Afterimage

Afterimage

by Naomi Hughes

Hardcover

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781624145971
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 09/18/2018
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 478,760
Product dimensions: 5.83(w) x 8.54(h) x 1.17(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

NAOMI HUGHES grew up all over the U.S. before finally settling in the Midwest, a place she loves even though it tries to murder her with tornadoes every spring. She writes quirky young adult fiction full-time and works as a freelance editor. In her free time she likes to knit, travel with her husband and daughter, and geek out over British TV and Marvel superheroes.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

FIFTEEN MINUTES BEFORE THE EXPLOSION, I'm trying to work up the courage to walk through a parking lot gate.

I used to love gates. There's something about the sleek straight lines, the bland iron of the bars, the honest minimalism of the decorative spikes that's always made me feel at home no matter where we were deployed. This gate, though, comes with a new feature: judgmental stares from the guards in the booth, along with muttered complaints from everyone who's driven past during the last twenty minutes while I failed to finish this morning's therapeutic homework.

Shame curls in my belly. I grit my teeth and keep pacing. Fear weighs down my steps and tries to glue me in place; moving, even if it isn't in the right direction, is an act of defiance. I hate that it's the best I can do.

"Remember your diaphragmatic breathing," emanates a voice from my palm. I lift my phone. On the videochat app, Mom gives me a thumbs up. I grimace and return the gesture with as much enthusiasm as I can muster, which isn't very much at all, as massive panic attacks are emotionally-limiting douchebags that way.

Another car pulls up in the entry behind me and honks and I step to the side so it can go through. The man inside grumbles in my direction as his car slips past. I catch something about the "nuthouse" and my place therein.

The insult bites deep, but I give him a smile and a cheerful flipoff. Then one of the guards presses a button and the gate slides open and, for a moment, I hate nothing in the world more than the man in that car — not because he's a jerk, but because he can drive inside the agency base crowded with soldiers and scientists and too-close buildings without so much as a second thought.

I try to hang on to the anger — anything is better than this panicky suffocation — but it fizzles away in seconds like a defective Fourth-of-July sparkler.

I stop pacing. "Maybe we should just try this tomorrow."

"Breathe, Camryn," Mom repeats serenely.

"I am breathing," I argue.

"No, you're hyperventilating."

"Hyperventilation is a type of breathing."

She gives me a look. She approves of humor as a coping technique, but not as a defensive one. The biggest reason I both love and hate that my mom is also a psychiatrist: she knows all my bullshit, and buys exactly zero of it. A part of me is glad she's not my therapist. That title is reserved for a sweet grandmotherly doctor downtown, who also doesn't buy my bullshit, but at least must use more than a look to call me out on it. Mom just fills the role of support person — she talks me through my panic, keeps me grounded, and reminds me how unlikely it is that my therapy homework will actually kill me.

Not that I ever quite believe her.

I pace a few steps farther, stop in front of our ancient Toyota that's parked to the side of the entryway, and drop my forehead down to its hood. "I can't do this," I mutter into the chipped beige paint. The truth of the words scrapes my throat raw.

Mom hears it. Her eyebrows draw together. "Are you sure, baby?" she asks gently.

I listen for the disappointment in her voice, but it's not there. It's never been there. Not when I, the daughter of the agency's top psychiatric researcher, was diagnosed with panic disorder last year. Not when I had to switch to homeschooling last month because I couldn't handle all the triggers at my public school. And not now, when I can't even manage to drive into the base to pick her up the morning after her exhausting double shift. She's got bags under her eyes and her gray-and-blue uniform is rumpled from the unusually long night of data analysis, but she hasn't complained once in the twenty minutes she's been coaching me through my latest failed attempt at overcoming my fear of fear. If I want any shot at going to college next year, I have to be able to function with anxiety, and she's determined to show me that's possible.

I drag myself upright. If she says I can do this, then I can do this. Panic disorder can shove it.

Easier said than done, though. I only manage to get ten feet from the gate this time before my hands start shaking, barely close enough to read Fort Wells Army Base, Agency for Scientific Advancement Division etched into the top bar. Beyond those bars looms the base, a vast spread of buildings belonging to the agency — a newly-created sector of the US Army dedicated to generating new technologies and research. Some they patent and sell to keep themselves funded, some they classify and integrate into the nation's defenses, and some, like Mom's research, they use to improve the Army's operations and procedures. Mom comes here every day along with thousands of her coworkers to do vital work for our whole country. The least I can do is manage to get through the gates.

I inch closer, trying to get near enough to touch the iron. That's part of my homework. Touch it, drive through it, then walk to Mom's office on the south end of the base. Baby steps, my therapist calls it. But I had a horrific panic attack when Mom brought me here a few months back, and after that I knew I was doomed to have another the second I set foot past this gate again. So, of course, that fear ended up actually causing the attack itself, and thus the list of places I can go without suffering crushing terror shrank that much more. Panic disorder: a self-fulfilling prophecy of suck.

A red car honks loudly behind me. I ignore it, forcing my foot to move just a few inches closer to the gate. My heart rate picks up. A sense of impending doom winds itself tight around my throat, choking off my air supply. I stop and wait.

These are symptoms of anxiety. They're not dangerous. I'm not going to die, not going to faint, not going to float away from myself like a clipped balloon. I'm fine.

Tears prick at my eyes and I force them back. I've already embarrassed myself enough today, damn it. I lift my phone. "How about meeting me in the parking lot?" I say, trying for a light tone like I don't care either way, but Mom doesn't answer. I glance down. White letters are blinking across the screen — call dropped. I have no data signal, not even enough regular signal to make a good, old-fashioned call. The local tower must be down. I groan and thumb the phone off, and the black screen reflects my features: tired brown eyes, set jaw, a pale face framed by short, choppy brown hair. I drop the useless phone into my pocket.

Off to the side, one of the guards in the booth straightens up, holding his own cell phone in one hand and muttering into a walkie-talkie in the other. He and his partner exchange a glance, and then he steps out onto the sidewalk to survey the street with one hand on his gun.

"Everything okay?" I call cautiously.

"Need to ask you to move along now, Miss Kingfisher," is all he says, eyes still on the cars.

Now or never. I take a deep breath and turn back to the gate. I curl my shaking hands into fists. It takes me a few minutes, but I finally manage to raise my arm. My fingers graze the frosty metal.

And then I wake up coated in ash.

* * *

I stay awake for the span of five heartbeats.

One. I'm lying in a fountain. Cracked, empty. Ash is everywhere. It coats the sky, lies thick across the fountain's rim, dulls my skin to an ugly pallor. It cakes on my tongue, dry and bitter, like I'll never taste anything else ever again. I inhale and choke on it.

Two. A gray sunrise. It's too high in the sky; I've lost time somehow. How much? Half an hour? My brain is fuzzed over, the panic numb and slow and confused. My heart stutters and trips like it's trying to restart, and then — three. I turn my head.

Skeletons of smoking framework clawing at the sky. Giant chunks of uprooted pavement looming overhead. A twisted iron bar speared into the concrete inches from my shoulder, tiny gray flakes gathering in the corners of its etched words: ... ntific Advancement Division.

I breathe. The silence breathes. There's nothing but rubble. Soot. Ash. Silence.

Four. Except there is something else. Someone else. A boy is sitting at the edge of my fountain, knees drawn up, staring into the dawn like it's impossible to look at anything else. There's no ash in his blond hair, no gray smears on his stark-white lab coat, no smudges on his glasses. His eyes are green and bright like cut glass and the look on his face is wrong, terribly and deeply wrong, and if he looks at me with those eyes and that expression it will make whatever this is real and that can't happen, I can't let it. I flinch away. My arm knocks against the iron bar.

"There's a dead man at my feet," he says, not looking away from the sun.

I go still.

"You can't see him from there," he continues. "But he's burnt to a crisp. And I keep trying to take off my coat, I keep trying to cover him, but I can't. Because I think I might be dead too."

And then he turns and looks at me, and those awful, beautiful eyes pin me in place, and that's when I see that his lab coat is foggy around the edges and his torso is transparent and I can just make out the blackened wreckage of my mother's office building through his left shoulder.

"Tell me you can see me," he whispers.

Five.

I throw up. And then I pass out.

CHAPTER 2

I DREAM.

In my dream, there's an ambulance or maybe a helicopter. Red lights. Blue lights. Screaming. I don't know what the words are, but I'm the one screaming them and the boy's gaze is locked on mine like he has them all memorized, like they're part of a script he knows by heart.

"I can't remember my name," he says quietly. I stop screaming.

The paramedics who were fluttering around me like sugar-drunk hummingbirds slow. They eye each other with relief. Someone sticks a needle in my arm. Off to the side, a monitor beeps out a frantic rhythm.

"... blast radius ... the only survivor," says one of the doctors, and everyone freezes.

I inhale. The scream rises in my throat again, and it tastes like ash.

"I think it might have something to do with the number five, though," the boy says quickly. "That was the first thing I thought about when I — when I came to a few minutes ago." His voice cracks a little, but he sets his mouth in a determined line.

My eyes flit back to him. The scream subsides into a cough, and someone claps a respirator over my mouth.

A dim thought struggles to the surface like a fish in murky water: they should've done that first. Dad would have their heads if they worked at his hospital.

"So maybe just call me Quint for now," the boy finishes, and gives me a half-smile. It's not really a smile, though. It's an anchor. I cling to it for all I'm worth, because: blast radius. Only survivor. The wreckage of my mother's office, the letters on the iron bar.

Oh God. Oh, my God.

The dream ends.

CHAPTER 3

I WAKE UP COVERED BY a white sheet. It's too soft, too close to my face, and I feel like I'm drowning. When I try to drag it away my hands only twitch in response.

I blink, trying to clear my vision and restart my sluggish brain. The air tastes strange, metallic. Something is pinching the skin inside my elbow. Something else is beeping in a pattern that feels like it should be familiar. Groggily, my brain connects the dots: Heart monitor. IV. Antiseptic.

Hospital.

Which means there should be a call button ... somewhere?

I lift my head. The room is empty, but there's a TV in the corner and images blink over the screen — news anchors with grave faces, streets plastered in canary-yellow caution tape, an Army fence stabbed through rows of wilted flowers.

I stop scanning the room and squint at it, trying to make sense of the pictures. In the back of my mind something stirs. I shouldn't watch this. I should go back to sleep. I can't remember why, and I don't think I want to.

The shot changes to show President Vasquez. She clears her throat, folds her hands, gives a speech about regrettable accidents and malfunctioning equipment and how the agency is under investigation. Five thousand people dead, she says. Our nation mourns.

My heart monitor beeps. I stare at the TV, no longer caring that my eyes still won't focus right. Our nation mourns. That's what they say when there's some big tragedy, a plane crash or a school bombing or a sniper gone rogue. Our nation mourns means a week of that strange sadness that sort of belongs to you and sort of belongs to everyone, and then the flags go back up to full mast and the world rights itself again. That, I used to think, was mourning.

I was wrong. Mourning is the truth curled tight around the edges of your mind, and you huddle in the dark trying not to look.

I'm getting closer to being fully awake and I'm now very sure I don't want to be, so I take a shuddering breath and stretch out my fingers. They creep over the sheets toward the remote at my knee.

The TV blinks to another shot. It's from the stadium during some minor league team's practice. A player is grinning at the small early-morning crowd as he swings. A crack snaps across the field when he connects. People cheer —

And then a flash like a supernova. A second later, the sonic boom pounds into the camera and the picture shivers, goes fuzzy. When it comes back a mushroom cloud has bloomed over the top of the stadium wall.

The explosion. The ash, the wreckage, the end of my world.

Desperate now, I twist my fingers in the sheet and pull it up my body. The remote rides along with the fabric. When it's almost within reach I grab for it, but my hands are trembling and I accidentally knock it to the floor.

I spit out a shaky litany of every curse word my big brother ever taught me and dive after it, but I overcompensate and hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. The remote bounces off my IV line and skitters under the bed. I drag myself after it.

It's cool and dark here. The sheet hangs over the edge of the bed, a veil that narrows the world to me and the remote in the corner and the cool tile that smells a little bit like orange Lysol, which is exactly the brand Mom used to mop the floors of our apartment. I hate it. It always makes my throat ache.

I close my eyes and inhale.

Outside my sanctuary, someone clears his throat.

My eyes snap open. There's a boy on the other side of the sheet, sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the inch-tall gap between the tile and the blanket is a sliver of see-through lab coat.

"In 1633 Galileo Galilei was tried by the Roman Inquisition for his advocacy of heliocentric theory," he says. "He claimed the earth revolved around the sun. He was persecuted for it most of his life."

I inhale again. The Lysol smell burns, but not as much now.

"That's the part everyone always wants to talk about. The revolutionary scientist and the people who wanted to shut him up." His voice is conversational, quiet, like we're chatting at a coffeehouse. On the other side of the sheet his shape is nothing but a shadowy smudge. "But me, I wonder about the other people. The ones trapped in the middle with their new truth. There's a type of person who, when their world changes that way, doesn't have the option of hiding from it even if they want to. The earth revolves around the sun. The world is round. Your mother is gone."

My heart stutters in shock. I reach out, curl my fingers in the sheet, yank it down — and come face to face with Quint.

He's got his hands folded in his lap. He's tall, lean, maybe two years older than me. His glasses are black and sophisticated, but they're sitting slightly crooked, undermining his intensity with a lopsided sort of charm. His lab coat is blindingly white and has no identifying insignia. And when he raises those beautiful bright green eyes to meet mine, all I can see is rubble and soot.

I tear my gaze from his. I will not look at him. I will not speak to him. I am fine, fine, fine, and I am going back to sleep. It doesn't matter what he says.

"Because here's the thing," he goes on like he hasn't just ripped a hole in my universe, "you should've woken up two weeks ago."

I flinch. No way in hell has it been two weeks.

"Your injuries are healing fine. Your brain is fine. The doctors can't figure out why the miraculous sole survivor of Fort Wells won't wake up, but I know why. It's because you didn't want to. You still don't want to."

I lie down on the tile, curl up, squeeze my eyes shut and inhale orange Lysol and order myself to ignore him.

"But you don't have a choice either. This is the world now. You have to live in it." His voice softens. "Your dad needs you to live in it."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Afterimage"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Naomi Hughes.
Excerpted by permission of Page Street Publishing Co..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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