Chapter 1

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-- London, United Kingdom --

"Hi, it's me. Yes, I know, I know. I'm nearly there though, promise. I won't be late. Too late."

I end the call as soon as it began, slipping my phone back into the front pocket of my white denim jacket. It's warm outside, but the wind is crisp in the shade. I'm glad to have my jacket form a protective barrier against my skin if not from the elements, then from the eyes of the world. My feet hit the pavement in bright yellow shoes, my favorite, as I glance to my right, left, and back to my right before crossing the street toward Bayswater Underground Station.

I, Rachel Stephens, am late.

The sun peeks out from behind a layer of London grey skies, and I soak up the soft rays sunshine with a quick smile before ducking inside the familiar tube station.

My ancient Oyster card commemorating Wills and Kate's royal wedding taps against the scanner as I step through the gate. I got the card on a trip to the UK years ago with my father, and I don't have the heart to exchange it for a slightly less-ostentatious one. Instead, I keep it hidden inside the Vincent van Gogh wallet that was given to me as a gift two years ago. I only reveal the embarrassing Oyster card inside when prompted by alcohol's warm, nonsensical nudge.

Alice is going to murder me for being late. Again.

I'm never really late, not in the traditional sense of the word, but I'm never early either. I prefer a safe amount of haste to be injected into my mundane lifestyle, so I consistently leave several minutes later than I should. Never the person to arrive five minutes early or more than five minutes behind schedule, I thrive on the rush of the 'nick of time.'

That's right. I'm the person who deliberately changes her clocks to seven minutes fast in order to get that thrill I wish I could stomach with none of the risk.

My friends say I torture myself on purpose. I say I'm living on the mildly wild side.

Once I've settled inside the train car, I glance up at the tube map to remind myself of the number of stops left until my destination. It won't be long until I arrive, nor is it necessary for me to use a map, but there is comfort in repetition. OCD exists for a reason.

Doors slide open. Feet shuffle out as new ones take their places.

Next stop. Three more minutes.

It's only a bit longer until the doors open again, and this time I join the shuffling feet to step out onto the platform and head for the main exit along with the midday swarm of bodies.

Pulling out my phone, I watch the top left corner while I wait for reception to return as I head out toward the bright sunshine that paints the world colorful. I can't help but smile for a moment, my gaze transfixed by the hazy bright light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, before ducking my head back to my phone. After typing in the address of the restaurant where Alice is sure to be waiting, I glance up briefly to avoid bumping into anyone, before pressing the button to give me directions. Once I've reassured myself of my route, I deposit the phone back into my jacket.

Less than thirty seconds left before the sunshine will warm my face again.

Somehow, irrationally, the heat comes early.

Blinding light overwhelms my senses, followed instantly by a deafening sound and sweltering heat as my body is tossed like a rag doll by the shockwave. In a heartbeat, the world around me is ravaged.

Within seconds, I'm unconscious in a pile of bodies, blood, and burning rubble.

If I feel any pain, I don't know it yet. I can't feel, I can't move, I can't think. I'm not even certain I'm alive.


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