Below is a sneak peek of Chapter Four of my debut novel, The Apollo Illusion—a dystopian suspense for young adults and millennials now available through Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, Sony, Smashwords, and paperback via Amazon. In honor of its release, I will be publishing the first few chapters FOR FREE on my blog over the coming weeks.
Before Andrew and I take our weekly bike ride through the forest on Saturday morning, we decide to meet at our favorite coffee house, La Experiencia Maya, or The Mayan Experience. The owner claims to order his coffee straight from the tropics where the former city of Antigua, Guatemala used to be.
I assume this is untrue, because coffee shop owners need to purchase their beans from the Apollo government. Coffee doesn’t naturally grow in the mountains up here. The same goes for other goods, such as sugar and cacao beans. It’s a mystery where the government gets its stash because no one has contact with The Other Side.
Andrew and I lock our bikes onto a light pole just outside of La Experiencia Maya, right near the old railroad tracks. Trains have become obsolete over the past fifty years, but I find the tracks still hold a romantic nostalgia.
This area used to be the central section of downtown Flagstaff, and I love its decaying buildings. Some of them stretch all the way back to days of the Old West, when cowboys and outlaws roamed the streets on horses. Several shop owners—patisserie chefs and chocolate connoisseurs—managed to revive certain buildings, and today, run their businesses from them, thus starting the northern tip of the Central Commerce Hub. The remaining structures are abandoned and preserved as historical sites or museums.
Sprinkled among the old buildings, however, are bright and new billboards, courtesy of the Apollo government, proclaiming the words “Light, Truth, and Knowledge.” I sometimes cringe at these monumental messages, which mess with the purity of the area’s history.
“I know what you want,” Andrew says to me, after we wander into the coffee shop and take a seat. The morning sun is beaming through tall glass windows and illuminating the cream-colored tabletops.
“Yeah.” He stands and places one arm on the back of his chair, leaning over with a silly grin on his face. “Chai tea latte, with vanilla soy milk.”
I laugh at his giddy demeanor. “You got me,” I tell him, standing and joining him behind my chair to order our drinks.
I’ve never cared for coffee; it’s too bitter for me. Andrew on the other hand is a religious coffee drinker, as is my mom. I’ve come to the conclusion that coffee must be a writer thing. I’m always teasing Andrew about his teeth, how someday he’ll be an old, wrinkly man with yellow choppers from all the coffee.
Andrew stops me from walking toward the barista, though. “Tea’s on me,” he says.
“You don’t have to do that. I can pay for―”
“Flora, I’ve got it. It’s cool.”
Before I can argue further, Andrew steps away to place our order and I watch him with a sense of longing. In the past, I’ve caught myself wondering what it feels like to be one of Andrew’s girlfriends. I never allow my thoughts to drift further though, reminding myself that in the end, he chooses our friendship over them. They hate it, but I know Andrew is a special soul—kind and deep and real—and I never want to lose our friendship.
I sit down and lean back in the chair, letting the sun’s early rays warm my skin. The mornings are still chilly in Apollo, so I hug my sweater closer around my chest. I watch Andrew order our drinks and then remember today marks one full week since I’ve seen it.
I can still remember the first time I asked about it in class as a kid, wondering what was so evil on The Other Side, and the teacher scoffed. I paid the price for my innocent question on my way home that day, when that same group of girls cornered me in the alley and called me a dirty globalist. I was ten and had no idea what “globalist” even meant, but looking back, I assume they heard the term from their parents.
Don’t you know Apollo is the leader of light, truth, and knowledge? Why would you care what’s behind that stupid Wall? Dirty globalist traitor. We should report you to the ABI.
I returned home with mud in my hair and vowed to myself that someday, I’d learn what’s on The Other Side. Why don’t you stand up to them, Flora? Andrew had asked, but I didn’t have an answer. The truth is, the more I tried, the worse it got. I didn’t have the courage to confront those girls, so eventually, I surrendered to the inevitable: coping. That’s when Andrew and I started our map of uncharted Apollo territory, but when I’d told him I wanted to explore beyond, fear fell into his eyes and he begged me to forget it.
This is why, as much as I love him, I can’t tell Andrew about the decision I came to after meeting Don.
I’m going to start a research project on the history of the Wall. This project won’t cover the vague facts they feed us in school. That’s the boring stuff. I’m going to dive deeper, into why the Wall was built—what “evil” it’s protecting us from. I’ll begin with the Apollo Library and slowly work on Don, pecking away at his angry boy façade until eventually, he’ll crack and tell me what he knows.
How I wish I could bring Andrew along—I’ve never sought a new discovery without him—but for his own well-being …
“Do you know what today is?” Andrew’s voice surprises me. I didn’t notice him sit back down, or place the Chai tea latte in front of me.
When I answer with a mere, “huh?” annoyance crosses his face.
“Today, Flora. Geez, where were you just now?”
I lower my eyes. Is he thinking about the Wall, too? Instead of telling Andrew what I’m sure he wants to hear, I play dumb. “No, what is today?” I ask.
“It’s the eleven-year anniversary of the day my dad left.”
His words slam into me like a meat hammer. I can’t believe I forgot. In the eleven years we’ve been friends, I’ve never neglected this day. In fact, every year, I’ve prepared a small gift to help Andrew cope.
“You were thinking about it again, weren’t you?” His voice is accusing.
“C’mon Flora, I can tell you’re lying.”
I feel like the bacteria clinging to dirt on the bottom of my shoes. Andrew’s father left when he was eight years old, never to be heard from again. No notes, no mail, no money … nothing, leaving Andrew’s mother to raise a young boy in a community that prides itself on families.
“I can’t believe you forgot,” he mumbles under his breath, and the knife twists deeper. “You—of all people—the only friend who actually met my dad.”
I wince, recalling the brief meeting during my first playdate at Andrew’s house. Three days later, his father disappeared. And now, here I am, lost in my selfish thoughts.
“I’m so sorry,” I tell him, unable to meet his eyes.
Andrew sighs. “Y’know, I never told you this,” he says, and his voice lowers, “but I blame my dad’s obsession for his disappearance.”
Caught off-guard, I ask, “What obsession?”
Andrew pauses for a moment, and I can feel his gaze boring into me. He lifts his coffee mug to his lips, sips a minuscule amount, and I shamefully guide my eyes to meet with his. His expression is serious, intent.
“The same one you have,” he says.
I gulp. And I feel riddled with guilt. Unable to speak, I allow Andrew to continue.
“It’s not worth it. It’s led to nothing but pain. You’re better off forgetting about it.”
I want to believe him, and I wish—so desperately wish—I had the willpower to simply forget and play dumb like everyone else, to just accept what the history books tell us. But instead, I find myself wondering something else entirely:
I want to know what Andrew’s dad discovered.
Stay tuned for the next chapter, OAK CREEK CANYON, publishing tomorrow on Thursday.