The System will hit e-stores on April 22, 2014 at 12:01 am!! Please enjoy this Chapter 1 sample and tell someone if you’re pumped about falling in love with Nick and Nessa!! Tune in for more samples.
Worst. Test. Ever.
Daze’s grin burned my eyes as she pulled up next to me, her orange 1984 Rabbit puttering to a stop and sighing out a cloud of poison gas. I had to squeeze the handle and lift up and out to get the door open, Daze helping by leaning across to the passenger side and punching it a few times. It was a shame someone as artistically gifted as Daisy Parker couldn’t afford transportation that looked like a car and not a WWII U-boat. But Daze wasn’t pushy. It just wasn’t her nature. Once, she did a freelance maternity photo shoot and let the couple pay her in movie popcorn. Not movie tickets. Just the popcorn.
“Buckle up, buckle up, buckle up,” Daze said, trying to keep from squeaking. She was smiling so huge she could barely squeeze the words out, the mid-morning California sun glinting off of her sunglasses. She pushed them up, her hazel eyes and dark lashes mirrors of mine.
“Take it down a few, Daze,” I said, rifling through my backpack for my own pair of sunglasses. ‘I’m drowning in my own enthusiasm as it is.”
“You left them in your underwear drawer,” Daze offered. Pulling out into the quiet of late afternoon in Santa Barbara, she reached over and tugged at my ponytail. “But seriously, this will be good for you. Don’t you want to be able to drive yourself to homecoming? And prom? And graduation?”
I put my feet up on the dashboard and closed my eyes against the glare, wondering with a little smile how I managed to mix my sunglasses in with the laundry, especially since I hadn’t done the laundry in weeks. I could have had the best excuse on earth–that my condition required me to relax whenever needed–but Daze never bothered me about stuff like laundry anyway.
I could feel the pull of darkness from the Department of Motor Vehicles, better known as the place where dreams of chilling in the passenger seat were murdered. And it wasn’t because people who drove cars were evil, nothing weird like that. It was because it wasn’t me.
I wasn’t the girl who had my life together. No, I was the one no one wanted on their team for group projects. The one who couldn’t remember to eat breakfast in the morning, much less which math equation went where. The one who was allergic to manicures, pre-calculus, and punctuality. I didn’t have a ‘thing’ like most sixteen year-olds. I wasn’t secretly good at water polo, I wasn’t yearning to revolutionize the cheerleading world, and I didn’t have a century-old cello hidden under my bed. I didn’t paint or dance or crochet. In fact, quite intentionally, I was openly average at almost everything I bothered to try.
“I like your hair,” I said, half trying to change the subject in hopes that Daze would forget about the driving test and absent-mindedly take our usual route home. Her latest trip to the salon had paid off. Daze traded her long dark waves for a Halle Berry trim. Instead of looking like sisters with their identical slender builds and rich tans, Daze and I seemed more like extended relatives–like an aunt and her niece.
“You know, what? We should go to dinner to celebrate the new set of balls you must have grown. ‘Cause it must have taken some guts to chop your hair off like that. How about that new place–”
“Nessa Parker!” She smacked her hand against the steering wheel, her lips turned down at the corners. “Just do this for me. Do this one thing for me, and I’ll quit bugging you about the college applications and about buying a dress for homecoming.” After a moment of nothing, she sighed. “You’ve got to let me play some hand in turning you into a responsible adult. I know you do your own thing, babe, but I’ve got to contribute something.”
I straightened up so I could play with the frayed threads that poked out near the holes in my jeans. I didn’t know what to say to Daze’s request, reasonable as it was. My aunt had done everything my parents had never been around to do. And more. I could do this for her. I could do this one thing for Daze.
“What are you so afraid of, anyway, Ness? It’s just a test.”
I darted my gaze up to Daze. “I’m not scared of anything, Daze. Driving opposes my nature, that’s all. I like buses. What’s wrong with buses?”
It was true. I remembered her six year old self fishing through my pockets for the pennies, nickels, and dimes I’d found on the ground outside of the gas station. Pouting a little to convince the mustache-wearing driver, Carl, to let me on even though I was all by myself. Hurrying for a window seat so I could watch the trees go by and hear the whirring of the tires against the pavement.
My dad had already gone off to fight whoever the present bad guys were overseas, and my mom had been entirely preoccupied with passing out on the couch every morning. The bus, and Carl, and that sound of rubber on road had become more reliable to me than any of them. Until I met Daze.
“It’s not safe, riding buses all over town,” Daze frowned, checking the mirror before she signaled to turn left and parked. “Only weirdoes ride buses. Responsible adults drive. That’s just how it is.”
I tried to ignore the fact that my aunt had called me a weirdo as I slumped out of the car and into line at the DMV. The notorious long lines were nowhere to be found, and within minutes, I introduced myself to my instructor and gave the “check this guy out” look behind his shoulder to Daze, not because he was hot, but because he was…odd.
I always imagined driving instructors to be chubby, half-bearded guys who sat their fat butts in the passenger seat and had students pick up their dry cleaning or drop their cousins off at the mall.
But my guy was tall and spindly, his straw-colored hair sprawled across his shiny forehead and his glasses somehow reflecting every ray of light at once. When he tilted his chin down at me, I knew for sure his eyes were gray. They were like little steel spheres. His name tag read “Collins.”
He took my hand in his and squeezed. A normal, everyday greeting, but I couldn’t help but pull away. His palms were cold and wet, his fingers bony and brittle. It was like touching a half-starved reptile. The man didn’t seem offended that I broke the handshake. Instead, he motioned to the little brown sedan outside the glass doors. His instrument of torture.
I mouthed the words ‘save me’ to Daze over my shoulder, but Daze mouthed “good luck,” back, winked, and turned to leave. I, still scowling, made a note to tell my aunt that her new haircut looked as good from the back as it did from the front.
Despite the shaking of my knees, I forced my legs to move. I pulled on the door entirely too hard, used to Daze’s maniac of a car, and wanted to sit down right there on the curb and die. Death by humiliation. But I willed myself to live, for Daze’s sake, slipping into the driver’s seat, fumbling with the keys until they found their way into the ignition. The car started up with a growl. I couldn’t believe it startled me so badly until I realized the little squeak had come from my mouth.
“Something wrong, Miss Parker?” Collins asked. He gave me a smile that I figured was supposed to be reassuring. I could already tell he was one of those people whose words sounded encouraging, but who was actually laughing at me. It was in the way his lips curled into a snarl, just around the edges. And that, for whatever reason, sobered me right up.
“I’m fine,” I said, smooth as sauce. “Just tell me what I need to do so I can pass this test.” I adjusted my mirrors, secured my seat belt, and planted both hands on the wheel.
“How about we start with driving,” he answered flatly.
Cheeky bastard. I already wanted to sucker punch the sarcasm right out of him. Instead, I swallowed my frustration, put the car in drive, and pressed my black and white Chucks to the gas pedal. Determination coursed through me as the car moved forward. I was going home with my name on a plastic card if it killed me.
And it was working. I took my corners with grace and ease, braking just before the red lights. The shakes were gone, and my hands were steady on the wheel. I flicked my left indicator on with one finger and felt pretty much like that guy from all of the Fast and Furious movies.
“So, how long is this test supposed to take?” I asked the instructor. I had been going for about thirty minutes and I was pretty sure the designated course had ended several stoplights before. “Shouldn’t we be heading back, Mr.…uh…Collins?”
“Fewer questions, more driving, Miss Parker,” he answered in that same voice, like the last swig of a can of Diet Coke that had been left out too long. “You’ll take a right in two lights.”
Something about the way his mouth moved when he talked made me shrink. I wanted to wipe my clammy palms off on my jeans, but I was pretty sure I’d get points off for letting go of the wheel. So I pushed through the grossness of sweaty hands and the urge to quit then and there. I knew I’d only have to put up with this Collins fellow for a little while longer.
Fifteen more minutes. I had to ask again. It didn’t sit right in my gut, and not in the bad burrito kind of way. More like when I got the last postcard my dad ever sent me in the mail. It was blank, with only his signature at the bottom. I took one look at it and knew I’d never hear from him again.
That was the kind of feeling I had in that car. The really bad kind.
“Look, shouldn’t we turn around? We’re forty five minutes out, so it’ll take that long to drive back. My aunt is for sure freaking out by now.”
“Keep driving, Miss Parker. I won’t say it again.”
In my head, I decided I’d give Creep ten more minutes before I took the test into my own hands. If he wanted to drive to Mexico, that was his business, not mine. Besides, Daze had already ordered their dinner and by then we probably had a ticked off Chinese delivery guy at our door with cold eggrolls and a ridiculous number of duck sauce packets.
Oh hell no. Eggrolls were no good cold. Without warning, I pulled a U-turn and headed the opposite way, back to where we started.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Collins asked, still unalarmed.
“Look, I’m sorry, mister, but I’m going back. We’re like an hour away and to be honest, you’re freaking me out a little.” I glanced sideways at him. “What kind of driving instructor are you, anyway?”
“Stop the car,” he said.
His voice chilled me, like he’d turned the air up way too high. The snide tone vanished, and all of a sudden, my heart fell out of rhythm. The crooked thumping was so loud, I was certain Collins could hear it. Shut up, I hissed at myself, as if my heart could hear me.
“Ok, I’ll pull over up ahead,” I answered. This was what it felt like to fail a test. I’d failed plenty of tests before, but never when I’d tried my best. It felt like my blood was freezing over. Or maybe that was just my heart racing again. I tried to take deeper breaths, to keep my heartbeat steady. Long hospital visits were depressing enough. Couple that with failing my first driver’s test, and I might never have gotten over the devastation. And oh god, my eggrolls.
“I said stop the car.”
Collins shattered my thoughts. I hit the brakes so fast I came to a stop in the middle of the street. Angry drivers swerved around us, honking their horns and flashing us the finger.
“Get out,” he said without bothering to look at me. “I’m taking over.”
We must have been outside city limits, because I had no idea where we were. A dry cleaners with a burned out neon sign. A McDonald’s with an empty drive through. None of that helped me figure out how to get home.
Collins and I switched places in silence, and he slammed the car door as he got in. I opened the passenger side, but he snapped at me to get in the back. Then, before I was even buckled, he took off, going maybe twice the speed limit. I held on to the arm rest and tried not to smack my head against the window as he accelerated why my driving instructor was driving like a maniac?
“Slow down,” I shouted after we just missed clipping some guy on his bicycle.
But Collins pushed the car even faster, weaving in and out of traffic. The lights turned to streaks outside my window, and the other cars on the road were nothing more than streaks of color and light as we sped past them.
“Ok, let me out.” I meant for it to be bold, commanding. But it came out cracked and halted.
Collins said nothing. Just stared. As if he was dead.
I started hoping that a cop would pull us over. The speedometer read ninety five, and the world outside my window had become a kaleidoscope, shifting and whizzing by, as if time outside of my window was at a standstill. But there were no sirens, no flashing red and blue lights.
I swallowed. “Dude, I need to get out right now.” But with an embarrassing sort of breathlessness. “Or I’m gonna barf all over your seats. I’m serious. You need to let me out. Now.”
I reached for my cell phone. Daze had saddled me with one of those archaic flip phones with the giant keypads because I kept losing my smartphone on the bus. I didn’t care, though. It worked, and that was all I needed.
But before I could dial even one number, the man snatched the phone out of my shaking hand, snapped it in half, and tossed it back at me. As I held the two halves and tried to piece them together, I realized what my only other option had to be. I knew it would hurt, but then I’d be safe. Then I could get away.
Slowly, I reached for the door handle and counted to three. Then I closed my eyes, took a deeper breath, and…counted to three one more time. Finally, I opened my eyes and pulled.
But the child lock was on.
My heart bounced against my rib cage and I winced, no longer caring about how fast it was going. My gut feeling had turned into full blown panic and from somewhere deep inside myself, in that part of a person that hides the will to keep on living, I heard, “Run, Nessa. Run.”
So I pressed the button that turned the window down. Locked. I had never wanted to cry so badly. I could feel the tears stinging my eyes as I pressed my palms into them. My breaths staggered, my thoughts slurring. I knew I needed to stay relaxed, to think.
When my father had been around, he taught me how to calm myself down in tricky situations. For a kid with heart issues, every little problem had the potential to be an emergency. Back then, a tricky situation meant I had accidentally brushed my Barbie’s hair too aggressively, and her head had popped off, and when I tried to stick it back on, it made Beach Time Barbie look like she had no neck. At six years old, it was like my world was over.
I lied to myself. Told myself that being stuck in a car with a speeding nutball was exactly the same as nursing a decapitated toy. I could still hear my father saying, “Breathe, Vanessa. Breathe, then think, ‘how can I fix this’?”
I took a few careful breaths and rubbed circles around the spot on my chest where my heart was threatening to break through. As soon as I was calm enough, I tried to think. I figured if I couldn’t jump out, I needed to find a way to get this man to stop this car.
I gave myself ten more seconds of sanity. Then I reached up, past Collins’ shoulder, and wrenched the steering wheel to the right. I knew that if I could hit into something–another car, a mailbox, anything–I could get away. Someone would see the wreck call the police to report it. They’d call Daze and take me to the hospital. They’d lock up this lunatic.
When I jerked the wheel, the car swerved just long enough for Collins to drive his unnaturally bony elbow right into my nose. I shrieked, retreating to the backseat, cradling my bleeding face.
That’s when it really clicked.
Collins had every intention of hurting me. This wasn’t a silly little driving test. This was serious. So I did what any girl would do while trapped in a vehicle with a possible psychopath. I leaned back, lifted my legs into the air, and tried to kick Collins in the side of the face. It sort of worked, except once my kick landed, he grabbed my ankle and pulled.
I lay flat on my back with my legs pinned down by his arms. I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t run, I couldn’t use the well-intended martial arts my father tried to teach me when I was seven.
But I still had hands.
I threw my arms forward and grabbed a fistful of his hair, screaming so loud I hoped his head would burst. I scratched at his face, tore through his skin, tried to push my thumbs into his eye sockets. I did my best to draw blood, to make him crash, to get free. Anything to get free.
Collins swerved again, this time into something solid and unmoving. Maybe a wall. His airbag exploded to life, and I couldn’t see where we were, but I knew it was darker there. One big shadow.
The man slammed his elbow into my face again, but I refused to pass out, even though my head was ringing and tears were forced from my eyes. He put a thin hand around my neck and pressed me into the seat.
My scream died. Still, I tried to kick, tried to reach his bloodied face with my fingernails. The frenzy took over me, the need to be away from him, to be okay, and my heart thudded so fast that I saw red, felt red, tasted red.
Icy metal touched my skin, and my body went limp. The gun may as well have been a tranquilizer, because I was too afraid to even blink. I began to pray that all he was going to do was shoot me. I didn’t want to live with anything else he might do. All he had to do was wiggle his pointy finger and a bullet would break free of the barrel and make its way through my skull.
I was going to die.
Collins opened his door and got out of the car, still pointing the gun right at me. I obeyed because of that voice in my gut, the voice that told me that this man would pull that trigger if I so much as sneezed.
“Get out,” he said through clenched teeth.
He hadn’t caught his breath yet, and blood oozed from the corner of his eye, from gashes on his chin and his nose. At least there was evidence that I put up a fight, that I made him feel pain before he killed me.
I stumbled out of his car with unsteady legs. Adrenaline still fueled my brain: I needed a way out. Every ounce of my humanity fought to find a way to live.
“Pop the trunk,” he said.
I reached under the front seat and fumbled with the lever until the trunk clicked open and with a shiver I wondered if he would stuff me inside. He grabbed the back of my shirt and half-dragged me around to the trunk. Then he shoved me toward it.
“Take out the bottle and open the cap,” he said.
It was a yellow container of lighter fluid. I twisted the cap off, my fingers so rigid that I could hardly manage. For a split second, I thought maybe I could splash the contents in his eyes, but before I could complete my thought, he had the barrel of his gun pressed into the back of my Apple Jax t-shirt.
“Dump it on the seats. All of it.”
I did what he said, the smell of the fluid filling my nostrils, making her dizzy. I realized I wasn’t crying, even though I desperately wanted to. He was going to burn me alive. The thought made my knees give out, just for a moment.
From behind, the man pressed something small and square into my hand. A matchbox. “Light it,” he whispered into my hair. His voice sent shivers right through my bones, and I was frozen until he squeezed my arm. “I said ‘light it.’”
I fumbled with the matches, taking a few tries to get one lit. When the tiny flame came to life, I tossed it at the sedan. The fire spread midair, catching the interior of the car in one breath.
And just as I was about to resign to my unforeseen fate, headlights cut through the dark. The driver’s fervor led me to believe that an undercover cop may have discovered them, that maybe somehow someone had been watching this Collins fellow all along. The sound of fear leaving my body was audible, a whimper. The car came to a stop a few feet away and Collins prodded me forward with his gun shoved against my spine.
Collins forced me against the car, my face colliding with the warm metal of the rumbling hood. He bent my arms behind my back and tightened cuffs around my wrists. He snatched me by the hair as he led me to the backseat, smacking my forehead into the door before he pushed me in. The pain dazed me, and it took a moment before I could see again. By then, Collins had slammed the door, leaving me face down in the seat, hands still trapped behind my back.
My thoughts weren’t sensible. They were a jumble of prayers and curses, a rush of resignation and regret. I waited for what seemed like hours for Collins to clamber into the passenger seat. Instead, my new driver hit the gas. Whoever he was, he laughed like it was the Christmas morning.
“This is my new favorite day,” he said, sighing like people do after a big laugh. “And you are forever more my favorite pick up. Ever.”
I needed to sit up, to find a way to get out, to get home. I tried to right myself, to defy gravity and pull my body up without the use of my arms, but it was too much. Everything was too much. I did the only thing I could think of, all I had left. I begged.
“Please…Please, let me go.”
It didn’t take much for me to sound pathetic while I jostled around in the back of that car. I couldn’t keep the cracks out of my voice if I wanted to. I sounded how I felt. I sounded broken.
“I know. I know you must be so freaked out right now. But I can’t do that,” he answered. “If I could let you go…I wish I could, believe me.”
He didn’t sound cold like that Collins man had sounded. His voice had color to it, like a sane person’s would. He even sounded genuinely upset, like his throat was tightening. He sighed again, stopped the car, I felt a warm hand on my arm. My instinct was to fight him off, but he was gentle enough as he sat me up in the seat. Gingerly, he brushed my dark tangle of hair out of my face so I wasn’t choking on it.
If someone could look like the exact opposite of another person, this guy would be the opposite of the driving instructor. He was younger, maybe even my age. I was shocked to find a surprisingly disarming smile and dimples to match. He wasn’t ugly and he wasn’t devastatingly handsome. He just seemed…nice. Like his name should be Hal. Or Sammy. Or something cute like that. He was so off-puttingly adorable, with his brown eyes and sweet, sandy blonde hair that I was distracted from the absolute terror of my situation for about a tenth of a second.
“Look, I’m real sorry. But I just can’t let you go,” he said calmly.
He used his thumb to wipe away the stream of blood that was trickling down my forehead and into my left eye. But when he touched me, it burned, like he’d put a hot coal to my skin. I gasped, and the panic found me again, my heart beating like a fist was gripping it. How fast could I run with my hands cuffed behind my back? The guy, who’d been staring at me, frowned a little at my reaction. He started the car up again before I could decide what to do.
“You’ll understand,” he said. He drove took the corners easily, unlike Collins, so I didn’t fall over on the seat. “You don’t have to be scared of me, though. Trust me, I’m not going to hurt you.”
I didn’t want his reassurances. I wanted to close my eyes and wake up at home. I wanted to talk to a police officer and hear him tell me they had Collins and this freak in custody and they’d never touch me again. I wanted to curl up on Daze’s lap and cry until I was dehydrated for loss of tears. I tried it. Closed my eyes and willed myself to wake up. I hated that a tear slipped out. I hated it, and I hated him.
The boy looked at me in the rearview mirror and chewed on his bottom lip with a frown. “Oh God, please don’t cry.” He gripped the wheel a little tighter. “You’ll understand why I have to do this. You may not forgive me, but you’ll understand.”
What does he mean ‘You’ll understand’? I’ll understand why I’m being kidnapped? I didn’t want to know why. It would be way better if I never needed to understand any of it. If time could go backwards and undo all of it. If I’d never gotten in that car. If I’d never need my driver’s license in the first place.
“I’m Adam,” he offered. “What’s your name?”
What the hell? I didn’t care what his name was. It was almost insulting that he offered it to me. There was no way was I was giving him any information. In fact, I had a sudden urge to spit on him.
“That’s okay,” he offered. “We adjust. Well, not all of us, but definitely you. You… you’re my hero.” He smiled again. “You should have seen Collins’ face. I mean, you saw it, but you don’t know. You don’t know just how good it felt for me to see it.”
When he realized I had no intention of speaking to him, Adam cleared his throat awkwardly and turned the radio on. Soft jazz floated through the speakers, and he rushed to change the station. With cheeks tinted red, he stopped scanning when he found an old Tupac song and mumbled something about Collins always changing his presets.
Strangely, the music helped. I leaned my head back on the leather seats and tried to imagine I was in my bedroom, blasting the same song while Lacey, my worst and best friend, got ready to pounce on unsuspecting boys. I loved rap, especially the classics. Remembering that wasn’t enough to distract me entirely. I could still hear pounding between my ears–and it wasn’t coming from the bass. But it made me feel more real, more alive and less on the verge of a breakdown.
“At least…at least maybe I can help you….”
He turned into a dusty, desolate parking lot. An ugly cement building on a hill, all square cinder blocks and no windows. Adam killed the engine. I couldn’t read the way his chin tilted down to his chest, but he seemed sad, defeated. The adrenaline that had been raging through me, keeping me alert, was fizzling out. The corners of my vision blurred, telling me that I was about to pass out, maybe from exhaustion, probably from fear. I fought the urge, the burning need to close my eyes.
He ran a hand through his blonde locks. “I wish I could help you, Vanessa.”
With no warning, from the terror, the pain, the hurt of it all, I leaned forward and threw up onto the carpet. I didn’t offer an apology. Adam didn’t ask for one. Then, my eyes fluttered closed, all on their own, before I could ask my kidnapper how the hell he knew my name.