Here’s the first chapter of the book. Please note that this excerpt is intended for adult readers.
The bed felt rotten. Fragments of a dream shattered, fluttering around me like dry autumn leaves. I’d caught eyes for a moment—a face—but then it was gone. My stomach heaved and I squinted awake, staring up at the ceiling: white, with those flecks of gray that were so fashionable twenty years ago. I felt the weight of the city outside my windows, a heavy cloud in the Boston sky. They were waiting for me to breathe, I think.
So I did.
And promptly almost choked to death.
I rolled over, bile rising to my throat, coughing and spluttering. My guts felt burned inside—twisted—worse than a bad night at a taco truck. The room around me was clear. Nothing was fuzzed or ghosted, no wireframe. My ayar lenses were on their little blue shelf, cozy in their solution, just waiting for today. I groaned and tried to get up.
The world swam around me like a simulation gone wrong. My muscles hurt—it felt like I’d drunk a bottle of bourbon the night before, maybe fucked a couple johns. Had I? I pushed the blankets aside, struggling to stand, trying not to throw up all over the Italian marble floor. Waves of memory crashed into my brain: no johns. No bourbon. It had been a perfectly buttery, ordinary day. Which could only mean one thing.
It wasn’t the bed that was rotten. It was me.
I managed to stand and look at my watch, knowing what I would find. The world swam as the bars came into focus. My heart beat poorly; my eyes hurt. I pulled my wrist up, trying not to fall, and then it was there in front of me, staring me in the face. Sixteen bars until oblivion.
Sixteen bars before I died.
No wonder the earth felt strange. No wonder I couldn’t quite get one foot in front of the other. I lurched and almost fell and got to the kitchen just in time for the phone to ring.
It was Liza, of course, her face blurred. She wanted what she always did: I had to come in. I had someone waiting. I told her I would and that I just needed some coffee and a pill. She told me the guy wouldn’t wait.
So I staggered over to the closet, trying not to faint. I found something that wasn’t completely ruined and threw it on, brushing my hair back roughly. No time for a wash. I caught my hazy reflection in the window and tried to look at my eyes, wishing for the millionth time that thinking about myself would help. But there was no juice, no bars. You couldn’t give tention to yourself.
My stomach grumbled, but I had nothing to eat, and no coffee. So I waved a tea and choked that down as I tried to fit my sneakers on. My balance was shit—I fell over once before I managed it. The tea tasted like ashes, as if my soul had been charred along with my pride. Tention could do that to you, when it was bad.
I left the tiny apartment, heading down the elevator, making sure to turn on ghost mode as I did. My ayar lenses felt sharp against my eyes, like an eyelash or a fleck of dust. I blinked them away and hoped they wouldn’t stay that way for long. I needed a strong day, a day of taking. I needed to recover from my mistakes.
I needed more bars.
“Mila!” somebody called as I left the building, and I felt a little surge as his tention entered me. Who the hell would use my actual name? It wasn’t the doorman. I blinked again, seeing ghosts all around me. The lenses dropped an arrow over someone, and I clicked a tooth to remove the shroud.
The face became clear. Mikey, the mailman. A sweet guy. I gave him the briefest of glances before turning the blur back on, but already I could feel tention seeping out of me, returning to him. The exchange had left us net zero. Better than it could have been, I guess, but my watch still hovered at sixteen. I felt bile once more rising in my throat.
“What do you want?” I asked. Had to keep the conversation short, if I didn’t want to die.
But he was still looking at me—actually looking—and I could feel my juice creep up. Breathing came easier, my body warmer.
What was he doing?
“Saw you come in last night,” Mikey said. “Didn’t mean nothing by it, I was just on the block. Wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Mikey was old fashioned. He didn’t use the ayar lenses. He didn’t believe in the wireframe, in the ghosts and the blur. He wanted to see things as they were, I guess. He wanted a real connection with the world. A connection most of us lost long ago.
It was a marvel he wasn’t dead already.
“I’m fine,” I lied.
“Mila.” He let the sentence stop there. I could feel his tention pouring into me, enough to quicken my breath. Most people won’t call you by name—it gives you too much juice—but Mikey was different. He always liked to call me like I was. I wondered where he got his power from.
“Really,” I said, “I’m fine.”
I stepped forward, keeping the blur on, seeing the mailman as a body with a ghost for a face. I put a hand on his arm, feeling the tention loop as we focused on each other. My heart fluttered for a second as the feeling coursed through me, then I lifted my hand. He wasn’t a john.
“Go back to the mail.”
I turned and left, sensing his disappointment. My watch ticked up a few bars as he watched me go.
He’d be dead soon, if he kept that up.
This excerpt contains:
- Strong language
- Sexual content