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September 16, 2018

Read an Excerpt from AFTERIMAGE by Naomi Hughes

Posted by TaylorT
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In Naomi Hughes' science fiction thriller AFTERIMAGE, out this Tuesday, a horrific explosion levels part of the city and Camryn Kingfisher is the sole survivor. Amidst controversy, conspiracy theories, and threats from government officials, Camryn longs for the truth. But the only person who she can turn to is a transparent boy in a lab coat named Quint. Unsure whether he’s a hallucination or a ghost, Camryn realizes that she has no choice but to trust him. In a race where the fabric of time and space is at stake, they must figure out who caused the explosion before the culprit comes back to finish Camryn --- and her city --- off for good.

In anticipation of the novel's release this week, we are sharing an exclusive excerpt:


TEN MINUTES BEFORE THE EXPLOSION, I’m trying to work up the courage to go through a parking lot gate.

I used to love gates. There’s something about the sleek straight lines, the bland iron of the bars, the honest minimalism of the decorative spikes that’s always made me feel at home no matter where we were deployed. This gate, though, comes with a new feature: judgmental stares from the guards in the booth, along with muttered complaints from everyone who’s driven past during the last fifteen minutes while I failed to finish this morning’s therapeutic homework.

Shame curls in my belly. I grit my teeth and keep pacing.

Fear weighs down my steps and tries to glue me in place; moving, even if it isn’t in the right direction, is an act of defiance. I hate that it’s the best I can do.

“Remember your diaphragmatic breathing,” emanates a voice from my palm. I lift my phone. On the videochat app, Mom gives me a thumbs up. I grimace and return the gesture with as much enthusiasm as I can muster, which isn’t very much at all, as massive panic attacks are emotionally-limiting douchebags that way.

Another car pulls up in the entry behind me and honks and I step to the side so it can go through. The man inside grumbles in my direction as his car slips past. I catch something about the “nuthouse” and my place therein.

The insult bites deep, but I give him a smile and a cheerful flipoff. Then one of the guards presses a button and the gate slides open and, for a moment, I hate nothing in the world more than the man in that car—not because he’s a jerk but because he can drive inside the agency base crowded with soldiers and scientists and too-close buildings without so much as a second thought.

I try to hang on to the anger—anything is better than this panicky suffocation—but it fizzles away in seconds like a defective Fourth of July sparkler.

I stop pacing. “Maybe we should just try this tomorrow.”

“Breathe, Camryn,” Mom repeats serenely.

“I am breathing,” I argue.

“No, you’re hyperventilating.”

“Hyperventilation is a type of breathing.”

She gives me a Look. She approves of humor as a coping technique, but not as a defensive one. The biggest reason I both love and hate that my mom is also a psychiatrist: She knows all my bullshit, and buys exactly zero of it. A part of me is glad she’s not my therapist. That title is reserved for a sweet grandmotherly doctor downtown, who also doesn’t buy my bullshit, but at least must use more than a look to call me out on it. Mom just fills the role of support person— she talks me through my panic, keeps me grounded, and reminds me how unlikely it is that my therapy homework will actually kill me.

Not that I ever quite believe her. I pace a few steps farther, stop in front of our ancient Toyota that’s parked to the side of the entryway, and drop my forehead down to its hood. “I can’t do this,” I mutter into the chipped beige paint. The truth of the words scrapes my throat raw.

Mom hears it. Her eyebrows draw together. “Are you sure, baby?” she asks gently.

I listen for the disappointment in her voice, but it’s not there. It’s never been there. Not when I, the daughter of the agency’s top psychiatric researcher, was diagnosed  with Panic Disorder last year. Not when I had to switch to homeschooling last month because I couldn’t handle all the triggers at my public school. And not now, when I can’t even manage to drive into the base to pick her up the morning after her exhausting double shift. She’s got bags under her eyes and her gray-and-blue uniform is rumpled from the unusually long night of data analysis, but she hasn’t complained once in the fifteen minutes she’s been coaching me through my latest failed attempt at overcoming my fear of fear. If I want any shot at going to college next year I have to be able to function with anxiety, and she’s determined to show me that’s possible.

I drag myself upright. If she says I can do this, then I can do this. Panic Disorder can shove it.

Easier said than done, though. I only manage to get ten feet from the gate this time before my hands start shaking, barely close enough to read Fort Wells Army Base, Agency for Scientific Advancement Division etched into the top bar. Beyond those bars looms the base, a vast spread of buildings belonging to the agency—a newly-created sector of the US Army dedicated to generating new technologies and research. Some they patent and sell to keep themselves funded, some they classify and integrate into the nation’s defenses, and some, like Mom’s research, they use to improve the Army’s operations and procedures. Mom comes here every day  along with thousands of her coworkers to do vital work for our whole country. The least I can do is manage to get through the gates.

I inch closer, trying to get near enough to touch the iron. That’s part of my homework. Touch it, drive through it, then walk to Mom’s office on the south end of the base. Baby steps, my therapist calls it. But I had a horrific panic attack when Mom brought me here a few months back, and after that I knew I was doomed to have another the second I set foot past this gate again—so of course, that fear ended up actually causing the attack itself, and thus the list of places I can go without suffering crushing terror shrink that much more. Panic Disorder: a self-fulfilling prophecy of suck.

A red car honks loudly behind me. I ignore it, forcing my foot to move just a few inches closer to the gate. My heart rate picks up. A sense of impending doom winds itself tight around my throat, choking off my air supply. I stop and wait. These are symptoms of anxiety. They’re not dangerous. I’m not going to die, not going to faint, not going to float away from myself like a clipped balloon. I’m fine.

Tears prick at my eyes and I force them back. I’ve already embarrassed myself enough today, damn it. I lift my phone. “How about meeting me in the parking lot?” I say, trying for a light tone like I don’t care either way, but Mom doesn’t answer. I glance down. White letters are blinking across the screen—call dropped. I have no data signal, not even enough regular signal to make a good old-fashioned phone call. The local tower must be down. I groan and drop the useless phone into my pocket.

Off to the side, one of the guards in the booth straightens up, holding his own cell phone in one hand and muttering into a walkie-talkie in the other. He and his partner exchange a glance, and then he steps out onto the sidewalk to survey the street with one hand on his gun.

“Everything okay?” I call cautiously.

“Need to ask you to move along now, Miss Kingfisher,” is all he says, eyes still on the cars.

Now or never. I take a deep breath and turn back to the gate. I curl my shaking hands into fists. It takes me a few minutes, but I finally manage to raise my arm. My fingers graze the frosty metal.

And then I wake up coated in ash.

---

I stay awake for the span of five heartbeats.

One. I’m lying in a fountain. Cracked, empty. Ash is everywhere. It coats the sky, lies thick across the fountain’s rim, dulls my skin to an ugly pallor. It cakes on my tongue, dry and bitter like I’ll never taste anything else ever again. I inhale and choke on it.  

Two. A gray sunrise. It’s too high in the sky; I’ve lost time, somehow. How much? Half an hour? My brain is fuzzed over, the panic numb and slow and confused. My heart stutters and trips like it’s trying to restart, and then— three. I turn my head.

Skeletons of smoking framework clawing at the sky. Giant chunks of uprooted pavement looming overhead. A twisted iron bar speared into the concrete inches from my shoulder, tiny gray flakes gathering in the corners of its etched words: …ntific Advancement Division.

I breathe. The silence breathes. There’s nothing but rubble. Soot. Ash. Silence.

Four. Except there is something else. Someone else. A boy is sitting at the edge of my fountain, knees drawn up, staring into the dawn like it’s impossible to look at anything else.

There’s no ash in his blond hair, no gray smears on his stark-white lab coat, no smudges on his glasses. His eyes are green and bright like cut glass and the look on his face is wrong, terribly and deeply wrong, and if he looks at me with those eyes and that expression it will make whatever this is real and that can’t happen, I can’t let it. I flinch away. My arm knocks against the iron bar.

“There’s a dead man at my feet,” he says, not looking away from the sun.

I go still.

“You can’t see him from there,” he continues. “But he’s burnt to a crisp. And I keep trying to take off my coat, I keep trying to cover him, but I can’t. Because I think I might be dead too.”

And then he turns and looks at me, and those awful, beautiful eyes pin me in place, and that’s when I see that his lab coat is foggy around the edges and his torso is transparent and I can just make out the blackened wreckage of my mother’s office building through his left shoulder.

“Tell me you can see me,” he whispers. 

Five.

I throw up. And then I pass out.

Excerpted from AFTERIMAGE Copyright © 2018 by Naomi Hughes. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.