A Free Preview of Heart of Smoke

After the craziness of the past week (is 2021 still within its return period?), I decided to offer everyone a bit of an escape. So, please enjoy the first chapter of Heart of Smoke, which will be released this month!


Stay safe out there!

Megan O'Russell

 

Chapter One


The scent of ash blew in through the window, joining the stench of burning oil that always filled the factory. The foreman had been pushing the machines faster for the past week, so a hint of scorched rubber added its stink, too.


I tightened the bandana that covered my face as I waited for the next rack of syringes to rumble down the line.


The outside doors banged open, letting in a fresh plume of smoke.


The foreman greeted the next shift of workers by shouting at them.


I let the hum of the machines drown out his words.


The new rack of syringes slid toward me. I flipped them all into the tray, moving quickly so the heat from the glass wouldn’t burn my hands. I patted them all flat as the belt carried the tray past my station, waiting until the last moment to slip one syringe up my sleeve.


The packaging machine ate the tray, hiding the gap I’d created. I reached up to tighten my bandana again, letting the syringe fall farther up my arm. I gritted my teeth as the heat stung my elbow.


With a rumble, the next batch headed down the line.


Three solid taps on the shoulder and I stepped out of my place, gladly giving my station to the worker for the next shift.


I stretched my arms toward the ceiling, letting my back crack as the hot syringe slid down to the base of my spine, landing where my shirt tucked into my pants.


I’d only managed to snag six during my shift. Not a great day’s work by any means.


Better than any of the others could manage.


“Check out,” the foreman shouted, like he thought we didn’t know what we were supposed to do at the end of our shift. Or worse, he was foolish enough to think we wanted to stay.


All of us rushed toward the booth by the door. I didn’t run. I couldn’t risk a sharp ear catching the faint clinking of my hard-won treasure. By the time I joined the line, there were already six others waiting to be checked out by the foreman’s wife.


Mrs. Foreman sat in the booth, scanner in hand, frowning at each person who dared ask for their belongings back and to be paid for their time.


Or maybe it wasn’t our wanting to be paid for our labor that she found so offensive. Maybe it was our dirty faces and rounded shoulders. Or the stink of sweat and rubber that had gotten permanently stuck in all our clothes. Maybe she didn’t like the reminder that her husband’s factory really produced two products―syringes and broken people.


I leaned out of line, peeking through the door to the courtyard.


The smoke hadn’t fully blocked out the sun, but the ash came down thick. The fires were burning close to the city again.


A knot of panic twisted in my stomach as the line shifted forward. My nerves sent tingles from my fingertips to my toes.


Don’t panic. You can’t afford it.


I pressed my shoulders back and stood tall, making sure not even Mrs. Foreman’s keen eyes could spot the lumps on my back from the pilfered goods.


“Trip Benson.” Trip held out his wrist, offering his chip band.


Mrs. Foreman narrowed her eyes at him, like she wasn’t sure if he was the same Trip Benson she’d been checking out after his shift six days a week for a dozen years.


“Trip Benson.” He held his wrist right in front of her face, like he wanted her to lick the tarnished metal bracelet instead of scan the chip it held.


Mrs. Foreman turned in her chair, taking her time gathering Trip’s bag and jug, before handing them over and finally scanning his chip.


“Thank you.” Trip snatched his things and strode out the door.


I took a deep breath, filling my lungs till they ached, pulled off my bandana, and stepped up to the counter, holding out my wrist.


“Name?” Mrs. Foreman pursed her lips at me.


I leaned over the counter, holding my chip band right under her scanner.


“Name?”


I held her glare even as my lungs started to tense.


Mrs. Foreman made a sound between a growl and a sneeze before turning to grab my bag and three jugs. She lingered, enjoying tormenting me, lining the jugs up perfectly on the counter and trying to balance my bag so it wouldn’t tip over. When my lungs had started to burn and my brain had started to scream that I needed air, she finally scanned my chip, transferring over my credits and ration for the day’s work.


I grabbed my things, making myself walk calmly to the bare patch of wall where I could set everything down. My fingers fumbled as I tied my bandana back around my face. I took a deep breath, and the familiar stink of the thick fabric pummeled my nose. My head spun as oxygen raced through my veins, leaving bright spots dancing in my eyes. Snatching my things back up, I headed out into the square.


My shoulders relaxed as soon as I stepped outside, though walking through the square between the four factory buildings was hardly more cheerful than working the belts.


Litter and ash stirred with the chill wind that swept between the brick buildings. A crumpled, blue pamphlet rolled across my foot.


I grabbed the paper and tucked it into my pocket as a wave of laughter came from the men smoking in the back corner of the square.