Ch-ch-ch-changes

I’ve never been very comfortable with change. Mixing something up, or replacing something old with something new, has always bothered me, no matter how small or insignificant that change might be.

And I really mean it when I say it doesn’t matter how small. A new collar for Henry? No way. It doesn’t matter if he needs one. It doesn’t matter if his old one is hanging on by a thread. I’ve been looking at the last one for two years, and it’s comfortable to me.

Different colored sheets? Absolutely not. How will I sleep at night wrapped in strange blankets of another color?

Don’t even get me started on switching up my food brands at the grocery store.

Have I made my point?

That being said, sometimes change is a good thing.

Woman in victorian dress

I realize this isn’t a mind-blowing philosophy–everyone knows that change is a good thing. But it’s been a difficult pill for me to swallow all my life. I get comfortable with the status-quo. I like things to stay the way they are.

So when my husband sat me down after dinner yesterday and suggested that I change the banner for my website, I nearly had a full blown conniption. Seriously, you would have thought he was asking me to sacrifice my firstborn. It was a little bit ridiculous, honestly.

Anyway, if you’re here and you’re reading this, you’ve probably noticed that there’s something quite different about the theme. If you’re as resistant to change as me, it might even be a little bit alarming. Nerani the Elegant, long gracing the header of my webpage in her elegant silks and rose red lips, has been replaced by a terrifying character in a gas mask.

Everyone, meet Jack Casey, one of my zombie slaying, government-rebelling, and all-around badass protagonists from the Second Death.

Jack, meet everyone.

Environmental disaster

“You’re working on a zombie story,” my husband reminded me as I breathed into a brown paper bag last night. “A woman in a fancy gown doesn’t really express that.”

Ugh. When he’s right, he’s right.

I recently bought the rights to the awesome stock image you see above in order to use it for the conference. To me, the picture positively SCREAMS Jack Casey, which is perfect. I’m planning to hand out a little “thank you for time” bookmark to anyone and everyone who will listen to my spiel. I’m hoping some apocalyptic swag might have the potential to attract even more interest than just a business card. After all, everyone’s going to have one of those, right?

Still, a bookmark is one thing. Changing my website banner is another thing entirely (Traumatizing. Changing my website banner is traumatizing).

But here we are. It’s Tuesday morning and the KA Dowling web page is sporting a fresh, post-apocalyptic look with minimal panic on my end. In order to celebrate my personal growth in my constant mission to accept change, I’m sharing a little tidbit to introduce the man in the banner.

Here’s a brief excerpt featuring Jack Casey, shortly after Shea’s first run-in with him on the streets of Old Boston. The Second Death is narrated from Shea’s first person point-of-view, so stick with her as she wakes up panicking in an unknown location.

Happy reading!

I awake with a start, sitting bolt upright in a room bathed in pale afternoon gold. I suck in air through several sharp gasps, feeling my fingers clawing at my throat. The clammy air that permeates the darkness is thick with dust. It takes me a moment to realize that my Respi-Clear is gone. I can still feel the grooves of the respirator where the ends pressed hard into my cheeks. I inhale again, feeling a stab of oxygen in my lungs as I swallow too much air. My head feels as though it has a heartbeat. It pulses behind my eyeballs as panic floods my chest. My hands press frantically against my throat—my clavicle.

I can’t breathe, I think, although I know it’s a stupid thought. I can breathe—I am breathing—and yet I don’t understand how. I imagine the insides of my lungs turning black with tar, bubbling and oozing with some noxious side effect of inhaling the unfiltered air. For a moment, I attempt to hold my breath. My vision rushes with spots of color and I gasp aloud, filling my nose and mouth simultaneously with oxygen.

 “You’re fine,” comes a voice from behind me. “You don’t need the respirator to breathe.”

My next gasp ekes out in a small cry of alarm and I try and fail to rise to my feet. My head spins and I sit back down hard on the floor, feeling my tailbone crack against wood. My head pulses with a dull ache. The voice from behind me speaks again, and I peer around at the dark shadows of the corners, trying to locate the speaker.

“Sorry about your head, but it couldn’t be helped. You were going to get both of us killed.”

A pile of distressed looking milk crates sits directly in front of me and I grab hold of these, my fingers shaking as they slide through the slats. I pull myself slowly to my feet, each beat of my heart sending dizzying spirals of blood rushing to my head. I can hear the tinny rattle of clinking glass and realize that the milk crates are filled with narrow green bottles. A sour smell of something fermented tickles my nose and I nearly gag as I push myself upright, spinning on my heels.

The man from the street sits directly before me, perched on a low bar that runs the length of the far wall. I blink rapidly, willing my eyes to adjust to the dimly lit space. The man is blanketed in shadow, visible only by the pale slats of light that fall in through a boarded up window at my back. His faded red cap is on backwards and I take this opportunity to study the lines of his face. He is young—younger perhaps than I initially thought. A badly stitched wound runs across his forehead from directly above his right eyebrow to the bridge of his nose. His face is handsome, I realize, but it is a stranger’s face. He is not from the Inner Compound. Dust motes shiver in the air between us, causing the ice blue of his eyes to dance with a silver gleam. He studies me unsmiling, his mechanical arm lifting something red and round to his lips. Several drops of juice dribble from the spherical food as he takes a bite and I watch as the droplets catch in the light like falling jewels. He holds the object out to me, keeping his eyes trained upon my face.

“You hungry?”

I shake my head and take an involuntary step backwards. He glances down at the food in his hand, then back up at me.

“It’s just an apple,” he retorts.

“Where are we?” I demand, surprised to hear the hoarseness of my voice. I clear my throat and wait for him to respond. He continues to clutch the apple before him, his robotic fingers brandishing the unfamiliar fruit in a symbol of offering. His gaze leaves mine and I watch as his eyes rove around the formless shadows.

“The Lucky Shamrock,” he says, and shrugs. “It’s a bar of some sort. Best I could do in a pinch. I’m not sure how many more are out there.”

“I want to go home.”

The stranger puts the apple down on the dusty bar besides him, hopping down off of the bar. His good hand reaches up and fusses with the rim of his cap, pulling it around to the front so that the upper half of his face is once again obscured in shadow. Two words, Red and Sox, march across the front of the cap in tattered stitching. He closes the space between us, glancing down the bridge of his nose into my face.

“You’re not going anywhere yet,” he assures me. His tone is not menacing, and yet his words hold the promise of a threat. I feel suddenly cold in spite of the sticking heat.

“I’ll scream,” I warn him. “My instructor is out there looking for me. He’ll hear and come find me.”

The stranger’s next words are cruel. “Your instructor is dead.”

I inhale a shaky breath, feeling my legs turn to jelly beneath me. Swallowing hard, I manage to whisper, “Did—did you kill him?”

He ignores me, jabbing a gunmetal finger at the door. “If you scream, the only thing you’ll accomplish is attracting whatever Ferals are still hunting us out there.”

“Did you kill Owen?” I ask again, my voice firmer. Even still, I can hear the soft pitch of panic in my words.

“I don’t kill civilians,” he replies. His response is instant and solid—spit out from between his lips like doctrine. I notice his army-standard dress—his desert camouflage cargo pants that he wears tucked into a pair of tightly laced boots. It suddenly occurs to me who stands before me in the murky gloom.

“You’re one of the Woken,” I marvel. It is an observation, not a question. I think of the daily Gratitudes, and how we thank the military group for their tireless fight against the Ferals each day before our breakfast. For a moment, I feel the warmth of relief flood my body as I realize that the stranger before me is a Government appointed soldier, bred for war.

My relief is short lived. The Woken never come inside the Compounds. They never leave their units. If he is here, alone and injured, then something truly terrible must have happened. A thousand questions rise to my lips, but none manage to find a voice. The soldier is watching me through eyes that have hardened to ice, his features darkening into a scowl. He turns away from me, his shoulder brushing against mine as he moves towards the boarded, floor to ceiling windows at the front of the shop.

My confirmation of his identity seems to have set him off—to have triggered something angry within him. I clear my throat and change the subject, feeling the dread from earlier creep back into my body in place of the fleeting sense of comfort I had felt.

“If you didn’t kill Owen, then how do you know he’s dead?” I ask, following the soldier toward the window. Each step I take is precarious, as though my legs might give out from beneath me at any moment. My gut swims with twisting terror. The stranger glances over his shoulder at me. Thick slabs of brilliance drape across his face, filling his eyes with sunlight.

“No one outruns the Ferals on foot,” he says simply, and turns back towards the window.

 

 

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