The Branded Trilogy
THE DAY WE DIE (Book one)
It’s the year 2070, and everything in Tessa’s life has gone wrong. She didn’t expect to be Branded—a process created to preserve her country’s precious resources—with the terrifyingly young age of sixteen, or for tragedy to befall all her childhood friends. She didn’t expect to be left this alone.
Four years after everything crumbled apart, Tessa is sixteen, preparing to board the Bus that gathers the expired before mysteriously disposing of them; and searching desperately for anything that could make her life worth living.
Then she meets someone she never expected to see, and Tessa knows within seconds that they will forever be linked by their pasts.
Struggling to cope with her low brand, survive the endless flow of mental and physical attacks pounding her and the other expirees, and find purpose amid the storm of pain that is her life, Tessa would be falling apart if it weren’t for the boy that just keeps piecing her back together.
She’s closer to death than ever before. Will Tessa survive, or will the attacks by the government—and her own mind—ultimately destroy her?
Read on for a free excerpt from The Day We Die...
I’ve never been more afraid than I am right now: about to have my life—my destiny—laid out at my feet.
All I see is the dark inside of my eyelids. My escort’s hand rests heavily on my shoulder; I can smell the sharp edge of cleaning spray in the air and hear the squeaking of my sandals on the slick tile floor.
I draw a deep breath, allowing my eyes to flutter open. Gray floor. White walls, white ceiling. A harsh neon light casts the corridor in an eerie glow and causes the Master beside me to look otherworldly like he crawled straight out of the cold walls with his pale, sickly skin and empty eyes.
In the Civic we rarely have need to dress up, but today, a dress as dark as midnight sweeps low over my ankles. My eyes drift down to it as I walk. The luxury of feeling beautiful is so new, so unfamiliar, and I relish it. Glitters of stardust scatter the dress’s dark fabric; lacy black sleeves hug my arms—the sleeves short enough to not cover the skin where my Brand will be.
Squeak. Swish. Squeak. New shoes on the old floor. Black dress in the stale air.
Round video cameras watch my every move. I raise my chin, focusing my gaze on one. The entire city is watching me, and I can imagine what they see. Dark eyeshadow, long eyelashes coated in mascara, black dress, dark chocolate hair curled in waves. With the sparkling blush on my cheeks and deep red lipstick layered onto my lips, I look much older than twelve.
But I don’t feel older—I feel as helpless as a newborn baby.
This is finally happening. A shiver slinks down my spine at the thought.
Tonight, I’ll be Branded with the time I will die. Ever since the founding of our country, the Branding has fallen on this day—June ninth. Six o’clock sharp. The twelve-year-olds of their cities stand for the speech about our history; sing our anthem; have their death date decided according to potential—from gathered school marks over the years, observations from nursemaids and teachers—and burned into their right arms.
Along the hallway, doors open, and neat lines of children file out, each accompanied by a guard. The girls wear short-sleeved, flowing dresses. The boys wear crisp suits with buttoning along the right arm to allow for the Branding machine to do its work.
I walk in the front, my head held high, and my eyes trained intently on the big double doors at the end of the hallway marked “stage” in inky lettering. My guard squeezes my shoulder one last time and smiles tightly when we reach them.
“Remember, Tessa, walk out onto the stage to the circle farthest from the door. Keep your chin up. This is your moment.”
I nod, and he turns and walks away. I breathe deeply. In, out. I’m ready.
The heavy steel doors swing open slowly—on automatic hinges—as I approach them. The moment I step onto the stage, a brilliant spotlight breathes life into my dress, slicing through the near darkness around me. I stride across the stage without pause, forcing myself not to look back or at the audience to my right.
The stage curves out, toward rows of seats occupied with our city’s most prominent and successful residents. The moment I step into view, the crowd howls with applause. The children who walk onstage have reached the single most important moment of their lives; a time to be celebrated by all who attend.
I draw a deep breath. The Branding ceremony has begun.
In the center of the stage, behind a wood podium, stands the mayor with a mic in hand.
“Tessa,” he calls in no particular order as I pass.
My sandals click on the slick tiling. Footfalls sound behind me as the next person walks out.
“Hunter,” the mayor booms.
I keep walking. When I reach the circle stamped into the stage, I stop. I stand uncomfortably once the spotlight has moved on, bringing the hungry attention of the crowd with it.
I finally allow myself a look at the audience. My breath catches in my throat. Voices yell. Hands clap. Bright lights flash as reporters scramble to catch the new Brandees on camera, all in slow motion, all here for me. For us. In rows and rows of ascending seats, my whole world watches me.
The mayor continues to list names as endless rows of kids fall into place like parading soldiers. The noises of the crowd and the mayor's voice fade into the background, and for a moment, the only sound that cuts into my head is the frenzied beating of my own heart. The stage blurs in and out of focus, and my breathing quickens and my heart thunders like a racehorse. I clench my hands into tight fists, trying to quell the tremors racing through them.
This is it. In a few minutes, I will be Branded. An adult—though not in age. I'll know my fate, my future; everything that means anything.
I inhale. Exhale. The air squeezes out of me in one quick rush, and for a split second, I can’t breathe. Fear wraps its unforgiving fingers around my heart, chilling it to the core.
Then, a hand on my arm. A whisper of a voice in my ear.
“It’ll be okay. Here.” It’s the boy beside me.
I shake my head vigorously, and the thundering applause rushes back to my ears. It’s loud. Very loud. I blindly accept whatever the boy is offering me, and a round tablet drops into my palm.
He gently holds on to my hand behind his back, smiling and waving fearlessly at the crowd. His expression is brave and bright, his unfamiliar fingers warm around mine. I squeeze them until I’m sure I’ve cut off his circulation, but he doesn’t let go—just gives me a gentle squeeze in return.
I look wordlessly at him, my dry tongue unable to make a sound. He’s taller than me, wearing a black tux. Blond, tousled hair frames a good-looking face—sharp jawline, arched brows, a charming twinkle in his eye. As he waves, his gaze sweeps to me…and a quiet, grim smile plays at his mouth. His steady eyes sharpen as they meet mine, boring into my soul. Blue eyes. Soft blue.
Painkiller, he mouths, and it’s as if I’m watching in slow motion. My lips part in surprise, dark brown eyes screaming a warning.
Do you know what the penalty is for taking a pain-numbing agent at the Branding? Do you know what they could do to you if we get caught?
The boy nods slightly and brings a finger to his lips. His azure eyes gleam.
I don’t speak, but he smiles a warm, charming smile I will never forget and returns his gaze to the crowd. I clench the painkiller, heart pounding.
This is illegal. But I don’t drop the little tablet or pass it back to the boy, or worse—turn him in to a Master. I tighten my grip on it and hold on to the painkiller like my life depends on it, ignoring the unease coursing through my veins and how the better part of my mind screeches for me to do the exact opposite. This is a gift.
Speeches. Anthem. The whole ceremony flashes by in a blur until the Branding itself. Anxiety coils like a snake in my gut as I slip the painkiller into my mouth. The machine is pushed from the off-stage shadows and into the spotlight, determining the fate of one child after another.
The harsh system of Branding is something I prepared to face—or so I thought. Standing here as the machine draws ever nearer fills me with a dread I can’t quite place. Cold, numb, disbelieving. The Branding is necessary, I know that; choosing the length of lives and cutting them short is something that the Civic needs to happen. Our limited resources can’t be wasted on lesser individuals, or older ones, or weaker ones. So, when your death date is chosen, it is chosen based on how much you will be able to help your country. And our precious resources are conserved for the strong and smart individuals with longer lives and lengthy Brands.
It needs to be done, but I wish that the Branding wouldn’t happen to me.
The machine passes the boy first. He takes the pain with his eyes staring straight forward, not making a sound. I watch in horror as his face contorts, his brilliant eyes squeeze shut and his fists clench at his sides, knuckles bone white. His lips part, but no sound escapes them.
The small pyramid-shaped laser blazes a trail of fire into his skin. When it’s done, he looks down. A shadow flickers over his face.
“No…” he whispers.
“Hunter. Expiry date: sixteen years of age.”
My heart almost stops.
A hush falls upon the audience like a blanket, suffocating and heavy, and steals the breath from my lungs. Camera lights flash over Hunter’s stricken face.
His once confident eyes are now broken, their soft blue now a storm of gray. I’ll never forget that look. Sixteen. Sixteen. He’ll die early. Being Branded under twenty-five is unthinkable—unheard of. And it just happened a few feet away. As I stare in shock, the machine is wheeled closer to me. Screeeeeeech. Screeeeeeech.
The sound of wheels on the tile jolts me from my reverie. The man wheeling the machine stops in front of me, smiling a wide, practiced smile that does nothing to reassure me. He rotates his machine so it’s in line with my arm, whispering something nearly inaudible in my ear.
This is happening.
I try to tear all thoughts of Hunter’s misfortune from my mind; try to focus on the good. But the shock clouding his once smiling face is enough to plague my dreams for years. Only sixteen. He’ll die so young…
The laser bends toward me. The edge heats, glowing. And the beam descends.