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Authors: Lenore Appelhans

Chasing Before

BOOK: Chasing Before
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In memory of my mother, Barbara Ann Appelhans

Acknowledgments

CHASING BEFORE
owes its existence to the support of a great many talented people. My eternal gratitude:

To my agent, Stephen Barbara, and the team at Foundry. Sorry for all the panicked e-mails and health scares I put you through this past year.

To my editor Christian Trimmer, for adopting me and the novel halfway through the process and raising the stakes in such brilliant ways. To my editor Alexandra Cooper, who shared my vision for the Memory Chronicles from the beginning and whose insight helped shape early drafts. And to Catherine Laudone, for the brainstorming session that led to some major breakthroughs.

To the entire Simon & Schuster team, especially Lizzy Bromley, Venessa Carson, Justin Chanda, Bernadette Cruz, Michelle Fadlalla, Katy Hershberger, Bara MacNeill, Anna
McKean, Jenica Nasworthy, Chrissy Noh, Anthony Parisi, and Angela Zurlo. To the team at Usborne in the UK (Amy Dobson, Rebecca Hill, and Becky Walker). To the team at Listening Library (Jenna Lamia, Fred Sanders, Janet Stark, and Rebecca Waugh), for the amazing audiobook production. And to my other foreign publishers for expanding the book’s audience.

To Ann Bonwill (always my first and most enthusiastic reader), Nicole Bonia, Jenny Bragdon, (the brutally honest) Christina Franke, Kelly Jensen, and Lydia Kang, for providing feedback and much needed virtual cupcakes. And to Heather Anastasiu, for so generously beta reading into the wee hours during a tough deadline.

To my author support system: SCBWI Germany/Austria, the Apocalypsies, the Lucky 13s, and the League of Extraordinary Writers. And especially to those who went above and beyond while I was touring: Emily Hainsworth, Antony John, Lauren Morrill, Lauren Oliver, Lissa Price, Beth Revis, Megan Shepard, and Tamara Ireland Stone.

To friends, family, and readers all over the world. Shout-outs to Jamie Bennett, April Conant, Mitali Dave, Linda Joplin, Allison Lamphere, Candace Levy, Karin Perry, Tirzah Price, Beth Shaum, and Melody Simpson, for so fervently spreading the word.

To the indie bookstores that hosted me on tour: Watermark Books in Wichita, Kansas; Mysteryscape in Overland Park, Kansas; Books, Inc. in San Francisco; Malaprops in Asheville, North Carolina; Fountain Bookstore
in Richmond, Virginia; Hooray for Books in Alexandria, Virginia; Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Georgia; Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston; Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois; Left Bank Books in Saint Louis; Fundamentals Bookstore in Delaware, Ohio; and Books of Wonder in New York City.

To the doctors, nurses, and staff at the Buergerhospital in Frankfurt, Germany, for saving my life (two days after my revisions were due!) and treating me so well during my hospital stays.

And finally, to my husband, Daniel, who understands and accepts that my creative process is best fueled by naps, showers, chocolate, extensive music playlists, and long walks in the park, and who enables me to continue doing what I love every day.

Prologue

I COULDN’T HELP MYSELF.
What kind of excuse is that, anyway? It absolves you of personal responsibility. It’s not your fault that in a moment of weakness you kissed the boy that your best friend liked. That you foolishly fled the scene of her murder. Or that you hacked your way into an airline’s website to book yourself a free plane ticket. But in my case it’s true.

It started the day before my thirteenth birthday. The day I almost died and my soul became inexorably linked to the Morati, the angel guardians of Level Two, who hated their assigned jobs as thankless caretakers of the afterlife waiting room, and vowed revenge. Something took root
inside me that day. Something evil. And it’s been growing ever since.

For the longest time I didn’t know it was there. I thought I had control over myself. That my mistakes were my own. When I confessed my dark secrets to Neil, he helped me understand that I needed to forgive myself and move on.

Then on the day before my eighteenth birthday, I died. I ended up in Level Two, recruited for a mission to overthrow the Morati and free the people whose souls they were using as batteries to fuel their war against heaven. Because of my special connection to the Morati, they needed me to break into Level Three. They hooked me up to their mainframe, but instead of helping them, I played my part to bring them down. Or at least I thought I did.

But I now know the truth. Destroying the Morati’s machines didn’t cut off my link to them—it only made it stronger. I’m a ticking time bomb. And one day soon everything is going to explode.

one

STEPPING THROUGH THE PORTAL out of Level Two is like jumping from the high dive out at the swimming hole. There’s a whoosh of air, the exhilarating and slightly terrifying sensation of flying, and then the freezing plunge into murky depths. Unlike when I used to hit the lake water, though, I keep my eyes open, fixed on the hand that Neil holds in a death grip as we spin through an inky blackness.

With a heavy, bone-jarring thud we land on a hard surface, dripping wet and disoriented, but whole. I look up from the white of my knuckles to Neil’s face, just in time to see his mouth slacken in shock.

He expected to walk into the Christian vision of heaven—streets paved with gold and cherubs playing harps.
Maybe I did too. Instead twisted, blackened filing cabinets tower over us like angry sentinels. Their deformed bodies line both sides of a narrow passageway.

Already regretting our decision to move on from Level Two, I turn. Behind us is a brick wall, making it clear that there is no going back. In front of us, a few paces away, stands a lone woman, her spotless pale pink blazer and pencil skirt at odds with the soot-covered walls. She hasn’t noticed us. She begins to flit about, pulling on the handles of warped steel drawers and kicking at all the burned-edged papers that flutter out and lap at her heels.

I run my free hand down the soggy skirt of my sundress and then bend down to scoop up a charred sheet that has flown in my direction. Though the edges flake off as soon as I touch them, it is obvious this was once a document of great importance. Fancy gold lettering unfurls across buttery-cream linen, like a wedding invitation, but it’s not in any language I recognize.

Neil leans over to inspect it too. He shakes his head and mouths, “What happened here?”

I can’t imagine it was anything good. I shrug and let the paper fall back to the ground. Neil steps forward, pulling me with him, and the crinkle and crunch under his foot finally alert the woman to our presence.

As she turns, she snaps her fingers. Intense bright light floods into our faces, momentarily blinding us.

“State your names, please,” she says in a curt, high-pitched voice that sets me more on edge than I already am.

Once my eyes adjust to the light, the hallway and the woman come back into focus. She clutches a clipboard tight to her chest and peers over at us, her face pinched.

Neil pulls at the collar of his red polo and clears his throat. “Neil Corbet and Felicia Ward.”

“Felicia Ward,” she says thoughtfully. Her whole demeanor softens, making her look much younger than I thought at first. Though that doesn’t mean much in the afterlife, since as far as I know, people are preserved at the age at which they died on Earth. This woman could be a thousand years old and still appear twenty. “I’m Libby.” She steps toward me and bows. “It’s good you’ve come. We’ve been expecting you.”

The bowing throws me off. “What do you mean? How could you know I was coming?”

“Ordinarily I’d say it’s because you’re in our files.” She taps her fist against the nearest hunk of metal. “They used to contain the name, birth date, and death date of every human ever born on Earth. When a person ascended from Level Two, his or her card would automatically appear in these cabinets. But the files haven’t been useful to us since someone blew up this records room.”

Wait a minute. People are blowing things up? Here? But how?
I squint at her, overwhelmed. I don’t know what to say.

She whistles loudly between two fingers. “Megan! Please turn off the welcome light.”

The passage dims, bathing us in the warm, dusky glow
of candles. A girl wearing a neon-orange T-shirt dress and kneesocks descends a ladder I didn’t notice before. “Sorry,” Megan says, showing a mouthful of braces. “But the bright light is absolutely
essential
to the experience.” Her delivery is slightly mocking, like she’s parroting a phrase she’s heard one too many times.

Megan hands us fluffy orange towels, as if she expected us to arrive like drowned rats, and we accept them gratefully, wrapping them around our shoulders.

“Yes,” Libby says. “We may have a mess, but we haven’t abandoned all our matriculation procedures.”

“Does everyone arrive soaked to the bone?” Neil works on drying his hair with the ends of his long towel.

“Every time you cross into a different level, you pass through the Styx River. It’s the border between all dimensions.” Libby has the polished monotone of a flight attendant.

She spins a desk so that it cuts us off from the rest of the hallway. With a grim smile she scoots the clipboard and a pen across it.

“These forms are our interim solution while we wait for a celestial custodian to deliver updated files. Fill these out, and then we’ll take you down to get processed.”

I’m too bewildered to ask questions. Libby’s request is so simple, and while I get my bearings, I might as well go with the flow. I release Neil’s hand reluctantly and pick up the pen to complete the form. It has only two lines: name and age. My name is easy, but my age is more difficult. I
could write “seventeen,” since that’s how old I was when I died. Or I could write “one hundred million,” because that’s how old I feel after spending so much time in Level Two.

Libby extracts another clipboard from her desk and clamps a sheet of paper and a pen onto it. “There you are, Neil,” she says a little too sweetly for my taste. Maybe his reputation as the always perfect, always friendly Boy Scout precedes him as well.

“How do you know who we are?” It comes out more harshly than I intended.

Libby materializes a pencil and uses it to secure her thick, curly reddish-blond hair into a bun. At least I’m familiar with materialization from my time in Level Two. If it works the same way here, all you have to do is call something up in your mind, and it appears, seemingly by magic. Of course, it’s only a copy of what you had on Earth, not the real thing. “Everyone who’s been arriving from Level Two has been talking about Felicia Ward,” Libby says. “It had been years since anyone had come through, and now we get hundreds in every day. They keep telling us the Morati had been holding humans back, and you set things right.”

I lift my clipboard to eye level, pretending to get a closer look. “I helped a little, I guess,” I mumble.

“Oh, c’mon,” Neil says, rubbing my shoulder. “She was so brave.” I peek over and see his adoring smile.

“That’s good to hear,” Libby says. “You must summon that courage again, I’m afraid. The Morati must have slipped in with the crowds and destroyed our files so we wouldn’t
know they weren’t human. Angels are the only ones capable of destroying such celestial creations. And you’re the one who ruined their plans. They’ll be looking for you.”

Me? I shudder and drop the clipboard onto the desk. Of course it makes sense that they’d want revenge, but I honestly thought I was beyond their grasp for good now.

“And if they find you, who knows what they’ll do?” Megan adds. Despite her earlier snark, her wide-eyed gaze and the hitch in her voice convey genuine concern in a way that Libby’s businesslike tone cannot. “People who die here disappear. No one knows where they go.”

If dying in Level Three is the end, I don’t even want to contemplate it. Not after I finally found Neil again. Not when I’ve finally found a measure of happiness. “But I was told that Morati were trapped in Level Two. How could any of them get through?” My information didn’t exactly come from the most reliable source. After all, Julian was Morati. He was a Morati aligned with the rebels, and he took my place in the machine to bring the system down, but he was a Morati nonetheless. I have to admit that since then I’ve thought about Julian’s fate far more than I should, and each time it makes me ache. Against all reason, despite all the lies, I miss him. The way he stared at me before he disappeared—determined to protect me—I can’t get it out of my head.

Libby shrugs. “I don’t know. But the Morati are here.”

And when she says it this time, it’s like I’m punched in the stomach with the certainty that she’s right. I feel
them. Not as strongly as I did when I was plugged into their mainframe, but just enough to know that they are indeed somewhere on this level. I can’t help hoping Julian is here too.

“How can you be so sure? What about other angels?” Neil asks as he slides his completed form across the desk. I glance at it. Since he has written “eighteen” for his age, I retrieve my form and hastily scrawl eighteen on it too, even if it’s not technically true, before letting my clipboard clatter on top of Neil’s.

BOOK: Chasing Before
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