Nothing gets a young reader’s heart hopping—and her hands flying through the pages—like a high-stakes story of survival. Whether set in a postapocalyptic wilderness, a quarantined mall, or a reimagined fantasy world, these books feature young people defying the odds and facing terrible dangers. They’ll thrill and delight their receivers, with propulsive stories that will carry […]
It's Day 7 in the quarantined mall. The riot is over and the senator trapped inside is determined to end the chaos. Even with new rules, assigned jobs, and heightened security, she still needs to get the teen population under control. So she enlists Marco's helpallowing him to keep his stolen universal card key in exchange for spying on the very football players who are protecting him.
But someone is working against the new systems, targeting the teens, and putting the entire mall in even more danger. Lexi, Marco, Ryan, and Shay believe their new alliances are sound.
They are wrong. Who can be trusted? And who will be left to trust?
The virus was just the beginning.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Yesterday evening, the National Guard ordered that the Shops at Stonecliff mall be quarantined until further notice. After a week of near radio silence from government officials on the situation within the mall, it was revealed yesterday in the early afternoon that a flu virus had been released into the air vents of the mall and that all people inside have been deemed exposed to the contagion. While the Centers for Disease Control have promised more specific information on the type of virus, they have yet to release any reports. They have also declined to provide information on the situation inside the mall or the conditions of the people quarantined except to say that the situation is secure, that a qualified individual has been appointed to manage the population in the mall, and that the people inside have been provided with all the resources they will require for the duration of the quarantine.
Sentinel sources, however, claim that the situation in the mall is anything but secure. One local resident has been using a high-powered telescopic lens to observe the mall and he reported seeing crowds rushing past the windows of the food court’s atrium after the announcement yesterday. He also claimed that the government evacuated the facility in a hurry, suggesting some problem inside the mall, perhaps related to the movement of people.
There have also been reports of arrests of individuals outside the mall. Mary Havershaw of Ossining reported that her neighbors Barbara and John Kravis have been locked inside their home for the past twenty-four hours. “Barbara went to buy some new pillows at that mall last Saturday,” Havershaw stated yesterday morning via telephone. “She got out before the quarantine, but now they want to lock her down too, like those other folks.”Sentinel reporters confirmed that a patrol car is outside the home and the home phone number has been disconnected.
After the demonstration of two nights ago, police have cordoned off the streets around the mall, allowing only local traffic into the area. This is in addition to the thirty-foot-high fence erected around the parking lot of the mall, which has been reinforced by cement barriers and is patrolled by the National Guard. News helicopters have been banned from flying over the airspace within the fence’s perimeter, though there were reports of a government helicopter on the roof of the mall earlier today.
If you have any family or friends inside the mall, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has set up a hotline through which you can receive information about your loved ones. The hotline number is 1-800-555-XXXX. The FBI has asked that you not try to approach the mall, as any trespass within the perimeter may result in your being arrested or detained for testing.
It was like reading the cast list for a twisted new reality show—Mall Quarantine: Shop ’Til You Drop . . . Dead.
Daniel Jancowisz, Age 24, Pace University
Except this wasn’t a show, it was reality. Some of these people really were dead.
That kind of thinking was too depressing, so Lexi Ross decided to not even focus on the names anymore. She just input the words. Her mother, Senator Dorothy “Dotty” Ross, the now official head honcho of the mall, had charged her with re-creating the population database her father had made for the government hazmat people. When they bolted from the building, they took all copies with them, which suggested that locking all the civilians in a mall with a killer flu was not the only secret they were keeping.
The monotony of the task—logging name after name into the program—was soothing, and a welcome break from the screaming chaos of yesterday’s mall riot. So she sat like a good little girl typing away in the dank employee lounge in a corner of the Apple Store’s stockroom.
Kathleen Mason, Age 18, Tarrytown HS
The only frustrating aspect of the task was that all the relevant information was handwritten on scrap paper. The Senator had given Lexi the lists of names created on the first night of their collective captivity—this was all the government had left behind. Scrawled next to some entries were chronic conditions, and employers or schools. Some names had a crypticV marked beside them in the margin. More relevant information—like whether or not the person was still alive—was not to be found on the page.
As Lexi flipped a rumpled sheet over and began scanning her next entry, she was startled by her mother’s voice over the mall’s loudspeaker.
“Attention, residents of the Shops at Stonecliff. I apologize for the manner in which yesterday’s announcement was made. It was not our intention to cause anyone to panic.”
Understatement of the year. How coy of her mother to label a mall-wide riot a mere instance of “panic.” Lexi had spent the previous evening pinned down by a gurney and the dying, then dead body that had occupied it, all buried under collapsed curtains and whatever else from the medical center the rioters had stomped down on top of them.
“Anyone who suffered any injuries as a result of last night’s incident should report to the medical center located in the PaperClips on the first floor. Anyone with any medical training should also please report to the PaperClips to assist in helping those injured.”
Lexi wondered if there was anything the medical personnel could do to cure her of the memory of being trapped under a body—alone—for hours, all that time convinced she’d left her father to be trampled to death by the crazed masses. She could still feel the cold, dead, clammy skin against her back.
She glanced over the top of her laptop to check on her father, and saw that he had fallen asleep on the lounge’s crummy, fake leather couch. Turned out, he’d spent the night trapped under rubble, too. Only he had the additional disadvantage of having been shot by a looter with a nail gun and having his arm broken after being pushed down an escalator. Compared to that, trying to sleep without suffocating while being crushed by a corpse didn’t seem so bad.
Lexi decided to let her father rest. Closing her computer, she relocated from the stockroom to the sales area of the Apple Store. At least from there, should the masses decide to riot for a third time, she’d see them coming.
Her mother droned on over the loudspeaker: “. . . if you begin to develop symptoms, including chills, a cough, or a runny nose, please report to the PaperClips for treatment.
“Security guards will be handing out medical masks and hand sanitizer. Please wear your mask and apply the sanitizer before touching any surface and before meals. Avoid touching your face. These small measures will help prevent the spread of the disease.”
Too little too late. If only her mother had announced the flu as soon as she knew about it. If only the stupid government had hinted that they figured everyone inside the mall had a disease. Maybe people would have taken precautions. Maybe that saleslady Lexi had tried to save in the Abercrombie wouldn’t have died.
“We have been given additional cots by the government and will set these up in three locations within the mall. Families, please report to the HomeMart for registration and assignment of beds. Women and girls, please report to the JCPenney; men and boys, please report to the Lord and Taylor. These locations will be your Home Stores.”
Organization: This was the Senator’s specialty. Lexi’s mother had a label maker and by god, the woman knew how to use it. Only Lexi was not sure everyone in the mall would appreciate Dotty’s penchant for pushing people around. For example, how would all those kids accustomed to nonstop hooking up in the Abercrombie, no parental units in sight, deal with single-sex dorms?
“If you are in need of a change of clothes, depots will be established on the first floor of each Home Store where you can trade in your clothes for a new set. You will no longer be able to purchase clothing. You will also not have a choice in what clothing you are given. We apologize in advance for any inconvenience this may cause.”
Lexi nearly dropped her laptop from the burst of laughter that shook her. Just wear whatever they hand you?Like that won’t cause a riot?
“We have been given sufficient quantities of food by the government for the duration of this quarantine, however long it lasts. Meals will be served in the first-floor common areas. If you have a life-threatening food allergy, please notify the security guard when you register at your Home Store. Other than life-threatening conditions, we cannot accommodate any dietary requests.
“If you have any comments or concerns, please bring them to the attention of one of the security guards. We will try to address every situation to the best of our ability. This is an unusual and trying situation, but we are all in this together. By working together and following a few simple rules, we can all make it through this with the least incident and suffering. Thank you for your patience and attention. God bless you all.”
Lexi gave it a day, maybe less. No one would go for this. She flipped open her computer on one of the barren tables—the salespeople had cleared the decks of valuable merchandise to keep the looters at bay. Not like there was much use for laptops and iPhones anyway, what with no cell service or Internet to speak of. The screen blinked on and she got back to work.
Brittany Fox, Age 20, SUNY-New Paltz
“Thought I’d find you here,” Maddie said, entering the Apple Store.
Lexi glanced up from her laptop screen. She could cry seeing her friend walking around like one of the living; the last time she’d seen Maddie, she was pale as a vampire and lying under a puffer coat on the concrete floor of the Abercrombie stockroom.
“You know me so well,” Lexi said, trying to sound as cool as possible.
“Well, you do have the Apple logo tattooed on your face.” Maddie gave Lexi a one-finger shove on the forehead, then slumped onto a neighboring stool. “Geraldine Simpson, age sixty-two, Prilosec? What is this, a list of people we’re not inviting to live with us?”
Lexi laughed despite her otherwise black mood. “I’m doing a job for my mother. It’s a new list of everyone in the mall. The government took all the records when they abandoned us.” She pointed to the stack of crinkled paper beside her.
“How do you know she’s not dead?” Maddie said, slicing a finger across her neck.
“I guess we’ll know once people check into their Home Stores,” Lexi said. “Or don’t, in which case I click the box marked ‘deceased.’”
Maddie contemplated this as she flipped through the pages. “Thanks,” she said finally, laying the papers aside. “Without you, I wouldn’t be checking in anywhere today.”
Lexi nodded, though did she really deserve to be thanked for what any decent human being would have done?Decent human being here obviously excluding Ginger Franklin, a coward who abandoned her friends to save her own bony butt. Lexi gritted her teeth and continued to type.
“What happened to you?” Maddie said, spinning on her seat. “I thought you’d come back after dropping your dad off in the med center.”
Lexi wasn’t sure what to say, so she went with the truth. “I got crushed under a gurney during the riot. I spent the night under a dead body.”
“Sucks to be you,” Maddie said.
“I spend the night under a dead body andthat’s your response?”
“Well, it does.” Maddie shrugged and elbowed Lexi in the side. “At least it wasn’t your first dead body.”
“That makes it better how?”
“I don’t know,” Maddie said. “I’m trying to cheer you up.”
It was more than anyone else had tried to do. “Thanks,” she said, hoping that moved them on to something else topic-wise. She typed another entry into the system.
Maddie spun slowly on her stool. “We’re all going to die, right?” she said after a few minutes.
“You just survived the flu,” Lexi said. “If anyone’s going to live, it’s you.”
“But that’s why the government left,” Maddie continued. “They’re going to blow this place up with everyone in it or something. To keep the virus from getting out.”
This horrible, hopeless option had not occurred to Lexi. She wondered if it had occurred to her mother. It had to have. “There’s no way they’d do that,” she said, more to herself than anyone else.
“Why not?” Maddie said. “There’s like a couple thousand people in here.” She waved a hand at the stack of rumpled papers. “What’s that compared with the millions outside these doors?”
“My mother would never let that happen,” Lexi said. “She’s not the kind to go down with the ship.”
“Why would they tell her about their plans?” Maddie said. “Us disease carriers are obviously far down on the need-to-know list, given how long it took them to share the news about the flu.”
Lexi’s heart rate was climbing. If her mother hadn’t known about all the dead bodies in the Pancake Palace’s freezer, what else didn’t she know? What if Mom was as in the dark as the rest of them? What if she was just as screwed as everyone else? Lexi felt a wave of sympathy for her, and the sensation was strange to say the least.
“My mom is not out of the loop,” Lexi said, as if saying the words made them true. “She knew about the flu days before they announced it. She told me.”
“She told you?” Maddie said, eyes bugging. “And you thought that wasn’t something of interest to the rest of us?”
Crap.“I couldn’t tell,” Lexi said. “My mom made me promise.”
“Dude!” Maddie yelled. “There are some promises you just don’t freaking keep!”
“Look, I’m sorry!” Lexi yelled back. Yelling felt better. “I didn’t think you’d get it!”
“Well, I did!”
“It’s not like if I’d told you, you wouldn’t have gotten sick! We’ve all breathed the stuff in.”Plus, Lexi thought, you were kissing every guy with a pulse.
Maddie grabbed her stool. “Everything’s woozy,” she said. Her face drained of blood.
Lexi took her arm and helped her to the floor. She propped Maddie against a shelf and brought her some water from the lounge in the back.
“You shouldn’t be walking around if you’re still feeling sick,” Lexi said.
“I had been feeling better,” Maddie mumbled.
“I wish you hadn’t gotten sick. I’m sorry for not telling you.”
“I’m sorry for yelling,” Maddie said, lifting her head. “This whole thing just sucks.”
“Let’s make a pact,” Lexi said. “No more secrets. I tell you everything, you tell me everything.”
Maddie smirked. “Not really a fair deal, since you’re the only one with secrets.”
“You’re the most popular person I know,” Lexi said. “Who knows what you’ll learn from the cool kids in the mall? You give me intel from the masses, I give you intel from my mom. Deal?” She held her hand out.
“Gossip for actual information?” Maddie took her hand. “You’re getting a pretty raw deal.”
Holding hands with Maddie, Lexi felt relief flood her body. She had a friend, someone to share secrets with. She wasn’t alone. “I’m okay with that.”
Maddie let go first. She gulped the water. “I guess we should check into our Home Store,” she groaned.
Lexi stood and examined the stack of names she had yet to enter. It was at least another hour or two of work.Screw it. Her dad would put it in when he woke up. Or someone else could do it. It’s not like data entry was brain surgery. Her mom could do it herself, for that matter.
“Let’s go,” Lexi said, closing her laptop.
“Can we please stop running for like one freaking minute so I can get the fire extinguisher foam off my face?” Ryan Murphy grabbed the nearest shirt and pulled.
Drew halted. “Shrimp,” he said. “Your face is messed up.”
Not like anyone looked good in the fluorescent gloom of the service hallway, but certainly Ryan had a decent excuse for whatever mess his face was. Just that morning he’d pulled a Lazarus and defeated the flu, then he’d free-fallen some thirty feet to rescue the ass who ruined their entire rooftop escape plan, only to be captured by security and then rescued in a cloud of fire-extinguisher foam. He swiped the wicking fabric of his climbing shirt over his skin and felt something smear around.
“That didn’t help,” Drew said.
“Can we stop at a bathroom or something?” Ryan rubbed his hands on his face and came away with crusty white crap.
“No one here cares what you look like,” Marco said.
Ryan remembered Marco from their failed escape attempt through the parking level hatch. Something had changed in the guy over the last four days. He had a nasty edge to his voice. Ryan hated people with attitude. “I’m not worried about turning you on. This crap is burning my skin.”
Mike pulled his T-shirt off, spat onto it, then came at Ryan. “Lemme get that,” he said in a faux mommy voice.
Ryan smacked him away. “I’d rather let my face burn.”
Mike snorted. “Your choice, Jumbo Shrimp.” He threw the shirt at Ryan’s head.
“Dude, this reeks,” Ryan said, trying not to barf. All motion made him sick in the gut—like he needed shirt stink on top of that.
“Real men sweat,” Mike said.
“While I appreciate the clever banter,” Marco inter-rupted, “it’s not helping us avoid the troop of security guards on our asses.”
Mike stroked the gun in his waistband. “I could come up with a more permanent solution than running.”
“We are notkilling people,” Ryan stated, like he had any control over Mike’s use of his new toy, lifted from the police officer Ryan had tackled. He’d been as effective as a ninety-pound linebacker in stopping Mike from killing the dude in Shep’s Sporting Goods. Of course, that guy had shot an arrow at them first.
“Unless you have some endless supply of ammo for that thing,” Marco said, “that is not the answer to our problems.”
“So whatis the answer?” Drew snorted. “And it better involve food, because I’m starving.”
Why were Mike and Drew listening to this guy? A week ago, they’d been trying to, no-joke, kill him. The change was freaky.
Marco closed his eyes like this was all such a waste of time. “Let’s head to the third floor.”
“Lead the way, Kemosabe,” Mike said, sweeping his arm.
The guy had gotten a nickname? He wasn’t even on the football team and he was getting a nickname? Ryan had only been out of the loop for like twenty minutes, but he was apparently years behind on information.
Despite what he’d just said, Marco Carvajal wasn’t actually that concerned about security. They had woven through two stockrooms, shifting between service hallway systems, and moved up a floor already. Between that and the senator’s new orders for reorganizing the mall, he doubted many guards were still in pursuit. Nevertheless, he liked to dangle that danger over The Three Douches’ heads. Liked to remind them that without his help, they’d all be up a fraking creek.
He would have to have a word with them about “Kemosabe.” Kemosabe was worse than “Taco.”
They crept down the hallways toward the Grill’n’Shake, Marco’s old place of employ. Things he did not miss: wiping tables and scraping food scraps as busboy to the ungrateful mall-walkers. Things he did miss: free fries and unlimited soda.
At the back door, he swiped his actual card key for old times’ sake; he didn’t want to wear out the mag strip on his shiny, new, stolen all-access pass. For a brief moment, he thought of Shay—how they’d taken the card key together, how their escape plan had fallen apart, but how their relationship had grown stronger—and he wanted to abandon these douches and check to make sure she was still okay in the med center. But he reminded himself that the whole reason he was with Mike, Drew, and Ryan was to ensure the safety of Shay and her sister, Preeti. Not to mention his own.
“Bathroom’s in the back, food’s this way,” Marco said, holding open the service door.
“I think I know my way around the Grease’n’Suck,” Ryan said, tromping toward the bathroom. Just as he was about to open the swinging door to the dining room, he froze. “There are people out there,” he whispered.
Marco crept to the door and peered through the window. Regular people sat at the tables, some swilling stolen sodas, some with fistfuls of ice pressed to various appendages.
“There’s a staff bathroom in the back.” Marco said. He led the three into the kitchen.
People had raided what remained of the salad station.
“Where’s the grub?” Drew asked, poking at the empty tubs.
“Relax,” Marco said, approaching the monolithic metal door of the walk-in refrigerator. Everything worth eating was kept in the fridge, which, lucky for them, was still locked.
Marco pulled out the keys he’d inadvertently stolen from the manager on his last shift—two days ago. It wasn’t like the man would miss them, given that he was dead. He wondered where his coworkers were now, Josh especially. Josh was a good guy. Marco hoped Josh was still alive.
It took several tries, but Marco finally identified the key to the fridge. The door swung open slowly, exhaling a cold mist.
“Hit the lights,” Drew said, chops already wet with saliva.
Marco flicked the switch. The fluorescent lights blinked, revealing a wealth of comestibles. Another door inside separated the freezer section, which contained more food, most of it unfortunately frozen solid.
The two douches thrust themselves inside and began pawing the merchandise.
“Dude, crackers,” Mike said, throwing a gigantic bag of saltines at Drew, who grunted happily. The manager must have thrown all the food—from saltines to salt—in the fridge for safekeeping. The two douches didn’t even bother to pull the things from the wrappers; they slit the bags open and poured the broken contents down their gullets.
Marco had certainly surrounded himself with some charming company. But beggars could not be choosers, and these two were the best this mall had to offer in terms of personal security services. He had traded his freedom and chosen to act as mall tour guide in exchange for Mike and Drew’s formidable protection—an excellent deal, even if it meant having to watch Drew spit crumbs like a camel.
He needed to figure out how this whole security thing would work with Shay. Should they all hide out somewhere? Would Shay agree to living like this—stealing food from the Grill’n’Shake’s fridge, sleeping in stockrooms? What if she was sick or really hurt? No, she needed something better than this. So he would have to run a dual operation—one to keep Shay safe, one to keep these idiots safe so they could keep him and Shay safe.
The fridge door swung away from his shoulder, startling Marco.
“Relax,” Ryan said snidely, slipping past Marco into the fridge. He no longer had a fine layer of white all over him, though his face was splotchy—not splotchy like Marco’s face always was, but the handsome splotchy that guys like Ryan were blessed with. Even on a bad day, the douche was a billion times better looking than Marco.
“What’s for breakfast?” Ryan said.
Mike chucked a bag of frozen chicken fingers at his head. “Gnaw on these.”
Ryan caught it like he had bags of chicken launched at his head on a daily basis—which Marco guessed was essentially the definition of being a football player.
He definitely could not bring Shay here. Not with a handsome, coordinated jerk like Ryan around to mess up everything Marco had going with her.
The voices from the restaurant got louder; Marco thought he heard the kitchen door squeal. Not wanting to get involved in a firefight over frozen chicken, he checked that the inside release button for the handle was still working and closed them into the fridge. As he dug open a giant bag of baby carrots, Marco said a silent prayer that no one would test the lock.
Shaila Dixit was shaken awake by her bed, which was rattling its way out of the PaperClips. Her first instinct was to start patting the sides of the gurney looking for the brakes, but she quickly realized that, since there was no hill in the PaperClips, the gurney could not be rolling of its own volition.
“Just lie back and enjoy the ride,” a voice behind her said.
“Where are you taking me?” The panic began to choke Shay. “Where’s my sister?”
The gurney stopped and a round face with a mask over its smiling mouth appeared at her side. “Dr. Chen said you had quite a scare,” the face said. “I’m Jazmine, and I’m a nurse. I’m taking you to the new medical center.”
“Right behind you. You can relax, sweetheart.”
Shay’s head throbbed, so she sank back onto her pillow. If she hadn’t felt like she’d hurl if she stood, she would have run. She did not trust this woman. She did not trust any of them. They had let her grandmother die. They said her sister, Preeti, was okay, but who knew if that was true. This place was horrible. Where was Marco?
Jazmine rolled her out into the hallway and then turned onto the main artery of the mall. Shay noticed half of the windows in the central skylight were covered over.
“What happened to the skylight?” Shay asked. Had the riot reached the ceiling?
“Some crazy people tried to bust out onto the roof,” Jazmine said, her tone implying the inanity of the action.
Shay did not think this was stupid. In fact, she wished she’d thought of it. Ryan had taught her how to climb, after all. She wondered if it was he who’d made the attempt. That would mean he hadn’t escaped through the garage. But had he made it out onto the roof?
“Did they escape?” Shay wanted the answer to be both yes and no.
“You think those government nut jobs in their plastic suits would let anyone out of here?”
That meant Ryan might still be in the mall. Shay closed her eyes and hoped it to be true. Didn’t the universe owe her something good?
The gurney soon rolled to a stop under a fancy chandelier and a banner advertising a perfume. The room smelled sickly sweet. “The new med center is a department store?”
Jazmine fiddled with something on the underside of the gurney, then stood and brushed her palms on her jeans. “Harry’s has been converted into this glamorous new hospital. Too many people showed up with riot injuries to try to keep making due in the PaperClips.”
Shay lifted herself to her elbows and looked around. The makeup counters and racks of clothes still stood in their regular places.
“It’s a work in progress,” Jazmine said, following her gaze. “We moved you first, as you’re non-critical.”
“And my sister?” Shay asked.
“Flu cases will be moved last. We’re trying to keep them separate.”
“Can I see her?”
Jazmine, sensing perhaps from Shay’s strident tone that the panic had returned, lifted her face mask and sat on the gurney beside Shay’s hips. “I know you’ve been through a lot, honey,” she said. “But you have got to trust somebody and it might as well be me.”
“Why?” Shay asked, feeling peevish.
“You see anyone else around here?” Jazmine raised an eyebrow.
Shay allowed herself a smile.
“Your grandma was a special lady?” Jazmine cocked her head.
The question drove the smile away. “Don’t you have to move the other people?”
“They won’t miss me for another minute or so.”
She stared at Shay like she was waiting for an answer, like Shay was really going to talk about Nani to some complete stranger who probably was part of the team that let her die. No, that wasn’t fair. That team, the ones in the hazmat suits, had fled, leaving only the contaminated, the damned.
Shay rubbed the edge of her sheet. “She was my best friend.”
“That’s a good grandma.” Jazmine smiled as if waiting for more.
“She let me steal her henna.”
“So that’s what the mark on your cheek is.” Jazmine stroked Shay’s skin gently.
Shay flinched, surprised by the touch. The last time someone touched her, it was a zombie hand reaching out from the rubble of the old med center.
Jazmine, unfazed, smiled and held open her arms. “Can I at least give you a hug before I go?”
Tears pricked out along Shay’s eyelids at the word. When was the last time someone offered her a simple hug, nothing else implied or wanted? Just a hug, just for her?So long.
Shay nodded her head and felt Jazmine’s thick arms wrap around her, enveloping her in warmth. The tears dropped down her cheeks, darkening the fabric of Jazmine’s shirt.
“No touching,” a voice commanded. “And put on your mask.”
“Say what?” Jazmine barked. “If I want to hug a person, I’m hugging her.”
“New rules.” The voice came closer. Shay turned her head and saw a security guard, stun baton gripped in both hands across his chest like a shield.
Jazmine gave Shay a look like she would kill this man before she’d stop hugging people, but then she let go of Shay, replaced her mask, and shuffled off the gurney. “I’ll check on you later,” she said, squeezing Shay’s shoulder, then walked away.
Shay nearly screamed for Jazmine to come back, but the security guard with his black stick shut her up. He looked both nervous and cocky, and Shay did not like that combination. Would he attack her? No, he was here to protect her. Right? Cold sweat broke out over her body. She was alone with this guy who looked ready to beat the crap out of anyone and everyone.
He turned and walked out of the store. Another gurney was rolled in by some woman, not Jazmine.
Shay did not trust these strangers. She did not feel safe. But she couldn’t move off this gurney, not yet, so she fell back and stared at the chandelier until her eyes watered and the world became a bright blur.
The first thing that struck Lexi was the scant number of people who had showed up to sign in at the JCPenney. It was basically her and Maddie and a pair of old ladies.
“Where is everyone?” Lexi asked, weirded out by the emptiness. There still had to be thousands of people in the mall. Where the hell were they?
“Dead?” Maddie offered. “Sick on their way to being dead?”
Lexi gave her a look, but saw that Maddie was not joking.
“Fine, they’re notall dead,” Maddie said, shrugging. “Maybe they’re afraid of those thugs with the stun guns.” She pointed to a group of four security guards, all leaning on a giant planter in the middle of the hallway, each displaying a two-foot-long nightstick-slash-electrocution rod.
The dudes looked less than friendly. Apparently, the riot had made everyone, especially the cops, suspicious of their mall-mates.
This was not a good development. Lexi was not in one hundred percent agreement with her mother on anything, but the Senator’s rules were the only option at the moment, and if the choice was between them and another riot, Lexi knew which side she was on.
“We should help,” Lexi said. Maybe people didn’t trust that the JCPenney Home Store thing was actually happening. The place certainly looked like it was still a JCPenney and not a home of any sort.
“Help what? The cops?” Maddie asked. “The old ladies?”
“Your mom is like the last person I’m in the mood to help.” Maddie flipped her hair and glared at the cops.
“My mom is the one person trying to pull this place back together,” Lexi said. “Come on.”
Lexi didn’t wait to see if Maddie followed. There used to be nylon barrier things, like the ones used in airports to organize crowds, near the checkout lines in the JCPenney. Lexi figured if she set them up outside, it might show people that her mother was serious about this plan and also control any crowds that hopefully showed up to register.
Just as she was about to cross the threshold, a guard yelled at her. “Hey kid, stop!”
“I’m just going in to get some barrier things,” Lexi yelled back. “You need to do something to make this place look official.”
The guy came strutting toward her. “The Senator said not to allow anyone in until they registered.”
“The Senator’s mymom and she told me to help her.” It was sort of true.
The guard took a few moments to process Lexi’s information. “Okay, but what’s your name? I have to write down everyone’s name.”
It was like talking to a 16-bit NPC. “Alexandra Ross. As in the Senator Ross.”
The guy wrote something on his hand.That’s professional . . . “What barrier things?” he asked, sounding less like a jerk.
Lexi scanned the sales floor and saw one. “That,” she said, pointing.
The guy nodded. “I like it,” he said. He switched on his walkie-talkie and told whoever was on the other end of it to collect the tension barriers from the checkout lines and set them up for crowd control outside the Home Stores. “This whole thing is kind of a clusterf—I mean, confusing.”
Lexi smirked. “Sounds like my mom’s doing.” She instantly regretted talking badly about her mom to this guy who was supposedly the Senator’s underling.
He didn’t seem to notice. “The chief told us to just write people’s names down until we got some computer system, but so far there’s just been these two old ladies and you. I’m not even sure where to tell people to go. The whole store is still, like, full of stuff.”
The sales floor looked like it always did, though there were toppled racks and tables—evidence of the riot. Most of the store, however, had escaped harm.
“Are there people in here?”
“Security did a sweep,” the guy said. “Most bolted into the service hallways. A team is searching them for stragglers.”
“Are there bodies?” Lexi was not sure if she really wanted to hear the answer.
The guy stiffened. “I’m not allowed to say anything about bodies.”
Okay,that’s not weird or anything. Why the clamming up over bodies?
His walkie-talkie bleeped.“Nice idea with the barriers,” the voice barked. “Get the registrants to begin clearing the sales floors for the cots.”
The security guy pulled the radio from his belt. “Roger,” he said. “Where should we put stuff?”
“Stockrooms for now.”
Lexi told the guard she had a friend outside who could help. As she exited, she saw that the four guards who’d been lounging on the planter were setting up the barriers in front of the store. The place looked a lot more official. People were bound to come out to register now.
Lexi hoped the guard would tell the Senator that this had all been her idea. She may have bailed on the data entry assignment, but security had totally needed her help with the Home Stores. She was being even more useful out here. Now who’s going to feel bad about throwing a radio at my head?
Maddie was suspiciously willing to accept Lexi’s invitation to clear the sales floor, and the reason for this became immediately apparent. For every rack she rolled into the stockroom, she removed an item from it and draped it over her neck. Lexi tried to ignore the shameless shoplifting, but then she caught Maddie actually changing into an entirely new outfit.
“We’re supposed to be storing the stuff from the sales floor, not stealing it.”
Maddie slapped a hand to her chest in mock offense. “Stealing! Why, I’d never.” She pulled a hat onto her head. “I see this as just compensation for my labor.” She glanced at herself in the mirror. “Is the hat too much? Yeah, I agree.” She took it off and Frisbeed it into the depths of the stock area.
Lexi checked to see if anyone else was around. No, they were alone. So what if Maddiewas taking clothes instead of waiting for the guards to give her a new outfit? That was okay. It was one outfit. No one would even know it was gone.
“You should get something,” Maddie said, her face lighting up. “Something sexy instead of this depressing hoodie situation you seem to always have going on.”
“No,” Lexi said. “I mean, I like this hoodie. Picked it out from the Abercrombie myself.”
“Girl, that thing had a dead body lying on it all night.” Maddie grabbed Lexi’s sleeve and pulled her arm free of it. “This hoodie must be trashed.”
Maddie made a good point. Okay. One outfit for each of them. No one would know. It would be totally fine. And Lexi had just revolutionized the whole Home Store check-in process. She deserved an outfit. The Senator would totally agree.
Maddie pulled an expensive-looking sweater from a pile and a pair of skinny jeans off a rack. “You’re what, a size ten?”
Lexi had no idea. Sizes were not her thing. She usually bought men’s jeans. They hid her curves better. “Sure?” she said.
Maddie tossed the pants at her. “You’re a ten.” She looked at Lexi like something should be happening. “Well? Go on. Before those old bags roll in another rack.”
Lexi did as she was told. She dropped her jeans and stuffed herself into the pants Maddie had thrown at her. They were pretty much a nightmare, hugging every inch of skin like the things were glued on.
“Ooh la la, the girl has legs,” Maddie cooed. The sweater beaned Lexi in the forehead. “Now thepièce d’rèsistance.”
Obediently, Lexi dragged off her safe, comfortable T-shirt and tugged on the sweater. It felt like delicate fur. Judging from the wispy hairs, it was made of delicate fur. This too stuck to her skin, but in a nice way, like a hug. The only downside being that the thing revealed that Lexi had boobs like nobody’s business.
Maddie looked pleased with her work. “Now see if the boys don’t start eating each other for a piece of you.”
“You have just described my worst nightmare.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “You just haven’t met the right boys.”
“What are you two doing?” a male voice barked.
It was a security guard, another guy with a stun baton. He did not look pleased.
Maddie put on a sad face. “Don’t yell at us, officer! We were just moving this big heavy rack and it nearly fell on my friend and I was comforting her.”
Lexi froze for a moment, then realized she should be in some sort of pain. “Yes,” she said through gritted teeth. She grabbed her upper arm. “Very painful.”
The guard gave them the once-over. “You change clothes?”
“No way,” said Maddie. “That would be against the rules.”
The guard nodded toward the table behind them. “Then why is your friend wearingthat sweater?”
“She bought it, back before all hell broke loose.”
Maddie slapped a hand on her hip. “If she hadn’t been trampled and lost her bag with the receipt in it, she could prove it, but I guess if you hadn’t let this whole mall go to the crazies, she wouldn’t have lost her bag, so it’s just a nasty little cycle we find ourselves in.”
Maddie was so totally out of line, Lexi had no idea what to do except shut up and try not to freak out. The guard shifted his hold on his stun stick. Maddie stared at him like she dared him to use it. Did she actually think the man wouldn’t?
Then, miracle of miracles, the guard turned. “Just get back to clearing racks.” He left them in the stockroom.
Maddie burst out laughing.
“What the hell?” Lexi cried.
“Come on, like that loser was going to really do anything?”
“He had a freaking Taser! You think after everything that’s happened that he’s afraid to use it?”
Maddie pretended to faint. “Oh, big scary man with a big scary Taser!” Then she shoved Lexi. “Grow a pair, dearest. Life’s too short to give a crap about little things like electrocution.”
As Maddie sashayed out of the stockroom, Lexi tried to comprehend the last few minutes. For all her bitching at and about her mom, she had never so much as jaywalked before meeting Maddie. And what had following Maddie gotten her? Mortified in front of a group of guys Lexi didn’t even find remotely attractive, floor-burn from sliding down a bowling lane, and nearly infected with a deadly virus during a game of Dare or Dare. But without Maddie, she was alone.
“Wait up!” she yelped, and raced after Maddie’s shadow.
The mall speaker was barely audible in the kitchen of the Grill’n’Shake. Marco, however, gleaned from what made it to his ears that the senator was serious about people checking in at the Home Stores. He heard “assumed dead” and “calculation of rations.” Now was the time for him to make the call:Do I stay or do I go?
“We should try to check in,” Ryan said, swallowing his defrosted chicken.
“Dude, we’re outlaws,” Drew mumbled through a mouthful of reconstituted fries.
“Forget outlaws,” Mike said. “I am not like these other drones. I will not be a part of this goddamn experiment.”
Marco was floored. “Experiment?Are you suggesting that our current situation is the result of a government test gone wrong?”
“You really think that some terrorist would bother to attack a freaking mall?” Mike pulled another thawed chicken strip from the bag. “This has government cover-up written all over it.”
Riiiiiight . . .
“We’re safer if we just try to fit in,” Ryan chimed in.
If the three of them joined the plebes in the Home Stores, they would have no need for Marco’s card key access services. This idea of Ryan’s had to be shot down.
“No,” stated Marco. “Bad idea. They put you in jail once, they will find another jail for you.”
“We could use fake names,” Ryan offered.
The kid would not give up. “They have a list of everyone in the mall from the first day. You think a couple of strangers appearing on the roster wouldn’t attract attention?” Marco put on his most dismissive glare.
“So, what then?” Ryan winged the remainder of his chicken at the trash and glared back. “We live in the freaking freezer of the Grill’n’Shake?”
“We could find Reynolds, try his escape plan?” Drew said.
“The mall is surrounded,” Marco said. “If they had helicopters scanning the roof, you think they don’t have people watching the grounds?”
Mike stood. “You all are missing the point.” He sat on the stainless-steel countertop. “This mall is a death trap. Our only goal is to survive until whatever the hell is going on ends. If we really are dealing with the flu, then the key is to keep ourselves isolated. We find a hole and stay in it.”
Drew kicked a plastic bucket. “This sucks.”
“It’s better than being dead.”
No one argued with Mike.
“Okay,” Marco said. “So we find a suitable hole and put you in it.”
“What about you?” Ryan asked, eyebrows knit in a scowl. “Aren’t you hiding out with us?”
“I’m your eyes and ears,” Marco said. “Someone’s got to keep his head aboveground to watch for security and stay on top of the situation.” This was working out better than he expected. The three would be entirely dependent on him for everything: food, water, intel. If any problem should arise for him and Shay, he could convince Mike to sneak out of his hidey-hole to resolve it based on whatever lie Marco thought would best motivate him, and the douche would never be the wiser. Better yet, Shay would never know that Ryan was even in the mall.
“I better go check in,” Marco said, pushing himself up from where he’d been scrunched on the floor between two large, empty containers.
“Cut off for check-in’s not for another half hour,” Mike said, glancing over his hunched shoulder.
“I have to check on someone in the med ward.” Marco brushed off his jeans. “I’ll be back in an hour. Then we can move down to the hiding place I have in mind.”
Mike nodded. “We’ll gather supplies from the freezer.”
The coast was clear outside the fridge. Marco crossed the kitchen, pushed through the service door, and started down the dim hallway.
“I thought you were alone in the mall,” Ryan said.
Marco nearly jumped out of his skin. The kid was near silent in his climbing slippers. “I told you to wait here until I come back.”
“I told Mike I’d collect supplies from the med ward in case any of us got sick again.”
“Again?” Marco couldn’t help the gooseflesh that prickled out on his arms at the idea that one of the douches was contagious.
“I had the flu,” Ryan said, a touch of pride in his voice.
Marco took larger steps, tried to put a bit more real estate between him and the potentially infectious douche. “It’s not a bad idea,” Marco said.
“So who’s in the med ward?” Ryan sped up to keep pace with Marco.
“My girlfriend,” Marco said, wondering how hard to twist the knife and deciding the harder the better. “I think you know her. Shaila Dixit?” That took the jock down a few pegs. He stopped following for a moment, then jogged a few steps to catch up.
“Is she hurt?” Ryan asked.
Not the response Marco had expected, but he figured why not tell. “She passed out when she learned that her grandmother had died, at least that’s what the doctor told me.”
“I have to see her,” Ryan said.
“You have to stay hidden.” Marco kept walking. “People are looking for The Flying Kid.”
Ryan grabbed Marco’s arm. “I have to see her.”
Marco glowered back at him, not sure if Ryan could see in the dim light the amount of pissed-off-ness he felt. Ryan didn’t back down.
“It’s your funeral,” Marco said, and continued to walk.
Ryan stumbled slightly, trying to keep up—aftereffects of the flu? “So Shay’s your girlfriend?” he asked, panting as if walking was too much for him.
Marco tried to sound casual. “It started when she asked me to help her—you were in jail, I believe—but then her sister and grandmother got sick, and now I’m kind of all she’s got.” He watched Ryan’s face change. Watched the realization sink in.
“Does she know I was in jail?”
The douche looked like he was about to cry. Marco threw him a bone. “I didn’t tell her.”
Ryan nodded. “Thanks.”
Like I did it for you . . .
The med ward was now in Harry’s department store, according to the senator’s last announcement. Marco maneuvered through the service halls and between the empty stores with ease. Ryan followed silent as a shadow. They only communicated when Marco stopped in front of a door marked harry’s, level 1, and then Marco merely held his finger to his lips and cracked the door open.
The space before them seemed empty. It looked like some back area—shelves of shoe boxes lined narrow corridors.
“We’re clear,” Marco said. Ryan nodded and they both slipped into the stockroom.
They followed a path between the stacks of shoes to a swinging door, which opened onto the main level. What had been the shoe department was now lined with cots and walled off from the rest of the showroom floor by a curtain wall. A young guy with his arm in a sling dozed in a corner; otherwise, the room was empty.
“Must have been where they treated the riot victims,” Marco said, weaving toward the only space in the curtain wall.
“Why do you think that?” Ryan followed a step behind.
“I had the flu,” Ryan said. “I survived.”
Marco glanced back at him. “You’re lucky.”
Beyond the curtain wall was a makeshift hallway. The entire sales floor had apparently been divided into “rooms” using curtains salvaged from the PaperClips.
“Which way?” Ryan asked.
“Does it matter?” Marco said, feeling defeated. He turned onto the hall leading away from the front of the store, hoping security was stationed there and nowhere else.
They’d checked five rooms when voices reached them from another part of the curtain complex: “An unauthorized entry was logged through a door off the service halls. We’re looking for a fugitive.”
Ryan grabbed Marco and dragged him into the nearest room. Through some wonderful twist of fate, the room contained Shay and her sister, both asleep on hospital beds.
Ryan’s face fell. “Is she sick?” he whispered.
Marco walked to her side. “No,” he said quietly, willing it to be true. “At least, she wasn’t when I left her a few hours ago.”
Ryan stood on the other side of her bed. “She asked you to help her,” he said, staring down at her face. “Help her do what?”
“Escape.” Marco took her hand. If there was going to be some battle between them for her, he wanted to claim ground early on.
Ryan’s arms dangled at his side. “Did she say anything about me?”
“She never mentioned you.” Marco was being honest. Though of course he knew about them, had seen them all lovey-dovey outside the Grill’n’Shake. And he worried, or at least a very small part of him he was trying desperately to ignore worried, that if she opened her eyes right now and saw them both, she would choose Ryan.
Ryan was caught between kicking Marco’s ass for touching his girlfriend and concern that the dweeb had actually, through some horrible cosmic joke, won her from him. “You obviously didn’t help her escape,” he said. “What did you do?”
Marco raised his head slowly. “I was there for her when she needed someone. While you were off skydiving from the rafters, I saved her from being crushed in the riot.”
Ryan did not consider himself a particularly competitive person off the football field, but seeing Marco’s grip on Shay’s fingers filled him with a primal instinct. He had an inkling of the brain-space Mike lived in every day, a place where everyone was a threat or a target, where every move you made had better put you closer to your goal. Judging by Marco’s hold on Shay’s hand, Ryan sensed that there was little Marco wouldn’t do to keep her. Ryan decided that he had better play it conservative; after all, his survival and that of Mike and Drew depended on the weasel.
“If she’s not sick, then why is she hooked up to that machine?” Ryan asked, playing the safest card he could.
“I told you, she got crushed in the riot. Isaved her.”
Footsteps stopped outside the curtain wall; Ryan dropped to the floor and crawled under Shay’s bed, sure they were looking for him. Yet when the guard stepped into the room, he said, “Marco Carvajal?”
Marco shifted his feet—that was all Ryan could see.
“Who’s asking?” Marco said.
Why would security be looking forhim?
“The senator.” The guard stepped forward, but Marco went toward him without waiting to be dragged away.
Ryan was thankful that Marco did not alert the guard to his presence, and merely walked with the man out of the room.
He crawled back up to standing. Shay groaned softly. Was she having a bad dream? What horrible things had happened to her while he’d been running around like an idiot? He should have stayed with her. She needed him—not anymore, he guessed. Not now that she had Marco.
But Shay liked him. He was sure of it. Marco had to be a stand-in at best. Ryan would win her back. A part of him wanted to shake her awake right then and demand that she dump Marco and run away with him. They would hide out in some corner together. But he didn’t let himself do it. Instead, Ryan leaned forward and pressed his lips to her forehead like a promise.
“I gave her a sedative, so no matter how long you kiss her, Sleeping Beauty is not waking up.”
A large nurse stood in the “door” in the curtain wall.
“Sorry,” Ryan mumbled, jerking himself to standing. “I’m a friend.”
The woman folded her arms across her chest. “I would hope so.”
“I’ll go.” Ryan was ready to bust through the curtain to get out of there if that’s what it took.
The woman thankfully stepped aside. “Don’t let me catch you in here again.”
Ryan shuffled out, glancing behind him to see the woman disappear into Shay’s room. He debated eavesdropping to make sure Shay was okay, but not wanting to tempt the nurse to violence, decided to exit while he still had the option. He grabbed a bottle of pills from a tray—what kind of pills, he had no idea, but he figured he’d better return to the Grease’n’Suck with something or risk having to explain his failed expedition to Mike. Ryan had a feeling Mike wouldn’t have a lot of sympathy for his nearly getting nabbed while checking up on his would-be girlfriend. Especially when Ryan’s whole goal was to steal her from the only person in this mall Mike seemed to trust.
The security officer led Marco up to the third floor, then toward the skating rink, which was closed, according to a piece of paper taped to the door.Weird . . .
This end of the third level was opposite the more exciting part, which offered movie theaters, a bowling alley, restaurants including the Grill ’n’ Shake, a bookstore, the arcade, etc. The officer stopped in front of a nondescript metal door with a pane of glass in the wall next to it, behind which sat a bored-looking guard. Marco’s guard nodded to him, the door buzzed, and the guy opened the door for Marco.
“After you,” he said.
Marco walked through, eyes wide and ears open. This was like the most wonderful, unexpected recon opportunity ever. Every question he had about what the hell was going on in the mall, the answers were somewhere in this cluster of offices. He tried to absorb the information through osmosis.
One room held cots, another had piles of what looked like weapons and shields, in the next an older guy was futzing with computer wires between four cubicles, the one after that, three cots. Opposite the computer room was a dark closet with flashing screens showing the feeds from the mall’s closed-circuit camera system. Then, at the end of the hall, the senator. She had a stack of paper on her desk. A heavyset man in a uniform sat on the other side of it.
“We’ve done all we can to convince people,” she said, setting aside a sheet. “It may take a few days, but they’ll see that this plan is going to work and get in line.”
“You’re the boss,” the man said, sounding like he was not sold on the idea.
“I am not establishing a police state,” the senator responded. “At least not as a first option.”
The man got up and left.
The senator waved at Marco. “Come in,” she said, pointing to the chair the heavyset man had abandoned. Marco sat. The senator folded her hands on her desk. “You know what’s stuck in my mind?”
Marco did not like the smug look she was giving him. He’d stared down enough authority figures at this point to know the palette of looks they displayed and what each one meant. You can only be in so many scuffles before you’re just hauled in every time there’s even a rumor of a fight. Not like Marco really had a choice in whether he got the crap beaten out of him.
Unsure of where the senator was hoping to lead him, he gave her a noncommittal shrug.
“How exactly did you get into the back of the PaperClips during the riots?”
This was not the question Marco was expecting. “I saw an open door and went through it.” He tried to be as vague as possible.
The senator’s eyebrows flicked up. “Interesting. Because it occurred to me that maybe you can answer not only this question, but the question of my missing security card key.”
Marco swallowed. This was not the usual interrogation session with a guidance counselor; this was like staring down a shark. He sensed that one false move and she would tear his head from his body.
His brain spun into high gear. He couldn’t afford to give up the card. It was the only bargaining chip he had in this place. Without it, he would lose Mike, lose any freedom he’d gained, forget being able to protect Shay. But they could search him and find the thing without his saying a word and where did that get him?
Better to play some hand than none at all. He slid his fingers into his pocket and felt around for his old card key. He pulled it out, leaving the universal card safely tucked away, and placed it on her desk.
“I only wanted to help Shay,” he said, trying on his most pathetic voice.
“And those Spider-Men who tried to get out to the roof.”
She pushed the card back toward him. “Don’t hyperventilate just yet,” she said. “I have a job for you.”
Marco did not take the card back. What the hell did she mean byjob?
The senator leaned back in her desk chair and stretched her hands behind her head. “I have a bit of a problem, Marco. There are around four thousand people in this mall and I only have a small private security force to control them. As we saw yesterday, when the people want to take over, they can.
“I am trying to pull this place together out of that chaos. But I can only do so much. People who don’t want to jump on my bandwagon? Well, I don’t have much of a way to get them on by force. So here’s where you come in.
“I have a hunch, and you don’t have to answer, but my hunch is that you know where my Spider-Men are. I don’t want to waste my precious police resources hunting and trapping them, so I am offering you the job.”
“You want me to hunt and trap the guys who tried to escape through the skylight?” He tried to play it as dumb as possible.
“No,” she said, smiling. “I want you to keep tabs on them and keep me informed of any future problems they plan on causing.”
“And I get to keep the card key?”
“You can keep the card key.”
This deal was like a freaking dream come true. Not only was he not in trouble, he was being ordered to do exactly what he was planning on doing anyway. His arrangement with the douches was now blessed by the cops, and Mike and the others would never be the wiser.
“Okay,” he said, taking back the card key.
The senator held out a hand. “Glad to have you on board.”
Marco took it. “No problem.”
“There better not be.” She gripped his palm and stared hard into his eyes. “I am trusting you to be on my side in this. Do not cause me to regret that trust.” She released Marco’s hand.
“I won’t,” he said.
“Come back here tomorrow after dinner to check in,” she said, then turned to a computer screen.
Marco assumed he was dismissed. The guard who had led him in was waiting outside the door. He shuffled Marco along the hall and let him out the front, depositing Marco back in the mall.
The hallway seemed brighter now. Maybe it was the late-afternoon sun coming through the windows of the food court, maybe it was the relative emptiness of this part of the mall. Marco took a deep breath, like he was sucking in the light, then trotted down the hall toward the escalators, his sneakers bouncing off the tiles like he was made of light himself.
Excerpted from "No Easy Way Out"
Copyright © 2014 Dayna Lorentz.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
AWARDS AND REVIEWS FOR NO SAFETY IN NUMBERS:
"Riveting...[Lorentz's] detailed depiction of the escalating chaos over the course of seven long days is deeply unsettling."- The New York Times
"Think of the heart-racing chase of The Hunger Games but a giant mall is your arena and everyone is potentially a tribute."- Seventeen.com
"A whopping and disturbing cliffhanger serves as the conclusion. Readers will anxiously await the sequel."- Kirkus Reviews
2013 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers pick