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Chapter One

On my twenty-first birthday, I woke up dead. The heartbeat that had been my constant companion for the past seven-thousand, six-hundred and sixty-four days stopped pumping sometime during the night and wouldn’t start up again.

Many happy returns, Natalia. Welcome to life as a zombie.

As the sun crept more fully into the room, I lay in bed and let the differences between this morning and every other day I’d woken up, sink in. Once I went downstairs, my mom would see straight away. She’d make phone calls, and soon after that the doctors who trailed my childhood like a sad joke would crowd around to poke and prod and biopsy.

For now, I just wanted to experience the subtle changes for myself.

I had a severe case of dry-eye. When I blinked, the lids were rough against the delicate tissue of my cornea. That was the thing that got me moving. There were eyedrops in my top drawer—usually a bulwark against an all-night cramming session for exams—but they’d work now too, I was sure.

I slid my legs out from under the covers and sloped across the room to fetch them, staring in horror as I caught my reflection in the mirror.

My eyes were yellow.

Sure, I knew that’s what zombies looked like. It was a telltale sign if you missed the shambling walk, the rotting flesh, and the disintegrating voice box screaming out for brains. Still, it wasn’t something I’d ever expected to see staring back at me from a mirror. My guts turned over in a sickening roll, then clenched as tight as a fist.

“Natalia? Are you up, honey?”

My mother’s voice cut through the early-morning stillness like a stiletto sharpened for business. The high voice came part and parcel of her tiny frame, but she’d honed it over the years until it stabbed straight into the side of my head. A few hours of that, and I’d be reaching for the aspirin. Luckily, college took me out of the house for most of the day, and my mom’s work tied her up for half the night.

“I’m coming,” I shouted back down. “I’ll just be a minute.”

She’d see the change immediately, of course. My mother had eyes to match her sharp voice. I loaded up on the drops, turning the world into fuzz, then blinking it back into stark lines.

“Happy birthday, love,” my mom said from the kitchen bench as I walked downstairs. “I’ve left you a present on the table since I probably won’t be back until late tonight.”

I sat at my usual place and picked up the small gift, turning the box over and over. The wrapping paper had been applied by my mom rather than a shop assistant. It was easy to tell that from the tape that had been severed with small, sharp teeth instead of scissors and the rough edge of the paper.

No matter how much my mom tried to be the perfect homemaker, she was far too impatient to spend time doing things perfectly. Instead, she just got them done.

Just like I’d always been taught, I hooked my fingernails under the edge of the tape and lifted it up carefully. Wrapping paper was special, and if I could get it off in one piece, then my mom would store it away for future use. Entire Christmas mornings had passed in slow agony during my childhood, as I spent ten minutes getting into a gift when all I wanted to do was tear the wrapping apart.

“Don’t worry about that,” she said, leaning over and taking it off me.

I looked up astonished as she ripped along the edge and popped out the gift inside. When she caught my expression, Mom shrugged and said, “What? It’s too small to use for anything else.”

The box that had been wrapped up in it was small, too. My mom eagerly leaned forward, watching me fumble with the clasp of the jewelry box and lift the lid.

“Holy shit!”

Startled, I squeezed my hands and the box popped out of them, jumping halfway across the table. “What? What is it?”

A second later, I knew what it was. My mom stared into my eyes, not looking at me but rather at the golden glow of my dead corneas. After a moment, she cupped my cheek with her hand. “Oh, honey.”

I pushed her hand away and reached back over for the small box. “Don’t make a big thing of it, okay?”

“I have to call the doctors, honey. You know that.”

I opened the box and stared at the small, gold chain nestled inside. The inside of the box was covered in velvet, and I stroked the edge with my thumb before lifting the necklace to dangle it in front of me. When I shifted it from side to side, it caught and reflected the morning light. The color had a hint of rose behind the gold, prettier and more delicate than anything I’d ever owned before.

“It’s beautiful.”

“So are you, honey.” My mother reached for the chain. “Here, let me put it on you.”

As she fastened it around the back of my neck, I swallowed past a lump in my throat. My eyes would usually be spurting like geysers in this situation, but their dryness continued. A niggling reminder that I was pretty much fucked.

When my mother moved away, I grabbed her hand to draw her back. I stood up, bending my knees slightly, so I didn’t tower over her. “Please don’t phone the hospital today. I want to be left alone just for my birthday.”

My mother’s stern face softened as I spoke. She gently untangled her hand from mine and stroked back a stray lock of hair that had fallen across my face.

“Okay. I’ll leave it until tomorrow,” Mom said, then waggled her finger at me. “But that’s the only extension you’re getting, do you hear me? They paid most of the deposit for this house, and all your college, so we owe them, right?”

“Right,” I said, leaning forward to kiss her on the cheek. She flinched. Just a tiny movement but enough to make my stomach flip over before pulling into a tight fist again.

“You do have to go see your father, though,” Mom continued as she pulled away and started to clear up the breakfast table. I no longer needed to eat and she’d either done so already or lost her appetite. “He’ll have something for you.”

# # #

My father lived in the bad part of town. Not the worst—I’d heard tales of streets where the population of rabids and dealers were so prevalent that they could only sell to each other—but bad enough that I didn’t like going down there. There were other reasons I didn’t like to visit, too, but the drop in living standards was the easiest one to explain.

As the bus took me from tree-lined avenues, where kids could cycle without fear of being run over because everybody obeyed the low speed-limit without question, through to narrow alleys and shopfronts that looked like a thin disguise to organized crime, I sat back and closed my eyes. The opposite trip I’d keep them open, watching the world improve with every mile, but I didn’t need to see the degradation growing. It would just add to my fear levels, and they were sky-high already.

Breathing. I missed breathing.

There was a corner where the bus had to slow down—five streets intersecting in a confusing maze of lights—and it always made me catch my breath. Thieves, junkies, and men looking to deliver a kicking hung out on that corner, staring in the bus windows as though it was a smorgasbord they could select from.

But this time, I didn’t have breath to catch. No increase in my pulse, no extra thumping from my heart. No gasping, panting, sweating. Nada. Lots of fun, this being dead.

After being dumped at the appropriate bus stop, I ran to my father’s house. Without the lungs or legs on fire reaction I usually got from exercise, I made far better time. Maybe I could have a new career as a track star so long as my limbs stayed intact. Imagine how embarrassing it would be at the track meet if my foot fell off at the starting line.

From the bus stop, my father’s grotty apartment was just a few minutes’ walk away. As I headed for his place, I wrinkled my nose. The scent in this part of town was always disgusting. Even though I hadn’t visited for a few years now, it was instantly familiar. The stench of rot. I’m sure that most of it came from the ramshackle buildings and the tenants who counted decades rather than months between room inspections. Another reason lay beneath all of that, though.

My dad lived in zombie town. Part of the foul odor came straight from their rotting flesh.

When I turned off the main street, the smell grew so bad that I pulled my sleeve down as far as it could go and held that over my mouth as a makeshift mask. A piece of cracked pavement nearly had me sprawling on the sidewalk. The infrastructure down here wasn’t the council’s top priority.

Finally, I reached my dad’s door and tried the bell. Broken. I knocked hard on the wood, causing a cascade of splinters and paint to tumble down to land on the front doorstep.

My sleeve wasn’t doing any good at blocking out the smell. As I waited, a horrifying thought occurred to me. What if I’m the cause of the smell?

Then dad pulled the door open. He looked exactly the same as the young man my mother had fallen in love with so many years ago. Tall, strong, vital. The long, black hair that held a sheen even when it needed washing had been passed down to me. That and his chiseled, jutting chin. And now, of course, the yellow glint of his eyes.

Dad took a step back when he saw me, his eyes widening in surprise. My stomach clenched even tighter, preparing for rejection.

But his expression edged into delight and he pulled me close into a hug. “Birthday girl! I wasn’t expecting to see you.”

Once the court-mandated visitation ended, I’d never stopped by to visit voluntarily. No wonder he was shocked to see me.

“What’s this?” he asked, pointing at the gold chain around my neck. “If you have to wait for the bus back, I’d advise keeping anything that pretty thing hidden.”

I flipped up my collar and dropped the necklace down on the inside. The thought hadn’t occurred to me on the long trip over. I’d forgotten that my birthday present even hung around my neck.

“I see that some other things have changed,” my father said, his voice deliberate and delicate. “Has this just happened today?”

My hand went up to my throat as it spasmed like I was choking. I nodded, not trusting my voice would be there if I opened my mouth.

“Oh, honey. That’s not a great way to start your birthday, now is it? Did your mom ask you to come over?”

I nodded again. Something shifted behind Dad’s eyes, and he took a step farther back from me. A frown creased his forehead, and he sighed.

“I guess it was too much to hope for that you just wanted to stop by and see your old dad.”

He’d turned and left the room before I could think about a response. The irony of his words struck me. The man moving through this dingy apartment didn’t look a day older than twenty-five. If I turned up at a rave tonight with him on my arm, nobody would look twice.

No matter how old my dad felt, he would never look a day over the age he was when he died.

Neither will you.

I stepped away from the voice and moved into his lounge. It only took two steps, the apartments in this building were tiny. I complained of the same at home but here was on a different scale altogether. More like a cage than a house.

My father reappeared and handed a small box over to me. “Here you go.”

I had a flash of déjà vu as I lifted the lid to reveal a bed of velvet inside. Laid on top was a yellow amulet, flashing with squiggles of orange light.

“What is it?” I touched my index finger to the stone, tentative.

“Here,” my dad said, taking the box from me. “You unhook your necklace, and I’ll string this on.”

I took a step back, eyebrows raised. “It looks like it shoots out electricity.”

“It shoots out something,” my dad agreed, “but not electricity. It’s a spell that will stop you from decaying. Look.”

He placed the box down on the counter and undid the first two buttons of his shirt. A pendant dangled there, filled with the same strange light as the amulet. “See. It’s not doing me any harm.”

Flashes and pulses of light emitted out from the dangling necklace. As I watched, one shot out the side, hit my father’s chest, wriggled into his skin, and disappeared.

“And it doesn’t hurt?”

My father gave a snort of laughter. “Nothing really hurts when you’re like us.”

I flinched back at the statement. I wasn’t like my father, never had been. Didn’t even want to acknowledge he was part of my family. If he’d been any good, then my mother would never have broken up with him.

“The only thing that hurts nowadays is if the chain falls off when I’m asleep or something. Rotting doesn’t hurt, but it does up here.” My father tapped his fingers against his temples. “Keep the amulet on you at all times, and you won’t ever experience that. Once you decay, even a little bit, you can’t turn that back to freshness. Enough of that and… Well. You know.”

Of course, I knew. Everyone knew. My lip curled as I put a shaking head up to my forehead. There wasn’t a headache there. My dad was right on that score, at least. Apart from the tight knot in my stomach, I wasn’t feeling any pain.

“Okay,” I said. “You can put it on me.”

“Remember to keep it hidden,” my father instructed me as he did up the clasp at the back of my neck. I watched from the edge of my eye as a flash of light pulsed out of the amulet and dove into my upper chest. A tingle and it disappeared. I rubbed the spot. Nothing different. Nothing hurt.

“Let me see.” My father pulled my shoulder to turn me around to face him. “Drop it down the front of your blouse. It’s illegal to wear these, or against the city ordinances, anyways. Keep it out of sight, and you’ll stay out of trouble.”

I lifted up the amulet, surprised at its warmth and its weight, and dropped it down between my breasts. It lodged in the top of my bra. Since nobody was going to look down there, not on my watch, then it should be safe enough.

“Was that all?” I asked, and the smile fell away from my father’s lips.

“It’s good to see you, Natalia. Don’t you want to stay for a bit and catch up?”

My head was shaking before he got to the end of his question. “I’ve got college this morning. I’m running late as it is.”

“I’ll walk you to the bus stop.”

I was about to shake my head again, then shrugged instead. The less time I spent alone in this part of town, the better.

Remind me never to revisit zombieland.

We walked outside and around the corner. When my father reached for my hand, I jerked it out of reach and took a step away.

No one likes to be seen with a zombie.

Chapter Two

I didn’t make it more than half a dozen steps inside the main hallway of the college before I noticed people staring oddly at me. Damn it. Instead of the stupid necklace perhaps my father should have invested in some contact lenses instead.

Even walking with my head down, giveaway yellow eyes glued to the floor, I could feel the stares hitting against my back.

“Natalia,” my friend Emma called out, throwing an arm over my shoulder. “Geez, girl. I thought you weren’t going to make it.”

“Birthday celebrations and all that,” I said. “Mom made me go and visit my dad.”

Emma was good enough of a friend that she didn’t question any further. She was also good enough not to say anything, even though when I looked up she flinched at the sight of my eyes.

“So, you’re twenty-one now. Able to drink and able to party. Feel any different?”

There was the trace of a wince on Emma’s face after the last words and I smiled. If anything, my friend had been gifted with the talent for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

“I feel very old and very wise,” I said, putting her out of her misery. “I also feel like maybe I should speed up if I’m going to make it to Professor Phillips’ lecture.”

Emma glanced at her watch and broke into a run beside me. My sneakers squeaked on the polished wooden floor of the corridor as we rounded the last bend.

Emma grabbed at my arm as I reached out to open the door. “Just a moment, let me catch my breath. I don’t want to go in there panting.”

I raised my eyebrows but said nothing. Emma had a crush on the professor that would have been sad if it hadn’t been so sweet.

We were late into the lecture hall, but not so late that we earned a reprimand. The professor hadn’t even shown up yet, so we chose a seat as near to the front as we could get. As I sat next to Emma, a student further down the bench seat looked in horror at my face, then jerked his elbow into the ribs of the guy seated next to him. With a quick exchange of eyebrows and shaking heads, they stood in unison and exited the opposite side of the row to walk up to the back.

I pulled out my notebook and recorder and placed them on the bench in front of me, then stared fixedly at them. Perhaps I should have stayed at home. It would have gotten me better odds at having a happy birthday.

“Are you okay?” Emma whispered. From the corner of my eye, I watched the professor enter the class and walk across the stage to the lectern.

I nodded but kept staring down at my notebook. Probably best if I never made eye contact with anybody ever again.

Although I usually enjoyed the lectures on child psychology, my mind was completely overwhelmed with other thoughts during the lecture. I hoped at the end, as I gathered up my things, that the recorder did a better job of recall than I would. Even when I concentrated, I honestly couldn’t remember a single word he’d said.

“We have time before our next class,” Emma said as we walked free of the other students. An easy feat as most of them took one look, then headed the other way. “Do you want to grab a bite at the diner? My treat.”

“Sure,” I said, regretting it a minute later as we crossed the campus and walked through the door. The place was pretty close to empty, anyway. A minute after we slid into a booth, that changed to completely.

“What’ll you have?” Emma asked. “Do you think brains are on the menu?”

The question startled me so much that I looked across at her, my mouth dropping into an o-shape.

“It was just a joke,” Emma hastened to add. She rubbed her forehead and looked dismayed. “I don’t think I’m handling this right.”

That earned her a grin. “I don’t think I’m doing all that well, either. We both suck so much at this, I vote that I wake up alive again tomorrow.”

Emma looked relieved as she giggled at the small joke. “Do you eat now?” she asked in a whisper, leaning close across the table. “I don’t know what the rules are.”

The question hadn’t occurred to me, but then I thought of my mom welcoming me downstairs this morning. She’d called me down for breakfast, but as soon as she saw my eyes, she’d cleared all that stuff away.

Thinking harder, I realized that my dad’s apartment was so small because it didn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom. How did I not know this stuff? I’d lived my whole life with a zombie as a dad and never even thought to ask.

“I don’t think so.” I rubbed my hand across my belly, which felt stiff. “Even if I’m meant to I don’t think I could. My stomach’s in knots.”

“Poor baby.” Emma reached out to squeeze my shoulder. “Lucky thing I already said it was my treat because now you obligated to shout the next one.”

I laughed at that, feeling better than I had all day. Emma was always like that. No matter what depth of a mood I arrived at college in, she could joke me out of it. Maybe in a few minutes, or a few hours, but her charm and easy-going nature were infectious. I reached across to grab her hand. I was so lucky to have such a nice friend.

All the warmth in the room faded as the waitress approached out table. “You can’t be in here.”

Within a second, Emma had risen out of her chair and was poking her finger in the woman’s face. “Back off, lady. There are anti-discrimination laws in the city now, remember?”

Because zombies are so hated that people have to suffer penalties to remind them to be nice.

“Don’t worry,” I said, reaching out to grab at the edge of Emma’s hoodie and give it a tug. “We can go.”

Emma crossed her arms over her chest. “We’re not going anywhere.”

“Yeah, you are,” the waitress said. She planted her hands on her hips, while still wearing the same bored look on her face. “It’s nothing to do with discrimination, girlie. It’s part of the mandated food safety act.” She pointed her finger toward a large sign that hung on the back of the door. “You can read about it there. No zombies. Nothing to do with discrimination. Rotting flesh is just unhygienic.”

“But you—”

I stood and grabbed Emma around the shoulders. “Let it go.” I dragged her toward the door. The waitress had such a satisfied look on her face that I wanted to smash it into oblivion for a second. Then I was back out the door, Emma struggling in my arms.

“They can’t do that!”

“I think they probably can.” It was such a change to be the calm one that I smiled again. “And I guess that means you’re not treating me after all.”

“In which case, we may as well head to the library and get some study done.”

“Nuh-huh.” I wagged her arm back and forth. “You still need to eat.”

“But if you’re not—”

“We can’t do everything together,” I pointed out, still wearing a happy smile on my face. “Not now. You’re just going to have to get used to me staring at you while you eat.”

Emma snorted then quickly raised a hand to her face, looking around to see who’d heard. “Such a lady,” I teased.

“You make lunch sound so appealing,” Emma retorted. “How can I turn down being stared at by a zombie every day while I eat?”

“Not every day.” I followed along as Emma made her way to the food cart. “There’s no way I’m interrupting my busy schedule on the weekend. You’ll have to find someone else to stare at you on those days.”

# # #

“Holy hell,” I said as we left the afternoon class. “I can’t believe that they do all those experiments with children and their parents never complain.”

Emma laughed and gave me a shove in the shoulder. “You make it sound like they’re poking them with needles or something. All they did was give one of them a sandwich and not the other.”

“So cruel.” I put my hand over my heart. “Can you imagine being the one who ended up with nothing under the cloche? If the world had to depend on little kids sharing, I think we’d all starve!”

“Hey, most of them did okay.”

I turned to send back another volley in the conversation and accidentally bumped into someone’s shoulder.

“Sorry,” I said automatically, turning to see who it was.

Angela Kingie stared back at me. Oops.

“What the fuck are you doing at lectures, zombie-girl? Don’t they have schools for your kind?”

My spine bristled as I gritted my teeth. “Sorry to bump into you, Angela. I’ll pay better attention where I’m walking.”

It felt like a betrayal to apologize so meekly but Angela ran the campus. Her sorority house was the most popular, most exclusive, most… Well, the most everything. If I got on her bad side, I’d spend the rest of my final year looking over my shoulder.

Angela raised up her pert nose and gave a sniff. “Can anyone else smell that?”

All around us, students crowded closer, anticipating that the altercation might turn physical.

“I’m late for my next class.” I took a step backward, then another even though that bumped me up against a crowding gang of students who pushed me back, refusing to part. “Let me through. I don’t want to fight.”

Oh, but that wasn’t true. I wanted to pound Angela’s face into the sidewalk until gravel crusted her face like harsh glitter. I tried again, attempting to sound more contrite this time. “Look, I don’t want any trouble—”

Angela cut me off, “It smells like something’s rotting.”

She reached out a hand and grabbed hold of my collar, pulling me closer. For a second, I couldn’t work out the right course of action. If I laid my hand on her, it might start something physical.

Angela could end up with a bruise or a split lip, injuries that would heal. Mine would stay. I’d seen zombies who looked like they’d just stepped out of a twelve-round battle with a heavyweight. I turned my face to one side, eyes scanning the assembled crowd for help.

Angela stuck her nose close to my neck and took a deep sniff. “Ugh. This one’s definitely let herself go.”

I jerked my body backward, trying to get away. As I backed up a step, my collar still held in Angela’s tight fist, the buttons on my blouse popped free, unable to stand the strain.

“Well, there’s no need to put on a show,” Angela crowed with delight. “Nobody wants to see a dead chick’s tatas.”

She released her hold, and Emma grabbed my arm to pull me further away. Judging by the rapt expressions on some of the boys faces, they did indeed want to see a dead girl’s breasts. I tried to do up my buttons, but they’d flown clean off.

“What’s that?” Angela was pointing a perfectly manicured fingernail straight at my chest, her eyes wide.

I clutched the torn sides of my blouse together, backing away, Emma still holding my arm but now bending over me in a protective hunch.

“It’s nothing.”

Angela rushed at me, then, her eyes gleaming and her nostril’s flaring as though what she scented wasn’t rotting flesh but a new opportunity for a fight.

“You’re not allowed one of those on campus,” she squealed, reached out for the amulet. Reaching out for the one thing dad had told me to keep hidden. The only thing keeping my dead body close to alive. “Give it here!”

Chapter Three

In the dean’s office, my rage and fear bubbled over. “That necklace was a birthday present from my mother, this morning. Angela had no right to try to take it from me.”

Fury engulfed me to the point that my pulse should have been racing along at double time. The fact it wasn’t, made me even angrier. Even the dean shrank under my searing gaze.

Not that it stopped him doing his job.

“I understand that you felt threatened by Angela’s actions, but we can’t condone violence under any circumstances. This is a college campus, not a fight club. In deference to our other students’ need for safety, I must ask you to leave.”

“But I—”

“Come on, Natalia.”

Emma pulled at my elbow, but I wasn’t going anywhere. Not yet. This was meant to be my birthday, a day of supposed significance in my culture. No way was I letting it go any further off the rails than it already had.

“Look,” I said, holding my hands up, palms toward Mr. Anderson. It left the front of my blouse gaping open again, a tear that it seemed he purposefully didn’t allude to. “I didn’t actually commit an act of violence, not at all. I just saw Angela’s hand grabbing at my neck and threw my hands up in reflex. You can’t hold me responsible for biology.”

The dean’s smile grew so cold that I could feel its chill piercing into the dead hole where my heart used to be.

“I think that we all know that’s not true,” he said, leaning forward. “For a person to have reflexes, I think you know that they have to be—” he cleared his throat “—um, alive.”

I was still shaking with anger as I walked out of the dean’s office. When his secretary waved me over, I dreaded what else was in store, but the gray-haired woman just handed over a stapler and jerked her head at my peep-show top. “It won’t do forever, but it’ll hold you until you get home.”

“I suppose I should feel lucky that I was only suspended,” I grumbled, walking with Emma down the hall to exit onto the campus quadrangle. “If I don’t finish off this year and earn my degree, my mother will literally kill me.”

“I thought she’d offered for you to go and work with her at the council offices?”

I nodded glumly at Emma. “Yeah. That’s what I said. Literally. Kill. Me.”

She laughed and hooked her arm around my elbow. “That doesn’t sound too bad to me. I don’t know how I’m going to find a job, even with a degree.”

“When I started this course, the campus guidance counsellor said that their students always ended up with placements at the end,” I said with a frown. “I’m pretty much banking on it.”

“Yeah,” Emma agreed. “But that was a few years ago now. In case you hadn’t noticed, things have changed.”

“What do you mean?” I stopped walking, suddenly feeling a lot more pressure crushing down on my head than I had all day. “Why wouldn’t they need child psychologists?”

Emma shook her head. “Don’t listen to me. I’m just in a bad mood.”

I frowned at her, tilting my head. Emma was never in a bad mood. “I know they had layoffs in the city earlier in the year…” I began, then trailed off.

There’d been stuff on the news but to be honest, I hadn’t paid much attention. School took up a lot of my time. Trying not to fall to the lowest ladder in the social hierarchy of college took up the rest.

“Yeah, forget it. I’m sure everybody will jump at the chance to hire us.” Emma paused for a long time. “So long as the school lets you back in.”

“They’d better.” I stamped my foot then resumed my slow walk. “If they don’t, then maybe I will file an anti-discrimination thingy against them. The dean didn’t seem the slightest bit interested in punishing Angela and she’s the one who started it.”

Now that I’d been lectured, punished, and pushed out of the office, I started to feel the full inequity of the situation. “Just because her dad contributes squillions shouldn’t mean she has carte blanche to do whatever she likes.”

“It shouldn’t mean it,” Emma agreed, “but you know as well as I do that it does.”

We turned to cut across the park. The large quadrangle of lawn and picturesque trees covered most of the entrance to the campus. There were benches dotted about, although most students didn’t bother to use them, preferring instead to loll about on the grass.

“I better get going,” Emma said, giving me a final squeeze before letting me go. “I’ve still got the basic anatomy to get through before I can leave for the day.”

I stopped walking to give her a quick hug goodbye. Some lout nearby sent a piercing wolf-whistle our way but stopped short when I offered him a yellow-eyed glare in return. “I’ll give you a call tonight,” Emma promised, tossing a wave over her shoulder. “I’m sure you won’t miss much.”

As I watched her walk back onto campus that sentiment just didn’t ring true.

# # #

The hot sun beat down on me as I crossed the square, creating a helmet of warmth that would soon turn into the tight steel bands of a headache if I remained outside too long. I’d decided to head into town since I had nowhere else to be.

My heels clipped off a staccato beat on the stone tiles underfoot and I kept my eyes focused down, a yard in front of me, watching for the slippery sheen that indicated uncertain footing.

As I moved into the center of the city’s pedestrian mall, the chairs and tables lining the shopfronts on either side grew more numerous. A steady hubbub of chatter rose from the customers seated, sipping coffee with an aroma so heavenly that my stomach did backflips of longing. I couldn’t afford these prices no matter what tricks it performed.

You can’t drink it, remember? my mind whispered with spite.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Lee Hayton (a USA Today bestselling author) is the nom-de-plume of Katherine Hayton—a middle-aged woman who works in insurance, doesn't have children or pets, can't drive, has lived in Christchurch her entire life, and currently resides a two-minute walk from where she was born. For some reason, she's developed a rich fantasy life.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Probably some deep-rooted fear wriggling around in the base of my brain. When I was a kid, I used to have terrible nightmares and still have pretty good recall of most of them. Occasionally things will bubble up to the surface to be recycled as a new story.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
To me, Urban Fantasy is like a flash fiction version of high fantasy but with just as much story meat on its bones. When reading, I find it easier to connect and empathize with the characters because most of them are just like me but magic. Or with special powers. Or a zombie.

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