Read an Excerpt
By James Patterson
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2013 James Patterson
All right reserved.
I CAN’T BELIEVE what I’m witnessing.
You would think it was a riot if you saw us on TV.
Shouts cut through the crisp air. Bodies push and sway. Hands rip at flags and banners, and feet kick in surveillance screens. A great bonfire swallows up the splintered pieces of the destruction.
But no fists are raised, and this isn’t a protest. I’m opening my lungs, but it’s to join the ecstatic voices in celebration: The One Who Is The One, the Overworld’s violent dictator, is dead, and the New Order regime has fallen.
We are free.
Free to listen to music—and it’s pumping through the loudspeakers.
Free to read books. We’re clutching them to our chests.
Free to believe what we want and to say what we feel. Even free to walk the streets without being arrested.
Excitement fizzes through my whole being, and every nerve stands on end as the crowd moves as one toward a vast stage in the center of the capital’s square for the ceremony marking the end of the New Order’s totalitarian regime and the return to a peaceful democracy. I’m grinning in the middle of the sea of people, and I pull my tangled hair back from my face as I jostle for a view.
A man in a smart gray suit takes the stage and taps the microphone. He’s doughy and stern-faced, with his white hair parted severely to the side, and I recognize him as General Matthias Bloom, one of the last holdouts against the New Order in the outer suburbs.
A hush falls as thousands upon thousands of eager eyes gaze up at him.
“My dear, dear friends, today is a new beginning, a beautiful beginning for all of us. And to mark that birth,” his voice booms, “I introduce to you now… your new Council!”
I’m tingly all over, almost like the electricity I feel when my magic is strong, or the awesome rush of adrenaline when I’m performing onstage. It’s like the air itself is buzzing with hope.
General Bloom starts to read off the names of seventeen men and women and seventeen kids our age: the group chosen to restore this place to the way it once was, to the City we loved before The One Who Is The One brutally enforced the madness of his New Order.
“Wisteria Rose Allgood,” he reads, and I can’t help it—tears are streaming down my cheeks as I mount the stone steps, my name echoing through the loudspeakers.
My brother, Whit, is right by my side—and this is why I love him so much—Whit has tears in his eyes, too, and he’s not ashamed. As divided as our City once was, with neighbor killing neighbor and only suspicion to feed us when food was scarce, it’s incredible to be part of the leadership that will bring us back together for something else—something good.
As I stand on that stage, representing all these united voices, the rebel in me can’t resist. I pull a scrap of a banner from my shoulder bag. I spread the crimson fabric open with two arms above my head, and the crowd starts to jeer and yell as the sign of the New Order billows in the wind.
Red means the New Order. Red means the Blood Plague. Red means death.
My brother elbows me—this whole ceremony has been planned out minute by minute, and I’m definitely straying way off script—but there’s a method to my madness, and he knows it.
I concentrate on the buildup of heat in my chest, and flames lick out from my fingertips and climb up the banner, enveloping it in seconds.
The crowd is in a frenzy of cheers and shouts, and I’m up here grinning giddily. By seeing that shock of red blackening to ash, we know that even though we can never get back the things we lost, we have overcome so, so much. And with hands clasped, hearts pounding, and a few deep breaths, we can still do this—we can mold this society into something great.
I’m a part of it, and you’re a part of it.
It’s just the beginning.
DUSK IS FALLING, and we’re singing. My heart seems to be lodged way up in my throat.
Having taken our vows, we thirty-four Council members stand side by side in a circle on the stage. We wear different badges of honor or war or age, but standing here together, we’re equals.
We sing the old songs today, songs we learned from our parents. Songs I sang with the Neederman family last year on the Holiday, not knowing whether my sister would live or die from the plague. As our voices waver on the final note, General Bloom takes the stage again.
“Today, we sing for new beginnings.” Applause echoes across the square. “But we sing to remember our history as well, and an older order!” He holds a hefty, yellowed tome above his head, and an audible gasp can be heard from the crowd.
I’m in awe, like everyone else. The Book of Truths. The most sacred text in the Overworld. Destiny’s riddle. The book that has defined our lives. We all grew up revering its words, but few of us have seen it, and actually touching its dusty pages seems unthinkable.
But because Matthias Bloom salvaged the book from the embers while so many great texts burned, he is its new Keeper.
At her cue, Janine strides to the podium. I’d be sweating bullets if I had to actually speak today, but she’s poised and confident, and gives the crowd a long, measured look. She’s in her standard combat boots. Her hair is as wild as ever, and she wears no makeup. But as usual, she’s luminous.
“The Book of Truths prophesized that only a sister and a brother, a witch and a wizard, could defeat The One Who Is The One,” Janine says into the microphone, her voice clear and strong. “It told of their power, of a sky filled with flames.” At the mention of my sister’s Gift of fire, the square erupts in cheers. “Among many things we celebrate today, we pay tribute to their strength and courage that led to The One’s ultimate downfall.”
Now the cheers crescendo, but Janine’s not finished. “But never forget, we are all brothers and sisters. I know the fire of life, love, and leadership is burning not just in Wisty Allgood, but in each one of us.”
No one cheers that line more than my sister. Wisty hoots her agreement, rebel-style, and I grin. Janine was just supposed to introduce Wisty and me, but give her a platform and some willing ears, and she’ll tell you what’s what every time. She’s a great speaker—articulate, endearing, whip-smart—and the crowd is eating up her every word.
So am I.
“We all have equal power and responsibility to make this City great,” Janine continues. “Because that fire inside us is hotter than any magic, stronger than any spell. It’s the spark of change and the slow burn of new hope!” She looks out over the transfixed faces, satisfied. “And now, my friends, without further ado, I give you your heroes… Whit and Wisty Allgood!”
We step forward, and the crowd pulses and chants both of our names, but I know it’s Wisty’s fire they’ve come to see today.
She doesn’t disappoint. First, sparks shoot from her hands again, but as the fire grows, my sister becomes a human torch, the flames on her head even redder than her hair. Her feet singe a black spot onto the platform, and even her gaze smolders.
Plenty of people have seen her flame out, though, so this time she takes it to the max. She swoops her hand across the sky dramatically, and a splash of light follows her arc, exploding in a million dots of color. Her hands dance inside their flames, the shower of fireworks becoming brighter as the choreography becomes more complex. It’s the most beautiful show any of us has ever seen, but there’s something deeper going on here, too.
Wisty’s magic painted across the sky says what Bloom did not: We have the freedom to write our own story now.
I gaze out across the crowded square flickering with vivid color underneath the fireworks. I take in the many faces, old and young, magic-making or not, from near and far. Color dances in their eyes, and their faces glow with a joy we’d forgotten could exist.
There’s a small group at the very edge of the crowd, apart from the rest. As I squint my eyes, trying to make out their dark clothes—street rags or shredded New Order Youth uniforms—the tallest one drags a finger slowly across his neck. My own throat goes dry.
He’s looking straight at me.
I glance at my sister to see if she noticed the ragged group on the outskirts. Wisty’s still eating up the attention, waving to the people and grinning at our parents, who are levitating above the crowd to show their support.
When I look back to the threatening figure, there’s no one there.
It’s not over yet….
THE FIRST TRUTH: YOU CAN’T TRICK THE INNER EYE
THE INAUGURAL CEREMONY earlier was superemotional and important, but this is what I have been waiting for: music pumping through my veins. The spotlight bathing me in its beam. My hair flying around me as I shred my guitar.
It’s not quite like when I played for thousands at the underground Stockwood Music Festival last year—I mean, I have to admit, it was pretty fun to break the law—but rocking the open-mic stage at the Art Is Alive Gala is pretty thrilling.
For one thing, the gala involves all the stuff we love that’s been banned for so long. There are tons of new sculptures, films, and writing exhibited here, and looking out from the stage, it’s incredible to see all the paintings The One confiscated now restored and lining the walls. You’d never guess this gallery used to be a New Order armory.
I wipe the sweat from my brow and shout into the microphone, “We can’t forget: art is alive… because The One is dead!” The crowd roars.
I strum the final chord and step off the small stage to rejoin my group of friends—mostly kids from the former Resistance. As the lights dim for the next act, Sasha hands me some strong-smelling punch.
“Cheers to the rock star,” he says.
I take a sip… and spit it out as the astringent burn takes over my nostrils.
“Sorry. Maybe it’s my strong aversion to the color red, but not for me.”
Whit nods. “Trust me, she’s already pretty spazzy as is without alcohol.” I scoff, and Whit breaks into a smile. “Hey, spazzy is a good quality in an entertainer. You were awesome up there, by the way.”
I beam at him. “So is this DJ,” I say as a new act starts up.
“Yeah. That’s my friend Ross Lilienfield,” Sasha says. “We used to record mixes together in his basement when we were kids. This is definitely his best stuff.”
I nod appreciatively and start to move with the music, the energy making its way down to my hips and feet.
Janine nudges me. “Looks like you’ve got a fan.”
Now I sense the eyes on me. Through the darkness, I can see a boy. His eyes lock on mine, and something in me feels as explosive as the fireworks I created earlier.
Janine squeezes my arm and giggles, but I can’t even brush it off.
As the boy starts walking over, my pulse thuds faster with each step.
But then Byron appears at my side, demanding attention. As usual, he’s in wooing mode. “You’re a virtuoso, Wisty,” he says, eyes shining with sincerity.
He’s overdressed, but he still looks dapper—almost handsome—in his crisp white shirt and black tie. I’m sure some other girl would find the anxious wrinkle in his brow endearing. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want some other girl.
“Thanks, Byron,” I murmur, eyes scanning the crowd for the gorgeous stranger in the shadows. Where did he go?
“I mean, you were completely on fire up there!” he presses, sensing my attention drifting. Gotta give the kid credit. He never gives up.
“On fire? Really?” I look at him wryly, and Byron chuckles.
“I can understand your friend’s mistake,” a voice says in a low, playful tone into my ear.
When I turn around, my stomach does a triple flip. It’s the beautiful stranger. Up close, he seems to tower over me, and his features are chiseled, strong. I’m so flustered I spill my unwanted punch.
He smiles and leans in even closer. “That smoky voice…” I inhale the leathery smell from his jacket and his aftershave, and feel dizzy. “Your flaming red hair… Everything about you smolders.”
Yet it’s his eyes that seem to blaze, even in the dim light. They’re simultaneously intense and bemused. I can’t seem to look away.
I also can’t seem to speak.
It’s the most forward thing anyone has ever said to me. Normally I’d give a guy some kind of sharp verbal slap for coming on like that, but there’s something different about this one. It’s like he knows I’d suck up anything that comes out of that perfect mouth.
“Did you really come over here just to give her a cheap line?” Whit butts in before I can think of an answer.
“Whit!” Janine elbows him and pulls him away, but I’m totally mortified.
“Sorry about my brother….” I mutter lamely.
“No, it’s okay.” The boy laughs and runs a hand through the jet-black hair that stands up wildly from his forehead. “Actually, I came over to say I enjoyed your performance. A little punk, a little blues, and the vibrato technique and tonal variations on the power chords were stellar.” He smiles at me, all easy confidence. “Even if you did rip off Smash’s shredding style a little bit.”
“Every guitar player rips off Smash a little bit!” I protest, but relent as he shrugs, amused. “You seem to know a lot about music,” I observe, impressed.
“I know a lot about a lot of things.”
“Oh, yeah?” I smirk. “What else do you know?” I’m usually pretty skeptical with boys and don’t get into a flirt, but the banter with this guy comes easily somehow.
He bends down a bit so his face is next to mine, his chin brushing against my hair. “I know… what you want.” His voice is a whisper in my ear, and he says each word like he’s tasting it, savoring it. For a fire girl, it’s pretty weird to have goose bumps.
“What’s that?” I ask when I finally find my voice.
“To dance. With me.” He’s extremely attractive—like, beyond—but it’s his unwavering gaze that unhinges me—the kind of look that could conquer the world.
I eye all the people standing in clusters, talking. “But no one is dancing.”
“You were. I saw you from across the room. Looking like you wanted to move. Like you wanted to break all the rules.”
“That was only swaying,” I say quickly, embarrassed by how plainly he can see the real me. “I meant no one else is dancing.”
Hearing that, Janine grabs Whit’s hand and drags him onto the dance floor. She gives me a wry look over her shoulder, and I glare daggers back.
The boy cocks an eyebrow, and the shadows play across his striking face. “So. How about that dance?”
It seems so easy to fall into the rhythm, to let our hips find the beat, to get closer…. But I’m not sure I’m ready. He just seems a little too gorgeous, a little too tall, a little too mature, a little too confident. A little too much man for me right now.
I wait a second too long, and the guy sighs, turning. “I’m Heath. Call me when you get sick of standing still, and we’ll move.” He’s walking away.
“I don’t think you could keep up,” I call after him.
“You really are a firecracker, aren’t you?” Heath grins, and his electric gaze flickers back at me. “I hope I get the chance to prove you wrong.”
Then he’s gone, and I let out a slow, measured breath. Of all the times I’ve been on fire, I’ve never felt sparks quite like that.
“Who does that guy think he is?” Byron grumbles beside me.
“What?” I look at him, startled that the rest of the world hasn’t fallen away.
“Interrupting our conversation, waltzing in here like he owns the place, and pestering you when you’ve made it clear that you’re obviously not interested.” He frowns. “He’s way too old for you, anyway.”
“Shut up, Byron,” I huff. I snap my fingers to work a little magic, and suddenly Byron is no longer standing in front of me. In his place, there’s a squeaking weasel. “I should just leave you like this—your true form.”
But I can never stay mad at Byron for long. I clap my hands, and he’s back.
“Feel better now that you’ve gotten that out of your system?” he snaps.
I nod, smiling. “Definitely.”
My hips start to twitch again, swaying with the music. On the dance floor, Whit and Janine are moving together under the lights. Around Whit, Janine’s serious eyes sparkle, and her laughter peals across the room. Regardless of how many girls have batted their eyelashes at him, it’s weird to think of my brother as some kind of ripped heartthrob. Janine seems to see Whit more deeply than that, though—she understands Whit the poet, and Whit the goofball.
He looks utterly smitten, too, and I have to admit, Janine is one awesome chick. I’m so glad he’s found someone special again, after losing Celia.
I sigh. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss Heath…. But there’s time. Everything feels fresh tonight. I’m surrounded by friends, family, and amazing artwork, and there are no bombs.
IF ANYONE COULD have used a new beginning, it was Pearl Marie Neederman.
All she had known in her young life was the thunder of gunfire, the stench of death in the streets, and the bitter taste of poverty. Since they didn’t need to beg and steal anymore, Mama May had wanted her to stay closer to home, but Pearl had just laughed. She might’ve been only seven, but she knew the labyrinth of the capital’s alleys better than anyone.
Besides, the danger was over now.
She brushed her mop of black hair out of her eyes as she squinted into the pile of trash, looking for the perfect sparkle, the just-right shape. She wanted to impress everyone tonight at the fancy art show, but first she needed to find something to contribute.
“Isn’t it only for the rule makers?” she’d asked when Whit had invited her to the celebration.
“The Council. It’s different now,” he had said, smiling at her ignorance. If he were anyone else, she probably would’ve cut him for that, but the wizard held a special place in her heart. “Art Is Alive is for everyone. And the party is for all our friends.”
Pearl had turned away, a little embarrassed, but beaming with pride: she was considered a friend to the great Whit Allgood.
As she scavenged, Pearl collected bits of broken glass that sparkled in the light and scraps of metal that twisted in the craziest ways. Perfect for creating her own piece of art for the gallery. Whit had told her that with the new Council, there wasn’t going to be any garbage in the streets, but she knew that underneath a shiny new finish, there was always a layer of grime.
She was up to her arms in trash when a sudden, loud popping sound made her jump.
Pearl dropped to her knees in an instant. Silent as a shadow, she slipped behind the Dumpster among the rats, and listened. She’d been called a “gutter rat” as long as she could remember, but she never understood the insult. Rats survived, didn’t they?
There wasn’t a sound to be heard, but she saw a fizz of light coming from around the corner. Pearl stood up and let out a breath, grinning.
Had to be Razz and Eddie from down the block, who had taught Pearl to pickpocket long ago. They had seen the beautiful fireworks display this morning and had spent all day rigging up their own with fertilizer and charcoal. That explained the noise. They’d probably blown off a hand or something.
“You idiots!” Pearl yelled, walking over.
But before she could even round the corner, Pearl’s gray eyes widened with shock as a rough hand clamped over her mouth.
The men suddenly surrounding her were huge, with grizzled faces and dark clothing. They carried heavy, crude weapons—one of them even had an ax. She saw they had Razz by the collar, but Eddie was nowhere in sight.
One of the brutes started lighting the fuses on the homemade fireworks, and Razz went nuts. “Those are mine!” he yelled belligerently. As a warning, Razz’s captor dragged an edge of jagged glass across the boy’s throat, drawing a thin line of blood, but Razz clenched his teeth, refusing to scream.
The man who’d grabbed Pearl spun her around to face him, holding her off the ground, his giant hands wrapped around her throat. She was transfixed by his stare, so cold and empty. One eye was as milky as snow.
Just as she started to see spots, the man threw her into the truck like a sack of garbage. Razz came hurling in after her, and he leaped up, clawing at the door. But the bolt had already closed, and the engine was rumbling.
Pearl scrambled against the side of the truck, coughing and trying to get her breath back.
“We didn’t hear a sound,” murmured Eddie from a corner, shaking his head. “Who can sneak up on us? No one. These guys were like ghosts.”
There were other kids inside the truck, too—a mix of gutter rats and rich kids, some stunned into silence, others all-out shrieking.
“Shush! Stop being a baby!” Pearl hissed at one of the kids, then felt a little bad. “We got to figure this out.”
Think, Pearl. Think.
Her fingers fumbled inside her pockets, searching. They closed on something metal, and she exhaled. Her blade.
She was deft with the knife, good at picking locks with her tiny fingers. But there were no screws or seams, and she couldn’t find a single weak spot in the metal; it didn’t seem like anything an ordinary man had made. And no matter how she worked the blade, the hard bolt wouldn’t budge.
Pearl felt real panic rise inside her for the first time. These rough and weathered men were definitely not New Order—so who were they working for?
And where were they taking her?
There couldn’t be a new threat so soon. No way. Whit had said they were safe. He had promised.
Pearl squinted through the bars, the capital’s distant lights blurring a little in her vision. They were already on the outskirts of the City. Soon they would reach the boundary line, and she had no idea what lay beyond.
I am not an awkward person. But this is one of the most awkward moments of my life. Wisty lives for the spotlight, but me? I’d rather write the script.
I step up to the small platform where Ross, the DJ, was spinning. Wisty hoots “Woo!” embarrassingly loudly, and Byron follows her lead with his best off-the-cuff cheer: “Go Whit!!”
The Allgood magic has always felt kind of sacred, something not to be used lightly. I’ve used mine to escape from prison, heal the sick, and defeat the most evil dictator our world has ever known. But now that he’s gone, now that we’ve won, we all deserve a little joy. So, hey, I’ve been working on a new use for my M. I start with a poem.
“Brush the ash from your bones.”
I concentrate on the power building in me, and make it visual.
“Cast aside your red tears.”
The gathered crowd gasps in delight as a three-dimensional scene swirls behind me, morphing and changing with my words. The hologram isn’t much—just colors and energy. But it’s as beautiful as my sister’s fireworks, or the paintings on the wall. It’s a bit of performance art that has every soul in the place completely enraptured for a good five minutes. Until—
My head throbs suddenly. I double over in pain as a bright light cuts through my vision.
It feels like it’s slicing my brain.
Janine grabs my arm, a worried look on her face. “You okay?” she asks quietly.
I nod, standing up again. The hologram flickers behind me like static. I start reading the poem again, trying to get my bearings. Trying to get the energy back.
“Weep for the fallen, stand against those you fear…”
This time, as I continue, the expressions of the audience members change from concern to confusion and then shock.
Something’s wrong. Something’s seriously wrong.
I turn around, and the three-dimensional images playing out behind me are awful. A sea of black rats scurry over one another, attacking their own tails. Worms crawl out of an eye socket, bathing it in their milky trail. They writhe outward toward the crowd, so real in their holographic existence that a few people jerk backward, shrieking.
It’s like the movie has been switched, but it’s all in my head.
How are these things coming… out of me?
Just keep going, Whit. Get it back on track.
I concentrate hard, my whole body shaking with the effort, but the horrifying images keep projecting behind me.
The image flickers: now a child bangs his head against the wall, over and over, as blood pools in his eyes. A mask is removed from a face, and behind it is the chill of death. An avalanche of snow barrels outward, and members of the crowd turn away in terror.
“Whit!” Wisty yells, a look of horror on her face. “Stop it!”
But I’m utterly helpless as the darkness feeds on itself. I shake my head and jump off the stage, leaving my sister and friends and a roomful of people gawking after me.
I run, and keep running. Out of the room. Out the big double doors, knocking them against the wall on their hinges, and out into the street. I take huge gulps of the night air as I try to keep from vomiting.
Voices are calling in the distance, yelling my name, but I can’t face them, not now, not until I shake this diseased feeling. I won’t stop running until my lungs are screaming and my legs ache.
I have to escape the thing that’s in my head.
“SERIOUSLY, WHAT’S WRONG?”
“Let it go, Wisty,” Whit warns as I try to keep up.
Okay. Good sister that I am, I’m just going to ignore the fact that my brother had a complete meltdown at a party for our friends that was supposed to be about celebration and happiness. I’m going to forget that he stormed out of the gallery without any explanation, and then refused to answer a single one of my questions when I chased after him in the street.
“If you just tell me what happened, maybe I could help,” I prod, turning the key to let us into my sweet new apartment. (The upshot to using your magical powers to save basically the whole world from a psycho villain is that your parents freak out a little bit less when you mention you’d really like to get your own place.)
“There’s nothing to tell,” my brother insists. He steps over one of the piles of stuff on the floor, and perches on a counter stool. “Wow, Wisty, you’ve really done wonders with the space.” Whit shakes his head. “Have the rats moved in yet?”
“Organized chaos,” I say, cheerfully ignoring the dig. A little mess keeps me sane, and I can do as I please here. “And you’re the one living with weaselly Byron Swain. That’s what I call rodent’s paradise.”
“Har har,” Whit answers dryly.
Then the doorbell rings, and we both glance toward the front door, surprised. Whit raises an eyebrow. “Visitors this late?”
I shrug. “It’s probably Janine, wondering why you acted like a total freak and just left her at the gallery.”
“Wisteria,” Whit warns, looking at me sternly. He never uses my full name.
“Whitford,” I reply mockingly, and chuck a couch cushion at his head as I walk to answer the door.
“I said, Let. It. Go.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I smirk and look through the peephole. I glimpse the height, the dark hair…
Oh. Em. Gee.
It’s Heath. The guy who asked me to dance at the art festival. Here. At my apartment. I totally spaz out, flattening my body against the door.
“What? Who is it?” Whit asks, standing up.
Ignoring my brooding brother, I finally pull myself together enough to open the door.
“Hi,” I say shyly.
“Hey,” Heath answers, and it’s like a little velvet purr.
Neither of us moves for a moment; we just blink at each other, not sure of our boundaries. Under the porch light, Heath’s pale eyes glow a cool shade of blue I’ve never seen.
“I was thinking maybe you had the right idea,” he says softly, finally breaking the silence. “Maybe we should just stand here. Looking at each other. Like this.” There’s no denying it: this instant connection feels even more intense than before—almost blinding.
I laugh then, shaking my head. “And I was thinking maybe it was time to move.”
“I’m game if you are,” he answers.
“What’s going on?” Whit opens the door farther behind me.
“Um.” I pull my gaze away from Heath. “My friend just stopped by to…”
“I couldn’t stop thinking about that magnificent fireworks display your sister put on earlier,” Heath answers cordially. Then he looks at me. “I felt like I might burst, too, if I didn’t see her again.”
The line is clearly extra cheesy for my brother’s benefit, but it still makes my stomach flutter.
“Okay, lover boy,” Whit says, stepping out onto the porch, frowning. “It’s late. Let’s wrap this up.”
“I wasn’t planning to take much of anyone’s time. I just wanted to show Wisty—”
“My sister isn’t interested.” Whit’s in hostile-big-brother mode now. “Wisty, let’s go. Back inside.”
“Whit!” I’m sure the humiliation and anger is written on my face, but Heath’s eyes sparkle with amusement.
“You’re going to keep Wisty locked in her own apartment? Maybe she wants a bit of freedom. Isn’t that what you two fought so hard for?”
“Maybe you don’t know what she wants.”
Heath cocks his head. “Hey, now,” he says. “There’s no need to feel threatened, big guy.”
Yikes. This isn’t going to be pretty.
Whit blinks at him. “Threatened?” he asks incredulously, crossing his arms. “By who? You?”
“Okay, okay,” I groan. Boys. “Relax, both of you.” I push Whit back toward the door, then turn back to my visitor, sighing. “I really should go back inside….”
Heath holds up his hands. “Of course. Didn’t mean to intrude. Good night, Firecracker.” He smiles and places a single flower on the doorstep at my feet, nods to Whit, and walks away, just like that.
I stand on the porch after he leaves, staring into the night. He called me Firecracker. He doesn’t even know me! I should zap him right to Shadowland, shouldn’t I? But there’s something about the way he said it—something familiar yet exciting and new. I can’t explain it, but I feel incredibly drawn to this boy with the sharp tongue and the strange eyes. The highest part of the sky is in those eyes, cool and vast, and they seem to see right inside me.
Maybe I’m afraid of what they see. Freedom… to do what?
I pick up the flower he left. It’s lovely. Pale silver with a bright flash of orange in the center—like nothing I’ve seen before.
“I wonder what he wants….” I mutter softly.
“I bet I can guess,” Whit says, startling me. I thought he’d gone in.
I roll my eyes and step back inside, brushing past him. “Oh, come on. He seems like a nice guy. And he’s right—it is my apartment.”
“Nice guy? Every guy wants something. Usually the same thing. Trust me, Wisty. You haven’t been in a foolball locker room. You learn a lot in there.” I roll my eyes at my overprotective brother.
The One Who Is The One wanted me for my power. Since the victory, politicians seem to want me for my fame. Heath said he just wanted to see me again. Not my magic, not my fire.
I feel a weird sort of vulnerability. Not fear, exactly. I know my power, hot and true, will protect me, and if that fails, my watchdog brother sure will. But with the electricity of my interaction with Heath still making my whole body hum, I’m just not sure I want to be protected.
It can’t be that Heath wants to be my boyfriend… could it?
I’M OUTSIDE. IT’S RAINING. The boy is there.
The rain is in my eyes, but I can feel him.
“I just wanted to see you,” he says in that velvety voice.
“But I can’t see you,” I answer. “I can’t see anything.” I squint, but the water is coming down too hard to see my hand in front of my face.
“I can show you. Everything,” he promises. “Just don’t look down.”
He takes my hand, and I shiver at his cold touch, but I’m warm inside. Full of fire. Like my heart is filling with air, lifting up.
And then we are lifting up—actually rising above the City and into the clouds. I hold my breath as we break through into sunlight, eager to see what “everything” might be, but before I can turn, Heath leans toward me, and I sigh, letting him pull me into his arms….
I wake up, disoriented and clutching a pillow. Then I make a mistake: I look down.
And I almost have a heart attack.
I’m floating above my bed. Like, five feet above my bed, just hanging out near the ceiling. I blink and fall to the mattress, knocking the wind out of myself, and lie there, gasping.
God, my magic is weird sometimes.
And embarrassing, I think, chucking the pillow aside. I can only imagine the faces I must’ve been making in my sleep.
Fortunately, this is my place, my own apartment. For once I don’t have to deal with older brothers barging in all the time. I close my eyes again, looking forward to the end of the dream. Right about now, Whit is probably bugging someone else about clean dishes, or hogging someone else’s TV to watch foolball….
No. My eyes fly open. That’s not what Whit is doing at all.
I look at the clock, my stomach sinking. I’ve already messed up. Whit is where I’m supposed to be, right at this moment, on the most important day of our lives.
And I’m late!
I leap out of bed, yelling as I stub my toe on a guitar I left out. Clothes are strewn everywhere. I stumble through them, frantically grabbing at pants and sweaters. Nothing seems quite right for the occasion, and you never know who you’ll run into because he just wanted to see you….
Settling on a simple black dress, I jump in the shower, shrieking at the blast of cold water. But it’s good. No time to focus on still-lingering dreams when your brain is freezing.
Makeup time. I frown at my reflection. Special day, but same old face, with the added benefit of bags under the eyes and straggly wet hair. And no time!
I pick up a celebrity rag—a guilty pleasure that’s back now that actors and other pop idols (who aren’t The One) are no longer being exterminated—but I’m not wasting time with gossip right now. Tearing through the magazine, I find what I’m looking for: a picture of an actress who has that professional-yet-pretty look. There’s this spell I’ve been meaning to try….
I touch the face on the page and then brush my fingers across the mirror. As I watch, my eyes seem to transform into smoldering goddess peepers, a hint of rose color blooms on my cheeks, and my lips look—well, like you want to listen to what I’m saying.
I don’t have her cheekbones or her pouty lips, of course. It’s not a full morph—just a bit of spell-spiked makeup—but it’ll do in a pinch. Still Wisty Allgood in there, freckles and all, but with a touch of celebrity chic. Not bad.
I struggle to pull on my high-top sneakers as I yank open the door, and then I spot it there.
The dream comes back to me in a rush, “everything” echoing in my head. But what does the offering of a flower say about a boy in real life? Sweet, or stalker? Walking down the steps, I twirl the stem, considering, and then I realize—
I almost forgot the most important thing!
I drop the flower and burst back into the apartment, hastily gathering up the plans Whit and I spent hours brainstorming, and now I’m really late. I sprint down the street with the papers clutched to my chest, wet hair streaming.
People are giving me strange looks, but that’s normal. It isn’t until I get two full blocks away that I realize my right foot is a little chilly. Sure enough, when I look down, I’m only wearing one sneaker.
I so don’t have time for this right now.
I turn to head back for it, then stop. Instead, I close my eyes, picturing the red high-top sneaker with its scuffs on the side, lying just inside the door.
Then I whistle, and, like a loyal pet, the shoe flies out the window and tumbles toward me down the street. Grinning, I turn and keep running as it gallops behind.
WHERE IS SHE?
I watch the giant clock on the wall, the slow click of the seconds echoing in the vast chamber. My pencil mimics the beat—tap, tap, tap—on the long table.
Matthias Bloom, self-styled Speaker of these proceedings, clears his throat for the hundredth time. As I glance sheepishly around the wall of faces, I see that he’s not alone in his impatience.
She knows how important this day is.
The memory of last night resurfaces then, those horrible headaches and disturbing images, and for a moment I worry something’s happened to my sister. Maybe the vision was some sort of omen….
Come on, Wisty. Come on, I plead silently, thinking if my stare drills hard enough into the door, it might creak open.
Miraculously, after an eternity, it bangs open. My sister bursts through, a ball of flustered energy with red hair hanging in her face. “Sorry!” she shouts as she hops across the room, still struggling to pull on a shoe.
I shake my head, but I’m grinning anyway, because she’s here. There’s no bad omen, and everything’s cool, because Wisty’s got the papers in her hand—the ideas we spent weeks developing.
With those plans and this Council, the future of our City starts today.
“Now that our last esteemed member has arrived…” Bloom sighs heavily, and straightens his tie.
Always the smart aleck, Wisty curtsies in response, then finally plops into the seat at my side.
“May we begin?” Bloom finishes dryly.
“Great!” I stand, eager to address the group. “Since we’re reinventing this City now, and not just fixing what was broken, it’s important that we do it right this time.” I grab the plans off the table and glance at my notes. “We were thinking, start with the City’s biggest hope: kids. School should be about creativity and fun, so kids actually want to go.”
Looking around at the faces of my fellow Council members—war heroes, rogue journalists, a former film star who survived on roaches for two years underground—my enthusiasm grows. I’m not a natural speaker like Janine, but I’m more pumped about this cause than anything, and these are the people who can make it happen.
“We also need to build a major outdoor community center, so all citizens can tell us their concerns and ideas,” I continue. “We can use The One’s old compound, and it would be great for concerts, too.” Wisty gives me an encouraging wink. “Of course, first we’ll have to redesign the streets to make room for more parks….”
Bloom clears his throat again sharply, and it’s like a crack of thunder in the chamber. “Those ideas are all charming, Mr. Allgood,” he booms. “However, this is a Council, and all members will vote on its proceedings.”
I redden. “Right. I know, Mr. Bloom. We just thought—”
“We thought that as members of the Council—the members who freed the Overworld, if we’re getting into specifics—you might want to at least hear our ideas,” Wisty blurts out.
A couple of voices shout words of encouragement, particularly the youngest of the seventeen kids on the board, who totally idolize Wisty.
“General,” Bloom corrects. He straightens the white swath of hair atop his glistening forehead. “And who will fund these projects? Our bankrupt treasury?”
When Wisty and I are silent, he addresses the whole Council, pitching his voice across the room. “Unfortunately, we cannot just burn away the problems of the New Order as we did its flags. Along with a money shortage,” he drawls, fixing each member in turn with his gaze, “we’re facing a fuel shortage. A materials shortage. And a water shortage.”
“A sense-of-humor shortage,” Wisty quips.
But the rest of the room is silent, and I’m not laughing, either. How did we think it was going to be so easy?
“Okay,” I say quietly. “Where should we start, then?”
There’s a flicker of compassion on Bloom’s face, but his authoritative voice doesn’t budge when he replies, “I propose we stick to the agenda.”
“Agenda?” I look around. Everyone has a crisp, typed sheet of paper in front of them. Everyone but us. I sit back down with my hand-scrawled notes.
“First item,” Bloom reads. “Housing needs for displaced citizens.”
“There’s been violence in the Gutter lately,” says the kid from the streets whose parents were martyrs of the Resistance. “Families trying to build up their bombed houses, but others claiming their supplies.”
I think of little Pearl Neederman and her family’s basement home in the Gutter. They didn’t have much, but they definitely had kinship. “Maybe we could discuss ways to get the communities working together to rebuild neighborhoods, one house at a time,” I suggest.
Every eye in the room flicks to the man who seems to know about these things, but he shakes his snowy head dismissively. “The Council must decide how many stones each citizen is eligible to remove from rubble for rebuilding.”
“We’ll need to know how many stones each rubble pile contains, on average,” notes an eager Councilman beside Bloom.
“And what percentage of stones were lost in the bombing,” a droopy-eyed man across the chamber adds.
The woman to his right pipes in: “Shouldn’t we first vote on whether stones should be determined by size or weight or concentration of minerals…?”
Two hours later, my head is throbbing even harder than it was last night. “Is blood leaking out of my ears yet?” I whisper to my sister.
Wisty looks up at me with glazed eyes, her chin resting on the table. “I didn’t think this was actually possible, but governing just might be worse than going to school.”
Excerpted from The Kiss by James Patterson Copyright © 2013 by James Patterson. Excerpted by permission.
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