above died down. If he could manage

it, the power vacuum might be filled in smaller, less noticeable increments. More than just the value of a secret cache, the departure of the Sector’s most notorious Bosses could open once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Perhaps, he thought silently, he would earn enough to elevate his status to that of a junior Boss. Maybe then, Boris and his partners would find Slider a different man indeed; a man not to be trifled with. Better yet, he nodded to no one, they would come to understand their mistake in tormenting Ricky Mills. Tomorrow, he thought, a full, three-hour session with Neferure would make for a wonderful celebration. When he felt her touch again, he would stand before her a better man. Click here for more information about When the River Ran Dry

About the Book Thomas longs to escape the drudgery of farm life, dreaming of adventure and running away from his demanding parents. Planet Remeon is on the brink of destruction, fighting a crippling disease that threatens to wipe out their civilization. Thrust into their world, Thomas is caught in the middle of telepathic mind games between the Day Watchers and the Night Dwellers. Alliances will be broken. Thoughts will be controlled. Will anyone survive?

1 Damn stupid old-fashioned rules were meant to be broken. It’s 1947, for God’s sake, Thomas Stewart thought, as he slid open the barn door with a grating squeak. Momentarily blinded by the darkness, he gave his eyes a few minutes to adjust. Bessie let out a somber moo, objecting to the intrusion. He moved quickly to her side to quiet and comfort her, whispering, “It’s okay, girl. I’m not here to bother you just yet.” Shep rose from his blanket nestled in the straw and bounded toward Thomas, barking a hello. “No, no, no. It’s not time to play,” Thomas said, reaching down to pet his dog, his eyes now accustomed to the low light. He heard the rhythmic back and forth thud of Shep’s tail wagging against the barn floor, and squatted to give him more attention, scratching behind each ear. “Listen up. Stay… I can’t have you barking and carrying on. Pa will know something is up for sure.” Thomas made his way to the back of the barn, focusing on his target just ahead. He and Pa had finished tweaking the transmission a few days ago. The used 1942 Harley had been calling to Thomas ever since. He smiled as he thought of the freedom he would feel when he hit the road, just a few minutes away. Thomas moved in closer, grasping the handlebars and releasing the kickstand as he made his way to the door, Shep following closely. “Stay, boy, stay.” Thomas led the motorbike down the long hill to the road. A short walk later, the family farm no longer in his sight, he prepared to kick-start the bike. He bent down, opened the choke and turned the key. He mounted then, kicked down hard on the starter, pressed in the clutch, and popped the gear into second. As he gave it some throttle, the engine sputtered, then came to life, announcing itself with a low rumble. The Harley felt powerful underneath him, and he smiled with satisfaction. This was heaven. Under the light of the half moon, in the rural Virginia town, he rode through the cool early morning air—very early in the morning—as it slapped his face and

blew his hair, invigorating him. He breathed evenly now, releasing his pent-up tension as he escaped the farm, leaving behind his strict parents and his landlocked life, and followed along the dirt-filled path to the meeting place. As he neared his destination, he slowed, pressed in the clutch, and downshifted, gliding to a stop. “Joe, where are you?” “I’m here. Stop your bellowing,” Joe said, emerging from the trees. He took a long drag from the cigarette hanging from his lips, then continued. “You trying to wake the dead or just your ma and pa? They can probably hear you, ya know?” he said, laughing, as he threw Thomas the box of Camels. “Aw, shut up,” Thomas said, giving his friend a shove. “Now, now, you asked, and I delivered. Watch out. Be careful of the merchandise,” Joe said, revealing a brown paper sack, offering it to Thomas. “That’s what I’m talking about.” Thomas reached in, pulling out a Budweiser. He grabbed his pocketknife from his pants and popped off the bottle top, then slid in beside his friend. “You got a light?” “Sure.” “Looks like I’ve got some catching up to do,” Thomas said, as he noticed the empty slots of the six-pack. He cupped his hands and lit his cigarette, drew deeply, then exhaled slowly. “We’ve got backup supplies, waiting in the wings,” Joe said, patting another bag. “Plenty left to get you toasted.” Thomas gulped down several large swallows, then burped loudly. “Hey, how’s your money supply? You still saving for our adventure?” “Some,” Joe said, taking another long swig. “Things are tight.” “I know they are. My parents are always pinching pennies. Damn Depression. It really messed them up. But why do we need to keep hearing about it? It’s 1947. It’s over. It’s been over for like eight years now. But I’m still hearing, Things were different when we were young. Blah, blah.” “Same here, except I have even less saved than you. How much do you have? C’mon, tell me. I know it’s more than me.” “Um, close to thirty-five dollars. Not really enough to last us for long without jobs, which we don’t even have yet,” he said, polishing off his first beer. Thomas

stood up and pointed at a tree. “Look there, Joe. That one up ahead about forty yards. You think I can hit it?” “Well, I know I can’t,” he said, slurring his words. Thomas did a mock windup and pitched the bottle hard, smashing it to bits. “And the crowd goes wild,” he said, prancing in circle. “Ooh, aah,” Joe said in mock amazement. “Sit down, stupid, and have another beer. You’ll miss the next shot.” As Thomas opened his second beer, he paused. “Are you still with me? We’re leaving town together, remember?” “Sure, ugly. Always, together forever,” Joe said, laughing. “Hey, serious up. I mean it. I’m leaving soon, even if I have to walk outta this boring lifeless town.” Thomas downed several long gulps of his beer, as silence fell over the pair. He took a final drag of his cigarette and stomped it out with his foot. “Thomas, man, you know my parents lost everything during the Depression. They’re scared, and they’ll be scared ’til the day they die. Hell, they’re practically dead already. And I’m scared shitless that I’m gonna follow in their footsteps. Oh, and I’ve got about five bucks to my name and beer for brains.” “Next thing you know, you’re gonna get all weepy on me. For real, I’ve got your back. Now, after I take a piss, I’m gonna need another. Can you handle that?” “I’ll see what I can do to accom, accom, accom…mo…date.” “But first another shot.” Thomas stood and grabbed his empty bottle, paused and took aim, and let the bottle fly. “The second in a row, yes! This boy is hot tonight,” he said, moving to the perimeter and unzipping his fly. “Aah.” “Not so fast, Thomas. Look. We got company. Now, shhh.” Thomas turned, then fell to the ground as he saw flashing red lights. “Where did he come from? Shit.” “What? Now I’m the calm one?” Joe asked. “I can barely stand, much less take a piss—well, maybe piss on myself.” “Shut up! If they find us, I’m dead meat. Why is he driving so slow?” “He heard you, Jackie Robinson, hitting those trees. Now can you run as fast as Robinson too?” “Run? I can’t run home and leave the bike. You are wasted.”

“Shhh, here he comes again. He’s making another pass,” Joe said, whispering. “That’s it. I won’t be cornered like an animal. I can outrun him. I can.” “Don’t be dumb. Just hush up and hide in the woods, wait him out, like I’m gonna do.” “No way! Look. He’s parking. It’s gonna be light in a couple hours, and I need to be home well before that. My parents care if I come home at night.” “Eat shit and die, man.” “I’m getting my bike. I’ll walk it out, hugging close to the brush. Then, down the road a bit, I’ll start her up.” “Don’t say I didn’t warn ya. I’m heading for cover and taking a nap.” Joe moved toward the woods as Thomas reached his bike. “See ya tomorrow.” “Yeah, assuming my pa doesn’t skin me,” Thomas replied. He walked the bike as slowly as his nerves let him, peering back at every shuffle of rock, just to be sure the police car was still stationary. “That’s gotta be about half a mile,” he said out loud softly, turning this time to gauge the distance. “It’s about an hour ’til sunup. I can’t waste any more time walking.” Thomas mounted the bike and pushed down hard on the starter. From behind he heard the shrill sound of sirens, and his stomach fell. “I can’t let them catch me,” he said, engaging the clutch. He pushed into second gear and let out the throttle, careening through the rock and dirt as his tires found the road. He knew the police car was following him. He still heard the sirens, but he didn’t dare look back. “It’s gonna be the long way home,” he said, as he veered off road, putting his foot down to keep his balance as he skidded toward the forest dirt path he knew so well. The trees and underbrush made the bike trek difficult, but soon Thomas couldn’t hear the sirens any longer. Just short of the estimated hour travel time, he saw his family’s barn in the distance. He exhaled a deep sigh of relief, cut the engine, and dismounted the bike, while he looked at the sky, then back to the house. Pa will be up soon and wondering where I am, he thought. And I better be busy milking Bessie. ***** Thomas stowed the bike, careful to park it in the back of the barn at the exact same angle as before. He ran his hand along the smooth olive-colored body of the

Harley, pulling trapped twigs and leaves from his ride. Outside, he heard the familiar sound of the back door opening and slamming shut. “Son?” Thomas felt his heart beat in his throat as he moved into high gear. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, even though he had already cooled down from his recent escapades. He grabbed the milking stool and pail, and parked them next to Bessie, realizing he only had seconds to come up with a reasonable explanation for being here with an empty pail. Grateful that he had thought to change his clothes before going out, he noticed a large tear in his pants leg as he pulled the stool over, swung his legs around, and sat down. Barking and a muted conversation, coupled with the heavy thud of Pa’s boots crunching as they hit the ground, meant he was approaching the door. Shep must have gotten out, Thomas thought. A few seconds later, he was face-to-face with his pa. “Thomas? Why didn’t you answer me?” “Hi, Pa. I didn’t hear you, sorry. I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d come on out and get started.” “Couldn’t sleep? You’re never early for chores.” He looked down at the empty bucket. “Doesn’t look like you’ve got much done. How long have you been out here? I’ve been awake in the house for a while, and I didn’t hear you come out.” Thomas met his father’s eyes and realized his pa didn’t know, not yet anyway. At this point Pa was just confused. He wanted a reasonable explanation. After all, Thomas wasn’t ever early. Then he felt a bulge in his back pocket and remembered what he had stowed there and suppressed a grin. As he stood, he reached around and pulled out his Buck Rogers comic book he had been reading before his ride and handed it to his father. Kicking intently at the straw around his feet, he continued. “I came out here a few hours ago to read since I couldn’t sleep.” Glancing up, Thomas waited for the moment of truth, gauging his pa’s reaction. “Silly. What a waste of time.” Relieved, Thomas exhaled, not realizing he had been holding his breath. “It relaxes me.” “You could read lots of real books…books that might further your education,

books where you might actually learn something,” he said pointedly, returning the comic book with a look of disgust. Before Thomas could respond, he watched as his pa wrinkled his nose and turned to the side. “What’s that smell? Is it gas?” Thomas froze, unsure how to deflect his pa’s latest revelation. “I don’t smell anything,” Thomas added, watching as his pa moved to the back of the barn toward the bike. No, no, no. Don’t touch the bike. The engine might still be warm, Thomas thought. No… “Did we somehow spill gas the other day, while we were working on the transmission?” “Yes, that’s it. We did,” he answered a little too energetically, surprising his father, who turned around. Thomas felt his legs go weak and reached out to Bessie to steady himself. “What’s wrong, son?” “Just tired, I guess. I should have been in my bed sleeping last night,” he said, being totally honest for the moment. “That’s true, but you’re not getting out of chores that easy. And what’s that you have on? Torn pants and a T-shirt? No jacket? You came out here like that this morning? It’s cold this morning, son,” he said, shaking his head. Relieved the focus had turned away from the bike, he said sheepishly, “Yes, Pa.” “Go back inside and grab a jacket, and come right back out—and hustle. There’s work to be done, and I’ll not have you getting sick.” “Yes, Pa. I’ll be right back.” I’m only a farmhand to him, Thomas thought, as he walked to the house. The monotony of this place will surely kill me eventually, just the same as if someone pulled a trigger and shot me dead on the spot. This is just another morning, like all the other endless mornings I’ve endured up to this day. I’m free labor—a shit-shoveler, more or less. As he opened the back door, his senses came alive, greeted with the familiar aromas of freshly baked biscuits, frying sausage, and strong coffee. The kitchen stove warmed him as he moved through the room.

“Thomas, I didn’t hear you go out.” “Hi, Ma. I went out early, just coming back for my jacket. Colder than I thought,” Thomas added, as he tramped up the stairs. In his room, Thomas picked up a thermal shirt and pulled it over his head, then added a jacket. He returned through the kitchen, and his stomach growled. “Smells good, Ma,” he said, pulling his collar in closer around his neck before disappearing back outside. He and his pa typically worked silently most mornings, but, as Thomas opened the barn door again and made his way to Bessie, he thought about possibly talking to his pa, maybe due to the boldness of the morning already. He decided to test the waters. “Pa?” “Yes, son.” “I’ll be sixteen soon, and I’ve been thinking about my future.” “Yes, good to know, and?” “And…and—” “Spit it out.” “Well…I’m not sure I’m cut out for farming, day in and day out.” There—he said it. Unable to look at his father, he studied bits of stray grass, waiting for a response in the awkward silence. “Is that so? What are you cut out for then? You’ve been working on this farm ever since you could walk. It’s what you know.” “It’s what you know, Pa,” Thomas corrected. James turned toward his son, as he leaned on a shovel. “Sit for a minute, son.” Shocked that his pa might actually hear him out, Thomas pulled up the milking stool and took a seat. “Your ma and I have talked and thought you might be ready to handle more responsibility this season—learning the buying and selling piece of what we do. You’ve always been involved in the day-to-day planting, tilling, harvesting. Now it’s time to know more, do more. You can see how we actually make a living at farming. You can see the potential. Now you can understand it.” Thomas sat completely still, afraid to speak, not wanting something awful to come out of his mouth, even though the words were on the tip of his tongue,

fighting to be set free. “Son, did you hear me? We think you’re ready. We can start soon. There is so much more to learn,” he said, his excitement evident. “One more year of school and then you could spend more of your day here and less time cooped up in the schoolhouse.” “Pa, I…I…don’t know what to say,” Thomas said. He paused, his pa’s eyes boring a hole into him, took a deep breath, and decided to jump in with both feet. “I want to see the world, Pa. I want to learn about the world, not just this one little piece of dirt—maybe join the service.” “Piece of dirt?” Pa said, spitting out the last word. “This piece of dirt is keeping our family afloat, with food on the table and clothes on your back,” he said, as his eyes grew bigger and bigger with each word. Here it comes, Thomas thought. “The service? Are you ready to fight for our country, give your life for our country? Explain to me how you’re ready for that when you spend your days reading comic strips?” Thomas listened as his pa’s voice broke, and his eyes got misty. “Pa?” James picked up the shovel he’d been leaning on, turned, and threw it against the side of the barn, sending an echo throughout the shed. Shep darted out the door, and Bessie mooed, nervously shifting her hind legs. “Go, son. Go take care of the chickens. I’ll finish up in here.” “But, Pa, I didn’t…” “Go. Now.” Thomas left the barn and quietly shut the door, petting Shep, who sat waiting for him outside the barn. “Come on, boy. Come with me. It’s okay.” If the only way out is to enlist, I’ll up and leave one night, and make it happen, he thought. Even with the war over, they still needed men. He heard the spiel in his head repeating over and over. Defend your country. Your friends are fighting. Why aren’t you? Thomas walked into the chicken coop, ducking his head, and the hens flew excitedly from their nests. One by one he picked up the warm eggs and placed them in the wire basket. His empty stomach growled loudly. It had already been a

long morning. His thoughts turned once again to food, and he picked up the pace. As he left the henhouse, he saw his pa out in the field, tending to the cattle and sheep. I wonder if he actually enjoys this life? Back in the kitchen he handed off the eggs to his ma. “Perfect. I’ll fry these up in a jiffy,” she said, smiling at him. By this time, he did feel weak from hunger, and the lack of sleep was catching up with him too. It’ll be a long day, he thought, as he moved to the sink to wash up. Mary, his older sister, set the biscuits on the table in front of him. “You were up mighty early this morning,” she said, with a smile settling on her face. Thomas threw a sideways glance her way. Did she know? She’s so bossy. Mary was the eldest and, at seventeen, very mature. Many young men found her attractive with her tall, slender stature and shoulder-length brown hair. She was actually quite stunning, when she wasn’t telling on Thomas. His little sister, Belle, scooted into the chair next to him and attempted to push herself in. Thomas laughed, happier to focus on her. She had shorter blond hair, with curls that bobbled as she ran. And, at age eight, she idolized both her older siblings, but especially Thomas, since they were closer in age. “Here, let me help you with that,” he said, as he moved her chair closer to the table. All present and accounted for, almost. Breakfast would not begin without his pa seated at the head of the table. Thomas’s mouth watered as he squirmed in his seat, his eyes locked on the warm food in front of him. He willed his pa to walk through the back door. He was tempted to sneak a bite when the door swung open, and his pa walked through the door. Pa washed his hands and took his seat, while Ma finished frying the freshly gathered eggs. Once she brought the rest of the eggs to the table and seated herself, he closed his eyes and said grace, which meant the eating could begin. Someday I will miss this but not today…not today, he murmured again, as he dug into his first helping of biscuits and hot gravy. ***** As Thomas finished his breakfast, he thought about the day ahead. School is

really for those who have nothing better to do with their day, and there is always something better to do. Figurin’, readin’, and writin’ are important to get along in this world—he knew that, especially since he had big plans to see the world, and escape the farm. He knew all that school stuff now, so what was the point of continuing? It had served its purpose. Belle, his baby sister, interrupted his thoughts as she prodded, “Whatcha thinking?” Thomas paused. “I’m thinking you better finish breakfast now. It’s your turn to help with the dishes, and you’ll get left behind if you don’t hurry.” Thomas loved Belle dearly and would do anything for her, even though she could be a pest a lot of the time. “You better not,” she said, jumping from her seat to start her chores. “Oh, just hurry up,” Thomas spat out. “You are slow as molasses.” With that comment, Ma looked at Belle. “Belle, dear, Thomas isn’t ready to go yet either,” she said, giving him a stern look. “Move it along, Belle. You will be finished in no time. And, Thomas, you have one extra chore this morning. Take these scraps and coffee grounds to the compost heap, and make sure you turn the pile as well.” “Yes, ma’am,” Thomas replied, glaring at Belle from the corner of his eye. From her contented smile, he knew she thought she had bested him. Dishes and composting now done, Thomas and Belle stood by the door. Where was Mary? Thomas hadn’t seen her since breakfast, come to think of it. Belle was special, despite getting on his nerves occasionally. Unlike the majority of younger children, she was comfortable just to be. She could say more with a glance or a touch than most people could with a mouthful of words. Even at age eight she was good at making people feel comfortable. Mary, on the other hand, was tightly wound, especially this morning as she rounded the corner of the hallway. Her eyes darted to the door, where Thomas and Belle stood ready to go, then she quickly whispered to Ma. Hushed tones ensued. Something’s up. “Go on to school, Thomas and Belle. Mary has some special errands to complete today and will not be going with you.” “Is she sick?” Belle chimed in.

“No, dear, not at all. Now run along, or you both will be late to school, and you know how Mrs. Martin loathes tardiness.” Thomas took another cursory glance at his older sister, as the whispered tones between her and Ma continued. If she is telling on me, I’ll never forgive her. He kept watching. Something was definitely not right. He noticed her shoulders sagged, like she had the weight of the world resting on her. What could it be? Thomas thought as he opened the door. With one foot out the door, he turned back once more. “Bye, Ma.” “Bye, dear. You both have a good day.” Thomas set a rapid pace, ready to put some distance between himself and Mary. “Hurry along now, Belle. You will be warmer if you walk quickly.” “Yes, Thomas,” she replied dutifully. With the sun peeking through the clouds, Thomas saw the sky come alive with bursts of orange and yellow and muted blue tones, and he slowed. The hills ahead seemed isolated from the rest of the horizon, framed by the colors of the sun. The countryside was coming alive. Spring was just around the corner. But, after the argument with Pa this morning, all Thomas could think about was how the sky reminded him of a scene he was reading in his Dr. Modar of Saturn comic book, hidden away in his back pocket. It was only the last week of March, but with the arrival of spring would come much hard work on the farm: plowing, preparing the field, planting, and tending to crops. Thomas grinned, thinking of one bright spot—school would be over for him shortly. Pa would need him in the field, and, as with all young men his age, he would leave school early for the summer break to assist with chores on the farm. He wasn’t quite sure how many more seasons he would be around. Maybe only one. He had to get his plans together. And he needed a job. Those were difficult to come by; times were tough. Thomas had seen signs of stress between Ma and Pa, and Thomas guessed the source had to be lack of money. Lost in his thoughts, he looked up to find they had reached the school. “Go on in, Belle. I’ll see you here after school.” Belle cocked her head and looked at Thomas. “You’re not coming? Why not?”

“I’ve got some things to do. No more questions.” “Okay, Thomas. See you later.” She skipped inside, her tight blond curls floating in the air as she moved. He heard the familiar sounds of school: kids playing and children laughing. Thomas took one step forward, then a tentative step back. His mind reeled with thoughts and concerns of the future, his future. He walked in the opposite direction from the way he had come, then walked faster, until he jogged at a steady pace away from the school yard. Thomas ran until his breath came in heaving bursts. It was good to be out, away. He felt the weight lift slightly from his shoulders, and, if only for a few hours, he could just be. Confusion clouded his mind, as all his looming decisions vied for space in his head. He reached down and grabbed a stick from the ground, then thrust his other hand in his pocket, feeling his way to his pocketknife. While he whittled, thoughts continued to flow as a jumbled mess while he attempted to organize them into two sides, pros and cons. Pros to staying just where I am? Well, there’s family. And it would make them all happy. Then there’s Pa. It is what he expects and has already planned for my future. I guess I’d learn something in the process, if I ever had to actually farm for a living. But really I think I could get by with the knowledge I have today on the subject actually. That’s about it for the pros. Cons? I am miserable with farm life, and I only see that getting worse. Also how can I travel the world when I’m tied to a farm, with my schedule set and dependent on the sun, wind, and rain? No, I want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it. Ma and Pa would say that sounds kinda selfish and immature. I know they would. But I want my life to be my own and not determined by someone else. And another big con: I don’t have the money to follow my dreams yet, and that is something I definitely need. It always comes back to money. What would Buck Rogers do? He would never be in this situation; he is only the best action hero ever. Against all odds he always wins. Will I ever see any action? He considered his threat to join the service. It just might be the only option. He could prove his pa wrong. He was ready. He dug into his pocket again and pulled out several Buck Rogers comic books.

Thomas turned the pages, rereading each word that he had already devoured. He poured over the worn pages and imagined his life once again as the Buck Rogers. Wouldn’t life be grand to always win and never to have decisions made for you and to always get the glory? Someday my life will be grand, and someday I will have the glory, if only I could figure out the first step. Thomas absentmindedly groped for his slingshot as he watched a squirrel climb a distant tree. A smooth rock nearby caught his eye. He aimed and fired off a quick shot. It zoomed past the animal to the far right, and it scurried away. He collected a few more perfectly sized rocks close to the stream and shoved them in his pocket, then knelt to take a drink. Thomas paused and turned toward the sound of the disturbance around him, diving behind the nearest tree. “Thomas? Are you out here?” Thomas poked his head out to see his friend Joe with his hands on his knees, panting, catching his breath. Thomas stepped from his hiding place. “Yeah, I’m here. Why are you here?” “Just…one…second…and…I’ll tell you,” he said, struggling to speak. “Not sure what you…see…in this place.” Thomas laughed as he watched his friend’s heaving breaths slow and normalize once again. “Sure you do. It’s my place, and no one knows about it.” Joe met Thomas’s eyes, and his face transformed into a broad ear-to-ear grin. “No one but me.” “Yeah. You can’t get enough of me, I know. I barely escaped a shitload of trouble this morning, being out with you. My pa hates me, and I’m skipping school. My day isn’t getting any better.” “Hey, you gotta admit it was fun, just chilling, until we had company. Then watching you hightail it outta there was priceless,” he said, laughing uncontrollably. “Always glad to be of service. And you are here, why? You need to be at school learning stuff, idiot.” “Hey, I take offense to that. I’m a smart idiot.” Joe pulled out his lunch pail and set it between them. “Okay, and? Is it lunchtime? You came all the way out here to eat?”

Joe threw up his hands in an exaggerated motion and rolled his eyes. “And you call me dumb… Open it.” Thomas grabbed the pail and flipped open the lid. Immediately his eyes got big as his jaw dropped, and the pail slipped from his fingers. “What have you done?” Joe looked back at Thomas, the spark of laughter gone from his eyes. “After our meeting last night I made some decisions. You forced me to take a hard look at myself. All we’ve been talking about for so long is about to come true. I’m not going back home. I’ve got a small bag behind the schoolhouse. We can leave tomorrow. I was going to tell you today at school, but, when you didn’t show up —” “Wait now,” Thomas interrupted. “Slow down. Where exactly did you get this?” Joe leaned down and picked up the pail and retrieved its contents. “I stole it. It’s my parents’ savings,” he said, as he arranged the bills in his hand for Thomas to get a closer look. “There must be hundreds of dollars there,” Thomas said. “Three hundred and seventy-eight to be exact,” Joe replied. Thomas stepped back and ran his fingers through his hair and paced. “I can’t use your parents’ money,” he said. “It’s just not right.” Joe threw the money in the pail and closed the distance between them. “Hey, this was your idea, remember? I’m just finally giving it wings so we can fly. You say you’re ready every day. You complain about your pa every day. Let’s just do it.” Thomas looked into the eyes of his friend who he had known as long as he could remember, as Joe silently pleaded with him. Thomas heard the desperation in Joe’s voice. Thomas broke away and continued to pace, then abruptly stopped and sat down on a large rock, staring into the distance, his knees bouncing nervously. Joe shook his head and went back to the forgotten pail. “You’re not coming are you? After all this, you’re gonna back out and leave me holding the bag.” Thomas raised his eyes and smiled at his lame joke. “You stupid dumb-shit,” he said, laughing. “Yes, I’m coming with you, on one condition.” Joe glanced up, a look of shock on his face. “No way. What is it?” “I’m not touching any of that money. I’ve got enough for a bus ticket at home.

We can get outta town and decide where to from there. Agreed?” “We’ll play this any way you want,” Joe said, as he grasped Thomas in a bear hug. “I didn’t think you were gonna come,” he whispered, his voice cracking. Thomas pulled away and studied his friend’s face. “Hey, together forever, remember?” “That was a long time ago,” Joe replied. “Besides, you need me, or you’d get hopelessly lost.” Joe nodded his head in agreement. “Sadly that’s a true statement.” “Let’s decide on a time to meet. I’ve suddenly got lots to do tonight,” Thomas said, energy bubbling just below the surface. “At 1:00 a.m. at the schoolhouse. Ma and Pa are away for the night, visiting my cousin, but, as I said, I’m not going home.” “We’re doing it!” Thomas said, as they clasped arms. “See you at one.” Joe picked up the pail and flashed him a smile. “I just knew you wouldn’t let me down.” “Never. Now you focus on you. I’ve got to…” Thomas looked at the sun as it hung low in the sky. “Oh, no, Belle.” The excitement of his recent decisions left him. He wouldn’t be at school in time to meet his sister. Thomas set off in the direction he had come, hours ago now, at a fast run. Even with this new complication, he felt better about things. He would be free in a matter of hours. His mind raced in a hundred different directions as the adrenaline coursed through him. When he neared the school yard, he listened for familiar sounds of shouting and children playing. But he heard none of that, just silence. The school yard was empty, and Belle was not waiting for him. His mood shifted as he quickly went from excitement to worry, then dread. Thomas realized what would be waiting for him when he got home. His pace slowed to a walk. No way around this. He was in big trouble. Belle obviously started home without him. She was probably home now, recounting the story of him sending her into school without him. Thomas racked his brain to come up with an excuse. In spite of what was waiting for him at home, he actually felt better than he did this morning. Pa had basically ignored him, and now this would be their last confrontation. His hand

found his comic books, and his fingers fanned the pages back and forth in his pocket. Someday I’ll have something to show for my hard work, something other than eggs, corn, or beans. My story may not be in a comic book, but I will find my own way, and, in my story, I’ll be the star. ***** James Stewart looked outside from his spot in the barn. By the position of the sun in the sky he judged it to be about 1:00 to 1:30 p.m., suppertime for sure. His day, thus far, had consisted of inventorying the equipment and supplies on hand for spring planting. All appeared to be in good working order, just a few maintenance chores here and there, easily taken care of. He mentally processed the annual planting cycle, as he did every year. He had been thinking for weeks that the time was close. A couple more weeks and we must be ready to plant our barley, beans, corns, oats, and hay, but the ground has to be prepared before that, and the time for that was now. James finished a few more items, checked them off his list, then went to the clipboard he kept on the wall to visualize his progress. All was in perfect order and on schedule. He was dependent on his son for help, and in a few weeks Thomas would be his for the spring and summer. James’s dependence on his son and his labor grew by the day. As Thomas grew older and stronger, he became a more valuable resource; James knew this to be true. He thought back on the recent conversation he had had with his son. It had been unsettling for them both. Thomas doesn’t know what he really wants, James thought. Young men needed strong guidance and lots of physical labor to keep their hands and minds busy. Thomas performed well enough in school, and James’s dear Elizabeth saw to it that the boy attended church—well, all of them. God, church, and family—these edicts helped a family function and ultimately made a country strong. These will see my son through as well. James closed the door to the barn and walked to the house. His thoughts turned to his wife, Elizabeth. Even now in 1947, times were still hard. But with the lean days of the Great Depression behind them, he felt confident about the days ahead. She deserved the best. She was an amazing woman and ran the house well, plus was a wonderful wife and mother. Hopefully this year’s crops would yield well, and they could buy some of the things they had put off for so long, with all the

scrimping and saving just to make ends meet. He couldn’t help but smile as he opened the door and witnessed his wife busy with her day, gliding from one thing to the next, the kitchen humming with activity. “I hope something in this kitchen is ready for me. It all smells wonderful. I’m famished.” When Elizabeth heard him speak, she turned down the radio and showed him the pot of stew on the stove, ready and waiting for him. He kissed her on the cheek and walked to the sink to wash up, while Elizabeth pulled the cornbread from the oven. Daffodils brightened the room, complementing the table already set for two, complete with cheery checkered napkins. She served two plates, as her husband sat down. After grace and a few hungry mouthfuls, James paused and looked up at Elizabeth. “We need to talk about Thomas,” James said, resolutely putting down his fork and clearing his throat. “Did you know—at fifteen years old—he’s been thinking of joining the army? With the preparing of the fields beginning any day now, I’ll expect a lot of him, and I need to know his head is in the right place.” “I feel him struggling,” Elizabeth said. “He’s not a man yet and still has many childish ways. I believe he is trying to make decisions about his future. He’s a little restless and distracted, but isn’t that normal for a boy of almost sixteen?” “I feel him struggling too. It’s called laziness and indecisiveness,” James said with a sarcastic tone. “This is where we need to take an even harder line.” He continued. “Damn it, Elizabeth, we need him here to make ends meet. He owes it to us. Without him we’ll be hiring some day-workers to help with the farm. It’s time for him to make a real contribution and have a stake in the process, carry some risk. He doesn’t even see the opportunity. That’s how closed-minded he is. We should bring him into the planning and all the processes necessary to bring crops to harvest. If he could just see it and grab it, it’s all within his reach. He has done most of the tasks, but, if he is to be a farmer, he needs to be exposed to all facets of crop growing—planning, planting, growth, harvest, and bringing the crops to market to sell. Don’t you feel he’s ready to take on more?” ***** Elizabeth thought about Thomas. Her son at times seemed like a stranger. She

realized this journey into manhood was not one she could participate in. James assured her that this was necessary for Thomas to realize his lot in life, and, through this process, he would emerge a confident, productive young man. She had acquiesced up to this point, deferring to the man she loved. Elizabeth shuddered at the thought of Thomas enlisting. She recalled the stories from friends whose sons didn’t return from the war. It had been a dark time. Even though her family hadn’t had much, they got by; they were all alive still. Elizabeth had listened intently to James, then reached out and took her husband’s hand in hers. “I do feel he’s capable and strong, but, James, he doesn’t want to farm. He could change his mind, yes, but you can see it in his eyes some days. He looks like a caged animal. After another year, what do we do? Keep him here against his will?” James picked up his dishes, took them to the counter, and threw them in the sink with a loud clatter. Elizabeth thought, What if their fears were confirmed, and Thomas, when cornered, actually runs away and enlists? What would happen next? Hopefully her instincts this time were wrong. The rift this would cause between father and son would be devastating to their relationship. James had never questioned that Thomas would follow in his father’s footsteps, and this year it seemed James wanted Thomas to invest more of himself, with James teaching his son more of what he knows about farming. She stood up and walked over to her husband, placing her hands on his back. She could feel the tightness of his muscles straining against his shirt, and, when he turned around, she saw that same tension in the deep lines cut into his face. “Maybe it’s a phase. He’s young and impulsive. Let’s give him a few days, and we’ll both talk to him again.” As she finished speaking, a wave of uneasiness flowed through her, and she felt a deepening sense of foreboding. Elizabeth turned her attention to the table, clearing the rest of the dishes. She tried to brush away the feeling, but, in her heart, she knew she didn’t believe it herself. “It will be all right.” She continued, assuring James. “Give it time.” James shook his head in obvious exasperation, continuing on without missing a

beat. “Why should we entertain his childish notions? What could he have to say of importance really, Elizabeth? He is almost sixteen and knows little of worldly things but what we have taught him. And he knows nothing of the horrors of war, yet he’s ready to jump into that blindly?” Elizabeth felt a chill rush over her, and she shivered again. This event would shape these two and their relationship far into the future, and her optimism for a positive outcome was dwindling. The men in this family seemed like two ships on very different voyages, and they were destined for a collision. A knock on the door interrupted them. Mrs. Martin? ***** Thomas neared the house and saw Pa on the porch, standing there, waiting. When he got closer, it became clear Pa was even madder than Thomas had anticipated. His high from before was gone, replaced with a growing fear. He felt like his boots were anchored to the ground as he covered the last few yards to the porch steps with difficulty. Slowly making his way up, he avoided his pa’s glare. He had no doubt of Pa’s intentions. His face was red, the muscles there taut, and they spasmed as he spoke. “Son, I’m disappointed with you. Take a walk to the barn.” Thomas knew what was in store for him there. It wasn’t a place his pa took him when he was interested in his side of the story. Thomas sighed heavily and braced for the worst. ***** James pushed the barn door closed with a thud, then looked at his son as he walked to the opposite side of the barn with his head low. He petted Bessie, then lifted his eyes to meet his pa’s unwavering gaze. “Thomas, I don’t understand you. Your little sister, she is your responsibility. How could you leave her? What were you thinking? Are you thinking at all?” James said, his voice growing louder with each syllable. “Mrs. Martin brought Belle home and told us how you weren’t at school today. Where were you? And what was so important to leave your sister behind? Discipline is a trait valued by the world, son. And we instill this in you every day. Where was it today? Son? I’m

waiting!” I know you don’t understand me, Thomas thought. No one does. “Pa, I just needed time. I felt like I was suffocating. I couldn’t stand to be behind those walls today.” Thomas glanced up to read his pa’s face. A quiet, seething anger registered there, unlike anything he had seen before. “Pa, I know I messed up,” he said. “I meant to be back to the school in time to walk Belle home. Time just…got away from me. You see I had important…” “Enough!” Pa said, waving his arms, silencing him. “Nothing is more important than your family and certainly not an afternoon stroll through the countryside. Remember our conversation this morning? What do you think they do to soldiers who leave their posts? It’s called desertion,” he said, not waiting for a reply but pausing to take a breath before plowing in again. “You would be shot on sight. And to think I was ready to give you more responsibility on the farm. I thought you were ready… You’ve proved me wrong, son. Your actions were irresponsible and childish,” he said, shaking his head. “I expected more from you.” Thomas met the cold stare of his father, who he didn’t feel like he knew anymore. His pa’s nostrils flared, and his breathing was loud and aggravated. It reminded Thomas of an animal about to charge. He wished he could disappear into the wood of the barn he was huddled against. “Pa, I…wait.” “There is nothing you can say that will make this right.” Thomas opened his mouth to speak, wanting to scream what was on his mind. But, knowing this wasn’t the time, closed it without saying another word. Would there ever be a time? he thought. “You can expect a bigger share of the chores. If you have time to spend half your day doing absolutely nothing, then you have too much time!” Pa said, his voice forming a streaming hiss. “I’ve been too easy on you. That’s fixin’ to change. You’ll be a man soon, with adult responsibilities, and, like it or not, you need to take your place in this man’s world.” “Pa, will you let me…” “No. The time for talk is done.” Thomas looked up at his pa again and knew he was beyond reason. His gaze was fixed, and his jaws clenched, as he stared unflinchingly at Thomas. Fear and dread

paralyzed him as his feet turned to lead. He heard the belt whipped free from his pa’s trousers in one swift motion. Thomas couldn’t bear to see the look of disgust on his pa’s face, but his focus still remained glued there. His shoulders sagging, Thomas finally turned his face toward the wall, his fingers forming a tight fist, as he inhaled deeply, bracing himself for the first blow. One. Thomas yelled as the first one landed on his lower back with a loud quick snap. Two. Shuffling his feet, Thomas adjusted his position as he anticipated the next hit. Three. Then, in quick succession, four. He cringed and gritted his teeth as he struggled to catch his breath. He fought back tears as his fists pounded the wall, then slowly slid down as number five found its mark, and then, he quit counting. The stinging and burning consumed his entire backside. Hot tears rolled down his cheeks. His father stopped after what seemed like an eternity, even he was out of breath from the exertion. Thomas panted as he gasped for air, leaning into the wall, grateful for its support, not wanting to turn and face his pa again. “Now go inside and up to your room,” Pa ordered, still breathing heavily. “Your mother will bring you leftovers later tonight. You’ll not eat with the family this evening.” Pa left without another word, closing the barn door. In the silence of the barn, Thomas screamed as he smashed his fist through the wall and crashed in a crumpled heap to the ground. The tears began again, and he impatiently wiped them away, his breath still coming in short bursts, his chest heaving. I can’t stay in this house any longer. I won’t. He began the slow, painful walk across the barn, then to the house. Every inch of his body hurt, and he knew tomorrow’s pain would be worse. His father would never understand. This is the last whipping I’ll ever receive without fighting back, he vowed. And tomorrow I’ll be gone. Thomas caught his sisters’ glances as he entered the house. Mary averted her gaze, and Belle sat curled in the corner, whimpering. His eyes brimming, another wave of unshed tears fell, and his vision clouded again. Belle was upset, but this wasn’t her fault. The issues were much bigger than today. Thomas made his way up the steps. Slowly he closed the door on this day that had quickly gone so wrong. In the closet Thomas found his small travel bag. From his drawers he pulled out

three shirts, a pair of pants, and underwear, and set to work packing. A few minutes later, he had finished with the small items he wanted to take with him, then surveyed his room for anything he may have forgotten. So much time spent here and this is how it ends. He gathered his comic books from the shelf above his bed and, from his nightstand, pulled out all the cash he had in the world and placed it in the bag, then zipped it shut. He set his alarm clock for twelve midnight. The pain of cuts large and small stung him when he pulled away his torn shirt. Pieces of cloth clung to his skin from the blood gathering there. Muscles he didn’t even know he had screamed at him in agony as he undressed and slipped into his bedclothes. He pulled back the sheets and crawled into bed, lying on his stomach. Not even the least bit hungry, he shut his eyes and tried to push from his mind the recurring scene in the barn. Despite the effort, every time his eyes closed, vivid pictures came alive in his head, taking on a life of their own. Sometime later the door opened, and he heard his ma place food on the bedside table. He felt a light kiss on his forehead and a gentle pat on the shoulder. She then reached around and quickly dressed the wound on his hand. “I love you,” she whispered, hugging him lightly as she kissed him on the cheek. Thomas felt his face, now wet, not from his own tears this time but his ma’s. He buried his head under the covers, relieved to think no more, and gave in to the exhaustion that overtook him. Click here for more information about Remeon’s Destiny

About the Book This compilation contains all three IA novels as well as the new novella Invincible Assassin (book 2.5) of this highly acclaimed series. Initiate: One young man with latent supernatural abilities plus a street gang hell-bent on recruiting him equals IA: Initiate. The most important thing in the world to young orphan Naz Anderson is keeping his little sister safe but when they see a seemingly random act of gang violence, Naz discovers a secret that plunges him into a supernatural world within. B.O.S.S.: Naz Anderson begins to understand the psychic gifts from his father with the help of his sister Meri. When Naz gets too close to the truth and tragedy strikes, he must unleash his newfound abilities to wield his own unique brand of justice. Will his appetite to avenge his friend’s murder lead to his destruction or his destiny? Invincible Assassin Book 2.5: What do you do when tragedy strikes your best friend—a best friend who has the power of a god? You learn the only thing worse than having nothing to live for is having nothing to lose. Union: In the exciting series finale, Naz Anderson can’t find peace or the answers he seeks. All he knows is the cold reality of the streets. But his world changes when he meets D, the girl of his dreams, but when D goes missing, Naz will need to use his supernatural abilities and his street smarts to rescue D, or risk losing everything.

Prologue In The Past… An auditorium is filled with admirers who are anxiously waiting to hear the cutting-edge theories of leading scientist, Dr. Cornelius Andersen. The brilliant young scientist in a striking black tuxedo and hair wild atop his head is waiting backstage in the auditorium for his introduction. With him is his beautiful wife, Camille, in an elegant, lavender gown. The air is electric this evening. Rumor has it that Dr. Andersen will shock the scientific community with an announcement of groundbreaking discovery. “So, you still think this is a bad idea, honey?” asks Cornelius. “You don’t even have to ask. You know how I feel,” says Camille, shaking her head. “Now watch this. Wasn’t it you who always told me that if I went with my heart, then it was the right thing to do?” “I know. But sometimes it’s not always about right or wrong, Cory. Sometimes it’s about having a good reason.” She puts her hand on her stomach acknowledging her unborn child and looks at him. “And this, your family, should be good enough reason for you to let it go.” He smiles and places his hand on top of hers. “But don’t you see? That’s just it. This is for us, all of us. It’s for you and me ... and him,” he says, looking at her stomach. “Things are changing all around us, Cam, and not for the better. You know that. These discoveries will not only change the world, but they will also give our son an advantage—abilities we can only dream of. He will be a king among men, even more.” “It just doesn’t seem right. Why can’t he ... why can’t we, just be normal, like everybody else?” “Because to the normal—the average everyday folk—freedom is an illusion.” Seemingly from nowhere, he produces a shiny brass, odd-shaped skeleton key, as if

he has pulled it from the sky. “Something to be divvied up by the ones in power, the ones who stand above, at the whim of others.” He makes a throwing motion upward, the key disappears into thin air, and fine, silver dust appears in its place. “But for those of us who know where our real power resides, for those of us who have the courage to challenge those powers and the will to do what is necessary, we will possess the key to unlock the door to any desire imaginable ... the only true freedom.” He slowly pulls her hand away from her stomach to reveal the shiny brass key that is now resting in her palm. She smiles and closes her hand around it. “Are you ready, Dr. Andersen?” asks the Master of Ceremonies, as he startles Camille by approaching the couple from behind. “I am, sir,” replies Cory confidently. “And let me say that I am honored to have the opportunity to meet you and introduce you all in one night,” the man adds. “Merci beaucoup,” replies Cory. As the Master of Ceremonies makes his way to the podium, the murmuring from the audience dwindles to silence. “Oh, Cory,” says Camille, trembling. “Trust me,” reassures Cory with a confident smile on his face. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the Master of Ceremonies begins. “I stand before you in awe. I’ve just had the pleasure of meeting the person I am about to introduce to you this evening. He is a person who truly needs no introduction. He is an alumnus and adjunct professor of particle physics at our own Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University. He is a recipient of the Copley Medal, the oldest and most prestigious award given by the Royal Society of London. He has recently been awarded the J.J. Sakuri Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics.” “You didn’t tell me about that one,” says Camille, her eyes wide. “First I’ve heard of it,” replies Cory with a raised eyebrow. “Last year he applied a new complex mathematical model created from Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity,” continued the Master of Ceremonies. “And he is the youngest scientist ever to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics. I give you, Dr. Cornelius Andersen.”

The entire audience—scientists, mathematicians, alumni, students, faculty, and reps from the media—rises and gives thunderous applause as Cory makes his way to the podium.

1 Present Day… It is the city, a city that never dies although some of its inhabitants meet that fate daily. The city lives and breathes day and night, dark or light. In contrast to the city’s downtown with its skyscrapers, arenas, and casinos, the northern neighborhoods are like a sea of identical blocks attached to a grid of intersecting lines. Suburbanites pass through the city into its downtown and then return to their perfect palaces. This image from high above suggests a pattern of order that is betrayed by the chaos found below where uncertainty is the only certainty and chaos the only order. This chaos is reverently referred to with pride by its indigenous population as the Exclave. Smoke and its accompanying aromas fill the hot, humid air on this early, late summer morning. There is smoke from late night and early morning cooking, smoke from all manner of narcotics, and smoke from smoldering house fires set and put out through the night—although some are still ablaze. And there are the sounds that set this scene: a dog barking relentlessly, sporadic gunfire, sirens in the distance, a train that passes through like clockwork, and a constant beat and rhythm coming from somewhere … everywhere … nowhere, that define the “silence” of the Exclave at dawn. It is feared by those who are on the outside and rightly so. But it is home to those inside its invisible walls. Like a modern-day Troy, it is safe haven for some; however, for others, it is a place from which there is no escape. But there are a few that see bigger things and different places—other worlds.

2 One such young man, a thirteen-year-old, living in Marshal Park, Section 31, on the corner of Wessen and Smith, is stirring as our story begins. He has actually been awake for a while now, drifting and rolling with each familiar and unfamiliar sound as a fighter would roll with each punch. He couldn’t recall ever boxing before but remembered someone giving him this advice. “Just roll with the punches, and you’ll be OK, kid.” He figured he had been at least that, OK. He turned a bit to see the streetlights in the smoky distance through his open window. He slept off and on throughout the night. Between the colloquial rhythms, the mixture of smells, and the light coming in from the outside that kept his room dimly lit, it was no wonder why. It was either that or close the window and suffer the still, stagnant heat of the ninety-degree night. In his view, he simply chose the lesser of two evils, but the next night that could change. He heard footsteps then turned his head slightly to the door to see his mother’s hand, and then arm slide through the barely opened door and flip up the light switch. The brightness caused his eyes to shut immediately. He wasn’t sure if it was the light or his anticipation of the light that caused him to close his eyes. A split second later he heard a calm, but authoritative, voice say, “Wake up, baby.” He instinctively sat up, rubbed his closed eyes, and dreaded opening them. He only now appreciated his drifting and rolling. “I’m up, Ma,” he replied and waited for the customary “get up now” from her, which usually followed. It was a verbal morning dance that had become commonplace, but the response never came. Something was unusual this morning—a bit off. Maybe he was sick. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe he didn’t get enough sleep. It was, the first day of school, but he had had first days of school before. But this was the first day at a new school. Yes, he thought, that’s it, and he opened his eyes. She doesn’t wanna put too much pressure on me. How nice of Momma. He was amazed at the difference the light caused in his room compared to the

light that had shone through the night. His mind wondered about all the different shades in the world between dark and light, black and white, and wrong and right. Could it be like that with all things? He had heard somewhere that the world was full of different shades of gray. But he had also heard the exact opposite—that there were no shades, only black and white, especially when it came to wrong and right. It’s all so confusing … which makes it good to be a kid and not have to worry about those things. “But I am worrying about it.” He shook his head as if to come to his senses. Eyes adjusted to the light, he jumped up from his bed since he didn’t want to take advantage of his mother’s kindness or incur her wrath. Just before he walked out of his bedroom, he noticed how empty and plain his room was and then he turned off his light. It wasn’t always that way, but now there was nothing on his nightstand, save a Bible. There was nothing on his dresser. And with the exception of a certificate from the Department of Health Vital Records, there was nothing on his walls, no plaques, no posters, not even a picture or painting. But he knew it had to be that way because of his problem. That’s what they call it … a problem. It isn’t a problem for me. I never hurt myself or anyone else when I was sleepwalking. I may have broken a few things, but they were my things. “That’s right, my things,” he said, feeling a little irritable. They were things that I earned, won, or traded up for at school or in the Exclave. “My things,” he said again and even louder this time as if to sound off to someone who might be listening. But there was no one. There was a strange silence—an awkward silence that punctuated this strange Tuesday morning. If he kept this up, he realized he would call into play another problem, so he tried to calm himself. He entered the bathroom and flipped on the light. Still, he couldn’t stop thinking about his empty room with no chess set on his dresser, no dart game or calendar on his wall, no guitar leaning against his closet door, not even an alarm clock on his nightstand. What teenager doesn’t have a clock on their nightstand? Why would Momma do this? I guess it makes sense. She must have her reasons. Momma never does anything unless she figures she has a good reason. A good reason is more important to Momma than right or wrong.

He stood in front of the sink, turned on the water, and looked into the mirror with a blank stare. He noticed that three hairs had begun to grow on his chin, and he smiled. He had never thought much of himself. He didn’t see himself as special in any way. He saw himself as an average kid. He wasn’t too dark or too light, but right in the middle, brown-skinned he liked to say. He was average height, average weight, average everything, and he liked it that way. He felt that if he didn’t stand out, then he couldn’t get into much trouble, and he would be left alone. That was fine with him. He did like his hair, though, and he hated every time he had to get it cut. He vowed when he got old enough he would never get it cut again, and in his mind, that time had come. He was a teenager now, and the next time he was told he had to get a haircut, he would stand his ground. It had been a while since his last haircut, and his hair had grown at least an inch long. He liked the way it felt in his fingers, and he twisted the tufts around them all day long—even when he wasn’t thinking about it. For this reason, no matter how often he picked or combed his hair, it was always twisted and lumpy. In the Exclave when the other boys played at insults, his hair was often the target. But he didn’t mind because he liked his hair. In Sunday School, the story that stuck most in his mind was the one about Samson and Delilah. He thought no story was better. He liked to call himself Naz because he read in the Bible that Samson was a Nazarite, and part of being a Nazarite meant never cutting one’s hair. This made him love his hair all the more and in his mind gave him a logical reason for not wanting it cut. He figured when haircut time came again—and it was fast approaching—he would tell a lie. He was no good at lying, so he worked it out in his mind ahead of time. He would tell of an angel or some spirit that had come to him in a dream and forbidden him from ever cutting it again, or terrible things would happen—not just to him but his family. He shuddered to think how wrong such a lie must be. Lying was a part of living in the Exclave. You have to lie to survive you know but not this kind of lying, not about angels and spirits. He didn’t care. That’s how much he liked his hair. He never admitted to anyone that what fascinated him, even more, was how

much Samson loved Delilah, so much so it cost him his life. But he would never cut his hair—not even for the likes … or the love of a Delilah. Hating his given name, he sometimes told people he met that his name was Sam, as Naz didn’t always seem quite appropriate, especially with the grown-ups and Market Merchants. Now, standing in the mirror, he studied himself as he picked up his toothbrush with one hand and the tube of toothpaste with the other. As he fumbled with the toothpaste, he looked down. There were more things on the bathroom sink than on his bedroom nightstand. He bristled. “They were my things,” he said, once more looking at the bathroom door. “My things!” Then he let it go at that. He put some toothpaste on his toothbrush and began to brush his teeth. Yes, there was something different today. As he brushed his teeth and studied his reflection in the mirror staring back at him, he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, the tube of toothpaste he had put down was rising again in his reflection but this time on its own. What was even stranger was the toothpaste hovering in midair next to his face did not seem all that odd to him. In the back of his mind he could hear his mother saying something, but between brushing his teeth, the water running, and the suspended toothpaste, her words stayed right there—in the back of his mind. On the other side of his head, a bar of soap mimicked the toothpaste. He smiled and twisted his hair with his free hand. He decided to step back and take it all in, but there was no floor, or at least he wasn’t standing on it anymore. He, along with the soap and toothpaste, was suspended in midair. And if things weren’t interesting enough, a bottle of mouthwash floated by on its side, and in the mirror, a towel sailed just over his head. ***** He became concerned when he heard a rumbling sound growing steadily in the distance, making his mother’s words through the closed bathroom door indistinct. It finally dawned on him—it’s an earthquake—and fear claimed him for the first time. An earthquake? No, never in the Exclave … a tornado, which would explain that rumbling sound getting louder. He had heard about tornados before but never

experienced one. Is this what it’s like … slow motion and things floating all around you? Momma must’ve been trying to warn me, direct me to safety. Is it too late for me to take cover? He panicked, and his mind raced, but all about him was in slow motion. He quickly reached for the door, or so he thought, but it was as if his mind and body were separate, and when he looked at his hand, it seemed like minutes went by as it traveled to reach the doorknob. When his hand finally reached the doorknob, he turned it and kept on turning it round and round. It spun around as if broken. He pulled the knob, but the door wouldn’t open. He tried a second time then a third. He pulled it with all his might, but the door still would not budge. It wasn’t locked, but he figured—somehow with all that was going on, it must’ve gotten jammed. He yelled, “Ma … Ma … Ma!” But he couldn’t hear the sound of his own voice, even though the rumbling sound that now resembled that of a train didn’t seem loud enough to drown it out. He continued to yell, “Ma … Ma … Ma!” and wondered if she had given up on him. She wouldn’t have left me here, would she? She wouldn’t have left me here to … to … unless she had good reason … a really good reason. After wrestling with the door for what seemed like an eternity, he let go of the doorknob. The floor came apart beneath him. Feeling gravity return and take him down with, and through the floor, he tried to grab the doorknob once more, but it was too late. As he plummeted below, he saw seven distinct shadowy figures. He closed his eyes and braced for impact. Like his mother’s response earlier, it never came, and he knew as he sat up in his bed, it was all a dream—a stupid dream. He liked dreams, though. They were one of his favorite things, next to his hair.

3 Naz was wide-awake now, and something was wrong. He had done something, and he could sense it as he heard footsteps approaching his bedroom. “It’s time to get up; you’re already late,” a woman said coldly. It was a voice he hardly recognized. It was not his mother. His mother wasn’t there. And this time he wasn’t dreaming. He was sure of it. “I’m up,” he replied. If I’m going to be late, it’s not going to be my fault. He wasn’t even allowed to use his alarm clock anymore. A clock he had gotten as a gift was now on a shelf in his closet for fear it would be knocked off his nightstand and broken during an episode of sleepwalking. “You got up again last night, and you made a mess in the bathroom,” said the woman on the other side of the door. Uh-oh. “That therapy isn’t doing you a bit of good,” she continued. “You’ve only been here two months, and that makes the third time. Maybe we should put a lock on your door.” A lock … that would be kinda cool. Then I could have more privacy. Maybe I could start putting things back up in my room, and nobody would know. “Teenagers should have a little privacy,” Naz said under his breath, and then louder he offered, “I’m sorry, ma’am,” in the most apologetic tone he could muster, trying to butter her up so she would seriously consider putting that lock on his door. As if she didn’t hear him, she added in a scolding tone, “And you better put everything back the way it was before you go to school.” He could tell by the words she used it wasn’t that bad, but she was what they called in the Exclave, “Drama.” “Yes, ma’am,” Naz assured her, and within seconds he was on his way down the hallway to the bathroom to assess the damage. She called to him from her bedroom. “And how many times do I have to tell you to stop calling me ma’am? I don’t have any kids. I’m still a young woman.”

Tracey Billings was a single woman, barely in her twenties, who worked as an executive assistant. She had discovered she could make extra money by taking in foster kids. She liked to think she had gotten a deal by taking in two at a time but often wondered if she had bitten off more than she could chew. Naz answered, “Yes, ma … I mean, Miss Tracey,” as he entered the bathroom. Again he thought, “Drama.” “Nope, it isn’t that bad,” he continued as if to convince himself. And it wasn’t. Still, he didn’t like not being in control and having what everyone liked to call “a problem.” The tube of toothpaste and his toothbrush were in the sink—where they probably fell in my dream. What he didn’t understand was the soap, towel, and mouthwash. He never touched them in his dream, so they shouldn’t have been out of place, but they were. Isn’t that how it works? It was another question for his therapist. Miss Tracey was right about one thing. Going to see a therapist wasn’t working. He had been going for two years now, and he still walked in his sleep. Even worse, he still heard the voices, something he decided to keep to himself. When Naz finished in the bathroom, he tiptoed down to the small bedroom at the other end of the hallway so he would not attract Miss Tracey’s attention again. He could see the light coming from under the door. He put his ear to the wood and listened then made a fist to knock. His little sister woke up every morning to the alarm on her phone, and he could hear the faint but unmistakable sounds of the classic Motown song: “Love Child,”—every morning the same song … her favorite song. Before his knuckles could meet the wood door, Meridian emerged fully dressed from the bedroom. She had a knack for beating him to the punch.

4 Meridian Liberty Slaughter was a fiery little girl who always spoke her mind. She never made excuses for herself, and it was her greatest ambition (one of many) to have her own law firm. Meridian wanted to be first at everything. She had lived in the Exclave her whole life and believed it was her destiny to make a difference there —in a big way. Her sandy red hair and caramel skin tone coupled with her active imagination and relentless nature earned her the nickname “Firecracker” at a very young age. At the age of three, she was diagnosed with a mild congenital heart defect but refused to let anyone baby her, especially Naz. “Good morning,” she beamed as if she had won some great prize the night before. Her eyes wide and step lively, she sped past before he had a chance to shush her. When she got to the bathroom door, she turned to him and continued in a low whisper, “I’m not thinkin’ about her.” She then ducked into the bathroom before he could respond. He smiled and shook his head as he walked back down the hallway. He liked dreams a lot and his hair even more, but when it came to Meridian, she meant everything to him. Anything else was a distant second. In his mind, he was all she had, and she was all he had. He swore that she was a spry old lady in a little girl’s body, and the old folks said she was an old soul that had been here before. She started school at an early age, and because of the grades she received, Naz’s guess was, she would probably finish even earlier. She was only nine and already in the fifth grade. She wanted to be a lawyer, singer, tennis pro, and chess grandmaster, but not eventually when she grew up. She wanted it right now. Naz knew that he needed to get her out of the Exclave as soon as possible. But he also knew it wouldn’t be easy. It was her home and all she had ever known. She was always saying that, even if she left the Exclave for college or something, she would come back one day to make a difference. They had a good morning system. Meridian showered the night before and Naz in the morning. They both awoke at the same time. He would go into the

bathroom while she got dressed, and then they would switch, simple yet effective. In less than thirty minutes they would be walking out the door. They wouldn’t bother with breakfast. They would get free breakfast at school. The less time spent at Miss Tracey’s, the better. She couldn’t cook anyway. As they opened the door to leave, Miss Tracey, as if on cue, recited, “Be careful, Meri, and …” she hesitated, as if she had forgotten or as if she didn’t really want to say his name. Before she could finish, Meri chimed, “His name is—” Miss Tracey cut her off. “I know what his name is, little Miss Know-It-All. That’s why I don’t have kids.” Her voice became muffled as the door closed behind them. “Why are you always messing with her? I don’t wanna have to move again,” said Naz. “Trust me. She’s never had it so easy. We take care of ourselves. The two of us are easy money for her. So I’m gonna make her work at least a little for it,” Meri said, laughing. “Look.” Naz pointed to the three baby hairs on his chin. “What?” He moved his chin closer to her face and continued to point, but she turned away from him. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Can you take my magnifying glass out of my backpack?” She laughed. “Whatever.” He grabbed her backpack and spun her around until she faced him. He shook his head and laughed, too. The rising sun exposed the partly cloudy sky, and unlike the hot, humid day before, there was a noticeable chill in the air. It was like that in the Exclave. The temperature could change drastically from day to day. As the pair walked onto the sidewalk, their breath rose in a light mist before them. He stopped her with a motion of his hand and surveyed the scene. His actions more instinctual than anything, and he didn’t understand why. He had heard of all the bad things that went on in the Exclave, but he had never witnessed one incident during the more than three years he’d lived there.

Naz saw two boys. One was a little taller than he was, and the other a little shorter, but husky with a Mohawk haircut. The boys were clearly older than Naz, and they were walking from the direction in which he and Meri would have to go to reach her bus stop. He pulled out his phone to see what time it was. He estimated they had just enough time to reverse their steps and head in the other direction around the block to her bus stop to avoid crossing the path of the two older boys. “Let’s go this way,” he said as he steered her around. A car was parked across the street. There were always cars parked on the streets, nice cars. The people in the Exclave didn’t have a lot of money, but they did have nice cars. How is that? He had never seen this car before. A man with a hat was sitting inside and looking at them. The man quickly looked away as he if he didn’t want to be seen. Naz turned away, dismissing his fear as unfounded, just a symptom of his paranoia. He had always been this way, though, or so he thought. He could only remember as far back as three years ago. It had been that long since he came to live in the Exclave with Meri, their mother, and Meri’s father. Everything before that was a blank. “Repressed Memories” were what his therapist liked to call them. The only thing Naz knew was that he had not always lived in the Exclave. What could have happened before I came here that made me so paranoid? “Always so suspicious,” Meri said, shaking her head as they started up the block. “Únete a nosotros,” said the taller boy, loud enough for Naz and Meri to hear but to no one in particular it seemed. “Why would you say that?” Naz asked Meri, as he purposely ignored the boys. “Please, my bus stop is that way.” Meri pointed behind her with her thumb over her shoulder but didn’t turn around. “What did you see this time?” she asked, just now turning her head. “Nothin’. Don’t worry about it.” “Well, innocent until proven guilty.” “Better safe than sorry,” he shot back. Meri one-upped Naz with embarrassing regularity, but he didn’t mind. He wasn’t sure if he allowed the privilege, or she indeed possessed the power to accomplish the feat. Knowing he would inevitably lose the battle of one-liners as he

always did, he asked suddenly. “Meri, what do you think about dreams?” “Dreams?” she responded curiously. “You mean regular dreams or deluxe, kingsized, wake-up-everybody-else-in-the-house dreams?” “I mean dreams, Meri,” he said, laughing. “Do you think they mean anything?” “How would I know? I’m only nine years old.” “Oh, only nine years old, huh? Now watch this. The next time you wanna do something that you know you’re too young to do, you’re gonna say, ‘I’m almost ten years old.’” It was his best Meri imitation. “All right, true story. I got this. What was your dream about?” He had to stop and think. It was less than an hour ago, but he was already starting to forget the dream. He was like that when it came to his dreams. After a few seconds, she asked sarcastically, “Now am I supposed to be reading your mind, too?” “No, I was trapped in the bathroom, and there was an earthquake. I was falling, and there were seven people … watching … I think.” He remembered the part about their mother but conveniently left it out. “And that’s it?” She instinctively knew he had left something out. “Isn’t that enough? I mean, picture it. You’re locked in the bathroom, an earthquake hits, and stuff is flying all over the place. You’re falling, and there are seven …” “And?” “And you wake up. That’s it.” “Who locked you in the bathroom? Was it Miss Tracey? ’Cause I’ll beat her down for ya, you know,” she said jokingly, as she balled up her fists and punched at the air repeatedly. “No, I don’t remember that part,” he said, laughing along. “Who else was in the dream?” “Just me … and the seven shadow people.” “Shadow people? Um … let me think.” She stopped walking, put two fingers from each hand on her temples, and closed her eyes. He stopped a few feet in front of her, looked back at her, and shook his head in

amusement. She opened her eyes after a few seconds and continued walking. “I’ve got it,” she said. “I don’t know about the seven shadow people, but something big is about to happen in your life. That’s the earthquake. The stuff, as you called it, flying all over the place means you’ve lost control. And finally,” she paused. “Now this is the most important part.” She paused again but then waited to speak. “I’m listening.” “Being locked in the bathroom and falling symbolize your inadequacy to deal with the situation.” He looked at her with his mouth wide open for a second and then asked in disbelief, “You serious?” “Nope, but it sounded real good, didn’t it?” she said, laughing. “What do you think, psychiatrist or lawyer? I could be, like, the first behavioral attorney.” “More like the first psycho-lawyer.” They both laughed. “And who’s inadequate? Inadequacy? You’re supposed to be helping me. Inadequacy … where’d you learn that word anyway?” he added almost under his breath. “You sure Miss Tracey didn’t lock you in the bathroom?” They both continued to laugh. They approached Meri’s bus stop just as the bus was arriving. “Seriously, I don’t think it means anything, just random ‘stuff,’ as you like to say. We all have dreams, right?” she asked. “I don’t know. What do you dream about?” “Wouldn’t you like to know?” As the other kids began to get on the school bus, Naz began to grill her. “Do you have your money?” “Yes.” “Where’d you put it?” “In my sock like you told me,” she said in a sassy tone. “Remember, nobody will ever think to look for it there. Where’s your phone?” “In my pocket,” she said, patting her left back pocket.

“Is it on vibrate?” “Always.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone to see what time it was again. “Did you charge it last night?” “Of course I did. Did you charge yours?” she asked indignantly. “Momma never asked all these questions,” she continued, with a cold look on her face. “Momma’s not here,” he snapped. “She’s not here,” he repeated calmly. He looked at his phone again and noticed it only had two out of four bars lit up, indicating he had forgotten to charge it the night before. “And don’t worry about my phone,” he said with a sheepish grin on his face. “Uh-huh,” she said suspiciously. Just as she was stepping onto the bus, she looked back at him and said, “By the way, I did get up last night when I heard you in the bathroom, but as usual, you had gone back to bed by the time I got there.” Her words got lost in his thoughts. He was still stuck on her mentioning their mother. Why would she do that? Because she knew how to get in his head, and she was the only one that could because she knew he cared. She was good at mind games, a natural. He cared because he knew it bothered her to mention their mother, even though she didn’t show it. Two years earlier they lost their mother and Meri’s father in what the authorities called a freak accident. Since that day, Meri had never shed a tear, or at least she never let Naz see it. She was tough like that, and Naz felt that someday soon because she hadn’t cried, she would have to go to therapy, too. Naz had refused to call Meri’s father anything other than Bearn. Most of the time he referred to Bearn as “him” or “he.” Seeing him as a father figure just didn’t feel right. But he never liked him either—with good reason—even before the accident. But he kept all that to himself. After all, he had been Meri’s father. Naz had no memory of his own father. The bus pulled away. I have got to get her out of here. He turned and walked in the other direction toward Lincoln Middle School. If she thinks she’s going to Lincoln next year, she’s mistaken. Since she had started school, she never got less than an “A.” His therapist was in the process of setting

Meri up to take a test for International Academy, a private school outside of the Exclave. If she did well enough on the test and in an interview, she could receive a scholarship to attend school there the following year. Naz was determined that was the way it was going to be.

5 The Exclave was a sprawling, massive area covering over one hundred forty-four square miles with a population of more than a million people. Divided into nine boroughs and comprised of forty-two sections, it was a mosaic of different races, cultural groups, and factions—all fiercely territorial as evidenced by gang wars and incessant violence. In the midst of the differences and the chaos, the inhabitants shared one thing only. They were all poor, except for a fortunate few—and those who dealt in drugs. Since coming to the Exclave three years ago, they were now in the fourth section in which they’d lived, and Naz was hoping it would be the last, if only for Meri’s sake. As he walked, he worried about her first day at Higginbotham. She’ll be OK. How dangerous can elementary school be? I have to get her out of here. There was no doubt in his mind that she would pass the test and ace the interview for International Academy. He figured if they could continue staying at Miss Tracey’s, he could find a way for her to get to and from International Academy every day for the next school year. He just knew it. Meri always wanted to go where she thought Naz was going to be, and that was fine by him. The problem was he would go on to high school next year, Union High School to be exact. But what she wanted didn’t matter to him. If she thinks she’s going to Lincoln Middle School next year, she has another thought coming. It was only eight blocks to Lincoln from Meri’s bus stop. Naz had come to know this section well in the past two months. He saw the customary bums, panhandlers, homeless people, and broken men shuffling through the streets. He was always taught not to judge, but whenever he saw them, he couldn’t help but think—one day I’m going to help them somehow. Then he wondered why no one else ever did. He would help them now if he could, but he didn’t know how. Maybe no one knows how, and that’s why they’re still here. Why can’t they help themselves? And why are so few of them women? What do the women do when they’re down and out … kill themselves? He handed one of the derelicts in the street all the loose change in his

pocket. Then he laughed to himself as a provocatively dressed woman smiled and winked at him from across the street. He passed by his house on his way back down the street. The strange car with the mysterious man in the hat was no longer there. He walked one more block, turned right at the corner, and immediately saw Hector. Naz had a knack for seeing things before anyone else did. Hector Antonio Martinez, who had yet to notice Naz, was the first and only real friend Naz had made since he moved to Section 31. Hector was on his way to meet Naz so they could walk to Lincoln together. He called himself Ham because H.A.M. were his initials. However, everyone else called him that because he was a ham, an overly flamboyant kid who never seemed to run out of energy or things to say. A nickname was important in the Exclave, but not just any nickname, it had to be the right nickname. The best and most respected nicknames were the ones given to you by someone else, someone who was also respected in the community. It might be a high school basketball star, a really cool teacher, or possibly even a drug dealer. The problem was they usually came up with something that seemed silly, like Cinnamon Roll or Water Bug—a name that Naz felt you had to wait out until it developed a ring to it. Naz didn’t think there was anything special about the nickname he had given himself, only that it was special to him, and he hated his given name. “¿Qué pasa, Naz?” Hector said as they approached each other. They simultaneously put their arms out to shake hands, Naz with his hand closed in a fist and Hector with his open. “What’s up, Ham?” Naz replied awkwardly in response to the botched handshake. “Habla español mi amigo.” “Look, we either get the Spanish right or the handshake,” Naz replied with a smile. Ham prided himself on his culture and had been trying to teach Naz Spanish since the first day they met. “Here, let me show you,” said Ham. “You don’t wanna blow this on your first day of school. Rep is all a Railsplitter has,” he continued, as he demonstrated the

latest handshake. “A Rail what?” asked Naz, his attention split between the crash course on handshake etiquette and whatever else Ham was talking about. Like Meri, Ham was born in the Exclave and knew nothing else. His parents migrated from Mexico while his mother was pregnant with him. There were seven younger brothers and sisters, and his proud family was of Mayan descent, a fact Ham mentioned daily as a reminder of this. His family spoke fluent Spanish, something common among the Hispanic population of the Exclave. “A Railsplitter, and as of today, you are an official Lincoln Railsplitter,” proclaimed Ham. In a lot of ways Ham reminded Naz of Meri. They both possessed a surplus of energy and no matter what was going on, both found a way to see something positive in it. “You excited?” Ham prodded. After a short pause, he continued, “Of course you are. Who wouldn’t be? This is the first day of school. We talkin’ chicas calientes, chicas calientes, y más chicas calientes … not like those pollos at Trenton.” Ham often broke into Spanish without warning. Not knowing Spanish well at all, Naz more often than not had to use context clues to translate, and he had gotten pretty good at it. This time he was pretty sure Ham was talking about girls. Naz had attended Monticello the first half of his seventh-grade year and transferred to Trenton Middle School for the second half of that year. He nodded in agreement with Ham. There hadn’t been much to look at the year before in the way of pretty girls. Naz didn’t say much, partly because Ham never stopped talking, and partly because that’s just the way he was—unless he was with Meri. He would talk to Meri. With others, he often answered questions in his mind without saying the words, which made people think he wasn’t paying attention, was ignoring them, or was just being plain rude. It was another habit he couldn’t remember picking up or where, for that matter. “What about basketball? You tryin’ out?” Ham asked. “We had the squad last year, only lost one game, and if I would’ve been on the team, we would’ve won ’em all. We blew Trenton out and won the fight after the game. They weak! I’m gonna

get my grades this year, though.” Ham often had a way of stretching the truth, but he was dead on when it came to basketball. He was good, very good. He had spent most of his time playing basketball at the park during the summer, that is, when he wasn’t harassing the chicas, as he called them. He always got chosen first for pickup games, and he carried a basketball around wherever he went. In fact, this was the first time Naz could remember ever seeing Ham without a ball. Even more amazing was Ham’s height—almost a head shorter than Naz—something Ham attributed to his Mayan heritage. But his lack of stature didn’t stop him on the court. “What do you mean?” Naz asked. “My grades, they were bad … I guess. So they wouldn’t let me play. Besides, the teachers didn’t like me either. But this year I got it all figured out. I’m gonna hook up with the smartest chica until we get our first report card. The smartest chicas are the easiest to get ’cause they’re the ugliest, right? Then, after I get my grades, I can dump her. I’m a genius,” he said, laughing. Naz could not relate to what Ham had just said. Genius? If he wanted better grades, why didn’t he just study harder? Then it occurred to him that Ham was fourteen, more than a year older than Naz, but in the same grade. Somewhere along the way Ham had been kept back. Naz wondered if grades were the reason: it seemed to make sense. Between the excuses and bad grades in school, Ham was starting to seem less and less like Meri. “So?” Ham prodded. “So what?” “You gonna try out?” Naz thought he had answered the question but obviously only in his mind again. “I don’t think so.” “Can you even play?” “I don’t know. I’ve never tried.” “Then you can’t. It ain’t like riding a bike or hanging out at the market. You have to practice … a lot if you wanna be good like me. I’ve been playin’ ball all my life … gonna make it to the league one day.” Confidence was one thing Ham wasn’t short on.

Naz was more than intrigued when he first saw Ham play at the park, but between running errands for the Market Merchants to earn money and hanging out with Meri, there just wasn’t enough time for basketball. He was starting to tune out on Ham’s words. It was something he often did if Ham talked too long. Naz decided to change the subject. “What do you think about dreams?” Naz asked. Ham didn’t know about Naz’s voices or his sleepwalking. Only the therapists, Meri, Miss Tracey, and his last two foster families were aware of his “problems.” Naz knew that you just didn’t go around telling your friends about things like that. But when it came to dreams, he thought it was a safe topic to discuss—everybody dreams. He knew Ham would have something to say on the subject, just as he did about everything else. “What about ’em?” asked Ham. “Do you have ’em?” “Everybody has ’em. Some people never remember their dreams, and others remember them as clearly as if they really happened.” “Do you think they mean anything?” “Naw, they’re just a bunch of pictures, ideas … thoughts and emotions … I think. They’re stored up somewhere between your conscious and subconscious mind and become randomly active when you sleep. Then your brain acts like an iPod shuffle and plays whatever pops up next … or something like that.” Ham was no dummy. He knew a lot about a lot of things, and this made Naz wonder about Ham’s grades all the more. Baiting him, Naz said, “Tell me about one of your dreams.” “I don’t ever remember my dreams. Do you?” Perfect. “One dream.” He looked up and nodded his head. Almost drawing a complete blank, he could barely remember the dream he just had the night before, the dream he had just told Meri about. “Somebody locked me in my bedroom, and then seven people broke in the house … I think, and I couldn’t get out to help.” He paused. “Oh, and there’s stuff flying around.” “What do you mean, stuff? What kinda stuff?” Naz honestly had no idea now. He just remembered telling Meri about stuff

flying around. “Just stuff,” Naz answered and then added, “Never mind about the stuff.” “OK, let me get this right. Somebody locked you in your bedroom while seven people were breaking in your house … and there’s no stuff, right?” “Right.” “Who locked you in your bedroom? Miss Tracey?” Ham laughed. “No. I’m not sure.” Naz laughed. “I don’t remember.” “Well, how did you know it was seven people if you were locked in the bedroom?” Naz paused and tugged at his hair. “I can’t remember that either.” He laughed again. “Hmmm … as my dad would say, it looks to me like you’re up a creek without a paddle.” “What does that mean?” “That means you got a problem with no solution, amigo.” Ham laughed again. “But like I said, dreams don’t mean nothin’.” Click here for more information about IA: The Origin Novels

About the Book It’s 2098 and the last season of baseball—forever. After the ravages of WWIII, the once all-American sport is now synonymous with terrorism and treason. Holograms run the bases for out-of-shape players and attendance averages fifteen spectators per game. The only ballpark left is Amazon, once known as Yankee Stadium. America, nearly wiped out by radical Islam, has established a society based on love. Religion, social media, and the entertainment industry have been outlawed. All acts of patriotism are illegal, and the country is led by Grandma. Heading up the Family in her home base in the Bronx, she works tirelessly to build a lasting legacy for the future. As baseball historian Puppy Nedick prepares for opening day, a chance encounter lands him face-to-face with former baseball greats. Determined not to go down without a fight, the players band together to revitalize the game for one last hurrah. But not everyone wants peace. Will baseball become the catalyst for WWIV, or will it save America?

1 On opening day of the last baseball season ever, Puppy Nedick woke up to find a hologram named Greta dancing on his chest. He wasn’t happy. “Good morning, good morning, good morning to you. Did you sleep well?” The brown wooden shutters automatically slid open, letting darkness spill into the small bedroom. Puppy glared at the ten-inch high alarm clock HG. He so hated Zelda for giving him this birthday present. He stumbled out of bed, landing on all fours. “Does Puppy need help? Just tell Greta what you want and she will do it.” He crawled under the bed, but couldn’t find the plug, though the top of his head found the bedspring, adding a bruised skull to his hangover. Puppy half fell into the bathroom, a step ahead of the pursuing HG. “I’ve turned on the coffee. Toast is a ‘cooking’…” He slammed the door and sat on the toilet. This morning I’ll find ways to get even with Zelda, Puppy thought. One effective, horrible-I-got-you-since-you-gotme. Greta pealed about the sunlight, as if Grandma wouldn’t let the sun come up. Puppy chose that day’s water allotment to shave instead of shower. He lathered up his cocoa-colored face, his watery green eyes, always percolating with surprised disappointment, peered back, boxed by a thick, hooked nose and receding hairline chasing thick black hair. He slumped at the rickety kitchen table. The vidnews, which went on automatically at sunrise, sang about some skateboarding champions. Apparently they so delighted a visiting Fifth Cousin that the said dignitary decided to skateboard himself. A true man of the people, he went down a hill and hit a rock, crashing head-first into a car. The teenagers whose athletic prowess started all this helped the Cousin, dressed his facial wounds and announced they’d set up a skateboarding tutorial right there in Dayton, Ohio. Everyone was happy. Life was good. “The true test of Family is adversity.” Grandma’s Eighteenth Insight skipped

across the top of the screen. Puppy swallowed some aspirin. “I’m very disappointed in you, Puppy.” The hologram waited for him in the bedroom when he returned to dress. “Get at the end of the line.” “Out drinking and in your circumstances.” “Other people paid.” “For how long?” she whined. “As long as I can persuade other people to pay for my drinks. And hey, I still have a job.” “For five months.” “Instead of tormenting me, help me find my socks.” “Do I look like I have real arms?” Greta shook her head in disgust. Faint grey skittered across the sky as Puppy shivered and zipped up his black Bronx Hawks hoodie, adjusting the backpack off his aching right shoulder. Commuters pressed past toward the Grand Concourse, edging away from Morris Avenue, which was the tip of the southern Bronx Disappointment Village. There they went, dashing through the curtain of endless traffic, hurrying against a light; he’d swear on Grandma’s bra straps the damn Regs acted as if they could contract failure. That went against everything the Family stood for. As Grandma said in her Third Insight, nothing was permanent if you loved deeply and worked hard. Honesty, ethics, taking care of each other. Everyone believed that. If you failed, it was your fault. That’s how you ended up in a DV, like Puppy’s parents; he still lived two blocks away, on the Reg side. Close enough to seethe, far enough to remember. He cut through the DV. The aged buildings’ beige and rust brick faces were worn, yet there was always a flower pot in the windowsills. The cars were older models, some even from before the war, bodies scratched, dents hammered out into dimples. Playgrounds, at this hour, were empty. You went to school or worked. You tried to do something, anything, or you stayed out of sight. Otherwise you shamed the whole community. They said you could eat off the streets of a DV. He had here, many times. Sidewalks were scrubbed. Light poles gleamed. Garbage didn’t seem to exist. You

filled a trash bag even a quarter of the way and then shoved it down the chute. You took pride in something, even when you had nothing. At least you could be clean. Every one of the eighty-nine Disappointment Villages in what was left of America was the same, an old suit pressed and cleaned over and over until the frayed strands begged for mercy, just waiting for a pretty new tie. Leaving the DV, as if they ever did, Puppy strolled along the water, pausing near the Drive to watch HG sailboats drift past on the Harlem River, the abandoned buildings of Manhattan’s Washington Heights like decayed beggars on the other side. Puppy waved back at the fake boat crew and headed down 161st Street to River Avenue. He paused under the El, the B train rumbling overhead, and waited out the fifteen-minute 8AM shower, squirming into his thin sweatshirt as the temperature dropped eight degrees. As part of his annual superstition, Puppy stepped on the pile of broken concrete forming a jagged path outside Amazon Stadium and handed his baseball historian’s pass to the A30 on the stool by Gate Six. The robot grunted in one bored breath, returning Puppy’s card. “You’re new?” Puppy asked. The robot nodded. “Lucky me.” “We’ll go out with a bang.” The A30’s eyes swiveled back and forth in faint sarcasm. All ‘bots had the same face. Which was no face. Could never tell what the ‘bots were thinking, though you were supposed to. “Nice to meet you.” Puppy surprised the A30 by shaking its hand. “Oh. Okay. Nice to meet you, Mr. Nedick.” “Just Puppy.” He paused just inside. “Anyone else here?” The A30 shrugged. “A few.” Inside, a lone A31 swept the long, filthy pavilion, corralling piles of dirt around a gutted hole five inches deep. There were similar piles of dirt near the other craters; maybe the robot thought the blasted pockmarks of the floor were bins. Along the interior wall was the famous mural of the legendary Three Amigos, Mooshie Lopez, Easy Sun Yen and Derek Singh, blotched with grime and dotted with bullet holes, the recognizable faces of the New York Yankees greats nearly

faded from neglect; indifference is a brutal enemy. The shattered windows of the gift shops had long since collapsed inward onto hazy dark interiors, a few items remaining on the floor: a torn t-shirt, a miniature bat, broken pieces of something stepped on, stomped on, crushed amid the otherwise barren dusty shelves. A small condiments table blocked an old customer service booth. Puppy examined the soiled packets of mustard and ketchup. “Excuse me,” he called over to the A31 with the broom. “There’s no food.” The robot gestured, sending dust onto Puppy’s jeans. “This is not food.” “Yes it is,” it answered stubbornly. “Says so on the packets.” “I mean, real food. These go with real food, but you don’t just eat them like they’re a meal.” The robot waited patiently. “It’s opening day. We always have one stand selling hot dogs.” The ‘bot shrugged and wandered off with its broom, shoving dirt into the holes. Puppy sighed and headed through Section 116. The brown infield and outfield glistened with the morning shower, slowly drying off under the reluctant sun. They’d have rays until 10:40AM; games rarely went more than an hour anyway. A couple of young boys sat expectantly behind the Falcons’ visiting dugout on the third base side. Probably cutting school; this was about the safest place in the Bronx, hell, the entire country to hide. An older man slept a few rows up, snoring noisily. Sitting off to the first base side, the Blue Shirt Officer Brennan tipped his blue cap. “Top of the morning, Mr. Nedick.” “Happy opening day, Officer.” “Hopefully the crowd will be respectful of the occasion.” Puppy looked around the lower field boxes, seats torn out in chunks, a six-foot mortar wound some twenty rows behind the Hawks home dugout. On the scoreboard in center field, flanked by the gutted remnants clinging to the main screen, the ancient Grandma, head of The Family which governed America, smiled down. Slightly wrinkled yellow face, slightly smiling, never any

disappointment. Do not worry, her expression said, filling the entire screen. I’m always here. Puppy laid his backpack by his seat behind home plate, a weather-scarred, blackened orange wig rustling feebly beneath the broken adjoining seat, which was forbidden to be moved like everything else in the stadium. “What’re we doing this year?” Puppy tapped the A29’s shoulder in the front row. The robot continued studying the squat machine on its lap. “Same as last year.” “Which was the same as the year before.” “Same as the year you and me started.” The A29 frowned at the dials. “Fifteen springs and summers.” The robot was pleased by its efforts and, now relaxed, turned toward Puppy. “Folks know what they’re getting when they come here.” He gestured to the nearly empty ballpark. “But this is the final season.” “And you thought, let’s jazz this up. Me, too.” “Really?” Puppy’s spirits lifted. “They killed it.” The A29 jerked its head toward the second level of executive offices behind first base, where the Hawks and Falcons owners hid. “Why?” “Why do they do anything? Money.” “Even to do a little something different? Like make the Falcons outfielders triplets…” “Can’t do.” “A pitcher with a personality? One player with personality.” The Falcons lead-off hitter B’run Campanis dozed at the on-deck circle. The A28 umpire headed toward home plate. The A29 rubbed its metallic fingers together and pressed a button, pointing at the HG players suddenly filling the outfield, stretching their legs. “They wanted to get rid of the them.” “And if a ball was hit into the outfield…” “They didn’t care.” The A29 rubbed its nose knowingly at the thought processes of humans. The HG pitcher and catcher materialized on the field, joined by the

Hawks infielders, laconically tossing a ball as if slowly thawing out. “Well, I want to say something before the game,” Puppy insisted. “What about a special graphic on the scoreboard?” “Can you do that?” “I wish.” Puppy waited respectfully while Officer Brennan, standing at home plate, led the crowd in Grandma’s Blessing, all eyes upraised, chins lifted toward the scoreboard: “May our love always be for love May we think of the Family as ourselves May we work hard and reward effort May we help those who cannot succeed.” At the robot umpire’s call of “play ball,” the portly Campanis, buttons undone on his red jersey like he’d dressed in the dugout, waddled to home plate. Puppy gingerly hopped onto the top of the Hawks home dugout and motioned for a couple arriving fans to move closer. The two young women seemed to prefer their privacy and each other’s tongues, and took seats down the first base line. Puppy waved his arms to get the attention of the eight fans. Campanis stepped into the batter’s box and scratched his stubble. “B’run, could you wait a second?” “We got a timetable,” the umpire said, irritated. “Just one second.” The HG pitcher fired a fastball anyway. “Hello everyone.” Puppy silently begged the A29 to freeze the action. “I want to welcome you to the start of the 2098 baseball season.” Beyond the right center field fence, gutted of bleacher seats, a massive crusher truck was parked, two A20s in work clothes, sipping beer, waiting to tear the stadium down. “I hope you all have a great time this year.” The HG fired another pitch. “Will you make him stop?” Puppy shouted at the A29, who scowled. Robots were so damn sensitive about being called out for doing anything wrong. “We’ve still got lots of tickets for the rest of the season so…” another pitch cut

across the plate… “enjoy today’s contest between the Bronx Hawks and the Bronx Falcons. Let’s give a big cheer for these great players.” An enthusiastic crowd of one, Puppy clapped and shouted before returning to his seat, propping his blue sneakers on the railing and opening his black and white notebook. The only real equipment were the bats, though there were a couple buckets of mottled balls and gloves in the Hawks dugout runway. The HG pitcher threw an HG ball to the human batter, whose hitting skills, such as they were, was programmed into the system. The play was generated by what the humans “hit,” but other than that, everything else danced merrily out of the A29’s machine. Campanis smacked a ground ball toward second, not even waiting for his HG runner to scamper down the line before shuffling like a fat wind-up doll into the dugout. At least button the uniform top, Puppy pleaded silently. Try to look like a damn major league player. “Game One of the 2098 baseball season, baseball’s final year.” He wrote in his neat handwriting. There was always hope, even when it was hopeless. ***** Zelda Jones shook the dice very carefully onto the floor of Puppy’s living room, letting out a squeal of joy as she sent her silver car racing around the Monopoly board. “Your squeaking is really annoying,” Puppy grumbled. “That’s why I do it. Keeps you off balance.” She grinned triumphantly, clapping her chubby black hands together and scrunching up her slight nose, set like a stranger on her wide face. “You a dead Allah, dude.” Zelda turned to Pablo Diaz, frowning miserably at the little car sitting on the green Pennsylvania Avenue space as if that meant an asteroid would come crashing through the window, ending all life including their weekly Wednesday games night. “Then buy it.” Pablo’s frown deepened. “In the long run, it means little.” “Except kicking your butt.” Zelda tucked her right leg under her ample rear. “Perhaps.” Diaz watched uneasily as Zelda placed hotels on her latest claim. “Can I go now or do you need a few more minutes to squeak like you’ve conquered

the Caliphate.” Zelda danced with thick gangly arms snaking out in all directions around Pablo. He ignored her with growing difficulty, turning his attention to Puppy. “How many were out there today?” “Eight, though two of them spent most of the game making out.” “Is that allowed?” “Does it matter?” Pablo rolled the dice and reluctantly held his silver airplane over Pennsylvania Avenue. “Put it down, big boy,” Zelda whispered. “Tell her to stop,” Pablo pleaded. “Right there. On my lush luxurious property. There you go.” Zelda licked Pablo’s left ear. He twisted away angrily. Zelda licked his other ear, whispering huskily, “Pay up.” Pablo’s long, skilled fingers carefully counted out the money like it was real. To Pablo, everything was real. Games, fun, laughter, all predicates for somber hard work, life lessons, endless practice. He had always been the most driven of them. Zelda carefully recounted the money. “That’s insulting.” Pablo puckered up his long, narrow face. She acknowledged that with a sweet smile while Puppy dumped another bag of Famous Nebraska chips into a large bowl. “My assistant’s chair is empty, Puppy,” Pablo said in that way he had of forgetting to include people in the dialogue bouncing around his head. “Come on.” “Is there some shame here?” Pablo was mildly indignant. “Pietra did pretty well as my dental hygienist.” “You really think Puppy is right for this, Dr. Diaz?” Zelda held out the neck of the Hartford Heaven beer bottle as a microphone, which Pablo not so politely moved aside. “Pietra was in the fashion world. All she knew about teeth were her regular cleanings and how they sparkled when she modeled. Now look at her. A year with me and onto dental school.”

“Dr. Nedick has a nice ring, Pup.” Zelda spooned a chunk of Gussie’s Guac onto a chip. “Now that you’re entering the mature phase of your life.” “I’m serious,” Pablo continued earnestly through their laughter. “You need to find something. This is stable. There’s always tooth decay. Accidents. Like chipping a tooth.” He indicated the stale chips. “Think about it.” “Puppy’s probably annoyed because Greta’s been nagging him about finding a new job.” Zelda clucked her tongue as Puppy landed on her Park Place hotel. He stared glumly. “That was a wonderful birthday present, thank you again.” “You’re very welcome.” “I could’ve used socks. Definitely underwear.” “I figured you needed some companionship.” She and Pablo exchanged mischievous looks. “I do fine,” Puppy snapped defensively. “Oh, tell us.” “Maybe there’s nothing to share.” Pablo smiled. “I don’t share everything.” “What’s her or his name then?” Zelda leaned forward dreamily. “I’m taking a break.” “The bitch ended six years ago.” “Not long enough from the Gates of Hell. How much fake money do I owe you?” Puppy snapped at Zelda. “One hundred bucks. Sometime tonight. I need to rest for a field trip tomorrow with the brats.” Puppy very, very slowly counted out the multi-colored bills. “And what about your romances, dearest Zelda?” Zelda glanced uneasily at Pablo, who unscrewed another beer bottle. “Nothing,” she said quickly. “You, the queen of the one-night stands?” “Are you pissed because I gave you an annoying, expensive HG, I’m winning again in Monopoly or because you haven’t been laid in a long, long time.” “All three,” he conceded sadly.

“We’re all pretty celibate,” Pablo said a little too emphatically, Puppy thought. “Not exactly model citizens in Grandma’s House,” Zelda said. “Late 30s, no marriage, no children.” She let out a loud sigh. “If only we were dentists.” “Just wait until you get a toothache,” Pablo grumbled. Zelda clenched her groin in mock anger. Suddenly serious, the mercurial Zelda draped her arm around Puppy’s neck. “You have to line something up, Pup. Otherwise they’ll just assign you any old job.” “Or consider you don’t care,” Pablo added. “Baseball historian isn’t the most respected job.” “What do you think, they’ll send me back to the DV?” Puppy asked. His two oldest friends since he was thirteen frowned. They didn’t answer right away. Zelda and Pablo left around eleven; he waved off their offer to clean up. Tomorrow was an off-day. Three games a week, one hundred and forty game season. Then baseball was done. D-O-N-E. Forever. F-O-R-E-V-E-R. He polished off the last of his Cedar Creek bourbon and worked on the opening game’s official report. “An enthusiastic (the school-cutters boys had cheered) crowd (eight is a crowd, even excepting the two naked women frolicking in the bomb crater) came together as Family for the opening game of the 2098 baseball season. Harry the HG (he made up names for the holograms) pitched a strong game for the hometown Hawks, striking out six Falcons, who were shut down (and half asleep) by Harry’s tantalizing curve. Vernon Jackson, the Hawks slugging catcher (and the only one able to touch his toes) led his team’s charge with three hits.” Puppy stared sadly at the notebook. He used to write endless pages when he first started. Volumes, epics, describing the weather, clouds, a rare bird sighting, quality of food, conversations of the fans, his own rambling insights, categorizing the HGs, critiquing the batters, comparing everyone to the greats of the past. He gave up when he realized absolutely no one cared anymore. Least of all, him. Greta danced on his chest. “Perhaps Puppy would like a girl?” He peered suspiciously through the top of his bourbon glass. “I thought you just woke me up and ruined my mornings.”

Greta laughed. “I have nighttime functions.” Zelda, I really hate you now. “Asian girl with small breasts?” “I don’t sex watch, thanks.” “Everyone does.” “Only to stimulate reproduction between married couples,” he recited mechanically. Greta laughed dubiously. “Blonde girl, big ass?” “I’m going to unplug you, Greta,” he threatened, standing up with a tipsy wobble. “Latina? Curvy butt like Annette?” “That’s it.” He chased Greta back into the bedroom and slammed the door. “Stay.” “I can go through walls,” she replied haughtily. He half-dozed during Grandma’s “Sweet Dreams My Darlings” sign-off at one AM, when the vidnews shut down for the night. Grandma had instituted this on the Day of Surrender when the country collapsed into an hysterical coma after losing World War Three to the Islamic Empire. Yes it’s over. Yes we lost thirteen million. Yes we will survive, and yes we will flourish again. Every night for the past twenty-five years, Grandma has ended the day by reading a banal story to a different group of children before tucking them into bed. Tonight’s story was about K’ana the Komb and the importance of grooming your hair. If you don’t look good for yourself, My Darlings, how can you expect your fellow siblings to respect you? And if we don’t respect each other, how can we have a loving Family? There was also some shit about K’ana taking an unwanted bath in the washing machine and losing a couple teeth which still made her a good Komb because it takes all kinds of Kombs to make a Family. Fortunately Puppy stumbled into a hole of dreamless sleep. Around six AM, Greta danced onto his chest. Little bitch, he mumbled sleepily, sprawled in his leather recliner. “Oh my, Puppy is a naughty boy, he has found a new toy.” Puppy punched his fist through her head and staggered toward the bathroom. He tripped over a leg and squinted unsteadily over his left shoulder. A beefy guy

around sixty in shabby clothes lay curled up on the floor, clutching an empty beer bottle and snoring like a thunderstorm. “Isn’t he cute?” Greta sang. Puppy peered at the sleeping man. His broad face must’ve been handsome before the fleshiness swallowed the cheeks and chin. A snore paused, as if thinking all on its own before rumbling serenely. Something about the man was familiar. Too familiar. Puppy grew angry. “Hey.” He poked the guy’s muscular arm. “Mister.” The snoring deepened. Puppy pushed harder. “Hey.” The man sat up with a bewildered look which quickly gave way to irritation. “Who the hell are you?” “The guy whose apartment you’re in.” “Huh.” The man squinted, trying to focus. Not with those glazed eyes. Reinhardt’s Rum, Puppy decided. Greases your liver right out your butt in no time at all. “Yeah. Huh.” Puppy tried tugging the man upright, but he weighed a ton. Puppy slipped to his knee, their faces eye level. Putrid breath raked Puppy’s nostrils. “How’d you get in here?” Maybe he’d forgot to lock the door. “I don’t know.” The man’s puzzlement seemed genuine. Reinhardt’s usually got the brain soon after the liver. “Where’s the can?” “What?” “The can.” “Of what?” “Of the can,” the man shouted belligerently. “Can. Shit, piss.” He’d just cleaned the toilet. His sparkling tiles were a thing of the past because the old rummy staggered down the hall, lurched into the bathroom and retched all over the toilet. Puppy watched in disgust as the man used a white hand towel to wipe away the vomit. “Do you mind?” The guy slammed the door. Tinkle tinkle little pee. Puppy quickly made himself coffee. After more farts, belches and several absolutely inhuman noises Puppy

didn’t want to begin to understand, the man weaved into the living room, dropping his smelly body onto the couch. He drained the last of the bourbon and made a face. “Cheap stuff.” “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t expecting guests.” The man glanced disdainfully around the messy room and put his feet on the table with a majestic wave of his thick hands. “Got any beer?” “I think you had enough.” Puppy laid a cup of coffee on the table. “I didn’t have anything. They wouldn’t let me drink in the hospital.” Finally, some facts. “Which hospital?” “Dallas Memorial. I had the cancer.” The man sipped the coffee and half-spit it back. “What is this?” Puppy’s eyes blazed. “Coffee.” “Sucks.” “Goes along with the cheap bourbon.” “Yup.” The man peered. “Where am I?” “I’m asking the questions.” “Why can only you ask and not me?” “Because you’re in my apartment.” The man considered that reasonable and made another half-hearted attempt to sip the coffee. “Sugar? Oh, wait, am I allowed to ask that?” Puppy muttered all the way back and forth to the kitchen, slamming a bowl of sugar on the coffee table. The man dumped in about four tablespoons. “Happy?” Puppy asked. “I could use some eggs.” “So could I. Where’s Dallas Memorial?” “Texas.” The man growled at Puppy’s stupidity. “You came all the way from Texas with cancer?” “I died there.” Puppy told himself not to laugh. “Then how’d you get here?” The man shook his head in deep sadness. “Damn do I know. And where am I that I don’t know how I got here?”

“New York City.” The man brightened. “I lived there. A hotel on Central Park. The memory ain’t terrific. Must be the dying and all.” “You have a name?” He paused, thinking. “Mickey Mantle.” “Mickey Mantle.” Puppy smiled carefully. “Like the old baseball player?’ “I am the old baseball player,” Mickey shouted. “Okay, okay. You are.“ “Except I ain’t anymore. Except here I am. So I must still be. ” Mickey swallowed down the rest of his coffee and polished off Puppy’s cup. “Nice to meet you, Mickey.” “That’s better.” “I’m Puppy.” Better not to give out last names. “What kind of retard name is that?” “Ask my parents. They’re both dead.” “Like me.” Mickey burped. “I want breakfast.” “How about a shower first?” Mickey’s eyes narrowed. “Why? You a fairy?” “What’s that?” “Fairy. Fag. Queer.” Grandma’s bra straps. “No. I mean, I’ve…” Puppy thought best not to answer too deeply. “No. Just girls. Take a shower. I’ll find food and then we’ll figure out where you belong.” “I belong in Heaven,” Mickey yelled. Puppy laid out an old towel and washcloth on the sink, turned on the shower water and tried to find fresh clothes while the old guy scrubbed away, singing some country song Puppy recognized by Merle Haggard, Okie from Muskogee. Mick came out with two towels Puppy would never use again wrapped around his waist. He plopped back onto the couch. “I left you clean clothes.” Puppy put down some bacon and toast. “They’re ugly,” Mickey snorted. “Yours stink.”

“So wash them.” Mick bit into the bacon and looked up with wondering disgust. “What is this?” Puppy sighed. “Bacon.” “No, it ain’t.” Mick tossed it on the plate. “Because it’s not really real. It’s AG bacon. Alleged. Or SC. So-called. Most of the foods are synthetic. Because of the radiation. From the war. Any of this ring a bell from your life before you took a bath in rum?” “I hate rum.” Mick took cautious, displeased bites of the toast. “Best you got?” “It’s the best anyone has,” Puppy yelled. The DV Community Center on East 163rd Street was a long, open portable building inside a wire-fenced playground which had been originally built for the Allah Deportations of the late 50s. It took a while to get the stench out and some felt it still smelled of goat, but that made it perfect for the DVs. Nothing had changed since Puppy had shot pool with Zelda or flirted up Noreen Delgado. Same eager kids with suspicious eyes. Same glistening floors and squeaky polished windows. Same long bulletin board with endless index cards advertising work or asking for work, announcements of after school programs, tutors available. Help me any way I can, said Grandma’s Eleventh Insight running along the far wall. Basketball courts echoed with loud grunts. An entire wall of books, about forty feet long and twelve feet high, occupied a wall; kids sat on the floor studying, whispering advice. No one screwed around. If they did, one of the matrons, always fat, always a woman, always ugly, Puppy had no idea why, would bounce their butts onto the street and it would take weeks, sometimes months, sometimes never for the kids to be able to return. There was little room for error in the DV. Always the kids were here, except for the adults dropping them off with hopeful embarrassment. The parents, who knew painfully they were responsible for this situation, leaving with a quick kiss to hurry back to their shop, store, business, whatever proliferated along the shopping streets like desperate pleas. Give us another chance. Puppy led Mickey to the front table. The matron raised up her black glasses from the chain around her neck. “Morning, madam,” Puppy said politely. “This is my friend Mickey Mantle.”

“Hiya cookie.” Mickey winked. The matron reddened indignantly. Puppy shrugged helplessly. “That’s why I’m here. He wandered off and I’m trying to get him back to where he belongs.” Puppy whispered, “I think it’s a hospital.” “Hey, I’m dead, not deaf,” Mickey barked. The matron cleared her throat authoritatively. “Can I see your Lifecard, Mr. Mantle?” Mickey looked at Puppy, who said, “Lifecard. Identification.” Mantle patted his dirty pants. “I ain’t got one.” “He doesn’t have one,” Puppy said. “I am not deaf, either, sir.” The matron smiled. “Where were you living, sir?” “In Dallas Memorial Hospital. Texas. Where I died.” The matron’s smile tightened. “When was that?” Mantle looked up thoughtfully. “Must’ve been 1995.” She exchanged a worried glance with Puppy. “Do you know what year it is, sir?” “How the hell would I know?” “He’s been dead,” Puppy threw that in. “So he said.” The woman frowned. “It’s 2098.” “No shit?” Mickey took that pretty calmly. “No wonder I feel so rested.” The matron turned to Puppy. “Where did you meet Mr. Mantle?” “On his floor,” Mick grumbled. “Must be some elevator to Heaven.” Puppy leaned forward. “Him. Where.” The woman blinked at Puppy’s shorthand, smiling a different way now. “Home.” “DV.” She nodded. Puppy glanced at Mantle, leering at a busty teenage girl. “Just sign here, sir.” Puppy hesitated longer than he should’ve. They sat on a long wooden bench, waiting for the processing and sipping lemonade. A couple of kids skateboarded past.

“They’ll take good care of you in the Facility.” Mantle frowned. “I ain’t staying with you?” “I’m not allowed. You don’t have any ID.” “Because I’m dead.” “These are the laws.” “If I wasn’t supposed to stay with you, then why the hell did I end up on your floor?” Good question, Puppy didn’t ask himself.

2 Busily scribbling on their pads, the six children in neat purple and white uniforms sat in a semi-circle on a tiny patch of brown grass four blocks from the traffic-choked Cross Bronx Expressway. From off to the side, Zelda carefully watched her class. “Okay stop.” She held up her left index finger, agitating the kids of PS 75 into feverish last-minute flourishes with their charcoal pencils. The kids mumbled nervously, anticipating elaborate praise or deep disappointment. Zelda took Marshall Diem’s pad off his lap. He looked up hopefully. “Is that what you see?” Zelda gestured across the Harlem River at the tall empty buildings. Marshall nodded uncertainly and pointed at his eyes. The kids giggled; Zelda cut them off with a sharp look. “Because I don’t see that.” “It’s there.” Marshall reached for his drawing as if it were a life jacket of creativity. Zelda shook her head. “Show me what you drew but not just on the page. Show me how you thought it.” The baffled Marshall looked at his classmates for help. They were equally puzzled. Zelda sighed impatiently. “Those buildings are ugly, right?” She held up the drawing, which showed a beautiful home with two parents, a child and trees. “This is not ugly. How did you get from that,” she jabbed past the holographic sailboats and seagulls at the squalid remains of Manhattan, still largely uninhabited after the chemical attack, “to this?” Marshall’s eyes watered. Zelda wasn’t particularly sympathetic. Maybe if she liked children more. Or at all. Zelda knelt in the circle, the children anxious, their turn at having their art disemboweled by this always stern and slightly scary woman

looming any second. Look at Marshall; his cheeks dripped tears. “There is no right or wrong. But you have to explain what you do and what you feel. You can’t just draw shit and say, oh, this is my art.” She gave up on Marshall, his shoulders heaving slightly from terrified sobs. “N’ariti.” The girl with thick hair extending past her shoulders sat up straight, considering possible escape across the River. She could just walk across, but no one would tell her that. “Yes, Ms. Jones.” “What did you draw?” “I don’t know.” N’ariti clutched the pad to her chest, the charcoal smearing her uniform blouse. “What do you think you drew?” “I don’t know.” N’ariti suddenly found whatever blind courage exists in a sixyear-old. “A window.” Zelda smiled faintly. “Good. Show me.” N’ariti shook her head. “Show me the window.” Zelda waved off N’ariti’s offer of the pad. She tapped her own head. “Up here. Show me. Be a window.” Zelda stood very carefully, eyes closed, hands by her sides. “I’m a window,” she said out of the corners of her mouth. “I am dirty. Broken. Abandoned. Lonely. Everything is organically emotional. That’s what I mean,” she suddenly shouted. The children huddled closer together. Zelda went through each of the children, reducing them to tears. It seemed only right that their parents should have the same opportunity with her the next day. Marshall’s mother glowered across the principal’s office. Zelda so wanted to slap her silly, thick-headed Reg head. “My son won’t go near windows anymore.” Bennett Chambers, the PS 75 principal, nodded his wooly head in grave understanding. “That’s good,” Zelda protested. Chambers cleared his throat warningly. “Well it is,” she couldn’t resist.

“He was a Muslim Europe orphan,” Marshall’s Mom said, fluffing her dress. “He still has nightmares.” “Didn’t he come here when he was an infant?” “I can see you’re not a mother,” Marshall’s Mom sneered. “No, I’m not,” Zelda almost added thankfully. “Then you’d understand the trauma of abuse and terror in an ME orphanage can affect even a baby. All those studies show it takes years to shed them of the horrors. Now he has to worry about windows.” “Just keep them open so he won’t notice…” “Zelda,” Chambers broke in. “Mrs. Diem, we will make sure that there are no more field trips like this.” The mother rose. “I hope this doesn’t sound rude, but I don’t want him in this class anymore. Sorry, Ms. Jones.” Zelda shrugged. “He doesn’t have much talent anyway.” Chambers took the gasping mother to the door, whispering apologies. He returned behind his desk, coldly staring at Zelda. “What did that accomplish, Ms. Jones? In your own words.” “Which part?” “Select one.” His teeth gritted. “I think she’s a moron who doesn’t understand how to reach her child emotionally other than hiding behind stereotypical fears and blaming everything she does wrong on the kid not getting his butt wiped when he was two months old.” Chambers struggled to conceal his shock. “Is that what you came away with?” “I didn’t know there was a right or wrong answer, Principal Chambers. Which is what I was trying to get out of the class…” “What you got out of them is hysteria.” He held up his pad. “The other parents all have meetings here. Do you think you should attend?” “I probably don’t bring a lot to the table.” Chambers leaned forward on his forearms. “Why couldn’t you just let them draw trees?” “The blackened ones?”

“The holographic ones from Grandma.” “Which aren’t real.” “They are if we believe so.” “Which is not a healthy emotion for an artist.” “It is for the teacher.” “I was an artist first.” “And not a successful one, either.” He picked up Zelda’s file and tossed it back down as if she weren’t aware of her life story. “I had some acclaim. Sold-out shows…” “And that’s why you ended up here.” He rolled his eyes. “Ms. Jones. No more field trips. You will stay in the classroom and teach according to the curriculum.” “Which gives a teacher latitude about helping students…” “Your latitude over the past six months since you’ve been here demonstrates you take latitude with the latitude.” Even Zelda knew better than to correct him. “Am I on probation, sir?” ***** Mrs. Gonzalez’s eyes burnt skeptically above the brown leather strap stretching across her mouth. Pablo waited another few seconds. The annoyed old woman kicked, making the bicuspid-shaped examining chair swivel slightly. Finding this ploy, Gonzalez kicked a little harder; the chair turned forty-five degrees. Pablo glanced at the ticking machine and then away from the patient, enabling her to kick vigorously with both legs to turn the chair completely around. Her chuckle was muffled. Pablo untied the strap and rested his right elbow casually on the chair’s arm as Gonzalez regained her breathing. “Steady.” “I know, dear.” Gonzalez’s eyes locked onto his eyelashes. “And?” He held out the square half-moon machine in front of him. “Six and a half inches.” “I don’t believe it.” She suppressed a delighted smile. “True. I don’t lie.” “Machines can. As we know,” she said archly.

“I only know the smile-o-meter measured five inches and three quarters two months ago and now it’s up to six.” Her eyes narrowed above a smile. “You tricked me, Dr. Diaz.” “You honestly believe that I can trick you, a woman of such experience.” “And age,” she snorted. “With a child’s toy.” “The entire Family uses this,” he said with mock severity. “Means nothing,” she refused to concede. “Means you’re happier lately. The muscles elevate your mood, making you…” “Are you going to sound like one of those adverts?” Pablo shrugged another impish grin. Someday there’d be adverts for one of his products. “You’re happier.” “I haven’t done anything differently.” “That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to work at happiness. Most of our siblings still don’t get it.” He undid her white apron. “We’re done?” She was disappointed. Eighty-nine-years old and nothing else to do the rest of the day. “I’ve got a waiting room full of patients, none of them as beautiful as you.” “Grandma’s earrings, I will lose my lunch.” She chuckled. “Did you use such charms when you saw my nephew?” Pablo busied himself finishing up her chart. “Dr. Diaz, he’s a lovely boy.” “I’m really busy, Mrs. Gonzalez. I don’t have time.” “For love?” Pablo eased her gently out of the chair. “To brush my teeth as often as I should.” He handed her a green lolly. “Remember to floss.” “If you’ll call my nephew.” She grunted. Pablo spritzed disinfectant spray on the chair and replaced the paper cups. He really had to find a dental assistant. The A27 receptionist knocked twice and opened the door. Past its wiggy blond head, Pablo could see the fluorescent yellow waiting room was full. Gentle humming buzzed beneath the seats. Every nine seconds the walls turned into a glistening smile that morphed into rows of perfect

white teeth putting the patients inside the mouth, looking out at an HG of Pablo by his office door, warmly welcoming them with a tilt of his tooth-like head. Only the really cynical didn’t smile. “You have two gentlemen to see you, Dr. Diaz.” Pablo glanced at the chart. “Not patients, sir.” The robot stepped aside to allow two lanky men in casual light suits carrying wide brimmed hats to enter. They had that official look which made his stomach churn. “May I help you?” The dark-haired one nodded. “We’re from Grandma’s House, Dr. Diaz.” Pablo squeezed his lucky aqua marble in his right pocket. “What’ve I done?” The men exchanged curious smiles. “What do you think you’ve done?” “Nothing at all.” “Neither do we.” The sandy-haired man leaned against a shelf, glancing at a photo of Pablo, Puppy and Zelda at the beach in Connecticut, hair flying across their young, laughing faces. Deep tans. Deep joy. They were twenty-one, twentytwo. Why wouldn’t they laugh? “Puppy, Zelda, they well?” Pablo tensed. The dark-haired man shot his colleague a disapproving look. “Excuse him. Sometimes he plays cop. It’s inappropriate.” “Yes, it was.” The other man wiped dust off the picture frame and carefully placed it back on the shelf. “Then again, you’re supposed to handle all situations.” “I’m a good dentist.” “Very good. That’s why Grandma is considering asking you to become a Fifth Cousin.” Pablo took a quick sip from a paper cup, swallowed a little and then rinsed and spit the rest. The men grinned. “Sorry…” He blushed. “Oh please,” the sandy-haired man said. “You should see the range of reactions we get, if we were allowed to say.” “I’m honored…” “But not too honored.” The man eyed him shrewdly.

“No,” Pablo said carefully. “Honored enough to both lead and serve.” “Good.” The man beamed. “May we take that as an agreement to the next step?” “Certainly,” Pablo said hoarsely. The men nodded, pleased. The dark-haired man picked up the conversation, “As you know, you can’t say anything about this.” “I didn’t know.” “Because no one can ever say anything.” “Yes. Of course,” he mumbled. “If your receptionist asks, who are we?” the sandy-haired shot the question. “Salesmen.” “You put salesmen ahead of patients?” “A recommendation of a patient. A courtesy. ” The men exchanged pleased smiles. The sandy-haired guy continued, “You do understand this is merely asking if you’re interested. That’s all. You might never hear back. You might hear back tomorrow. We only do the asking. Others follow up.” Pablo just nodded. “Nice to meet you, Dr. Diaz.” The dark-haired man studied the smile-o-meter. “This really work?” “Absolutely. Think smiles and you do.” Dr. Gerry Rosen had invented the smile-o-meter back in 2081. He’d gotten tired of his grandchildren hiding in closets or under the bed, whimpering, inspired to such behavior by Rosen jumping out from behind doors growling and threatening to eat them. His daughter wouldn’t let her children stay with him anymore until he could prove they were happy. So came the smile-o-meter, measuring the width of a smile. Both his granddaughters had permanent marks on their cheeks, but their faces—the Extra Dimple Rosen Girls—became famous when Grandma learned of the invention; she still measured her smile once a week on National Smile Day. “I’d be happy to strap you in, sir.” The man chuckled. “How much would that cost me?” “It’s part of the regular initial check-up. Nothing free for anyone, of course.” “Of course.” The men put on their hats and left.

Pablo slumped into his desk chair, head between his knees to keep it from hurtling off his neck. Cousin.

3 What about that one?” Zelda pointed at the job posting on the computer, sliding the black reading glasses further down her nose. “Two years copy writing experience.” “About hams.” “It starts in the fall. Perfect timing.” Puppy rapped the screen with the back of his hand. “I don’t even eat ham.” “Fake it,” she said evenly. Puppy scrolled down the list. There were entry level positions, continuing the career, changing the career and his favorite category, stepping up. As in you screwed up everything else, what do you plan on doing before it’s too late? “Maybe I can teach.” He lingered over a posting for a phys ed teacher at HS 35 in the Morrisania district, convincing himself. “That’s in the DV.” “No, it’s not. Jumping jacks, wind sprints. I’ve seen enough out-of-shape men and women to know…” “It’s 158th Street.” Zelda was fixed on the geography. Sometimes he needed a very sturdy crane to move her along. “Which is going east, putting it beyond that Village.” “I think you’re wrong.” Zelda searched among the baseball books stacked neatly on his desk. “Don’t you have a guide?” “Somewhere,” he said gloomily. “You have to keep street guides, Puppy. It’s the law. ‘Know where you are in your heart and your body.’ Twelfth Insight.” He stared. “Are you going to quote Madame’s thoughts for a long time?” “No and don’t call her Madame. That’s disrespectful.” He rolled his eyes. “I think I know the Bronx pretty good. Especially where the DVs begin and end. And the River Avenue DV ends just west of Third Avenue at 160rd.”

“I think you’re wrong.” “You usually do.” “But it doesn’t matter anyway since it would drive you insane to actually teach sports.” “As opposed to writing jingles for Hank’s Hams? Bake ‘em, broil ‘em, flip ‘em on the grill. Anyway you do it, you’ll get a thrill.” Zelda’s dark eyes widened. “That’s really good.” “Thank you. It’s one of their adverts.” Puppy sighed. “I couldn’t sleep last night.” She plopped back onto the long pillows on the floor. “Me neither.” He paused on another posting. “Here we go. ‘Everyone Needs Shoes.’ Smart. Who goes barefoot anymore? Or ever? ‘Walton Avenue’s largest shoe store, These Boots Are Made for Walking, needs an eager, aggressive individual to make sure every sidewalk in the Bronx looks at our soles.’” Zelda sneered. “It’d remind you of Annette and her store and your marriage.” Puppy wandered into the kitchen, returning with a couple of beers. Zelda stared dimly at the screen, mechanically opening the bottle. “I have to do this, too,” she said softly. He took her hand. “Oh shit, what happened?” “Nothing.” Zelda shrugged. “Only teaching brats isn’t for me.” “That’s very surprising given your love of children.” She snarled mockingly. “I can’t just sit in a classroom and make them draw pretty little flowers with cute little birds.” “Didn’t you have birds in that showcase you did on Jerome Avenue?” Puppy grinned. “Real birds. Flying around.” “Wih you squawking and chasing them.” “Flight. Adventure.” “Especially when the birds got into the audience.” “That’s art, Puppy.” She shook her head in dismay. “I should’ve stuck with it.” “They wouldn’t have let you. The practicality would’ve worn you down. Chasing birds isn’t exactly the route to success in Grandma’s House.”

“What is?” “We ain’t found it,” he stated the obvious. “Maybe you can get something in the Sport Commission.” “Can you see me setting up the football Augmented Realties? Hut, hut, here I am in the huddle with all these really big guys. Or the NBA. How is the weather up there, Mr. Giant?” “Fifteen years counts for something, honey.” She touched his forehead. “Commissioner Kenuda hates baseball. Trust me.” Puppy aimlessly scrolled along. “Something weird happened this morning.” “I knew it.” “What?” “Your mood. It’s more than just facing a dismal job prospect you will hate and seeing your lifelong dreams die.” Puppy had to chuckle, even if he didn’t feel it. He told Zelda about the old guy. She listened intently, interrupting for detail after detail, exhausting him. “I checked the door three times to make sure it was locked after we left.” She assured him. “I even had Pablo rattle the knob. Twice. So how’d he get in?” “Maybe I sleepwalk and open my own doors.” She didn’t like that answer. “Be serious.” “I am. I said it was weird.” Zelda hesitated. “How’d you act with him?” “The way anyone would act when someone breaks into their house.” “Uh-huh.” “Uh-huh, uh-huh. I told you, I brought him to the community center.” Zelda kept staring. “You obviously have some deep and startling insight to bring to this discussion.” “Could’ve let him stay an extra day or two. You know what The Facility is like.” “I do.” His throat closed, making him angry. At her, no, himself. “And that’s why, Miss Psychiatrist, I sent him off. Because they’re set up to take care of crazy old drunks.” “If that’s what you want to think.” “That like any other normal human being I wouldn’t want some smelly stranger

in my house who could steal my things doesn’t cross your mind.” “Steal what?” Zelda gestured around the living room, the sagging brown couch, battered chairs and wobbly coffee table courtesy of a discount store on Fordham Road after he and Annette split. He asked for the worst looking furniture they had. The salesman took pity and only charged for the delivery. If he knew Annette, the salesman probably would’ve thrown in a dining room set. Puppy pursed his lips and returned to the postings. Zelda poked him. “Ow.” “Answer me.” “You didn’t ask a question.” “Why didn’t you let him stay?” “Because I have to look for a job, otherwise the Employment Center will just assign me one which I won’t like, because I can find something so perfect on my own. Here.” He nodded at the screen. “Copywriter. All backgrounds welcome. Basil Hayden Funeral Homes. ‘Let Us Do the Dying.’ Now let’s find yours. Tweet, tweet.” ***** A shaggy-headed man with a scrungy beard leaned into a small puddle of beer on the counter. “It’s wet.” Zelda pointed at his dripping sleeve. “You’re worth it.” Zelda rolled her eyes. The burly, tight-lipped bartender Jimmy paused in case she needed help. Zelda double-blinked a ‘no’ and Jimmy went back to drying glasses, keeping an eye on her anyway. “Well, you don’t know me.” Zelda took a long swallow on her beer. She was still annoyed with Puppy and, like the mature adults they were, had bickered for half an hour about his poorly suppressed childhood traumas and her unfulfilled artistic aspirations, sending her stomping out of the apartment and down the block into Monroe’s. Shadows danced slowly to Willie Nelson. The silenced vidnews ran in a loop behind the bar; new farms were opening in the Southwest, thanks to radiation minimizing techniques. Would cactus burgers be far behind? Jimmy could serve

them on Country Night instead of those stale tortilla chips covered in barbecue sauce squatting on the bar. The guy with the beard wiped the sweet brown sauce off her chin. “Full service,” he said quietly. “I take care of all needs.” Jimmy glared at the man. Maybe because he knew her a long time and thought four straight nights here at the bar letting men wipe her chin was too much. Or maybe it was the guy’s beard. Once, a beard or even a moustache got you stomped. Zelda could vaguely remember a hooked nose earning a beating. Now, just a dirty look from a protective bartender. She double blinked shorthand at Jimmy, who muttered and attended to a customer at the other end. “And you know what my needs are.” “I can sense them.” Zelda finished her drink and let the guy buy her another. Jimmy poured it slowly, disapprovingly. “I think you’re lonely.” Grandma’s clit, give me a break. “It’s been a while since you had someone.” Yeah, nearly twenty-four hours. “How’s my guessing so far?” “Brilliant. Can you guess my name?” “Does that matter?” Zelda smiled playfully. “Are you saying this is just about sex?” The Beard’s smile wavered slightly. “Doesn’t have to be.” “I’m single. Obviously. So are you. Hopefully. Did I guess that right?” He nodded, a little annoyed. “Otherwise…” “Otherwise you’d get a summons and adultery is ugly. Apartment, job, mark on your name up and down the entire system.” The Beard shifted uneasily. “Because I’m here looking for love and romance and relationship and sharing and all the things Grandma wants us to have. Otherwise I’m just a slut.” Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “Do you think I’m a slut?”

“No, I…” “If you do, then I should be reported for wayward pointless sex not designed for reproduction or at least companionship. That’s not what you were after, is it?” The Beard quickly tossed his Lifecard on the bar, agonizing as Jimmy ever so slowly rang up the charges. “Good luck,” he called over his shoulder. Zelda tapped the bar with her knuckles for a refill. Jimmy slid over a bowl of chips. “I wasn’t letting you leave with that bearded piece of crap,” Jimmy growled. He was about six five, two hundred and fifty pounds and could probably stop a crusher truck with a punch. “I don’t need a protector.” “You need to stay out of my bar for a while.” “But I’m a good customer. Without me, the way I draw men into running up big tabs, you’d close. Then I’d be stricken with guilt, unable to work, a drag on Grandma’s House. Both of us, Jimmy. Ruination. Shame. ” Jimmy shook his head. “Maybe you should try a girl.” “I have,” Zelda sighed. “I screw them up, too.”

4 Major Tomas Stilton was still half drenched from the long drive, the tropical rain pouring relentlessly into the open windows. If only he could scratch his face, but he wouldn’t give the scum the satisfaction of asking for help. Letting them slip their greasy fingers under the black hood seemed worse than enduring the itching. Then again, blinded, he didn’t have to look at them. Touching was difficult enough. Smelling, sensing. He’d shuddered for an hour; they thought he was just cold, but Tomas was remembering how many Allahs he’d killed. At least fifty. Half during the withdrawal at Sicily. Those seven in the chalet near Nice when his Seals had rescued the last Vice President. Another dozen covering the first convoy of refugee children. A few he killed out of savage vengeance. Two rough hands yanked him off the hard wooden chair. One, two, three steps, door creaks open, and one, two over the threshold. Left, one, two, three, steps, feet trailing behind him. Why are you bothering? They’ll take you somewhere different next time. If there was a next time. My beloved, I hope you know what you’re doing. Because I sure as hell don’t. He was dropped like a bag of soiled laundry onto a more comfortable chair. Leather, his bulky body squirmed, confirming it. Someone laughed and cut his wrists free of the thick rope. They yanked off his hood. He wouldn’t squint in the sudden light. Same principle of not giving them any satisfaction. Tomas kept his eyes fixed at the bare floor until he grew accustomed to his surroundings. Two young Allahs in flowing white robes flanked him, hands in their laps as if Stilton had stopped by for a beer. Another one, maybe thirty-five or so, sat gracefully on an identical black leather chair. He smiled warmly. This was the guy. Slight, almost frail. Arrogant in that cordial way they had. “Mr. Stilton, welcome.” Tomas nodded vaguely. “Are you hungry?” Tomas waved him off.

“I do not consider it weakness if you need nourishment. It is a long way from the Bronx.” “Yes it is,” he finally said. “I’m fine.” The Allah shrugged off Tomas’ stubbornness and exchanged amused glances with his colleagues. Tomas wondered if the guns were under their robes or they just had a couple rifles aimed at his head behind the white walls. A generator hummed. They were probably deep underground. “I am Imam Abboud.” He tipped his head slightly. “Imam?” Tomas held his concern in check. Hood off for thirty seconds and already they’d fucked with him. And you’re very and deeply surprised, why? “Where’s the Son?” “The son?” Imam’s next look at his colleagues was decidedly less polite. “Abdullah.” “You will refer to him as His Most Worthy Successor.” The war was so easy to understand sometimes, Tomas thought. He bowed from the shoulders. “I was told I would meet His Most Worthy Successor.” Abboud sneered slightly. “He has ears.” “As I have a tongue.” The Imam acknowledged that with a gracious wave of the hand. “If you speak, I will listen.” Tomas hesitated. “Did you really think he would come?” “No, I honestly didn’t,” Tomas admitted. “But Grandma did.” And I should’ve talked her out of this; no one ever would’ve known. “As I said, he has ears.” The Imam touched his left ear lobe as if Tomas were very dull-witted. “His Most Worthy Successor is a man of great vision.” “Like the Grand Mufti.” The Allahs mumbled “Allah be praised.” Tomas pressed back the bile. “A man of astonishing vision.” “May His Most Worthy Successor have an ounce of that.” The Imam raised his hands skyward, looking shrewdly at Tomas. “He reveres the Grand Mufti.” “As he should. As would any son.” Tomas couldn’t resist.

Abboud considered Tomas’s veiled insolence. “And your grandmother?” “Grandma is well and sends her blessings to His Most Worthy Successor.” “He is grateful for the thoughts.” Tomas shifted uncomfortably. How long would he have to continue this? “But…” Abboud abruptly continued. “Such thoughts are natural from everyone to his Most Worthy Successor. He wonders what other thoughts your grandmother…” “Grandma,” Tomas said coldly. The Allahs in the chairs stirred enough so Tomas could see the outlines of their guns. The Imam calmed them with a wave. “Grandma.” He smiled. “Apologies. That is disrespectful. She has sent you a considerable way without food and drink. Someone very trusted. Her most trusted friend. To here, a place of your enemies. His Most Worthy Successor wonders why.” Tomas placed his elbows on his knees, releasing his lower back with a pleasant twinge. “She would like to discuss the future.” “Why not with the Grand Mufti whose courage created it?” Tomas took a deep breath. “He lives in the past.” Abboud tossed another wave at the bristling Allahs. “A glorious past.” “Yes.” Depending where you sit, you prick. “But Grandma believes it’s time to move forward.” The Imam’s face curled in curiosity. “Why would His Most Worthy Successor feel that?” “Because he is a son. And a son must look ahead to his own destiny. Forged by his own greatness. ” Tomas smiled quickly. “I could use some water.” The Imam snapped his fingers. Tomas waited until he took a few sips before beginning. ***** Sitting before the wide, sooty window, Mickey stared off blankly as fellow patients nudged past his wheelchair like exhausted bumper cars. Mick’s mouth chewed as if forming words. Lost words, floating out and away. Puppy thought he could see them like the bubbles he blew out of a bottle as a child. Empty bubbles.

He saw a lot while watching, hands crossed at his waist. No one bothered him, asked for ID, what he was doing there, planning on cutting the throats of any of our patients, sir? If so, take your pick, we don’t want them. Outside the boundaries of the DV, homes like this were called Backyards, places where grandma and grandpa and ol’ Uncle Eduardo rocked gently in the hammock. Dozens, hundreds of hammocks, swaying in a soft breeze where sunshine reigned for more than four hours, visitors lined up because it was a great honor to meet people who had contributed so much to their country and the Family. Here in East Tremont, it was called just The Facility, a place of embarrassment. No hope to advance, even mentor, hand down any important bits of last-minute wisdom. This was the ultimate disappointment, hopefully they’ll move on soon, within the hour, counting down one, two, three, and take their fleshy old hairy butts on to wherever you wanted to believe someone went anymore; Heaven and God and religion had been out of fashion for a couple decades. Puppy clasped Mick’s shoulder. The old guy kept staring through the windows, half spears of rusted metal protecting the outside ledge because this would surely be the number one destination for any thieves inclined to scamper up five floors. “Where the hell you been? Food’s worse here than your dump,” Mickey growled. Puppy signed him out, the diffident nurse perking up at all of Mickey’s many possibilities for happiness now that he had a home with his nephew. Puppy studied the checklist about health and exercise and mental acuity as they walked back toward his apartment, Mickey sadly shaking his head. “The whole neighborhood’s a dump.” “This is the…” he stopped, too much explanation. “I actually live in the better part of the Bronx.” “The Bronx? I’m in the Bronx?” Mick did a little dance. Puppy pulled him away from a bus bearing down to finish its route no matter how many old men in smelly clothes it had to run down. “I told you.” “No. You said New York. I got a good memory.”

“I’m sure,” Puppy said dryly. “Where’s the stadium?” That made Puppy smile. He pointed west. “Over there.” “Old bitch is still standing. Can’t kill either of us,” Mickey marveled in relief. “Is it baseball season?” Puppy nodded. “We’ll go to a game. Sit in the luxury box.” At least he was a fan. Mickey made a sharp turn into Monroe’s as Puppy kept walking. He hurried inside where Mantle was already at the bar digging into a bowl of nuts. “Let me have a breakfast of champions,” Mickey said to Jimmy. “Know how to make it?” “Jimmy, no…” Puppy sat beside Mickey. “Hell, I’m thirsty. You abandoned me. I deserve this.” Jimmy gave Puppy a searching look. He shrugged wearily. “Gimme two shots of brandy, Kahlua and cream. And some real nuts, these taste like wood.” The bartender gave Puppy a longer, searching look. “Kahlua?” “Yeah.” Mick spun around on the stool; the place was empty at ten AM. “They don’t have Kahlua, Mickey.” “What the hell kind of bar is this? All right.” Mick held up a conciliatory hand. “Somehow the world ain’t what it was when I was alive. Gimme a vodka martini. Does the bartender know how to make a martini or do I have to go behind and help out?” Jimmy’s nostrils flared slightly. He noisily mixed the drink. “Just one.” Puppy raised a finger. “Sure.” Mickey smiled impishly. The bartender poured out the martini. Mickey’s eyes lit up and he gulped down half. A Blue Shirt strolled in with a friendly wave of his night stick. Jimmy tensed. “Morning, Jimmy. Everyone doing well today?” “Very well, Officer Frick.” “They ain’t got Kahlua,” Mickey grumbled and finished his martini, holding out

the glass for a refill. “Now that’s a real problem.” Frick slid onto a stool. “Officer Frick.” “Mickey Mantle.” They shook hands. “He just got out of The Facility,” Puppy explained. “Oh?” Officer Frick wrinkled his nose. “I wondered about the odor.” “I don’t smell,” Mickey growled. “I think you do, sir. It’s okay. Your friend…” “Nephew…” Puppy jumped in. “Nephew,” Frick drew out the word dubiously. “He’ll take care of you. Eventually.” The cop tipped the night stick on the counter and motioned for Puppy to follow, stopping near the men’s room. “Nephew?” “Sort of. I found him wandering in my neighborhood.” “Took pity, very nice.” Frick waited for Puppy to hand over his Lifecard, which he scanned on a thin silver device wrapped around his wrist. “Baseball historian?” The Officer chuckled dismissively. Puppy forced a wan smile. “Should have plenty of time then to take care of the gentleman.” Frick examined the discharge forms. “Like I said, you’ve done a nice thing. But stupidity trumps generosity.” Frick gently rapped his night stick on Puppy’s forehead. Maybe not so gently. “He left The Facility half an hour ago and you bring him to a bar?” “He kind of just walked in.” “And forced his way into receiving a drink?” Frick glanced at Mick, toasting. “Two drinks now.” Puppy groaned inwardly. “Is this the sort of care you’re planning on extending?” “No, sir.” “He’s clearly nearing the end and deserves dignity.” “Yes, sir.” “Will I see you in here again?” “Yes. But not with him.” “Because I will check.” Frick scribbled a reminder note with a small pencil in a large purple notebook, then walked back down the bar and warmly shook Mantle’s hand. “Pleasure to meet you, sir.” He stared at Jimmy. “Mr. Nedick will relay our

conversation.” Jimmy glared at Puppy. He really wanted to be on the police radar about smelly old men drinking when they shouldn’t and causing problems. Officer Frick made it as far as halfway to the door before Mickey raised his refilled martini glass, calling out, “What’s the rush, Officer? Join me for a round.” The Blue Shirt escorted them to The Foyer, the main administrative center for the Bronx, an ugly old building with latticed windows and scorched bricks which sat with a certain haughty air on Sheridan Avenue. After the Allahs nuked Washington, DC, on the heels of the chemical attack on Manhattan, the seat of government had moved to the Bronx. At the entrance, Frick whispered heatedly to the Blue Shirt on duty, jabbing his stick toward Puppy. The large cop rolled off his stool, annoyed at the inconvenience of having to move, obviously caused by Puppy’s negligence and possible degeneracy. The Blue Shirt, identified as Manson Phillips on his NYPD badge, read and re-read the discharge papers, searching for some reason to arrest Puppy or at least take a very active dislike. Patient: Mickey Mantle. Age: Deceased. Born: Yes. Occupation: Hall of Fame Baseball Player. Relatives: Probably all dead like me. Last Address: Dallas Memorial Hospital and hopefully a cemetery. Health Issues: No sex for a 100 years. Mental State: Maybe. Officer Phillips returned the papers to Puppy, giving Mickey a bewildered look. “I’ll make sure they get to the right room.” Frick tapped his night stick rhythmically into Puppy’s forehead. as he instructed his colleague, “Check the papers when they leave.” Mick dozed on Puppy’s shoulder in the simply furnished waiting room. On a long poster by the door, the face of a pleasant faced girl in dreads smiled beneath a sign, “If You Don’t Know Who You Are, How Can We?” with stark lettering below, “Take Care of Your Lifecard.” Directly above their heads hummed the vidnews, scrolling along pictures of fish hopping happily into nets draped from a long boat somewhere in the Atlantic, a dour captain in a yellow slicker explaining new fishing techniques in a way that made you long for a good greasy cheeseburger; Puppy kind of remembered real meat, dozing into a light sleep where he was a

pickle chip fighting off angry cheddar cheese with Mantle’s face. The reedy clerk beckoned them inside. Mick walked unsteadily; he must’ve thrown down an extra martini when I wasn’t looking, Puppy thought as they settled inside the office. Grandma’s classic pearl earrings photograph stared down. “Who’s the broad?” Mick drawled. The clerk stared, horrified. “He was in The Facility,” Puppy explained. The clerk held the application up to his eyes. “You got a toilet?” Mick asked. “Hold it in,” Puppy whispered. “I can’t.” The clerk looked up. “Where did you lose it?” It took Puppy a second. “The Lifecard? He doesn’t know.” “I don’t even know what the hell it is,” Mick yelled. The clerk disapprovingly fingered the application. “He had an accident,” Puppy said. “Did you file a police report?” the clerk asked hopefully. “No.” “I fell on my head,” Mick threw in. “I was drunk.” The clerk grunted. “Where?” “Usually at Toots Shor’s joint. Also my own place on Central Park West.” “Manhattan.” Puppy raised a knowing eyebrow. “Before.” The clerk narrowed his eyes. “So you lost it outside the Bronx.” “I don’t know,” Mick snapped. “Might still be in my coffin.” “So the Lifecard could just be misplaced.” “Probably not.” Puppy brushed aside any optimism. “You must look for it.” “How can he look for the Lifecard if he doesn’t know where he lost it?” “Until then, it’s merely misplaced. “ “Does that mean he can’t get one?” The clerk frowned. “He can. It’s just more work.” Puppy smiled apologetically, which had the effect of hitting a meteor with a

stick. The clerk chewed on his lower lip and typed into his computer. “And the bathroom is where?” Mick whined. “In a second,” Puppy snapped. The clerk looked up, slightly puzzled. “There is no record of a Lifecard issued to Mickey Mantle.” Mick stood, ready to roll. Puppy tugged him back down. “Are you sure?” The clerk’s watery eyes glistened with indignation. “Of that name, yes. Perhaps the gentlemen used other names.” Puppy nudged Mick to answer. “The Mick. The Commerce Comet. I was a jet before I tore up my knee.” He rolled up his right pants leg to show a nasty scar on the knee. He rolled the pants back down thoughtfully. “We do not use nicknames for official documents,” the clerk said icily. “Mick, you have a middle name?” “Would help,” the clerk turned toward his keyboard, eager for this to end. “Charles. Mickey Charles Mantle,” he said proudly. The clerk’s search came up empty. This was especially annoying. Lost or misplaced Lifecards were easy enough because he could send them elsewhere after he stamped a couple documents. Never registered, that was sticky. “Have you ever had a Lifecard, sir?” the clerk asked. “Not that I remember,” Mickey said. “Now I really gotta pee.” Mantle bolted down the hallway, where he could be heard shouting “where’s the fucking bathroom this is a medical emergency.” “It isn’t good to never have a Lifecard, is it?” Puppy asked once the commotion outside quieted down. The clerk shook his head. “What does it mean?” “From my long experience, usually the person or persons…” “There’s only one person involved. I have a Lifecard.” “Person. For now.” The clerk raised a warning eyebrow. “It’s illegal.” “Illegal.” “Yes,” the clerk said meaningfully. “Well, maybe, but he’s off in the head.”

“Yet you took him out of The Facility. If you’d kept him there, no one would’ve cared. Out here, he needs to live.” “Isn’t it illegal either way?” The clerk flushed. “Yes sir, it is illegal. My advice is to return him to The Facility. Sounds a little harsh. I know you people stick together.” Puppy thought about how wonderful it would feel to hit the clerk in the face. “I’m a Reg now,” he forced out the words between clenched teeth. The clerk’s eyes fluttered disdainfully. “I’ll do you a favor. I’ll mark this request pending and we’ll schedule another appointment for next week. That’ll give you an opportunity to decide what’s best for Mr. Mantle and the Family. It could be that he simply shouldn’t be out here, roaming around.” “There was no fucking toilet paper.” Mick returned, zipping up his fly. ***** Zelda walked around the couch, arms crossed, big brown eyes narrowing and widening as she inspected the sleeping Mick. “He seems harmless.” “Wait until his bladder wakes up.” She rubbed Puppy’s arm. “I’m proud of you for doing something that goes against your grain.” “It’s just until he gets on his feet, Zelda. Don’t get carried away.” “I’m not.” She paused. “Those your old fat clothes?” She gestured at the blue flannel shirt and khaki pants fitting Mick like a blanket on an elephant. “Better than his undies dipped in raw sewage.” Puppy shook his head, sitting on the edge of the chair. “What happens during the day when I have appointments?” Zelda grinned. “Wall to wall, are we?” “Yes. I’ve got the ex-spouse tomorrow.” “Take Mickey. I’d love to see the bitch’s response.” Puppy smiled at that. “I can’t take him anywhere without a Lifecard in case we get stopped.” “Why would you?” “Because he’s crazy. He went off on the way back when he saw some couples. Let’s say he’s not enlightened on how people might pair up.” Puppy shook his

head. “How is someone not in the system?” “That’s not his real name, stupid.” Zelda rolled her eyes. “Once he settles in…” “Only for a few days…” “Things will come back to him.” Why choose that particular name? Puppy wondered. “So could you watch him tomorrow morning before school?” “I’m kind of not at the school anymore.” “I thought it was just probation?” “I pulled out before it went on my record. This way it can be all so positive, Ms. Jones advanced the children’s artistic sensibilities and has now moved on to another constructive role in the Family. Fucking entitled Regs and their brats.” “What’s the new constructive role?” Zelda hesitated. “Marketing.” He waited skeptically. “Selling salmon.” “Grandma’s anus, Zelda.” “I’m practical. Saul’s Salmon is a great company.” “I think I saw their advert,” Puppy said unhappily. “The guy with the yellow slicker?” she asked. Puppy nodded. “That’s Howie Herman’s House of Gills. Our guy wears a purple slicker. Shows how important they are by using Grandma’s favorite color. Now with the government finally opening up fishing lanes for healthy fish instead of the faux shit we eat, there might be a real future.” “With salmon.” “Can you be a little more supportive since I hate myself for doing this?” Puppy took her hand. “I don’t want you giving up things you love. Like I have to.” “I’ll paint pictures of baseball players, how’s that?” Mickey groaned and sat up, peeved at the two intruders. “You a girl?” Zelda held out her hand. “Zelda Jones.” Mickey held her palm a little too eagerly. “Because girls and boys ain’t the same here.”

“I’m a total girl. All original parts, Mr. Mantle.” Zelda modeled by walking around the couch. Puppy blinked Zelda a warning as Mick rubbed his hands together. “So I see.” Mick smirked. “Your girlfriend’s a looker, kid.” “She’s not my girlfriend,” Puppy said quickly. “Just friends.” Zelda sat beside Mantle. “Childhood friends. See that scar?” She twisted her jaw to the left. “Some assholes threw rocks at me the day I moved into the DV. I was thirteen. My hero Puppy jumped off a wall and knocked two of them out cold and sent the third running and screaming.” “Not before he got this.” Puppy pointed to a scar above his left eyebrow. Mick grunted approval. “What’s a DV?” Puppy and Zelda exchanged baffled looks. He took this one. “Disappointment Village, Mickey. You know, where the…” His voice trailed off, perplexed. “I don’t know.” Zelda squeezed Mick’s hand. “DVs are where people who fail have to live until they can get their shit together and find jobs or careers or something to prove they’re productive members of society. Sometimes they make it and sometimes they don’t. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people if they don’t.” “A slum?” Mickey found a half bottle of beer on the floor and drained it. “Slums, ghettos, those were places of filth and poverty where everyone gave up, Mickey,” Zelda continued in the sing song voice she reserved for when she wanted to be especially annoyingly patronizing. “DVs are places of genuine opportunity. Someday they’ll be all gone. Everyone will have a positive place in the Family.” She tossed a pained look at Puppy. Mantle scratched his hand. “Sounds like a lot of crap. Speaking of…” He rumbled into the bathroom. Zelda stared down the hallway. “Feel. Awful.” Puppy picked up the empty beer bottles. “Good. You can do his dishes.” ***** Puppy hurried down Jerome Avenue; either arriving a little late or a little early having the same mixed benefits of pissing off Annette. Ahead, cars crept along Fordham Road as if linked by chains along their axles. The explosion of auto

production intended to show the world after the war that America had gone back to its roots as the engine of manufacturing, feel these greasy biceps, we have our own oil so up yours, Allahs, had turned the country into an extended parking lot. Puppy paused for a black coffee in the lobby of the Family Room, besieged by interminable video loops of happy couples talking about all they’ve shared, surrounded by growing numbers of children. Like building blocks, Couple A would show off their baby and, on the next screen, Couple B would have a grown child, followed by Couple C with two and Couple D with three until you ventured into grandparent land where they were engulfed by their children and their grandchildren squealing delightedly, all vids ending with Grandma’s proud smile and her Third Insight: “There is no Family without a family.” Boisterous happy couples holding hands strolled past to sign up for their marriage licenses on the second floor. Other loving and adoring citizens, eyes brimming with endless wells of endless love, headed to receive extended benefits for upcoming children, either their own or adopted. That was the third floor. On the fourth floor were the celebrants. One, five, ten, fifteen, twenty years, pick a number, if you made the wedding anniversary, you received some award. Furniture, car, clothes. The lobby echoed with videos of couples talking about their love and offering tips to siblings like Puppy, sipping black coffee and absorbing, well, barraged with wisdom from Alvin Dalton and William Li on their secret to happiness (a joke a day) or Pamela Landers and Patricia Pannarassa (cooking together, just chop chop chop and you’ll never mope mope mope) they beamed. Love joy pleasure family Family children passion commitment. Then there was the fifth floor for people getting divorced. Grandma’s belief was that you were never contaminated, but uplifted. Positive always triumphed even if you were too damn thick to understand. Making the divorcing couples share the same building as all these wonderful men and women immersed in love joy pleasure family Family children passion commitment would inspire reconsideration, a re-memory, a new path, a second chance, a nudge, a shove to where you’d once been and how you might get back there to love joy pleasure family Family children passion commitment. You never knew what happened on the fifth floor. The first few times Puppy

met Annette for their sessions, he was whisked into a room by a couple so delirious they about floated, where they asked him about his feelings of love, insisting he make up a song on the spot. “I wish I were in love Then I would feel like a dove Just give me a cue And I will love you” He was able to use these catchy lyrics for further encounters/kidnappings, but Annette screamed rape when she was lured into an emotional intervention. Word got around. Leave those two alone. But if you pulled back from the brink, oh boy. Just say you’re willing to try again and you and your potential love mate would be whisked away for a weekend in the Catskill Mountains to splash about in undulating bathtubs where a saucy HG oozed out of the faucet cooing about emotional longevity and multiple orgasms. Grandma was not a prude; sex was important in a marriage. If the massages and fine Wisconsin champagne and all that undulating worked, you might be taken from the monthly pre-divorce meetings and put into a marriage counseling group where you would be revered for your incredible courage in seeing the light of love joy pleasure family Family children passion commitment. Suddenly you weren’t filing for divorce. You were a success story. You’d be on the vidnews. In the lobby. The fourth floor. Perhaps lurking in small rooms to persuade bitter men to compose music. Maybe someday, if you didn’t throw yourself under the D train, you’d make it to fifty years of marriage and have eggs and coffee with Grandma. Real eggs and coffee. Then there was Annette and Puppy. “Where the hell have you been?” Annette Ramos angrily pushed back her curly black hair, suggesting it was his fault the strands had dropped onto her oliveskinned forehead. Puppy slid a folding chair by the table and nodded to the wary, silent guard. When they first started six months ago, enduring the more than five year cooling off period for time to reconsider their clearly stupid decision to divorce, they’d had an always smiling facilitator, eager to jump right in and smooth out any disputes.

They’d gone through several facilitators. Now they’d been assigned a guard. Violence was not uncommon in these situations. “I have a life.” Puppy placed his coffee on the table. “Like I don’t?” Annette took the cup. “Is this mine?” “No.” He sipped quickly so she’d think he spit into the coffee. “Very unselfish, Puppy.” Annette applauded sarcastically. She looked gorgeous, with her hair sweeping onto her bare shoulders, large breasts struggling to come up for air in the low cut dress. The better she looked, the more she tormented him. Their wedding video ran on a small screen on the table. Photos from their marriage were taped to the walls; smiling and happy Puppy and Annette. Several pieces of jewelry, birthday gifts to her, sat mockingly on a waist-high silver end table from their original apartment. “Are you looking at the tape and thinking how much older I am?” Annette asked, worried. “I wasn’t thinking anything.” He sighed. Usually they sat in silence for the first few minutes, glaring, until the guard coughed, signaling they could sit in silence the entire hour but he would report their lack of effort at reconciliation. “How are you?” Puppy kicked things off. “Good. Busy.” She held up her left shoe, red with gold buckles. “My new line. Business at my store is wonderful.” “Great.” Annette exhaled slow disgust. “You don’t care.” “Not really.” “And you?” “Baseball season started a couple days ago.” Annette rolled her eyes. “Right.” Puppy looked up at the picture of them on their honeymoon in Eastchester, Annette licking a vanilla ice cream cone melting down her chin, while he stuck out his tongue hopefully. She caught the look. “Are you going to stare at old photos all hour?” “That’s why they’re there.”

Annette grimaced, clearly sharing the oxygen with him a painful burden. “Well I have news.” She played with her gold bracelet. “I met someone.” “Again?” “Yes, Puppy. Again. I do want to be happy because unlike you, I want a real relationship.” “Who’s the lucky guy?” “Someone very accomplished,” she said with a mysterious air. “A name you would know.” “Is it Grandma?” “Fuck you, Puppy.” “Sorry. I’m very happy for you.” “No, you’re not.” “Then I’m not.” “Because I’m very happy.” She paused. “Elias and I are in love.” “I hope so.” Puppy frowned. “Otherwise it is mere illicit lust.” He wagged his finger. “We want to get engaged.” Puppy felt an unwelcome twinge. “Oh. Great.” “Engaged means marriage is next, Puppy.” That was the final tripwire. You couldn’t get remarried until your ex found someone, otherwise the Family had a resentful, angry, embittered sibling running around. It was much better to have two resentful, angry, embittered siblings running around. “What do you want me to say, Annette? In another six months, we’re done with the attempts and free.” Even Grandma admitted that it wasn’t fair, when all had been exhausted, for bitterness to triumph over love. But it was firmly noted in the permanent files. “I don’t want failure on my record,” Annette said. “You’re used to that.” Puppy gripped the edge of the table; the guard stirred. He had read the reports on these two. “I want to do this right. I find someone. You find someone.” Annette took off one of her dangling Grandma-like earrings, staring at the purplish stone as if it

would somehow undo the huge mistake she’d made marrying him. “Are you at least dating?” “I don’t have time.” “Why, Puppy, why? You don’t have a real job. You should have time for countless dates. Every night, someone new.” “Since I don’t have a real job, how could I afford such merriment?” Annette unzipped her purse. The guard rose out of his seat until he was sure she wasn’t pulling a weapon. She showed everyone her wallet. “I will pay for your dates. Some of them. Drinks, an occasional meal if it seems promising. Anything. Please, Puppy. I want to be married. Have babies. Lots of babies. And be happy.” The muted wedding video showed them dancing. He could hear the band, a terrible three-piece group with the awful singer who Pablo hired, wailing it out and yet somehow, the worst singer in the West Bronx made their special dance, their song, their wedding song, “The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand sound good. Sound right. Sound happy. He took Annette’s money out of spite. ***** Azhar Mustafa counted yet another cloud formation. Eleven puffs. Second highest number of puffs in the past few hours. There were no other clouds drifting past the tiny island. The birds had fled at the sound of the helicopters. He squinted through the ponderous sunshine for some animals to count, observe, play a game in his head to pass the time, but none scampered past. He checked downstairs in the tiny ship that rocked gently, moored to the makeshift dock. Everything in order. Two rifles mounted on the rack. All the first aid supplies full; even a few syringes of penicillin. Five tins of canned beef and a loaf of bread waited on the table. He hadn’t known what else to bring because all he’d been told was to be prepared. For what? Mustafa sat on the edge of a chair and guiltily ate the leftover lamb his wife Jalak had slipped into his pocket. I can’t bring food, he’d insisted. You can’t turn on your mobile, how else will I know you’re okay? You’ll know if I eat? I will feel my lamb melting in your mouth. She’d smiled and he fell in love with her yet again. It often happened several times a week, when she wasn’t nagging about something.

Azhar saved a chunk of lamb and returned on deck. A faint noise skipped through the trees. He looked up, expecting more helicopters, but just another white cloud lazily headed his way. The noise deepened into an engine. A gray truck bounced along the poor excuse for a road, stopping abruptly at the gangway. Two men in plain work clothes dragged a hooded prisoner, hands and feet bound, up the rickety bridge and onto his ship. One sliced the rope around the prisoner’s ankles, leaving his wrists still tied. The prisoner stood tall, defiant. One of the men yanked up the anchor, Mustafa knew better than to protest, and together they tied the prisoner to the outside of the cabin. The hooded figure sat obediently, still with the stiff back; Azhar could see his chin lifted challengingly under the black cloth. The tall one handed Azhar coordinates and the guards hurried down the gangplank. In a matter of moments, the truck disappeared. Mustafa stared at the waiting prisoner. “Are we leaving or not?” the man suddenly barked as if he were in command. Azhar grumbled, fired up the engines and steered northwest, careful eyes on the prisoner. What have you done, infidel? he wondered. But you do not seem in pain after torture. Mustafa noticed the dark skin on the hands and the legs where the pants pulled up slightly. From the accent, the skin color, an American African Crusader. How did you get here? Thousands of miles past the Surrender Line. Think not such thoughts, Azhar, so you return in one piece to your Jalak and her lamb, however dried out and tasteless. Your pockets will be heavier and you will have done a service for the Imam. The prisoner’s head bobbed slightly. Asleep. Perhaps unconscious. Wonder not. Steer. Abdul’s soccer game is tomorrow and he would welcome his father to show up with his head, otherwise you will not know what is going on. Mustafa grunted at himself, swearing slightly and putting the steering on automatic. He knelt by the prisoner, who tensed, immediately alert. “What is it?” he asked in perfect Arabic, surprising Azhar. “I asked, what is it?” “Are you thirsty, defiler of our law?” The prisoner chuckled. “Yes, thank you. But I’ll pass on the water if you’re

going to say asinine things like that.” Azhar was shamed by the laugh, stillborn in his throat. He slid a straw under the hood, allowing the prisoner to suck the water from the bottle. He did so noisily, finishing in a minute. “Thank you, Captain.” Mustafa froze, bent over. “How do you know I’m a Captain?” “It’s your ship. I don’t hear anyone else. I assume you’re in charge.” He nodded, realizing the prisoner couldn’t see. “Yes.” “Are we alone?” “Why?” Mustafa grew suspicious. The Crusaders are all cunning wolves. “Because I don’t want to insult anyone by not including them in the conversation.” “There are two armed guards below deck.” “If they’re armed, why keep them there?” Mustafa bristled. “Because this is my ship and I don’t like guns on deck.” He moved away, worried. “We are not supposed to talk.” “Because the guards might hear.” “Yes.” “I understand.” The prisoner tilted his head. “Do you have any food?” Azhar swore at himself down and up the steps, returning with two tins dumped into a bowl and a chunk of bread. “Sure you’re not depriving the guards of dinner?” The prisoner’s hood pulled in a smile. “They’ve eaten enough.” Mustafa scooped beef onto a fork and squeezed it under the hood. It fell onto the man’s lap. “Sorry.” “Maybe if you lifted the hood to just below my nose.” Mustafa hesitated, searching for the trick. “Once I’m done you can slide the hood back into place.” The Captain lifted the hood. Not American African. He looked like one of our Indian brothers. Azhar tossed aside the food from the prisoner’s lap and fed him two spoons rapidly, barely giving the man time to chew. “How is it?” “Terrible,” the prisoner replied good-naturedly. “You make this yourself?” “No,” he said, embarrassed. He licked a piece of meat off his pinky and nearly

gagged. “Wait here.” “I’ve got no plans.” Mustafa’s curses rose a little as he came back with another bowl, filled with Jalak’s lamb. He broke off chunks and speared them into the prisoner’s mouth. “Better?” The prisoner chewed ferociously. “A little.” “Just a little?” he snapped. “My wife made this.” “Delicious.” Mustafa burst out laughing. “She has other virtues.” “Glad to hear that.” The prisoner grinned. Their laughter was drowned out by helicopters circling overhead, the crescent moon and stars dipping side to side. Mustafa yanked the hood below the prisoner’s chin and rushed back into the cabin, flipping off the automatic pilot. Just ahead, he saw a small ship anchored portside. A rowboat splashed into the water and was soon waiting beside them. Mustafa dragged the prisoner to the side. Hands reached up and pulled the man into the boat, the helicopters continuing to circle like hawks. Azhar picked up the bowls, abruptly tossing them overboard. He wiped the spilled food with the bottom of his shoe, watching the boat hurry away. What did you come here for, infidel? Click here for more information about A Mound Over Hell

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