I worked hard, everything I planned almost within my grasp,and then one flicker in time, mere seconds, and it’s all gone. Now I’m starting at zero, stuck in a place called the outpost, which is neither here nor there but some limbo land for those who haven’t transitioned.
I’m sleeping in a broom closet, choking on fumes, while everyone declares me useless. Kaden, the guy that runs this place, keeps telling me there’s nothing I can do to go back. That once the change is set in motion, it’s impossible to reverse.
Every day, each step, takes me farther away from where I want to be and closer to Kaden and a mysterious land of darkness. The only way out of this mess is forward, away from the life I built, and the people I love…
BUY WITH THE LINKS ABOVE OR SAMPLE BELOW
“Miss, stop! The bridge is about to open.”
I ignored the toll bridge operator’s screams and sprinted ahead. This drawbridge took forever to open and close. If I got stuck waiting for the ancient thing to run its cycle, the interview would be over before I got there. The bridge was just starting to creak open, barely a foot gap. The toll bridge guy was hot on my heels as I leapt to the other side. Or tried to.
I tripped over my own feet, flying forward. I skidded to a stop on my hands and knees.
That was when it all changed. The sun was gone. The breeze was gone and the air grew—flat. The world was gone. All the things Gram had said right before I left the house came rushing back to me. What the hell had she done?
Two hours before the world as I knew it ended…
Jeannie: Did you watch?
Me: You know I didn’t. I never do.
Jeannie: Good. He doesn’t deserve your attention.
Me: Talk later. Leaving for the interview soon.
I took a last look in the mirror, smoothing down some stray auburn hairs and straightening the suit my friend Jeannie had lent me. Today I would get the job I’d gone into debt for. The day I stopped worrying about every dime as the beginning of the month came again, along with the bills. It would be the day I hung up my waitress apron, gave up walking in between the tables like an invisible ghost until someone’s food was too cold or a meal took too long.
I opened the door to leave my room, and my mother was headed toward me, letter crumpled in her hand, anger roiling off her.
“He’s saying he’s going to raise our rent again,” she said, thrusting the piece of paper at me.
I took it, scanning the words while trying to keep a calm exterior. My mother was quick to temper, and my getting worked up as well would only fuel the issue. As it was, I’d taken over all communication with the landlord. It was the only way he’d allowed us to stay after she threw a pot at him when he raised the rent last time.
My stomach dropped. He was hiking the rent on our small house by five hundred dollars. The rents in Southwest Florida were so bad that we’d have to pay it. There was nowhere else to go.
“Can you believe what he wants for this dump? He’s just like all the rest of them, trying to screw us. Take everything we have.” Her voice was shrill as she headed toward her cabinet, the one where she kept her vodka.
“I’ll call him and talk to him. I’m sure we can work something out,” I said in a soft monotone, knowing that what I’d be working out was a possible extension until I got a paycheck. When she was like this, giving her the slightest hint of your own fury was like handing her another magazine of bullets. After managing her moods for more than two decades, I’d gotten quite proficient at it, even as that tone of hers sometimes made me feel like that small, scared child again.
I tucked the letter into my purse on the kitchen table so she wouldn’t be able to reread it another fifty times, working herself up until she was taking a sledgehammer to the bathroom.
Grammy walked out of her bedroom, took one look at her daughter, and rolled her eyes before taking a seat at the kitchen table. She patted the chair next to her.
“Billie, come sit and talk to me before you leave,” she said, smiling. Gram was always smiling—even when she was being mean, she smiled. It was a mystery to many how she’d given birth to a woman who never smiled at all.
“Ma, she doesn’t have time. She’ll talk to you when she gets back.” My mother paused to take a drink from her coffee mug filled with vodka. “Right now we need her to get to this interview if you want to have a place to live next week. God knows the tips she’s making at the diner aren’t cutting it.”
“I’ve got a couple of minutes.” It was quarter to eight. I could squeeze out fifteen minutes for the woman who’d been the most mothering female I’d had in my life.
“Yeah, sure. You’ve always got time to talk to her. You two know everything.” Mom’s eyes were glued to me as I sat next to Gram. “You know, I bet his new wife doesn’t have to worry about anything. She gets everything she looks at. She doesn’t have to concern herself with who’s covering the bills. We’d still be getting money too if you weren’t so proud and above it all.”
My father must’ve won the award for her to be bristling this bad. I hadn’t watched last night’s ceremonies, but the sound of awards being given out had been coming from her room. As much as I tried to avoid all information regarding him, I’d seen snippets that he was up for best artist.
Knowing what a glutton for punishment she was, she’d probably watched the red carpet leading up to them as well, where he would’ve been posing with his wife and upgraded daughter. She would’ve watched every second as they stood there posing, lights shining on their glossy matching blond hair and tall, slender forms. She’d probably recorded it to watch repeatedly.
“You know, if you’d taken that college money then you wouldn’t have all this student debt and—”
“Mom, we don’t need him or his money. I’ll get this job and it’ll all be okay.”
He’d been ordered by the court to pay for child support and then college. I didn’t want a dime from him. I’d had no say over what Mom got before I was eighteen, but he’d get no credit for anything I had a say in. It was bad enough I saw his green eyes staring back at me every time I looked in the mirror.
She was glaring at both of us now as I tried to ignore her. The last thing I’d wanted this morning was a fight.
I sipped the last of my coffee while sitting next to my grandmother, who was looking a little sharper in the eyes than she had in a while. “What’s going on, Gram?” I asked.
My grandmother might not know what day it was, but she was still the most pleasant person in the household.
She smiled at me, patting my hand while turning toward my mother. “Do you mind?”
My mother scowled, making the lines on her face even harsher. “Really? I’m getting kicked out of the kitchen?”
“There are things Billie and I need to discuss that require privacy.”
Gram had never made it a secret that I was her favorite, even over her own daughter. She’d said many times she thanked the powers that be that my mother had me, so Gram having her hadn’t been a complete waste of resources. I was never quite sure how to reply to that, so I’d usually just nod.
My mother shook her head, took her mug, and grabbed her pack of cigarettes. “I’ll be outside if anyone needs me.”
“Good. We’re alone.” Gram smiled as if oblivious to her daughter’s glare. She might be. After you saw something enough times, it was easy to become blind to it.
“What’s going on, Gram? I don’t have too much time before I have to leave.”
Two wrinkled, frail hands wrapped around mine. “I have some things I need to tell you before you go that are very important. When you get to the outpost, tell them you have a reservation or they’ll toss you in the river.”
“Gram, don’t worry, the firm I have an appointment with won’t throw me in a river.” I smiled, patting her hands, hating how thin and fragile they felt. She was really losing it now, worse than usual. How much longer would we have before we couldn’t have any kind of conversation?
“The firm? Of course they won’t do that, but that’s not where you’re going. You aren’t supposed to be an accountant. I keep telling you that, but you don’t believe me. I understand why, but you need to listen to me now.”
Those frail, bony hands were gripping mine with more strength than I’d thought she possessed.
“Gram, being an accountant is a good job.”
“It’s not what you’re meant for. You’re like me. You’re special.” She grinned as her eyes lit up. “You know, if I hadn’t loved your grandpa, I never would’ve quit. But it was all worth it for him, and now you.”
Quit? Had she had a job she could quit? I’d never before heard her speak of any kind of career.
“Gram, I thought you were a housewife?”
“That’s what I chose to be after I quit, but I couldn’t tell anyone about my life before Grandpa. It would’ve caused issues.” The last sentence was a mere whisper, as if she were afraid my mother was listening in and she’d find out her secrets.
My phone buzzed on the table, my boyfriend’s name flashing on the screen.
“Is that Johnny?” Gram asked, forgetting about all else as she stared at the phone like she wanted to smash it to pieces.
“Gram, Johnny is a good person.” I slipped my phone into my pocket, hoping she’d forget about him and let it go.
“What’s he want?” Her tone dripped disdain. From the second he walked through our door, complete with a bouquet of daisies for her, she’d despised him on the spot for no apparent reason.
“He’s wishing me luck.”
“Gram, I don’t know why you dislike him so much. He’s a good man.” It wasn’t actually that surprising. She hated almost everyone, and sometimes only seemed to tolerate my mother. Grandpa and I were the only two people she’d ever seemed to really love, and even I was no match for him. The sun had risen and set with that man until the day he died.
“He’s a bad apple. Not to mention a man like that is going to curl into a ball and cry when the shit hits the fan. Do you really want to be with someone like that? Just like your father. Bad blood.” She made a wiping motion with her hands, as if rubbing off the dirt he’d left behind.
“He’s nothing like my father. And I don’t need him to be some sort of protector. We aren’t living in medieval times.”
“You never know when you might need someone capable of fighting beside you. He’s not it.” She spoke of him like he was her mortal enemy instead of a nice guy that I’d met in my first year of accounting. He’d been graduating as I was just starting.
“You don’t need to worry. There will be no fighting in my future.”
“Sure,” she said, nodding at me as if I were the one needing placating. “He doesn’t matter anyway, and that’s not what I needed to tell you.” She took me in a hug. “You need to know I won’t see you for a while after today. I’ll be gone before you get back. I’ll see what I can do after I get settled, and I’ll get in touch with you.”
“Gram, where are you going? Why do you say these things?” I glanced at the clock. Eight minutes before I had to leave for an interview and she had to do this now?
“I only speak the truth, Billie. I used up the last of my resources getting you the reservation. I’ll be dying this afternoon, but you won’t be back until after I’m gone.”
“Gram, I’m going to go to the interview and I’ll be back before dinner. Then maybe we’ll go to the park, okay?”
She smiled serenely. “Sure.”
She was really losing it. The doctors had told us the dementia would slowly get worse. But why was it that she always told me the craziest things? Did I bring out the cuckoo in her somehow? Did she build it up inside her and then I was the trigger?
“Gram, why don’t you talk like this to Mom or my cousins?”
“Because they aren’t like us. They’re boring.” She sighed loudly, shrugging petite shoulders. “What can I say? Special skips a generation sometimes. I never liked to say anything bad about them, but I find them to be annoying.”
She waved her left hand, her wedding ring still shining on her finger. She smirked and added softly, “Look, they aren’t important. Never really were, to be totally frank.” She shook her head, as if trying to shake off the rest of the family. “You go have your meeting and just remember to tell them you have a reservation and it’ll be okay. Just make sure you tell them fast so you don’t end up in the river and they box you up for an eternity.” She finished that off with another smile and her arms out. “Now give me a hug and know I’ll see you again at some point.”
“Okay. I love you,” I said, trying to get my wits about me. Gram was crazy, but this was a new low.
I gave her a kiss on the cheek, grabbed my purse, and headed to the door.
“You’re going to do great. I’ll be dead before you get home, so I just want you to know that.” She waved from her seat.
My heart was racing and a feeling of dread filled every part of me, and why? Nobody knew when they were dying. She hadn’t said anything about knowing Grandpa was going to die until after he was gone. A lot of people made great predictions in the past tense.
My mother was sitting on the front stoop, leaning against the corner of the house, the rage seeming to have worked its way out a bit. “Good luck on your interview. You’ll do well. You always do well. You try too hard not to,” she said.
“Thanks.” I patted my pocket, making sure I had my phone, and dug through my purse for my car keys, which I dropped with shaky fingers.
“Is your grandmother telling you crazy stories again? You know she’s got dementia, right?” My mother took a long drag from her cigarette as she watched me trying to orient myself.
“I know.” Somehow admitting that Gram was nuts, even to my mother, felt like a betrayal.
“But she still gets to you anyway. I understand. She gets to me too, just in a different way,” she said, and then sipped from her mug. “She is what she is.”
“Okay, well, she’s telling me she’s dying today, so can you go sit with her?” I never asked my mother to do anything. I’d given up relying on her a long time ago, but even the farce of her possibly doing this might help me get through today.
She shrugged, which I was going to take as a tentative agreement.
“Did she mention what time she would be departing?” Mom asked.
“Sometime this afternoon.”
“I guess she didn’t want to go before she had her midmorning snack?” My mother raised her eyebrows, as if to say, You can’t possibly believe this. She shook her head. “I’ll go sit with her. Get going. You don’t want to be late. And don’t forget to call the landlord, since I’m not allowed to.”
I nodded and took off, knowing I’d need the ride to the firm to calm my nerves, and talking to my mother any longer wouldn’t help matters.
The accounting firm was one mile away when my car decided it didn’t feel like moving anymore. The light changed, I hit the gas, but the thing wouldn’t budge. I floored it, and it moved all of two inches. My transmission, which had been slipping on occasion, seemed to have decided that this was the moment it wanted to make its final stand. I tried again and again. It wouldn’t move.
Cars were honking behind me, and I put my flashers on, rolled down the window, and waved my hand, signaling for them to go around.
I slammed the wheel and grabbed my purse. It was one mile. Just on the other side of the bridge. With ten minutes left until the interview, if I ran and their interviews before me went over a little bit, I might be okay.
I abandoned my car, waving at the people cursing. If I got the job, it would be more than worth the towing bill.
I sprinted toward the bridge; I sprinted into nowhere. I sprinted into what would be the end of my current life and a new one that was unimaginable.
I jumped across the small gap that had opened. The ground had been right there, but somehow I was stumbling into nothingness, surrounded by the kind of darkness that was so utterly complete, your eyes had nothing to adjust to, and then suddenly there was light again. The ground underneath my feet was a worn wood as I found myself in a room.
In front of me, lounging on a sofa, a woman with platinum-blond hair was sucking on a lollipop, glaring at the man sitting on the couch across from her.
“You’re such an asshole, Dice. You take all the good colors and leave the lime,” she said.
The guy wasn’t paying attention to her complaints because he and another man were too busy staring at me as I stood.
The girl finally glanced over at me and then looked back at her friends. “I’m not cleaning that up specifically because you took all the good colors. I don’t care if it’s my turn. You toss her.” She went back to sucking on her green lollipop, making noises of displeasure at the same time.
“Oh no, Cookie,” Dice said. “I’ll get you a bag of strawberry. I’m not cleaning this one up. The last one ripped my favorite shirt as I was tossing him.”
Tossing him? Gram had said something about getting tossed in the river. This couldn’t be real, could it?
No, I’d hit my head. I was dreaming. Now that I knew I was dreaming, I could wake myself up. Unless I was knocked out cold. What if I was in a coma?
“I did it last time. I’m not doing it,” said the other guy, the one whose shirt looked like it was going to rip apart under the strain of his muscles.
No one was looking at me much. I glanced behind me, looking for the bridge. If I was dreaming, then whatever I wanted would happen and there would be a bridge. But all I saw was a door. I would’ve remembered coming through a door. I squeezed my eyes shut, telling myself that there was a bridge.
No bridge? Why was there no bridge? I’d been on a bridge. Then where was I? Had I fallen into some room attached to the underside of the bridge? Had I fallen and hit my head?
“Not only did I not eat the last of the good lollipops, I’m almost positive it’s not my turn. You two figure it out,” Cookie said.
“Fine. We’ll draw straws for who does it,” Dice said, looking at the muscleman.
They were definitely talking about throwing me into the river. What else could they be talking about? It had to be me. But that would be insane, right?
The room looked normal enough, with some couches and shelves. It looked like a random family room that was a little dated, more than a bit worn, but pretty comfortable.
And the people, the ones who were ignoring me as they bickered, looked normal enough too. Well, sort of normal. The chick had a nasty-looking dagger strapped to her leg.
The guy she’d called Dice looked fairly normal too, with sandy brown hair and a friendly enough face. If it wasn’t for the gun holstered on his waist, his shoulders—another one on his leg…
The guy holding the straws had forearms the size of redwoods and looked like he spent his day chugging protein shakes. He could probably break my bones with a snap of his fingers, let alone toss me into a river.
Yeah, these people weren’t that normal.
“Fuck,” Dice said, looking at the short straw in his hand.
“You have the worst luck of anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t know who gave you the name Dice, because you shouldn’t ever be let near a pair.” Cookie was giggling.
Dice sneered. “Go screw, Cookie. Where’d you get your name? Not like there’s anything sweet about you.”
The insult didn’t seem to put a dent in her laughter, or the muscleman’s.
Dice walked over to me.
I stepped back.
“What’s your name?” he asked, chewing on the end of his short straw.
“Wilhelmina Adelaide, but I’m called Billie.” I answered before considering whether it was a good thing for this man to know my full name. I’d never had anything to hide before, though. When someone asked me my name, I always told them.
“Well, Wilhelmina Adelaide, Billie, whatever you want to call yourself, you are a trespasser. Unless you can offer a defense, you will be terminated, and your body will be thrown into the river. Do you have anything to say for yourself before this sentence is carried out?”
He went back to chewing on his straw as he glanced at his watch, the casualness of his demeanor not boding well for where I might end up. If this was some sort of sick joke, he would’ve tried to act scarier. This guy didn’t care if he killed me.
And he’d said terminated. How many killers said terminated? They’d say something like “I’m going to kill you,” right? Gram had used the word terminated, too. Holy shit, Gram, where the hell was I? Was he reading me some twisted version of my Miranda rights? What the hell was this?
No. This was all too crazy.
“What do you mean exactly by ‘throw me in the river’ and ‘terminate’? Are you saying you’re going to kill me?” This couldn’t be for real. I hadn’t even done anything to these people. I didn’t know who they were, and they were going to toss me into a river? A river I couldn’t even see anymore?
He looked at his watch again. “You have thirty more seconds. Do you wish to add anything else to your defense?”
“These trespassers are so annoying,” Cookie said from across the room, where she settled back on the couch. Her boots dropped onto the table with a thud. “It isn’t like anyone ever has a defense. Just more red tape for us.” She motioned to the muscleman. “Connor, give me that magazine.”
Connor tossed it to her and the two of them went back to what they’d been doing.
“Twenty seconds,” Dice said, staring at his watch. “Nineteen.” He cracked his neck.
My pulse was racing and it felt like there was no air in the room.
“Just toss her,” Connor said.
What if this wasn’t a dream? This didn’t feel like a dream in the slightest. If this wasn’t a dream…
“I have a reservation,” I blurted out, following Gram’s instructions.
Dice’s head jerked up. Cookie and Connor turned to me, and Cookie’s lollipop fell out of her mouth.
Connor said, “Huh?” as if he hadn’t heard me right.
“I have a reservation.” Another few seconds of silence ticked by. “A reservation?” I repeated, afraid they hadn’t heard me. If there was a chance of getting thrown in the river, I’d repeat “reservation” as many times as needed. I’d skip and sing it too, if that helped.
Cookie got off the couch and walked over, looking me up and down. “You have a reservation?” She scoffed, shaking her head. “No way am I buying that.”
“I do. I’m supposed to be here.” I infused as much strength and confidence in my tone as possible, as if my life depended on it, which it probably did.
Dice ran his gaze over me again, as if he were truly paying attention now. “Who put a reservation in for you?”
The way they kept saying you in that tone was starting to get my hackles up, not that I was ready to make this situation worse. I had to focus on getting out of here alive first.
“Tessa Hendrick.” Gram, you got me into this. You better get me out.
“Tessa Hendrick? Never heard of her,” Dice scoffed. “Who is she?”
“My gram,” I said. “I mean, my grandmother.”
“Gram?” Cookie said, snickering. She turned to Connor, who was heading over. “Connor, you hear that? Her gram got her a reservation.”
Dice turned to his friends. “Yeah, her gram.” They all laughed some more.
“It’s my grandmother. I call her Gram. It’s not an unusual nickname.”
They continued to snicker. I barely knew these people, but I was finding them very unlikable.
Dice stopped laughing, glancing at me before looking back at his friends. “What if she does have a reservation?” His voice was a little softer now, losing some of the arrogance.
“Gotta call the boss,” Connor said, shrugging overly large shoulders.
“Nothing else to do,” Cookie said, waving her lollipop around.
They were all staring at me.
I shrugged. “I’ve got a reservation. You have to call,” I said, as if I had a clue about anything I was saying.
Dice shook his head, sighed, and then dug a phone from his pocket, dialing who could only be the “boss.”
“We’ve got a trespasser who says she has a reservation.” Dice kept his gaze on me as he listened. “I’ll check, boss, but she doesn’t look reservation-worthy.” His nose crinkled, as if I smelled. “Okay, I’ll get back to you.”
“Well?” Cookie asked the second he took the phone from his ear.
“Says to put a call into the system.” Dice raised his brows.
Cookie tilted her head a bit as Connor bobbed his. I was getting the distinct impression that reservations didn’t happen very often.
Dice headed to the other side of the room, where a mustard-yellow phone was hanging on the wall. The thing was straight out of the sixties, with a spiral cord and rotary dial. The last time I’d seen anything like that was an estate sale down the street, when old man Harper passed and his kids tried to sell literally anything that wasn’t nailed down.
Dice dialed only four numbers before putting the phone to his head. “I need to check a reservation for a…” Dice looked at me.
“Wilhelmina Adelaide,” I said.
He repeated my name into the phone and then smiled a moment later, looking in my direction like a person who was about to say, I told you so. “No reservation? You’re sure?”
“Billie Adelaide. Everyone calls me Billie,” I said. Gram knew better than anyone how much I hated my given name.
He sighed, rolling his eyes. “What about Billie Adelaide?”
A couple of seconds later, his face scrunched, just like someone whose I told you so was about to get boomeranged right back at them.
“Yeah, thanks,” he said, not sounding thankful at all, then hung up the phone a bit forcefully. “It looks like she does indeed have a reservation.”
He walked over and stopped in between Cookie and Connor.
“It doesn’t make sense. She seems so flat,” Cookie said.
“Yeah, I know,” Dice said.
Flat? That wasn’t something I’d ever been called. He couldn’t mean my physical appearance. I’d been told I was born with more curves than a roller coaster.
So what did he mean by flat? Yeah, I was going to be an accountant, and sometimes they got a bum rap, but that didn’t mean I was humorless. I had a decent personality, or so I’d been told. No one should judge my personality based upon this situation. That wouldn’t be fair.
Cookie was twirling a platinum-blond lock. “Are you sure we have to keep her? She doesn’t look like much. Call the boss. Maybe we can throw her into the river anyway.”
Dice was already digging his phone back out. “I’ll ask, but if she’s got a reservation, he’s going to say we have to keep her.”
His two friends were staring at him as he waited for an answer. I was trying to remain calm as I assessed all the different exits in case I had to run. There was a door across the room, a door behind me, and a hallway to the left. The door behind me might be my best bet, since that was the direction I’d come from.
“Yeah, she’s got a reservation. Can we just—” His chest rose and fell. “Okay.”
Dice ended his call. His friends were all ears while my muscles tensed. I was ready to sprint, punch, kick, bite. I wasn’t taking anything off the table.
“He says we have to keep her,” Dice said.
“But she’s so human. This can’t be right. I don’t see why we get stuck with her,” Cookie said.
Were these people not human? Where the hell was I? Had I been abducted? The yellow phone and plaid couch didn’t scream cutting-edge technology, but maybe it was a decorating choice?
“Are you…aliens?” I asked.
Cookie threw back her head, laughing. “She thinks we’re aliens. This is absurd. And we’re supposed to keep her?”
Dice took a few steps toward the hall and then looked pointedly at me. “You need to follow me now,” he said, as if I were an idiot for not reading his mind.
The other two didn’t look like they were going to come, which meant wherever I was heading, the odds would improve. That was enough to get me following him down the hall.
“Don’t talk,” Dice said. “I should’ve told you that one first. And don’t touch anything. Don’t look anywhere. If you do, I might still throw you in the river, reservation or not.”
At least I knew that last threat was empty. Whoever the “boss” was, he’d laid down the law, and so far, that included not killing me.
There wasn’t much to look at as we proceeded down a plain hall, not even a picture hanging. I wasn’t sure what he was so worried about me touching.
“Could you just tell me where I am?” I asked.
“You’re talk-ing,” he said, almost singing the word.
It was done. There was no way I was changing my mind—ever. These people—aliens, whatever they were—were horrid, and I hated every one of them.
He opened a door to a room that was a cluttered mess.
“Go in there and wait. Don’t touch anything, don’t do anything until he gets here.”
“Who’s he?” I wasn’t going to take another step until he told me.
He stared at me, as if he knew that I’d drawn a line. “Kaden. That’s the boss.” He pointed in the room. “Now in.”
I walked in. Before I could ask another question, the door slammed shut. The footsteps retreated and I edged closer to the door, finding it locked.