A Neon Darkness: Exclusive Cover & Excerpt Reveal

Behold the cover and a short teaser from A Neon Darkness, the next standalone novel in Lauren Shippen's The Bright Sessions series.

Lauren Shippen's A Neon Darkness
Photo: Tor Teen

We loved The Infinite Noise, the first speculative fiction novel adapted from Lauren Shippen’s popular fictional podcast universe The Bright Sessions. And now we have another standalone literary installment to look forward to bringing us back into the supernatural world. A Neon Darkness tells the dark and twisted origin story of Robert Gorham (better known to Bright Sessions listeners as Damien), the atypical with the power to manipulate people to do his will and share his desires.

The standalone novel won’t hit bookshelves until September, but we’ve got an exclusive first look at the gorgeous cover for the YA novel, as well as an excerpt. Check it out…

Cover for A Neon Darkness by Lauren Shippen

And here is a peak inside A Neon Darkness

PROLOGUE: THE FIRE

There are benefits to driving without a map.

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This country is sprawling and full of detours. The “Best Specific Local Food Item” here and the “World’s Largest Mundane Object” there. Usually the best places aren’t on any map. If you hurtle toward your destination on the most direct route you can find, you miss the nooks and crannies, the strange offshoots and odd corners of the country. The warm, welcoming towns. The wonders of nature. The breathtaking vistas.

The road between Las Vegas and Los Angeles is barren. There’s no detour to take, no paths splintering from the highway beneath your tires. One road, a vein connecting two bloodless hearts, and the vastness of dry desert surrounding it. There’s no map to ignore, just a blank stretch of pavement in front of you. It’s easy to keep your eyes on the road. A yellow line illuminated in staccato bursts while blackness stretches out on either side. It’s impossible to say what hap- pens out in that black, what things lurk in the desert. Darkness in- vites darkness; it folds in on itself, hides the things that seek hiding. That unfaltering darkness was interrupted in spectacular fash- ion on the night of October 31, 2006. If you’d been driving along that road that night—that endless, unchanging path—you’d have seen a burst of light so bright you’d have wondered if the sun was coming back from its sleep prematurely. A star in the middle of the sand, a nuclear blast, an explosion—it was over as quickly as it began, the monotony of the desert returning so rapidly that it was unclear if there had ever been any light at all, or if it had been merely a mirage conjured by a brain desperate for change.

Alex really shouldn’t have come here. He knew it was a risk—trusting the strange man who promised to help him with his unique problem, agreeing to meet him in an alley downtown in the middle of the night. But Alex met strange men every day in Los Angeles, had met them in alleys before. And now his problem had gotten so bad—just kept getting worse and worse—that Alex wasn’t sure he had much of a choice.

He wasn’t like the others—he didn’t want this. It was tiring, being this full of fire all the time, worrying that you were going to destroy your favorite jacket, your furniture, the guy in your bed, your life. He could feel it now, burning under his skin, threatening to burst out and destroy the cool autumn night. His body itched with the need to explode and with a deeper hunger, a new hunger. His skin cried out in craving, wanting the only thing that seemed to soothe the burning, even as it slowly rotted the rest of him.

Alex tried to think of his friends. Things had gotten easier since he’d joined up with that merry band of weirdos, but picturing their faces just made him think about how much better they all were than him. They weren’t perfect, but they were getting there. Alex was nowhere close to perfect. He was never going to get to perfect. And if it couldn’t be perfect, if it couldn’t be perfectly controlled, useful, and safe, he didn’t want it. Which is why he was now pacing up and down an alley waiting for a tall figure to step out of the street and into the shadows and give him a magical solution.

What Alex didn’t realize, what he didn’t see in his pacing, was that the tall figure was already in the shadows. He loomed there, waiting. Waiting for Alex to pace past him. Waiting for his moment. Waiting to set off an explosion.

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P A R T  O N E

THE SUNSET

In retrospect, going on a power spree in Las Vegas was not my smartest move.

Typically, using my ability to get things—money, food, cars, you name it—isn’t too much of a problem as long as I keep the mark in my sights or move on quickly. But I didn’t think about the cameras. A security guy watching me take a table for all their chips with a pair of twos isn’t going to be susceptible to what I do. Not from a surveillance room all the way across a crowded casino.

After a few hours on the empty, endless expanse of desert highway, I’ve traded the claustrophobia of Vegas for the traffic jams of Los Angeles. The sun is starting to set, making me squint as it beams through my windshield, but my wince turns into a smile as I think about the look on the head of security’s face when he said he’d never met anyone like me. That glow of admiration, the slight tinge of confusion. It felt good, seeing that expression on someone like that. His job is to make sure that the house always wins, and I won.

I could have stayed, could have rubbed it in, hit up every casino on the strip, but after being taken to a back room with five guys twice my size, I figured it was time to cut my losses and get the hell out of dodge. Things turned out all right in the end, but I spare a thought for the fact that my face is still all over their security tapes. Still, I can’t imagine they’ll come after me for taking twelve grand. That amount of money means about as much to the Bellagio as it does to me. Which is to say, not much.

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LA seemed as good a place as any to hit up next on my haphazard tour of the western United States. Anything’s better than goddamned Nebraska. But, in another boneheaded move, I haven’t looked at a calendar in weeks, which means I’ve somehow timed it so that I’m driving into Los Angeles on the night of Halloween.

So now I’m sitting in traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard, just trying to get to the ocean—I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean before—while swarms of people in absurd costumes walk west. I can barely see the next intersection for all the bodies in the street. I expected Los Angeles to have a light, nice sea breeze, but I have to roll up my windows against the hot October air carrying the smell of body spray and sickly-sweet party drinks.

“Screw this,” I say to no one, pulling over. I grab a couple of stacks from the bag of cash flopped uselessly on the backseat and shove them in my pockets. I can get by without it but it’s always nice to have the extra security. I leave the car unlocked, keys on the dash—it served me fine through the Nevada desert, but I’m going to want something slicker for LA.

The street is loud and a lot more Vegas-like than I would have thought, people shouting and stumbling through the streets in bright costumes. Vegas was fun, but I was hoping for a different scene. After two weeks there, I think I’m starting to discover that I like things a bit . . . quieter. Everything is easier to manage with fewer people. Less chance I’ll slip up. Less chance something will go terribly wrong. I look at the flow of people headed down the block toward booming music—groups of friends smiling and laugh- ing with each other. I feel a pang low in my gut and I’m taking a step toward the teeming crowd before I have a chance to think about it. Maybe things could be different this time—maybe I’ll join the revelers and then it will be me laughing and smiling like I have no cares in the world and I’ll mean it.

But before I can even make a plan of attack for how I would go about joining in the celebration, my feet stop in their tracks, the pang overwhelmed by roiling anxiety. There are too many people, moving too quickly, already too drunk. It would be impossible to hold any influence and without it, I highly doubt anyone is going to welcome the baby-faced kid in a hoodie and scuffed-up shoes with open arms.

I’m thinking about just calling it a night, starting the process of finding a place to crash, when I glance across the street to see a bright red neon sign proclaiming bar lubitsch. There’s a bored guy out front, smoking a cigarette, but otherwise the place looks a hell of a lot emptier than the street. Emptier and easier. Eventually I’ll have to sleep, but right now I just want to sit in something other than the driver’s seat. I take a deep breath and saunter across the street, plastering on my most innocuous “Nothing to see here” face. “ID?” the guy asks when I reach the gate. He squints at me through the smoke and I smile at him, the motion of my mouth curving feeling foreign and fake like always.

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“That’s okay,” I say smoothly, heart beating in my chest. “I don’t need one.”

He exhales. More smoke. More squinting. I stand perfectly still and focus on what I want, and then:

“Right,” he drawls, and then his eyes relax and his lips twitch around the cigarette he’s put back in his mouth. “Right, yeah, sure thing. Go on in.”

My shoulders relax and I nod in thanks as I move through the tiny front patio, filled with a few more solo smokers. Eyes swivel, following me as I open the door.

Inside it’s significantly less smoky but equally dark and empty. The whole thing has a real “Leon Trotsky would have hung out here” kind of vibe—little café tables and dark wood booths, blocky Cyrillic painted onto large mirrors, everything in black and red. It feels like another world compared to the noisy, chaotic streets. I let out a breath I didn’t even realize I was holding. God, I am sick of driving. Cramped and crowded with nothing but my own thoughts and the monotony of the constantly changing radio stations as I moved across state lines. I need a new sound—someone else’s voice in my ears, in my head.

“What can I get ya?” I hear as I slink onto a bar stool at the long and empty wood bar. I swivel around to see a woman a few years older than me behind the bar, moving toward me. She’s stunning— tall, tan, and slender, her cheekbones lifted with a warm smile, her whole face glowing. But as she approaches me, her smile sinks a bit. Like the bouncer, she squints.

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“Whatever’s good here.” I shrug, going for nonchalant. “Which I’m assuming is . . . something with vodka?” I add, gazing point- edly at the Russian decor before throwing her my best rakish smile, ignoring the uncomfortable pinching in my cheeks.

“Can I see an ID?” She smiles, her eyebrows lifting.

“Nah, that’s okay.” I wave a hand. “Just the drink will be fine.”

A beat. That familiar beat that sometimes happens in the blink of an eye—usually without my realizing what I’m doing—and that sometimes takes an eon. But no matter how long it takes, I almost always get where I’m trying to go.

“Sure thing.” She nods, moving away, and I settle my arms onto the bar, leaning forward to watch her. She’s got tattoos up and down her arms and pink in her brown hair, and I can’t tell if that’s how she always looks or if it’s for a costume. If it is, I don’t get what she’s supposed to be. The black tank top she’s wearing looks like it’s seen better days, but if she works here, it’s possible she lives in the area. Even if it’s not a nice place, it’s better than sleeping in a Subaru and easier than trying to find a hotel in the middle of the night when the street is packed with people. And there’s something about her . . . something friendly and inviting, that makes me want to lean farther over the bar until I’m fully caught in her orbit.

There’s a couple cozying up in one of the booths—ugh, no, I hate dealing with couples. That kind of closeness is alien and im- possible to navigate, my desire always swinging from wanting to be more than a third wheel to wanting to break the whole damn bicycle. But my gaze lingers on the pair, watching the guy’s arm grasp his girlfriend’s shoulder, watching her put her hand on his face, and I feel the same pang I felt out in the street. I’m in a much smaller space now though—much closer to them than I was to the crowd outside—so if I’m not careful, I might find myself dealing with a couple all the same. I tear my eyes away.

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There’s a group of guys around one of the café tables, vodka shots in each of their hands, egging each other on. I already got too much of the frat house vibe in Vegas. No thanks.

A much older woman is tucked into a corner booth, sipping on something that—based on her expression—is either very bad vodka or very strong vodka. She’s wearing what looks like expensive jew- elry and definitely seems like a regular. That looks promising. I might not even need to do anything. She looks lonely—just talking to her might drum up enough sympathy for her to offer me a place to crash.

I’m contemplating my next move when the bartender says, “Here you go,” and I spin around again to see her placing a drink in front of me.

“This is on fire,” I say pointlessly, looking at the flames rising out of the alcohol and licking the edge of the glass.

“A Molotov Cocktail.” She smirks and I can feel the corner of my mouth lift involuntarily in response, the shadow of my first genuine smile in months.

“A Molotov did you give me a bomb?” I ask patiently, nervous excitement building in me. Her grin grows wider.

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“It’s one of our unique creations,” she explains. “Vodka and apple juice that we then, you know—”

“Light on fire,” I finish. “Yep.” She smiles.

“How do I drink it?” I ask, refusing to feel stupid about being re- luctant to put a flaming cocktail anywhere near my mouth.

“Like a Russian,” she deadpans.

“Well”—I swallow around my suddenly very dry mouth—“nazdorovie.

“—and then I went to, uh, Denver,” I say. “And then . . . um, Salt Lake City, I think? I don’t know, somewhere in Utah. Then I spent some time in Vegas, made some money, and now I’m here.” I finish with a flourish, gesturing loosely around the bar.

Once she found out I was new in town, the bartender, Indah, asked me where I was from and I decided to give her my life story. Well, my highly edited life story. My life story for the past two years. I’ve had several drinks at this point—though not all flaming, thank god—and am feeling very amicable. She seems to be feeling ami- cable too, pouring me drink after drink, despite the fact that I don’t think I want anything except her attention.

“My goodness.” She smiles and shakes her head. “You’re quite the nomad, aren’t you?”

I shrug, maybe a little too big, because I catch Indah trying to stifle a laugh before she restarts her interrogation.

“Why go to so many places?” She leans forward on the bar, her duties as bartender largely over now that the only other person left in the place is the old woman in the corner booth. “Is it for work? What do you do?”

“I travel,” I say loftily.

“Doing what?” she laughs. “How old are you anyway?”

“What about you, Indah?” I pivot, putting emphasis on her name. She should know that I know it. People like when you re- member their names. At least, I think they do. I like when people remember my name. It means something when someone knows who you are. “What do you do?”

I may be drunker than I thought because she gives me a blank look at that idiotic question and stretches her arm to indicate the old wood bar wrapped around her.

“Well, yeah, that.” I wave my hands in front of me and nearly knock over the several glasses that have stacked up in the past few hours. “But I mean, like, who are you? What’s your deal?”

“Well . . . ,” she begins, smiling. She smiles so easily. I’m so envious of that. The vodka turns in my stomach and suddenly the last thing I want is to watch her smile around another adorable quip. I wish she would stop smiling, rubbing her happiness in my face.

And then, after a beat—simultaneously in slow motion and instantaneously—she stops smiling. It’s like the corners of her mouth are being pulled down by invisible strings. The frown has reached her eyes now and she’s stopped talking. She’s just staring at me with large, frightened eyes.

“Well, what?” I snap, and she flinches. Shit.

I close my eyes for a moment, focus on letting go of the envy, the bitterness. I don’t want her to not smile. I want her face to do whatever it wants to do. I do my best to drop the strings.

“Sorry, I—” She shakes her head like she’s clearing cobwebs from her hair. “I must have lost my train of thought.”

She smiles at me again, this time with shades of sadness to it. “Can I have another?” I ask, indicating the glass in front of me.

She nods, turning for the bottle, but having her back to me doesn’t break whatever strange tension I created. I knew I shouldn’t have gotten drunk. I always get sloppy when I get drunk.

“You could probably pour yourself a drink if you wanted,” I sug- gest, hoping maybe if she gets drunk too we can get back to the easy rapport I thought we might have been building. “This place is basically empty and I doubt anyone else is coming in tonight.”

“I don’t drink,” Indah says as she pours me more vodka. “What?” I blanch. “A bartender who doesn’t drink? What kind of crappy punch line is that?”

She huffs a laugh as she puts down the vodka bottle and starts wiping down the bar, not meeting my eyes.

“Oh shit, is this an alcoholism thing?” I wince. “Like, is this part of your recovery or something?” I make a vague gesture at her general situation.

That brings her eyes up as she laughs heartily, the sound like a beautiful bell that clashes with the tinny sound of Fergie coming through the bar speakers.

“What kind of twelve-step program has an alcoholic working in a bar?” She giggles, and it helps me not feel stupid for suggesting it. “Okay, then why not?” I press. “Alcohol is great.” I smile wide at her but her giggles stop and her shoulders square off defensively. “Yeah, well, the Qur’an feels a little differently,” she mumbles, pulling a rag from her belt loop and wiping down the bar.

“The Qur’an?” I ask, my fuzzy head not putting two and two together.

The movement of her arm stops for a second before she continues.

“I used to drink, but then I . . .” She trails off, her hesitancy making me more alert, more curious. I lean forward, my elbows sliding farther onto the bar top.

“Things change,” she finishes anticlimactically.

She keeps moving her arm in circles, cleaning an already pristine bar, when my curiosity finally does the work for me and prompts her to say more.

“I’m Muslim,” she spells out. “A lot of us don’t drink alcohol. Working in a bar is questionable to begin with, but, well . . .”

She trails off again and I opt for nodding like I know exactly what she’s talking about. I want her to say more but the desire is dulled by the feeling that I’ve said something stupid. The vodka running through my veins lets me admit to myself that I want In- dah to think I’m cool.

“You’ve never met a Muslim person before, have you?” she asks, cocking her head as she peers at me and breaking me out of my reverie.

“I’m from Kansas.” I shrug like I’m being clever and it makes her laugh that big laugh again.

“You know,” she says, “they have Muslims in Kansas too.” “Figure of speech,” I clarify. “I’m from more of a nowheresville than even Kansas has.”

“Oh yeah?” She cocks her head. “Where you from then?” “Wait,” I say, deflecting, “aren’t you supposed to be, you know, wearing one of those, you know . . .”

I circle my head sloppily with my hand and Indah clenches her jaw but smiles through it.

“There’s lots of ways to practice Islam,” she says simply, and I nod sagely like I understand the conversation we’re having at all.

“You’re sweet for asking though,” she continues, her jaw relaxed, the smile easy again. I’m pretty sure it’s me making her smile like that, brush off my ignorance, but I have a hard time feeling too bad about it with the vodka warming in my blood. Her smile is so beautiful, so welcoming—I can’t be blamed for wanting to see it over and over.

“You’re not a bad sort,” she continues, looking at me sappily. Blankly. Her smile is turning generic and there’s a familiar rush of delight and disgust coursing through me.

“Nice of you to say, darlin’,” I say, pushing away the bad feeling, and she giggles again.

“You’re a hoot.” She snorts.

Encouraged, I say: “You wanna know how old I really am?” She leans her elbows onto the bar, mirroring my posture. “Sure.” She wiggles her eyebrows like she’s indulging me. “Eighteen,” I whisper, and her eyes widen.

“No, you’re not,” she gasps over-dramatically. “No, I really am.”

“You couldn’t have gotten in here if you were eighteen.” She looks at me dubiously.

“I have my ways,” I purr, and she rolls her eyes.

“Why would you tell me that now?” She smiles. “I should report you.” She crosses her arms, but she’s still grinning playfully.

“To who?” I ask. “The alcohol police?”

She just lifts a single eyebrow and leans against the back counter.

“I really shouldn’t have served you.” She shakes her head, the

grin collapsing. “I thought I checked your ID . . .”

“Don’t worry about it, sweetheart,” I croon, liking the way the endearments flow off my vodka-soaked tongue. “Just pour me another drink and forget I said anything.”

And she does exactly that. Almost as if she’s asleep, Indah grabs the nearly empty vodka bottle and pours me another double. I have no intention of drinking it—any drunker and things will get very bad—but I take pleasure in watching her hands do the work while her mind is somewhere else.

She seems smart. Maybe she’ll catch on. Some people do, like the head of security at the Bellagio. They never understand what it is they’re catching on to, but I see a revelation dawn in their eyes and make sure to leave them before they can examine it, or me, too closely.

“Why . . . ,” she starts, looking at the drink she just poured. “Do you have a place I could crash at?” I interrupt.

I already know the answer. But my parents taught me to be polite.

“Robert?”

I spin around to try to find the source of my mother’s voice. She can’t be here. She can’t be in LA.

“Robert?” I hear again, and I spin and I spin and suddenly I’m not in LA either. I’m sitting at my kitchen table. The table I sat at when I was small. The table where we had every meal together, as a family.

“Robert, eat your peas,” my mother tells me gently. She’s smiling down at me, love in her eyes.

“I don’t wanna.” I pout, swinging my legs back and forth, my toes inches from the ground.

“Robert, remember what we talked about,” my father says, his voice strong and warm and never stern. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do, but we do them because they’re good for us.”

“But I don’t wanna,” I whine again, voice rising. They both sigh, their breath a soft breeze over me. They tilt their heads in unison, shaking them slightly.

“Oh, you sweet boy,” they say, their hands brushing softly along my cheeks. “Remember: sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do, but we do them because—”

“I don’t wanna!” I screech. The hands recoil from me, leaving my face cold. Their mouths snap shut. And then they have no mouths. Their skin grows over their lips, their eyes, their noses. They are blank and screaming and I wanted them to stop. I wanted them to stop telling me what to do and now they can’t tell me anything. I’ve taken it all away and suddenly their faceless bodies are gone too and I’m left alone with two empty chairs and the echoes of their screams—

I gasp awake.

It’s not so dramatic as it is in the movies. I don’t shout out, don’t jolt upright in bed. Just a quick inhale of breath, the opening of the eyes.

I am in a cold sweat though. That much translates from the screen. I soaked through my T-shirt. My jeans stick to my legs, suf- focating my lower half.

Indah’s couch is serviceably comfortable. It’s not the MGM Grand, but tomorrow I’ll find a more permanent crash pad. Some hotel suite or maybe a Malibu mansion. I should get a car first, but then the world is my oyster.

I make the short walk from Indah’s couch to her kitchen and pour myself a glass of water. It might be worth it to try to fall back asleep but I don’t like my chances. I’m never able to get back to sleep after a dream about Them. My watch reads 4:02. The worst goddamn hour of the night, four a.m. Too late to hit up a bar, too early to hit up a diner. Might be the perfect time to go lift a car, even though I’d prefer just to get the keys from someone. I still haven’t really mastered the hot-wire—

“Robert?”

The glass falls from my hands as I spin around in panic. The shattering gives me an extra jolt of adrenaline, and in the few sec- onds it takes my eyes to adjust to the darkness and make out Indah’s confused face, my heart has made a pretty decent bid to perma- nently exit my chest.

“Shit,” I breathe out, stepping back from the pieces of glass scattered around my feet.

“Wait, Robert, the glass—” she warns as she steps forward, her arms reaching out to me instinctively. Something about the way she says it—the way her hands extend to me—places me back in my nightmare, waiting for Indah’s face to close up the way my mom’s did.

“I’m okay,” I breathe, carefully stepping around the glass. “Didn’t mean to startle you,” she murmurs. “Let me get the broom.”

She walks into the hallway and I hear her rummaging through some cabinets in the dark before swearing quietly to herself.

“Hold on,” she calls from the hall, “I don’t know what my roommates did with the dustpan but I know there’s one in the building’s laundry room. I’ll be back.”

There’s the sound of Indah slipping on her shoes and the door opening and closing and then I’m alone in the apartment. I don’t know where the laundry room is or how long it will take her, so I tiptoe over to the door and look through the peephole. The hallway is empty.

I grab my jacket, throw on my shoes without lacing them up, and make a run for it.

I don’t think a city has ever been as empty as Los Angeles is at four in the morning. There’s barely any sound. No sirens, no honking, no bars throwing out the last of their patrons. It’s so different from Vegas, from Chicago. It’s closer to Denver, which I didn’t expect. Like a warm, sea-level Denver. I could live with that for a while.

Okay, game plan, Robert. You’ve had an eventful first night in town—found a cool bar and immediately ensured you can never go back there. Telling the bartender she broke the law by serving you and then crashing at her place, breaking her stuff, and fleeing is maybe not the best way to make friends. But not the worst. I’m familiar with the worst way to make friends by this point.

“Hey, man, could you spare some change?”

I didn’t even notice the man lurking under a building’s over- hang. He’s got no shoes and reeks to high heaven.

“Uh, yeah,” I say, digging into my pockets. I pull out the stacks of cash I took from my casino winnings and take a cautious step toward the man. “Here you go.”

His eyes widen comically in shock and I move down the street before I have to listen to him thank me. I feel suddenly stupid, handing a stranger a few thousand dollars when I should have left it at Indah’s in apology. Money means so little to me that I always forget what a difference it can make to some people.

I turn a corner and stumble onto what looks like the remains of a massive block party. Right. Halloween. I nearly forgot, Indah tak- ing up all the available real estate in my head. The street is covered in paper and glitter, strings of pennants spreading from the fronts of bars onto the sidewalk like vines. There are a couple of drunken, costumed stragglers, stumbling their way down the middle of the road, leaning on each other and singing—well, no, yelling—a pop song. I give them a wide berth.

I walk. I walk and I walk. I think about taking a car. I’m back on Santa Monica Boulevard, now blissfully clear of traffic, and there are plenty parked along the road that would be serviceable. But the sweat is finally cooling off my clothes, the fresh(ish) air clearing my cluttered head. The idea of climbing into a confined space right now is less than appealing.

I should get a convertible. Once I’ve found a place to stay, I’ll find a convertible. I’ll find a great spot, a great car, and live the great LA life. After the past few months, lying low seems like a smart idea, and what better place to disappear than a city of a million people desperately trying to be noticed.

Eventually the road splits and I decide to walk uphill and get away from the stretch of party-ruined streets. My watch tells me it’s now past five a.m., but the sun has yet to dawn over the city. I thought going farther south would mean near-permanent daylight, but I suppose I’ll be forever chasing the sun.

Ironically, I soon come upon the famed Sunset Boulevard and a little more wandering brings me to the secluded entrance of the Sunset Marquis. Something about the name registers in the back of my mind and that’s enough for me to go in. The hour or so of walking I’ve somewhat unintentionally undertaken has had a toll and I’m ready to fall asleep again. Ideally, un-nightmare-ified sleep. “Can I help you, young man?” the night clerk calls out to me the moment I walk through the front doors. The “young man” grates, but I’m not close enough to him to make him call me “sir” or something else. Sometimes I wish that proximity wasn’t such a factor in what I can do. Other times, it’s about the only thing in my life I’m grateful for.

“Yeah, I need a room,” I say, walking toward the reception desk but looking around the lobby instead of at him. “For a while, I think. At least a month.”

“I see.” He stays neutral, typing on the computer in front of him. “We don’t have many suites available at the moment . . .”

I sigh in annoyance. I really don’t want to have to kick someone out of their room—the more people I use my powers on, the more potential for discovery there is. But the idea of being in a tiny room for a month is making me preemptively tired.

“I’d be fine with whatever for tonight,” I say, cutting my losses, “but, you know, a suite would be preferable for a month obviously. Don’t want to be cooped up for that whole time.”

“Oh, I apologize, sir,” he says. Hell yeah, I got the “sir.” “Our suites are our standard rooms. If you’d like something more spacious, we have our villas.”

What kind of joint is this? Suites are the smaller rooms?

“Oh.” I try to cover up my surprise, acting like this is a problem I encounter regularly. “In that case, a villa would be fine.”

“Very good, sir.” He nods once, deferentially. “It looks like we have one of our Deluxe Villas available—that’s twelve hundred a night.”

I nod at the price like it means anything at all to me. I have no idea what a hotel room is supposed to cost, because I’ve barely paid for anything since I was fourteen.

“Sounds great.” I smile.

The clerk looks at me in anticipation for a moment, expecting a credit card that’s never going to come, before his face smooths over and he nods again, this time to himself more than to me.

“Very good,” he says, matter-of-fact. “How many copies of your key will you require?”

“Just one should do it,” I say, the sentence getting caught in my throat. A familiar daydream starts to come up in my head—one where I’m traveling with someone, where a “villa” in a fancy hotel is something I choose so that I can share it, not just because I can— but I quash it down before the fantasy can take root and keep me awake for the rest of the night.

He hands me the key and shows me to my room. The hotel property is huge—winding paths through gardens, past pools and bars. The villa is tucked into a corner of the garden, nicely isolated. I couldn’t have picked a better place even if I’d bothered to look online before driving into the city. Looks like Lady Luck followed me from Vegas. Not that I ever need to rely on luck. I am luck.

The clerk leaves me with a, “Let me know if you need anything else, sir,” and I start to explore the room. “Villa.” It really is more than a room. It’s several rooms, with a fireplace and a piano and everything. This will do very nicely indeed. I haven’t gotten that good at spinning stays more than a month, but maybe this is the perfect time to practice.

The sun is just beginning to peek through the shades but I ignore it in favor of the plush bed in front of me. I sleep like the dead.

“Excuse me,” a voice calls out as I walk through the lobby, “young man! Excuse me.”

I turn to see a woman waving me over from reception. I barely suppress a sigh and eye roll as I saunter over to the desk.

“Yes?” I ask politely.

“You arrived earlier this morning, correct?” she asks, narrowing her eyes at me. “You’re staying in one of our Deluxe Villas?”

“That’s right.” I nod.

“Peter mentioned you would be staying with us for a while,” she continues. “But it seems he forgot to get your payment information.”

I clench my jaw in annoyance, distantly hoping I didn’t get this Peter guy in trouble and wondering how much I should spell this out for her.

“Yeah, look,” I say after a moment, deciding on the blunt ap- proach, “you’re not going to get payment info from me. And you’re going to let me stay in that room for as long as I want, and it’s not going to be a problem. So write whatever little note in your system you have to to make sure that happens.”

As I’m speaking, I’m thinking, Believe me believe me believe me, even though thinking it doesn’t seem to make a difference. As long as I want it, even if it’s subconscious, it happens. But it still feels good to try, to put effort and intention behind it, giving me the il- lusion of control. And sure enough, she nods, hits a few keys on her computer, and then looks back at me. Blank. They’re always blank. I sometimes wonder if wanting people not to be blank is something I could make happen. Maybe I just don’t want it enough.

Used with permission from Tor Teen, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates; a trade division of Macmillan Publishers. Copyright (c) 2020 Lauren Shippen. 

A Neon Darkness will hit bookshelves on September 29th. The book is now available for pre-order.