Sneak Peak: ZYLA & KAI chapter one
This month’s newsletter is dedicated to a sneak peak at the first chapter of ZYLA & KAI, but I also wanted to share that Z&K received a starred review from Publishers Weekly! And a quick reminder that the Z&K preorder campaign is still going!
As promised, here is the first chapter of ZYLA & KAI.
THEN: Last July
Girls. They were going to be the death of Kai.
His girl problems always snuck up on him when he least expected them. He was standing at the Tilt-A-Whirl, working, minding his business. It was the middle of July and he was sweating so much, his silly bright orange Sailor Joe’s Amusement Park polo was sticking to his back. The park was filled with kids from, like, ten different summer camps or something wild, and they wanted to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl until they made themselves sick.
Still, he had reason to be in a good mood. A real good mood. Tomorrow was Friday, and Kai had finally saved enough money to buy a new pair of Air Maxes, and his best friend, Jamal, had been flirting heavy with the girl who worked at the water ice stand, and she’d promised them free cups after their shift. Kai was even starting to feel a little less disappointed over the stuff that had happened with Camille last week. She’d been so cold in the way she’d dumped him over text, claiming that he didn’t pay her enough attention. Which was bullshit. Camille was the one who’d become increasingly hard to please over the last couple months, requesting that Kai jump through hoop after hoop, and he’d done it. When had he ever failed to pay her attention?
Their three-month-long relationship had been rocky for some time, so the breakup didn’t come as much of a surprise, but it sucked to be dumped nonetheless. Now it was best to just move on.
Then he heard it. The sound of someone screeching his name like a banshee.
His government name.
He turned, pulling his attention away from the spinning Tilt-A-Whirl. Kids ran through the park, swarming his vision, but somehow, he was able to spot Camille right away. She stormed toward him, scowling, with clenched fists.
The hairs rose on the back of his neck. He wasn’t sure what he’d done, but he knew he must be in deep shit if Camille had bothered to abandon her ice cream stand on the other side of the park to come and find him. Her long, curly hair blew in the wind, and her golden-brown skin glowed in the summer sun. Distantly, Kai wondered why girls looked the prettiest when they were pissed.
Camille ignored the line of people waiting to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl, and she advanced toward Kai until she was crowding him, causing him to back into the operating booth.
Kai balked and eased away, attempting to put space between them. “Yo, what’s good with—”
She didn’t even give him a chance to finish before she poked him in the chest. “You flirted with Sharee Wilson in broad daylight for everyone to see three days ago. Oh no, Kai, don’t even try to deny it, because Tyesha was there, and she told me how you and Sharee had lunch together and you were all in her face. I bet you thought that I wouldn’t find out even though I work at this park too, but I guess you forgot about that.”
Camille was wrong, but Kai wasn’t sure if telling her so would defuse the situation. Sharee Wilson had been more than interested in chilling the other day when they were both waiting in line to get hot dogs during their lunch break, but he hadn’t really paid her any mind. He could barely remember anything that she’d said to him.
“I just have one question for you, Kai,” Camille continued. “Do you know who I am?”
“I said, do you know who I am?” she snapped.
Kai shook his head, and Camille sucked in a furious breath. “I mean, yeah, I know who you are,” he said quickly. “It’s just that you’re wrong.”
“I’m wrong?” Steam was practically coming out of her ears at this point. “How so, Kai?”
“One, I didn’t flirt with Sharee Wilson. We just talked, barely. That’s it. And two, why does it matter who I flirt with if we aren’t together?”
“Of course we’re together!”
Kai winced and cast a glance at his surroundings. The little kids waiting in line were definitely ear hustling on their conversation, staring at them with wide, intrigued eyes. Nosy as hell.
Kai needed to deescalate this situation, and fast. Camille had a temper, and she loved a scene. She was the type of person who snapped on servers at restaurants when they gave her Pepsi instead of Coke, and demanded to speak to the manager.
“Camille,” he said slowly, “you broke up with me. Do you want me to pull out the text for proof?”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t break up with you.” She stared at him, incredulous. “I said we should take a break.”
Kai blinked and squinted. He felt like the meme of that white lady who’s confused by a math equation. “What’s the difference . . . ?”
“The difference is that you can’t go talking to other girls!” She was back to shrieking.
But she wasn’t the only one. Behind him on the Tilt-A-Whirl, kids were shouting, “Stop the ride! Stop the ride!” A boy was puking up his lunch, and it was flying onto the kids seated beside him as the ride spun around and around.
It was the grossest shit Kai had ever seen. So gross that he stared for a stunned moment and watched in silence before he jumped into action and stopped the ride.
Suddenly, a frowning white woman with long French braids was standing right in front of Kai. Her tie-dye T-shirt read camp beetle buzz in bright green letters.
“You let the ride go on for too long!” she hissed. “Do you want the kids to get a concussion on this thing?”
“I’m really sorry, ma’am,” Kai said, watching as the kids wobbled dizzily off the ride. Some clutched their stomachs. The puking kid was pale in the face, like he might pass out. Kai bit his lip. “I’ll walk him to the infirmary for you.”
“What you need to do is worry about your job,” the woman said. “Instead of flirting when a child’s safety is in your hands. You clearly can’t handle the responsibility.”
That’s when he felt it. The first prickling sensation deep in his gut. Something he hadn’t experienced in a long time. He took a deep breath and willed it away.
“Well, he doesn’t have to worry about flirting with me anymore,” Camille said over his shoulder, cutting him off. “Because we are done. For real this time, Kai. I should have listened to everyone when they warned me about you. Now you can add my name to your long list of exes. I’m sure you’ll forget about me when you have a new girl by next week.”
Kai rubbed his temples. The feeling in his gut was expanding now, traveling up his through his stomach, spreading to his neck with a heavy pulse. “Come on, Camille. Can we talk about this later, please?”
“He tried to kill us!” a little girl shouted, pointing a finger at Kai. She was a victim of the flying puke. It speckled her T-shirt.
“Look!” the camp counselor said. “You’ve terrified them!”
Camille sneered. “No, we definitely cannot talk about this later.”
“Everybody, shut the fuck up!”
Kai’s explosion created a shock wave of silence. Camille’s eyes widened, and she stepped away from him. The woman with the French braids gasped and held a hand to her chest. Even the kids waiting in line stared, mouths gaped open.
But Kai was the most shocked of everyone. He was breathing deeply, slowly realizing that he’d lost control of the situation, of himself. Ironic that he’d been worried about Camille’s temper when he should have been concerned for his own.
Damn. He hadn’t messed up in so, so long. How did he let this happen?
He squeezed his eyes closed. Quietly, he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”
The woman shook her head, disgusted. “Oh, your boss is going to hear about this, buddy.”
His boss? If she was going to tell his boss, this could get back to Aunt Brenda and Uncle Steve.
“Ma’am, wait,” Kai said, his stomach sinking. The camp counselor stormed away, and Camille had the nerve to turn to Kai and smirk.
“Good luck not getting fired,” she said before spinning on her heels and sauntering back toward the other side of the park.
Kai stood there, feeling stupid as hell. He should have listened to Jamal when he’d said that Camille would be trouble. Everyone had expected that Kai and Camille would get together, simply because he was the football captain and she was captain of the dance team. It was completely superficial, but the idea had intrigued Kai anyway. Camille was beautiful and intelligent. Plus, she flirted with him every chance she got. When they both found themselves single in the spring of junior year, it had seemed kind of like fate. She could be mean, true, but he’d figured there was something deeper underneath, a softer side that she only showed to people she trusted. He’d even glimpsed that side for a fleeting moment before it all ended. He never would have guessed that they’d be so wrong for each other. That she’d lead to his downfall.
It only took about five minutes for Kai’s boss, Antonio, to summon him to his tiny office on the edge of the park.
“I told you about dating your coworkers, didn’t I? It’s nasty business. Nasty business for sure. You’ve gotta be smarter than that.”
Kai sat on the other side of Antonio’s desk, eyes on his sneakers. He knew better than to interrupt Antonio midscold. The office trailer smelled like cigarettes, even though smoking wasn’t allowed on the park premises, and Antonio’s desk was covered in unopened envelopes and sandwich wrappers left over from his lunch. Antonio’s father had opened Sailor Joe’s Amusement Park in the sixties. Apparently, at the time it had been South Jersey’s biggest attraction. That is, until the Six Flags opened up in Jackson about an hour away, and people found out you could take a bus to Dorney Park over in Allentown. Now Sailor Joe’s was like a forgotten relic. Local summer camps brought their kids here because it was cheap, and every teen in the surrounding area applied for a summer job because they knew Antonio barely paid attention to what went on in his own park. It was why the paint on the rides was peeling, and the Sailor Joe mascot costume smelled like mold, and whoever was unlucky enough to wear it had to be prepared to make children cry all day. Sailor Joe with his chipped, dark beard and piercing, kooky eyes looked more like a terrifying pirate than your local friendly seaman. Antonio didn’t care to purchase a new costume.
An employee at Sailor Joe’s could get away with almost anything. Unless a customer complained to management. Then Antonio was on you like white on rice.
“Look at me, son,” he said to Kai now.
Kai did as he was told. Antonio stared back at him. He scratched his overgrown beard. “You’re a good kid, Hezekiah. I expect this type of behavior from the other knuckleheads I hire, but not from you. No, not from you at all.”
“I’m sorry.” Kai leaned forward, pleading. He felt sweat gathering at his armpits. He hated to disappoint people, especially any figures of authority. “Camille got under my skin, and I shouldn’t have let her. I should have been paying attention to the ride. It won’t happen again. I swear.”
“I know it won’t. Because I’m taking you off Rides.”
“What?” Kai’s mouth went dry. Shit. Shit. Shit. “Are you . . . Am I being fired?”
Antonio laughed. Laughed. Slapped his thighs, and his stomach heaved with every deep breath. And he wasn’t letting up. He kept laughing until there were literal tears sliding down his cheeks.
Hopeless and confused, Kai could only stare. What the hell was so funny about being fired? Immediately he thought of his Morehouse College application. Would getting fired from his summer job lower his chances of acceptance? Getting into Morehouse was his number-one goal and had been for years. He couldn’t let anything stand in the way of that. But more importantly, what would Aunt Brenda and Uncle Steve have to say if he lost his job today over arguing with Camille and some camp counselor?
“No, son, you aren’t being fired,” Antonio finally said, still chuckling. “You’d have to do a lot worse, yes, you would. Just ask Xavier Black, who got caught shoving three hundred dollars from the food court cash register into his socks last summer. No, no, you aren’t being fired. I’m moving you to Games.”
“Oh.” Kai let out a sigh of relief. The Games section was boring, mostly because the games were corny and rigged and nobody wanted to waste their time or money, but whatever, that was cool. Kai could deal with boring. He’d be the king of boring. He’d be the best boring Games attendant in the whole freaking park. As long as he wasn’t being fired, it was all good.
He relaxed. “When will I start?”
“Now. I’ll walk you over to your new station, and you can stay there for the rest of your shift.” Antonio stood up. “But I have to tell you that I’ve already spoken to your uncle Steve.”
Kai froze halfway out of his seat. “Come on, Antonio. For real?”
“I hired you as a favor to your uncle, and he’s a good friend of mine. He asked me to let him know if anything ever happened, so I kept my promise.” Antonio walked around his desk and clapped Kai on his shoulder. “I’m going to assume this is the first and last time I’ll have to call him.” He motioned for Kai to follow him out of his office. “Let’s take this walk. I’ll bet you’ll find that you prefer Games, son.”
Kai nodded, his stomach twisting. He was in deep shit after all.
You can read the rest (including when Kai meets Zyla in the Games section) when it goes on sale June 7th! :)