the first chapter of The Broken Ones

The Broken Ones

My mom always told me to never forget to say goodbye to the ones you love; you never know if it may be for the last time. She used to mouth the words “I love you” and wink at me every morning before she left for work, quiet in her affection, as if even then, in the privacy of our own house, they were watching. The day she left for the last time, nothing seemed different. If she knew she was leaving home forever, she didn’t show it. Of course, Mom had always exceled at hiding her emotions when she wanted to, so maybe she knew all along.

Ever since Mom left, I held onto her advice more tightly than ever, as if it were the last string keeping her tied to my life—as if somewhere inside me I still hoped she would come home from work as if nothing had happened and embrace me in her arms. Which is why the memory of my last day with Kit still haunts me. I had every chance to say goodbye. I love you. Don’t panic. Everything will be alright.

But I didn’t.

Kit and I lounged on the couch in the basement, staring into the only mirror in the house. We kept it hidden when guests visited, tucked in the corner of the room, buried beneath old linens. No laws prohibited the use of mirrors, but in our world, they had no purpose—no value. Or maybe I should say in their world. My family’s survival hinged on that single mirror.

“Tell me the rules.” I kept my lips straight, my forehead composed, my eyes firmly forward.

Kit nervously touched the corner of her mouth and started, “Always—”


She jerked her hand from her lips and slid it under her thigh. “Sorry.” Her pale skin flushed red, and her eyes dropped to her lap, blonde hair tumbling into her face.

Frustration burned inside my chest, but I steadied my breathing—in through my nose, out through my mouth—and said without a hint of anger, “Try again.”

Every thought in Kit’s mind appeared on her face. The flutter of her lashes. The obvious attempt to slow her breathing. The inward curve of her cheek where she was chewing the inside of her mouth. The anxious shuffle of her feet on the concrete.

She isn’t ready.

Yet she needed to be. There was no way around it. It was her fifth birthday, and everyone took the test on their fifth birthday. To file for an extension meant only one thing: Your child is an Emotional. And if your child is an Emotional, then—I didn’t want to think about it. Kit would take the test. And pass it, too.

“Rule number one: Always make eye contact.” Her eyes widened, as if to emphasize the point—another gesture that would bring her test to a grinding halt. “Rule number two: Think before you speak.”

“And avoid small talk,” I added.

“Because small talk is bad.”

“And don’t talk too much.”

“Because nervous people talk a lot.”

“And always think of the most logical thing to say.”

“I know, Penny.” Kit rolled her eyes, her annoyance playing out on her face like a death sentence. Then, as she realized what she’d done, her shoulders stiffened and her lips thinned.

“Rule number three?” I asked before she could let even more emotion slip through.

“Stay calm.”


“Blend in.”


“Don’t use body language. Don’t bring attention to yourself. And, um—” She cringed, her eyes squeezing shut at such a careless mistake.

“It’s okay. Just pause. Think. Gather your words. Then speak.”

Her eyes opened. I tapped her grey shirt.

“Oh yeah. Don’t wear anything that makes you stand out.”

“Good.” I nodded. “And rule five?”

“Never, ever, no matter what, smile.”

Then, as if she had been holding it in all morning, Kit smiled, a single dimple appearing on her left cheek. Without any warning, she twirled toward me, her fingers raised and dancing.

Kit,” I said firmly. “This is serious.”

“So is…” she paused for dramatic effect, “the Tickle Monster!”

Her fingers plunged to my stomach and crawled along my skin. I couldn’t help it. My lips curved upward. My body folded in on itself. The hairs on my arms rose. And I started to laugh.

I still remember thinking: thank goodness Dr. Solomon is one of us. Kit would never pass the test without him.

Then I grabbed Kit’s wrists, flipped her onto her back, and showed her how the real Tickle Monster does it.

You see, Kit had a thousand weaknesses, but me? I only had one. Her name was Kit. And had someone told me this was the last time I’d laugh with her, I never would have let her leave the basement that day.

the first chapter of The Withering


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Alice tied the bandana over her mouth and wrapped one of Mr. Sullivan’s old t-shirts around her neck. Beside her, Mr. Sullivan did the same. He looked ridiculous. Clumps of his bushy gray beard curled beyond the edges of the bandana, making his head appear even larger than it already was. This, combined with his red flannel shirt and faded overalls, made him look like a nightmarish cross between a cowboy and a lumberjack.

He gave her the thumbs up and tossed her a pair of gloves. She caught them and slid them over her pale fingers. Sweat trickled down her spine, her soaked shirt sticking to her back. She wrung out her hands and licked her dry lips. She hated this part. More than anything.

She followed him to the bed of the truck and watched him swing open the tailgate. Despite knowing what to expect, she gagged when she saw the bodies. Don’t be stupid, she reminded herself. After all, she had helped load them only thirty minutes earlier.

There were a dozen of them. They all bore the mark of the afflicted; they all had died from the Withering. Like with everyone else who contracted the disease, the mark had spread, enveloping their bodies within days, charring their faces beyond recognition as if they had been consumed by flames. She looked away.

“You okay?” Mr. Sullivan put a gloved hand on her shoulder.

His touch reassured her, at least for the moment, and she climbed into the back of the truck. The stench crept beneath her bandana and into her nose. She dry-heaved as she knelt beside the nearest body. A woman. Alice could only tell because a single high-heel still clung to the corpse’s foot. The rest of her features were indiscernible. Her hair had shed, her skin was flayed, and her lips curled inward.

This was somebody’s daughter. A heavy pressure weighed on Alice’s chest. Maybe even somebody’s mom.

She closed her eyes and counted to ten. Her dad had taught her that. “If you’re ever scared, count to ten.” Yet ten seconds rarely lasted long enough. It hadn’t stopped her from running away from home. It hadn’t kept her from leaving her family to die.

This time, though, it did the job.

When Alice opened her eyes, she grabbed the woman’s ankles and dragged her to the edge of the bed. Mr. Sullivan pulled her over his shoulders as if she were a hunted deer, carried her to the edge of the woods, and dropped her into the trench.

He had dug the trench a month earlier, three weeks after the power went out, four weeks after the news reports promised a government-developed miracle cure, more than two years after the first victims stumbled into the hospitals, the mysterious mark tarnishing their skin. So much for a cure, Alice thought. With no
indication from the outside world that steps were being taken to fix this mess, Mr. Sullivan combed the town for survivors. The problem? There were none. Instead, he began gathering the dead, lugging them up beyond Willoughby’s Pond near the woods, and burning their remains with the hope that one day he and his wife could walk the streets without the fear of becoming sick.

That’s how he had found Alice.

Body after body, she labored beneath the scorching sun, checking the pockets of the dead for anything of value, but mostly all she found was cash and credit cards. What a waste. After passing along the last body to Mr. Sullivan, she sat on the edge of the truck and watched him pour gasoline into the trench. Then he struck a match and let it fly from between his fingers.

A flame erupted, and he staggered away from the inferno. Orange tendrils licked the cloudless sky, black smoke billowing from their tips. She tightened the bandana around her mouth. They always smelled worse when they burned, as if the sickness seeped out of them. She imagined the smoke carried the Withering with it and wondered how Mr. Sullivan had remained healthy for as long as he had.

She couldn’t ignore the morbid irony of him possibly falling ill in his feeble attempt to cleanse the town. His town. Their town. At least that’s what Mrs. Sullivan called it. Though Alice had only been with them for a month, Mr. Sullivan’s wife had already made it clear. “Their” didn’t include Alice.

“I don’t think Mrs. Sullivan likes me very much,” Alice said.

He ignored her, his gaze intent on the fire. Then he pulled off a glove and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. As the flames weakened, he returned to the truck.

“She hates me, doesn’t she?” she tried again.

Mr. Sullivan stared into the bed of the truck and cursed. She followed his stare and immediately saw it. She’d forgotten a body. A child. Her stomach dropped. How had she missed it?

She crawled on hands and knees into the far corner of the truck bed and hovered over the child. A boy, she guessed, because of the blue shirt and grass-stained jeans, as if he had died in the middle of recess. She wrapped her arms around his small frame and cradled him in her lap like a baby. Then again, he practically was. She stared at the black marks covering his skin and then glanced at Mr. Sullivan. With his back to her, he regarded the nearby hills and smoked a cigarette; he always smoked after a burning.

She pulled back her shirtsleeve and stared at the black mark on her wrist. Her eyes shifted to the boy. Then to her wrist again. They were identical. They were the same mark.

“Hurry it up,” Mr. Sullivan called.

In a panic, she yanked
down her sleeve, afraid Mr. Sullivan might discover her secret. Then she lifted the lifeless boy into her arms and carried his body to Mr. Sullivan, but when he reached up to take him from her, she didn’t let go. This one’s mine. She climbed down from the truck.

As she walked toward the trench, she whispered to the boy, “We’re the same, you and me.” A tear spilled down her cheek and dripped off her chin. “Except, it should be you taking this walk, not me. I should be in your arms. I should be the one on fire.”

She reached the trench. The bodies below lay in a blackened heap, buried beneath the blaze. She squeezed the child’s body close to hers, a final farewell hug, and lowered him into the fire.

She finally understood why Mr. Sullivan cried every time he stood beside the trench, why he insisted on doing this god-forsaken job. As the flames swallowed the boy’s youth, her heart broke.

With a whisper, she confessed to the grave, to the boy who never had a chance to live. “If I could, I’d give my life for you.”

But she couldn’t. She’d had the mark for two years now. Since the beginning. It never spread. She never withered. She never died. And at that moment, with her heart not in her chest but burning beside the boy, that was all she really wanted.

the first chapter of The Words of Adriel


Go to your room.

Close the door.

Lock it.

Light a candle.

Turn out the lights.

Before you read further, recite aloud the following words.

I cast aside the shadows that follow me. I shed myself of all that is unholy. Cloak me from the ones who seek to do me harm. Protect me. Guard me. Keep me.

Good. They won’t be able to watch you now. Under no circumstances read beyond this point unless you’ve followed my directions. Otherwise they’ll know I’ve told you. You’ll start to hear them. At first you’ll think they’re just voices in your head, but they’ll grow louder, whispering in your ears all sorts of horrifying things that will keep you awake at night. Then you’ll see them. Everywhere. In the eyes of your friends, down dark alleys, when you’re alone. They’re always there when you’re alone. Keep the candle burning. Keep the door locked. And whatever you do, do not turn on the lights.

It began with a book. It was bound in leather and stuffed with worn, yellowing pages. It sat just out of reach on a top shelf in the school library. Its torn spine caught my attention as I searched the fiction section for the next crime novel to help me fall asleep at night.

My psychiatrist had recommended reading to put an end to my insomnia. Yeah, I see a shrink. I know, right? What thirteen-year-old suffers from insomnia? Give me a break. At least I found a cure. An hour of reading at night clears my mind enough to lull me to sleep within seconds of setting the book aside. Without a book, I’m like Dracula, except instead of wandering the hills of Transylvania looking for girls, I lurk the halls of my house searching for entertainment to waste away the boring hours.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out this book wasn’t a crime novel. Yet something drew me to it. It was calling my name. I didn’t just want this book. I needed it.

I dragged over a nearby chair, pushed it against the bookshelf, and climbed onto its cushion. On my toes I could just reach the heel of the book. I poked at it, trying to drag it from its spot on the shelf. Instead, I accidentally pushed it deeper, beyond reach.

“Excuse me!” a shrill voice sounded from behind me. “You can’t be up there!”

Great. The librarian from Hell. Miss Murphy. She’s so evil she made the Guinness Book of World Records for most detention slips handed out in a single school year. Check it out if you don’t believe me.

Time was running out. I put one leg on the back of the chair, grabbed onto the bookshelf, and lifted myself up. With a desperate swipe of my free arm, I snatched at the top shelf. I missed, connecting instead with a collection of paperbacks. Books rained down on me as I dropped to the cushion, dodging Mary Higgins Clark and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

While I swatted at the onslaught of books, I steadied myself against the bookshelf. Though I regained my balance, the shelf began to teeter. Miss Murphy shrieked and ran in the opposite direction. Another batch of books slid loose and pelted me. I was in the middle of a dodgeball game, except novels had replaced all of the balls.

Not wanting to be crushed by several hundred pounds of literature—I didn’t like reading that much—I threw my body into the shelf, forcing it in the other direction. With my added weight, the entire thing tipped over.

Not good.

You see, Monroe Junior High once won recognition by the local newspaper for having the best selection of books in Monroe, Wisconsin. Row after row of bookshelves lined the library like dominos. And I had knocked one over.

I watched in horror as one bookshelf after another crashed into the next. People scrambled for safety, Miss Murphy screamed, a seventh grader dove for cover and barely avoided being buried alive. Bookshelves splintered upon impact, and the glass case in the center of the library that held the bust of our school’s founder shattered. I closed my eyes and cupped my ears as every last book plummeted to its demise.

Then the screams stopped and a shocked silence settled over the library. I chanced a peek at the destruction, knowing I couldn’t put it off forever. I immediately regretted it. Books littered the floor, loose pages polluted the air like ashes, terrified faces peered through windows and from behind tables tipped on their sides to form barricades. The “Quiet, Please” sign above the librarian’s desk hung from one metal hook.

“Oops,” I said, the sound enough to bring the sign clattering down.

Not again. Call it bad luck, klutziness, or pure stupidity, but this wasn’t the first time I’d been in a situation that ended with everybody staring at me in horrified silence. At my last school I’d gotten a little too curious with the Bunsen burner in the science lab. Turns out nail polish remover is, in fact, flammable. I had to paint my eyebrows on for two months before they finally grew back.

The school before that, we were on a field trip to the town’s oldest museum. I wandered into an “under construction” exhibit honoring the local fire department, flipped the light switch, and sent the whole place up in flames. Apparently the exhibit was under construction due to faulty wiring. Hey, you can’t honor the fire department better than that, right?

And who could forget my first school?  In P.E. we were swimming laps at the high school next door. A girl I liked lost her ring somewhere in the deep end. Being the hero I am, I ran to the athletic closet for goggles. Except in my rush, I didn’t think to check the sign on the door. Let’s just say it wasn’t the athletic closet. To this day, I’ve never heard so many girls scream at once. I also haven’t seen so many—never mind. You get the point.

That’s enough negativity, though. I always like to look on the bright side. The book with the leather cover, the one that had caused this whole fiasco, lay atop the wreckage like a victorious soldier after a hard-fought battle. I crouched down, grabbed it, and tucked it into the back of my jeans, adjusting my belt to keep it in place. Maybe my luck was starting to turn around.

“Blake Mathews!”

Maybe not.

You know you get into trouble a lot when the school librarian knows your full name after your third week at a new school. But like I said, I’m an optimist. At least I hadn’t finished unpacking at home.

Now where would my family move? As you can imagine, blowing up the science lab, burning down a museum, and walking in on… well… you know… all led to the one school-related thing I ever had success in. Suspension. And anything as major as that would give my parents one more reason to relocate. Let’s just say we tended to change addresses more than a baby changes diapers. My parents called it a “new beginning.” Funny how every new beginning had the same ending.

More than ever, I needed to stay out of trouble. I made sure the book was hidden and thought, please don’t let me get suspended again.

“First I find you feasting on potato chips in the biography section, leaving crumbs everywhere.” I’d had a hard time making friends this time around. Apparently my reputation preceded me, and I had a tendency to eat my feelings. “Then I catch you on the computer looking at—I cannot even speak of it without blushing!” It’s not what you’re thinking. I love horror movies. Despite the rumor that Miss Murphy is a vampire, it was a bit too much blood for her to stomach. “And now this! Go to Principal Rhodes’ office this instant!”

With my reputation, I think I disappointed the small crowd that had gathered when I stuttered a brief apology and made for the principal’s office with my head hung low. People never believe me when I tell them I’m not really a rebel. I’m just unlucky.

When I reached Principal Rhodes’ office, a girl was sitting in one of two chairs outside his door. I filled the other. She looked unfamiliar, which I found strange since her short hair was the color of an abnormally bright Smurf. It took me a few seconds to pry my eyes from it. I wound up staring into her eyes. Blues and greens mixed together in a way that practically had me dabbing drool from my lips. She cocked an eyebrow and smiled. A single dimple marked her left cheek and grabbed my attention, saving me from drowning in her eyes.

“What’re you in for?” she asked.

“You don’t wanna know.”

She folded her arms. “Of course I do. Why else would I ask?”

“Thousands of books attacked me.”

Attacked you?”

“Well, I guess you could say I started it.”

“Right. And since you’re here, I’m guessing the books won?”

“They had an unfair advantage.”

“Which was?”

“They had Miss Murphy. Total bloodbath… minus the blood.”

“You bathed in the library with Miss Murphy?” She smiled. “And here we all thought she’d be single forever.”

My face flushed. “You know what I mean.” I shifted nervously in my chair. “Man, I’m not looking forward to another lecture from Principal Rhodes.”

“How come?”

“Really? You have to ask? Haven’t you ever talked to the dude before?”

“Once or twice.”

“Then you should know.”

“Know what?”

“He’s terrifying! The way he looks at me with his beady eyes makes my skin crawl. Every time I see him, I think he’s going to sprout talons, grab onto me, and claw me open or something. For once in my life, it’d be nice to have a pushover for a principal.” Like the bookshelves…


“Yeah, he looks like a—”

Principal Rhodes’ door swung open and he stuck out his head. Beady eyes, arched eyebrows, and a brown rim of hair around a shiny bald head made him look a bit too much like a—

“Vulture,” I said before I could stop myself.

“Contrary to popular belief, Mr. Mathews, I prefer to be called Principal Rhodes. Come in and have a seat.”

“She was here first, sir.”

Principal Rhodes turned his attention to the blue-haired girl. “This won’t take long, pumpkin. Will you be okay?”

Pumpkin? Was this guy colorblind? Her hair was clearly blue. Blueberry made sense, but pumpkins are—

“Yes, daddy.”

Oh snap.

“And daddy? Don’t be too tough on him. He’s still recovering from his recent battle.”

Despite reminding me of a bird that eats rotting carcasses, Principal Rhodes had been patient with me so far, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t get out of trouble with nothing more than a slap on the wrist this time. I followed my usual path to the chair in front of his desk and awaited my fate. Mountains of paper, a tray of pencils, paperclips, and tardy slips, and a half-eaten jelly donut cluttered his desk. I eyed the donut. Blue jelly. What were the odds? Blueberry, perhaps?

Principal Rhodes walked across the room, his dress shoes clicking against the wood floor, and sat across from me.

He didn’t look mad. Of course, he didn’t look thrilled either. Instead, he seemed concerned, as if he couldn’t understand why anyone in their right mind would destroy an entire library. I opened my mouth to explain what had happened, but he silenced me with a lift of his hand.

“How many times have you sat in that chair, Mr. Mathews?”

“Do you mean this exact chair, or any chair in your office? Because I’m pretty sure I sat in that one the last time, sir.” I pointed to a chair in the corner of the room.

Principal Rhodes leaned across his desk, close enough I could smell the jelly donut on his breath. “Now is not the time to be funny.”

Funny? Who said anything about funny? I was serious. “This is the third time, sir.” After the first school I attended, I began adding “sir” when I talked to authority. It backfired at my second school when the principal was a woman.

“And do you know what they say about the third time?”

“Third time’s a charm, sir?”

“Three strikes, and you’re out.”

“Oh, that one,” I said, and when I realized I’d forgotten it, I added, “Sir.”

“Yet you don’t seem to learn your lesson, do you?”

Logic told me to say no, I hadn’t learned my lesson. If suspension didn’t work, then he’d have to find a different punishment. But then I’d have to take responsibility for a total accident, and could I really do that? Obviously the logical thing to do was to choose logic.

“Actually, sir, I did learn my lesson.” What’s so great about logic anyway? “Ever since my first school suspended me, I’ve tried really hard to stay out of trouble. I never do anything wrong on purpose. I’m bad luck. Bad things happen to me and people around me.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Really?” I pointed to where his left arm rested on the desk. “Pick up your arm.”

He lifted his arm to reveal a squished jelly donut clinging to the sleeve of his white button-down shirt. Principal Rhodes nearly sprang from his chair, which tipped backward and balanced on its hind legs.


Too late. The chair tumbled backward with Principal Rhodes in tow. With an uncharacteristic yelp, he landed back-first on the floor. I jumped up to help him, but the look in his eyes told me to sit my butt back down.

Even though he didn’t actually say anything, I found myself yelling, “Yes, sir!” anyway, as if responding to some invisible drill sergeant.

He climbed to his feet and dusted off his clothes. When I tried to speak, he cut me off with a lift of his jelly-covered arm; like his daughter, blue was a good look for him.

“You will join Helping Hands, a club that does community service around town, and serve with them for the remainder of the school year. If I see your face in my office for anything except the delivery of a present on Administrator Appreciation Day, you’ll be on the next bus out of here, do you hear me?”

“I’m guessing it won’t be a school bus attending a field trip, sir?” Idiot, I told myself, knowing he wouldn’t appreciate my comment. Still, I added, “Personally, I prefer those coach buses. They come with a toilet. It saves precious travel time.”

“Out.” His face turned red. “Get out!” All I could see were talons. Long, sharp talons.

“Yes, sir.”

Without another glance at the vulture’s beady eyes or invisible talons, I jumped from my chair and hurried to the door. I smiled at Blueberry, who mimicked being attacked by books, and speed-walked down the hallway. I chanced one last look at her. She clutched her heart, made her body go limp, and slid lifelessly out of the chair. Then she snuck a quick wave as if to reassure me she’d survived. With a smile on my face, I rounded the corner, took a deep breath, and pulled the book from where I’d tucked it into the back of my jeans.

A silver medallion embedded in the worn, black leather glinted against the overhead lights. A cursive ‘A’ marked the medal, a snake coiled around its base. Other than that, it had no title. I checked the spine. Torn, but blank. I opened the book at its center. The yellow pages were empty, not a single word written on them.

All this trouble for nothing? I risked being suspended for this? Desperate, I flipped through page after page only to reveal more blank space. Finally, I turned to the first page to see if it held any publishing information. The words I saw sent a chill trickling down my spine.

One handwritten sentence. Seven words. Familiar words.

Please don’t let me get suspended again.