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First pages

Chapter 1

Once upon a time, there were three siblings and their two cousins who did everything together. As young children, they were bonded in a way which felt as if it would last forever. But three fell away, and one was injured. The circle of five was eternally shattered.

I toss and turn in bed. My everlasting pain haunts my dreams every single night. My subconscious mind starts the story of five children: me, my sister Cassie, my brother Pike, and my cousins Leroy and Frank, and tries to end it differently. It never succeeds. Sometimes I think it will work, but then I wake up. Reality in the form of being consciously aware has a way of destroying the best-laid fantasies.

“Here I am, Cassie. My dream brought me back.” I cheer for joy as I enter our old playroom.

“Bethy? I didn’t know you were gone. Here, let’s play with my toys.” My sister smiles at me with rapture.

I’m six and she’s seven this time. Somehow, I just know.

“No. My toys,” three-year-old Pike declares. He grabs the dolls from our hands and toddles away in his saggy diaper.

“Pike! You bring them back right now,” Cassie yells. “You spoiled brat!”

“No, let him have them,” I cajole. “You don’t understand how precious this is to me. I’m from the future. In the future, you’re both gone, and so is Leroy.”

As often happens in my dream world, Cassie doesn’t believe me. “Where would we go?” she asks. “We’re not going anywhere. Pike! Get back here with my dolls, darn it.”

Pike slams the dolls on the floor, making their bodies bend and snap.

“I’ll get you!” Cassie yells, chasing after him.

I glance at the room’s far corner, where Leroy is sitting, calmly appraising us. “You know I’m from the future, don’t you?” I ask him. He must be three years old in this dream, but he seems so much older.

“Yes, I understand,” he says softly. “Don’t wake up, Bethy. Stay asleep. Keep the dream alive.” He rolls his toy truck back and forth.

“But I can hear my alarm. I have to go,” I explain. Its shrill ring is piercing my dreamscape, threatening to rip it apart.

“No, you don’t. Not today. It isn’t time,” Leroy argues, sounding wise beyond his years, as always. “Stay asleep a little while longer.”

“But I can’t be late for school. I’ve had perfect attendance all year. I know my visits are important to you, but—”

The playroom rips in half, shredded straight down its center by an earthquake.

“Oh, no, it’s back,” Leroy shouts, struggling to stand only to get knocked back down by the tremors. “Don’t let it reach you!” He and I stare at where the missing half of the room has dropped off the face of the earth. The area has morphed into a ripping, gaping maw of darkness and hellfire. Leroy scooches backward, frantic.

“Pike,” Cassie yells, unawares. “Let go of my doll. I’m going to tell on you.” She hasn’t yet noticed the jagged gash in the room and all it represents: her empty future; her life, tragically cut short.

“I have to go. I need to wake up and live my day,” I explain, feeling urgent. “Cassie, leave Pike alone and pay attention to me. You need to take action and change the course of your life.”

Every night in my dreams, I try to explain, and every night, she doesn’t comprehend. “Pay attention, just this once. Do not fall asleep on the night of November fourth when you’re thirteen. Are you listening to me?”

I don’t think she is, but she abandons her chase of Pike and turns to me. “Don’t go. The darkness won’t let you.” Her suddenly somber voice lightens a bit. She yanks on my sleeve. “Stay and play. Help me fix my dolls. Don’t wake up.”

“I don’t have a choice,” I insist. “Why do you always make this so hard for me?”

I force myself to become aware of my body in bed, and I try to smack my face. Sometimes it’s the only way to wake up when my alarm doesn’t get the job done.

I sit up in bed with a gasp, as though I’m emerging from a still, cold pond which hides invaluable treasure within its murky depths. A glance at my alarm clock makes it clear that I won’t be on time to school today—not even close. I am such a failure. At least my anatomy test is near the end of the school day.

I’m finishing my junior year today, but I should be graduating. I’ll be nineteen in mid-September. When you combine my early-in-the-schoolyear birthday with the fact that I fell behind a year, the sum total is me: a demoralized, elderly high-school student. Sometimes it feels as if my life went off the rails at one point, and I’ll never get it back on track.

My disciplined nature kicks in, and I pull my sorry self out of bed. With heavy reluctance, I shove the dream from my mind. I used to fear the dream would stop happening, but every night, it returns. I return.

Oh, no. Seriously? I am totally not being pulled over by the police right now. This wasn’t on today’s agenda. How could this happen? It wasn’t even my fault. I’m being blamed for a faulty green light? How could everything go so dreadfully wrong today? It’s the last day of school, the sky is blue and the sun is shining, but nothing is going as it should. I woke up late, I couldn’t find my car keys, and now—

Tap, tap.

I jerk, recover, and roll down my window with the push button.

Okay, okay, calm down and breathe. What are you supposed to say in this situation? Oh, right. I’ve got this. “Is there a problem, officer?” I bat my eyes and gaze up at him.

He’s tall, broad, muscular and has one of those familiar-looking faces which makes you think he could be the guy living next door. He has pale coloring and short-cropped hair. “Yes, ma’am, I’d say so. It’s early still. Are you not yet awake? I imagine you’re driving to school, but it’s dangerous to drive when you aren’t fully alert.”

“I agree with you one-hundred percent. It’s irresponsible to drive if you’re tired, texting, or distracted. You couldn’t pay me to be so reckless.” I can’t hide my vexation. How dare he accuse me of going against my safety rules!

“Ma’am, the car behind you honked three times before you proceeded through the green light. Have you had your license long? I’ll need to see it, by the way.”

“I am a good driver,” I say, feeling forthright. “Green means go… duh! This isn’t my fault. The green light is out. I bet the bulb needs to be replaced, or something. You should look into it. You’re a police officer, after all, and it’s a safety issue. Without the green light lit, those of us who drive cautiously are afraid to go forward.” I frown.

“Wow! You hear something new every day. Ma’am, I saw the light with my own two eyes just now. Oh, thank you.” He takes my driver’s license from me and glances at it. A sudden shadow darkens his face, and I pray I’m imagining it. “What? Um… I’ll be back momentarily. Don’t drive off.” And he disappears. I eye him warily as soon as he enters the range of my rearview mirror.

Whatever. I cross my arms in a pout. I am the safest driver on the road. When my father put me in driver’s ed a few years ago, I memorized The Safety Code for Young Drivers pamphlet word for word. Who cares if the other kids in driver’s ed just wanted to burn rubber? It will be their loss when they crash and burn on the highway.

I gulp and quickly try to finger-comb my chin-length brown hair. It isn’t as though I want anyone to get hurt. I just wish others would value safety with as much passion as I do. That’s all. Really. The world would be better if—

“Ma’am? Miss Leonard? Are you being completely honest with me about the traffic light?” The cop has returned.

“Yes.” There’s an edge to my voice. I can’t help but wonder—is he telling the truth about the green light having been lit? The thought makes me jittery, so I shove it from my mind. “You can drive back there if you want to see what I’m talking about.”

“That won’t be necessary. I’d like for you to park your car in the nearby lot over there and come with me.”

My eyes open wide as I turn to gawk at him. I have to bend my neck all the way back to gaze at his face. He’s standing taller now instead of leaning over for my benefit. “Am I under arrest? I’m a good person and a law-abiding citizen. Arresting me would be a mockery of our judicial system. But take me if you must. Take me in chains.” I offer him both of my wrists in a dramatic gesture of defiance.

He smiles a little, but it could be a smirk. “Don’t tempt me. No, ma’am. You’re not in any trouble. Can you just pull your car into the lot, please?”

“Fine.” I start my car and drive it into the lot. I exit the car with my purse, leaving my heavy backpack behind, and I climb into the squad car.

“What if someone I know sees me in a cop car? Officer, I am not a criminal.” I place my palm on my chest. “I’m a good citizen who thinks safety on the road cannot be too high a priority.” Okay, I did not just say that. Yes, I did. I grimace. Well, he made me say it.

“Miss Leonard, it’s only bad to be seen riding in the back seat. You’re riding shotgun.” He flashes me his smirk again. “You’re hardly handcuffed and helpless.” He blushes at his remark, but I roll my eyes.

“Are you sure my car will be okay? There’s no way you could know this, but I really like my car.”

“Yes, your car will be fine. Again, as soon as my partner makes a few calls, she’s going to transport your car safely to your home address.” He emphasizes the word “safely.”

“But… but… what if she wrecks my car?”

“Seriously? You’re asking me that?”

“Yes. I’m not sure if my dad’s insurance policy would cover it.”

“Well, let me put your mind at ease. My partner has never been directly responsible for totaling someone else’s car.”

“Would she tell you if she had?”

He blinks. “It’s confidential.”

“Well, has she ever wrecked her own car?” I interrogate him. “If so, she might be unfit to drive mine.”

He stops at a traffic light and gives me a look. Uh oh. “Would you like me to ask her? It won’t make her happy. And when she’s not happy, I’m not happy. I have to share this car with her for several hours a day. It’s our home on wheels, and you’re currently sitting in her seat. That alone makes her unhappy.”

He sighs, exasperated. But it’s not my fault his partner is such a high-maintenance woman. I’m not going to hurt her silly seat in this car. I bet she’s way too uptight.

I fold my arms across my chest and slouch down in her seat. “Forget it. I’m supposed to take my anatomy final later this afternoon, just so you know. If I miss it, I might never escape high school.”

“And that would be a terrible fate, indeed,” he agrees. A snicker escapes his lips. “I thought you were in college.”

I glower. I should be entering college this fall, and thank you so much for reminding me of my failures, Mr. Cop. My life is so messed up. “So?”

“So, if you were on your way to high school, I’d say you were tardy. Truant, even. High school started two hours ago.” He shakes his head and tsk-tsks me.

Oh, geez. I shake my head and refuse to address the issue. “Where are we going? Are you dragging me to a dark dungeon somewhere?”

“Hold on a minute.” He talks police gibberish into an elaborate handheld device and shuts it off. “Okay. I’m officially off-duty as of fifteen minutes ago. I’m taking you to see my older brother. He’s an ophthalmologist. I also plan to call your parents and have them pick you up from his office. You, uh… live with your dad, don’t you?”

“Yeah, him and his wife.” I stare out the window, sullen. “Do you want to know what I think?”

“No, not really. But go ahead and tell me.” He sighs, annoyed, and reaches for his coffee mug.

“I think you’re taking me to see an eye doctor because you don’t want to acknowledge how the green lightbulb is burnt out back at the intersection.”

“Really?” he says, setting down his coffee and shooting me a cheesy grin. “Is that so, Miss Leonard? Is that your clinical assessment of my fine policing skills?”

“Yes. It’s what I think.” I glower at him.

“Okay, I’ve heard enough. We’re going to the medical complex in style, young lady. Hold onto your seat. Or rather, my partner’s seat.” He turns on the siren, steps on the gas, and whips the car back and forth between four very busy lanes of traffic, not all of them going in the same direction.

I gasp, panic stricken, as he drives with wanton endangerment. I’m going to die! I’m going to die! We’re going to crash and burn. Heaven help me. Louisville isn’t meant to be seen at this speed. I struggle to find my voice. “I’m sorry!” I finally yell.

“That’s better.” He turns off the siren and resumes driving normally. “Now, you’d better behave yourself or I’ll put you in the backseat where the bad guys ride.”

Oh, brother. Could he be more patronizing? The bad guys? Really? Despite my sarcastic thoughts, it’s a struggle to regulate my breathing after such a terrifying ordeal.

“Fine, whatever,” I mumble. “You’re the cop.” I squirm in discomfort. I hate being one-upped! I’ll get my revenge somehow, and he won’t even see it coming. Humph.

“And don’t you forget it, Miss Leonard.”

I sneak a glance at his face. “You seem awfully young. Did you just graduate from cop school, like, a week ago?”

He harrumphs and scratches his cheek. “It’s not called ‘cop school,’ you smart aleck. And I’ve been on the force for three years, ever since I became eligible at the age of twenty-one. Prior to that, I…” His voice drifts off. He mumbles something, but I don’t catch it.

“You what?”

“Uh… you don’t remember me, do you?” His piercing blue eyes glance at me swiftly several times.

I freeze. My body tenses into protection mode—no muscles moving, no inhalations, no direct eye contact with the person who made me feel this way.

“I’m sorry,” he relents. “I—”

“It’s okay. You just thought I was someone else. It could happen to anyone.” The words come out with a weak level of conviction.

“Right,” he says, all too quickly.

The midmorning sun is blinding. I want to lower his partner’s sun visor, but I don’t want to risk her certain wrath.

He speaks more police gibberish into his handheld device. A moment later, he pulls the squad car into the parking area for a large medical complex. “You know, Bethy, I can—”

“It’s Beth.”

My hands clutch the straps of my purse in a death grip. I haven’t been called Bethy in years. Most of the people who used to call me Bethy are dead.

“Elizabeth Leonard?” A healthcare practitioner dressed in periwinkle scrubs peers over her thin eyeglasses as she locates me in the waiting room.

I stand. “Thank you, Officer…” I glance at his chest. “Officer Sweatherly. I can take it from here.”

“The S is an initial, smart aleck. My last name’s Weatherly. Weath-er-ly.” He runs his finger under his name tag, pointing out each syllable. This is the first time I’ve been higher up than him, since I’m standing while he’s sitting. I still feel infinitely smaller. “Are you sure you’re good to go? I can keep trying to reach your dad for you.”

I grimace. “I have my cellphone with me, right here in my purse. I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”

He sighs and stands. He hovers over me by about six inches. For a moment—one fleeting moment—I suddenly feel safe. It’s a good feeling, a warm feeling. Officer S. Weatherly’s authoritative air feels comforting in a world of chaos and confusion. “All right. Well, good luck, and tell my brother I said hi. He likes to brag about how he’s a big, impressive eye doctor and I’m just a cop.”

The warm feeling grows stronger. I expected him to be mad at me for being such a brat during the trip here, but he isn’t mad at all. It’s a pleasant, unexpected surprise.

I narrow my eyes at his remark. “There isn’t anything wrong with being a policeman. You live dangerously while your brother plays with eye charts all day.”

He chuckles. “Oh, wow. I wish you were around for the holidays.” He blushes, unable to meet my gaze.

“You can tell your family members I said so,” I offer.

“I guess you’re right.” He nods several times, his gaze fixated on the ceiling. “Anyway, I hope you—” He’s interrupted by his walkie-talkie thing and its indecipherable, robotic language. He seems about ready to ignore it altogether, but I suddenly feel awkward.

I rush to wrap this up. “I’ll be fine. Thanks a lot. I’d better go see the doctor.” I smile like a freak, wave like a geek, and head toward the nurse, who’s peering at us with a healthy amount of curiosity.

She ushers me into a small exam room which is filled with the requisite eye charts and equipment. “Is he Dr. Weatherly’s kid brother?” she asks. “Oh, honey. He’s fine. You could do a lot worse than him.”

“Oh. You think? Um, you should ask him out, then,” I suggest, feeling dazed and disoriented.

She shakes her head. “He’s out of my league.”

“That bites,” I sympathize. Flustered at the mere idea of dating a cop, I angle the conversation into more important territory. “You’re not going to do the thing where you blow air into my eye, are you? I don’t… I don’t like it. It makes the skin on my face break out, and it pummels my eyeballs into my skull.”

The nurse snickers. “It doesn’t do any of those things. I’ll give you points for creativity. But we can forgo the air test, since it makes you uncomfortable. Hon, do you have perfect 20/20 vision?”

“Yes.”

She asks me a few more questions and tells me the doctor will be in shortly. She scampers away. I don’t have more than a moment to reflect before the doctor arrives.

“Hello, Elizabeth,” he says warmly as he sits on a white stool and moves his medical contraption up to my eyes. “Just sit forward a bit, and let’s take a look.”

We go through the whole routine. I’m in favor of optimal eye health, so I indulge the doctor, even though I know my eyes are fine. Yes, my vision is perfect 20/20. No, I don’t need bifocals at my age. No, I don’t have an eye illness, such as glaucoma or cataracts. Yes, my optic nerve looks just fine. Clearly, the doctor and I are on the same page here.

“One more test,” he says, rolling the huge contraption away and covering one of my eyes with a wooden spoon. “What number do you see inside the picture?”

“Twenty-three,” I reply.

“Good, very good. Now cover your other eye, please; and we’ll do another one.”

I oblige as he switches the image on the screen.

“Which number do you see now?”

Silence.

“Elizabeth?”

“There, uh...” I strain my one-eyed vision to the max. “I don’t… There isn’t a number, I don’t think. Three?” Before he can reply, I quickly switch the wooden spoon to my other eye. “Oh. It’s fifteen.” I lower the wooden spoon and wait for the bomb to drop.

Dr. Weatherly grabs his super-bright light and gazes into my eyes again. It gives me the ridiculous notion that perhaps my eyes are unhealthier now than they were two minutes ago. “Everything looks healthy, but I’d like to run some further tests. By the way, I haven’t accessed your online health records yet. The internet’s down. Is there a history of eye illness in your family?”

“Yes. My dad wears reading glasses. Well, he’s supposed to.”

“Okay. Wearing readers is fairly normal. How about your mom?”

My breath catches in my throat as I remember her lavender eyeglasses: wire-rims, cat’s-eye style. One time while she was asleep, I pulled them off her face and took them to her vanity. I slid them on and gazed at myself in the mirror. A black, smoky vortex whirled behind my reflection, inching closer and closer to my mom’s prone body. I shrieked.

Naptime was over.

Maybe she had her reasons for always keeping her glasses on, even while she was asleep—she didn’t want me to know about the evil creatures who populated her world and warped her reality.

“Bethy, you must never wear Mommy’s glasses again. Do you understand? They aren’t meant for your eyes.”

“Elizabeth?”

I shudder. “Yes. She wore glasses. They were… they were… uh…” I crawl into my own little world, unable to finish the sentence.

It was just my imagination, right? All little kids see things that aren’t there, after all. And it goes without saying that her glasses weren’t meant for my eyes. Mom was merely referring to how looking through someone else’s prescription lenses can cause eyestrain. She certainly wasn’t trying to protect me from monsters.

“She wore them? Did she have surgery to improve her vision?” The bearded doctor gazes at me in friendly, unassuming ignorance.

“I don’t think so.” I exhale a shaky breath. “Her vision was terrible,” I add.

A memory flashes through my mind of her funeral. I was five years old, and she still had her beautiful eyeglasses on in her casket. I feared she was forever trapped in a nightmarish world of dark, smoky fiends.

“Elizabeth?” The doctor doesn’t understand what I’m hinting at.

“What? Oh, it’s Beth,” I correct him. “Um, she’s dead.” My hands go numb, and I feel compelled beyond all reason to add, “She died from pneumonia.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Dr. Weatherly says. “I’m sure it was hard for you. It’s never easy to lose a parent. I don’t mean to pry, but did your mom have any illnesses which contributed to her pneumonia?”

“What do you mean?” I shouldn’t have asked. I don’t want to know what he means. “She should have been vaccinated against pneumonia. We’ve all seen the commercials. It was irresponsible of her to… to not have been vac-vac-vaccinated.”

Heaven help me. I’m babbling and I can’t shut up. “I get a flu shot every year. The needle hit the tip of my bone once, but I still get the shot. It’s the mature, responsible thing to do.”

Dr. Weatherly doesn’t respond. His bearded face and his brown eyes, deep set behind his own eyeglasses, are pinched with worry.

The nurse pokes her head inside. “Doctor? The system is back up.” She smiles aimlessly before darting away.

“Oh, good,” Dr. Weatherly says brightly. He deftly slides his fingers over his tablet. His efficient movements don’t make a sound.

I sit silently and focus on becoming invisible. After several minutes go by, the silence becomes as stale as the snack chips I left on my bookshelf when I was a kid. A fleeting memory of Officer Weatherly leaves me feeling somewhat giddy, but not enough to dispel the dull ache of panic fluttering inside my ribcage.

“Your mother’s name was Bianca, right?” he asks.

No. You must have me mistaken for some other Beth Leonard. But the lie dies on my dried-out tongue as I struggle to generate saliva.

I nod. “I told you she died from pneumonia,” I say in a near yell. I don’t know why I’m so agitated.

He nods. “Yes, you did tell me. Beth, I’d like you to have an MRI done.”

“A what?” My neck muscles clench, shooting pain into my shoulders. I grip my neck with both hands and force it to relax, whether it wants to or not.

“Don’t worry. You go in, we photograph your brain, and you come out. We have the finest MRI machine right here in this building.”

“What—what—what—why—what’s wrong with my brain? I have a healthy brain, don’t I? I take a daily multivitamin geared toward my unique nutritional needs.” My voice catches in my throat. Dr. Weatherly must be an alarmist.

He leans toward me with a conspiratorial grin. “Is it chewable?”

“No, of course not,” I exclaim, outraged. “The chewable ones are for little kids. My multivitamin is huge! And it’s very hard to swallow, I’ll have you know. It has a full day’s supply of molybdenum.” I cross my arms and glower at him.

He nods, glances aside, and pinches his lips together. “Look, it’s probably nothing, but I’d like to make sure.”

“You can’t inherit pneumonia,” I argue, but the conviction has left my voice. “It’s a contagious illness. It’s—you can’t—it’s contagious. You simply have to take the vaccine.”

“I’ll make the arrangements.” Dr. Weatherly stands to leave as I melt into a puddle of pure fear. “The nurse will be along momentarily. But don’t worry. I’m overly cautious, more often than not. If nothing else, I’m sure your molybdenum levels are stellar.”

His words don’t lift my spirits. No one’s more cautious than I am.

My mind goes blank inside the MRI machine. I’m not at all concerned about how my dad hasn’t made an appearance at the medical complex yet, although everyone else seems scandalized by his absence. If I hear one more concerned nurse say, “Oh, you poor dear. Where is your father?” then I’ll barf. But what is he supposed to do? He works eight to five in college admissions, and this is his busiest time of the year.

Besides, I’m hardly dying. I’m having my brain photographed. It’s a normal, everyday procedure, right? More people should photograph their brains for posterity. I roll my eyes at myself.

“Please try to remain still,” a voice admonishes me through a magical internal speaker system. The voice must belong to Ken, the Oriental man who slid me into this lawsuit-in-the-making death trap. I suppose I could nod my understanding, but would it make him lecture me again?

And by the way, Ken, I say to him in my mind. I was holding still. All I did was roll my eyes. Geez. I roll them again, for added emphasis.

“Once again, I need you to hold still,” Ken intones in the exact same flat voice. “Try not to move at all.” Oh, brother. I’m trapped inside a tiny world where I’m not allowed to roll my eyes. This must be Hell. At least Ken let me keep my bra on underneath my shirt, after I assured him it doesn’t have underwire.

Thoughts surface from the back of my mind, because I feel secure in here and there’s nothing to do but think. I know my mom didn’t die from pneumonia, not exactly.

But I’ve got bigger worries. If I don’t make it to school, I won’t be able to take my anatomy final. It’s the only test on today’s schedule. If I fail anatomy, how will I ever get ahead in life? I’ll have to repeat my junior year, and I’m already a year behind my classmates. I was supposed to graduate this year, but I didn’t. I’ll never amount to anything. My life will be in a total state of ruins.

Ruins. Bad word. Rethink it. Okay, my life will be in a total state of, uh… failure.

Better.

My mom died when I was five. All I really remember is how often she got sick. But she should have taken more vitamins and gotten more frequent vaccinations. It was her own stupid fault.

None of those thoughts help to ease the heartache. A tear trickles down the side of my face and slips into my ear canal, making it a colossal struggle to hold still inside this cramped tube of terror.

Finally, the MRI test ends, and I roll outward into the bright generic lights of the medical center.

“You are good to go,” Ken informs me, after I collect my bearings. “Your dad showed up. He’s waiting for you out there.” He points to the door.

I mumble my thanks, grab my purse, and rush into the hallway. I find my dad in the waiting room, seated alone on a wooden chair, looking pained. “We can go now,” I say, eager to make a break for it.

He nods, stands, and stretches his legs. “I’ll check in at the desk, and then we—”

“Blah, blah, whatever. I’m so far ahead of you. Bye.” I find the exit door and use it.

My dad drives an old clunker which doesn’t even have a key chip. The car has manual push-locks, and its windows roll up with a handle. He keeps it unlocked, so I have no trouble settling in and waiting. It’s a short wait. He wrestles his long legs into the cramped space and starts the car.

“What precipitated this?” he asks as he swerves through the parking lot. “Are you feeling unwell?” A stranger might mistake his pinched face and blunt words as being angry or accusatory, but I know otherwise. He’s scared. He doesn’t want me to sense his fear, but I do.

“I’m fine.” I’d give a bigger answer, but I don’t have one. I just spent an hour inside an alien pod, and the experience has rendered me braindead.

“I can take you home to get some rest,” he suggests, his voice deathly soft.

“No. I need to go to school. What time is it? I can’t miss my anatomy final.” I dig through my purse for my cellphone.

“Can’t you make up the test?” he asks.

“Um, hello. It’s the last day of school. Think twice.” I power up my phone, which Ken made me turn off earlier.

“Good point,” he agrees, without taking his eyes off the road. “Bad news: the school day is over.”

I glance at the car’s digital time display. “Oh, no. What am I going to do? I’ll have to repeat the school year, and I’ll never get into a good college.” I’m being snarky, but I almost don’t care.

“You know as well as I do that being short a science credit never kept anyone out of college. But for crying out loud! You were at the doctor’s. Just email your teacher and ask him if you can take the test tomorrow.”

“Aren’t you supposed to care about my future?”

“I not only care about it, I worry about it,” he replies.

The fear coming off him in waves is as pungent as his car’s tired aroma of dead leaves. I stare out the front window and don’t speak for a moment.

I need to reroute this conversation toward safer ground. “No one succeeds in life without a perfect, spotless academic record.”

“You’re being absolutely ridiculous,” Dad argues as he merges onto the highway. “I’m sure your science teacher is a reasonable person. Besides, we all know what’s really going on here. Heaven forbid you should miss one single day of school! You’ll lose your chance at being valedictorian.”

Great. I made him angry. He only gets sarcastic when he’s really mad. “Whatever.”

Honestly, I lost interest in being valedictorian a long time ago. I guess I forgot to tell him. Oh, well. He can figure it out on his own. I don’t care.

I turn my attention to my phone. My best friend, Kera, has texted me six times, asking where I am. Her last text is particularly sweet: she offered to take my anatomy final for me, but Mr. Carruthers wouldn’t allow it.

I send her a text which mentions how my brain was photographed for posterity.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Meg Kimball is the author of the Advice Avengers series, a wholesome set of books about two middle school advice columnists. Reader be warned: Nervous is a different type of book altogether.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
I read a news story which made me cry. I can't give any details without being spoilerish, but it played in my mind like a haunting refrain for a year before I wrote Nervous.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
Nervous is a gothic horror novel. The setting includes a huge stone church with a bell tower, and a reservoir with a stone gatehouse built over the water. I fell in love with this image because it captures the bell tower in all its scary splendor.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I love gothic novels such as Jane Eyre and Flowers in the Attic. I wanted to go dark and horrific. I listened to a lot of gloomy music while writing Nervous.

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