(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores March 2024.)
He awoke early on the day he died, lying unmoving for a time under the weight of frustration, the inertia of despair.
The grief was crushing. The realisation that he'd lost it all.
Over something that should have been nothing.
He sat up. The bookcase was blurred, and though he tried to pull himself together, it remained so. Slowly, stiffly, he rose from the couch on which he'd spent the night and grabbed a book from the middle shelf. His first novel, once everything—the culmination of dreams, an admission ticket to it all. Until she'd torn it down.
He ran his fingertips over the glossy jacket—the letters of his name were slightly raised. He'd never see that again, never feel it. "Hit the road, Jack, don't you come back..." The tune was harsh on his lips, self-mocking and bitter. "No more...no more...no more..." A suit had been laid out for him—shirt, shoes, even boxers.
Every last thing had been considered, every outcome anticipated, every decision already made.
There was nothing left to do but die.
Caleb cursed in both outrage and triumph. He knew it! There had been something about that Congressman's eyes when he'd addressed the rally—a flatness. Like he wasn't really there. Like he was dead. It made sense. Caleb felt physically slammed by the realisation. He'd seen it. It was proof. This was big.
He stared at the screen, rereading, his pulse accelerating with every word. He pounded the table with his fist. "Yes!"
The Shield was growing, strengthening. More and more people were waking up, becoming aware. But Caleb had been there from the beginning—since Primus posted his first panicked cry for help. He'd seen it, known instinctively that there was something to it. God, whoever Primus was, he had guts, he was a patriot.
Caleb got up from the computer. His mom needed to see this. He hesitated then.
Was it necessary to have this fight now? His mom was looking in the wrong directions—south toward the Mexican border and north to the Canadians. But in preparing for invasion, she was probably doing what needed to be done for insurrection. His brothers, too—well most of them—each with his own idea of how the end would come and ready to fight. They would become part of The Shield when it was required, even if they were not expecting this.
Caleb fell back onto his bed and placed his arms behind his head. If they knew, they would take over. It would be Caleb do this, Caleb do that...like he wasn't the one who'd known from the beginning. They would forget that.
Perhaps it would be better to wait. That way, when it started he'd be the one behind the wheel; they'd have to listen to him. He imagined his mom's surprise and then her admiration as her youngest led them all in the battle. His brothers would realize he'd grown up. Well, all except one, he supposed, but even he would have to come round eventually, turn to his little brother for help.
So for now he would keep his mouth shut. Wait and learn what he could.
Caleb blew on his fist, his eyes bright. This would be epic.
* * *
Theodosia Benton stood on her big brother Gus's doorstep, pausing to enjoy the relief of a long journey's end. But the breath she let out was snatched back as bedlam exploded onto the porch in the form of a massive hellhound of some sort. Though not, as a rule, frightened of dogs, Theo was unsure of her welcome, and tired, and still a little overwhelmed by the enormity of what she had done, and so she disintegrated a little, pounding on the door in tears and panic as the dog tried to raise the dead. A few neighbors poked their heads out to investigate what was apparently a murder in progress.
Gus Benton had been entertaining. After a few moments of scrabbling for clothes, he opened the door.
"Theo? What the hell..." He stared at her.
Theo tried to make herself heard, but it was futile. The dog was relentless, determined to alert the entire block that there was someone on the threshold. She placed her hands over her ears, cringing away from the din.
Gus broke off to calm his dog, and eventually he managed to persuade it to stop barking. The comparative silence which followed provided an opportunity to explain, but now everything Theo had practiced on the flights and bus trips that had brought her from Sydney to Lawrence in the Sunflower State of Kansas, was lost to her. She stuttered apologies for not having told him she was coming.