Excerpt: The Aftermath by Jen Alexander

by Amy Loosemore, Harlequin.com Team

Are you a gamer? Do you love the excitement of entering another world when you play? But what if you weren’t just enjoying the vicarious thrill of playing as your favorite character in a game — what if you were one?

That’s just what Claudia discovers in Jen Alexander’s new YA novel from Harlequin TEEN, Aftermath. Intrigued? Keep reading for an excerpt from the book, and pick up your copy of Aftermath, on sale now, to find out what Claudia does next after her world-shattering discovery…

About the Book:

Sometimes, I dream that I’m someone else.

A girl with dark hair who doesn’t worry about hunger or thirst or running from flesh-eaters.

In her world, those sorts of things don’t exist….

Since the spring of 2036, when the world changed forever, Claudia and a small clan of survivors have roamed the streets of a very altered Nashville—polluted and desolate, except for the ever-present threat of cannibals. Together they must undergo punishing tests of endurance and psychological challenge—sometimes with devastating consequences—all just to live another day.

With food and water in dwindling supply, and with danger lurking around every corner, no one can be trusted. And as her world starts to make less and less sense, Claudia begins to realize something terrifying: she is just a pawn in some sort of game, and all of her actions are being controlled from afar by a mysterious gamer. So when she meets a maddening and fascinating outsider named Declan, who claims to be a game moderator, she must decide whether to join him in exchange for protection and access to the border.

If they play the game right, they are each other’s best hope for survival—and a life beyond the only world Claudia’s ever known: the terrifying live-action game known as The Aftermath.

Excerpt

August

I can smell a storm coming in. It’s an earthy scent that I can’t ignore, especially when we’re running low on water and I can almost feel the raw ache of thirst in the back of my throat. We need the rain.

I draw in a deep breath to make sure I’m not imagining the scent, but now it’s even stronger, intermingling with the decayed odor of a music shop that caught fire last week.

A few days ago, after we’d raided the little souvenir store across the street from it, something had driven me to go inside. I’d found what was left of two Survivors within the remains of the building, lying side by side on a bed of smashed records and charred instruments with their fingers interlocking.

Focus on the rain, Virtue. Not on death.

Today, the air is damp, and I swear I can feel my skin drinking the moisture in, but until the first drops fall, I won’t get my hopes up. Not when the sun is so bright that it seems as if it’s mocking me.

The last time I expected rain, positioning empty water bottles on the roof, it hadn’t come for nearly two weeks.

Remembering those thirteen miserable days of thirst and uncertainty is just enough to take my mind off the dead couple in the music store, but it’s not a welcome change of thought. So, I refocus again—this time on the reason why I came up here in the first place. I haven’t eaten in days.

I squat down on the roof of the jail we’ve lived in for the past two months. Midafternoon sunlight hisses at my bare shoulders. Perspiration drips from my forehead, blinding me and making my binoculars oily to the touch.

Across the street is a courthouse. It is imposing, gothic, with gargoyles lurching off the roof and bronze sculptures protecting the ground. It’s beautiful, even in this world that has fallen on its face and refuses to stand back up, but I’m more interested in the elderly couple that has taken up across the street than the building’s beauty.

They’re not the first to move into the courthouse since my group sought out shelter here. And I’ve got a feeling they won’t be the last. They have no clue we exist. When there’s a real threat, and there always is, they won’t know that, either. Not until it’s much too late.

“Spying on the neighbors again, Claudia?” Ethan’s voice startles me, and I drop the binoculars to my chest, jumping up hastily. Although the ledge I’m standing on is several inches higher than the roof deck, my green eyes are level to his—he’s that much taller than me. With the sun as a backdrop that makes his dark blond hair seem like a halo, he’s ethereal. If it weren’t for the knife sheathed to his side and the dried blood smeared across the front of his jeans, he’d be out of place in this run-down landscape.

“Didn’t think you would be around,” I say. I peek over my shoulder at the courthouse. “They have food. Bet they have water, too.”

“So you are spying.”

I nod and hop down from the ledge, skidding a little on the gravel. Ethan steadies me, holding either side of my waist as he draws me to his body. His grip is too tight and it momentarily takes my breath away. But instead of pulling away from him, I move in closer, tucking the top of my head underneath his chin. Being near Ethan has always made me feel safe, and even now it gives me the confidence to follow through on my plans.

“I’m going in, and I’m taking as much as I can carry with me,” I say.

Ethan groans. “It’s risky. I mean, they’re so close and—”

“Don’t worry, I can handle it,” I promise, sliding my hands into his back pockets. I gaze up at him, and he tucks stray strands of my short blond hair behind my damaged ear. “They just left. Now’s as good a time as any for me to go in.” At last I shrug away from him and take a couple of steps backward. Tilt my head to one side and await his response.

“I’ll go with you, Claudia.”

“No offense,” I say, placing my hands on my hips and shaking my head, “but I’m pretty sure I can handle this one by myself. You should work on inventory while I’m gone. April swore she did it last week, but she screws everything up.”

He stares behind me at the winged lion gargoyle on the corner of the courthouse. After a long moment where I doubt he’ll continue to argue with me, the sides of his mouth quirk up. “Come on. You and me. Mini-quest.”

Ethan comes up with the most ridiculous names for raids. Quests. Mini-adventures. Field trips. Jeremy and April never call him on it, but I often want to. Still, if I have to pick anyone to hunt for food with, he’s the one. Ethan is strong and quick.

When he stands watch, I never fret about guarding my throat because when he swears he’ll protect me with his life, I never doubt him. On the other hand, clearing out the courthouse is a simple task that I can easily manage without any help.

“You really don’t have to come, you know? I wasn’t kidding when I said I can do it alone,” I say, and he laughs.

“Oh, I know you can, but I wouldn’t be able to get anything done knowing you’re in that building by yourself.”

I feel my lips move into a slow smile. “Suck-up.”

Hunger twists my stomach into tight coils, and I almost suggest we take the elevators to the basement. Although it’s available, we shouldn’t use electricity here. As far as shelter is concerned, working lights are a rarity, and nothing attracts flesh-eaters like a brightly lit building. That and a functional commercial-size oven.

“How long have they been gone?” Ethan climbs into the roof hatch. He jumps down effortlessly, then glances up at me. I use the ladder, gripping the slippery metal rungs as best I can. When I reach the bottom, he slides his hands under my arms and lowers me to the floor.

“Fifteen minutes.”

“And you’re sure they have food?”

I shoot him a look as I grab my bag from the stool by the staircase and shrug it onto my shoulders. “Am I ever wrong? Like I said, you don’t have to come—I can handle it by myself.”

He blinks a few times before shaking his head, then starts down the steps. I follow close behind, trying to disregard the noise that erupts from the pit of my belly and echoes off the metal and concrete.

There’s no natural light on the jail’s ground floor, so we use flashlights. I think this part of the building was once used to in-process prisoners. Rows of tiny cells extend along both sides of the hallways. Each room has a steel door, just like the ones upstairs, but these cells have bulletproof windows, too. Expletives and drawings of body parts are etched into the glass. Ethan once said that the prisoners must not have liked seeing each other locked away.

At the end of the hallway is a door, which leads to another corridor.

I loathe going into this hallway because it reeks of waste and mold and what I swear is a decaying corpse. It also runs directly into the courthouse basement. I want to pull the collar of my T-shirt over my mouth and nose, to breathe in the scent of harsh soap and sweat so I don’t suffocate from the stench. But since doing so would prevent me from detecting any odors that are out of place, I carry on and hope I don’t get sick to my stomach.

“I’m, uh, sorry for the other night,” Ethan says. He isn’t covering his nose, either. His face is so expressionless, I wonder if he notices the scent or if he’s simply grown accustomed to it. “About what I said, you know.”

“It’s fine.”

He’d admonished me for not taking better care of my health after I’d returned from a raid sunburned and so breathless I couldn’t move or speak. The only thing I wanted to do was curl up on the flat green mat in our safe room and rest. Instead, I’d gone back and forth with him for nearly half an hour. His concern was both endearing and frustrating. How can he expect me to have excellent health when we are constantly facing death to get what little we do have?

“No, it’s not. It just makes me so angry. That we have to go on like this.”

Ethan rarely talks about being bitter with the hand we’ve been dealt. Out of everyone in our clan, he seems to accept what happened three years ago the best, focusing on the present so that we can do whatever it takes to survive. That’s what draws me to him. I reach out in the darkness and thread my fingers through his. “Thank you…for everything you’ve done for me,” I say as I squeeze his hand.

He exhales, blowing wisps of hair out of his eyes. “Just know, I’ll do whatever it takes to stay here… I’ve never been with anyone like you—not even before all this.”

My heart lurches, and I swear it’s about to explode from my chest. What does he mean when he says not even before all this? I want to ask him about it, but my body seems to have a mind of its own, and instead I silently wrap my arms around his neck, gazing up into his hazel eyes. He lowers his head until our lips touch.

“Me, neither,” I say before releasing my hold on him.

We stop in front of the metal door to the courthouse, and he bends his head to fish an oversize key from his pocket. I sneak a glance at his face under the flashlight. He’s smiling. Maybe my words helped ease his mind.

After returning the key to his pocket, he pulls his knife from its holster. “You coming?” he asks, taking a few steps into the pitch-black basement. I squint when he beams the flashlight on my face. And to think I was the one asking him if he wanted to back out of the raid.

This is the last place I want to be.

My head bobs up and down, and I hold out my hand. Allow him to pull me into the dark after him.

Once we reach the first floor of the courthouse, there’s no use for our flashlights. The people living here are almost asking for flesh-eaters to attack because every corner of the building is lighted and cool. If it wouldn’t almost certainly mean death before sunset—my skinny body becoming someone’s meal—I’d stay here in the air-conditioning.

“They live on the third floor,” I say as we walk briskly through the lobby. It’s surprisingly clean. The last squatters were disgusting.

We take the stairs. Again. There’s a buzzing hum of electricity all around, and a working elevator, but we still climb three flights of steps to avoid notice. I’m out of breath by the time we find the courtroom the couple has made their home base. My belly is on fire, and all I want is to rest, to lean against one of the benches to steady myself.

I join Ethan on the other side of the room instead.

Kneeling down behind the jury box, he bites his bottom lip. “Where did they get all this?” I see the top of his head moving—he’s taking count of the supplies. “There’s so much food and water… Hey, give me your bag, will you?”

Usually he’s the lookout while I load the bags because I’m faster. Today, I don’t object. I toss him my empty backpack, and it lands quietly on the front row.

“Be quick,” I order before stepping into the lobby.

My tennis shoes tap softly on the beige tile floor as I pace in front of the door. I feel that at any moment, I will drop from hunger and yet I can’t keep still. I am not particularly patient, but when it comes to a raid, I try to have some restraint. Stealing someone else’s resources is a quick way to wind up dead. And it’s the thieves who are hasty or greedy that you see bloated on the side of the street or beaten bloody and left slumped against a building.

I am still thinking about food and water and pacing frantically when I realize I’m no longer alone. The sound of a gun cocking and the bittersweet scent of menthol make me freeze.

“Turn around,” orders a soft female voice. “Hands on top of your head.”

I do as I’m told. I twist around so slowly that the rubber soles of my shoes make a drawn-out squeaking noise. My heart nearly tumbles out of my chest. For a moment, for whatever reason, I’m sure it’s Mia. My friend who decided she was better off somewhere else shortly after we celebrated freeing several people from a flesh-eater den. But then I blink a couple of times. Other than the dark hair and eyes, this person looks nothing like Mia.

This woman is middle-aged, not seventeen, and has a gaunt, dented face. She is nearly shirtless and so skinny I can count the bones beneath her translucent skin. Tattered cargo pants hang low on her hips.

Her feet are bare, worn and bruised. If not for the Glock aimed at my forehead, I wouldn’t be afraid of her at all.

But there is a gun pointing at me, and the person holding it is not on my side. If I’m lucky, she’ll shoot me now instead of trying to breed me with a male captive in hopes of making more food. I’ve heard about flesh-eaters doing this because babies are so fat.

“Need some help holding that thing?” I ask. My bold words surprise both of us, and she sneers. Lowers the gun until it’s aimed directly between my eyes. My chest contracts, but I don’t stop talking. “Go on. I dare you.”

“You dare me?”

There’s a gun in her hand and my fingers are clasped above my head and I’m goading her to kill me. I am a sadist. I am terrified out of my skull.

I nod and smile.

Instead of firing, she laughs at me. Her bony body shakes hard—like a skeleton dangling about. I only hope she’s loud enough for Ethan to hear. “You’re not getting out, girl. You’re worth too much for me to let that happen. Question is—” she twitches her head toward the closed courtroom door and grins “—how many more we taking with us?”

We.

The word makes me want to scream. Of course she’s not alone—flesh-eaters raid with their entire clan. I take a tentative step toward her, and her nostrils flare. “Do. Not. Move,” she warns.

I take one more step. Two. Then three. I feel as if my muscle and bone have turned to jelly, but somehow I walk with confidence. If I pretend I’m not terrified, then maybe—just maybe—I’ll survive this day. It’s worked before, more times than I can remember. Still, I can almost smell my fear intermingling with her pungent minty scent; can practically feel the cold barrel of the gun. I am that close to her now.

My lips move into a mocking grin. “Go on,” I challenge.

The next few moments are a complete blur. Ethan shouts something, and the woman turns in his direction. I rush forward. The gun goes off, and I’m trembling with my arms around this skinny creature that wants me dead, unsure which of us is wounded. The echo is so thunderous, and I’m so numb, it takes me a moment to realize Ethan is saying my name, telling me to let go.

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