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Two steps up from the door, hunched in a crouch on his heels, was a boy dressed in black. It was his teeth Preston could hear, clattering in his mouth. He was suffering some sort of fit, shuddering there in the fetal position as if a current was being fed through him. His feet shifted and jerked in a way that looked as if some invisible force was needling him from all sides and he was recoiling from a thousand fearsome pinpricks. His chin was pressed against his chest.
Preston dropped to a crouch and felt his blood ice up. He didn’t doubt for a second he was seeing something unnatural. This wasn’t some sort of epileptic fit; it was something more controlled. Then there was the sound coming from the kid’s mouth, the machine-gun rhythm of his teeth. The sound he’d heard in the alley.
Preston staggered backward, half running until he felt himself thump against the perimeter of the sunken garden. He lost his footing and sat down hard. He wanted to look away, but he found he couldn’t; he had to watch as the kid twisted and shuddered.
It was slowing now. A moment later, he was still, curled up on his side. His teeth had stopped. Preston tried to swallow, but his throat had filled with sand. His heart felt close to bursting. Had the kid passed out? Or have I just watched someone die?
The fire door clanged in its frame, making an empty steel echo. It had stopped raining, Preston realized. He put his face in his hands for a moment, shook his head clear, and looked at the kid again. He remembered reading that insomniacs often suffered hallucinations.
That was it, he thought—he was going mad. Some kind of reaction to everything that had happened. First Mum leaving. Dad losing it. Now Alice going missing.
He pressed his palms into the gravel at his feet and felt the sharp stones sting his skin. It didn’t feel like a dream or some sort of nervous breakdown. The kid—probably dead, Preston guessed—was still there, curled up like a newborn. Preston rose to standing, using the wall for balance, testing his legs. A wave of sickness climbed his body, then faded. He waited for a moment, then he made his way forward, his sneakers crunching on the gravel. His pace slowed as he reached the top of the steps leading down to the fire door, clammy fear running a finger down his back. The boy didn’t seem to be breathing.
He looked weird. His final fit had thrown the goggles from his face. Preston checked the building. The light was still on in the top-floor office, but no one was watching. He stooped and picked the goggles up. They were still warm from the kid’s skin. They were like no goggles he’d ever seen before, the lenses enlarged to the size of saucers. Preston wasn’t about to hold them to his face—a crazy kind of terror prevented him—but if he had, they’d have covered most of his forehead and both cheeks, almost reaching his top lip. The frames were made of something odd: black and soft and pliable but not rubber. And the lenses were weirdly thick and heavy. When Preston gingerly held them up, it was clear they were close to impossible to see through, the kind of things you might imagine an astronomer wearing to stare into the boiling heart of a star. He dropped them on the steps next to the curled-up boy, suddenly desperate to be away and clear of the building, back down Half Moon and out onto the Deansgate main road, where there were bars and bookstores and fast-food places and maybe some people at a taxi stand being normal. He should check if the kid was breathing, he knew he should. But the boy and the goggles were horrible.
Preston made his way back to the perimeter wall. “I’m not going mad,” he said in a whisper, wiping his palms against his jeans. The clouds broke for a moment and the moon appeared. This was better. The world, which had slipped its axis and gone lunatic for a moment, seemed normal again. He was in an empty parking lot with a black Lexus in it, not on another planet. “I’m not going mad.” He leaned against the cool brickwork and wiped the rain from his face with the sleeve of his coat. “I’m not going mad,” said Preston one last time, just to be clear.
And that was when he heard the voice.
Fear haunts the streets of Preston’s city: a girl has disappeared. Preston is drawn to investigate, exploring the city in the hunt for his missing friend. And deep in the bowels of a secret scientific institute, he discovers a sinister machine used to banish teenage criminals for their offenses.
Captured and condemned to a cavernous dimension, Preston is determined to escape. But this is no ordinary jail. Friendships will be forged and lives will be lost in a reckless battle for freedom, revenge–and revolution.
Set in a world all too similar to our own, Lifers is thrilling, pulse-pounding storytelling of the highest degree.
In stores January 31st.
I’m a writer of children’s fiction, represented by Ben Illis at the B.I.A., available for workshops and school visits when I’m not chained to a laptop cursing my lack of progress and/or poverty of imagination.
My debut novel, The Poison Boy, was written as Fletcher Moss. My second novel, Lifers, is my first for teen readers. It arrives April 2016.
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