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       Lila Shortcuts, p.1

           Sarah Alderson
 
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Lila Shortcuts


  First published in eBook in Great Britain in 2013 by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd

  A CBS COMPANY

  Copyright © 2013 Sarah Alderson

  This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.

  No reproduction without permission.

  All rights reserved.

  The right of Sarah Alderson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

  1st Floor, 222 Gray’s Inn Road

  London

  WC1X 8HB

  Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney

  Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

  eBook ISBN 978-1-4711-1958-3

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  www.simonandschuster.co.uk

  www.simonandschuster.com.au

  For Alex & Lila fans everywhere

  Acknowledgements

  Thanks to: Liesel, Craig, Tripp and Gretel for all the extra details about Ventura which I overlooked on my visit. I was too obsessed by the thrift stores to notice much else. Becky Wicks, fellow author and conspirator, for her helpful editing advice, and thanks too, to all the Lila fans out there who make me want to keep on writing about these characters.

  Contents

  TURNING AMBER

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  CONSPIRACYNATION.NET

  @CNN

  REDEEMING DEMOS

  CATCHING SUKI

  RECRUITING JACK

  THE MOMENT

  A short story from Alex’s point of view

  TURNING AMBER

  Chapter One

  I don’t know much, I fully admit that. I’m only seventeen after all. But there is one thing I do know with utter and complete certainty: Everybody is a liar.

  Not just politicians and lawyers and criminals. Doctors, little old ladies and policemen too. Even nuns. Seriously.

  The girl in the fitting room who tells you its just your colour. The waitress who smiles and says its no bother to bring you a menu. The best friend who swears blind your bum doesn’t look big in those jeans. Honestly.

  Boys are the worst. Believe me, every word that falls from boys’ lips after their voices break should be treated as though it’s coated in Anthrax – with extreme caution and never, under any circumstances, absorbed.

  ‘That magazine you’re reading is full of lies,’ I tell Nancy, stabbing my finger onto a photograph of an anorexic-looking celebrity. ‘Do you honestly believe her when she says all she eats is ice-cream and doughnuts?’

  Nancy glances up at me over her copy of Seventeen, pushes her retro fake Raybans up her nose and blows a bubble that for a second eclipses her face like a pale pink moon. She lets it pop then gathers the elastic goo with the tip of her tongue. ‘Your problem, Amber,’ she says, ‘is that you’re too cynical to even appreciate gossip. And that is a tragedy.’

  ‘I’m not cynical,’ I sigh.

  I just know for a fact when someone is lying. I can see it. The colour of their aura changes like they’re standing beneath a disco ball. If I happen to be touching them at the same time (which isn’t often, because I make it a rule never to touch people) then I feel it, too. Try telling people that, though. It’s enough to earn you a trip to a state-appointed psychiatrist.

  I’ve been seeing auras since I was a toddler. At first I wandered around with an awed smile, gazing at the multi-coloured lights dancing over everybody’s heads. I figured, with astute small-child reasoning, that these were halos, and that therefore everyone, myself included, was an angel. My mum figured out pretty fast what was going on because her mum – my grandma – was a reader too. That’s the word they use for it; reader. As though it’s as fun as reading a book. My mum dumped me on my grandma’s stoop one day and had her explain it all to me.

  It was pretty devastating – up there with discovering my grandpa and not an elf was filling my Christmas stocking – to find out that people were as far away from being angels as was possible. That those mesmerising lights actually meant something other than oooh, pretty. That they signified sadness, pain, joy, jealousy, hope, anger, happiness and loss. Everyone’s soul was laid bare, worn on their sleeve (or their head if you want to get literal). Bile green for jealousy, indigo blue for fear, blood red for anger, dark carnelian for rage, shiny topaz for friendship, mustard yellow for sickness and pain, obsidian black for pain and grief and evil. Because, yes, evil does exist in the world. Hate to break it to you.

  And let’s not forget white. Pristine, glowing, bridal white. For death.

  Nancy slams down the magazine. ‘Right, we need to make like Tom and cruise,’ she announces. And with that she hops the counter and flies down the aisles of the Exchange Thrift Store, throwing random items over her arm as though she’s been given sixty seconds to save all the contents of the store from a raging blaze.

  She reaches the scarf/ hat/sunglasses stand and spins it, pulling off a blue beret, a pink feather boa and a pair of 1950s-style sunglasses. With arms cascading clothes, feathers and other random items she rushes back to the counter where I’m busy closing up the till.

  She kicks out the last loiterers – two teenage boys giggling over a battered Anaïs Nin novel – and we get to business.

  On a scale of one to ten I’m hovering around minus three on going to The Majestic tonight. I only agreed because Nancy’s favourite band are playing and I don’t want her going alone. She has no weirdo-guy filter whatsoever.

  ‘How can you not be excited about seeing The Gnarly Surs?’ Nancy says, grinning at me as she eyeliners and lipglosses in the changing room mirror, before twirling in the Siberian-peasant-meets-ninja-assassin outfit she’s selected. Her aura is a buzzing cloud of topaz and gold: friendship and happiness.

  ‘I promise you it will be the best night ever!’ Nancy tells me, spinning the boa over her shoulders, the feathers floating into the rainbow haze above her making it seem like a flock of jungle birds are nesting in her hair.

  I shoot her a look. ‘The last time you made me go with you to The Majestic I had to pull you out of a mosh pit before you got trampled, and then we almost got eaten by a Hell’s Angel.’

  Nancy sticks out her tongue. ‘Hey, just because he wore leather, probably kept a family of rodents in his beard and held alternative views on democracy and women’s place in society doesn’t make him a cannibal.’

  I shake my head at her.

  Nancy’s pretty much my only friend, partly because among the consummate liars in the world, she’s one of the more honest ones. She only lies when she doesn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. I don’t lie at all. Ever. It’s a rule of mine. And could also explain why I finished elementary school with no friends whatsoever. By middle school I’d learned not to open my mouth. By High School I had a reputation as a loner, a weirdo and an ice queen.

  But at least my aura is shiny clean.

  I pull on a faded vintage T-shirt I’ve been eyeing all day, and which I earlier hid among the second-hand bras to ensure it didn’t get picked up by one of the Thriftstore junkies, and then, over the top, ease on a snug leather jacket that feels like a second-skin – a pity it costs more than I earn in a week of shifts at the Exchange. But borrowing
costs nothing!

  Nancy bounces over and tugs the beret on over my hair.

  ‘Goddamn your hair, you pre-Raphaelite princess, you,’ she mutters as she tries to tame it, pulling one red strand free and arranging it artfully around my face. Once done, she rams the sunglasses on too, even though it’s almost dark outside. Then she links her arm through mine. ‘Ready, soul sister?’ she asks.

  Chapter Two

  The Majestic has drawn its usual crowd of local kids. There’s also a battalion of bearded biker guys wearing so much leather they squeak when they walk and which (I shudder when I think about it) must cause hideous chafing.

  There are some Thriftstore junkies over in the corner who we recognise as regulars to the Exchange, some crusty surfer dudes (as Nancy refers to them), and a few kids from school – a mix of the pot smokers, the emos and the punk grunge kids – all of whom ignore me and Nancy. And then there are the out-of-towners, looking scared as they clutch their Buds to their chests and wait for the warm-up band to finish.

  I see him straight away. He’s hard to miss in this mismatched group of Majestic patrons. He stands out not only because he’s exceptionally good-looking (his good-looks only heightened by his proximity to one particularly hairy, bearded specimen of doorman with an aura so bile-stained and pockmarked it makes me flinch), but also because Nancy sucker-punches me in the stomach to call my attention to him. He had my attention fully anyway. I snatch the sunglasses off to verify I’m not just seeing things.

  I have never, in all my life, seen an aura like his. Except on two other people. And both those people had something pretty unusual in common.

  I can only describe it by saying it’s like one of those ticker tape parades where tiny squares of tinfoil float and whirl in the air above conquering heroes’ parading heads. It’s astonishing. There are other colours mixed in there – but it’s the silver I notice . . . can’t help but notice. It’s like he’s wearing a chandelier for a hat.

  Blood whooshes in my ears, louder than the reverb from the speakers and my heart does this weird thing where it seems to expand and fill my chest, beating insistently against my ribs.

  ‘Sweet hotness on a stick,’ Nancy purrs in my ear. ‘And I’m not talking about Santa’s fat ugly brother next to him.’

  The boy turns to face us – as though he can feel us both staring – and in the split second where we lock eyes everyone else in the club spins away to some far corner of the universe, leaving just the two of us alone. He smiles – an easy, slow smile that hooks me as certainly as a fish on a line. But then Nancy starts smacking me on the arm and the club comes hurtling back across the universe at warp speed. My heart contracts and the only sound whooshing in my ears now is Nancy, who has started making a series of weird, small animal noises – thankfully not aimed at the boy. Her attention span is way shorter than that.

  I turn around and look at the stage. The Gnarly Surs have appeared and are pulling on their instruments, ready to torture us with something that could just about be classified as music. In some outer galaxy inhabited by deaf aliens, perhaps.

  Suddenly I’m engulfed in thundering noise and rancid sweat smells and auras bursting bright as solar flares at the edge of my vision. My head starts to throb and I close my eyes and try to breathe through it.

  This is one of the reasons (other than men in leather with rodent beards and torture music) why I don’t like coming here, or anywhere where crowds of people gather (unless the gathering crowds are meditating Buddhist monks). Because I don’t just see auras. That I could live with. That’s what the sunglasses are for. It’s the emotions that do it, bouncing off people like infra-red rays. That’s the real killer.

  In small groups I can tune out the rays. And the one or two people I choose to hang out with (OK, make that one . . . Nancy) only give off happy rays.

  In this room however, filled with sweating, loud, mosh-pit loving people – most of whom are amped on some form of mood-enhancing drug – I feel like I’m being squashed inside a microwave and zapped on high.

  Someone nearby is ecstatic – that would be Nancy. She bumps against me and I feel her happiness spark a surge of dopamine straight to my brain. I let out a whoop that makes Nancy shoot me a bemused look. But the joy is short-lived as from the other side jealousy spears me like an icepick. I squint through the strobe lighting. Some tall skinny guy watching his girlfriend go fan-girl crazy over the drummer on stage is responsible. I edge away from him. And get a hammer fist flare of red slamming down on my skull. This one’s more surprising as it’s coming from a small girl just behind me who looks like butter wouldn’t melt, and whose foot I’ve accidentally stood on in the crush.

  It’s too much.

  I shout in Nancy’s ear that I’m going outside for some air and then I try to push my way towards the nearest exit – weaving past the biker crew – flashes of red, pulsating waves of yellow – like swimming against a tide of pus. My head’s pounding up a storm. I only just make it to the door.

  But Santa’s ugly fatter brother is suddenly in front of it, blocking the way.

  ‘Hello, little lady,’ he says to me, easing his hands over his pregnant belly and rocking back on his heels.

  BO. Stale beer. Mingling with something altogether more vile and stinking. He isn’t touching me but I can feel him – feel his thoughts – reptilian smooth and snaking around my limbs. I jolt back, unable to hide my revulsion, and catch the flare of anger in his eyes in response. Crimson bursts off him like arterial spray.

  I glance over my shoulder, looking for help – but we’re practically behind the stage here, submerged in a well of shadow. Just a wall of leather behind me, and beyond, the bouncing, ecstatic heads of those in the mosh pit. The music is so loud I can’t even hear my own voice when I ask the guy to let me pass. He acts like he hasn’t heard.

  A cold rush of adrenaline floods my system.

  I’m used to brushing paths with darkness – it’s around us far more than you’d think. You walk past someone on the street who from the outside looks like he might teach Sunday School – all Colgate smile, button-down shirt and side parting – and get the shock of your life when you glance up and see a dirty writhing swampfest of an aura, and realise that in all likelihood the Sunday School teacher is in fact a serial killer. Normally I cross the street, because going to the police and explaining your suspicions only gets you a raised eyebrow and delivery home to your mum in the back of a patrol car. At least that’s how it worked for me.

  The guy now standing in front of me smiles, though the smile doesn’t make it to his eyes.

  ‘Why don’t you stay and hang out with me?’ he asks.

  ‘I just need some air,’ I tell him, shouting to be heard over the feedback from the mic.

  ‘I just want to talk,’ he says, manoeuvring his substantial bulk fully in front of the door.

  Liar. His aura is as brown as sewage. Like he’s been swimming in a septic tank.

  I force a smile – act like I am actually considering his proposal, but really I’m gathering myself, trying to fight the nausea and to clamp my mental focus into place.

  My grandma spent a lot of my childhood preparing me for the gift, as she called it. And one of the things she taught me as a necessity is how to protect myself from all the creeps in the world. And I’m not talking pepper spray and knees to sensitive groin areas. She taught me instead how to manipulate moods. That’s not to say I can turn a serial killer psychopath into a law-abiding lover of all humanity, nor that I could start my own cult by inducing joyous rapture in an unsuspecting crowd, but if I focus on one person, or even a group of people, I can change the colour in their aura and hence, their mood. It’s not easy, which is why I hardly ever do it, and the effects are short-lived, but at times like these I thank the Gods my grandma taught me how.

  It’s a bit like pouring paint thinner over an oil painting – I can dissipate jealousy, douse lust and destroy anger. I can generate feelings of love, inspire happiness, confusion,
sadness . . . you name it. If I focus hard enough I can make a grown man cry.

  So I do. I narrow my eyes and stare at the man’s forehead just above his monobrow and I send a spear of greyish mauve light his way. The snaking thoughts recoil instantly. He drops my hand and staggers backwards, his face crumpling and his lip starting to quiver. Tears well behind his eyes. He doesn’t know why. He frowns – confused – and blinks at me. The tears start to roll down his jowly cheeks. I keep focused. If I let it slip, sadness can become embarrassment, which can become rage, which isn’t what I want.

  His aura now swirls, mustard yellow flattening to grey. Sadness and despair muting out his other impulses. Enough that I can slide past him and out of the door, leaving him blubbing like a baby into his hands behind me.

  Chapter Three

  Outside, the cool air hits me like a sigh. I draw it in deep, leaning against the wall of the alley, and wait for my head to clear and my heart to stop pounding.

  Away from all the people everything stills and a wave of exhaustion hits me that’s so deep it makes my knees buckle.

  When the door slams open I barely manage to jump out of the way before it smacks into the wall right where I’d been standing, leaving a dent in the cement.

  I’m already backing away down the alley, towards the street, my legs poised for flight (my brain having dismissed the idea of fighting – I’m fully spent on that front) when I register that it isn’t Santa’s fat ugly brother coming to find me, it’s the boy with the fishing hook smile. And the shiny aura.

  ‘You’re OK,’ he says, relief flying across his face. ‘I saw that guy hassling you from across the club but I couldn’t get to you in time.’

  He was coming to rescue me?

  He kicks the door shut with his heel, muting the noise from inside. ‘What did you say to that guy anyway?’ he asks, jerking his head towards the door.

 
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