A rising star among young adult fiction writers, Amalie Howard is a recipient of a Royal Commonwealth Society Award, an international youth writing competition. Having landed publishing deals with three presses in just the span of one month, Howard is a sought-after novelist with her finger on the pulse of young adult readers. Her first book, Bloodspell (June 2011, Langdon Street Press) was named a Seventeen Magazine summer beach read.
Her latest book, The Almost Girl (January 7, 2014, Strange Chemistry Press), introduces readers to seventeen-year-old Riven, a tough, independent soldier from a parallel universe ravaged by a devastating android war. Thrown into an earthly mission that has her second guessing life as she knows it, will Riven be able to find the strength to defy her very nature? Or will she become the monstrous soldier she was destined to be?
To find out, take a few minutes and read a bit of The Almost Girl by Amalie Howard, which Amalie has generously shared with the LA Books Examiner – and be sure to share it with YA book lovers in your life.
Present Day: Colorado
My thoughts rain like spatters of blood against the colorless landscape of drab walls and wooden faces. A bell rings, and it is a mad rush as chairs are pushed back loudly. A tall woman with a no-nonsense face calls for silence.
“The class roster for the end-of-year projects has been posted in the hallway. You have been paired in groups of four with a different assignment based on what we have covered this semester. If you don’t know your partners, I suggest you meet them quickly, as these projects will count for half of your final grade.”
A collective groan rolls its way across the classroom.
“But Mrs Taylor,” a girl three rows across stands and complains loudly, “why can’t we pick our own groups? Wouldn’t that be better for everyone?”
“Miss Hall, in the future, if you’d like to say something, please refrain from yelling it across the classroom. The groups have been allocated according to last year’s class standings.”
“The groups are final, Miss Hall.” Mrs Taylor’s voice brooks no argument, and the girl falls silent, although her face remains puckered with frustration as she exits the classroom.
I sit huddled at the back, waiting until the classroom is almost empty before gathering my things and walking noiselessly to the front.
“Mrs Taylor?” I ask. My voice is slightly roughened from a lack of sleep, and the teacher jumps, looking up questioningly. I paste a suitably contrite look on my face. “Sorry to startle you, I’m… er… Riven. I transferred in last week. About the groups…”
“Ah, yes, Riven, I do have a note about you, as a matter of fact,” Mrs Taylor says, shuffling through a pile of papers on the desk. “You have already been assigned. It’s on the board along with the others. If you run into any trouble, let me know.” Mrs Taylor pushes the wire-rimmed glasses up her nose, her dark eyes sharp. “Anything else?”
“No, that’s it,” I mumble, unable to hold back the yawn that overtakes my facial muscles.
“Are you alright? You look quite pale.”
“I’m fine, just tired. Jet lag,” I smile and hoist my backpack over my arm. “Thanks, Mrs Taylor.”
“Riven?” I freeze at the door and turn my head in her direction. Her black eyes are still piercing, unsettling as if they can see right through me. I feel an odd, unwelcome shiver take hold at the base of my spine. “Welcome to Horrow.”
“Thanks,” I mumble and shift away from her impaling gaze. She’s looking at me as if she knows who I am… an imposter, a stranger.
I sneak a glance into the classroom once I’m in the hallway, and Mrs Taylor is back to studying the papers on her desk. I must have been wrong. I yawn again as exhaustion consumes me. In my tired delirium, I’m starting to imagine things. I’ve been pushing myself way too hard without enough rest intervals between jumps. It’s foolish and reckless.
Black dots fill my vision. I’m disoriented as if the ground is tilting beneath my soles. I glance down, only to see the checkered tile floor undulating like a breaking wave. Gasping for breath, I haul open the first door I see.
A janitor’s closet.
Leaning against the cool plastic of a recycling bin, I breathe in huge gulps of stale closet air. The fatigue is becoming worse, ever since the last jump. My fingers begin to shake uncontrollably as I smooth open the crumpled paper with my new class schedule.
Thirty class schedules in as many months, with time slowly running out. Trying to locate the boy here has been like looking for a drop in a bucket of water – near impossible. But I can’t give up. I won’t. Because in my gut, I can sense that there are already others here… others looking for him.
And I have to find him first.
Swallowing, I blink back the grit from my burning eyes and squint in the dim light at my schedule. I have Phys Ed and then lunch. I won’t make it to lunch, it’s an absolute certainty. My body slides down the side of the bin and I sit in the muted shadows as light filters from the cracks underneath the door. Maybe I’ll just sit here for a second to catch my breath.
My eyelids droop heavily, and then there is only sweet aching darkness.
When I open my eyes again, there is no longer any light seeping through the door and there is only silence beyond it. I must have slept through the entire day on the floor of this tiny closet. I inch my way up, hearing my joints creak painfully, and crack open the door. The hallway is deserted, the clock on the wall showing 4 o’clock in the morning. A chill sweeps along my skin as the fluorescent light flickers eerily. School hallways just aren’t the same without kids in them. Suppressing a shudder, I exit through a side entrance onto one of the practice football fields as the door locks behind me with a soft click.
Early fall, and the night is dark and cold. I tug my black sweater down along my arms. It’s only when I reach the empty parking lot where the Ducati is parked that I feel the first painful rumble in my stomach. I haven’t eaten anything today. Swearing at my own carelessness, I unwrap a snack bar from my backpack with clammy hands and shove it into my mouth.
It’s one of my few rules of survival – always eat. In my condition, hunger can bring on far worse things, things that you can’t come back from, not in this world anyway, and my body is unstable enough already. The food slides down like hard cardboard along the soft sides of my throat and I gag, but force myself to swallow. There’s a bottle of water in my backpack and I drink it so quickly that half of it spills down my sweater. I’m hoping that it isn’t already too late. I throw on my helmet and take a deep breath. I have to make it back to the motel. It’s only a few miles.
Tires squealing in protest against the cold asphalt, I pull out onto the main road and ride as fast as I dare over the speed limit. The last thing I need is to get pulled over. It happened once before when the sickness started. The cop ended up in the hospital that night, and I had to leave town quickly, trusting that what I’d been looking for hadn’t been there. I couldn’t risk anything similar happening, not again and not here.
I stop at a red light, concentrating on taking slow mechanical breaths. But the pain in my belly only deepens as if in silent mockery of my efforts.
You can make it, I tell myself firmly, accelerating across the intersection.
The panic recedes but then returns in a wave so violent that I am gasping as my back arches like a bow. There’s no way I can make it. How could I have been so foolish to think that I could beat the odds… beat time?
Too late, too late, too late.
A brutal wave of nausea drives me to jerk roughly on the Ducati’s handlebars, the motorcycle’s wheels protesting angrily on the asphalt, just as a lance-like pain stabs through me. My fingers jam reflexively against the throttle, twisting it. The bike lurches forward and careens across the two opposite lanes, my thighs burning from gripping the sides of the tank to steady it.
That’s when the shakes start. Within seconds, I can feel my hands curl into hardened claws, my body spasming uncontrollably. My eyes roll back and I barely see the oncoming lights, as the bike swings precariously once more to the left, grinding off the road and spinning into gravel. My body is flung like a sack of rocks as the Ducati skids to a shattered halt on its side.
The sky above me is dark and wide with nothing in it. No stars, no moon, nothing. Just blackness. I suck in a shallow breath, keeping my jaw tightly closed, knowing how easily I can bite my own tongue off if I’m not careful. My chest aches with the strained intake of air, but I already know from years of training that it’s mostly bruises, and nothing’s broken. Hot white dots cloud my vision and I focus myself, searching for my backpack. It was flung from me upon impact with the ground, but it’s just a foot away.
Reach out slowly, the bag is right there, I tell myself, but my body refuses to cooperate. Inside I know that it is too late, I can feel myself shutting down. I should have rested today, stayed in bed and given myself a chance to recuperate from the jump, but I’d been stupid, arrogant. I hadn’t wanted to lose any time, and now I’m going to pay the price. My eyes slip shut.
As if from afar, I hear a rustling and then a loud banging. Someone yelling. Shadows flit across my closed eyelids. “Help,” I whisper. “Help.”
“Oh god! She came off a bike. Don’t move her; she could have a concussion.”
“Hey! Hey, you OK?”
The voices are dull as if coming from far away. My thoughts won’t even turn toward them. Noises followed by a dull thud as someone stoops beside me. Gentle fingers slip across my arm, moving upward to open my visor.
Backpack. I try to say my single thought but my tongue is thick against my teeth. I can only open and close sticky lips that taste like metal.
“She’s alive! Help me get this helmet off. Careful with her.”
My head lolls backward as the helmet slips off, but I’m caught by strong hands and cradled gently. A bottle is placed against my lips and I feel cool water trickle into my mouth, washing away the coppery taste. It hurts to swallow, but I ignore the pain. The water moistens my gums and loosens my tongue.
“Injector… backpack…” It won’t be long before I go into shock. “Have to… stick…”
“Don’t worry, I got it. I’m allergic, too,” one of the voices says. I hear a rustle and feel the rough jab of the needle piercing into my skin through my jeans, and then soft fingers are brushing against my forehead. “Hang on, it’s going to be OK.”
“Should we call 911?” the other voice asks. “What’s with the needle?”
“No hospital, please. Be OK…” I direct my plea to the one who’d administered the auto-injector. “Please, can’t afford…”
“Rest,” the voice says. “It’s OK, Jake, looks like an allergic reaction. Could be peanuts, bees, anything, don’t know.” I hear the rustling of a wrapper. “My aunt’s off tonight. I’ll take her home with me and see what she says. If she says to go to the hospital, I’ll take her.”
“What about her bike? We shouldn’t just leave it, right? We can probably get it in the back of my truck,” the voice belonging to Jake says. “I can take a better look at it tomorrow.”
“OK. Help me get her inside first. Careful, she may be hurt from when it went off the road.”
“Thank you,” I murmur as they lift me gently into the backseat of the truck. They are the only words I can manage before my brain shuts down. I can feel the serum making its way through my body, stopping my cells from going into anaphylactic shock.
The boy’s right – I am having an allergic reaction, just not to any food.
In some dark corner of my mind, I know that I should be worried or be afraid that I have fallen into the wrong hands, but somehow I know… I trust that I am safe. The thing, is I can’t remember the last time I felt safe. Oblivion sweeps my remaining consciousness away.
When I open my eyes again, I’m lying in a bed in an airy room. It’s quiet and peaceful. A fan on the ceiling wafts cool air into my face, and for a second it feels as if I’m in some kind of dream. Then I see the boy slumped in the armchair in front of the window and instantly know that this is reality. He seems asleep, although I can’t really tell from the way his hair is curling into his face. I search for my backpack. It’s sitting next to him on the floor. Sitting up gingerly, I swing my left leg over the side of the bed and wince at the pain now radiating up my back and around my ribs.
“You shouldn’t really move, you know.” The boy is awake now and I can feel him watching me carefully. I ignore him and shift my other leg to the floor. The pain is excruciating, echoing along every nerve ending like fire.
“My aunt says you need to keep that leg up,” he says and moves to stand next to me, his hand pressing onto my shoulder. With his free hand, he carelessly shoves the hair out of his face and sits beside me on the edge of the bed. “You’re pretty banged up.”
Our eyes collide and it is like I am being sucked into a vortex that I can’t control.
The boy I’m supposed to find.
His hair is lighter, almost golden brown, and swept to the side around his face, but his nose and chin are the spitting image of the one I know. And his eyes… those impossibly green eyes, filled with vibrant life. I’d prepared myself that he would look like him but they’re so alike that it leaves me speechless.
And he found me. He saved me.
I shake myself hard. What are the odds? Searching for someone for nearly three years only to find them via an accident of fate? The questions make my head pound, and I blink, disoriented.
“Where am I… What happened?” I croak. My voice is unfamiliar. Weak.
“Don’t you remember? You crashed your bike and had some kind of crazy allergic reaction. You’re at my house now. You didn’t want me to take you to the hospital because you said something about money, so I brought you here,” he says in a rush and then clarifies, “My aunt’s a doctor.”
“How long have I been here?” I say and try to stand, gasping at the soreness of my ribs.
His nearness is overwhelming, confusing me as thoughts of Cale race through my clouded brain. My throat is raw, and the effort to swallow makes my head pound. A wave of dizziness overcomes me and I fall back to the bed. A knife-like pain slices through my leg.
The boy leans forward to grasp my shoulder gently. “Look, you really should–”
“Don’t touch me,” I snap, flinching away from the warmth in his fingers. My body may be beaten, but it’s still poised to attack. The boy’s offended expression throws me, and my anger fades as my brain struggles to keep up. “Sorry, I’m still a little freaked out, and I don’t like people touching me,” I say by way of apology. He still looks miffed so I force a tiny smile to my lips. “You go to Horrow, right?”
“Yes, we’re in the same Physics class,” he says, the hurt look draining away slowly, “and in the same project group. I only knew who you were because Mrs Taylor asked me to help you out if you needed a hand since you’re new. You started last week, right?”
“Yes,” I say, remembering the profile of a boy I’d barely given a second glance to. I grind my teeth together – that had been sheer carelessness on my part. Or maybe all those jumps are finally catching up to me; otherwise, why else would I be lying here in this bed, weak as a newborn kitten?
“I’m Caden, by the way,” he says, sticking his hand out. Staring at his fingers as if they’re snakes, I raise my hand in an awkward half-wave. My smile feels forced. His hand falls away, and the weird look returns to his face. “You’re not too friendly, are you?”
I breathe out the pent-up air in my lungs and feel the rush of adrenaline recede. I stare at the boy through the corner of my eye who could be Cale. No, not Cale. They may look the same, but they’re entirely different people underneath their doppelganger skins.
“Sorry. I mean, I know who you are,” I whisper under my breath.
It’s not Cale, I remind myself for good measure.
My head still feels wobbly like some kind of horrible hangover. Only, I wouldn’t know what that would be like – the only time I’d tasted spirits had been with Cale, celebrating the Winter Solstice when I was ten. It was an experience I never want to repeat. But I’d seen other people drunk enough to guess what a hangover would feel like.
A tremor runs through my hands and I flex them automatically. My veins are blue against my skin, the tendons still corded and raised along the backs of my hands. Black and blue bruises mottle the length of both arms. My torso probably looks worse. A hollow feeling fills my stomach as I realize just how close the shakes had brought me to an irreversible outcome last night. Too close… and now that I’d found the boy, I needed to have all my wits functioning. Others would be close too. The ones who would also come for him.
“I like your tattoo,” Caden says, interrupting the turn of my thoughts. Instinctively, my fingers touch the gold circular seal and the three black lines – two whole and one broken – beneath it on my neck. “Does it mean anything?”
I almost want to laugh. A filial brand and a line for each traitor I’d killed? He’d be running away as fast as he could or calling the police if he even guessed what it meant.
“So, what’s your name?” Caden asks, shoving his hands in his pockets. I had to give him credit for trying. In that, he was just like Cale – neither of them took “no” for an answer.
“I thought that was your last name?”
“Riven is my last name,” I say, and bite back a grin at his immediate frown. “I only have one name. Where I come from we don’t have two names, just one.” I see his frown deepen, and kick myself for my telling choice of words.
“Where you come from,” he repeats slowly. “Everyone has two names here, unless you’re like Usher or Madonna.” At my blank stare, he clarifies, “You know, the singers?”
I nod quickly. I’ve seen them on the television. “Just Riven,” I say.
“Just Riven.” He draws my name out slowly like he’s trying to taste it or something. “That’s a weird name. I mean, unique,” he says hastily. “Does it mean anything?”
“It means ripped apart.”
“Oh.” I can see that he’s at a loss for words. I don’t blame him. Back home, my name strikes fear into anyone who hears it – but that’s more a factor of the reputation that precedes me than anything else.
From his expression, I can see him wondering why someone would name a child with such an odd, violent name. I feel my lips curling in a smile – as far as names go, I like the fierceness of it, the simplicity. In a weird way, it fits me.
After a couple minutes, Caden speaks. “No idea what mine means. So, is that from Asia or Africa, then? You know, where people have one last name? Is that where you grew up?”
I can only manage a terse nod. At Caden’s questions, I wish I could pull out the notebook in my backpack and leaf through it. Even after three years of blending in—appearance, accent and behavior-wise—I’m still not familiar with the exact geographical topography of this world. His questions are making my head spin, and I can’t afford to make any more mistakes, not when I am almost home… now that I’ve finally found him.
I shake myself mentally once more. If my body were stronger, I’d grab him and go, but in my weakened condition, that would be sure suicide for us both. I’d die, and he’d never make it without me. Not there.
My eyes fall to the glass of water sitting on the bedside table next to an alarm clock, and I take a slow sip. It’s almost 11 on Saturday morning. I need to make some kind of exit and compose myself for travel. And the travel I’m talking about is not as simple as buying an airplane ticket and showing up at a mass-transit airport; it’s way more complicated. Any number of things could go wrong, especially when there is more than one traveler – one of them a fugitive, the other a target.
“You don’t look Asian,” Caden continues his monologue, considering I’m barely participating in the conversation. “I mean, you look like me, well, except the hair. Yours has green and blue in it,” he points out. I touch the strands and remember that I’d dyed it four schools before, after the incident with the police. It was haphazardly chopped around my face except for a single braid that wound down one side.
“It’s cool, your hair,” Caden adds and then reddens. “For a punk look, I mean.”
I’d butchered it myself when I’d been short on time, leaving only the slim blue and gold braid. I hadn’t been able to let it go – the only reminder of my position, my rank. But overall, it was an edgy, fierce look that tended to make people stay away, which I’d liked.
It wasn’t doing much to shut Caden up, though. “You definitely stand out, especially at Horrow,” he remarks. “The girls are all pretty much vanilla. You meet any of them yet?”
“No. I keep to myself.”
A wry smile. “I get it. You don’t like being touched, you want to be alone, and you’re not looking for any friends.”
Caden moves to stand near the window and moves my backpack from the floor to the chair. He doesn’t open it but just stares at it thoughtfully. It’s a brief respite from the conversation, so I use the silence to figure out how to tactfully say thank you and leave.
He eyes me. “What exactly happened to you last night?”
But I’m saved from having to respond to Caden or tell him rudely to shut up, when a neatly dressed woman enters the room. She is no taller than I am but sturdily built; she looks like a strong woman. Her dark hair is pulled off of her face into a tidy bun at the base of her neck. She has kind eyes with lines at the corners, but there’s something else in them, too… warning that her kindness shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness.
“How’s our patient doing this morning?”
She glances at Caden, who is still flushed, and then back to me where I’m sitting on the edge of the bed with a frown on my face. A strange expression curls the corners of her lips upward, and I can feel my brows snapping together even more tightly. I don’t recognize or like the amused look on her face, as if she thinks there’s something going on between the two of us.
“I’m Caden’s aunt,” she says to me. “He’s been in here constantly. I’ve never seen him so solicitous of anyone.”
“What? I wasn’t.” Caden flushes and stares at the ground.
“I hope you haven’t been keeping her from resting, Caden. She needs to keep that foot elevated.”
“It’s fine,” I say, and then more clearly, “My foot?” For the first time, I notice that I am wearing some sort of cotton pants, and I wonder whether Caden’s aunt had removed my own clothes. Curiously, I don’t feel any embarrassment, because I’m more worried about whether the injury will slow me down.
“Lay back,” she tells me gently and places a hand against my forehead. “That’s good.”
“What happened?” I repeat, trying to pull the pajama material up to see. She stalls my hand.
“Try not to move, you have some badly bruised ribs, too. It’s your ankle, nothing too serious. You must have torn a ligament from the convulsions or when you fell, but you do need to keep pressure off of it for now. I iced it and wrapped it last night. Let’s have a look.”
Carefully unwrapping the bandage, I see that my ankle is a blotchy greenish purple and twice the size of my other foot. I am sure that it looks far worse than it is. I wiggle my toes slowly and I know from experience it’s a good sign. It means nothing’s broken.
“A lot of the swelling has gone down, which is good,” Caden’s aunt says. I can’t imagine my ankle being any fatter, but it must have been because even Caden is nodding.
“It matches your hair,” Caden remarks. I ignore him, more concerned with trying to calculate how much this injury will set me back.
“How long?” I ask.
“A few weeks.”
“A few weeks!” I gasp. “Can’t you do anything to speed it up?”
A gentle smile while deftly re-wrapping the bandage across my ankle. “No, honey. Best you can do to recover quickly is rest, ice, compression, and elevation. R. I. C. E. Simple enough to remember, right? If the pain gets any worse or it doesn’t get better, you’ll need to get it checked out. For now, I can give you some ibuprofen to help with the pain and the swelling.”
“No meds. I can manage the pain,” I say. “I’m allergic to most medications,” I add at her curious look. The truth is that anything that inhibits the functions of the brain is a risk, especially during eversion. I need to be clear.
“I guess that explains why you had such a high-tech injector in your bag,” Caden chimes in, pulling the pen-like instrument from the front pocket of the backpack where he’d replaced it the night before. “I’ve never seen anything like it. My emergency one is like a plastic piece of crap compared to yours. Bees are my nemesis,” he reminds me, twisting the silver cylinder between his fingers.
I smile, a cheap attempt at reassurance and normalcy even though my heart is pounding. I’ve never wanted to lurch forward and grab anything more than at that moment. Like the teacher earlier, I feel that Caden’s aunt can see right through me. Her blue eyes are as sharp as Mrs Taylor’s had been, and although there’s no mistrust in them, I feel uncomfortable just the same.
It’s one of the reasons that I don’t like getting close to people. Too many questions. And too many that can’t be answered. But I know that I owe them both some kind of explanation for my bizarre behavior… and for the injector that looks like it comes from some kind of super advanced robotics lab.
“Mine is a little more complicated,” I say. “I’m not allergic to bees or food. It’s a… a genetic brain thing. If I don’t take my medication regularly, like yesterday, things can go south pretty quickly, especially with the seizures. Sometimes something as simple as hunger can set it off.” I glance up to test the waters. They are both watching me, but with more concern than any kind of disbelief on their faces. My lies are getting more convincing. “The injector is custom-made for my condition. You couldn’t use it,” I say in Caden’s direction. “And it’s really expensive so… “
I don’t have to finish my sentence before Caden carefully replaces the injector in the backpack.
“Sorry,” he says stuffing his hands in his pockets. “So are you OK now?”
I nod slowly. I haven’t had to use the injector before but it has definitely come in handy to say the least. I am alive. Each cylinder has six doses, so I have five remaining. I hope fervently that I don’t have to use them. Even thinking about the pain makes my head spin. Caden’s aunt pulls the sheet up and pats my forehead.
“You can stay here as long as you need to, Riven. Can I call someone for you? Your parents? They must be worried.”
“No thanks,” I say quickly. “My father is out of town on business. He usually calls me to check in. You can talk to him then.”
She frowns for a second but nods. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”
“I will. Thanks for taking care of me, Mrs…?” I trail off realizing that I don’t even know their family name.
“Just call me June.”
“Thank you, June,” I say.
I’m overwhelmed at her generosity, letting some stranger into her home. I could have easily been one of the others looking for the boy. How easy would it be to kill him? One swipe of a knife, a pillow over the face, a twist of a finger? They’re so trusting, these people. Back home, getting within an arm’s length of another person is virtually impossible, much less getting into someone else’s home. It’s astonishing that the boy has survived for so long.
The odds weren’t in his favor, yet here he was, unhurt and obviously thriving… hidden in plain sight. And I’d found him quite by accident – this town hadn’t been on my list. I’d just stopped here on my way to Wyoming and randomly decided to stay for a few days to recuperate after the last eversion. It had been a spur of the moment decision.
I glance at Caden, chewing on his thumb and staring at me out of the corner of his eye. He seems to be just like all the other kids of this world, so oblivious to everything but their immediate sphere of existence. Watching him, I know that he has been well protected, but he is clearly unprepared.
He thinks he’s just a normal boy. But I know better.
He has no idea about anything – no idea of who is after him or what’s coming for him. I frown. So how has he survived? How has he been able to stay here undetected and in the dark about who he really is for this long?
There is only one answer that I can think of. It is one that chills me to my bones.
Someone has to be helping him.
Someone who knows that I would be coming.
Learn more about Amalie Howard and her work at her website: amaliehoward.com.
Read Chapter One is a special feature at Frank Mundo's LA Books Examiner where authors, from emerging to bestsellers, share an excerpt of their newest books
Frank Mundo is the author of The Brubury Tales (foreword by Carolyn See) and Gary, the Four-Eyed Fairy and Other Stories. His latest book is an illustrated novella for adults called Different. Don't forget to subscribe to his emails and follow him on Twitter @Frankemundo or @LABooksExaminer for the latest updates.