Authors: Stephanie Tyler
My agent, Irene Goodman—for believing and for listening.
Larissa Ione, because I could not do this writing thing without you.
My amazing support system of Lara Adrian, Maya Banks, Jaci Burton, and Amy Knupp—you guys help keep me (semi-)sane. (I know, who am I kidding.…)
All my amazing, wonderful readers, who make my day with their e-mails and letters and blog posts and shout-outs on Twitter and Facebook. And a special shout-out to the Writeminded Loop!
And always, for Zoo, Lily, Chance, and Gus.
hmohs … Ohmohs?
The incessant calls echoed in his ear, a mix of Krio and English he wouldn’t soon forget as he ran through the crowded marketplace along the narrow streets by the harbor. He’d long ago grown immune to the noise, the dust, the bodies that passed too close. Learned how to be invisible so he could steal food, clothes and whatever else he needed to survive in the busy place. Even pickpocketed the occasional tourist.
To blend in, he’d covered his head so the blond hair wouldn’t make him stand out more. Rubbed his face with a fine dust and kept his eyes averted because there was nothing he could do about the blue color, which got more intense as his skin tanned under the hot sun.
He would not get stolen or sold again.
He remembered the last town he and his parents had traveled to. The soldiers had come in one night, and if he concentrated hard enough, he could hear his mother’s voice, begging,
Don’t hurt my son
He hated that that was the only thing he could recall of her now, the rest overshadowed by the horror he’d seen. And they had hurt him, dragged him away from his parents and put a cloth over his mouth that made him sleep.
When he’d woken up, he was with a new family.
Udat wan ehn uswan yu want?
Which one do you want?
He’d lasted for a day before he’d escaped, even though there was no one to go back to. He’d found a deserted alley to sleep in for a few nights until some other boys found him. Some American, some African.
All had the same story. And so those friends he’d made here became his family. Together they stayed free, and he lost track of the long days that stretched into even longer nights.
There were five boys altogether, the oldest being twelve.
He was eleven, but felt so much older. He ached in a way he shouldn’t, because he knew too much.
The oldest boy taught him, kept them all moving from place to place. Recently, they’d crashed in an abandoned warehouse that seemed promising for longer than a few nights. Plenty of spots to hide.
There were rumors of a place close by that helped kids, but the oldest boy warned that he’d just be taken and sold again if he told his story.
No one wants to help us
He didn’t feel well, hadn’t wanted to go hunting through the stalls for something to eat, but the rest of the group was counting on him. His stomach burned, tight from hunger. He’d never get used to that, the gnawing feeling that he would never be full or comfortable again.
Even after he ate, he felt sick.
That didn’t stop him from grabbing bread filled with fish and rice. The tourists haggled, the locals smiled and the music pounded in his ears.
Today was easy—it was packed and the small fight that had broken out helped him. He moved past the chaos toward his escape route.
“Boy.” A man clapped a hand on his shoulder and spoke loudly. “You shouldn’t be alone.”
The feeling closed in on him again—he was too small, too weak. Suffocating under the disguise. He opened his mouth to say,
I’m with my mother
, to point to some unsuspecting woman who would not claim him, but nothing came out.
Instead, he jerked away from the man who no doubt had seen him steal one of the day’s prizes and ran down the alley. No one followed, and he considered it a victory, stuffed some of the bread into his mouth and chewed, the roiling in his stomach abating for the moment.
He would go back to the warehouse and share the rest.
But as he slowed to a walk, a bag went over his head, blocking both light and air. He struggled, but the body against his was bigger and stronger.
Later, he would learn not to struggle, found that going limp was actually a better strategy. That a swift skull to the attacker’s chin with the element of surprise was damned effective.
But then … he’d known next to nothing except for the fact that no one would ever get the best of him again.
When he opened his eyes, he was in a drug-filled haze. It might’ve been minutes later—or hours or days—and he knew it didn’t matter anyway.
A man and a woman stood over him. They looked concerned but he had to get away from them.
Panic turned to terror, even as the man held him to stop him from shaking and the woman spoke of home and brothers. School, play and
nothing bad will ever happen again under our watch
This time, he didn’t have the strength not to believe them.