Flogometer 1032 for Jared—are you compelled to turn the page?

by Ray Rhamey
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Submissions sought.Get fresh eyes on your opening page. Submission directions below.

The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What’s a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page. Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.

Donald Maass,, literary agent and author of many books on writing, says, “Independent editor Ray Rhamey’s first-page checklist is an excellent yardstick for measuring what makes openings interesting.”

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins to engage the reader with the character
  • Something is wrong/goes wrong or challenges the character
  • The character desires something.
  • The character takes action. Can be internal or external action: thoughts, deeds, emotions. This does NOT include musing about whatever.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • The one thing it must do: raise a story question.

Jared sends the first chapter of a YA urban fantasy (I don’t have a title). Here are the first 17 lines, the rest of the narrative follows the break.

Some mornings go so badly it’s like they’re shouting at me, “Aiden Walker, get back in bed this instant or you’ll wish you’d never been born.” Truthfully, I hadn’t had a morning like that in forever, so I was due. This morning was payback with a vengeance. The electricity went out in the middle of the night. Not everywhere. Just to one outlet, the one my alarm clock happened to be plugged into. My mom had to startle me awake with only ten minutes to spare. The toaster caught my poptart on fire which set the smoke alarm off. At that point, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the garage door opener shorted out.

The sensible thing to do would have been to go back upstairs and hide under my covers, but, foolishly, I thought I could still make it to school on time. And I could’ve, until…

“C’mon!” I strangled the steering wheel after coming to a stop at the tenth straight intersection. Every previous day this year I’d made it from my house to school without hitting a single light. They’d all turn green as I approached, like they saw me coming and waved me on with a neon kiss, wishing me to have a good day. This morning? Nothing but red.

At 8:03 I barreled into my parking spot at the far end of the lot, slung my backpack over my shoulder, and sprinted. The rushing cool air penetrated my football jersey and pricked my skin.

Ava blocked my path at the main entrance. She stood barefoot, shivering. The short (snip)

Strong writing and voice are big assets in this first page, along with hints of humor in the way Aiden looks at things. Something does indeed go wrong . . . but to what consequence? Being late to class is not high on my list of perils that created jeopardy for a character.

The point is, of course, where’s the tension? What’s the story question that will get me to turn the page? Will he get to class on time? Not for this reader.

As it turns out, on the very next page is narrative that would have gotten me to turn the page. But we didn’t get there because of all the fuss over running late. So let me do a little trimming and see if we can get the new material on the first page. I need to cut 4 lines from the opening page. There is a poll after this to see if the added material makes a difference to you. First, the edits:

Some mornings go so badly it’s like they’re shouting at me, “Aiden Walker, get back in bed this instant or you’ll wish you’d never been born.” Truthfully, I hadn’t had a morning like that in forever, so I was due. This morning was payback with a vengeance. The electricity went out in the middle of the night. Not everywhere. Just to one outlet, the one my alarm clock happened to be plugged into. My mom had to startle me awake with only ten minutes to spare. The toaster caught my poptart on fire which set the smoke alarm off. At that point, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the garage door opener shorted out.

The sensible thing to do would have been to go back upstairs and hide under my covers, but, fFoolishly, I thought I could still make it to school on time. And I could’ve, until…

“C’mon!” I strangled the steering wheel after coming to a stop at the tenth straight intersection. Every previous day this year I’d made it from my house to school without hitting a single red light. They’d all turned green as I approached, like they saw me coming and waved me on with a neon kiss, wishing me to have a good day. This morning? Nothing but red. Technical point: I don’t think traffic lights are neon.

At 8:03 I barreled into my parking spot at the far end of the lot, slung my backpack over my shoulder, and sprinted. The rushing cool air penetrated my football jersey and pricked my skin.

Ava blocked my path at the main entrance. She stood barefoot, shivering. The short (snip)

Now to add the new material. I’ve incorporated the edits to the original first-page narrative and done a little trimming in the addition. See if this opening page makes you more likely to turn the page.

Some mornings go so badly it’s like they’re shouting at me, “Aiden Walker, get back in bed this instant or you’ll wish you’d never been born.” Truthfully, I hadn’t had a morning like that in forever, so I was due. This morning was payback with a vengeance. The electricity went out in the middle of the night. Not everywhere. Just to one outlet, the one my alarm clock happened to be plugged into. My mom had to startle me awake with only ten minutes to spare. The toaster caught my poptart on fire which set the smoke alarm off. At that point, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the garage door opener shorted out.

Foolishly, I thought I could still make it to school on time. And I could’ve, until…

“C’mon!” I strangled the steering wheel after coming to a stop at the tenth straight intersection. Every previous day I’d made it to school without hitting a single red light. They’d all turn green and waved me on, wishing me a good day. This morning? Nothing but red.

At 8:03 I barreled into my parking spot and sprinted.

Ava blocked my path at the main entrance. She stood barefoot, shivering. The empty short sleeves on her t-shirt flapped in the wind. The U-shaped pendent necklace that all the Unfortunates at school wore dangled between her collar bones. “Stop. You can’t stay.”

I ran past her. “Sorry. I’m late. No time.”

“Go home. Please. It isn’t safe for you today.”

For me, the addition of “the Unfortunates” is a big help in letting me know that this isn’t an ordinary world, and then Ava ignoring being cold to deliver a clearly dire warning raises a strong story question. So, for me, this got me to turn the page. What’s your vote?

For what it’s worth.

Ray


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Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.

  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that’s okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I’d examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2017 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2017 by Troy.


My books. You can read sample chapters and learn more about the books here.

Mastering-60WWriting Craft Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling

Front Patch 60WFantasy (satire) The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles

SummerBoy-60WMystery (coming of age) The Summer Boy

Hiding-Magic-60WScience Fiction Hiding Magic

Gundown-60WScience Fiction Gundown Free ebooks.

 

Continued from alternative opening:

“I’m fine. Just late. Catch me after class,” I shouted over my shoulder.

My loud footfalls echoed through the empty hallway. I grimaced as I passed the school trophy case. Every morning since my freshman year I’d stopped and looked at it for motivation. It was filled with the school’s many accolades for golf championships, debate team victories, and Science Olympiad achievements. This was a nerd school. Not one trophy had a football on it. I’d sworn to change that. One day my name would be immortalized in these halls. Or so I thought.

The game was tonight. A win would put us in the playoffs. Plus, scouts were supposed to be there. Why’d today have to be the most unlucky day ever?

I reached room 212 five minutes late and opened the door to Ms. Mason’s college algebra class. A wave of pungent air hit me, stinging my eyes and making me wish I’d listened to Ava and just gone home. I cringed. Ms. Mason had hit a skunk on her way to school…again. It happened every week. I was convinced she targeted them just to torture her students, but how she found so many skunks in downtown Colorado Springs was beyond me…maybe she farmed them.

Ms. Mason stood behind her desk. She wore a dirt-colored, button-down dress that belonged in the Pioneers Museum more than a modern high school. The wrinkles on her face deepened into a scowl. “Mr. Walker. I was beginning to think you wouldn’t come in today.” She grinned at the class. “But we wouldn’t be that lucky, would we?”

I turned beet red as the class of twenty-five laughed at me.

“Your seat, Aiden.” She pointed. “I trust you can find it in a timely manner.”

I squeezed my way down the aisle to the back row, threw my backpack to the side, and plopped down.

My friend Trevor leaned over and whispered, “What happened to you?”

“Everything,” I said.

“Late and rude, Mr. Walker?” Ms. Mason slammed her textbook shut. “Perhaps you’d like to teach the class about irregular singularities.”

I shook my head. Irregular whats? I’d missed five minutes and she’d started talking a different language. I straightened and faced forward, not daring to even rummage for a pen or paper from my bag.

As Ms. Mason droned on, my run-in with Ava sank in. What did she mean I wasn’t safe here today?

# # #

Just before class finished, Ms. Mason looked up at the clock. “That’s enough for today. Before the bell rings, I need to hand back your tests from yesterday. A little good news to start your weekends?” She flashed her yellow teeth and reached for a stack of papers on her desk. She examined each one, then handed it to the first person in a row. “Pass them back to their lucky owners, please. And feel free to peruse how your classmates managed.”

Carmen, the long-haired girl in front of me, handed me mine right as the bell rang and everyone collected their things. I looked down. My jaw dropped and fists clenched as the room emptied. I flipped through the pages, sure there had been some mistake. Not a single question had been slashed with her red pen of shame. But the front…

“Aiden?” Ms. Mason looked up and feigned shock. “Was there something you wanted to discuss? An apology for your tardiness, perhaps?”

“An F. You gave me an F?” I jabbed my finger into the offending mark. “I got all the answers right.”

“You didn’t show your work.”

“I did the problems in my head.”

“Or you cheated,” she said.

I grit my teeth. “I didn’t.”

“Without showing your work, how would I know?” She stood up and crossed in front of her desk.

“I just told you.” My face burned.

“And you’re used to being trusted, aren’t you?”

“Fine. I’ll play your game. Give me a new question. I’ll do that one in my head too.”

Ms. Mason crossed her flabby arms. “No. That won’t be necessary. I wrote your grade in ink for a reason.” She grinned. “I’ve already told Coach, too.”

“You told—”

She nodded. “Looks like you won’t be playing tonight. And such an important game. He’s livid. I’d avoid running into him in the halls if I were you.”

He’s livid? I wanted to take a pair of tweezers and pluck the curly black hair growing from her forehead, then dunk her into a vat of skunk juices long enough for me to figure out some other way to show her my displeasure. “Why do you hate me so much?”

“Hate you? I don’t—”

I lowered my forehead to intensify my gaze. “You just gave me an F because your test was too easy for me.”

She uncrossed her arms and leaned forward. “What is it that you want, Aiden?”

“An A would be a good start.”

“No. I mean in life. How do you want people to view you? How do you want to be treated?”

“Uh.” What right did she have asking me this after ruining my day? Well, it wasn’t all her fault. It’s not like she made the electricity turn against me this morning. She couldn’t, could she? I’d dismissed the possibility that she might be a witch or something. The mole. The bad attitude. If witches existed, she was their leader.

“Aiden!” Mrs. Mason snapped her fingers. “I asked you a question and ‘uh’ isn’t English, let alone an answer.” Before I could respond, she continued, “Oh, close your mouth. You’re drooling.” She stood and extended her hands sideways. “You’re a good looking young man who’s had everything handed to him on a silver platter and you don’t even know what you want.”

I rolled my eyes. “I want to play football tonight and bring the trophy to our school then get out of here so I never have to see your face again.”

She snorted. “Typical. You sound like every other teenage boy.”

“Is that so bad?” I wasn’t some freak who had to be different, not like her.

“That’s it, right there.” She slammed a fist on her desk. “Your grandest goal in life is to have your name imprinted on a cheap plastic trophy. How utterly uninspiring. I’ve got news for you. You’re nothing special. You’ve had everything handed to you and what do you do with it? Nothing of consequence. You are nothing more than average and I think that stinks.”

“You’d know all about stinking.” I crumpled my test.

The veins in her neck bulged.

I sealed my lips holding back every insult I’d ever thought about her. I was going to have a hard enough time explaining to my parents why I couldn’t play tonight, a conference call with the principal wouldn’t help anything.

Ms. Mason closed her eyes and took in a prolonged breath. After exhaling she opened her eyes and bared her yellowed teeth. “I’d say the skunks have a better chance of passing this class than you do. A few more tests like this one and we’ll enjoy each other’s company for another year.”

My heart sank to my stomach. This class…again? With her? Never. But how was I supposed to avoid failing if she punished me for being right?

Someone thumped the door.

Mrs. Mason looked out the small window. “Can I help you, Ava?”

Ava stepped inside and locked her gaze on me. “Are you trying to avoid me?”

“Not remotely. I was just leaving.” I grabbed my bag and headed out the door with one last scowl at Ms. Mason. Once in the hallway, I turned to Ava and thought about how I’d run past her. What if she’d needed help? “I’m sorry about earlier. You okay?”

“Me? I’m fine. It’s you I’m worried about.”

I scrunched my face. That was odd. I mean, there’s nothing against her worrying about me, but I was…well whole. She wasn’t. She had something called Grebe disease. In her case, it meant she had no arms. Imagine that, someone with no arms worrying about a star football player. “I’m fine.” I shrugged.

“Your day, is it…um… going okay? That look you gave Ms. Mason…”

“It was nothing.” This day was awful. One of the worst I could remember having, but how do you tell someone with no arms that? Even my worst day had to be better than her best. “It just hasn’t been my morning, that’s all. But hey, it’s bound to get better.”

“Is it?”

“Of course it will. I try to keep a positive attitude. You know…like you. Always happy.” Given her birth defect, it didn’t make sense the way she always seemed so cheerful. I confess that on occasion I’d wondered if maybe she had more wrong with her than just missing arms.

“Do I look happy right now?” She stopped and put her foot on mine. Her toes curled around my ankle. It was her version of putting a hand on my shoulder. “Promise me you’ll be careful today.”

“You mean in the game tonight? There’s nothing to worry about. I’m benched, thanks to Ms. Mason.”

She sighed. Relieved?

“You’re happy about that? I…” I slammed my fist into a locker. “I needed to play tonight.” I was seventy-three yards short of breaking the single season rushing record. That would’ve ensured a trophy in the case with my name on it even if we didn’t win the championship. Coach was pushing for me to get it too. He said it would put our program on the map and get others to transfer over. It could change everything. But now? I cringed. Coach was going to kill me.

“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just… I mean…” She had brown eyes. Not the type that approached blackness. Hers were bright and earthy—eyes that begged to be gazed into. I blinked, realizing that was exactly what I was doing. “Just be careful,” she said with a weak smile. “And watch your back.”

 “I will.”

The bell rang, echoing through the empty hallways. Ugh. I was late…again…and still hadn’t made it to my locker.

Mr. Kieft, my history teacher, let me slide into my seat without any fuss. He was cool that way. Nothing like Ms. Mason.

The more I thought about how evil Ms. Mason was, the more my head pounded. What were my parents going to say about the F? It wasn’t like I could hide it from them, not when I should’ve been playing tonight. I laid my head down and endured the rest of the classes until lunch time.

Trevor and Hannah saved me a spot at our usual table across from the round table for the Unfortunates. That was the name the bullies had given to the group of special needs students at the school, Ava included. Strangest thing was that they’d adopted the name and worn it with pride. It was like they didn’t understand they were being made fun of. We’d claimed the table closest to them to protect them from the school jerks when necessary.

Hannah wore her cheerleading outfit, which reminded me of the game I couldn’t play in, but her baby blue eyes…they never failed to kick my heart into gear. I set my lunch sack down and sat next to her. “Am I glad to see you.”

She smiled and kissed me on the cheek then gently placed her hand over mine. “Bad day?”

Trevor snickered. “I’ll say. He’s a glutton for punishment. First period ends, and this dope stays in class like he couldn’t get enough of Ms. Mason’s aroma.”

 “Trev… shut up.” I squeezed Hannah’s hand. “Things just started looking up.” Then I reached into my lunch bag. Yes, my mom always packed my lunch. The PB and J sandwich was so smooshed that the jelly discolored the soggy, flattened bread. It didn’t matter. I preferred to focus on the dessert first anyway. Cookies or brownies were the norm. Occasionally Mom would throw in a Snickers bar. I rummaged through the bag…nothing. It was just dessert, right? But after the morning I’d had and with my stomach growling, I put my head on the table.

Ava entered the cafeteria and came straight to our table. “Are you sick? You look sick. Maybe you should go home. You know, stay inside…in bed preferably.”

“I’m fine. Really.”

She turned toward Hannah, opened her mouth, shut it, then turned to Trevor. “Keep an eye on him today, will ya?”

“Sure thing, Ava.” Trevor smiled. When she walked away, he ogled her. “A girl with that body…” he shook his head. “It’s unfortunate she doesn’t have arms. I mean otherwise, she’d be as hot as you, Hannah.”

Hannah swayed her head. “Guess she’d be out of your league then.”

Trevor straightened and dead-panned, “No girl is out of my league.”

“Please. She’s crippled and already out of your league. If you don’t believe me, ask her to the fall dance.”

“That’s not fair. You know she’s crushing on Aiden.”

I lifted my head. “We’re just friends.”

Trevor’s expression vanished. He leaned forward and whispered, “Duke on your six.”

I dropped my head back to the table. Duke? This guy was a walking jock/bully cliché. Ugh. This day.

“Hey buddy!” Duke slapped my back. “Just wanted to thank you for getting yourself suspended tonight. Without you hogging the limelight, coach will finally let me toss the rock ‘round. It’s my time to shine. And with scouts there… your timing couldn’t be better.”

I groaned. “Just don’t lose the game.”

Trevor nodded. “Our team is the one in white. You know that, right?”

Duke scowled at him. “Listen booger face, you want me to beat you so badly the Unfortunates wouldn’t even let you sit at their table?”

“There’s no need for threats.” Trevor shrugged. “I was just checking. You know, because sometimes it seems like you forget and throw the ball to the other team. You aren’t color blind, are you?”

Duke snatched my sandwich and launched it across the table, smacking Trevor in the face. “See that, scum bucket? I never miss. I can’t help it if my wide receivers ride the short bus like you.”

I sat up, not really caring about my sandwich. “We’re a team, remember? Win as a team, lose as a team.”

“Tonight we win… and without you. It’s all gonna be me. Tonight I get my ticket to a scholarship then go to the big show and losers like you will brag how you once knew me.” He smiled at Hannah. “Except you. You can call me anytime. I’ll show you my Jacuzzi.”

I made a fist.

“Careful, Duke,” Hannah said, “They only make football helmets so big. If your head gets any bigger—”

Duke blew her a kiss and turned around so quickly he knocked over Kenneth, who was one of the Unfortunates. He had a learning disability. I wasn’t really sure what, exactly, but he wasn’t really steady on his feet and slurred his speech. He smacked the ground and his food spilled out from the tray.

“Watch where you’re going, retard.” Duke stepped over him and left the cafeteria.

I jumped to Kenneth’s side just as he began to tear up.

“Get away from him,” a woman said.

I didn’t look up. Didn’t need to. Ms. Mason’s raspy voice was unmistakable…so was the wave of stench that hit me the moment she’d approached.

I glanced at Kenneth’s elbow. “He’s scraped up.”

“Leave him to me. You’ve done quite enough already.”

I looked into her dark eyes. “I didn’t—”

“Save it.” She reached down and lifted Kenneth by the arm, then led him from the cafeteria.

“Does she think you knocked him over?” Trevor asked as he helped me clean up Kenneth’s spilled tray.

I nodded while gritting my teeth. “If it’ll get me in more trouble, she’ll believe anything.”

Hannah stayed in her seat. “Duke’s such a tool.”

Trevor scooped the last bit of spilt corn onto a napkin. “What did you expect? He’s a jock.” His gaze darted my direction. “Sorry. I didn’t mean… You’re not a jock exactly. I mean you are… but, um.”

“Just drop it,” I said.

“Five minutes!” Ava stomped towards me. “I wasn’t even gone five minutes after warning you to watch yourself and you pick a fight with Duke?” She turned and kicked Trevor in the side.

Trevor winced. “Hey.”

“You said you’d keep an eye on him.”

“I had his back if anything happened.”

“Nothing was going to happen,” I said. “Duke’s all talk.” A strand of Ava’s hair had escaped the ponytail and dangled across her face. I brushed it back for her. “What’s got into you today?”

She looked to the ceiling and bit her lip. “I wasn’t sure earlier. I just had a hunch. It could have been anything really, but it wasn’t…”

“What are you talking about?”

We locked gazes. “Someone’s out to hurt you. I don’t know why or who. But you aren’t safe here. Not today.” She turned to Hannah and inhaled. Her eyes glistened. “Please. Please take him home and make him stay there.”

I wondered what had gotten into Ava. She was normally perky and cheerful around me. Not paranoid. Was she on some sort of trippy medication? “I’m—”

Hannah frowned. “You want me to take him home?” She pointed at herself. “Me? With him?”

Ava nodded slowly. “If he’ll listen to you…yes.”

The two girls looked at each other in silence for an extended moment.

“Okay.” Hannah slid her arm between my elbow and ribs. She pulled close to me and whispered. “Take me to your house.”

“No,” Ava said. “You drive. Don’t let him do anything.”

“Okay,” Hannah said. “I’ll drive.” She pressed her body against mine.

My heart fluttered. “What? No… School,” was all I could manage.

Trevor shook his head. “Luckiest man alive.”

Hannah pulled me out of the cafeteria. My head cleared with each step. By the time we reached the hallway and passed Kenneth sitting alone at the nurse’s office, I could formulate complete sentences again.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “If my parents catch you at home…”

“You heard Ava.”

“She’s loony. No one’s trying to hurt me.”

“She’s worried is what she is. Did you see her face? Telling me to take you home—that hurt her soul. She’d never suggest I spend a moment alone with you unless she was fully convinced it was absolutely necessary.” Hannah licked her lip. “She loves you.”

“We’re just friends,” I said.

“Not to her you aren’t.”

I looked over my shoulder. Ava stood in the hallway watching us. Hannah was right about her, at least about her being worried. Something had her spooked and convinced I was in danger. But she was, well, crippled. What could she possibly know?

“Keys,” Hannah said when we reached my car.

“Seriously? You won’t even let me drive?”

She placed her hands against the car and smirked. “Guess school isn’t out for you, after all. One more lesson you should learn. You ready? There’ll be a test.”

I sighed. “What is it?”

“Never underestimate a woman’s intuition.”

“Even if it’s from someone acting crazy?”

“Next week’s lesson—never call a girl crazy. Now toss me your keys.”

I underhanded them over the car and rolled my eyes. “This is stupid on so many levels.”

“What’s the matter?” She twirled her hair around a finger. “You don’t want to spend the afternoon with me?”

Oh, I wanted to, but I had to keep my head. One of us needed to at any rate. “If you drive me you’ll be stuck at my house with no car, then when my parents get home…”

“Relax. I’ll call Sophie and have her pick me up after school. You may be benched, but I’m not. I’ve got to cheer.” She opened the door. “Although.” She grinned. “I’d love to see the look on your dad’s face… maybe I’ll leave some lipstick on a few glasses. That should make your weekend more interesting.”

“Do you ever want to see me again? I already have to explain a failed test and not being able to play tonight. Add lipstick to the list and my parents will lecture me all the way to my grave.”

“If they kick you out, you could always come live at my place. My mom might not even notice you.” She jumped into the car and without buckling up, turned the engine. “Coming?”

I sat down and reached for my seat belt.

“What’s the matter,” she asked, “don’t trust me? Is it because I’m a woman driver?”

“No, I…”

The car jerked forward. She cranked the wheel and screeched through the parking lot. The force pushed me against the door. I released the seat belt and did my best to hold myself in place.

Hannah laughed. “You’re such a wuss.”

“I’m not…” I eased my grip on the handle bar… the one on the roof. Nothing too obvious about that. “What’s the hurry?”

“If someone is trying to hurt you, we can’t have them following us.”

I looked over my shoulder. We were the only car leaving school.

The light onto Nevada Avenue turned green as we approached.

“Wow,” Hannah said. “I never catch this green.”

It was always green for me, except this morning. But here it was, back to normal. My luck was back. I eased back into my chair. It helped that Hannah had slowed down and hadn’t pulled onto the main road like we were trying to outrun a tsunami or something. Plus, at this time of day the road wasn’t too busy.

She glanced at the rear-view mirror.

“No one’s following,” I said. “Ava’s overreacting.”

“Maybe.”

The next intersection was one of the busiest in town. The light turned green as we approached.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Hanna said. “Is it the time of day?”

“This is normal for me.” I took a deep breath. Normal was good. “Watch, the next light will turn green right as we approach.”

Sure enough, the light turned.

“How’d you…”

“They’re on timers. Hit one right and it’s smooth…” I looked left. Ice froze in my veins. A black van sped our direction. Glancing up, I noticed the light was green for him too… It was for all directions. “Watch out!”

Everything moved in slow motion. I looked down at my lap, then at Hannah’s. Our seatbelts! I met her terrified gaze, grabbed hold of her shoulder with one hand and braced against the dashboard with the other just before…

Glass shattered. Metal warped and crashed. I was launched through the windshield.

# # #

When I regained consciousness, every muscle and bone screamed. My right leg was pinned under the car. Further down the road, Hannah lay motionless. Two men crouched by her side. They lowered their heads, then turned and ran towards me.

“No. Help her,” I pleaded, my arms outstretched.

One man grunted and strained as he hefted the car high enough for the other to pull me free. My foot was twisted a gut-wrenching direction. Blood spilled onto the road as blackness enveloped my vision.

“Stay with me.” A man cradled me in his arms and leaned close. “Stay…”

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