THE MOST IMPORTANT EMAIL THAT Darcy Patel ever wrote was three paragraphs long.
The first was about Darcy herself. It skipped the trifling details, her dyed blue-black hair and the slim gold ring in her left nostril, and began instead with a grim secret that her parents had never told her. When Darcy’s mother was eleven years old, her best friend was murdered by a stranger. This discovery, chanced upon during an idle web search, both shocked Darcy and made certain things about her mother clearer. It also inspired her to write.
The second paragraph of the email was about the novel Darcy had just finished. She didn’t mention, of course, that all sixty thousand words of Afterworlds had been written in thirty days. The Underbridge Literary Agency hardly needed to know that. Instead, this paragraph described a terrorist attack, a girl who wills herself to die, and the bewitching boy she meets in the afterworld. It promised skulking ghosts and the traumas that haunt families, and little sisters who are more clever than they appear. Using the present tense and short sentences, Darcy set the scene, thumbnailed the characters and their motivations, and teased the conclusion. This was the best of the three paragraphs, she was later told.
The third paragraph was pure flattery, because Darcy wanted very much for the Underbridge Literary Agency to say yes to her. She praised the breadth of their vision and paid tribute to their clients’ genius, even while daring to compare herself to those illustrious names. She explained how her novel was different from the other paranormals of the last few years (none of which had a smoldering Vedic psychopomp as its love interest).
This email was not a perfect query letter. But it did its job. Seventeen days after pressing Send, Darcy was signed to Underbridge, a flourishing and respected literary agency, and not long after that she had a two-book deal for an astonishing amount of money.
Only a handful of challenges remained—high school graduation, a perilous decision, and parental approval—before Darcy Patel would be packing her bags for New York City.
I MET THE MAN OF my dreams in an airport, just before midnight a few days into the New Year. I was changing planes in Dallas, and I almost died.
What saved me was texting my mother.
I text her a lot when I’m traveling—when I get to the airport, when the flight’s called, and when they make us put our phones away. I know, it sounds like something you’d do with your boyfriend, not your mom. But traveling alone made me nervous even before I could see ghosts.
And trust me, my mother needs to hear from me. A lot. She’s always been kind of clingy, but even more so since my father ran off to New York.
So I was walking alone through the mostly vacant airport, looking for better reception. This late at night most of the shops were shuttered and dark, and I’d wandered until reaching another wing of the airport, which was closed off by a metal gate that hung from the ceiling. Through the steel mesh I could see a pair of moving walkways gliding past, empty.
I didn’t see the attack begin. My eyes were focused on my phone, watching as autocorrect made war on my spelling. Mom was asking about my dad’s new girlfriend, whom I’d just met during my winter break visit. Rachel was lovely, always well dressed, and had the same size feet as me, but I couldn’t tell Mom all that. She has awesome shoes and I get to borrow them wasn’t the right place to start.
My father’s new apartment was also amazing, twenty stories up, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking down on Astor Place. His walk-in closet was as big as my bedroom back home, and full of drawers that slid open with a sound like spinning skateboard wheels. I wouldn’t want to live there. All that chrome and white leather furniture was cool to the touch and didn’t feel like home. But Mom had been right—my father had made a metric f**k-ton of money since leaving us. He was wealthy now, with a doorman building and his own driver and a glittery black credit card that made shop assistants straighten up. (Calling people who worked in stores “shop assistants” was a thing I’d learned from Rachel.)
I was wearing jeans and a hoodie, like always when I fly, but my suitcase was full of shiny new clothes that I’d have to hide when I got back to California. Dad’s wealth pissed Mom off for good reason: she supported him through law school and then he bailed on us. I got worked up about it sometimes, but then he’d send some of that wealth my way and I’d get over it.
Sounds pretty shallow, right? Being bought off with money that should’ve been my mother’s? Trust me, I know. Almost dying makes you realize how shallow you are.
Mom had just texted me: Tell me she’s older than the last one. And not a Libra again!
Didn’t ask her bitch day.
BIRTHDAY. Autocorrect fail.
Mom was mostly desensitized to my bad typing. The night before, she hadn’t even noticed when I’d texted that my father and I were eating raw c**k dough for dessert. But when it came to Rachel, no typo went unremarked.
Ha! Wish you’d asked her THAT!
I decided to ignore that, and answered: She says hi, by the way.
If you’re being ironing, I can’t tell. We are TEXTING, mom.
I’m too old for irony. That was sarcasm.
I heard shouts behind me now, back by the security checkpoint. I turned around and headed back toward my gate, but didn’t look up from the phone.
I think my planet’s about to leave.
OK. See you in three hours, kiddo! Miss you.
You too, I began to type, but then the world fell into sharp little pieces.
I’d never heard an automatic weapon in real life before. It was somehow too loud for my ears to register, not so much a sound as the air ripping around me, a shudder I could feel in my bones and in the liquid of my eyes. I looked up from my phone and stared.
The gunmen didn’t look human. They wore horror movie masks, and smoke flowered around them as they swung their aim across the crowd. At first everyone was frozen with shock. No one ran or tried to hide behind the rows of plastic chairs, and the terrorists seemed in no hurry.
I didn’t hear the screams until the terrorists paused to reload.
Then everyone was running, some in my direction, some the other way. A guy my age in a football jersey—Travis Brinkman, as everyone learned later—tackled two gunmen, wrapping his arms around them and spinning with them across the blood-slick floor. If there had only been two terrorists he might have won that fight and spent his life a hero, telling his grandkids the story till they got bored of it. But there were four gunmen in all, and the others still had plenty of bullets.