Tess McBray was dying. The Solstice Syndrome had no cure, and she resigned herself to an early grave. But just when she gave up on survival, all her symptoms mysteriously disappeared.
All but one symptom, anyway. Something is wrong with Tess’s hands. They absorb any material they touch, and her skin turns to wood, or steel, or concrete. It doesn’t take this comic-book obsessed 21-year-old long to figure out what’s going on: somehow, she’s developed super powers. And she’s not the only one; across the country, people are coming forward and sharing their gifts with the world. In her own city, where the police are battling a human trafficking operation, a masked vigilante called The Fox is saving lives and stopping criminals.
Tess doesn’t know where she fits into this new, super-powered world. But when people around her start disappearing, she can’t just sit on the sidelines. Teaming up with The Fox to create the world’s first superhero duo might be the only way to rid her city of evil and save the people she loves most.
About the Author
Watching scary movies through split fingers terrified Caryn as a child, and those nightmares inspire her to write now. Her 90-year-old house has a colorful history, and the creaking walls and narrow hallways send her running (never walking) up the stairs. Exploring her fears through writing makes Caryn feel a little less foolish for wanting a buddy to accompany her into the tool shed.
Caryn lives near Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband and their clowder of cats. Visit www.carynlarrinaga.com for free short fiction and true tales of haunted places.
Read an Excerpt
Tess vs. Grouchy Goose
I wish I'd been with the people I loved on the day the world changed. Then again, if someone had said, "Hey Tess, reality as you know it is about to be turned upside-down. You should probably witness this moment with someone you care about. Anybody fit that bill?" I would've barked out a bitter laugh and told them I'd rather be alone. Which, as it turns out, I was.
The meteor shower was all over the news. CNN covered it nonstop in the hours before it was visible, bringing on astronomers and astrophysicists to explain why it was such a big deal for a meteor shower of this size to be happening in the middle of January. Apparently, our scientists were supposed to be able to predict this kind of thing. The fact that one had snuck up on our collective set of observatories and satellites was — to quote one NASA representative — "extraordinary."
I didn't care if it was unprecedented. I didn't care if people around the world were calling it a sign or a portent of the Second Coming or whatever. I just knew it was beautiful, and I wanted to see one more beautiful thing before I died.
The trick was explaining that to the floor nurse.
"Miss McBray, please go back to your room." Nurse Davies crossed her beefy arms over her chest and planted her white-sneakered feet to the floor. "We've been over this before. You're in no condition to leave."
"How do you know?" I growled. "Nobody here can even tell me what my condition is."
I shifted the weight of my duffle bag on my shoulder and leaned to the left, craning my neck to gauge the distance between Davies and the elevators. Only a few dozen yards. Sure, she towered over me. Sure, in the month I'd been in the hospital my body had wasted away to little more than a skin-wrapped skeleton. But I might be able to make a run for it.
Davies shook her head. "Do you think you're going to find the answers out there?"
"Maybe. I don't really care."
She glared at me, and I knew exactly what she was thinking. It was the same thing she'd spat at me every time I'd fought against the IV, or questioned the contents of the murky soup they forced me to eat, or requested — and then repeatedly demanded — to have my comic book collection brought into the hospital. And just when I began to worry she'd disappoint me by refusing to lean on her catchphrase, she said it.
"Stop being so melodramatic."
I actually grinned, and Davies flushed. I'd started drawing a comic book two weeks ago. It was sort of a play on the classic cat vs. mouse theme where an adorable blonde mouse outsmarted an angry old goose dressed in polka-dot scrubs. I taped the sketches up all over my room, and the orderlies liked to come in and read about the latest adventures of Grouchy Goose and Melodrama Mouse.
Davies was not a fan.
"You're being ridiculous. You had the good sense to check yourself in here," she said. "Now please have the sense to stay."
"You know what, Davies? You're right." I straightened up. This old hag had been bossing me around for so long, I'd forgotten who was really in charge here. "I came here on my own."
She lifted one eyebrow, but her frown — so ever-present it could've been tattooed on — deepened. "And?"
"And I'm an adult. I checked myself in here, and I'm not contagious. Now, I'd like to check myself out."
"Miss McBray, Dr. Fredericks feels he's quite close to a breakthrough. He's been working with the team at the CDC. If you'd just let him run some more tests —"
"No. I'm done with tests." Pulling my shoulders back, I raised my voice, projecting all the way across the waiting room that sat on the other side of Davies' desk. "I'd like to check myself out, please."
Several people turned their heads to cast curious glances in our direction. That's it, I thought. Enjoy the show.
Davies stared at me, her jaw set into a hard line. I stared right back. Minutes ticked by, while news coverage of the meteor shower played on the televisions in the waiting room. My eyes began to water, but I refused to surrender.
She gave in first, blinking and huffing out through her nose. "I can't stop you, Tess."
My eyes widened. She'd never addressed me by my first name before. More than anything else, it felt like a concession. In that moment, I'd stopped being her patient.
"I can leave?"
Davies nodded. "You can leave. You'll just have to sign these forms first, acknowledging that you're leaving against medical advice and releasing the hospital of any liability if — or should I say when — your condition worsens."
"Fine by me."
In the end, the process of checking myself out was stunningly easy. I'd pictured making a mad dash for the elevators, bashing the Close Door button repeatedly while Davies bore down on me in her pink scrubs, only just managing to escape her clutches. Signing a few papers and then calmly walking through the waiting room felt ... well, a bit anti-climactic. I pressed the button to go down and waited for an elevator to come carry me to freedom, however short-lived — in the most literal sense — it might end up being.
"Wait!" Davies called from behind me.
This is it, I thought, tensing my shoulders and turning around. She's not going to let me leave after all.
The heavyset older woman puffed across the waiting room, her arms full of something large, brown, and hairy.
A dog? I stepped back, my shoulders brushing against the cool metal of the closed elevator doors. Of course they'd use a dog to stop me. They knew how I felt about those damn things.
But as she slowed to a stop, I saw it wasn't an animal in her arms. It was a heavy wool blanket, and she handed it to me along with a bottle of water.
"Here," she said. "You're going to watch the meteor shower, right? Go to Thatcher Park. It'll be a good spot to see it, but it'll be cold."
"Thanks." I shifted the bundle of scratchy fabric so it rested under one arm and held up the water bottle. "And this?"
"Oh, honey. I can't send you with an IV, so it's the best I can do. Keep hydrated, or else ..."
She didn't need to finish. We both knew what could happen. What was going to happen.
Davies sniffed and let out a low cooing sound.
"Um ... are you ... crying?" I couldn't believe it. Davies ran this hospital floor like a drill sergeant, marching around with a steel rod for a spine and a matching metallic stick up her butt.
In response, she reached out and gathered me into a hug, pulling my head into her expansive chest. "You take care of yourself, child," she muttered into my hair.
"I'm not a child," I protested. "I'm twenty-one."
My words were so muffled by her body that I doubt she heard me. If she did, she didn't care to argue. She squeezed me one last time then released me just as the elevator doors slid open. I stepped inside and pressed the button for the main lobby.
"Goodbye, Tess." Davies crossed her arms over her chest again, but the façade of the foreboding floor matron was gone, forever banished by the kind woman who'd only bothered to reveal herself when I finally left.
"Bye, Davies." I lifted a hand in a wave as the doors slid shut.
When they opened moments later, I caught a view of the dusky Albany sky through the hospital's main entrance. Outside of this building, I could survive for maybe a day. But there was no guarantee I'd live much longer than that in here, anyway. They had to bump up my fluids every day, and I still burned through everything they could pump into me. At first, I'd been peeing every half hour, but now I hadn't needed to pee in three days. It would come to a point soon where the IV wouldn't be able to keep pace with my own metabolism and I'd just ... fry.
And if I was going to burn up, I didn't want to do it alone in that damn hospital room, surrounded by bleak white walls and breathing filtered air — not when a million bits of space rock were about to burn up in our atmosphere and light up the night sky. It felt poetic. It felt appropriate.
It felt like fate.
I strode across the lobby and pushed open the hospital doors, breathing in the crisp air as I passed into the dying light of day.
Tess vs. Stunning Celestial Objects
My 1985 Ford Escort was waiting for me in the back corner of the hospital's open lot, just where I'd left it. By the time I hiked back to the car after checking myself out, I was seriously concerned I might croak before the end of the fortyminute drive to Thatcher Park. When I'd checked into the hospital last month I hadn't yet felt like a BBQ riblet that'd sat on the grill for twenty-seven straight days, so the walk downhill from my parking spot to the registration desk hadn't felt quite so epic.
Exhausted, I tossed my duffle bag on the passenger seat and rested my head on the ripped leather steering wheel. I sat there for a while and wheezed. Then I fumbled in my bag for my key, slid it into the ignition, and turned it.
The car made a sickly click-rwwrrr-rwwrrr-rwrrr sound and refused to start.
This was a possibility I hadn't bothered to consider.
"No, no, no, no, no." I thumped my forehead against the steering wheel in time with my protests. "You can't do this to me. Not today. Just turn over one more time and then I promise you can rest."
Crossing the fingers on my left hand, I tried the key again with my right. Rwwrr-rwwrr-rwwrr-rwwrr.
I banged my fists on the wheel, accidentally honking the horn. The sound startled me, and I glanced around sheepishly, hoping nobody was watching me fail at the simple task of starting my car. This entire corner of the lot was empty; nobody else was crazy enough to park a mile away from the hospital, up a hill.
Up a hill. I might not be out of luck, after all.
"This better work," I muttered to the dashboard.
If it didn't, I'd have to try to hitchhike to the park. Who would pick up a bony, stringy-haired girl with skin as gray as the winter sky and huge bags under her eyes? I wouldn't. I'd probably say something really generous like, "Get a job, druggie," and speed past her.
The alternative to hitching a ride was giving up on this mad scheme and going back inside the hospital.
Gritting my teeth, I shifted into reverse, turned the ignition back to "on," and released the emergency brake. The car rolled backward, picking up speed. I crossed the fingers on both my hands and held my breath as I popped the clutch.
The engine sputtered to life, and I let out a whoop of joy. I wouldn't miss the meteor shower. The last thing I saw wouldn't be the view from my hospital room. I wrestled with the stubborn stick shift until it agreed to go into first gear and headed out of the parking lot.
The drive to Thatcher Park took me straight through the Albany suburbs, and I flipped off the telemarketing call center where I'd last worked as I passed it. I'd been lucky enough to land that job just under a year before I got sick, which meant no FMLA protection. I was only two weeks shy of being eligible, and HR could've worked with me, but holding my job and continuing my benefits wouldn't have been cost-effective. So they canned me.
If I said my impending hospital bills didn't factor into my decision to just give up and die already, I'd be lying.
My apartment was in the opposite direction, but I didn't feel the need to stop there for anything. Couldn't take it with me where I was headed, anyway.
The thought of my cell phone, stuffed into the bottom of my duffle bag, tugged at my conscience. If I was lucky, I had a few more hours left on this planet. As I pulled onto the highway, I considered calling my sister. It'd been so long though. I tried to count the months, and stopped when I had to start counting years. Too long. Too long for me to call her out of the blue like this. Hey, sis. Just wanted to let you know I'll be dead by morning. But don't worry about that. How's your prick husband?
Or I could call my parents. I chewed my lip. Imagining the conversation made my chest ache. I hadn't been able to bring myself to tell them when I'd checked into Hudson. I didn't have any answers for them, and they couldn't do anything to help from Palm Bay. They'd just worry. I figured I'd give them the good news when I was cured.
So much for that.
Leaving my cell phone in my bag, I switched on the radio and listened to NPR interview yet another scientist about the meteor shower. "This will be unlike anything we've ever seen," the newscaster said. "Don't miss this once-in-a-lifetime event. Visit our website for a list of dark-sky spots near you.
"In other news, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control reiterated today that while they're still not sure of the root cause for the mysterious and deadly wasting disease that's striking individuals across the globe, they've ruled out the possibility of viral or bacterial contagion. The disease, now dubbed 'Solstice Syndrome,' has been reported on every continent, including Antarctica, where a research assistant succumbed to the illness last weekend. At least four hundred deaths worldwide have been attributed to Solstice Syndrome in the last month, and hospitals in the United States alone report over 6000 active cases."
"Make that 5999," I muttered.
"Despite the large number of individuals stricken with the disease, there has been zero evidence of the illness passing from person to person, and it doesn't appear to stem from an infection. Each patient appears to have begun exhibiting symptoms — which can include high fever, aching joints, and severe dehydration — last month, on or around December twenty-first. CDC officials warn that while the majority of patients suffer no more than a mild flu-like illness lasting seven to ten days, approximately ten percent of those who develop symptoms are at high risk of persistent dehydration and muscle loss. For these individuals, without medical intervention and IV fluids the chances of surviving the disease are severely reduced. If you or someone you know has Solstice Syndrome, please report to —"
I flicked off the radio. She wasn't telling me anything I didn't already know — or anything most everyone in the country didn't already know. Aside from the meteor shower, Solstice Syndrome was the big news item of the month, getting even more coverage than Zika or Ebola had. I'd heard enough about it. Everyone had the same facts, but I seemed to be the only person willing to face the truth. The CDC couldn't find a cause, which meant they couldn't find a cure. And since my body was a textbook overachiever, it hadn't been content with the mild version. I had the full-blown syndrome, and the prognosis was grim: IV fluids as long as my kidneys could handle it and dialysis after that.
The thought made my stomach turn. As I passed New Salem, the trees on either side of the road began to thicken into a dense forest. I thought back to my sterile hospital room and knew I'd made the right choice. This was the kind of place a girl could go to die.
Apparently, everyone in upstate New York was heeding the media's advice to see the meteor shower, and the entrance to Thatcher State Park was congested with cars and tour busses. I pulled off to the side of the road, parking between a Volkswagen camper van and an old station wagon. Around me, people piled out of their cars carrying folding chairs and coolers. I dug my sketchbook and pencils out of my duffle, grabbed Davies' blanket, and rubbed the car's cracked vinyl dashboard.
"So long, baby," I whispered. "You were good to me."
I left my key ring on the dashboard. Someone who needed a ride could drive the Escort home after the shower, and they could have my laptop and cell phone as well. Climbing out of the car, I followed a large family who was ducking into the forest at a nearby trailhead. Many other feet had walked this trail in the hours before us, packing down the snow and making a wide path. I struggled to move my atrophied legs fast enough to keep up and eventually allowed myself to lag a bit behind the family. There was only one path, and I didn't want an audience to my wheezing.
Just as I started to worry that I'd drop dead before reaching a good spot to watch the shower, the trees opened into a wide clearing. Someone had taken the time to stamp down the snow so the ground was flat and hard, and hundreds of people were setting up chairs and laying down blankets in preparation for the big show. I chose a small gap between a few clusters of people, folded Davies' blanket in half a couple of times for extra insulation, and wiggled my way under the top layer. I pulled the blanket in tight around me, wrapping myself in it like a cocoon.
Excerpted from "Superhero Syndrome"
Copyright © 2017 Caryn Larrinaga.
Excerpted by permission of Twisted Tree Press Publication.
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.
Table of Contents
1. Tess vs. Grouchy Goose,
2. Tess vs. Stunning Celestial Objects,
3. Tess vs. The White Light,
4. Tess vs. The Sidewalk,
5. Tess vs. The Neighbors,
6. Tess vs. Bruce,
7. Tess vs. The Wall,
8. Tess vs. Social Graces,
9. Tess vs. HealthBot5000,
10. Tess vs. Office Furniture,
11. Tess vs. The Internet,
12. Tess vs. Mr. Self-Assurance,
13. Tess vs. Small World Syndrome,
14. Tess vs. Repetition,
15. Tess vs. Quid Pro Quo,
16. Tess vs. last names,
17. Tess vs. "Congratulations!",
18. Tess vs. Mob Mentality,
19. Tess vs. Family Dinners,
20. Tess vs. Love & Drama,
21. Tess vs. Old Lies,
22. Tess vs. The Dive,
23. Tess vs. Footwear,
24. Tess vs. Interior Decorating,
25. Tess vs. The Hunt,
26. Tess vs. The Truth,
27. Tess vs. Battle Plans,
28. Tess vs. Self-Restraint,
29. Tess vs. Tess,
30. Tess vs. Two Strikes,
31. Tess vs. Hero Worship,
32. Tess vs. The Sea Beside The Sea,
33. Tess vs. Impatience,
34. Tess vs. The Impossible,
35. Tess vs. The Unstoppable,
36. Tess vs. The Future,
About the Author,
Also by Caryn Larrinaga,