Please enjoy this preview of THREADS FROM THE FUTURE, the first book in my upcoming urban science-fantasy romance!
Something pulled at this universe.
To more suitable eyes, the universe was a tapestry: interwoven forces pulling and snagging in a complex, delicate web of gravity and magnetism and nuclear forces—clunky names that barely grasped the artistry that was existence. Too malleable to be breakable, too rigid to remain unchanged. Trained eyes could see it. Trained hands could wield it.
This universe, unfortunately, had both.
For that reason, the threads were warped: pulled and stressed and tangled. Sometimes the threads snapped, and reality ripped. These rips were centered around a particular city, in a particular country, at a particular time.
Of all the impending rips that plagued this universe, the worst was at the intersection of Salisbury and Kent.
It was an unusually large intersection, designed back when square footage wasn’t a career goal, when the valley was a framed portrait of sky and clouds and corn, when space and time were negotiable soldiers in an already losing battle. The primary pastimes here were U-turns and the occasional donut.
The intersection was wedged between a shoddy gray apartment complex and a valiantly lonesome gas station. The stoplights worked, but all four streetlights had been out since time immemorial, or at least since a neighborhood block party had blown out some fuse or other, so the story went. None of the locals knew that the city had sent out three different technicians to fix the problem, and all three had come back scratching their heads. There was nothing wrong, they insisted, and they were technically right; the offending incident had not happened yet.
It was just dark enough that the faint rip in the universe glowed blue, a faint neon line of light embedded in the cracked concrete. No one in this universe could see it at the moment, but it crackled and pulsed like a lightning strike in slow motion. A linchpin in the fate of spacetime.
Down the street, a lower apartment pulsed with bassy music and loud teenagers, much to the dismay of neighbors. Cards were slapped on tables, virtual cars were driven into NPCs, soda was spilled on an innocent carpet. It smelled strongly of chipped paint and hours’ old pizza.
Other partygoers sat around an abused coffee table with cards, pretending to be old pros at Texas Hold ‘em despite having just looked up the rules. One player had already been caught cheating. One was more interested in the virtual car race projected on the far wall. A third occasionally rewound time for a better hand.
The rip in spacetime down the street pulsed knowingly.
Another partygoer watched the card game, more of an observer of parties than a proper participant. She held a red cup of room-temperature Sprite in both hands as one might hold a mug of tea. Her phone buzzed with admonishment in her pocket. She reluctantly slipped it from her pocket and read the fateful message.
With a sigh, she rose and approached the time bender, placing a hand on his shoulder. He looked up, and her heart did a small twirl.
“I have to go,” she said.
He nodded and stood immediately, tossing his winning hand on the table to a chorus of groans.
The two made their excuses. The other partygoers wished them well, surprisingly attentive even amid the loud music. Almost as if they knew these two were the main actors in this play.
The two drifted outside and down the steps to the street. The air was still warm with the promise of summer, despite the late hour. The time bender remained relaxed, except for the way he clenched his phone. The other wandered into the street with a bounce, keys jangling from her hand as she unlocked her green Toyota Yaris.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
Time shivered around them.
The tear in spacetime grinned.
They climbed in. The car coughed to life. Headlights flashed like eyes opening. The street remained still before them like an ambush. Flickering streetlights and apartment buildings and a 7-Eleven watched with bated breath.
From two blocks away, a green light beckoned them towards the intersection of Salisbury and Kent.
He forced himself to breathe.
“You sure you’re all right?” she asked.
He didn’t answer right away, his hand sweaty as he clutched his phone. The night was black ahead of him. The world looked exactly as he had expected, and the rarity of such an experience made this feel like a dream. He allowed himself exactly one second to appreciate the irony.
The tear in spacetime watched quietly. It would be of no help to him.
His thumb hovered over the send button.
“Dante?” she said.
The green light loomed closer.
The words escaped him: “I should have told you sooner.”
The crosswalk whizzed underneath them.
Too late, she noticed another moving shape coming towards them from the left: car-shaped, sleek like oil, headlights off. In her defense, it was a very dark intersection and she did not have time-altering abilities. There was no reason this vehicle should be here at this point in spacetime, and yet there it was.
Here’s where things get tricky.
Before she could gather the breath to scream, the wielder of time lost his grip on his phone and reached towards her. Momentum was already threatening to unbalance him, but he had practiced this instance in his mind enough to know how best to brace against the dash.
He reached across the console and yanked on the steering wheel.
The car spun, the wheels shrieking as they shredded themselves against the spottily tarred streets, the back wheels outpacing the front as she instinctively slammed on the brakes.
It was not the best donut this intersection had seen.
The other car arrived, the Toyota Yaris now facing the wrong way so the passenger side would take the impact.
Time and space were no longer negotiable.
The heavy crunch of metal was ear-splitting. From within the car, the sky fell around them as the hood and doors and floor caved inward. The car itself scooted several feet with the impact with the high-pitched skir-skir-skir of rubber on road. For the two in the Toyota, it was cataclysmic; in the grand scheme of the universe, it was rather mundane.
It was over in less than three seconds.
The black car faced away from its blunder, having skidded a few feet from the point of impact. Smoke drifted from the hoods of both cars. Clear liquid sputtered out of the bottom.
The driver of this mysterious vehicle died as he lived, full of alcohol and regret. The driver of the Toyota Yaris groaned in pain, her cognitive function temporarily inhibited by a blow to the head.
The passenger of the Toyota Yaris did not move, nor would he move again.
Somewhere further down its timeline, the rip in spacetime pulsed just beneath the Toyota’s right rear tire, waiting.
Chapter 1: Mei June
“Mei June Lu.”
The voice echoed over the football field of North Valley High School, barely more than garbled static that grated the ears. A sea of graduation caps sat in rows on foldable chairs, with onlookers filling the bleachers. The random palm trees around the school property helpfully reminded passersby that this was California, in case the dry heat and white smog weren’t clues.
Voices that came over the speaker system occasionally resolved into words.
“Mei June Lu.”
Mei June swayed in her heels, staring at the blue sky until it hurt her eyes. Sweat was gathering uncomfortably in the armpits of her dress under her black graduation gown, a lovely red and cream floral-print dress that no one would see. Her wrist itched horribly under her brace. It was mercilessly hot; the fake grass of the football field was mostly bits of black rubber, which turned the entire field into an oven.
So far, she had to be constantly reminded that this was graduation day. The school spirit team had done its best to convince passersby that this was a day of celebration. Balloons were tied on fences and (somehow) on the goal posts at each end of the football field. Streamers fluttered around the bleacher railings. It was more of a production for some than others, or at least an excuse to go off and do something stupid later. For her, it was less of an accomplishment than a forgone conclusion.
“Mei June Lu.”
The nasally voice of the vice principle crackled over the outdated speakers again, distinctly sharper. Mei June looked up, remembering that she was actually part of today’s ceremony and not just a mind floating in space.
The teacher in front of her beckoned with a hand, urgent and offended that Mei June wasn’t paying attention to the Start of the Rest of Her Life. Mei June hurried up the ramp, the applause already tired and smattering. She reached for the fake diploma from the principle, and they posed for the photo. His grizzled, sweaty face started to morph into something sympathetic for her, but she hurried past him before anything was said.
She took her seat, the metal already hot in the sun. Halfway through the alphabet, she probably had another hour of names and applauding and posing to wait through. It would take several minutes to get through the Nguyens.
Mei June stared at the fake turf, watching the heat undulate off of it like a hot stove. She didn‘t want to be here, but that sentiment had been chasing her for two weeks now. There was nowhere she did want to be.
I miss you, she thought, her eyes burning.
Mei June startled so hard that a shot of pain flared in her neck; she’d suffered a bit of whiplash from the accident. The consistent murmuring among the graduates that hadn’t eased once finally grew quiet.
The principle held the microphone now. He cleared his throat uselessly. “Unfortunately, as many of you know, Dante Price tragically lost his life to a drunk driver two weeks ago. He was set to graduate today. May we please take a moment of silence to honor him.”
The crowd went silent, save for a few graduates messing around towards the back. Mei June clutched the front of her gown in balled-up fists.
“As he has no available family, the school will be hosting a funeral this weekend here in the gym. It will be open to all students, if you feel so inclined.”
Mei June took a long breath as the crowd gave another respectful round of applause. The vice principle returned to reading the rest of the roster.
The sun climbed the sky. The last student, Jeffrey Ziegler, marched across the stage. A bunch of students screamed and tossed their graduation caps into the year, too scattered and poorly timed to make a good brochure photo. Mei June, who was quite aware she had spent thirty-five dollars on this cap, did not participate.
The crowd swarmed and milled around each other, people buzzing with excitement; The teachers seemed to have given up giving directions. Mei June wove her way for the edge, looking for an escape. She just had to get to her father and get to the car before the inevitable traffic jam in the parking lot.
An arm shot in front of her, phone in hand.
“Smile!” Beatriz chimed from behind.
Mei June stared at the phone until it finally left her vision.
Beatriz frowned at her. “I’m sorry. Too soon, huh?”
Mei June gave a half-hearted shrug. She wasn’t sure that time was the problem—two weeks didn’t feel much different than two days—but she didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s day.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I can stay a few minutes.”
She followed Beatriz around as they took more photos with different groups. The swim team sought out Mei June. The noisy trombone players from jazz band photobombed to their hearts’ content. People avoided Mei June’s gaze, and she avoided theirs in a happy compromise of mourning and celebration.
Finally, blessedly, horribly, it was time to go. Beatriz was holding a graduation party at her house later than night and insisted that Mei June should come. Mei June waved and smiled and nodded without making any commitment.
Her father, Shing, was already in the car, waiting. To his dismay, she had not been valedictorian this year. A few months go, that would’ve been devastating, at least in terms of the reaction she would’ve had to endure from her father. If things had gone as planned.
Today, it barely registered. If anything, it was a perverse relief.
There was no small talk on the way home. He had already given her a graduation present of a hundred dollars, and she had graduated, so no more was expected of either of them.
Mei June walked into the store front of In the Rough Antique Thrift Shop, a labyrinthine treasure trove of dead people’s furniture and books and dolls and movie posters. The shop saw just enough business to justify its rent, while her father’s nondescript tech job covered the rest.
Grandmother Jia Li sat at the front counter, a laptop set up next to the old-timey cash register that had never worked in Mei June’s lifetime. She looked up and smiled at Mei June. “Congratulations, I saw you walk across.” She pointed at the screen, although the livestream had ended several minutes ago.
“Thank you, Grandma.”
Shing paused just behind her. “Did you finish inventory?” he asked.
“Oh,” Jia Li said, looking around. “I had the book . . .”
Mei June bit her lip as her grandmother turned in a full circle, checking the cabinet behind her and bending down to check behind the front counter.
Shing sighed loudly. “You lost it again?”
“I’ll help you look, Grandma,” Mei June said, making her way around the desk.
“I got it, I got it.” Jia Li pulled the well-worn binder of papers from the bottom shelf and slid it on the counter. “Meant to do that before—”
“I’ll do it,” Shing said, taking the book rather forcefully from her grip. “Make sure it’s done right.”
Mei June winced as he opened it and started flipping through papers, but Jia Li turned back to Mei June as if she hadn’t heard him. Perhaps she hadn’t; it was often hard to tell.
“I have something for you,” Jia Li said. She reached under the counter again and produced a wrapped box. “For graduation.”
This was how things were celebrated in the Lu household: quickly and quietly, with as little ceremony as possible. Mei June took the gift and opened it there, careful to keep the wrapping paper in one piece as best she could to prevent a mess.
A scrapbooking starter kit stared back at her. The box promised a full manuscript, two hundred stickers, double-sided tape, and stamp cutters shaped in hearts and stars.
Mei June’s heart jumped at the sight, her hands immediately beginning to sweat. She stared at the box, fumbling for something to say, but her mouth had gone dry. Beside her, Shing had stopped flipping through papers. She couldn’t bring herself to look up at him, but she could feel the tension rolling off his body.
“That,” he said, “is for Mei June?”
Jia Li looked up at him, her face a blank smile. It was too easy to see the confusion forming in her brow. “Huh?”
“Thank you, Grandma,” Mei June said quickly. “It’s very nice—”
“Mother,” he said. “Mei June doesn’t do scrapbooking.”
“It’s okay, father—” she said quickly.
Mei June’s heart twisted at the name. His voice was so harsh with it.
Shing added, “And Hannah is dead.”
Mei June closed her eyes. For a brief moment, the compounded grief was overwhelming, her heart carrying the pain of two losses—one fresh, one years’ old. She was struck with how similar the sensation was; she wasn’t sure why she expected it to be different.
Silence. She looked up and saw her grandmother’s smile go slack, her eyes blinking quickly. Mei June could almost see the panic register in her dark eyes.
She had forgotten.
“But I’d like to try,” Mei June said quickly, her voice sounding strained in her own ears. She swallowed to clear her throat. “Thank you for the gift, Grandma.”
Jia Li’s eyes darted between the two of them, a flash of fear behind her eyes.
“Thank you, Grandmother,” she said again.
Jia Li caught her gaze and nodded once. She turned away to grab something in the cabinet behind her.
Mei June grabbed the box and headed for the stairs, desperate for retreat.
She froze and slowly turned, hugging the box. Her father looked up at her from the bottom of the stairs.
“Don’t pretend with her,” Shing said. “You’re not helping her like that.”
Mei June wanted to argue, in case her grandmother was still within earshot, but her desire to flee won out. “Yes, father,” she said. She hurried up the stairs before he could say more.
She made a beeline for her room at the end of the hall and shut the door behind her. Her room was immaculate: the bed made with its pink comforter and seven pillows, the small desk with its evenly stacked and alphabetized books, the mirror on the closet door clean. Out of habit, she looked for something to put away or straighten, but there was nothing out of place. She couldn’t remember if she was responsible for that, or if her grandmother had come in behind her at some point.
The walls were covered in posters, the only blatant form of rebellion she had every successfully managed against her father. Large spiraling towers and ruinous rock formations and sprawling mountains beckoned her past these four walls.
“Oooh, you wanna travel, huh?” Beatriz had said during her first visit back in freshman year, when they’d been fortuitously paired as partners for a biology project; fortuitous because Beatriz hated biology and Mei June needed a friend.
Mei June had insisted she did, though the question itself had been revelatory; she had just put up posters that appealed to her. She wanted to roll on the grassy hills of Ireland, or walk through cherry blossoms in Japan. She didn’t care much about the travel part, but the being there called to her.
It was all just paper now.
She stared past her poster of the Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur, China at a crack in the pale white paint of the ceiling. She thought now would be a good time to cry, but of course the tears wouldn’t come. It was all just a cold, dull ache in her chest.
She placed the scrapbooking box on her desk and pulled out her phone, more out of habit than a desire to talk to anyone. No new texts from anyone, not even Beatriz—probably too busy with party-related activities. She had to scroll a bit to find her text conversations with Dante. The last conversation was dated two weeks ago.
end of finals party at kevins. yay or nay?
beatriz says yes. pick u up at 7?
Mei June stared at the words, something terrible stirring in her like black snakes. A kind of grief, but worse—guilt or failure or incompetence—as if she had missed an assignment. A banal comparison, but the shade of dread was similar.
Mei June buried her face in a pillow, her eyes burning. She didn’t want this to be true. She didn’t want him to be gone.
You need to say goodbye, Beatriz had said. You have a life to live.
It felt so much like a line from a TV movie—the part where the heroine takes the reins of her life and goes off to college to cure cancer or something. Mei June knew Beatriz had been genuine, but it was hard to see past the inadequacy of it.
Hers and Dante’s last conversation stared at her. Say goodbye . . . what words could possibly sum up the last two months? She added heart emojis and deleted them. She wrote out I love you and deleted it immediately. What did she know of love to say such a thing? She typed his name as if she were going to write a letter, then deleted that too. She reminded herself that no one was actually going to see this.
She typed the word: goodbye. It stared back at her in the text box, the cursor blinking expectantly.
She hit the Send button before she thought too hard about it. The word appeared at the bottom of the conversation.
She stared at the screen until it went dark, then put her phone on her bedside table. She wanted to believe that she felt better, but she didn’t. She resolved not to tell Beatriz about any of this.
Her phone chirped with a new text from the table, pulling her from a short nap she hadn’t meant to take. Her heart skipped a beat, but that was dumb. Beatriz probably was sending all the photos they had taken just half an hour before. A part of Mei June knew that her future self would be grateful for this, but current Mei June wished the rest of the world would stop acting like things were the same.
She waited for more chirping—Beatriz was not a single-text kind of girl—but the barrage didn’t come. Curiosity finally beat out mind-numbing depression; Mei June unlocked her phone.
Her text conversations were a list from most to least recent. At the top of the list was Dante Price’s name in bold.
Mei June stared, trying to understand. Dante had not texted her—her phone was wrong.
But just under goodbye was another text:
1541 Red Holly Street
Mei June kept waiting for it to make sense, and yet the text kept staring at her expectantly.
The text had come from Dante.
Mei June sat up, her heart pounding. What was this—a trick, or a prank—a horrible prank for sure, but she couldn’t fathom who would do such a thing. Her mind shot to a movie she had once seen—a political thriller involving a ransom of a president’s presumed-dead son. Was this a ransom note?
No, that didn’t make sense. There was no money value included, and also Dante was dead; the images of that night were seared into her mind, ripe for nightmares. She reined in her brain.
Perhaps someone else had bought the phone line. She forced herself to relax, though her shoulders still felt tense. That was a perfectly reasonable explanation. But that meant she had just said goodbye to a stranger, and they had thought it logical to send a random location.
She texted back: who is this?
Red text appeared just underneath it: This number is no longer in service. Message not sent.
She stared at the phone, waiting, wondering if prank wasn’t completely out of the question. Or what kind of elaborate prank got the cooperation of a cell phone provider. Ten seconds later, the reply came: be there Sunday at 11:23 am.
She replied. why?
This number is no longer in service. Message not sent.
She waited, but a full two minutes didn’t yield a response. She thought of calling but decided against it, her mind now reminding her of a completely different kind of political thriller that involved human traffickers targeting lonely, stupid girls.
She searched the address, and a hole-in-the-wall taco shop appeared: Otto’s Tacos. She hadn’t been there herself, but she’d heard of it. The rhythm section in orchestra sometimes came back with giant bags of chips. It was only a few blocks away from the school.
She stared for a long time, feeling frustrated and scared and something else, even as her heart didn’t slow.