It's been a dodgy week or two in the word world, but I'm beyond excited to share today's interview with you. A bit of fun and a chance for you to meet someone super lovely! I love this lady! She's a fantastic person and awesome writer, and her new book CHEAT CODE is out now!
AFTEN BROOK SZYMANSKI
Aften lives in a very cold Wyoming valley with her husband, three kids, and one unhappy cat, where they are being cryogenically preserved for all time—thanks to how cold it is.
A terminal illness no longer means certain death when human intelligence can be uploaded to robots. But playing a virtual reality game to win a spot on the transplant list is more brutal than anyone would have guessed. And not everyone's playing fair.
Player GenE doesn't have a code on her arm like every other player. She sure as hell isn’t like the others—killing each other to get an advantage. No way. She’s killing them for completely different reasons because if she doesn’t, she’ll lose more than a rank on the leaderboard.
Excerpt CHEAT CODE:
The illuminated words in bright green letters light a path where an EXIT sign should be. The words are the only source of light in the room. I stare up from the dark entry, unsure where I am or how I got here. Or who I am, for that matter. Not feeling the whole ‘welcome’ vibe at all.
Yet, it’s not particularly weird as people press around me in a direction toward the sign. Nothing pricks my ‘no worries, this is normal’ nerve, so I don’t follow. I also don’t run.
I might be an idiot. Right now, I’m guessing I’m a total-amnesiac-moron.
Lack of light isn’t the only sensory hole in this space. Sound shuffs away into the darkness like an anti-chamber.
Instead of shutting off my senses, I’m on fire, desperate for information. I seek out the light bits and sound parts for guidance and security. All around me people behave with pattern-like confidence, moving toward the lighted words, shuffling samely together. The little sparks of sensory information, all too eager to lead me along with the rest, offer no alternative to ‘welcome’.
The phrase shines seductively, directs me forward. It casts distorting shadows over the people packed around me. The difference between them and me is they walk like they know where they’re going and are eager to get there. I have no idea what’s ahead. And I’m not at all thrilled about the word ‘donor’.
Illuminated arrows diverge from the greeting, leading people in two directions. ‘Ads’ one way, ‘Game of Life’, the opposite. The rest of the group presses forward, like they’ve studied for this decision.
How am I without a plan? I’m a girl of action--that I know. Or a girl not of dis-action. Alright, I know close to nothing about myself and I want to believe I’m awesome. Please, be awesome.
I stand, dividing the crowd that presses toward the lit words. I don’t know which way to go, but I do have an overwhelming urge to bite the person nearest to me. It might be an overreaction. It’s hard to know in a room full of strangers when I can’t even remember my own name. Then again, biting people might be my best course of defense. I don’t yet know …
Stop. Before I sink my incisors into some dude’s arm. Don’t be a psychopath.
Someone bumps me, jamming my right shoulder forward. I smack my left hand against my hip expectantly, but whatever I hope to find attached to my belt isn’t there. I want to go back to before here, but I can’t remember where. Or what it was. None of these idiots seem concerned.
I turn back hoping to find the ‘EXIT’ lit in the same neon green as the other illuminated words, but find only more people with their eyes set on the bright letters shining above, like it’s some kind of goal line.
Reaching out a hand, I stop a girl near my age moving toward the ‘Ads’ arrow. The girl stands symmetrically perfect, having both curves and height. It seems unfair considering I feel mismatched when it comes to my limbs. I can’t help when a little scoff escapes.
The girl stretches her back to her full height, demonstrating the real difference between the two of us—her poise and my edge. And the fact she makes the formless dress look good. I’m wiry to the point of being lurpy, with electrified nerves to match my lightning blond hair.
“Where are we?” I ask without excusing myself for halting her progress. It earns me an up-down judgment glare.
“Did you need something? I don’t want to miss the next ads audition,” the girl says.
Purple streaks, the color of her lips, take the edge off her black hair. Everything about her screams confidence. I feel like her complete opposite, lost in a crowd.
I push into her personal space, forcing her to step back. “Do you know what’s going on?”
She leans away from me even more. “Of course. My agent worked his tail off to get me on the donor list when they found out I was terminal.” She squints at me. “What’re you? Some kind of pre-assessment?”
I roll the words ‘donor list’ silently around in my mouth, tasting them. I don’t like the flavor.
‘Terminal’ and ‘pre-assessment’? No time to dwell on that. She holds her forearm up to my eye line. “GenE247” appears burned or inked into her skin in black block letters. It’s weird. She folds her cream-colored sleeve down several times, covering the markings.
“I’m cleared for Ads.” Her superior attitude melts into a softer, sweeter girl with sparkling eyes smiling along with her full mouth. “I know only Entertainment and Marketing Gen can audition.”
“GenE247, you’re holding up the line.” Someone in a white coat with a clipboard appears from the point where the Ads line bends around a corner. It’s impossible to tell if it’s a woman or a man, but they definitely have the stance of ‘authority figure’ down.
“Coming.” GenE247 hurries away like a misbehaved child. I step backwards—away from the white coat—and hide in the flow of moving people while observing GenE247. Don’t look at me, person holding the clipboard. Why do they keep looking this way?
When GenE247 reaches the person in the white coat she lifts her left arm again. Her purple streaks shine under the lighted lettering. The authority figure places a black device at the crook of GenE247’s elbow and drags it the length of her entire forearm. A beep of approval chirps from the black object as the girl rounds the corner. The white coat person disappears behind her with the black device still in hand.
The people around me continue to move, jostling me so I have to shove them forward in order to keep my distance from the glowing words and their blind corners. Everyone pushes their left sleeves up as they advance in their respective lines. I look at my left arm and fold back my sleeve. There’s nothing but skin. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. GenE247 appeared proud of her branding.
Craning my neck as people filter forward, I look for exposed skin of left arms. ‘Gen’ follows a letter and number sequenced tattooed on their left forearms like a VIN number. I brush my hand over the clean slate of my bare flesh and hold it there, waiting for a mark to reveal itself.
People continue to pass me. No one steps out from behind either corner to beckon me forward like they did for GenE247.
The crowd thins to a trickle. Most head toward the arrow indicating ‘Game of Life’. I wait until I’m the only one standing in front of the ‘Welcome Donors’ sign. At my back, blackness. No exits anywhere. There’s a fine line between taking action and being rash. I need a plan. My mind wipes of information I need to form such a thing.
A door slides across the open bend of the ‘Ads’ hallway. The mechanical grinding and sucking-pull of air from the door cuts me off from joining Ads. The path seals. The lighted arrow flickers once, momentarily revealing the emptiness inside what were shadowed corners, then goes out.
The ‘Game of Life’ pathway remains lighted. The thought of being cut off, left in the haunting glow of the welcome sign alone, sends a chill across the tops of my arm hairs. Each one stands on end.
I race to the bend in the hall where the arrow points forward. No one in a white coat waits for me. I don’t know if I miss them or if the black scanning device waits ahead. Keeping my right hand pressed over my left forearm, I continue walking until the lighted arrow sizzles once then goes dark.
“Hello?” I call.
There’s no answer. No sign of anyone. All the masses of people before me are gone. A sliding door slams shut from where I entered this space, trapping me in my decision. I again reach to my hip for something with which to defend myself. My fingers throb at having nothing to grasp. I pop the knuckle of my index finger to release tension in the tiny joint.
My stomach jumps into my ribcage. I’m trapped. My eyes strain to make out the room, but it’s all dark. Extending my arms, my fingers brush a narrow chamber. The walls sting with cold. No shifting air seeps under gaps in doorways or down corridors. I slap both palms against the wall.
A tinny clap echoes back, muted by the pounding of my panicked heart. “Let me out!” I kick the same wall, jarring my shin in the effort. I could kill that wall right now if I had a weapon, but I’m too busy hopping on one foot because the sting of the unmovable metal still rings up my calf.
This time there’s an effect. A vibration rings under my toes. The pads of my feet go numb as the shaking climbs my legs and settles into my knees. The floor disintegrates around my feet. I sink through crumbling metal which has become something like sand.
“No, no, no…” I say, lifting one foot and not finding solid ground anywhere. “Go back,” I say, motioning my hands to steady the floor. “As you were.”
The sand of the floor bites up my ankles, each grain picking higher and higher up my leg to cling and suck me down a millimeter deeper.
“Open the door,” I shout. What was so horrible about the welcome sign anyway? It was at least… welcoming. Not like this. I’m being expelled, digested through the bowels of a hallway.
The sand pecks at my knees. I slip further and further inside, unable to feel any part of me that’s disappearing into the grains surrounding me. Holding my arms high above my head, I worry if I touch the sinking sand with so much as a finger, I’ll sink faster.
“Help!” I want to bite back the word. Besides, there’s no one else in this space to answer my call. At this rate, I won’t be here for long.
Help doesn’t come and I’m running out of time. Wherever the people in the white coats have gone, they’re not coming back for me.
Opening and closing my upstretched hands, I hope for a ladder rung to magically appear in my palm and lift me out of this mess. Maybe if I concentrate hard enough, I can will an escape option. Mind over rapidly-shifting-matter. I mean, if a solid floor can change into sand, maybe it can turn into a stairway.
A light crackles to life above me. I’ve done it. I’ve activated a way out. But it’s not a hand reaching down to rescue me or a walking path out of this hell-hole. It’s an illuminated phrase far out of reach.
‘Have a Nice Game.’
“Screw that,” I say. “Pull me out.” The sand races toward my neck and face.
Without enough time to suck in one last breath before my mouth and nose are covered, the neon phrase changes to ‘Good Luck’ and I can’t help but feel the room mock me. It might as well be a giant bird icon for how much I’m being given the finger. Raising my middle finger in reply, it’s the last thing consumed by the microscopic grains of glass.
THE BEST & WORST OF AFTEN
Best Book: I’m super into Arc of a Scythe series right now. I’ve read Scythe and Thunderhead—bought the hardcovers I love them so much.
Best Band: This is hard. I love Mika and Kongos and Rage against the Machine… I lean 90’s alternative most days. Kashmir by Led Zepplin is always a favorite.
Best Song / Worst Song: Best: “Kashmir” by Led Zepplin. Worst: “Today is Monday” by that creepy lady who does little kid songs.
Best Holiday / Worst Holiday: Best: Thanksgiving is my favorite—nestled in with all the cozy winter months in the US. I love focusing on gratitude and family. Worst: I guess Columbus Day is one I don’t really get into. The guy wasn’t the type I like to honor.
Best Animal / Worst Animal: Best: Potbelly Pigmy Goat! All the way. Worst: creepy diseased rodents, or venemous creatures. Please stay away death and disease.
Best Item of Clothing / Worst Item of Clothing: Best: Socks. I love cute comfy socks. Worst: pokey underwire or non-supportive bras.
Best Food / Worst Food: Best: Avocado, Artichokes, Steak, Lobster, Sushi, Tomatoes, Kimchi… I could go on. I really like foods. Cucumbers are awesome too. I love soups. Worst: would be goober textured or bland.
Best Drink / Worst Drink: Best: Water is best. Tomato juice is second. Mango Smoothies are third. Worst: I’m not a consumer of alcohol. I completely avoid it. I also try to avoid most sodas, but slip from time to time and splurge on an energy drink or Pepsi.
Best Alcoholic Drink / Worst Alcoholic Drink: I’m sober all the way. No mood altering substances for me.
Best Friend: My husband Devin. We get on each other’s nerves sometimes, but we also understand each other better than anyone else. He is always there for me and supports me even when I’m being a butt.
Best Writing Moment: My little girl reading a short story I wrote about a sweet fourth grader with impulse control issues who learns to rely on her strengths to overcome her weaknesses and my girl saying ‘Mom, I love this character’ <3
Best Childhood Memory / Worst Childhood Memory: Best: Christmas when my sister and I snuck under the tree and saw we had Cabbage Patch Kids; we were caught and had to gift those compromised gifts to a family we knew who couldn’t afford toys that year. I was so mad until I saw the girls carrying the dolls around town—they loved them so much and my six-year-old heart had never experienced that kind of joy before. Worst: Our dog got rabies and bit me, I had to get an awful shot and my dad put the dog down (it took twelve gunshots and I could hear each attempt no matter how loud my mom turned the TV).
Best Word / Worst Word: Best: Albaricoque. it means apricot in Spanish. I love to say it. It sounds so cool on your tongue. Worst: I dislike crass swearing. F word and beyond are poor taste. I also don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. It may sound dumb, but I think it’s in poor taste.
Best Shop: Independent Bookstores <3 with cute reading nooks—I love them.
Best Sport: NFL Football.
Best Job: Being a Mom. <3
Best Saying: “Whether or not you write well, Write Bravely.”
Best Teacher / Worst Teacher: Best: Faye Laloni Anderson Frazier, my third grade teacher. I had great teachers. I can’t think of a truly bad one.
Best Time of Day / Worst Time of Day: Best: I love night. I get more done at night, have more energy, and fewer interruptions. Worst: Early morning—why does it exist?
Best Room: Family room. I love hanging with my crew of cute kids and cute husband.
Best Day Ever / Worst Day Ever: Best: Getting married and having each of my three kids are all my favorite days. Worst: Any day I feel useless or depressed. I hate feeling like a waste.
Best Smell / Worst Smell: Best: Clean laundry. Worst: Cat urine.
Best TV Show / Worst TV Show: Best: Seinfeld is the best of all time. Worst: I don’t watch something if it makes my worst list, so I don’t know how to determine this.
Best Gadget: Instapot—roast from frozen to perfection in one hour, heck yes.
Best Sound / Worst Sound: Best: Laughter. Worst: My children in pain (internal or external).
Best Restaurant: I rarely go out to eat. I have fond memories of The Red Iguana in Salt lake City and Buca di Beppo in LA.
Best Movie / Worst Movie: Best: Oh man, how to choose? I love epics, Star Wars, LOTR… Also Dan in Real Life and Walter Mitty. Worst: Super Mario Bros. My son loves it. It’s so bad. So bad.
Best Time of Year / Worst Time of Year: Best: First snow fall. Worst: Seventieth snow fall.
Best School Subject / Worst School Subject: Best: I love history and science. Worst: Geometry. I can’t proof anything.
Best Body Part / Worst Body Part: Best: I love my husband’s shoulders. I love my own fingers—they’re long but strong. Worst: My mom gut. It’s like elephant skin.
Urgh, I totally hear you about the mom gut! Suck it in, cover it up!
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