Dead Rock, Texas, 2037
Raleigh Williams made a promise to his brother before he died, that he’d scatter his ashes on Mars. Desperate to leave a life of bad memories behind and start over in the Martian colony, Raleigh fully intends to keep that promise. But his plans are thwarted when a meteor near-misses him in the desert, and Raleigh finds in its crater not debris or even a spacecraft, but a man covered in swirling scars and with no memory of who he is. At least he looks like a man—a man Raleigh can’t seem to keep his eyes off of—but whenever they touch it ignites a memory swap between them.
Raleigh agrees to help Meteor Man piece together his life through their cosmic connection. But the memory share goes both ways, and Raleigh becomes inexplicably entangled with a guy who is everything he needs—everything good that Raleigh is not—but might not even be human. As their minds and worlds collide, reality unravels and Raleigh must face a painful truth, one that could shatter his dreams of finding love, reaching Mars, and fulfilling his brother’s last wish.
Author: Suzanne van Rooyen
Genre: New Adult
Length: 301 pages
Release Date: February 2016
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
An Excerpt from:
by Suzanne van Rooyen
Copyright © 2016 by Suzanne van Rooyen. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
I promised my brother I’d scatter his ashes on Mars. Not that I believed he’d die before he was old enough to order a beer. I never thought keeping my promise would become impossible, either. Now the urn sits on the mantelpiece, taunting, waiting for me to get my ass off-world. If only it were that easy.
It’s hotter than the asshole of hell today, and I’m in a mood to match when the Mulhoney twins saunter into the store. Most people use the self-serve stations, leaving me free to spend my shifts scrolling through the feeds for updates on the MarsLife colony. Not the Mulhoneys.
Vince and Lilah start eying the merchandise, and a sour taste fills my mouth. They’ve had more brushes with the law than they’ve got teeth between them, and we have a long tradition of hating each other. Some of Vince’s missing teeth are my fault. Though that’s hardly the worst of what I’ve done.
“Hey look, it’s the squaw.” Lilah nudges her brother and he gives me the finger, sliding it in and out of his mouth. My hands clench into fists, remembering what it felt like smashing his ugly mug. Too bad it didn’t erase all the years I’d spent cowering from him and his sister. If anything, I only made it worse.
I try to ignore them and focus instead on the forum posts filling up my NetGlasses. The Earth-huggers are at it again, railing against the evils of Martian pioneers. Mars is the new American dream. There was a time when Europeans looked over the Atlantic and imagined greener pastures. Now, in 2037, all Eartheans gaze into space and imagine interplanetary salvation from our dystopian reality. Us aspiring Martians, we’re new order pioneers; dreamers reaching for the stars.
“Got any cheese dicks?” Lilah asks with a straight face while I switch to a thread about the stochastic effects of radiation in the NuRoanoke colony. I bookmark the stream and glare at her over the rim of the glasses. My pulse kicks up a gear and anger simmers in my blood. Inhale. Don’t lose it. Exhale. I’ve been doing just fine without the meds. Inhale. Don’t lose it. Exhale.
Vince waltzes up to the counter and picks up a pair of the earrings I carved last week.
“Do I look pretty, Roadkill Raleigh?” He holds them to his flappy lobes. “Does it make you wanna bone me?”
“It makes me wanna smash your skull in, plant you in my garden, and let the maggots pick off your flesh so I can use your pelvis as a doorstop.”
For a moment there’s silence as Vince stares unblinking at me. I didn’t mean to say it out loud. My stomach contracts and expands like I’m going to puke.
“Did you just threaten my brother?” Lilah turns scarlet. She reaches over the counter and grabs my hair, slamming my face into the glass. My NetGlasses snap and the two halves skitter to the floor as pain spiderwebs across my cheek. The bell chimes above the door again.
“Remember what happened last time?” Her whispers are acid. “You looking for more of that?”
“What’s happening here?” The man’s voice booms in a heavy drawl, and it’s one I recognize. Now I really want to puke.
“Move along stranger, ain’t nothing to see here.” Lilah sneers.
“I think it’s you who oughta move along.” He taps the holster on his hip.
“You a ranger?” Vince smirks.
“Don’t need to be to shoot you.”
“We’re not done, squaw.” Lilah dribbles saliva down my cheek. “We got you once; we can get you again.” She lets me go with a twist of her fist. The twins stomp out of the store, slamming the door behind them, then tumble into their pickup and roar out of the station. My face aches like I’m going to wake up with a real shiner tomorrow.
“Now that’s a lovely young lady.” The man offers me a pocket-crushed Kleenex, but I wipe away the spit with my shirt. I don’t know his name, and that’s the way I’d like to keep it.
“How long you staying in Dead Rock this time?” I ask. There’s a tremor in my voice, the rumble before an earthquake. There’s still a good chance I’m going to break something.
“A night or two.” He grins and rubs the loose ends of my hair between his fingers.
“You looking for something particular?”
“Just the usual, son.” His whiskered cheeks pull up in a rictus that sends a chill tip-toeing down my spine.
“Yeah?” For a moment I contemplate refusing, but I need the cash.
“I’ll be in all night.” He studies me through gray eyes rimmed in whiskey-red.
“Room 206,” he says and dips his Stetson at me before ambling out, heading across the lot to the motel.
Picking up the remains of my NetGlasses, I take a few deep breaths and swallow down my rage. Don’t lose it. Think about what it could cost you…
MarsLife. I’d give anything for a silver astronaut’s pin and a seat on the Entropy III. All I’ve ever wanted is to stand in that red dust staring out into the unknown, to be part of something bigger, and to be as far away as possible from Dead Rock, Texas. The Corps is holding open aptitude assessments next month. No prior knowledge required. If I pass the tests, I get to attend basic training. But escaping my deadbeat existence doesn’t come cheap and earning minimum wage at the Rusty Inn won’t be near enough to cover tuition even if I work 24/7. What I got to do to get out of this place sucks, but staying would be worse. Besides, I made a promise to my brother and I intend to keep it.
Mama always said Dead Rock is a cursed place, tainted by all the Indian blood staining the earth. I don’t know about Mama’s stories, but Dead Rock sure feels cursed all right, a pinprick town everyone’s trying to escape. Mama has her craziness, Dad has the Marines, Madison has her son, Weston had his music. And me? Ashes and a dream are all I’ve got. I only hope it’s enough to get me to Mars.
On a Friday night when half the kids I went to high school with have escaped to Amarillo, I’m traipsing up to 206 with a pocket full of condoms. Achieving a dream should be hard, right? If it’s too easy, it doesn’t seem nearly as worthwhile. This is a means to an end, a way of achieving my dream, the hard part that’ll make it all the more worth it. I need money and selling my bone jewelry isn’t going to be enough with Dale taking a cut of the profits. This, though, this is my money, mine to do with as I please.
I raise my hand to knock on the door as a stream of self-loathing soaks into my soul. This was a whole lot easier when I was dosed up and numb. Without the meds, I feel everything with no way to shut it out. The man answers, his shirt unbuttoned and hanging loose over jeans.
“Knew I’d be seein’ you, son.” He smirks and gestures for me to come in after he checks left and right that no one’s witnessing his indiscretion. “Remind me, how old are you?” he asks, and gulps down another mouthful of whiskey from the tumbler on the nightstand.
“For seven-fifty, I’ll be as old as you want me to be.” Not knowing my age didn’t bother him last time, or the time before that.
He chuckles and sorts through dirty bills. “What’ll ten-fifty get me?”
Ten-fifty? That’s enough for a new pair of NetGlasses and then some. “Anything you want,” I say. “But on one condition.”
“Yeah, what’s that?” He hands over the cash.
“No talking.” I push my earphones in and turn up the volume to max. The angry thrash of guitars drowns out reality as the man unbuttons his fly.
An hour later, I leave the guy passed out across the bed. I button up my jeans and slip out of the room. My body aches all over as if it got pounded by a freight train. Despite the dollars in my pocket, I feel empty, like a black hole that’s forgotten it was once a star. Bet my shrink could fix that with drugs faster than a cat could lick its ass.
Whistling for my dog, I head out into the scrub. Bear joins me with a wagging tail and lolling tongue. Together we race through the dust, wind whipping away the stench of sex and the man’s cheap aftershave. We pause to catch our breath beneath a blanket of stars that burn much brighter without the moon’s glare tonight.
“See that.” I point out the constellations to Bear even though he’s seen them all before. “That teapot’s actually part of Sagittarius and that—” Crouching beside him, I lift his snout so he can look along my finger. “That’s Mars. They’ve got about three hundred people up there building a whole new world. You’d love pouncing around Mars, wouldn’t you fella?” He whuffs softly in agreement as I sling my arm around his neck.
The wind drops and in its wake there’s a silence thicker than a slice of sheet cake. Even the bugs are holding their breath. A prickle of unease spreads phantom threads along my veins. Bear growls, his hackles up.
“What is it, boy?” I whisper and scan the night, seeing only scattered stars and what might be an airplane heading into Oldham. Bear’s growls turn into sorry yelps, tail tucked between his legs, as the light of the plane blossoms into a fractal smear of burning blue.
A meteor? Electricity rips through the air, the hairs on my arms and neck standing stiff with static. There’s a tang, too, sweeter than the petro-chemical taint wafting down from the refineries. This smells like ozone and dry ice, like burning metal and fresh blown glass. Seconds later, God flicks on the floodlights and night becomes high noon. A sonic boom follows, and I tumble to my knees, rendered blind and deaf as the pressure wave ripples across the scrub and tears through my mind.
I’m floating, borne on cresting waves of technicolor, wrapped in a nebula of neon. My thoughts scatter, my whole being atomized and cast in a myriad of directions like that time I snapped Madison’s friendship bracelet and sent the beads skittering across the kitchen tiles. Only this time it’s not beads, but numbers. Ones and zeroes bouncing through the firmament.
Memories race past me in a blur of snapshots. Some I recognize; most disintegrate as soon as I reach for them. Time expands, thick as taffy, pulling me apart, further away from myself until I can’t stretch anymore and a scream rips from my throat as I snap back toward the center. An explosion, brighter than any Fourth of July fireworks, fills my vision and knocks me to the ground.
I wake up who knows how long later with Bear licking my face. Dizziness coils around my head and a rash of tingles coats my skin. What the hell just happened? I’m lying in the middle of a crater radiating outward in concentric ridges. I expect a rock, a piece of space junk or some chido intergalactic artifact to have fallen from the sky, but lying right beside me is the beat up body of a guy. He wasn’t there before the light show. I would’ve noticed someone sprawled butt naked in the scrub.
For several long moments I stare at the bloodied figure, the wind blasting sand over both of us. Bear moves first, sniffing and licking at the naked corpse. Still feeling frayed around the edges, I haul my ass out of the dirt. My heart’s pounding hard enough to crack my ribs as I inch over to the body smeared charcoal and rust.
“Easy now.” I nudge Bear as he bashes his nose into the guy’s shoulder. A thick crust of blood gloms the side of his face from jaw to eyebrow. I brush away his hair to get a better look. I press two fingers against his neck in search of a pulse, and he groans. Thank God he’s still alive.
Gently, I roll him over and starlight spills across his face. He’s around my age, a single gash on his head leaking red. Bear licks the wound, and the guy’s eyes struggle open. He tries to talk, but his words are garbled. Bruises tie-dye his body beneath a layer of blood and dirt. Where the hell did he come from? It’s not like he could’ve fallen out the sky.
The guy twitches, convulsions quaking up from his feet until his whole body twists and turns.
“I’ve got you.” Tentatively, I hold his shoulders and try to stop his flailing. Struggling to restrain the guy, I wrench my phone from my pocket and call Madison.
“You know what time it is?” she murmurs, her voice thick with sleep.
“Maddy, I need your help.”
“Oh God, what happened?” She’s wide awake now, the rustle of bed sheets and clothing audible over the phone.
“Head north to McCauley’s and bring a blanket.” I hang up before she asks for more details.
By the time the pickup’s headlights flare across the scrub, the guy is still unconscious. The truck rolls to a stop and Madison leaps out, ruddy ponytail swishing across her shoulders, with a blanket in hand.
“Oh my God, Leigh. What did you do?” She crouches beside me. In the light, the guy’s face looks worse, his cheek bruised with grazes along his jaw, and his hair has a purple sheen to it. Madison throws the blanket over the rest of him.
“I didn’t do nothing.”
“Who is he?” Madison searches my face before pressing two fingers to the guy’s wrist. “Did you do this?”
“No!” Not even my own flesh and blood trusts me. “And I don’t know who he is. We should get him to the hospital. He had some kind of fit.” Please don’t die, I will the stranger.
“And how you gonna explain this to a doctor when they ask what happened and you’re covered in blood?” Madison peels back the guy’s eyelids and tilts his head into the light.
“I didn’t do it. There was the meteor and then I just found him.”
“What meteor?” She scowls.
“How’d you miss it? There was this huge explosion and blinding light.”
“You’re off your meds, right?”
“I’m not having an episode. I didn’t imagine this.” Anger fizzes in my veins. Even Madison thinks I’m nuts.
“So you’re saying this guy dropped from the sky?” She cocks her head.
“I’m saying I didn’t bust his face.”
“Like they’ll believe it. Let’s get him in the truck.” She takes his feet and I lift him by the armpits, hefting the majority of his weight as we wrestle his limp body into the pickup.
“Madison.” I catch her arm once the guy is propped up in the passenger seat with a second blanket cushioning his head. “I didn’t do this.”
“Are you sure?” Her over-plucked eyebrows gather above her nose as she gestures to my Lilah-damaged cheek.
“Look.” I hold up the back of my hands. No skin missing off my knuckles, but there’s blood on my shirt and that’ll be more than enough for Sheriff Daniels to toss me behind bars again.
“What happened to your face?”
“Nothing.” No point worrying her about the Mulhoney twins.
“Like always, huh?” She shakes her head. “We can’t risk it, Leigh. Not while this guy’s still out. When he comes round and can tell his version of the story, then we’ll see.” She swings up into the driver’s seat. We’ll see. So she doesn’t quite believe I’m innocent. Guess I deserve her doubt after everything I’ve done. I hop into the back with Bear, and Madison churns up half the desert doing a U-turn before accelerating toward the Rusty Inn.
She parks outside the motel. Bear and I hop out before she’s switched off the engine.
“Why here?” Our family house is only a few hundred yards up the drive, tucked behind the diner.
“You wanna explain to Dale why there’s a beat-up, naked stranger on the couch in the morning?” Madison jerks open the passenger door. “We’ll use a motel room. You’re paying for it.”
I’m about to argue, but the look on my sister’s face shuts me right up. Together we lug the body into 204 and place him as gently as possible on the bed.
“Get me the first aid kit,” Madison says while she prepares for medical ministrations. She got half way through nursing school before she got knocked up, and she’s been cleaning me up after fights for years. Stupid kids thought a boy with long hair would be an easy target, but my fists kept proving them wrong.
Leaving Bear outside, I return from the truck with the kit, casting a glance up at the house swamped in shadows. Dale must be asleep, which suits me fine. I’m sick of having to explain myself to Madison’s husband. There’s a ripple across the darkness that brings on another bout of nausea. Ignoring the dizziness, I hurry back to the room.
Squeeze the antibiotic gel. Hold the gauze. Open the tape. Madison instructs and I obey. After twenty minutes, the guy’s face isn’t covered in blood anymore. It’s dusted with freckles and splotchy bruises. Not even bruises can hide the fact that the guy’s gorgeous, with the type of fine features people pay surgeons to sculpt for their faces.
“Stay with him.” Madison pulls off medical gloves and shoves them, along with bloody swabs, into the wastepaper basket.
“You mean watch him.”
“Leigh, I can’t do this.” She bites her lip, the creases around her eyes making her look ten years older than she is. “This is your problem now.” A frown scrunches up the features she inherited from our father’s Welsh ancestors. No one believes she’s a quarter Comanche. “Don’t forget to pay or Dale’ll be down here in the morning.”
“What if this guy has another seizure?” Or dies? I did my time in juvie. No way I’m letting them lock me up in federal prison. Things have been getting better. Why’d this guy have to crash land right on top of me?
“Call me,” she says. “You know I’ll always come when you call.” Her smile is sadder than a gopher with half a tail.
“Thanks, Maddy.” I activate the app on my phone and transfer a hard-earned hundred bucks to the Rusty Inn for room 204. The panel on the door blinks from “vacant” to “occupied.”
She gives my shoulder a quick squeeze before stepping out to the truck. The engine gargles, spluttering biodiesel fumes as she drives it up to its normal spot under the mesquite.
Bear pads into the room, taking up watch by the window before I shut the door. The stranger groans and shifts in his sleep. I settle on the ratty armchair, content to watch from a distance as I search the Web for reports of the meteor. Nada. If a meteor did plummet over Texas, I must be the only soul who saw it. That, or it wasn’t a meteor at all.
I press my gloved hand against the glass as if I could trail my fingers through the constellations. The universe is a green screen, just a training simulation, and still my pulse quickens at the thought of what I’m training for.
“The real thing will be beautiful.” The words come out of my mouth, but the accent is all wrong.
“Did you do your checks?” my CO asks.
“Three times.” I run a hand through my hair, surprised to find springy curls.
I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming.
“Initializing cryo-sim.” He gestures for me to zip up my overalls then helps me into my cryo-unit. Some people can’t handle getting into the pods, claustrophobia and all that. I don’t mind the confined space. It feels like being back in the womb.
“How long this time?” I ask.
“Fifty minutes. Ready?”
“Sweet dreams.” He activates insulation mode, and the glass slides shut, sealing me in a plastic cocoon as chemical mist wraps milky tendrils around my body. One day this will be real, and I’ll be going to Mars. The certainty settles over me, and cryo gas floods my lungs, sending me into stasis.
Mars calls to me: a whisper and a promise.
It feels like I’ve only been asleep for minutes, but morning light spilling through the curtains tells me otherwise. I can still smell the inside of the ship, my stomach in knots at the thought of being en route to the red planet. Just a dream, visceral, vivid, but it wasn’t real. I’m not sure it was even me. I’ve never had a dream like that. The shrink warned me there’d be a period of adjustment coming off the meds. This must be one of the side effects.
Bear whines and thumps his tail. I let him out before checking on the body in the bed. He wasn’t a dream; Meteor Man exists, his hair splayed across the pillow. He’s balled on his side, the covers smeared with dirt. His chest rises and falls with even breathing, and I exhale a sigh of relief. Should I wake him? Leave a note?
A thousand questions swarm inside my skull. Did he really fall out of the sky? Where the hell did he come from? Who is he? Part of me wants to shake him until the answers spew from his mouth, but the stink of 206 clings to my skin and my shift starts in thirty minutes.
I slip out of the room and head over to the vending machine, spending more hard-earned dollars on this guy. The machine spits out generic overalls and a can of SprayThreads. Not great, but it’ll beat having to walk around naked.
He hasn’t moved when I creep back into the room. I peer down at him, but his eyes stay shut beneath strands of indigo. His hair looks thick and soft, the kind of hair I want to run my fingers through. My fingers twitch, desperately wanting to sweep the stray curls from his face, but I resist the urge to touch him.
With blood pounding in my ears, I leave the clothes on the side table and ease out of the room. What the hell am I doing? Normalcy is what I need. Routine, the anchor to reality where pretty guys don’t take a swan dive into the dirt. And that dream… It’s making me feel hungover, my head all fuzzy and my thoughts tangled up like tumbleweed.
I slink up to the house through morning shadows and crawl through my bedroom window. The light in my aquarium paints the posters of Mars on my walls an eerie green. Having fed my fish, I peek into the main bedroom. Madison sprawls across both sides of the bed. Her husband Dale must be down at the diner already prepping his kitchen. You’d think he was a Michelin-starred chef, the pride he takes in serving up Tex-Mex. Quietly, I head into the bathroom, shedding my clothes as I go.
As I step into the shower, my arms prickle, the scars on my wrists smarting like they’ve just been slashed. They usually only tingle when I walk along the interstate, like maybe Weston’s ghost is out there and reaching for my hand. But today, on the anniversary of his death, they don’t just tingle, they burn. I used to open up the seams every year on this day, but my bleeding never changed anything, and it only upset Madison who ended up having to disinfect and bandage them.
The water scalds my skin and steam fills up the bathroom. Gritting my teeth against the sting, I turn up the heat some more, but it isn’t hot enough to wash away the memory of 206. Angry tracks cut across my back from his nails. There are bite marks on my shoulders and carpet burns on my knees. Ten-fifty. Is that all I’m worth?
The steam in the shower looks a lot like the cryo-mist in the stasis pod. I can still taste it—minty with a chemical tang. Sure, I’ve read enough about Mars to dream the whole process in detail, but that was different, crisp and logical, not like the confusion of dreams. It was more like a memory… That’s impossible.
Having tugged on clean clothes, I check on my nephew. Nash lies curled up in his cot with his thumb in his mouth, safe, sleepy, and loved. Did I ever look like that? Quietly, I duck out of the house and head down to the diner, kicking an old football through the dirt for Bear. I haven’t been outside five minutes and I’m already sweating. The sun’s shining like it couldn’t give a shit about my brother’s anniversary, like a clear blue sky makes everything okay.
Halfway down the path, there’s a crow’s feather snagged in a knot of creosote. I braid my sweat-sticky hair and tie the feather into the end. West had a crow’s feather tattoo on his chest, one where the tip of the feather burst into more tiny birds. He said it was a symbol of freedom. I guess death is a kind of freedom.
“Late.” Dale points an accusatory finger at me, his bloodshot eyes bulging out of his head when I stomp into the kitchen. “And what in God’s green country is that?” He yanks at the feather. “You must be slower than molasses on a cold day bringin’ that shit in here.”
“It’s for West.”
For a moment his expression softens and he lets go of my hair, grown long again since I hacked it short for West’s funeral, then it’s back to business. Dale returns to his grill, mumbling about hygiene standards, but he makes no comment about Madison’s late-night excursion. While prepping my automatons, I scroll through newsfeeds on my phone. Zip, zero, nada about meteors. Not even a hokey claim about a UFO sighting. But I didn’t imagine it. How could I have been the only one to see him fall? I post a question about it on the MarsLife message board—that’s bound to get a few hits—and resign myself to waiting.
“Mornin’.” Abigail breezes into the kitchen with empty salt shakers. “So, Raw.” She pins me with a stare that says she hasn’t forgotten what day it is. “Got anything new for me today?” She flips blonde hair over her shoulder and gives me a sad smile as she hands the shakers over to Bob the pantry-bot. It manages to spill almost as much as it fills with its outdated phalanges, but we can’t afford a newer model.
“Mars has the tallest mountain in the solar system,” I start. “Olympus Mons, a shield volcano.” A grin tugs at my lips imagining what it must look like rising out of the red as I sweep up spilled salt.
“How tall?” Abi asks, still willing to talk to me even when she knows almost everything about me. She knows not to mention West. Neither of us wants to talk about him today. We can’t, not when we still hurt so much.
“Don’t encourage him,” Dale barks from the grill where he’s flipping burgers despite Tim, the grill-bot, standing at the ready with an egg lifter.
“Twenty-seven kilometers.” I glare at Dale. “Which is almost seventeen miles. Straight up in the air.”
“Yeah and knowing that’s about as useful as a strawberry up a bear’s butt. You think they’re gonna take a crazy kid with a record up to Mars?” Dale’s words hit me like a baseball bat to the balls. Knowing everything about Mars doesn’t help a penny if I don’t make it past the first round of admission tests. There’s nothing I can do about the record except prove that I’ve changed, changed enough to stand in the stasis habitat onboard an interplanetary ship coasting through white and gold stars.
“Why don’t you join Abi at AC and make something of your life?” Dale says with nothing but good intentions. We’ve had this conversation before, about me going to school, but Dale doesn’t get it. He never has.
“I am making something of my life.”
“By going to Mars? Wake up, son.” He brandishes the burger tongs.
“Ignore him,” Abi says. “He’s just sore because he don’t know half of what you do and they don’t teach none of that at AC.” She gathers the salt shakers and departs with a wink and a swish of her fractal-patterned skirt. Dale says something about how it’s time I start acting like the grown man that I am and stop living off my sister, but I ignore him.
Earphones couched in my ears, I slip away from reality. A temporary escape: stories about other times and other planets, words that take me far away from the drudgery of my life. I’m on Arrakis, riding sand-worms with Muad’Dib while monitoring the efficacy of Suds the dishwashing-bot. There’s got to be more to life than making sure robots don’t screw up menial tasks, but I won’t find it on Earth.