Aftershocks

By: Natalie J. Damschroder

Prologue



Zoe Smith huddled against the wall of the tiny, dingy room, arms wrapped around her legs. Not in the corner, which was a trap, but next to the room’s door, so she’d have a few seconds before anyone coming in saw her.

She’d learned a few things in the past year.

Like how to pretend to take pills and then act like they’d worked. How to pay attention to what was around her. How to never assume that the way things looked was the way they really were.

She sniffed and rubbed at the dry, tight skin next to her eye. She hadn’t been able to wash since last night, after what they’d done to Jordie. The tears had run into her hair and made it stick out funny. Freddie had squawked about it. She hated when Zoe’s hair wasn’t perfect—by her crazy, messed-up definition, anyway. But Pat hadn’t let her brush it before they left. He’d been in too much of a hurry.

The guy standing guard outside her door coughed and shifted, his foot scraping on the floor. Zoe didn’t move, but her insides jolted and flipped, her heart racing until she knew he wasn’t coming inside. Not yet.

Someone would be coming in, she knew that. The odd leather bag on the floor several feet away guaranteed it would be sooner rather than later. She watched the bag, a lump of shadows in the room’s dimness, as screams echoed in her head.

No. She pressed her forehead to her knees and held her breath, forcing the horrors back. She was thirteen now. Closer to an adult than to a child. Her birthday had passed without her even knowing it, but they’d mentioned the date last night, a shock to her after so many months of just surviving. Drifting. Allowing.

But after whatever they’d done to Jordie, Zoe knew she couldn’t keep going like that. Things were about to get worse, she knew it, and if she was going to escape, this was her only chance.

A voice echoed from somewhere else in the building. She froze, straining to listen, so mad at herself for locking up in that tiny ball against the wall. Do it.

Her gaze darted from the bag to the file cabinets crowded against the side wall, blocking the frosted windows. She could just make out a faint crack along the wall between two of them. It was too straight to be damage. But there wasn’t much space over there, and if she made noise, the guy guarding the door would hear.

She didn’t know his name. He was new to Pat and Freddie’s family, but he had the coldest eyes. They were almost worse than Freddie’s crazy ones. He wouldn’t care how much he hurt her to keep her from getting away.

In a few minutes, Pat and Freddie would have what they wanted and there would be no more delay. Zoe had worked very hard at not imagining what was coming next. There was no choice here. This was it.

So just go!

She lurched to her bare feet and raced across the small room, swallowing a grunt at the weight of the bag she grabbed on her way by. The totems inside were metal, but wrapped in cloth so they didn’t clink. They were heavier than they’d looked last night, when Pat was lovingly examining them and talking about what he believed they could do. She squeezed between the cabinets and slid her fingertips along the crack. It went all the way to the floor and up a few feet, and yes, there was another one at the top, running sideways. Flattening her hand, she swept it across the plaster, looking for a latch. Please don’t need a key. Please don’t need a key.

Her fingers crumpled against a square of metal and she almost yelped. She couldn’t see it. The room had darkened even more. The sun must have set. That was good, but she needed to figure out how to open… She contorted her face as she fumbled, trying to keep listening for voices or movement outside the tiny room.

And then there was a click. She pulled at the square latch, and the door rasped open a few inches. Cool air swept in, bringing with it the slow chunka-chugga-chunk of train wheels turning and the sting of metal and smoke in her nose. From somewhere on the other side of the train yard, brakes squealed.

Zoe carefully pried the door open as far as it would go. She had no idea what this little access door was used for, back in the olden days of the train station. But now it was her salvation.

Thank God Pat and Freddie practically starved her. A year ago, she’d never have gotten through the narrow gap. But now she squeezed through easily, barely noticing the way the rough wood scraped her arm and the back of her head, yanking hair out of her scalp. A breeze brushed over her face, opening her lungs. But her shoulders hunched and burned. Someone was about to grab her, she knew it. She wrestled the heavy bag through the panel. She couldn’t leave it here. Not after all the things Pat had said about “rituals” and power. If he didn’t have them, he wouldn’t have a reason to have her or any other girl. She had to make them disappear.

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