Coming November 1st! Hope you enjoy the first two chapters.
This is the first book in a series of standalone romances, set in the same dystopian world. It will have alternating first person POV.
Some memories are so horrible that they scar a permanent address into your brain, your own personal hell. Before the takeover, my hell occupied a tiny corner that was easy to avoid. In the three years since, that area has grown so large that one misstep could send me sprawling, dirty knees and burning palms, straight into the bad place. A smell, a sound, a shadowy figure and suddenly I’m surrounded by demons, all pointing pitchforks at me and while I stand on hot coals.
I’m not the only haunted person. Anyone who survived those first days, weeks, and months after the invasion was changed forever. Pretty much anyone left standing will never be the same.
When news first broke that vampires and werewolves had staged a military coup, stormed the White House, Pentagon, Capitol, I’d thought it was a joke. I changed the channel on the television, only to find every station reporting the same thing. The “scourge,” as humans referred to them in whispered voices, had been slowly infiltrating our government for years, setting up shadow networks, hijacking our electronics. The hacks the Russians and Chinese had been blamed for? They’d been scapegoats. In the course of one month, the scourge took possession of every nook and cranny of the United States. Over the next three years, they showered terror on every human being alive in the country.
I wasn’t sure if I’d ever come to terms with what life was now. The people who’d been thrown out of their homes, couldn’t feed their children, begged on street corners, pleading for any scrap they could get from people who didn’t have a crumb to spare. Or how many had died in the past three years. How many had been shot arbitrarily, or ripped apart limb by limb on the street. We were living with terrorists—every. Single. Day. This was life, if you decided to continue the challenge of waking up every day to this new reality, and not everyone had. I was among the ones who continued on, if just barely.
I opened my fridge to see a single pot of broth, made from discarded bones I’d stolen from the home I worked in. That was it—a single watery brew.
“Can you believe this? They’re actually saying that we voted for another damned vampire, like the elections were real or some crap.” My father shook out the paper in front of him as he sat at the kitchen table.
One of the first things the werewolves and vampires had done when they took over was outlaw smartphones and computers for humans. We’d gone back to dumb phones and ink-covered fingers. The ink stains weren’t worth it, considering reporters only printed what was approved. The only reason they moved any of the free copies was that it made excellent kindling.
“At least they didn’t put one of their troll enforcers in the position. They’d never have another photo op, like, ever,” my sister Sassy said as she walked in, chaotic curls framing her face, just like my own, except hers were like the brightest sunshine and mine the color of a moonless sky. “I don’t know why they had to take the U.S., though. Why not a nice little country over in Europe?”
“Because if they did that, they were probably afraid the U.S. would bomb them. Now they have the most bombs,” I said.
My father ducked his head back down and continued reading, while Sassy stood behind him and raised an invisible bottle to her lips. It wasn’t needed. The smell of alcohol permeated the room like a dam had burst on the Whiskey River. My father, another casualty of this new world, had been broken in a less obvious way.
“I’ll be back. I’ve got to get to Arnold’s before closing,” I said.
My father chose that moment to pull his head from the paper, and his mind from the whiskey haze, to really look at me. He scanned the white collared shirt that would have a bow tie later, the black pants with a satin stripe down the side.
“What’s that you’re wearing? I told you not to go back there.” He slammed his hand down on the table, rattling the shakers.
And told me and told me and told me. The only thing he hadn’t told me was how we were going to eat if I didn’t.
I grabbed my jacket from the chair, pretending he hadn’t spoken. It didn’t matter. He’d keep going, like a broken record that couldn’t get past a deep gouge.
“You’re a disgrace to your mother every time you go there, Pen. How can you work for them after what they did to her?”
The first time he’d said that, it felt like a red-hot poker stabbing me dead center in the heart, a killing shot. I’d gone off and cried until my eyes puffed and my vision tinted red. The second time he’d said it, it was like a room-temperature steak knife. Now? It was an annoying poke with a rounded spoon. He could say anything he wanted, but it didn’t change the fact that he ate the food I paid for.
He hadn’t gotten off the couch to get a job in three years. Not that they were easy to get with the job approval process—but still. He’d given up. On himself, on life, on us, and for that, I couldn’t forgive him, so I guessed we were even.
“I’ll be back in a few,” I said to Sassy, not looking at my dad anymore. I pushed out the door before I heard him grumble again.
Sassy followed me, grabbing my arm before I made it off the back stoop. “Why don’t I go? You still have to work tonight.”
“I can do it. You should—”
“I’m fine,” she said, with cheeks too flushed and eyes too glassy.
“I know,” I lied, for her sake and mine. It wasn’t a subject either of us were ready to openly discuss. It was why I pretended to sleep when I heard her coughing in the middle of the night. Didn’t say anything when she got winded climbing stairs at night. Even now, I worried about the chill in the air.
“But you’re still going to go. You don’t have to shoulder the burden for everyone,” she said, crossing her arms.
“We’ll fight about this tomorrow.”
Her chin dropped as she rolled her eyes. “This is our fight from yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.”
“And tomorrow we can fight today’s fight. Why break a streak?”
She was shaking her head as I walked away. I jogged in the direction of Arnold’s before she got any more ideas.
Arnold’s was to the left, but I made a right. I hadn’t walked in front of the Jenkinsons’ yard for years, not since they’d gotten caught with a smartphone shortly after the takeover. The HBE (Human Behavior Enforcement) had shown up at their house at four in the morning just months after the takeover. We suspected someone had turned them in, because how the new government had found out about the one small phone was a mystery.
We’d watched from slits in the blinds as they questioned the family on their front lawn. One by one, they’d shaken their heads and denied it was their phone. In the end, the guards had shot all four of them, the parents and both their children, leaving their bodies to rot on the lawn with a warning to all that they weren’t to be moved.
That was when I started avoiding their house. I hadn’t wanted to see the kids I once babysat decomposing, not that the smell let you forget. The entire block had smelled of their death.
Leaving your house at all these days could be dangerous. I kept my eyes down as I walked briskly, my arms wrapped around my waist as the cold of D.C. in winter invaded my jacket. There might be a vampire in the Oval Office and a werewolf commanding the Army, but that was just the tip of the iceberg of what you needed to avoid. You also had your run-of-the-mill creatures, like the two trolls about to punch each other in the face, arguing on the corner. I crossed the street before I got to them. They were nasty, angry creatures, always looking to fight.
We had fairies in all shapes and sizes flying around, some larger than humans, all the way down to ones as small as fireflies. They’d dim their light and hide in corners, ready to turn you in for the smallest slight, like tarnishing the reputation of one of their kind, or getting caught calling the ruling class scourge. Leprechauns who were perpetually pissed off, almost as bad as the trolls. Centaurs that would race down the street, betting with their companions on who could trample you first. Each race had brought some new threat, and there was no lack of them now.
Once the vampires and werewolves took over, there had been an onslaught of other races flooding in, ready to live out in the open. Even as I walked down the street of the neighborhood I’d grown up in, the place looked barely recognizable.
It wasn’t just the creatures. It was the landscape. There were houses completely covered in strange, fine webbing that glittered, like some sort of alien spider web. Others were knocked down altogether and replaced by what appeared to be mountains of boulders. One thing was for sure: this was not my world anymore. It wasn’t any human’s world. We were cheap labor and a food supply. We were cattle on one gigantic, supernatural farm.
“Hey, Arnold.” I waved to the store’s namesake where he stood behind the counter, while ignoring the purple-haired fairy, about the size of his fist, hovering a few feet behind him. Her name was Gwen. The one and only time I tried to greet her out of a sense of politeness, she’d sneezed repeatedly, spewing gold dust all over the place while Arnold cursed.
“You’re soooo human you’re making my nose stuffy,” she’d said. She’d finished sneezing and moved on to gagging noises, as if I were a glob of phlegm that got stuck in her throat.
Apparently, humans were like a bad cat allergy to some fairies. That had been the beginning and end of our interactions, other than glares. Arnold appeared to merely tolerate her as well, but it was the price you paid these days if you wanted to run an establishment. You had to pay out of pocket for your own personal spy that reported everything back to the HBE.
“Cutting it close today, Pen?”
“Yeah, had a late shift last night and slept in a bit too long.” I walked over to the fridge and grabbed the last package of eggs. I took a loaf of bread off the dwindling pile on the table before I made my way back to the counter.
“That’s it?” Arnold asked me the same question every time. It was a knee-jerk question, considering he ran a store.
“Yep, that’s it.” It was getting so I’d rather shop somewhere else than repeat my answer almost daily.
I bought the same thing every time I came, with very little variation. That was all I could afford. Instead of lashing out at the man who didn’t deserve it, I smiled as I dug my credits out of my pocket.
Except they weren’t there. I checked my other pockets. They were both barren, but I had a wealth of heat in my cheeks as I stared at the items sitting on the counter. It was supposed to be dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow. But the three credits that were going to pay for it were gone.
Gwen made a sniffing noise that somehow sounded arrogant.
Arnold’s bald head shone under the lights as his eyes flickered back and forth between the items I wanted and me.
“I can’t do credit, Penelope. You know I would if I could, but after what happened to Sal…” Arnold spoke Sal’s name with reverence now, but he’d once been Arnold’s archnemesis and competing store owner. Gwen floated closer, listening to every word and waiting to report back.
“I’d never ask you to,” I said.
The entire neighborhood knew what happened to Sal. Last month, his body had been found in the early morning hours, lying across the front stoop of his shop. He was being fed upon by the local dogs that now lived on the streets, turned loose by owners who couldn’t afford to feed them anymore.
The dogs hadn’t killed him—Sal’s throat had been slit—but the calling card had been his missing left hand. Mind your own business. Keep to yourself. Don’t offer a helping hand or you won’t have a hand to offer. The word on the street was that he’d extended credit to a struggling mother with a baby. He’d only given her a quart of milk, but word had gotten back. It always did.
That was how the scourge had set it up. Humans were always a little too hungry, and a little too desperate, just enough for some to turn their backs on their neighbor if it meant another meal on the table for their family. It had gotten so bad that some people made things up to report to the HBE.
I reached down, slipped off my shoe, and pulled back the lining, to fish out the single credit I kept for emergencies. A night of broth counted as that. It wasn’t enough for the eggs, but it would cover the loaf.
The door jingled behind me as another customer walked in, and I heard the sound of the refrigerator opening.
“Arnold, do you have any more eggs? It’s an emergency. I’m baking a cake and ran out. Batter’s mixed already,” Mrs. Clementine called out from across the store. Mrs. Clementine’s husband was an accountant and at the top of his field, recruited by the scourge shortly after the takeover. Mrs. Clementine loved to brag about the neighborhood, how the vampires adored her husband so dearly for making sure assets were being tracked and divided equally. She often remarked how stupid the rest of us were for not trying harder to get along with them. She said other things too, but I tuned out everything after that.
The sound of the refrigerator door preceded heels clacking on the floor, heading toward me.
“Arnold, do you have some in the back? I really need eggs. I don’t want my batter to go bad.”
Arnold and I both looked at the eggs sitting in between us on the counter. I’d taken the last carton, and we both knew I wouldn’t be buying them.
Arnold pointed to the eggs. “Do you mind? It’s just…”
I’d seen Arnold’s kids run around the store wearing sneakers with holes that probably pinched their feet. They were gangly, and not from lots of exercise. We all had problems these days.
“Of course not.” I swallowed hard. “You can have these,” I said, picking up the eggs and turning toward Mrs. Clementine, who hovered behind me. “I still have some at home.”
“Aren’t you so sweet.” She took the eggs from my hand with a cool smile that told me she doubted my story.
I turned back to Arnold and handed him my last credit before taking the loaf of bread. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
He nodded, not looking confident that I would. Luckily, this time it was true. I was working tonight.
I walked out of Arnold’s as I dug into my pockets again, making sure I hadn’t somehow missed the credits. I didn’t look up until I hit a brick wall dressed in a leather jacket that was as soft as butter.
I bounced off, slipped on a patch of ice, and landed on my ass. The wall was a middle-aged man of average height, average brown hair, average—everything. He was one of them. Shifters felt like they were flesh-wrapped cinder blocks.
“Sorry, miss.” He bent down, offering me a hand up.
It hovered between us like a viper, ready to bite. I wanted to lop its head off.
“Bigs, leave her be. We don’t have time, and she clearly thinks she’s too good for you.”
I looked past Mr. Average toward the deep voice that was so low it nearly hummed through me. His face was all angles as his broad form leaned against the black sedan like a lethal animal at rest. He was dressed in a shirt so crisp and perfect that his employees must follow him around handing him changes throughout the day. He barely spared me a glance before his attention shifted to his gold watch. A thick lock of dark hair dropped over his forehead and drew my attention to eyes so cool that they could’ve been carved from glaciers.
Bigs’ hand moved slightly closer.
“I’m good.” I got up, avoiding Bigs and noticing the gaping hole in the side of my pants. Dammit. Fucking fucker. There went tomorrow’s eggs. They’d dock my pay tonight to cover the cost of a new pair.
Bigs hesitated nearby before he resigned himself and went inside. The other one had his chilly gaze directed my way as he dug in his pocket. “Here.”
There was a flash of movement before something came flying my way. I didn’t catch it. I didn’t trust him enough to touch whatever was flying at me.
I took a step back as a hundred-credit coin dropped to my feet. My heart did a little flutter as I stared at it. That would buy a whole lot of eggs.
“Take it. Looks like you need it.” His gesture might’ve been generous, but his gaze wasn’t.
“I don’t need your charity.” I narrowed my eyes, trying to show him how much I despised him, his kind, and everything they’d done to us, all in one stare. It was a tall order, but it was all I had. Speaking out of turn to one of the scourge would get you killed, quick and easy.
He lifted his eyes from his phone to meet my gaze, then slowly perused me from head to toe. “Are you sure about that?” He went back to his phone, as if whether I took the coin meant nothing to him.
I should’ve walked away. I couldn’t stop staring at the credit lying on the ground. That coin could feed us for weeks. Why not take it? He didn’t care. He’d moved on, not even paying attention to me anymore. He’d probably leave it on the ground and someone else would pick it up. It was my coin. I leaned down, grabbed it slowly, and turned, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
“Stubborn but not stupid,” he said as I left.
I wanted to turn around and tell him to fuck off. Four years ago, when I’d been a girl of twenty-two who’d aced her MCATS and was attending one the best medical schools in the country, I would’ve turned around and told this asshole to go fuck himself. If I did that same thing tonight, I’d take a beating at the very least, maybe even die. If I survived, there wouldn’t be a single person to complain to, because there was no more police force, not for humans. The police had been absorbed by the HBE. It was more human than creature, and those humans got perks. It was hard when the neighbor you’d made mud patties with was willing to sell you out for a couple muffins at the end of the week.
It didn’t matter. I didn’t have the time to get into a fight. I had to get home before curfew; after that, you had to show a work card, and you needed to be either traveling there or back. So instead of screaming all the obscenities I wanted to, I kept my back to him and pretended the entire scene hadn’t happened, praying that one of these days he’d get his.
There was only one thing left to hope for: that there was some sort of karma in this world and things would right themselves. And one day? These monsters would pay for everything they’d done.