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Girl of Hearts - Luck Gods Series Book 1

Chapter 1

 

AGGIE

            Twenty-three times I made my circuit around the house, locking doors, checking windows. I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to keep out of our rambling old Victorian home, but that didn’t make my ritual any less crucial. If I didn’t finish, I’d spend the whole morning with a heart attack ache of anxiety in my chest. Window frame—tug. Deadbolt—click. Over and over until my breaths came free and easy and my heartbeat slowed to its normal pace. Then I could go on with my life.

Delightful morning person that I am, my days began early. After my twenty-three circuits, I got a pot of coffee going and went into my closet to pick out my clothes for the day, which were never fancy. Today it was jeans, sneakers, and my favorite T-shirt, which featured the elements nitrogen, erbium, and dysprosium and read I may be N–Er—Dy, but only periodically. What can I say, bad puns plus science equals me.

Next, I got out my backpack and counted my school supplies: twenty-three pens, twenty-three sheets of lined paper in each class’s color-coded three-ring binder, and twenty-three hair ties—just in case twenty-two of them broke and I needed to get my hair out of my face, I guess. No one ever said OCD had to be logical, right? Today these tasks were all completed before six AM, which gave me enough time for the thing I really wanted to do: work on the machine. 

It had suffered a failure during the test Mom and I had conducted the night before. After a few frustrating hours of troubleshooting, we’d given up and spent the rest of the evening popping Peanut Butter M&Ms and playing a cutthroat game of Trivial Pursuit. 

Sometime during the night I’d dreamed a solution to the machine’s problem, and I’d woken excited. Looking at the machine now as I sipped my coffee, I saw that I’d been correct. The fix was simple. Hands trembling with excitement, I got out Mom’s soldering gun and went to work. When I’d completed the repair, I started the machine’s self-diagnostic protocol, gulping more coffee and drumming my fingers nervously as the boot screen loaded. After a moment, the computer chimed, and a message appeared onscreen: READY FOR ACTIVATION.

Squealing with glee I ran up the stairs, pounced onto Mom’s bed, and peeled the silken sleep mask from her eyes.

“Wakey-wakey!” 

Mom muttered something, rolled over and tried to bury her face in the duvet. I tunneled under it, sandworm style, put my forehead to hers and shrilled, “Good morning, Parent!”

She groaned. “Good morning, Aggie.”

 “I’ve got a surprise,” I sang.

“Is it a new daughter? A normal teenager who loves to sleep in?” 

“Sorry. Although I’m your little doppelgänger in so many ways, in this way I take after Daddy,” I said proudly. “I’m a—”

“Morning person. I know, I know.” Mom hoisted herself upright and leaned against the headboard, the sleep mask askance on her face like a pirate’s eye patch, revealing one bloodshot eye. Her long, dark hair made a tangled halo around her head, but even in her current state of bleary disarray, Mom was stunning. Tall, doll-faced, and graceful. Sometimes it was hard to look at her without thinking how plain and dim I was in comparison—but I wasn’t going down that depressive rabbit hole today. I was too excited.

 

I grabbed her fluffy bathrobe and slung it over her shoulders, James Brown–style. 

Our house was an old, half-restored Victorian, lovely but drafty, and the furnace hadn’t worked right all winter. It was April now but on Michigan mornings like this it was still chilly enough to see white wafts of breath. 

We’d have the furnace fixed soon enough, though. And we’d get the house out of foreclosure, too—because I’d fixed the machine. Today we’d have our first successful test. Mom could analyze the data, publish the results, and get her job at the college back. Our problems would be over. The financial ones, anyway.

“Guess what I did this morning?” I said, bouncing up and down again on the bed. “I fixed DEMS!”

Mom swept the eye mask off her head and looked at me, suddenly alert. “Really?”

“Come see.” 

In a swirl of fluffy cloth, she had her bathrobe on, and we were galloping down the stairs. 

Our laboratory was an old basement with stone walls and uneven concrete floors, overarched by a quilt work of copper pipes and hand-hewn floor joists. But there were no cobwebs. No mice. No bugs. Mom and I kept our woman cave clean. There was a sagging-but-comfy pea green couch in one corner, a mini fridge, a little TV, and the hallowed coffeemaker, which was Mom’s first destination. 

She raised the nearly empty carafe and sloshed it, frowning. “Jeez, Aggie. How much coffee did you drink this morning?” 

“Many cups!” I yodeled.

“That explains a lot,” Mom muttered, filling a cup with the dregs. 

“So, you know how last night we scoured the operating code and tested the cooling coils and disassembled and cleaned the electromagnets and ran the troubleshooting software?”

“Yeah . . .” Mom said.

“Well, this morning I found this.” I proudly held up a scorched bolt. “It had fallen into the housing for the electromagnetic field generator and shorted it out.”

Mom took the bolt from my hand. “I can’t believe we didn’t think of that last night.” 

“Occam’s Razor,” we said in unison. The simplest solution was usually the right one—although Mom and I both had a talent for overcomplicating things. 

Mom tousled my hair. “Nice work, Aggs.” 

Together, we turned to the machine. It took up most of the basement, a mass of wires, machined copper, 3D printed plastic, and fiber optic cables. At its center was an arch, the interior of which was covered in mirror made of aircraft grade aluminum coated in magnesium fluoride. This was Mom’s invention, the culmination of her life’s work. The Dark Matter Separation and Suspension System, DMSSS. Or as we called it, DEMS. 

Mom weighed the bolt in her hand thoughtfully. “You know what that means . . .”

“Activate it?” I asked, the way a kid might ask if it was time to open Christmas presents. Mom’s grin was almost as big as mine as she nodded.

We donned our protective gear: heavy leaden aprons, welding masks, and leather welder’s gloves. 

“I’ll observe it from the other side,” I said, walking to the far end of the machine and taking position. We looked at each other from opposite corners of room, through the machine’s arch.

“Recording data?” 

I clicked the spacebar on my laptop. “Recording.”

“Alright, then,” Mom said. “Three, two, one . . .” 

She flipped the switch—an old light switch rigged up for the purpose—and the machine hummed to life. At first, nothing happened. Only a subtle vibration and the low thrum of electricity. I began to slump with disappointment when Mom held up a gloved finger. Wait. Then I saw it in the archway between us: a tiny, black, amorphous shape flickering like a candle flame. As we watched, it slowly grew until it was perhaps fourteen inches high and shaped like a cat’s pupil. 

“It’s happening,” I shouted over the hum of the machine. 

Behind her mask, Mom nodded.

“Is the power all the way up?” I called.

Mom hesitated, then reached for the dial located next to the machine’s on / off switch. She twisted, and the machine’s hum crescendoed into a howl.

What came next seemed to happen in a nanosecond. A reddish flash shot through my vision, blinding me. There was a thump feeling, like taking a hard header in soccer.

When I came to, I was on my back staring up at the basement ceiling. My ears rang and dizziness buzzed in my forehead. For a second there was a strange, red tint to my vision, but it faded as the whine in my ears wound down to silence. I blinked and sat up.

A smell of burned plastic hung in the air. The black shape in the center of the arch was gone, and smoke rose from the machine.

Then I spotted Mom lying on her back on the far side of the room, motionless. 

“Mom?”

An emotional trapdoor opened beneath me. I was falling. They hit me like a wave, what Dr. Campos called intrusive thoughts.

Mom is dead.

She’s dead.

Dead.

Dead.

Dead.

The only thing that could ever drown out this sort of dreadful mind loop was numbers, so I began tapping my thumb to forefinger and counting the taps as I struggled to my feet.

One. Two. Three. Four . . . 

“Five. Mom? Six . . .”

I rushed to her.

She stirred, then sat up and shucked off the welder’s mask, rubbing her forehead. 

I gave a tremulous sigh of relief and scooped her into an embrace.

“You okay?” I helped her stand and looked her up and down, my heart pounding.

“Yeah. Fine,” she said, although she looked unsteady on her feet. 

I pulled her into another tight hug. “I thought you were . . .” I couldn’t finish the thought. Instead, my worries became numbers again and I counted the seconds, keeping the embrace going until I’d reached twenty-three. The special number. The number of completion. 

The number that would keep her safe.

“Okay. You’re strangling me now,” she croaked, and I let her go. 

She was alive. I felt better. And the compulsion to count crawled back into whatever hole in my mind it had scuttled out of.

Together, we took in the smoldering machine.

 

“So . . . what happened?” I asked. 

Mom shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ll have to analyze the data.” She stepped to her computer and began scrolling through a field of numbers on the screen. Mom loved her numbers. Another thing we had in common. 

“I can go through them with you,” I said. 

“Sure. After school,” Mom replied without looking up. 

“But—” 

“No buts, Aggie. You’re late as it is.”

 

I glanced at the clock. Sure enough, I had exactly eleven minutes to get to class. So unfair! Stopping in the middle of doing real, groundbreaking science to go to high school. It was cruel and unusual punishment. 

“Come on, Parent!” I said. “Do you think Thomas Edison sent his kids to school in the middle of inventing the lightbulb? Do you think Nicola Tesla—?”

“Edison’s kids went to school,” Mom said. “And Tesla had no kids. He just fed pigeons. So unless you want me to trade you in for a bird . . .”

“Fine,” I huffed. “But email me the data file. I can check it out at lunch. And—”

 “Go!” Mom laughed, swatting at me with the laptop as my feet thumped up the stairs. “Don’t forget to take your meds,” she called after me. “And brush your hair!” 

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