Here’s a sneak peek at the opening chapter of the new series Shifting Fates I’m writing with co-author Aubrey Rose, coming out April 15th…
Chapter One – Bindi
It’s Christmas Eve and there are too many people in Times Square for my taste. Too many humans.
Most nights, the streets in lower Manhattan empty out and the monsters come prowling: genetically mutated near-animals who scour the alleys for trash or food. They leave their deformed tracks in the radioactive ash coating the sidewalks of Lexington. They scavenge dumpsters. They lunge, territorial. They slouch toward nothing.
But tonight, the still-human survivors swarm the streets instead. Bright and sparkling, Times Square makes the world look almost like New York City before the war. At least, that’s how I remember it from when I was a little girl. The military has turned on the lights for an extra hour.
To celebrate. That’s what they said over the loudspeakers.
My right hand is on the knife inside my coat pocket as I move through the crowds of men and women, my small fingers clenched white around the handle. I have a doll for Kit stuffed into my hidden pouch along with the rations packages I’ve already stolen, and I’m having trouble keeping all of them balanced inside.
Another guard crosses the street. The huge store windows are empty now, and I press myself back, turning my face towards the window and pretending to fix the hood over my hair in the reflection of the glass as the sentry guard passes.
My long dark hair is wound tightly back into a braid, partially covered by the ragged burlap hood of my coat. I blink and cannot tear my gaze away from the bright irises of my eyes in the light.
Green and blue like the waves in the bay, my dad used to say. I tilt my head and I am squinting into the light but I don’t care. Tears fill my eyes and I smile. My eyes are shining green now, then blue in the harsh fluorescent light, and because of the brightness my pupils are nearly invisible in the reflection.
That is how I like to imagine myself—blind, with no eyes anymore, just color.
In the darkness where I live now, everyone’s pupils have taken over the color that their eyes used to be. Predators in the light are majestic, their eyes tawny as a lion’s, or bright green as a snake’s. But only grubs live underground, and those who prey on grubs. Sewer rats have black eyes. So do we.
My eyes are rimmed red from the tears, and I breathe out through a clenched jaw as the reflection of the sentry passes behind me. He glances at me, and I am certain that he notices that my arms are hooded, my outdated identification badge obscured. I choke on my fear as his gaze sweeps me over.
I know what he sees. Small female. A limp. A cane. No threat. Still, my thumb rubs circles of worry into the knife’s handle.
Then he is around the corner and gone, and I’m safe.
My other hand swings the metal rod that I use as a cane, and I dart another glance to the mirrored glass. I bend over farther to look like an older woman, hoping that my small stature will hide me in the crowd. I let my left foot drag slightly as though I, too, have the radiation sickness that makes all the men and women here weak in their limbs. But I’m not weak. No, I’m stronger than all of them.
I am one of the monsters.
The city blocks are lit harshly with bright fluorescent tubes that stretch out over my head, as though cautioning me not to look upward, toward the stars. Even with my head down, I am unused to the brightness, and when I squint I hope that the normal people around me don’t notice.
My breath is a white cloud in front of me as I cross the street and begin to limp alongside the food distribution line. There are more people here today than I’ve ever seen before, all hoping for extra rations at the end of the line. My eyes search for an easy target.
There is an old man twenty feet ahead of me, his bag already bulging. He must have been through the bread distribution once before, maybe twice. His nose is so close to the glass that his breath turns the surface of the window white and cloudy. Inside of the distribution centers, the frozen bags of food pulse forward on metal conveyor belts. Soldiers watch the packages, guns at their side.
As I pass by, my foot seems to catch on the sidewalk and I stumble sideways. My cane clatters on the sidewalk and I fake a fall against the old man, clutching his coat.
“Ah!” I cry out as if in pain while my hidden hand sweeps the knife out and slices into his bag. My fingers have already plucked out a small package of rations by the time the man helps me up.
“Are you alright, miss?” he asks. There is a note of genuine sympathy in his voice that gives me the smallest twinge of guilt.
“I’m fine,” I say, tucking the ration package safely and securely into the depths of my coat pocket while I use his arm to balance myself. “Just a crack in the sidewalk, that’s all.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m fine, really, I’m fine.” I hurry away and around the corner, hoping not to be recognized by any of the soldiers patrolling the food distribution. I’ve come here too many times, made too many small disturbances to not be noticed eventually. The others are waiting, though, and I cannot come back empty-handed.
Only two more blocks and I’ll be at one of the entrances. My feet begin to hurry of their own accord, and when I round the corner I am moving too fast to avoid the tall patrol guard coming around the other way.
We crash into each other and I fall. Stupid, stupid! I have so much momentum that I can’t right myself without lunging out to catch the guard’s arm.
Big mistake. He catches my hip with his other hand and I feel the hidden pouch inside of my robe begin to shift upward. His hand is pressing against the fabric of the pouch, upending the contents. They’ll fall out, unless—
“This isn’t your day, huh?” he says. I lean into his hand, trying to balance the rations packages so that they don’t tumble from the pouch. I can’t lean any farther in; I’m nearly pressed against him at this point.
“Hey,” the guard says. I look up into his eyes, light brown and concerned, and a shock runs through my chest. It hits me so hard that I can’t help but jerk my arm up to ward him off. My hand hits the pouch. The pouch turns upside down.
Three rations packages go scattering on the icy sidewalk, along with the small doll I stole for Kit.
I’ve never done anything so clumsy. I am not clumsy. I have instincts that any human would kill for. And yet here I stand, utterly frozen, astounded at how badly I’ve messed this up. Kit’s face flashes in my mind: her bright red hair, how I thought the doll would match it perfectly.
Stupid. My fingers reach out for the packages, but they are already exposed. The guard grabs my arm.
The guard takes a step back, still holding my arm with one hand as he looks down at the packages. He is vulnerable, his body open.
There. It’s time. He knows. Break his arm first, take his gun, kill him, and run.
The thoughts run through my mind, a carefully planned scenario that I’ve never had to actually act out. My pulse quickens, my skin tight over my limbs. I’m ready to shift into my wolf form if I need to.
Looking up at him, though, I can’t bring myself to raise my arm, to snap his elbow. Instead I pull back and break his hold with a twist of my arm, leaping away from him and bending to snatch my cane up from the ground. I am crouched, ready to run, when I look up and see his eyes.
They’re light brown, flecked with gold, and even in the dim light they shimmer and glow. Something in them draws me close, makes me want to go back to him, to lean forward and see who he is, who he really is, under the soldier’s uniform. His face is mesmerizing, and I breathe quickly, trying to will myself into action. Kill or be killed. Kill or be killed. He’s huge, and I am losing the element of surprise with each second I wait.
Huge. Strong. His shoulders are broad and heavy, and I can’t keep my eyes from wandering over his defined muscles, can’t stop imagining how his hand would feel if it moved over my hips, my body. In this instant, I can feel my pulse hammering against the insides of my wrists, against my temples. I can feel my skin flush with a desire that I’ve never before known. It’s something so fierce and instinctive that it rattles me to the core.
He looks down at the rations packages on the ground. He kneels down to the sidewalk and picks up Kit’s doll. He hands it to me and turns away. Then turns back to face me.
I don’t know what I am thinking. I should kill him. I should have already killed him. I’m giving him too much time to think, to form a plan of attack. I need to be gone. Gone! Out of this light—
He reaches into his pocket, and I try to swallow but my throat is clenched tight. Every muscle of mine is vibrating with tension and, as much as I hate to admit it, repressed desire. My claws are beginning to emerge from my bones, twisting against my skin. I struggle to keep them retracted. Why? Why not kill him?
The guard pulls out a square of foil-wrapped chocolate and holds it out to me. I can smell it even through the cold air. My mind is suspicious. My stomach growls.
My fingers reach out and take the gift and as I take the chocolate my fingertips brush his hand.
Again I feel something pass between us. Without thinking about it, I am being pulled in by his eyes. There’s a softness in his face that belies his appearance, his soldier’s uniform, his gun. There’s a tenderness in his gaze that sweeps over me, evaluating, and as he watches me I know without a trace of doubt that he desires me, too. If I were human, I would be overjoyed. As it is, I’m terrified at the dizzy feeling that I get at his touch.
I breathe in to try and get some oxygen, to relieve the dizziness in my mind, but I can only smell him. Sweat and soap, a soldier’s scent. And more than that, a masculine musk of something secret, something hiding underneath his skin…
“I didn’t see nothing,” he says. His voice is low but not threatening, and something—instinct? desire?—tells me to hold still, not to attack. It makes no sense. He knows my face. But I don’t strike out at him with a killing blow. I wait.
He shakes his head slightly, his light hair reflecting the glow from above. I want to reach out and touch his face, touch his hair. But he is already pulling away.
He walks away quickly and is already around the corner before I can speak. I don’t know what I would say to him, even if I hadn’t choked. Thank you, maybe? Glad I didn’t have to kill you?
No… I would’ve told him Merry Christmas.
Tomorrow is Christmas. I shovel the rations back into the pouch along with Kit’s doll and dart back down the alleyway. I lift the sewer grating and swing down into the darkness, my feet finding purchase on the damp ladder.
Above me I pull the grate back, and with a loud clang it settles into its grooves. As if by my signal, the lights go out overhead, and the city falls into the same darkness I know every day. I can see the stars now, pinpoints of light in the thin black slice of sky looming over the tops of the brownstones. The soldier is up there, somewhere, maybe watching the stars like I am.
If I were human… I shake my head. Silly to think like that. There’s nothing above ground for me except food to steal and soldiers to hide from. I climb down slowly into the dark tunnel that will be my home forever, until I can escape this godforsaken city.
Tomorrow is Christmas. It’s also my birthday. A wry smile curves into my cheek.
I’ll celebrate being alive.