Shadow State: New Excerpt
Shadow State by Elyse Brayden is a pulse-pounding thriller that tackles homeland security, government conspiracy, and obsessive love, with a final-page plot twist you’ll never forget.
What Brynn Caldwell can’t remember might get her killed.
Brynn is a promising science student recovering from a major setback: Last year, a bad relationship sent her spiraling into depression. But as she puts the pieces of her life back together, a few don’t fit.
Soon Brynn starts having flashbacks―hazy memories of being abducted and possibly brainwashed. It’s all connected to a wonder drug to treat PTSD that might actually be the ultimate weapon: a tool to control people’s memories. And Brynn can’t trust the people who know the truth―her best friend turned enemy, her genius scientist mother with a secret, and Brynn herself, whose memories might all be lies.
Now, to stop a possible terrorist attack, Brynn has to uncover what she’s been forced to forget―and learn what side she’s really on.
TWELVE DAYS TO LAUNCH
The large round table at the Annapolis Yacht Club was festooned with elegant china dishes, shining crystal glasses, polished silver forks and spoons, and a stunning arrangement of hydrangeas and roses. A string quartet played something baroque and soothing, and a large silver banner bearing the words THE NATIONAL DOVE CHEMICAL ENGINEERING AWARD hung over a tall podium. Brynn Caldwell, Dove Award nominee, sat in front of an untouched meal of free-range roast chicken, blanched green beans, and garlic mashed potatoes. Most everyone else’s plate was empty, the A, Y, and C initials—for Annapolis Yacht Club—now visible on the bone-white china. But Brynn couldn’t bring herself to take a single bite.
The girl next to her, whose name tag read FRANCESCA CLARK, dropped her napkin to the floor and bumped against Brynn’s elbow as she scrambled to pick it up. “I’m so sorry,” she said emphatically, her gray eyes widening.
Brynn gave her a weak, distracted smile. “It’s okay.” Tension was high tonight. Her table was full of students like her, kids whose weekends were spent at chemistry fairs and Knowledge Bowl competitions, whose summers consisted of Ivy League science camps and fancy internships, and they all were working out their jitters in different ways. Two seats away, Vishal Singh, whom Brynn had sat next to at several award ceremonies just like this one, was in a cranky argument about quarks with the guy next to him, whose name tag read ADAM ROSE. Across the table, Faith Huffington, by Brynn’s estimation a decent contender to win the Dove, chewed on her nails so rabidly Brynn wouldn’t have been surprised if she bit one clean off. And Francesca Clark, a girl unfamiliar to Brynn, with skin so bloodless she seemed almost translucent, was smoothing her cloth napkin over her lap again and again—clearly a nervous tic.
Brynn gazed at the other guests in the room. There were her mother, pharmaceutical scientist Dr. Celeste Caldwell, and her father, Edward Caldwell, at a table toward the back. Brynn’s boyfriend, Dex Kinsley, sat with her family, dutifully making conversation with her dad. Then Brynn’s gaze swung to the head table, closest to the podium. There sat the judges: Michael Quigley, billionaire, who gave major endowments to brilliant kids so that they could launch innovative new apps. George Costas, a luminary in the field of artificial intelligence. Maryam Chiani, who had invented an aeronautics-grade hoverboard that was being developed by the military. And, finally, Senator Robert Merriweather—a former Navy SEAL and a proponent of tightened national security and STEM programs. Senator Merriweather was one of those politicians who brazenly shared his opinion on any cable news network or radio program that gave him an audience, and he was incredibly well-known wherever he went. Brynn didn’t always agree with his ideas, but the thought of sharing the stage with such a powerful personality made her stomach wobble like the chocolate pudding she’d spied on the dessert tray.
She felt a tap on her arm. “What’s that?” murmured a voice.
Francesca Clark, her table-mate, was staring at a folded piece of paper in Brynn’s lap. Brynn had been creasing it back and forth instead of eating.
“Um, my speech,” Brynn admitted. “In case I win.”
Francesca’s snow-white skin paled even further. “We were supposed to write a speech?”
Vishal broke from his argument and laughed cruelly. “Uh, yeah. How could you not know that?”
A few other kids at the table tittered. Francesca pressed her lips together tightly as if she might cry. She had frizzy, flyaway hair and delicately small ears, and she wore an ill-fitting floral dress that bunched at the shoulders and came down past her knees. She looked like the kind of girl who walked out of restrooms with toilet paper on her shoe. Despite this being an übercompetitive moment, Brynn felt the urge to put her hand comfortingly on the girl’s shoulder.
But then Senator Merriweather stood and strode onto the stage, and everyone at the table snapped to attention. When the senator, who was fortyish with a head of salt-and-pepper hair and a body that rivaled any muscular eighteen-year-old’s, tapped the microphone, a hush fell over the crowd. Faith Huffington softly whistled.
“Thank you for coming,” the senator said. Brynn’s stomach flipped at hearing his familiar husky tone. “I am honored to present tonight’s National Dove Award for the student who has excelled in the field of chemical engineering. As we all know, chemical engineering will become an even more powerful science in the coming years, especially in the war on global terrorism.” He looked around commandingly at the audience. “As judges, we’ve had to parse through a very impressive field of applicants.”
Brynn glanced around nervously. Impressive field of applicants was right—everyone had a formidable résumé, including Brynn. She thought about the methane-powered vehicle she’d helped build freshman year and the fact that she’d won the national ChemE Jeopardy championship as a sophomore. Two summers ago she and a team at Brown University had created a type of foam that could filter contaminated water and make it drinkable again. Brynn had a quick, agile mind that excelled at science, just like her mother. But was it enough?
It has to be, she thought. She needed this win, badly. She’d had a little blip last year, getting too wrapped up in a relationship and dropping the ball in school. The Dove would prove she was back on track.
“And now, for the winner of this year’s Dove.” Senator Merriweather opened an envelope. “I am proud to announce that it goes to…”
Brynn’s heart pounded. She shut her eyes and began to repeat mnemonic tricks she’d learned to memorize scientific facts: Dear King Philip Come Over For Good Spaghetti for the Linnaean taxonomy in biology. Sir Can Rig a VCR, Pa! for the brightest stars in the sky. They served as distractions from her single thundering wish: Please, please, please pick me.
For a moment, all Brynn could hear was fuzzy feedback ringing in her ears. Francesca was so stunned she didn’t close her mouth, showing off the bite of potatoes on her tongue. Everyone at the table glared at her, but people at other tables began to clap dutifully. Finally, Brynn poked Francesca’s arm. “Hey,” she whispered hoarsely. “You won.”
Francesca snapped to life. She looked panicked. “B-But I don’t have anything to say!”
Brynn stared at the frazzled girl. Even though Francesca was a hot mess, she was clearly a force to be reckoned with, like one of those moths in the Amazon that looked harmless but actually could dispel a deadly poison. After all, she’d been talented enough, smart enough, to beat Brynn out for the Dove.
“Francesca Clark?” The senator squinted into the bright lights. “Are you here?”
Francesca’s lip quivered. Her gaze was still locked on Brynn. Groaning, Brynn shoved the speech that had taken her three days to perfect into the girl’s small, trembling hands. Francesca stared at the unexpected gift, her eyes boggling. Brynn nudged her head toward the stage. “Don’t forget to thank your teachers and parents, not mine. Now go.”
Francesca stood awkwardly, bumping her knee against the bottom of the table. All the drinking glasses wobbled. Vishal glared at Brynn. “Why’d you do that?”
Brynn glared back. “Because I’m not an asshole.”
Once Francesca made it to the stage, the senator handed her a Dove statue and a huge bouquet of bloodred roses. Brynn dared to peek back at her parents. Her mother was politely clapping, but her father caught Brynn’s eye. He shrugged as if to say, You win some, you lose some. But they had to be disappointed.
It’s because of my blip, she thought. Of course that was why she’d lost. She’d applied for the Dove a full year ago, when she did have the prize in the bag. But the judges considered years’ worth of work, and the end of the last school year and this summer had been a game changer for her. They had cost her everything.
A sob rose in her throat. She felt so blindsided … and so foolish. She quickly stood. She needed some air.
Seemingly sensing Brynn’s discomfort, Dex stood, too. As Francesca began her acceptance speech—Brynn’s acceptance speech—Brynn made her way toward the side doors, and Dex followed. “I’d like to begin with a quote by Robert Oppenheimer…,” Francesca read from Brynn’s notes, her voice surprisingly steady and certain. Brynn shut her eyes, her ache palpable. It had taken her ages to find that quote.
Just before edging out the door, Brynn noticed a familiar face and turned. There, sitting at one of the back tables, half hidden in the shadows, was her old friend Lexi Gates. But Lexi wasn’t watching Francesca read Brynn’s speech. Her gaze was on Brynn, and her expression was unreadable. Brynn’s stomach did a flip. Why was she here?
“Come on.” Dex grabbed her hand and pulled open the side exit door. Brynn hurried into the cold. It would be good to get out of that room. There was no need to hear the rest of Francesca’s speech, after all. She already knew it by heart.
* * *
BRYNN AND DEX walked across the little bridge that connected the city of Annapolis to the borough of Eastport. She could smell the salty, briny Chesapeake beneath them. The sun had just set, creating a hazy, luminous glow on the horizon. But Brynn didn’t feel very luminous right then. She tightened her grip around Dex’s fingers and wiped her leaky eyes.
“It sucks,” Dex grumbled as a group of Naval Academy midshipmen, dressed in their crisp white uniforms, marched past. “You were robbed.”
Brynn sighed heavily. “No, I wasn’t. I mean, when I was a kid, I won every science fair and contest I entered. It was so … easy. But everything’s more competitive now. I have to bring my A game every day. And last year definitely didn’t help.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about last year.” Dex snaked an arm around her waist as they stepped off the bridge and onto the sidewalk, which was messy with a combination of slush and mud. “You’re brilliant. And two years from now, you’ll be at some amazing college, and losing the Dove won’t even matter.”
“The Dove would have looked great on a scholarship application, though.” Brynn blew out a breath. “My parents definitely can’t pay for a top-tier school out of pocket.”
Dex gave her an impish smile. “What about after Cortexia’s launch?”
Brynn licked her lips. Maybe that was true. Her mom had just patented a medication called Cortexia that promised to eliminate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The medication’s public launch was in less than two weeks, and the press was going bananas about it. Her mother had been tight-lipped about the financial repercussions of the patent, but didn’t someone who created something amazing and life-changing deserve to make a profit?
They stopped under a streetlight, and Dex pulled Brynn to him and nestled her close. He was so tall, and she was barely five feet, so when they snuggled, her ear was close to his chest, and she could hear his heartbeat. She breathed deeply. By some delightful biochemical twist of fate, Dex’s skin just naturally smelled like freshly baked bread.
“Look,” he said, leaning back so he could look her in the eye. “You’re still at the top of the class. You still have a college application that makes mine look like something a first grader threw together. And what about that program at Brown this summer? You should apply. That will go a long way toward MIT.”
“That Brown program is awfully expensive,” Brynn said with uncertainty. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her wool coat, suddenly feeling exhausted. “Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion.”
“Maybe.” A chilly wind kicked up, and Dex cupped his hands over Brynn’s to warm them. “Try to appreciate what you have, not what you don’t. It can change so quickly.”
With a pang, Brynn realized what Dex meant. She thought of the family portrait that hung on the wall in his foyer. Dex stood on the left with his mother’s arm around him. Mr. Kinsley stood tall and proud next to Dex’s brother, Marc, regal in his army uniform. How happy they all looked. Like nothing bad would ever befall them. The photo had been taken shortly before Marc went to Afghanistan. After that, life had thrown them a curveball … and not a very good one.
Dex was frowning now, probably thinking about it, too.
Brynn’s heart sank. It was petty to whine about losing the Dove. She did need to keep things in perspective. “I’m an idiot. I’ve been so selfish.”
Dex waved her comment away. “Nah. You’re disappointed. It’s only human.”
They fell into an awkward silence all the same. Brynn shut her eyes, wishing she could just take a big eraser to this day and wipe it clean. More than that, she wished she knew some magic words that would break Dex from his endless sadness over his brother. Whenever he thought about Marc’s death, he seemed to fold into a tight, origami version of himself, and sometimes he didn’t break out of the mood for hours.
“What are you drawing?” Dex asked suddenly.
Brynn glanced down. Unconsciously, she’d traced an octagonal shape into the muddy slush with the point of her heel. She knocked the gunk off her shoe. “Nothing,” she said absently. The shape reminded her of something … but then the wisp of a memory floated out of her mind.
Experimentally, she slipped her hand back into Dex’s. To her relief, he squeezed it. “Are you doing better?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. “You?”
Brynn nodded, but she still felt teary-eyed. “I just want to make a difference in the world,” she said softly. “I want to make my mark—like my mom. But I know that takes hard work. Never taking your eyes off the prize.”
“You will make your mark. I know it.” He sniffed. “Besides, I don’t know why you wanted to accept an award from Senator Merriweather, anyway.” He made a face.
“You and my mom both. She’s always talking about how he’s a right-wing nut.”
“I heard him say in a speech that he thinks it should be a law that every American carry a weapon because we have no idea where the terrorists are hiding.” He scoffed. “The last thing we need is more people like that.”
Brynn waved him away. “Isn’t half of what everyone says on TV taken out of context? You have to admit he’s kind of dazzling in person.”
“Yeah, well.” Dex whipped out his phone and tapped an app, and to Brynn’s surprise, an image of a bouquet of flowers appeared on the screen. “Who would you rather get flowers from? That Merriweather tool or me?”
Brynn giggled. “You, obviously.” She pretended to take the flowers, then pretended to accept an imaginary Dove from Dex’s outstretched arms. At his encouragement, she even rattled off the first few lines of her speech. Dex proclaimed she delivered it with much more aplomb than Francesca. Brynn appreciated him trying to make her feel better despite his pain. He was always so boundlessly kind. It was one of the reasons she’d fallen for him.
Only when she heard a motor rev did she turn. A gray Toyota Corolla with tinted windows was parked on a side street nearby. Its parking lights were on, and though Brynn couldn’t see inside, it felt like the driver was watching her. Her skin prickled. She nervously cleared her throat.
“What’s wrong?” Dex asked.
“Was that car parked there a few minutes ago?”
He squinted. “I have no idea. Why does it matter?”
Her gaze remained on the car. All of a sudden, her throat felt tight. Her hands flew to her windpipe, and she gasped for air. In her mind, she saw herself huddling in a dark, cramped space, a memory she couldn’t remember actually experiencing. She so badly wanted to scream, but she didn’t have the strength to do so.
Breathe, she told herself. You’re okay. A few months ago, she’d fallen into a deep depression, and many of her days had been spent in a state of trapped helplessness. Occasionally, a panic attack would still rear its ugly head, and she had to remind herself that she’d beat the disease. She’d climbed out of the dark, slippery hole by taking an SSRI for a while, which recalibrated her brain chemistry.
“Brynn. Brynn. What is it?”
She opened her eyes again. Dex was looking at her with concern. Her tongue felt coated with flour as she tried to speak. “It’s nothing,” she whispered. “I’m okay.” She took huge breaths, imagining the panic melting into a puddle.
“Are you sure?”
The Corolla pulled out of the parking spot and headed down the street. Taking a shaky breath, Brynn grabbed Dex’s hand and kissed his gorgeous, sensitive, caring face.
“I’m sure,” she said, and it was true. Her heart was already slowing to its normal rhythm. Whatever had happened had thankfully passed. The more Brynn thought about it, the more she was sure it was just a by-product of all the stress she’d felt leading up to the Dove Award. But all at once she didn’t really care that she’d lost. She might not have captured tonight’s prize, but she had something better.
She had Dex.
Copyright © 2018 Elyse Brayden.