TWO SISTERS. ONE DEATH. NO MEMORIES.
Cora should remember every detail about the night her stepsister, Hannah, fell down a flight of stairs to her death, especially since her Cerepin—a sophisticated brain-computer interface—may have recorded each horrifying moment. But when she awakens after that night, her memories gone, Cora is left with only questions—and dread of what the answers might mean.
When a downward spiral of self-destruction forces Cora to work with an AI counselor, she finds an unexpected ally, even as others around her grow increasingly convinced that Hannah’s death was no accident. As Cora’s dark past swirls chaotically with the versions of Hannah’s life and death that her family and friends want to believe, Cora discovers the disturbing depths of what some people may do—including herself.
With her very sanity in question, Cora is forced to face her greatest fear. She will live or die by what she discovers.
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About the Book
by Sarah Fine
SciFi & Fantasy
Thriller / Suspense
October 3, 2017
© 2017 Sarah Fine
I wish I were small. Just one of those girls with bird bones who can ball up, knees under chin, heels to butt, tiny-tiny.
But I am huge. I seem to have my own gravitational pull. I am a black hole, expanding by the minute, and no gaze can escape me. My head might as well be brushing the white ceiling, leaving a little grease stain there. I’m contained between the armrests of this chair, but I could swear my elbows are brushing the walls on either side. My belly is swelling, and soon it’ll overflow onto Principal Selridge’s desk and ooze toward where she stands on the other side, clutching her biceps as if she’s afraid they’re going to peel away from her bones.
I turn my head and look out the window. We’re two stories up. If I had jumped, my body would have sailed past that auto-cleaning windowpane in a fraction of a second, a blink of an eye. Easy to miss. But now I have everyone’s eyes. They can’t look around me or past me. Black. Hole.
Selridge steps in front of the window, blocking my view of the park across the street. She motions one of the cannies over to take her place and guard the spot. He’s got a wide, blank face, fair skin, black hair—impossible to mistake for human. He’s the one who unlocked the doors as the others lugged me off the roof, down the stairs, up the hall, past the banner welcoming the incoming freshmen, the Clinton Academy Class of 2073. First day of school, halfway through homeroom discussion period, and I gave everyone something to talk about.
Lara and Mei were cutting class, laying flowers in front of Hannah’s locker as I was carried past. They watched me go by with stone faces. I’m guessing Finn told them about the message he sent me this morning. I hope he doesn’t blame himself. I didn’t really think about that, up on the roof. I should have.
The rest of my classmates gathered in the doorways of their homerooms and stared. They were probably using their Cerepins to stream what they were seeing to their channels. A hundred simultaneous vids of Cora Dietrich on the Mainstream, screaming, screaming, screaming.
If you were to listen to all of them at once, it wouldn’t come close to the noise inside my head.
“You’re going to be okay, Cora,” Selridge says, now back behind her desk. “Your parents will be here soon. If you turn your Cerepin back on, you could talk to them—they made sure to tell me they’re eager to hear from you.”
She taps her own Cerepin, a small black nodule on her right temple. Hers is an older model, and unlike the newer ones, it signals when it’s capturing. The red light is blinking. She’s probably streaming a feed of me straight to Mom and Gary. They can see what she sees, thanks to her implanted lenses. They might even be talking to her now through the sensor in her ear, words I can’t hear and don’t want to. My mother might even have been the one who told Selridge to guard the window.
Mom was definitely the one who alerted the school. I don’t know if it was because Finn carried through on his threat to send her the vid he sent me this morning or because she got scared when I turned my Cerepin off.
Considering what happened last time, I don’t blame her at all.
My hands cover my eyes and my shoulders jerk up around my head. I can’t think about it, not now, please not now, but my brain is already feeding me memories of a sharp, sickly sweet scent and my cold, wet feet sliding along a marble floor. I bend at the waist and start to rock. I know the keening sound is awful, at once hoarse and high and grating, but I can’t stop it. I can’t stop.
“Cora . . .”
That’s all Selridge can think of to say.
Firm hands grasp my shoulders. I try to wrench away, but the canny is too strong. He holds me still. He doesn’t understand that I need this. How could he?
He lets me go when my keening escalates into a full-fledged scream. I keep my fists pressed into my eyes. Outside, I hear the shuffle of feet, the sound of voices. Homeroom discussion is over. I should be going to my individual learning session with Aristotle. Neda will wonder where I am.
Wait. She’ll know. Everyone knows.
My hands fall to my lap like birds hit by skycars. Dead on impact. My vision blurs as I stare across the room, making Selridge one with the wall behind her. She shudders when she sees the look on my face.
My breakfast comes up in a single sudden heave. All over Selridge’s desk screen, stomach acid and bits of protein bar, sour and burning on my tongue. I spit on the floor as my principal gags. “Sorry,” I whisper.
I cover my mouth and breathe, but the smell is a hand around my throat, once again dragging me back to the night it happened. It is fingernails clawing at a closed door, trying to rip through. Everything in me locks up.
Wet feet sliding on a marble floor.
This time, it’s just acid and spit, splashing onto the hardwood and the synthetic leather of my boots.
My heartbeat swishes in my ears. The canny offers me a cloth to wipe my mouth, and when I don’t take it, he does it for me. Selridge’s lips move. What is she saying?
“Cora!” It’s Mom. She squats next to me, right in the puke at our feet. When she wraps her arms around me, I feel her shaking. “It’s going to be all right. We’re taking you home.”
Okay, this is good. I was afraid they were going to take me straight back to the hospital.
“We should take her back to the hospital,” says Gary from behind me. “We talked about this.”
“She really should be evaluated,” Selridge says. “If she can’t promise she won’t try something—”
“I know, but we can monitor her,” Mom says, turning to my adoptive father. “I won’t leave her side if that’s what it takes.”
“You shouldn’t take more time off,” Gary mutters.
“I really can’t allow her to return to school until she’s been cleared by a doctor,” says Selridge, her voice louder now. “The suicide attempt was made on academy grounds. This is very serious.”
“That’s fair, Maeve,” Gary says to my mom.
“No,” I whisper. I’m not a black hole anymore. Now I’m invisible.
“We’ll decide in the car,” Gary says a moment later. Mom probably just gave him the death glare, and he doesn’t want to get into it in front of Selridge. “CC, can you walk?”
I’ve asked him a million times not to call me that, but it’s a habit he can’t seem to break. He doesn’t realize that every time he says it, he makes things harder for me, and I’m scared to explain—scared to hurt him more than I already have. His hands on my shoulders are softer than the canny’s. Gentle, like he’s asking permission. I don’t fight him as he pulls me up and guides me away from the stinking mess I made. I turn and press my face into his sweater, trying to escape the smell, and he lets me. Puts his hand over the back of my head and stiffly holds me there, shushing me as I tremble.
“Please send me a quick message to let me know how she’s doing,” Selridge says. “We’re all very concerned.”
As Gary lets me go, Selridge ducks her head a little, trying to make eye contact with me, but I’m not letting it happen. If we lock gazes, I’ll see just how bad it is, and I don’t want to know.
I had planned to never know.
“Cora, it really will be okay,” Selridge says. “We all miss Hannah, but nobody blames you for what happened.”
I wish the wind had blown just a little harder up there on the roof. Just one good gust.
Mom puts her arm around my waist, maneuvering me between her and Gary as they lead me out of Selridge’s office. “I thought we agreed,” Gary says under his breath.
“She’ll be better at home,” Mom says. “Besides, if she went to the hospital again, she’d just come back to the same house. The same us. The same memories.”
He nods. “You’re probably right. Besides—the investigation isn’t complete. They’ll need to talk to Cora at some point.”
Mom’s grip on my waist tightens. “Not now, Gary!”
We walk past empty classrooms and occupied learning auditoriums with closed doors. Inside one of those auditoriums, Neda is facing off with Aristotle in the way only she can, probably mad as hell at me, maybe scared I’ll tell someone about her part in all of this. When I turn my Cerepin back on, there’ll probably be fifty messages from her.
When I turn on my Cerepin . . . if I do. I’m scared to see Finn’s message again, to find out how many times I was tagged in vids by people who believe the worst of me. Not wanting to risk more stares, I examine the floor as we walk down the hall, past the mute cannies standing dormant, waiting for another student to rescue or protect. They have no feelings, but if they did, disgust would be at the top, I’m sure. Some of them nearly fell as they pulled me from the ledge.
Do they fear death?
We make it outside. The wind gusts an hour too late, ruffling my short hair, blowing dust into my eyes. A company car is waiting. Gary must have been on his way to the Parnassus complex when he probably got a frantic call from Mom, and here they are. I’m making him look bad.
Hurting him again, after everything he’s done for us. God. I don’t know why they’re being nice. I wish they had just let me go.
Leika’s door slides open as we reach the curb. I dive into her, grateful to be hidden, and Mom and Gary climb in after me. “Where to, sir?” Leika asks, all sleek metal and compliance. I wish I had her voice, her calm.
I glance over at Mom and Gary. They’re looking at each other. A long look full of shared hours, a shared heart. Mom blinks. Gary’s eyes shift to meet mine. “You’re in a lot of trouble,” he says.
“I know,” I mumble.
“We’ve always been patient with you, CC, but this—”
“Gary,” Mom murmurs.
He sighs. Closes his eyes. His nostrils flare. “All right. Let’s get real here.”
This is his CEO voice. I imagine it echoing in a boardroom. Hannah had this kind of presence, too. You had no choice but to listen to her.
Oh, god. I clench my teeth as my stomach turns.
“Cora,” Mom says. “Gary has a point. What you did this morning—that was . . .”
Insane? She was probably going to say insane.
“Unacceptable,” Gary continues for her. His fingers are interlaced, his elbows on his knees, his eyes so intense. “We lost one of our daughters not even two weeks ago, and the other one seems determined to self-destruct!”
He holds up his hand. “It has to be said. Because if I don’t, I’m going to say worse, okay?” His eyes are shiny and bloodshot.
“I’m sorry,” I say, my voice shredded by the screaming and the puking and the crying and the knowing that this is all my fault.
“If you’re sorry, just tell us what happened,” he says, and it comes out of him in one rapid stream. “Help us understand. Be honest. You’re going to have to explain at some point.”
“She’s doing her best,” Mom says. “The doctor said to give it time.”
“But she’s avoiding the whole thing!” He says to me, “Look at you. Look at what you did this morning.”
“We don’t want your apologies, goddammit!” snaps Gary. “We want to know why!”
I put my hands over my ears, but it does little to shut out the noise. If my Cerepin were on, I’d turn my music up to eleven. “I told you before. I’ve told you a thousand times. I don’t remember.”
“Because you’re trying not to,” Gary replies. “Franka notified us of the pills in your room. Where did you get them?”
I press my face to Leika’s window. “I needed to sleep. The other pills weren’t working.”
“Hard for them to work if you don’t take them,” Gary says.
“I found the bottle in your bathroom cabinet this morning,” Mom adds. “I counted them. You haven’t taken a single one.”
I wrap my arms around myself, as if that could keep me from flying apart. I turn to my mom. “I don’t want to go to the hospital again. Please.”
“Maybe you do need more time and space from the house,” she says, stroking my arm as she contradicts herself. “Like Gary said, it hasn’t even been two weeks.”
I jerk away, but then I see the hurt on her face. “Please,” I say again. “I’ve only been home for a few days. The hospital is so . . . cold.”
I squeeze my eyes shut as I remember. That nurse with the sad face. I was looking at her over Mom’s shoulder as Mom told me Hannah was dead, while Gary sobbed out in the hallway for his lost baby girl.
“You’re asking us to trust you, CC,” says Gary. “And I’m wondering why you think we should.”
Suddenly, I am so, so tired. “I won’t turn off my Cerepin tracking again. I was upset.”
Finn will blame himself. But I hope he holds off now. I hope he understands there’s no need to send the vid to Mom and Gary.
“Things have to change,” Gary is saying. “I can’t live like this. We can’t live like this.” He puts his hand on Mom’s knee, and she scoots a few inches closer to him. “We’re grieving, too, you know.”
Is he kidding?
“Things will change,” I tell him. “I’ll change.”
“We don’t want you to change!” says Mom. She’s either a great liar or she’s living in an alternate reality, with a different Cora.
“We want you to get better,” Gary adds. “And you’re not going to until you really deal with what happened—and come clean, if you need to.”
My stomach lurches. “I don’t have any secrets, but I’ll try to get better. I’m working on it. I promise.”
“Empty promises aren’t good enough, not after this morning,” Gary says.
Mom sighs. “He’s right. We have certain conditions, and if you don’t accept them, we have no choice but to take you to the hospital. I want you home, Cora, but I won’t do it if it means risking your life.”
“Franka’s always right there,” I say. “And my Cerepin—”
Gary’s jaw clenches. “Do I need to remind you,” he says slowly, “of what you did that night?”
I know what he’s thinking: if Franka’s settings hadn’t been changed, if our Cerepin trackers hadn’t been turned off, Hannah might still be alive.
“No,” I say, so loudly that my voice cracks. “I remember that part.”
Gary mutters something under his breath, then grips his jaw as if to hold the words in. The muscles of his forearm are taut. After a few seconds, he lets go and takes Mom’s hand. “And we won’t even get into this morning, when you did it again,” he continues. “We can’t trust you not to mess with the tech meant to protect and supervise you, and we can’t be awake twenty-four-seven.”
“Please,” I say, “I’ll do anything you want as long as you don’t take me to the hospital. I can’t go back there. I just want to go home.” I want to be in my room, in my bed, in the dark, the closest I can get to being nothing, thinking nothing. I want to take one of those pills Hannah had stashed away, the ones that crush dreams into blackness.
I want to take all of them at once.
Mom and Gary are quiet. They’re looking at each other, intent. The green lights on their Cerepins blink—they have the newest version, with thought control. They can communicate without saying a word. Finally, Mom nods.
“All right,” says Gary. “So, CC, I’ve been doing a lot of research, and I think I’ve found something that could help. If you cooperate, we’ll take the hospital off the table for now, but only if you really give this a chance. Deal?”
“A lot of research?” Not sure he could make it sound more ominous if he tried.
“We only want the best for you,” Mom says.
“What is it?”
“I have a friend who has developed an amazing program that might be exactly what we need. Really cutting edge.”
“Yeah.” I draw the word out. “I hope you don’t mean that literally. I don’t want a neurostim or anything like that.”
That’s what they’d do to me at the hospital. Cure me with a wire threaded into my brain. They still use them for depression even though they’ve just been banned for everything else.
“This isn’t that kind of treatment. It’s something different. More of a . . . service,” says Gary. He leans forward. “Up to you, CC. It’s that or Bethesda Medical.”
Mom’s eyes are pleading. Gary looks hopeful but haggard. He’s aged ten years since that night.
I shudder as memory draws its sharp nails along the locked door again, leaving deep, ragged grooves. Whatever this “service” is, I don’t know if I want it, but I’m certain I don’t want to be in a cage, unable to decide my own fate. “Okay,” I tell them. “I’ll try.”
Blitz Wide Giveaway
To celebrate Sarah Fine’s November ebook sale, we’re giving away a paperback set of The Serpent & The Guardian by Sarah Fine to three lucky winners!
GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS | Open to US shipping addresses only. Three winners will each receive a paperback set of The Serpent & The Guardian by Sarah Fine. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Sarah Fine. Giveaway ends 12/1/2019 @ 11:59pm EST. CLICK HERE TO ENTER!
About Sarah Fine
SARAH FINE is the author of several books for teens, including Of Metal and Wishes (McElderry/Simon & Schuster) and its sequel, Of Dreams and Rust, the bestselling Guards of the Shadowlands YA urban fantasy series (Skyscape/Amazon Children’s Publishing), and The Impostor Queen (McElderry, January 2016).
She is also the co-author (with Walter Jury) of two YA sci-fi thrillers published by Putnam/Penguin: Scan and its sequel Burn. Her bestselling adult urban fantasy romance series, Servants of Fate, includes Marked, Claimed, and Fated, and was published by 47North in 2015, and her second adult UF series —Reliquary (and its sequels Splinter and Mosaic) was published 2016. When she’s not writing, she’s psychologizing. Sometimes she does both at the same time. The results are unpredictable.