Thursday, June 5, 2014

#Forthcoming & Never Before Read Excerpt of Next Jesse Sullivan #Book

Since I am in the final stages of post-production on the Dying for a Living sequel, the project is looking a little more solid than it did a month ago. For that reason, I'm happy to announce both the title and the release date for the next Jesse Sulivan novel: Dying by the Hour will be released on September 2, 2014.

Are you happy? I'm happy! :D

This sequel will be different from Dying for a Living in a couple of ways. First, I've heard from beta readers/editors that the book is much darker. Jesse's sarcasm and wit are still fully-present, don't worry. Secondly, the narrative itself is different. In Dying by the Hour, Jesse will share the stage with Ally, in an alternating POV. (Keep reading and you'll see what I mean!)

And because I like you, here are the first two chapters of Dying by the Hour:


Jesse
When they describe female special agents in the movies, or in books, it’s always like this: a sleek, cat-like body that slithers in tight clothing, gorgeous exotic face and a sultry voice that can lure any target into submission.
 And while I am a female agent, double agent even, I’m not sultry, exotic, cat-like, sleek or even remotely alluring. I’m an idiot wearing a clown suit. And I don’t mean clown suit figuratively.
 I am wearing clown suit at a birthday party.
 I have the red nose, the floppy shoes and this horn around my neck that honks obnoxiously every time a grubby kid with sticky fingers runs up and gives it a squeeze.
            The double part is more complicated. Neither my official job nor my unofficial off-the-books job require that I wear a clown suit. Yet here I am dressed as a clown because my current client Regina Lovett begged me to.
She apparently believes that a clown is less terrifying to her daughter, the person she’d hired me to protect, than just being a regular old death replacement agent. Death replacement agent is my “respectable” job—though that depends upon whom you ask. The double agent part of me is here to gather intel. This is the only reason I am willing to jump through Regina’s obnoxious hoops in order to keep her business. Usually I hold all the cards in a death replacement because without me, they die.
I am not even sure Julia, turning four, will agree with her mother anyway. She’s done a good job of keeping her distance from me, the red-nosed wonder, backing away slowly every time I offer her a balloon.
My floppy shoes squish against the ground saturated from six days of September rain. I rock on my heels and watch Julia twirl in her party dress, a good twenty feet away. It is a pretty lavender color, complete with lacey ankle socks and Mary-Janes. A tiny gray petticoat protects her from the elements. She looks like any other privileged upper class kid, standing in a big beautiful yard, her thick brown locks pulled up into curling pigtails that graze the tops of her shoulders and the lacy white collar of her dress. A white painted fence establishes the boundaries around the property and along the edge of the fence stands a few large saggy trees that have seen better, dryer days.
The pool has recently been drained, a tarp stretching from one end to the other. And I can’t help but look at it and wonder if Julia will fall through and crack her head open on that poured cement or something. Or maybe the birthday candles will ignite and catch her hair on fire.
Occupational hazard, I’m afraid. I spend lots of time pondering death.
A little boy, maybe a year older than the birthday girl, tugs one of her curly pigtails. She stops twirling, squeals, and takes off chasing him through the yard. It is a shame the kid will die today being as cute as she is and her birthday even.
Unless I can change it, of course, and that’s what Regina Lovett is paying me to do—without her husband Gerard Lovett’s knowledge I might add. Given my real reason for being here, I am perfectly fine with this arrangement. Gerard doesn’t need to know about me. But what she said to him to keep him away from Julia’s birthday, I have no idea. And when I suggested that she pick another day for the birthday party, since she knew this would be Julia’s death day, she said: but I’ve already sent the invitations. I can’t just cancel now.
            The woman has strange priorities. But it is really her husband I have to look out for.
Gerard Lovett, the religious freak that he is, would have never allowed me—especially me—to be his daughter’s death replacement agent. The Unified Church has a particular view on people like me. It doesn’t matter that I have the ability to sense death coming, the ability to see its sneaky blue fire and put the kabosh on all that. Taking help from a death replacement agent would be a sign that they didn’t have faith in their God. All high-ranking church officials like Gerald Lovett have to demonstrate the solidity of their faith at all times. I often wonder if they’d refuse blood transfusions too, having faith that God would just add a few pints when he got a chance, or if it really is because I don’t go anywhere when I die that I can’t be trusted.
I turn at the sound of a sliding glass door and see Regina appear cake in hand. My personal assistant Ally is with her. She holds open the door for Regina, and then slides it closed behind them both.
“Time for cake!” Regina exclaims. The smile she’d given me when entering my office with Julia’s death report two months ago had been forced, practiced, the smile of a wife married to an important man. But her smile is softer now and Julia abandons the boy she’s been chasing for it. She runs toward her mother with renewed laughter. I look away, focusing on something mundane—Regina’s clothes. They are some kind of modern business casual, classy and feminine. Her mousey hair is side swept and elegant, curling at the ends naturally. She is attractive, not gorgeous like Ally, but she knows how to do herself up, glossing up her plainness enough without screaming I AM TRYING, OKAY?
I notice all of this instead of looking at her and Julia together. Sometimes it hurt to look at mothers. Specifically, it hurts to look at mothers loving their daughters. Especially when my mother is dead and we weren’t speaking for years before that.
Ally leaves Regina’s trail, escaping the children gathering like snakes around the pied piper, and comes to stand beside me. She pulls her red A-line coat tighter against the chilly air icing our cheeks and gathers her straight blond hair in her hands, the color of honey butter. I’d have helped her free it from the collar, but before I could she’s already done it and with a single toss the locks spill down her back. Her nose ring looks silver in the dull overcast sky, instead of sparkling like the tiny diamond stud that it is. Her brown eyes are equally muted from their usual vibrant amber to an unremarkable brown. Dull light aside, she seems radiant against all this lush, landscaped green, moist with rain. And the light flush in her otherwise pale cheeks suits her.
“Are you cold?” she asks, nodding at my colorful polka dot jumper.
The answer is yes. Cold air has collected in my thighs and stomach, where the fabric of my polka dotted jumper feels thinnest. “I’m wearing layers,” I insist. Ally can be quite the mother hen and I know myself well enough to admit I can’t be alert and babied at the same time.
“Are we good?” she asks.
She’s asking if I sense Julia’s death coming. Not yet. “For now.”
We watch Regina arrange the cake table, and launch the birthday song. It isn’t until I start singing that Ally nudges me.
“Quit that,” she says.
“What?” I play coy.
“I hear what you’re saying,” she accuses. “You’re replacing birthday with deathday.”
“It is her death day.”
“You are so morbid,” she murmurs, but she is smiling. Happy Death Day, Little Julia.
“What does morbid mean?” a kid asks. This kid is pudgy, as tall as he was round and apparently uninterested in singing to the birthday girl. Also, his face is an unnatural green color from eating something made mostly of food coloring.
“Weird,” Ally says. I am not sure if she is defining morbid or if she is as surprised by the ninja appearance of this kid as I am.
“Clowns are weird,” the kid says, sucking on his sticky fingers.
You’re weird,” I say. Ally nudges me with an elbow, but it is unneeded. This kid is too young to recognize an insult or he is just impervious beneath all that fat.
“I want a balloon,” he demands.
            I offer the big black trash bag to him, filled with animal balloons of every shape and color. When I took this job, I knew better than to improvise a skill I didn’t have. So voila—a big bag of balloon animals.
“I want to see you make one,” the kid groans.
“I want to see you leave,” I say and stick the bag in his face.
Ally intervenes. “She can’t make them because she has a bad wrist.”
“Really?” the kid asks. He warms to her the way everyone warms to Ally.
 I tell the kid, my cover story. “Yeah carpel tunnel from all that juggling, camel riding, and whatever the hell clowns do.”
“You said a bad word.”
“I’m going to call you a bad word if you don’t go away.”
Ally is doing a decent job of keeping a straight face. She is also doing a great job of being pretty and convinces the little fatty to take a yellow “lion” and go get some cake. The words before it’s all gone seem to work.
“You promised not to make the children cry,” Ally says. She is not kidding.
“Sorry,” I grumble. “I’m in a piss poor mood today.”
“It’s the first kid since Nessa.”
And that is why Ally is my best friend. She knows what bothers me before I do. I let out a big exhale and the breathing hole in my red nose whistles, dramatizing my despair.
Nessa.
I’ve thought a lot about Nessa this past year, especially in the past month leading up to Julia’s replacement. It was this time last year that I’d failed to save her. Granted, I hadn’t been her death replacement agent, so technically my perfect record is still intact. But she had also just been a little girl and I had promised her mother I would save her from some bad people. And when you have this ability to save people, and a perfect track record of doing so—when you fuck up—
Yeah, I’m a sore loser.
“Nessa Hildebrand. Our first casualty of war,” I whisper. An ache fills my chest and I look away from the kids.
“Are we calling it war now?” Ally asks. Then she let her own breath out slow, weary.
            “Two sides. Good versus evil. Only one can win. That’s war, isn’t it?”
            “Evil hasn’t made a move in over a year,” Ally whispers. “Openly anyway.”
            “Oh they’ve made moves, I’m sure,” I say. “Just not that we can see.”
            “That’s a good sign though, right?”
            Oh Ally, my ever optimistic companion. Just because someone hasn’t stabbed her in a year, she thinks we are safe. But I know better. I can feel them slithering through the dark around us, large and scaly, looking for the right moment to spit acid venom in our faces.
            “Sure. That’s a great sign,” I say. But I don’t believe what I am saying and she knows I don’t believe it. But sometimes you say things to be kind to the people you love. It wouldn’t comfort her to say We’re all going to fucking die, Ally. They came for us once and they’ll come again. Harder and harder until they win and God help us, I can’t imagine anything worse than what we’ve already been through—No.
Some things you don’t say to people you love.
Besides the word war suggests a fighting chance. War means a prolonged battle where either side could come out on top. This isn’t war. This is a death sentence.
Ally gives my hand a quick squeeze, bringing me back to the present moment, to a moment when I am just a clown at a little girl’s birthday party.
“Go on,” she says. “Get what you came for.”
I cast a last look at Regina, Julia, and the others, then hand Ally the balloon bag.
“If they ask, I went to pee.”
She gives a cute salute and I slip away. I take my huge floppy shoes off by the backdoor and creep inside, careful to slide the door closed behind me.
The kitchen welcomes me, a large island off the right, granite counter tops and behind that
mahogany cabinets and a stainless steel fridge. The place looks like an ad in Better Homes, with only a few stray coats from guests and the occasion toy forgotten in a corner. Otherwise—pristine.
I turn on the bathroom light and shut the door, hoping to give the occupado impression should someone wonder where I am.  Cover story secure, I creep down the hallway. My ears strain for any people noises—voices, footsteps, maniacal whistling, for anyone who might wonder why a girl wearing a rainbow wig is creeping around up here.
But I hear nothing. See no one.
I place my hand on the door handle of Mr. Lovett’s office and find it locked. Then I do what I’ve been taught to do. I pull two pins from my thick rainbow wig and slip them into the lock. I push against the bearing—turn, and pop.
It sounds easy, sure, but I’ve practiced a million times on a variety of locks purchased from hardware stores. A box of locks in the corner of a living room is a great conversation starter, by the way, and a lovely way to spend a Friday night alone.
Gerard Lovett’s office is large. The desk lay in the middle of the room, directly opposite the door. The desk itself is immaculate, nothing like mine, which has piles of paperwork, junk mail, and bills that need attention. Behind his neat desk is a regal black chair, with a high back and wheels. The desk and chair itself are perched on top of a red and gold rug that matches the red and gold drapes on either side of the fireplace behind the desk. One side of the room has a massive book case. The spines look unbroken, unread and I’m not surprised to think of Mr. Lovett as a man who likes the appearance of being erudite rather than the actual reading. The remaining side of the room has a wooden chess set on a table between two more regal chairs, this time made of red leather.
Before entering the room I look around. I’m glad I do. Because up above me, sitting on a ledge above the chess set, is a camera. It isn’t trained on the whole room, just the desk and the wall behind it, so if I am lucky, I am still invisible.
I admit I am pretty freaked about the camera. I’m staring at its little black eye, trying to determine my next move, how to keep it from seeing me when—
POP.
I jump. My heart explodes in my chest, taking off like a rabbit fleeing a fox and I am about to run like hellfire back down the stairs and out the door. Then I hear a child crying. I swear, steady myself against the door frame, breath-caught in my throat like a cotton ball and cross to the window to see what made the sound.
A balloon had popped. And a child, devastated, is crying against Ally’s leg while she searches the bag for a one a similar shape and color. She finds one and the girl brings her weeping to a raggedy shuddering stop. Her face brightens. The smile still tight, turns into a half-hearted, lopsided grin and the sobs become this kind of gleeful hiccup.
            “Jesus,” I mutter. I swear I can feel my ovaries die.
When I turn back to the room I realize something is wrong. Not just that I’d run into the room without thinking and was surely caught on camera. But the room is suspiciously quiet. The hum and click of electronics that I’d noted upon first entering the room is gone. The clocks have stopped ticking. Latent electricity in lamp wires, phone outlets, an answering machine and internet modem have all stopped. The camera too, of course. Everything still, everything quiet—the way a house is quiet after a power outage.
“Shit.”
This time last year, when my life started to get out of control, and homicidal maniacs tried to kill me and whatnot, I started to develop this new—I can’t believe I’m going to say this—power. Unfortunately, there just isn’t another word for it. It’s not part of my weird death-replacement thing, but something that can’t be explained scientifically by my NRD—my Necronitic Regenerative Disorder, a neurological disorder that allows me to die but not stay dead.
No, this is something else entirely.
And it would seem I have some strange connection to electricity. It’s not like I can control it. What first started out last year, it was a shocky thing—a static sort of electricity that managed to blow light bulbs at the flip of a switch, or shock people quite a bit stronger than the usual I-shuffled-my-feet-and-now-zap.
It’s evolved.
Lately, I can do this surge thing. When I am startled, or scared, I send a shock out and BAM, electronics fail. So far I’ve only managed to blow up my own shit—bye, bye the possibility of morning toast or midnight margaritas, which is fine except now I am blowing up other people’s shit.
This is a serious problem.
But I can’t fall apart over fried electronics. I have to do what I came up here to do. I relax against the side of Mr. Lovett’s desk and steady my breath. Once I feel somewhat “together”, I pull out a small Phillips-head screwdriver from my rainbow wig. I hold my hand above Mr. Lovett’s computer listening for any kind of electric static crackling around my skin. When I feel none, I start to disable his computer.
Three of the six tiny screws are out of the computer, the ones that would release the hard drive from its little plastic nest, when all hell breaks loose.
A wave hits me. I rock back on my heels, topple, and hit the wall. My shoulder brushes something and I hear a crash. I quit moving, knowing that because I can’t see, I’ll only knock more shit over if I continue flailing blindly.
“No, no, no,” I whine as if that will make Julia’s death turn on its heels and leave. Because that is what I feel—Death come calling.
I work faster.
First I reach out for the desk, find its edge and pull myself back to the computer. In my hurried panic, I start dropping the little screws on the office floor. They give little ping-ping noises as they bounce off the wood and roll away.
I have the last screw loose, but not completely out, when my vision changes.
The world dissolves from its usual solid self into a shifting world of color. The only equivalent I can think of is heat sensory, like the way they show it on TV or in the movies where someone puts on special goggles and then the world turns into an orange-yellow-red blob. This isn’t exactly right, what I see in the moments before a death, because I see more color and nuances, but it is close enough that you get the idea.
The problem with it happening now is two-fold. Problem one—I can’t see the last freaking screw anymore. I can’t clearly define anything, now that the world has reduced itself to something less substantial than an acid trip.
Problem two, Julia Lovett is about to die and I’m not close enough to save her.
I can feel her out there, moving around in the yard, feel the pull surrounding her, circling around her and drawing close. If she dies and I am not near her, she can’t be saved. Proximity is required for a death replacement.
The only thing I can do now is force myself to focus.
And even after my best effort, the colors are still there. I have to rely on my fingers, the feel of grooves against the tips just to figure out what I’m doing, really hoping that it is the hard drive
I’m removing.
 I’m not a computer expert. I only know how to do this because Brinkley, my ex-handler, showed me on an old garage sale computer making me practice until I practically wept for a break.
Finally, it falls free of its case. Clutching the stolen hard drive in one hand, I rush back toward the stairs. I can’t afford to be casual. I can’t afford to take my time or even stop to turn off the bathroom light or open the door. In fact, I’m forced to crawl down the stairs the way a baby would, butt first so I don’t fall.  I make slow progress, but I can’t save Julia’s life if I break my own neck before even getting to her.
Somehow I manage to make it back to the sliding kitchen door and see Ally on the other side. Sure she is a blur of color like everything else, but I know Ally. I know what she looks like even in this form. Maybe it is because I’d saved her life once, or because she’s been on a bagillion replacements with me, or even because she is my best friend. I don’t know or care as I pry open the glass and croak her name.
Nothing.
Louder: “Ally.”
            She turns around and it must be the way I look because she comes running.
            “Are you—”
            “Here,” I say. I shove what I hope is the hard drive at her and step fully into the back yard.
            “Jesse, your shoes,” she says.
            “No time.” I’m already walking to the edge of the brick patio stretching like a giant doormat away from the kitchen entrance. I am searching the yard for Julia.
            I find her colorful blur twirling again. She is out by the fence and I can’t see anything around her that is of danger. But I know better than to let that assumption stop me. Something can fall from the sky at any second. Some insane driver could crash through that white fence. Hell, little Julia could be having a heart attack from all that twirling.
            I run through the soggy grass, my socks soaking up the cold rainwater curling my toes. I run and Ally follows. Not too close, yelling, “Everyone back up, please!”  She knows to do crowd control and create as much distance between me and the others as possible. I have no idea if it works. I can’t afford to focus on anything but Julia.
            At this point I am running across the yard, arms out to grab her. Julia must see me coming and stops twirling for long enough to scream and run in the other direction. It isn’t until I hear her screaming “Mommy the clown! Mommy!” that I realize I am the one terrifying her, a clown with a manically determined expression, rushing her at full speed.
            “Damnit, come here!” I yell unable to pretend like this was anything but urgent. “We don’t have time for this.”
            And of course I am right. 
I hear Ally yelling. Something unclear, directed at Regina. People always want to rush in and save their loved ones from dying, but it only ever gets in the way and causes more causalities. After all, I can only replace one person at a time.
            Death is different for everyone. And I see it differently for everyone.
            Sometimes I see death as a tiny black hole created inside a person, an empty swirling vortex that sucks all the warm, living colors out of a person, leaving nothing behind that can survive.
            Sometimes a hot-cold chill settles into the muscles in my back and coils around my navel before yanking me down into oblivion.
            Then there were deaths like Julia Lovett’s.
            A death where I just have to throw myself out there and hope it works out. No vision guidance. No conscious effort on my part. Just faith that being who I am, what I am, the exchange will happen.
            Julia has almost reached the fence when I grab ahold of her. I hold her against my scratchy polka-dotted jumper while she screams and flails. I try to say soothing things: “I’m not going to hurt you. Gee-zus. Calm down!” My best efforts fall short as I look up and see my worst nightmare.
            A tall, stupidly beautiful man dressed in a three piece suit, strides across Julia’s yard toward us. With determined, dedicated steps, he unfurls his black wings on either side of him as he closes the distance between us. I haven’t seen that shaggy dark hair or those animalistic green eyes in a year. And now here is was, walking straight toward me.
            “Holy. Shit,” I say.
            Julia quits squirming in my arms and turns her wide eyes up to mine. Her mouth is open in horror as if my profanity is the worst thing that’s ever happened to her.
            But before I can apologize or even comprehend what is happening, something hard and heavy slams us from behind.
            And Gabriel, Ally, and the whole world is gone.




Ally
            Jesse’s legs protrude from under the tree as if pantomiming a bizarre Wicked Witch of the West scene. It is the shrill cry piercing my ears that sharpens my focus and it breaks the spell of the polka dotted legs lying so still in the mud.
            I whirl to find several mothers clutching their children. Regina is closest to me. She stares at the tree in horror. Her hands are cupped over her mouth and her eyes are rimmed with tears.
            “Regina,” I say softly. I get very close to her so that she is forced to look away from the tree. “Will you help me?”
            She doesn’t respond.
            “Regina,” I say, sharply. “What is my name?”
            “Alice Gilligan.”
            Close enough. “And why am I here?”
            “To assist—”
            “Exactly,” I cut her off. “I am here to assist. So will you assist me? We need to move everyone inside. Will you help me get everyone inside so I can work?”
            “Is she—is—”
            “Jesse is very good at her job.” I’m calm. I tuck my hair behind my ears. “Julia will be fine. Regina, look at me.”
            She does.
            I have to be firm with her. “Take everyone inside and stay there until I tell you otherwise.”
            When I worry she won’t respond again, I clap my hands in front of her face a couple of times. It does the trick. Her eyes focus and turn toward her daughter’s guests for the first time. I help her with the words.
            “We need everyone to go inside, please,” I say. “We need to make room for the emergency crews. Go inside. Go on.”
            Everyone is slow, sluggish with shock but they begin to move. The children and many of the mothers are still crying, but at least they are moving. As they funnel through the sliding glass doors, I pull out my phone and call 911. Julia, though probably alive, will still need medical care. Jesse only has the ability to heal herself, not others. Then I call the fire department so they can come and cut up the tree. The firefighter asks me to repeat myself twice before accepting that a tree fell on a person.
            Then I am alone. Waiting. I look at my clock: 3:58PM
            I move closer to Jesse and Julia. I look at those legs sticking out from under the tree and say my silent prayers to myself—my reassurances. She is not dead. She will wake up. It’s okay Ally. She is safe.
            I’ve seen her dead so many times you would think I have no fear of her dying.
            You’d be wrong.
            I crouch beside her as a piercing siren cuts the day in half. It is very close and almost to the point of covering my ears. Instead I place one hand on Jesse’s calf. It is damp and cold.
            A small terror rises inside me and I say my silent prayers again. And again.
            Firefighters erupt from the side fence. They flood the yard in their yellow jumpsuits. One is carrying a chainsaw. Another, something that looks like a jack. I give a little wave to draw them over. They come at a run.
            “This is authorized replacement #60432,” I tell them. “There is a little girl under there with the agent.”
            “Stand back, please,” the one carrying the chainsaw says. He is young with a scruffy jaw. I oblige.
            I am relieved that he starts farther down on the tree. The sound of the saw eating wood, its
high pitched whine of hunger, still makes me nervous, but at least I know they will not miss and cut flesh.
            The heavy trunk falls away and only a considerably smaller piece of wood lies on top of Jesse and Julia. The firefighters shout orders to each other over the noise. They say the bodies. The bodies.
            I keep my anger under control.
            The paramedics arrive while the firefighters are still removing the tree. I wave them over and they come running. It is a man and a woman. The man carries a large bag, the woman a stretcher.
            “This is authorized replacement #60432,” I repeat. “There is a death replacement agent and a little girl, four years old.”
            “Do you suspect head trauma?” the man asks.
            My heart swells with gratitude. He is considering Jesse’s health as much as Julia’s. Unfortunately, you’d be surprised how often Jesse’s well-being is overlooked. People equate NRD with invincibility. But Jesse is not invincible—despite what she might think.
            Her NRD has its limits.
For people with NRD, once they die, their brain starts sending a bombardment of electro-impulses through the body to wake them up, not unlike a hypnic jerk that some people feel when falling asleep. When they wake up they get a metabolic boost which allows them to heal the damage accrued in a death. Neurologists are not sure why this happens, or how a person develops NRD. There appears to be a heredity link because it runs in families.
            Because it is neurological and controlled by the brain, Jesse needs her brain in order to wake up from a death replacement. No brain equals no pulsing. Hence, why the paramedic is inquiring about head trauma.
            “It is possible,” I admit. I let my gratitude for his concern show. “They were hit from behind. I think spinal trauma is more likely. But the trunk could have clipped the back of her skull.
            “I’ll get a second stretcher,” the female paramedic says. She jogs back to the fence line and disappears.
            “Free,” a firefighter calls and I turn to see them lift the trunk off of Jess.
            And I see something.
            It is quick. So quick that I am not sure I saw it at all.
            Jesse lies on her stomach. She is propped over the little girl, shielding her from much of the tree. Julia has a large scratch across her cheek, presumably from bark, but for the most part she looks unharmed. Jesse’s back doesn’t look quite right, but I do not know what is wrong with it. That is the extent of my medical knowledge.
            It isn’t the injuries that bother me. It is what I see for the briefest of moments.
            Covering Jesse and Julia is a thin layer of—what is that?
            Light?
            A purple shade of light is pulsing an inch or so around them. If the firefighters see it through their face shields, they show no sign of recognition. And by the time the paramedic kneels beside her to inspect the damage, the light has faded away.
            “No spinal trauma,” the male paramedic says.  “In fact there doesn’t seem to be much damage at all. Her shoulder might be dislocated.”
            Clearly, he didn’t see the odd purple light.
            “Is she dead?”
            The paramedic humors me with a soft frown. “Yes, unfortunately.”
            But why would she die if there is no damage, no trauma.
            Julia cries. It is the slow, growing sort of cry. The kind sleepy children are prone to. The paramedic inspects her enough to determine it is safe to move her and then lifts her free from Jesse’s embrace.
            “Mommy!” she sobs more loudly. She is quite pitiful in her muddy and torn party dress. Her cute wool coat askew on her shoulders and her little fists pressed against her closed eyes. “Mommy!”
            “Is she okay?” I ask the paramedic as the woman appears with the second stretcher.
            “Not a scratch on her,” he says. His amazement is apparent. “You know direct force replacements are very difficult to pull off.”
            So he knows something about death replacing.
            “Jesse is very good,” I say. I text Kirk, our mortician, and tell him to meet me at the hospital.
            “She must be,” he agrees.
            He puts something on a clean cotton ball and dabs at Julia’s cheek while cooing sweet words. I motion to the glass door where Regina stands watching. I mouth the words Come on out to accompany my wave.
            She doesn’t have to be told twice.
            And when Julia sees her mother she cries louder.
            Regina can’t wait. She is running across the yard crying, her arms out to scoop up her little girl. The paramedic doesn’t want to release her, but Julia’s upstretched arms cannot be denied.
Regina pulls her up, then sinks to her knees still clutching the child close.
            They sob with abandon as Regina rocks her daughter back and forth.
            The paramedics unceremoniously inspect Jesse’s head for damage and when none is found, pronounce that she will survive. They load Jesse onto the stretcher and I follow them through the backyard to the ambulance.
            I cast one last look over my shoulder at the mother holding her daughter and crying. And I wish that Jesse could see this part—what is was all for.
            Once we arrive at the hospital and the female paramedic helps me from the back of the ambulance, I watch them carry Jesse inside. She is taken to a hospital room in the general wing, where all non-emergencies go. 
            Now I have no choice but to wait.
            Sitting in one of the uncomfortable hospital chairs, I use my phone to check the database for an estimate of her DT or “death-time”. There is a database online constructed by death replacement agents, handlers and assistants like me. Each death is logged, as well as recovery time. Overall, it gives a good sense of what sort of time will be needed for recovery. For example, a fire typically takes three days. It is one of the worse replacements. A strangling, or suffocation, is only a couple of hours.
            I am having a hard time finding an entry for death by fallen tree. I try a couple of others: blunt force trauma, 18 hours. Spinal damage, 9 hours. Crushing, 12 hours. I will make an entry myself once this is over, but being the first to log a death doesn’t help me with timing her post replacement care.
            Dr. York, her primary care physician, enters the room and takes her away. It is protocol to make sure some significant damage hasn’t occurred during the replacement. He is gone for almost an hour when he brings her back. Dr. Stanley York is a good guy. He is completely bald on top, with his small patch of snow-white hair covering his ears and the back of his head. The white serves to dramatize his bright blue eyes and thin smile.
            Jesse has been cut out of her clown suit and is wearing a hospital gown. Someone cleaned the mud from her face and fingers.
            “I don’t see anything,” he says. “No tree limbs to remove or anything of the sort.” He pulls a piece of butterscotch from his pocket and pushes it into my hand. “I will have to look again once she reboots.”
            “She isn’t a cyborg, Dr. York,” I say. I put the butterscotch in my mouth because to not do so is an insult.
            “How are you, Alice?” he asks. “Are you getting enough sleep? Fluids? Are you eating well?”
            I smile. “Yes, thank you for your concern.”
            “She isn’t working you too hard, is she?” he grins.
            “No,” I say. “You?”
            He casts a look at Jesse and smiles. “Not this week.”
            He is about to say something more when my phone rings. The number is blocked.
            “I need to take this.” Saying no more, Dr. York exits with a little wave.
            Jesse’s cold hand before answering the phone. “Hello.”
            “We need to meet,” a deep male voice says.
            I trace the edge of her cold, soft finger with my warm one. “I’m at the hospital right now.”
             “I know. Can you meet me in the cafeteria?”
            I look at Jesse’s placid face. I feel her cold stiff hand in mine and the terror is still there. This isn’t real, I tell myself. It isn’t like before.
            Seven years ago, Jesse died for the first time.
            It was a barn fire and her step-father died with her. I didn’t know about Jesse’s NRD and had no idea she survived. Her mother never told me otherwise and for years—years—I thought she was really dead. I thought I’d lost my best friend in a pyre of ash. I can’t tell you what those years were like. Countless months of moving as if programmed. There wasn’t a day I didn’t
think about her. I suffered the  kind of grief that you can’t possibly understand unless you lose someone you love. It isn’t a brush with death, painful panic that can be relieved with a phone call or an embrace. It was the kind of grief that stays with you. The kind that has no remedy and with time grows deeper and stronger into your life, coloring everything. Consuming, everything.
            And then I found out she was alive. She was alive. Took me almost a year to find her, but when I did, oh my God, I can’t tell you it felt like, walking into her office and seeing her alive, smiling.
            It took everything I had not to kiss her. Not to slap her. Shake her. To cry like a mad person or chain her to me.
            Now that I know the truth of her condition, I am supposed to be able to let go of this fear—that she will never wake up. The fear that she died at seventeen and everything that has happened since has just been a mad illusion of my grieving mind.
            But I can’t. God help me, I can’t. And every death replacement, every threat, tastes like the grief I carried around for four long years.
            “I’ll be right there.” I tell him and he hangs up without saying goodbye.
            I press my warm hand to Jesse’s cold forehead. I kiss her cheek and tell her I will be back before she wakes up. Because she will wake up. She will.
            The nurse at the station takes down my message for Dr. York: I have to run an errand. If I’m not back call me when she wakes.
            I am still deep in thought as I cross to the elevator and punch the up button. I step off onto the sixth floor, into the bustle of the cafeteria. And thankfully, it smells like food and not the antiseptic mixture usually clogging the hospitals.                           
            I scan the cafeteria for him, but he isn’t here yet. The lighting is lower, a soft orange sunset. It is comforting compared to the antiseptic brilliance of the rest of the hospital. This little nook is also several degrees warmer than the bleached hallways. Few people are here in the post-lunch hours. A couple of doctors and nurses have come to eat on their break. An older man reading a book sits alone at a table, his plate showing signs of a meal long since devoured, little brown napkins crumpled on top. And two women talk solemnly over steaming cups at another table. A row of televisions on the far wall play a collection of news, talk shows, and a soap opera.
            I go to the build-it-yourself taco bar. I haven’t eaten all day and the smell of food is unbearable. I don’t go easy on the hot sauce or the water. I choose a booth that is highly visible from the elevator.  I’m on my third taco when he arrives.
            “May I join you?”
            Because my mouth is full, I can only gesture. He slides into the booth opposite of me. He is wearing dark clothes again today—the only thing I’ve ever seen him wear—dark sweaters with a dark dress shirt collar protruding, dark dress pants. And if I look under the table, I’m sure I’ll see the same dark shoes.
            “You look tired,” he says. “Are you on duty?”
            “That’s a terrible thing to say to a woman.” I swallow.
            He doesn’t smile. “I apologize if I’ve offended you.”
            His coolness unnerves me, those unwavering eyes behind silver-rimmed glasses, the meticulously trimmed beard covering his jaw and the skin above his lip. He is too polished, too together. And he doesn’t move as much as a normal person. He remains perfectly still for whole minutes and that is just strange.
            “Jeremiah,” I ask. I want to get this over with. “Why are you here? In the hospital?”
            “I brought Nikki to get a few stitches. She’s fine.”
            He watches my face but I think I do a pretty good job of remaining unreadable. “What did you want to talk about?” I ask.
            “What did Jesse say?” he asks without missing a beat.
            “I haven’t asked her.”
            “I do not understand your reluctance to include her.”
            “She doesn’t want to fight,” I say. I don’t want her to fight. “She gets enough danger in her day job, don’t you think?”
            Jeremiah’s eyes flick up to the row of televisions above our heads and I follow his gaze.
            It is Caldwell, North American Leader of the Unified Church, on TV. Plastic surgery or not he still looks like Jesse to me. Jeremiah doesn’t know he’s her father. Almost no one does. Because the volume is turned down, I must read the black and white closed captioning.
            Announcer: As leader of the Unified Church, what is your position regarding North Carolina’s latest amendment?
            Caldwell: I respect every State’s right to amend their constitutions as they see fit, to best serve its resident citizens.
            Announcer: You do?
            Caldwell: Yes, oh yes. I understand why they might favor this bill.
            Announcer:  If you have NRD and you die, you are not allowed to reclaim any property, voting or marriage rights.
            Caldwell: Yes the loss of rights is unfortunate. However, I can understand their attempts to make everyone equal.
            “It is on the ballot for November,” Jeremiah says. His ears have turned red and his mouth has tightened. “They may pass the same laws in Tennessee. Then what will you do?”
            “We will have to sell Jesse’s house and move then,” I say. I give up on the 3rd taco.
            “We would be so much stronger with her help,” Jeremiah urges. I am sure that she would want to fight, if she knew it was by your side.”
            That is what I’m most afraid of.
            “I’ll ask her if I feel like the time is right,” I say, knowing I never will.

            “If you do not ask her, I will.”  Jeremiah meets my eyes through those silver-rimmed glasses, waiting. But I have nothing to say. Because asking Jesse would mean telling her the truth. It would mean telling her everything.
-----------

If you read it all and like where it's going, tell me so below! :D

Kory

6 comments:

  1. Really hope to read the rest & *fingers crossed* win the giveaway. Loving it so far!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The giveaway is for the first book and this excerpt is for the second. But regardless I am excited to hear what you think of it! :D

      Delete
  2. Intriguing as the first, very excited for this and love the POV flip

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Rachel! I'm glad you think so. I'm really nervous/excited about its release. Eep!

      Delete
  3. Excited for the alternating POVs. I think it will help fill in the blanks when Jesse is dead and give us more of an emotional connection to Ally. Great idea. If you're looking for more betas, I'd love to get my hands on this one early. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That was my hope! I wanted everyone to understand why Ally is so fiercely devoted to Jess. I hope I pulled it off! :D
      As to being a reader, I'm always looking for early reviewers. If you're interested, feel free to email me at kory.m.shrum@gmail.com and I'll add you to the list that will be going out early July! :D

      Delete