I meant to have this book out by now. Really. But with my father’s illness, three weeks sick myself (ten days in bed), and the holidays, it just wasn’t possible. Plus, the book is becoming more intricate and longer than anticipated. Good for readers, right? Not great for my release schedule, but I always want to put out the best book I can, not hurry to publish. I am hoping to finish it soon. There is no cover yet, and the image above is a temporary placeholder.
What’s more, there’s a prologue. Yes, I said prologue. (Cringe!) I hate prologues, but this book needed one because an event that takes place twenty years before the book takes place is important to the story line. It’s also kind of fun and reads just like part of the story, so no long paragraphs of boring history, I promise!
So here is the prologue to my upcoming book, Sketches, featuring Reese Parker, a sketch artist for Enforcer Division 11. Unedited, by the way, so it’s not going to be all that smooth, but hopefully, you’ll fall in love with the idea. The genre is dystopian sci-fi, and it’s kind of like my Unbounded series in the fact that the character have certain abilities, but this takes place in a future US, after an event called Breakdown. Only two million people survive within a section of the former US, in what is now called Society States. The Society has also created 6 colonies for the poor, where they are housed and educated, supposedly in the hopes that they’ll become contributing members of Society and will eventually be integrated into the main population. Three hundred thousand of the two million population lives in these colonies, including my main characters. Everyone else in the USA is either dead . . . or fringers . . .
Update March 3 2017: This book is now finished, so I’ve updated the prologue below with some terminology. Also, I’ve posted a sneak peek of the first chapter!
Sketches (Colony Six, Book 1)
Location: Welfare Colony 6
Year: 2258, 60 Years After Breakdown
Jaxon came through the doorway of Reese’s house without knocking, his steps dragging, his body hunched as if coming from a beating, though there wasn’t a mark on him. One glance at the slump of her best friend’s shoulders and the tightness in his face told her that his mother had a visitor next door.
Her fingers froze on the pencil poised over her sketchbook. “Hey, Jaxon.”
“Hey,” came the strangled reply.
She arose from the small table in her living room, clutching her notebook to her chest. He’d almost reached her when the flash came, a mental image of the visitor’s face. For that single, bright instant, Reese could see the man as Jaxon had seen him inside his house only moments before. The vision was like a sketch in her mind, but burning vivid and real and in full color. Then it was gone, leaving her hands itching to draw the face of the stranger, to record him in her sketchbook.
Even at only ten years old, Reese wasn’t too young to understand what the visitor meant. Everyone living in Welfare Colony 6, or the Coop as its residents referred to it, knew the facts of life and what people were willing to do for money. Or what they had to do if they wanted to do more than barely survive in this place that was as jam-packed with human life as any chicken coop.
“Forget him,” she said.
Jaxon nodded, the tension in his face receding slightly.
Reese knew it bothered him that the man was with his mother, probably because he was still hoping his father would show up one day to claim him. As if that would ever happen. Jaxon’s father was long gone like all the other visitors, leaving only his son as the lone signal of his passing.
“I’ll just put this away.” As she walked to her tiny room, she hastily outlined the visitor’s face on a blank page in her sketchbook, hoping the quick drawing might be enough to stop the compulsion she always felt after seeing a “sketch.” She could fill more in later.
After carefully storing her sketchbook under her thin, CORE-issued mattress, Reese led Jaxon outside. The two children hurried past the fancy car that filled the entire narrow street in front of Jaxon’s house. The unmarked vehicle was a clear sign of the visitor’s wealth. Only people from outside the Coop had cars and the money to come here. Regular people used the public sky train and walked from the closest station.
Sweat trickled down the back of Reese’s neck under her long hair, but she increased her speed as they wound through the maze of houses. Despite their slightly different shapes and styles, the buildings were really all the same. Laminate exteriors bleached by the sun, miniscule yards largely untended, trash everywhere, and each house wedged so tightly against the others you could almost hear your neighbor snoring at night. Reese didn’t mind the crush of humanity, but lately the smell seemed to be getting worse.
The cement wall ahead signaled their arrival at the transfer station. Pipes from the station ran throughout the Coop, supplying the rows of houses with water according to the whim of those in control of the main station located outside the colony. Reese still remembered the year the water had turned to sludge and people had died by the hundreds. If she was ever lucky enough to get one of her dad’s empty sauce skins, she always filled it with water and stored it under her bed. She had eight stashed there now.
Angling around to the back, they climbed over the wall using the knotted rope they’d managed to loop over one of the intermittent posts. The wall was twice her father’s height, but short in comparison with the outer wall that encircled the entire colony. Reese was glad she’d worn her one pair of jeans instead of cutoffs because she invariably scraped her knees against the rough cement. The other kids from their crew were nowhere in sight, but they’d arrive soon.
Reese and Jaxon sprinted across the short open space, passed the huge metal grate that covered the opening between the entombed canal and the transfer station, and began scaling to the top of the station using the metal rungs embedded in the cement.
Anticipation rolled through Reese. Unless they were standing directly on top of the grate, the roof of the transfer station was the only place they could glimpse the water as it rushed into the cement structure.
Settling on the hot roof, Jaxon tossed a small pebble down, and it pinged off the grate, bouncing once before falling through into the swirling water. Reese imagined the hard, heat-soaked pebble diving into blissful coolness and longed to do the same, but the metal grate was a barrier they hadn’t yet been able to breach.
Jaxon tossed another pebble, then lay back suddenly despite the heat of the cement rooftop. He put his hands under his head, not quite touching the ground, bare elbows curled up so they didn’t graze the blistering rooftop. “I just want to get out of here. I need to get out of here.”
“And leave your mom?” Reese really meant “And leave me?” but she couldn’t say it aloud. Overhead, the blue sky was clear and painfully beautiful, a perfection that somehow made her insides ache. Her legs dangled over the edge of the roof, but now she pulled them up and hugged her knees tightly to her chest.
Jaxon turned burning blue eyes in her direction, the color brighter than the overhead sky. They always startled her with their brightness, a glaring contrast to his dark coloring that was common in the Coop. Three generations of being confined to this colony had resulted in a blending of the races. The few pale faces, or those much darker than the norm, always stood out. “We’ll both get out of here, Reese. You have to believe it. Anything is possible.”
Obviously, her casual statement hadn’t fooled him for a second. She wasn’t surprised. They’d been friends long before they started school. He knew about her father and his addictions, her obsession with drawing, and her ability to glimpse people she’d never seen. He understood about the water under her bed and her fear of dying. And most of all, how she longed for the mother she’d never known.
She smiled, relieved that he wasn’t planning anything drastic because there was really no place to go. If they leveled out of school, they could get jobs at eighteen and work hard to prove they were valuable enough to leave the Coop. That meant a real life outside in society with the support and protection of the CORE. If they didn’t graduate, they’d work jobs here until they died in the same houses they’d lived in all their lives.
She’d only been outside the Coop twice to visit her great-aunt, who was an art teacher for kids whose parents cared about that sort of thing. The woman was brusque and outspoken, and it was apparent she didn’t hold much love for her nephew, Reese’s father. But those brief visits, and her gift of the sketchbooks, were what kept Reese going to school month after month, and year after year. She hated the rigidness and confinement, and most of all the noise, but the only way out of the Coop was school. They were told daily how most of them would fail, that they would end up working all their lives in one of the Coop’s factories. But Reese didn’t intend to be one of those failures, and she didn’t plan for Jaxon to become one either.
As if reading her mind, Jaxon threw off his gloom and sat up. “They’re coming. Just wait till you see what Eagle and I have to show you.” Now his eyes sparkled.
Reese jumped to her feet, spurred by the excitement in his voice. “There you go again with that super hearing.”
He always knew when the others were arriving. He also guessed when their teachers were going to be absent, or the times Reese’s father would be coming home so sauced that it was safer to sleep outside.
Jaxon laughed. “Just a hunch.”
Sure enough, Eagle Jensen’s head poked over the concrete wall, and he began scrabbling over. More heads appeared after him. By the time she and Jaxon half fell, half slid down the metal rungs to the ground, good old Eagle Eyes was already across the open space, his brown eyes hidden behind thick glasses that still left him almost blind. He did odd jobs all around the colony to save up for surgery, but the price tag on his dream seemed impossible to Reese. Kids from the Coop never had surgery, or at least she’d never known anyone who had.
Lyssa and Lyra Sloan were with Eagle, and Dani Balak brought up the rear. All six crew members were present and accounted for. Lyssa and Lyra were an oddity in the Coop, not just for their obvious Asian heritage, but because they were identical twins. Dani was equally odd, with nearly black skin and her short, stiff hair a strange off-white, as if someone had dumped bleach over it.
Reese’s green eyes and pale skin made her almost as unusual as the others. At school in level ten, the six of them were considered the smart oddballs, and their very peculiarities were the reason they’d banded together after leaving the nursery levels when they were barely five.
Only Jaxon was mostly normal—at least in Reese’s estimation—but their longtime friendship meant he belonged in their crew all the same. Together they were strong enough to ward off other kids who tried to take advantage of them. There was safety in numbers, especially when one of those numbers was Dani, who could outfight anyone, even those twice her size.
Jaxon sat on the thick, two-foot-high cement base that held the huge grate. The water wasn’t visible from where they stood now, but Reese could hear it gurgling below. Beckoning, taunting in the summer heat.
“You got it?” Jaxon asked Eagle.
Eagle hefted a battered cloth backpack in his hands. “You know it.”
Jaxon’s grin grew wide. “Yeah, but you think it’s going to work?”
Eagle shrugged unevenly, his right shoulder lifting slightly before the other. “Don’t see why not. You should have thought of this at the beginning of summer.”
“Will someone tell me what’s going on?” Reese looked at the other girls, but they shook their heads.
Dani put her hands on her hips. “Someone better start talking. It’s hot as Breakdown out here, and my show’s on the Teev.”
Jaxon turned eyes on her. “Oh, it’s so gonna be worth it. I promise. Took us long enough to gather the parts. But this is something you can’t share with anyone outside the crew, or we’ll lose it.”
Lyssa and Lyra both rolled their eyes as if they were an extension of one another rather than separate people. Reese shuddered internally, slightly spooked by it, though she’d known them since nursery school and liked them almost as much as she did Jaxon.
“Like we’d ever say anything to those jukeheads,” Lyssa said. Lyra nodded, her sister’s words apparently enough for her.
“Come on, then.” Jaxon took a step onto the cement ring and looked over the grate.
“I think we ought to do it over there.” Eagle pointed to the middle. “Less noticeable if someone comes.”
Jaxon frowned. “Yeah, but kids could fall in if we do it there. Some still sneak in even though they know we’ve claimed it. Let’s do it closer to the edge, near the building. At least they’d have a chance to grab that slanted cement edge under the grate if they fell.”
Eagle rolled his eyes, and Dani smirked. Only Jaxon would think about other kids, and it made Reese proud of him. He was like their conscience or something.
“Anyway, it’d be less tricky for us to get down,” he added.
“Right.” Apparently convinced, Eagle jumped up on the grate and started across it, staggering slightly under the weight of his backpack. Reese followed with the others, curious now. The rush of the water grew louder.
The grate was significantly larger than the opening it covered. Underneath the grate, a layer of cement angled down on all sides until it formed a small, open rectangle where they could glimpse the water. The rectangle was small only in comparison to the grate, however, because the opening had about the same footprint as a house in the Coop. Every now and then white pipes poked up a few inches on the angled cement, like the roof vents on the Coop houses. Reese didn’t know why whoever built the transfer station had installed the grate instead of covering the entire thing with cement, but she was glad they had. Even if they couldn’t get to it, the water was entertaining.
She stopped and peered down at the water, wondering at the sheer volume. So much liquid, all moving forward at a clipped pace, though not so fast as to be frightening. She’d heard about oceans and people swimming in them, and lakes in the mountains, but no one she ever knew had personally seen them. The only water she’d seen that even came close was the chemical-filled pool at school where they did endless laps under a teacher’s watchful eye.
Reese pulled her attention from the water and hurried across the grate, her toes slipping off her too-small sandals, the hot metal searing the skin slightly. By the time she reached the others, Eagle was cutting into the grate a few feet from the station.
“I thought this had an alarm.” Reese glanced around, feeling strangely exposed, though she’d been on the grate a thousand times.
Eagle grinned up at her. “That’s what this is for.” He gestured to a heap of wiring that he’d apparently attached to the grate on each side of the parts they were cutting. “They have detectors in the metal, but this’ll fool them. Got the laser cutter from the lab. The science teacher’s out at a funeral, but I gotta have it back by tomorrow.”
With a few swift cuts, the piece of grate was free, and Eagle carefully pulled it away from the rest. “It’ll never seal like before, but I got some magglue to make it look right,” he said. “It should hold if no one walks on it. Mr. Day will never miss the glue, and there’s enough to reseal it a bunch of times before we’ll have to steal more.”
“Okay, now what?” Dani asked.
Jaxon began pulling out what looked like coils of clothing from Eagle’s backpack. A small, battered sack of pretzels came out with the clothes, and Eagle opened it to share. They were his favorite treat, and he’d been known to scour the school garbage bins in search of them whenever they were served in the lunchtime readymeals.
Reese took a pretzel as she eyed the mishmash of clothing. “Wait, is that my old sweater?”
Jaxon laughed. “Oh, yeah. Eagle and I’ve been working on this for a while.” He shook out the coils to reveal a makeshift ladder. “Ladies, we’re going swimming.” No wonder the backpack had looked so heavy.
Jaxon threw the ladder down the hole, the metal hooks on the end clipping easily to a part of the grate. “I’ll go first.”
“Let me.” Dani had already stripped to her underwear and tank top. “I’m tougher than you.” Without waiting for a response, she grabbed hold of the rope and started her descent.
Six feet down, she reached the place where the cement angled steeply from the side. From there she stepped off the ladder and walked down, using only her hands on the ladder to slow her progress. Finally, she reached the edge of the cement.
“Punk bucket,” she called. “Way more water than I thought. At least five times as big as the pool. Maybe more.” Grabbing onto one of the strange white pipes, she knelt on the sloped cement and peered over. “It’s hardly moving on the sides, though, so I think we’re good.”
She balanced again on the ladder where it dropped over the water, and Reese backtracked to the middle of the grate to keep Dani in view for a few more seconds as her body sank below the slanted cement. If there wasn’t enough ladder to reach the water, they were all going to be disappointed.
A loud splash sent terror through Reese’s chest, but a second later, Dani’s voice echoed up to them from the deep. “It’s great! Come on down! The ladder almost reaches the water. No worries about getting back up.”
The rest of the crew needed no further invitation. Jaxon was next, and Reese followed, first shucking off her jeans and sandals, her heart pounding with equal parts fear and anticipation. The lower she climbed the cooler it was. She could almost forget that seconds before she’d been melting under the hot sun.
As Reese stepped off the ladder and onto the sloping cement, she brushed one of the protruding white pipes. Air was coming out of it, emitting a smell she couldn’t identify, and the aroma intensified as she climbed over the last bit of cement, stepped back onto the ladder, and swung unsteadily into the air.
Below her, Jaxon jumped the rest of the way, landing with a splash into the water. He was immediately caught up in the current, but with a few strong strokes he made it to the calmer water at the edges where Dani was swimming lazily on her back.
The sloping cement was open underneath, where huge iron bars jutted from the walls, supporting it. It puzzled Reese that the builders had included the extra cement at all. What was its purpose? Going down the rest of the ladder felt like entering a huge cavern that she’d once seen on the Teev.
She was getting ready to jump into the water when she noticed the cylinders—dozens of them, each a foot long with the circumference of a dinner plate. The cylinders were secured to the underside of the cement, directly under the pipes that jutted out on top. What is that about?
Above Reese, Lyssa was already climbing down, her bare feet approaching quickly, so Reese jumped, careful to angle her fall toward the calmer outer edges of the water. She hit and went under, her body tingling all over at the sudden change of temperature. The water was cool, but not icy, and for a moment of pure bliss, she floated on her back, moving her arms lazily to keep in place.
No one had ever done this before. No one but them.
Eagle was the last one down, and he paused for longer than Reese had on the ladder, studying the cylinders. He reached over and put a hand on one. “These things are some kind of membrane,” he called down. He sniffed his hand and then shrugged before carefully climbing down to the end of the rope and sliding into the water. Even then, he held onto his glasses with one hand as he swam awkwardly in Reese’s direction.
“Anything dripping from those canisters?” he asked. “I can’t see well enough to tell.”
Reese studied them for a moment before nodding. “Yeah. Clear stuff. Just every now and then. A drop or two. Must be chemicals. They have to treat the water to make it safe to drink.” Now the sloping cement seemed to make more sense.
Jaxon closed the few feet separating him from Reese. “But they treat the water inside the station before it goes into the pumps. This must be something else.”
“Maybe.” Reese glanced over at Dani, who had swum to the far wall, peering into what they could see of the opening where the rush of water entered the transfer station. “Anyway, I always wondered why they put in a grate at all.”
“Leaving it open to the air helps the flavor.” Eagle accidently splashed a little water on his glasses and scowled in frustration. “Least that’s what they said in science class when we studied water filtration.”
Reese didn’t remember that, but she trusted Eagle to have been paying attention. She glanced back up at the green canisters. “You think the chemicals will hurt us?”
Eagle considered her question. “I doubt it. They’re very tiny drops. It’s probably just something else to make it taste better.”
“Hey, come look at this!” Dani shouted at them.
Reese let herself drift partially into the main current, gliding along toward Dani. Jaxon reached out and pushed her to the side of the opening as they neared. “Careful,” he warned. “The current’s stronger here.”
Reese pointed her feet forward, landing against the cement wall with a jolt.
A fine wire mesh covered the six-meter hole where the water entered the transfer station. Reese vaguely remembered hearing something in school about a series of filtration grates as the water came down the manmade canal from the closest river. Even so, slippery bits of debris had gathered along the mesh.
“Fish, here?” Jaxon said.
Sure enough, small fish about the length of Reese’s longest finger lay pinned against the wire mesh by the rush of water. She peered closer to see them nibbling at the debris.
“Look at this one!” Dani exclaimed, pointing. Just below the water level, a fish had broken away from the mesh. It was almost transparent but glowing with some kind of light.
Apparently even Eagle could see it. “Weird,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought it was big enough to fight the current.”
“What do you mean? It shouldn’t be here at all.” Dani reached toward the glowing fish, which didn’t seem in the least bothered by their presence.
“Could have been tiny eggs when they came down the canal,” Jaxon said. “Then they grew here.”
“They’re not like any fish I ever seen on the Teev.” Eagle stared so intently that the bottom rims of his glasses skimmed the water.
“You even seeing them?” Dani teased. She touched the fish and immediately pulled back. “Saca!” she cursed.
“It bite you?” Reese asked.
“No. It tingles all over like some kind of smeg flush.”
Reese had never tried smeg, but her dad used the drug every time his new girlfriend came over. The way he zoned out before hustling Cecelia into his bedroom frightened her.
Lyssa started to touch the fish, but Jaxon grabbed her hand. “Better not,” he said, jerking his head at Dani. “We should wait to make sure there aren’t any side effects.”
He glanced up at the cylinders as he spoke, and goosebumps rippled across Reese’s shoulders.
“Gee, thanks,” Dani muttered.
Suddenly, Reese wanted more than anything to climb out of the water and get away from the transfer station completely. But Lyra started a water fight, and in the ensuing fun, Reese forgot the feeling. They swam the length of the cavern, reveling in their secret and the accomplishment of being there.
All too soon, Eagle was telling them it was time to go, and Reese climbed up the ladder first. She was glad Dani volunteered to be the last one out.
The heat of the sun felt good after being in the cool water. The grate was warm against Reese’s skin now instead of searing as it had been earlier, which meant the sun would soon set and she’d need to get home in case her father wanted her. She spread out over the grate to soak in the warmth as Eagle and Jaxon used the magglue to temporarily secure the cut piece of metal. By the time the boys finished with the glue, she was dry enough to pull on her jeans.
Thankfully, the car that had been parked outside Jaxon’s house was gone when they arrived on their street. Jaxon waved at her and headed inside, walking tall and grinning wide, as if there hadn’t been a visitor at all. Reese opened the door to her own house, and the smell of nuked food—a sure sign she wouldn’t be home alone tonight—made her stomach growl.
As she walked into the room that served as both living room and kitchen, her dad’s girlfriend, Cecelia, looked away from the three-dimensional Teev figures moving above the table. “Hey, Reese, where you been? Why’s your hair wet?”
Reese shrugged. “We were playing a game. Is my dad home?”
“In the shower. You hungry? I got some chicken. Your favorite.”
“Thanks.” Reese grabbed one of the flat readymeal containers from the sack on the counter, slid it into the narrow opening of the microwave, and punched start. As she waited for the food, she turned her eyes to the holographic Teev projection. From her vantage point, she could only see the sides of the characters, but they looked real. The only apparent difference between the Teev feed and real life was the smaller size. At school they had Teevs that projected life-sized characters, and teachers constantly used these to present their lessons. She’d grown used to seeing the teacher talking at the front of the class while simultaneously working on grades in the back of the room.
Cecelia loved to watch romances, and two characters were kissing passionately on the screen. Reese couldn’t understand why that was interesting, but she couldn’t help thinking about Jaxon and wondering if some day they might want to kiss like that.
Leaving the meal to cook, Reese grabbed her sketchbook and pencils from her room, returning as the readymeal glided out of its slot. It wasn’t really chicken, according to her science teacher, but Reese had never tasted real chicken, so it made no difference to her. She cleared a spot in the weeks of discarded food wrappers on the table and sat in the chair opposite Cecelia. Her eyes avoided the Teev as she ate with one hand and drew with the other. First, she wanted to capture the underside of the grate and the strange canisters. She was glad she’d “borrowed” the colored pencils from school because they made her drawings much more realistic. She was about to fill in the water when she felt her dad enter the room.
“Hey,” he said. “You guys better not have eaten everything. I’m starved.”
The knot Reese hadn’t even realized existed in her stomach relaxed. He hadn’t been drinking. Not yet. As Cecilia jumped up to cook his food, he paused at Reese’s shoulder. For a moment, she was terrified he would recognize the transfer station and forbid her to go there, but his attention locked on the kissing couple. With a scowl, he barked a command, and the Teev feed changed from romance to the news, which was almost as bad, but not quite. Grownups were so boring.
Carefully, Reese turned the page of her sketchbook, hiding the transfer station. She concentrated on eating for a while, but before she could finish, the drawing she’d begun earlier that afternoon beckoned like a promise she had to keep. Before she could help herself, her fork lay discarded as she turned the pages to the quick sketch of the man who’d visited Jaxon’s house.
She frowned at it. No, it wasn’t quite right. The face had been wider and more square. She erased the old lines and new ones began to form under her pencil. That was better—just as she had “sketched” him in her mind. She shaded in the too-smooth forehead that hinted at Nuface therapy. Next, she enhanced the deep-set blue eyes under the thick brows, followed by thinning the lips slightly and adding an oddly pointed chin that made him seem cruel. The nose wasn’t right either, but flattening it added the distinct toughness she remembered. To finish, she shaded in the shock of medium gray hair with a prominent widow’s peak.
Perfect. The most telling thing about the man was the fleshy cheeks, rounded with rich foods, which meant he didn’t belong in the Coop. He was slumming. He wasn’t ugly, but something about him made her feel upset. Maybe it was because she knew how much his visit had bothered Jaxon.
Cecelia brought her father’s meal and squeezed in between them at the table, cuddling up to her father as he began forking down his food. Feeling crowded, Reese arose to go to the other side, and as she did, her eyes were drawn by what was streaming on the Teev.
She gasped. It was him! The man she was drawing. No mistaking those eyes.
Both her dad and Cecelia looked in her direction. “What?” barked her dad, his tone annoyed.
Reese tried to clasp the sketchbook to her chest, but he was already reaching for it. His strong fingers pulled the book from her. He stared at the picture and then back up at the Teev. “Where did you see him?”
“I-I didn’t.” She pointed to the man on the Teev. “I mean, just now.”
Her father’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Reese.”
She shrugged. “It’s just a picture.” Even as she spoke, the man disappeared from the Teev.
“Tell me. Now.” Her father’s voice was slow but sharp, reminding her of nails and broken glass. “Where did you see that clud-faced pus bag?”
Pus bag? That meant he was an Elite who held an important job in the CORE, and that Reese was right about him slumming. She’d have to answer her father or spend the night regretting it. And what harm could there be in telling him anyway? “He was at Jaxon’s today.”
“Did you actually see him?”
Reese shook her head.
“But he was there.” His words weren’t a question but demanded confirmation.
“Jaxon saw him.”
A smile curving his lips, her father tore the drawing from her precious sketchbook, and Reese almost felt that he tore out a piece of her soul. She had three other books, but they were crammed full of drawings already.
“Will someone please tell me what’s going on?” Cecelia looked from Reese to her father. She didn’t know about Reese’s flashes or sketches or whatever they were, and Reese had hoped she’d never know. She wanted Cecelia to like her, not consider her a freak.
“Later.” Her dad went back to eating, his eyes no longer on the Teev but fixed on her drawing. The intensity of his stare made Reese uncomfortable.
Abandoning the rest of her dinner, she slipped away to her bedroom, the door barely clearing the bed as she pushed it open. Sinking to her mattress, she waited until her heartbeat slowed before carefully redrawing the man, this time adding better shading.
Once it was finished, she relaxed. Good. Now she could rest and forget him. Eventually, the drawing would fade from her mind. She hoped it was the last time he’d visit the Coop.
Reese’s relief was short-lived. Barely a week later, she and Jaxon were swimming at the transfer station when he abruptly insisted that he had to go home. He’d done the same thing for the past two days, and Reese was a little annoyed, but she left the other kids and went with him because he was acting strange, and it worried her. Arriving on their street, they discovered a silver enforcer shuttle and an ambulance jammed into the space in front of his house. Two EMTs carried a sheet-covered form on a stretcher to the ambulance.
“What’s going on?” Jaxon asked the nearest enforcer. Panic made his voice rise at the end, sending needles of fear into Reese’s gut.
“Beat it, kid. Take your nose somewhere else.”
Outrage filled Reese, overcoming her fear of the clipper. “He lives here.” She wanted to add some of her dad’s more colorful adjectives, but enforcers—or clippers as most disrespectfully called them—on the Coop beat were known to tag kids with their mood-altering temper lasers just for fun.
“Not anymore, you don’t.” The man gave them an unpleasant smirk.
“Leave him alone.” This from another enforcer, a wide-shouldered man with red hair, a freckled complexion, and a slight accent Reese couldn’t place. Obviously, he wasn’t from around here. He thumbed toward the shuttle, and the other cop left.
“I’m Enforcer Tennant,” he said to Jaxon. “Look, I’m really sorry, kid, but your mom’s dead.”
Jaxon’s mouth opened. “No, no . . . she can’t . . .” He looked as if someone had punched him in the gut, the color bleeding from his tanned face.
“We think it was a robbery.” The clipper laid a comforting hand on Jaxon’s shoulder. “We’ll find the guy who did this. For now, you need to come with me. We’ll get you fixed up with a place to stay.”
As the man led him away, tears ran unchecked down Jaxon’s face. Reese wanted to run after him, to put her arms around him and tell him it was going to be okay. But it wasn’t okay. Not for him or for her. His mom was gone. That meant he’d be taken away, and Reese would lose Jaxon. Kids whose parents died always left and never came back.
Reese couldn’t find her breath. She couldn’t call out. She couldn’t even cry. She couldn’t do anything but watch as the enforcer closed the door of his shuttle with Jaxon inside and drove down the street.
Blindly, Reese headed for home. Jaxon is gone, gone, gone. He promised we’d leave together, but now I’ll never see him again. She wept for him and for herself. Now that they’d finally come, she couldn’t stop the flood of tears. Why hadn’t she at least told Jaxon how sorry she was that his mom was dead?
No one was home at her house. She sank onto a chair next to the table, staring at nothing. Her wet hair dried, but not her eyes. She was still sitting there in the dark when her father stumbled into the room and flipped on a light. She could smell the stench of sauce on his breath.
He took one look at her, sneering a little as he said, “What’s wrong with you?”
Inwardly, she cringed. “Jaxon,” she whispered. “They took him away. His mom’s dead.”
For a full three seconds her father didn’t speak, but his eyes seemed to grow two sizes. “When?” he choked out.
“A few hours ago. She was okay before we went to play. I think someone killed her.”
“Get your stuff. We’re leaving.” Just that fast, her dad wasn’t drunk anymore. He grabbed a large duffel from the closet and began shoving in food.
Reese jumped to her feet. “What? No! Jaxon might come back. I have to wait for him.”
“Now!” He slammed a cupboard just as Cecelia walked into the kitchen.
“Gerry,” she said, running to him, “what’s wrong?”
For a moment Reese saw panic in her father’s face, but it was followed quickly with a hardening of his jaw. “Bethany’s dead. They killed her. We’ll be next.”
Cecelia gasped. “I told you to leave it alone. You should have ripped up that picture!”
Reese’s stomach dropped. Her picture? It had to be. She was the only one who drew around here. And the picture of the man at Jaxon’s house was the only one her father had shown interest in. What had her father done?
“Leave the stuff.” Cecelia’s high, breathy voice sounded nothing like her usual self. “Let’s go.”
Her father gave a curt nod. “Just gotta get something from the bedroom. We’ll need all the cash I’ve saved. Yours too.”
“When are we coming back?” Reese hated the wobbling in her voice. She’d meant to sound determined.
“Never.” His finger stabbed at her. “With or without you, I’m leaving. Your choice.”
“Of course she’s coming! It won’t be safe here.” Cecelia gave her a sympathetic glance. “Get whatever you can carry, honey. Hurry!”
This was insane. Where did they plan to go? There was no place but the Coop, not for people like them. Leaving a colony, even temporarily, was impossible without preapproval. And if they managed to sneak out using one of the breaches in the outer wall, how would they survive? They’d be picked up before long without the right kind of ID.
Reese ran to her bedroom and shoved her three used sketchbooks into a bag, followed by her current one and a few clothes. The bag was only half full when she remembered the water skins under the bed. Those went in next, followed by her two spare pairs of underwear and a pair of sneakers that were missing parts of the soles.
Had the world gone crazy?
Jaxon! She wished she could talk to him, explain to him how much she wanted to take back her picture. To unsketch the man. Somehow she knew her picture had caused his mother’s death, that she was responsible for the devastation in his face.
Before Reese realized she was making a decision, she was out the front door and running over the square of dying lawn to Jaxon’s house. But his door was locked, and all the enforcers were gone. No answers here—and of course no Jaxon.
She heard a door slam and Cecelia calling her name. Then her dad, his voice loud and angry. She crouched by the edge of Jaxon’s house where an overgrown bush somehow thrived in a foot of dirt. Her father was cursing now, and Cecelia pleaded with him to wait, but their voices faded, floating down the street in the direction of the sky train.
They’d really left her. Reese didn’t care. She had to see Jaxon. To make him understand that she hadn’t meant to hurt him.
But Jaxon didn’t return, and neither did her father. After two days of hiding out at the transfer station, spying on her house and Jaxon’s, the endless hunger in her stomach forced her to break in and raid both houses for food. Packing all she could carry, she left the colony through the breach in the outer wall that she and the other kids had found during their explorations.
Outside, barren land stretched as far as she could see, broken only by an occasional plant and a ribbon of road that cut like a scar across the terrain. She’d have to wait until dark to start down the road or the cameras mounted on the wall would catch her. At night, there were patches of darkness between the flood lights that might be enough to hide her escape. If she ran fast, she’d only be visible to the guards for a few seconds before she was beyond the reach of the brightest beams—if they were even paying attention.
Her plan succeeded maybe too well. Days of walking and hitching several rides from kind strangers followed, bringing Reese into first one CORE city and then another. She moved on the edges, avoiding cameras and enforcers—or anyone who looked official. Finally driven to desperation and the hunger in her stomach, she dared use her CivID to ride the sky train, which miraculously didn’t bring enforcers down on her. By dusk of the seventh day, she arrived at her great-aunt’s place in Big Horn, where she collapsed on the beautifully manicured lawn. The gardener found her the next morning, chilled despite the heat of August, and brought her inside, where her great-aunt fed her mounds of the most delicious food in a kitchen so large that Reese felt she was still outside.
It was then she learned her father and Cecelia were dead. A fall from a sky train platform—an accident, the report said. But Reese knew better. Her picture had killed them too.
End of Prologue
The main portion of the book begins twenty years later, when all the kids are grown, and a mysterious party is bringing them all together, but whether it’s to end the experiment that was begun on them in the Coop or to uncover Society secrets, none of them know . . . yet.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. Please be sure to join my readers group if you want to hear about updates and new releases.
Copyright 2017 Teyla Rachel Branton
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