Excerpt for This Body Won't Break Sneak Peek by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Copyright © 2017 Lea McKee

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This is a work of fiction. Characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events is strictly coincidental.

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THE CLOCK ABOVE my door has traded in its hands for knives. They cut and slice, shatter the minutes and seconds from existence. Countless days have led me to this point, this day.

I’m supposed to feel prepared, ready to take the next step. I don't. I know nothing about life outside these four concrete walls, and now I’m expected to live it.

Another minute is cut away, falls to the floor to join its assassinated cousins. Ten more and the light beside my door will turn green, I will make my last exit.

.One thing left to do.

Pulling my books from their hiding place between the mattress and wall, I lay them out next to me. I take a minute to feel the weight of their hardcover bindings, admire the artwork and illustrations, and commit it all to memory. A small sigh tumbles from my lips as I choose the first victim. I tear the stiff cover from the pages, force myself to move onto the others until they’re all naked. Three neat stacks of pages cower before me, held together only with a mesh-like glue, lighter, more easily concealed.

Taking the covers, I shove them into the laundry chute, listen to them plummet into the bowels of the Institute. They won’t turn up until I’m long gone.

A double beep from the PA sends a light tremor down my spine, disconnecting every vertebra from the whole. A wave of static drips out before the automated voice. “Five minutes to initial departure.”

I set to wrapping the pages in my uniform. The black, white, and dull shade of green marks us as inhabitants of Zone Three. Forcing the covered tomes into my travel pack, I pull the strings tight. A small smile tugs at the corners of my mouth, a sort of satisfaction. There is no indication of the pack’s contraband contents.

“One minute to initial departure.”

The light above my door flashes, a countdown. Sixty seconds. The surge of adrenaline is a wild animal chasing the anxiety from my veins. I smooth out the unflattering green pleats of my dress and pull my unruly hair back, twist it into a tight bun. The tattoo on my wrist peeks out from my sleeve. I yank the material down to cover it. A small O needled into my skin sometime before short term memory made its way into long term in my mind, will forever label me as an orphan.

My eyes trace the half-circle of wood that makes my desk, my fingers trail across its rough surface. There's a small impression in the center of my mattress from too many years of use, I wonder if they’ll replace it. “Well I guess that's it,” I whisper to myself, or maybe to the room, unwilling to believe my entire life weighs less than a waterlogged mop. I haven't forgotten anything. This room is a clone of all the others in the Phase Two Institute, and now it’s empty, ready for the next orphan to take my place.

It is the beginning of a new month, August. The name representing my birth month has never held as much meaning as it does on this day. All the orphans born in August of the same year leave today. We are adults now. Ready to take the first step for reintegration into what remains of society.

When the world went to hell the New Terra Alliance sprang up like a hand raised in a classroom. Ready to answer all the hard questions and offer solutions to the catastrophes we created. If it weren't for the NTA, we might all be dead.

The light turns green. The metallic clicking of the lock disengaging resonates in my bones. A groan as the steel door rolls away. I step out, looking back as the door closes, catching a last glimpse of the only home I've known for nearly fifteen years. The others stand with me in the hallway, their cheeks stained with tears, jaws taut with nerves. I try to stand a little taller. Though I recognize their faces, I don't know any of them. Orphans from the same birth month rarely have classes together. The NTA doesn’t support non-academic friendships.

“This way please,” a voice calls from the end of the hallway. It's her. Of course, it is. We lock eyes, but there’s no happiness there. Her deadpan stare bores into me and a sudden weight settles in my stomach. Dianna, the closest I’ve had to family or even a true friend if I’m honest. Burning fingers claw up my throat.

I may never see her again.

I was thirteen when she arrived. She was different from the other staff. She went out of her way to talk to me, offered for me to sit with her in the kitchen during meal times instead of sitting alone. She’s a woman driven by nerves. Always tense, always cautious. She’d often say nasty things about the NTA and then make me swear not to tell, her eyes jerking all around to make sure no one else heard. I never truly understood her, but she was always there, giving me a new book to read, telling me to keep each one hidden. Books that don't aid in the advancement of knowledge are forbidden. Religious beliefs are strongly discouraged, as is any opinion that doesn't directly support the NTA. It makes sense, there aren't many of us left. We can't afford to stand divided.

“Dianna,” I whisper when I am close enough for her to hear. Her shoulders tense, but she doesn’t respond. Her fists clench at her sides, the knuckles stark white against the dim olive of her slender hands. A splinter lodges itself in my stomach.

The silence is heavy with unsaid words, the tapping of our shoes on the tile is the only sound. We’ve delved deep into the labyrinth of the institute now. I barely recognize the route we’re taking through the lonely halls. We only leave once a year, each time to a different place, though usually to visit the different work sectors. To see what we could become when we leave Phase Three. The observatory where they watch us on small screens, the laboratories where they look for a cure, water purification plants, the government building where aged men sit in large chairs, fingers clicking keys on their letter boards. We’ve seen the inside of many buildings. I often wonder if there is a job where you can work outside. Where there aren’t walls two feet thick keeping out the warmth of the sun and the soft sounds of the wind.

Some people look at us like we’re diseased, others as if we don't even exist. It's because we’re wards of our Zone. Some people will always think little of us. Some will always pity us. Though I believe some also envy us. As orphans, we are taken in by the NTA, offered shelter, safety, schooling, and hot meals three times a day. It’s more than many have nowadays. At least our government cares enough not to leave us behind. They’ve given us a chance.

A heavily enforced metal door is ahead. GATE D is marked above it in black letters. Dianna swipes a card over the reader and presses a small button on the wall.

“East wing for departure,” she says, looking into a surveillance camera above her head. She turns her head further. No one else would recognize what she's doing, but I do. She’s checking for other cameras. They’ve always made her uncomfortable. She doesn't like to be watched, doesn't like to think there's someone listening to every conversation she's had for the last five years. I don't understand why she doesn't quit, train for a different placement. Maybe she will when I'm gone.

“Dianna,” I say again, more insistent this time.

She turns to look at me, her pale green eyes shining under the fluorescent lights. “Everyone line up, the travel team will take you the rest of the way.”

As everyone else reforms the line, pressing close to the door, a hand closes around my wrist and pulls me out from the crowd. Dianna tugs me into an alcove to the right of the others, her usually calm expression marred by worry, jaw tight.

“Where were you?” I can't help myself, I haven't seen her in almost a week, the staff doesn't get days off. I was starting to think she’d been infected. “I didn't think I was even going to get to say goodb—”

“Joanna, listen, we only have a minute.” Her fingers dig into my wrist, nails biting down. She scans the ceiling above us. My eyes reflexively follow hers, finding the nearest camera is over ten feet away. Not close enough to pick up our voices.

I pull my arm away. “What—Dianna, what’re you doing?”

She shakes her head, web-like veins flair beneath her parchment skin. Every inch of her is hard and on-edge. “Jo, shut up. Listen to me. Phase Three isn’t what you think it is. None of this is. What we’ve been doing here, the classes, the lessons, physical training, none of it matters. It was all a waste of time.”

My mind attempts to plod through the mud of what she is saying, but I can’t seem to find traction. There's unadulterated fear seeping through her skin, twisting her words into terrifying sounds.

“They aren’t raising you to become valuable members of society, you are nothing but livestock to them. They are raising you like farmers raise pigs-”

“Get moving, we have a schedule to keep.” The last of the others have gone through and the door guard moves towards us, agitation furrowing his thick brows. I ignore him.

“What are you talking about?” I demand, my voice taking on a tone unrecognizable as my own.

The guard places a firm hand on my shoulder and I want to smack it away but I don’t. “What are you talking about?” I demand from her again, but she is altogether composed, not the frantic woman of a moment ago.

“It’s time for you to go Joanna. He’s waiting for you,” she says, sounding like a teacher chastising a student, not the only friend I have in the world. But there’s a warning in her eyes, as legible as the print in one of my books. Don’t, she tells me, as she has hundreds of times before. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Pay attention, but never ask questions. Questions don’t lead to answers here.

My lips part but no words fall out. My hands ball into fists, but there is no suitable outlet for my frustration. I’m not sure whether to scream or cry. I want to tell her I’ll miss her. I want to give her a hug so she knows how much it's true.

I can't do any of that. The gate guard is hovering behind me. We aren't allowed to be friends, never were.

I leave her standing in the hallway, unable to even say goodbye. My face is hot, skin crawling as though a thousand ants are milling just under the surface. Stepping through the door, it’s as though I can already feel the chill of early morning raising the small hairs on the back of my neck.


THE VAN SLOWS for the hundredth time and I brace myself for the bumps of choppy pavement. There are ten of us seated on the unforgiving wooden benches in the back of the van. There are no windows, only a small, dim ceiling light to see by. We’re all shifting in our seats, our joints creaking, and our muscles stiff. With each passing minute, I’ve felt more and more sick to my stomach. I hate tight spaces. The air is hot and thick, I’m having trouble breathing it in. If it wasn’t for the soothing movement of the tires chewing pavement, I wouldn’t have lasted more than a mile.

I can’t bring myself to take part in the idle chitchat of the others sharing this van, my mind focused on Dianna’s last words to me. Each syllable she spoke was the swing of a bat, bruising my bones and disfiguring my world.

I try to focus on something else, anything else.

“…we’re only at Phase Three for a month, then they send us away for training…” the girl next to me says.

“…why a month though? Any test I’ve ever taken didn’t take more than an hour…” A boy across from me laughs, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“…guess they want to make sure we make the best choice, right?” the girl again.

Another girl across from me pipes up, I know her. We had a few classes together when we first got to Phase Two. “Greg came here three months ago. He promised he’d write me when he got out, but he–he never did.” I don't understand how her comment is relevant to the conversation, but then again, I don't understand a whole lot right now. My mind is being ransacked, all the filing cabinets containing the collective knowledge I've obtained in my life are being dumped out, the papers shredded. I can't even remember her name.

“Hate to break it to you, but maybe he just wasn't interested anymore. If you know what I mean.” A blond-haired boy waggles his eyebrows at her.

She narrows her brown eyes at him, “That isn't true. He would’ve written if he could. He promised me. You don't know him. You don't know me either. Something—something must have happened to him.”

We all look away from her then. It's possible something could’ve happened to him. It's called TEN. The virus borne of nuclear fallout. It makes any other terminal sickness seem like the common cold. Her Greg was likely infected. Or maybe he wasn't, my mind whispers. The expression I last saw on Dianna’s face reflects back to me on the inside of my eyelids. It will be burned into my memory forever.

A chuckle from somewhere down at the other end of the van forces the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end.

“You guys are cute. Am I the only one who’s figured it out? Thirty days kids, that’s what you got. Make the most of it.”

Moving forward, I can just make him out in the far corner. His name is Cash. I recognize him from his height, taller than most, his head almost touching the roof of the van, with hair wild and dark like the feathers of a crow. He has attempted a perimeter breach twice now, once more and he might have finally gotten what he seemed to crave; exile and a slow, painful death. No one can survive prolonged exposure.

The others laugh nervously, dismissing his words as if they weren’t even spoken. But I am paying attention. When his steely grey eyes meet mine, I don’t look away. I hold his steady gaze because I see something there, a likeness. He knows something, perhaps something more than what Dianna told me. I make it my business to find out what that is.

Two loud thuds on the side of the van send me snapping to attention. We’re here. A ball forms in the back of my throat and I choke it down.

“Respirators!” I hear a voice call from outside and we all pull the air purifiers over our heads, fasten the buckles on the back.

The doors open and I squint into the blinding light of the setting sun to see the darkened silhouette of a guard standing outside. “Please exit in an orderly fashion,” the shadow says, his voice muffled.

Standing, I duck my head to keep from hitting the roof and pull my pack from the floor between my feet. I am the last one to exit and nearly stumble headlong into the guard, legs unsteady. The stinging in my eyes subsides with each impatient blink, my sight returning in fragmented pictures painted with spots of orange and blue. The sun is warm on my face and the silent breeze pulls at the fabric of my dress, lifts the sweat-dampened auburn hairs that have liberated themselves from my bun. We’re in a gated area, tall black metal fences surround us, sharp silver wire looping the whole way around the top. A river of foul looking water borders to our left, a wide metal tube pumps a greyish fluid into its depths.

All the other vans are lined up next to ours, their passengers disembarking. There are many I don’t recognize. They must be the August born orphans from our sister institutions. I am in awe of how many of us there are. One hundred and twenty aspirants for the four institutes in our zone.

“Follow me and stay together,” the man says, no longer a simple silhouette against the light. Now I can see he carries a long piece of metal slung over his right shoulder. I’ve never seen a gun like that before, but as I scan the guards manning the gate, I notice they too are carrying guns. Once, I may not have noticed or even questioned the need for such firepower, but with the whisper of Dianna’s words still ringing in my ears, I am unwittingly paying more attention. This is a testing facility for wards of the NTA, not a military compound.

We march around the line of vans and I see it. Phase Three. A monstrosity of stone, grey brick and steel, it stands towering above the foliage surrounding it. The heart of the building may once have been magnificent, a castle in its time, but now concrete fills in what used to be tall windows. A double door stands in the center of the stone and the encompassing structure is more metal, an addition of concrete and shining steel to make the building as wide as it is tall.

A great cloud of soot looms above, choking the sky. It tumbles out from a cylindrical stack on the northern side of the building, turning everything beyond into a hazy shade of grey. The beauty of the red sunset is marred, a dirty thumbprint on the face of a stunning photograph. The air smells of sulphur and something else, something like leather and molten leaves even though it’s the height of summer. My feet are heavy as I leave the crunch of gravel to ascend the smooth stone staircase and step into the shadows.

Through the threshold, there is another door entering a glass box structure with a white roof. I can see through it to the other groups who have already passed through.

Claustrophobia, that’s what my analyst called it. When the older girls locked me in with the brooms and towels. The air was thick with dust, and the acrid taste of chemical bleach was a thick coating on my tongue. Apparently, tight spaces and I don’t much get along.

We pack into the box like a bunch of sardines and someone calls, “Arms up!” The walls are glass, I can see everything, everyone, it’s alright here. I lift my arms.

A roaring hiss proceeds the release of a glacial vapor forced out from some unseen ventilation above us. It billows out until my skin is covered in icy condensation and I’m blinded as if trapped inside a wall of white stone. Impulsively, I reach for my respirator, fingers clawing at the rigid plastic. I bring my arms down hard and hit someone with my elbow, she cries out. My heartbeat is a raucous of thunder in my chest, my lungs feel constricted as if caged.

I need to get out.

The door on the other side of the room opens and I am already there, pushing and tripping and sprinting through. I step out, hunched over, gasping for unrestricted breath, a dull ache forming on the precipice of my skull.

A warm touch on the back of my arm, a calm voice tells me I may remove the respirator. I don’t even wait for her to finish before I reach back, fingers fumbling to undo the buckle. The mask clatters to the floor and I’m painfully aware of the silence that follows.

Forcing myself to straighten, I whisper an apology to the woman and step back with the others. Their eyes steal pieces of my dignity with each sideways glance. It’s as I begin to wonder how much longer the silence can possibly stretch on that the lady picks up my respirator and tells the others to dispose of theirs in the bins to our right. She beckons for us to follow her to the main atrium and I allow myself to look up.

Plain. Not unlike the home I left, white tile, white walls, fluorescent lights. We stand in a wide hallway, the glass box to our backs and a wide-open space bathed in orange light ahead.

“Hey, Joanna, you ok?” A girl beside me asks. It’s the one from the van, the girl I used to know.

“Yeah,” I say, clearing my throat. “Thanks.”

“Mhmm.” She brushes her short black hair back from her face. Feint red impression marks make a circle around her small mouth and nose from the respirator. “It’s Danny, remember?” She laughs a quiet laugh, “Don’t worry about what happened back there, they should have warned us about the death chamber. I bet the other institutes have them, I heard ours was the smallest in our zone.”

“Yeah, a little heads up would’ve been nice.”

We’re guided in and asked to stand quietly as we await our dorm assignments. The entire roof is glass, the pieces angled, allowing the remnants of sunset to soak the room in a glow of fragmented amber light. Like being underwater if the water was on fire.

The tapping chatter of heels echoes from the hallway opposite us on the parquet floor, a woman enters. I can tell without knowing for certain she is a person of authority. A stiff blue blouse buttons up to her chin and is tucked tightly into a pair of pressed trousers. Confidence is evident in the set of her shoulders and the way her eyes command attention from the crowd.


MY NAME IS Susan Dunne. I am the assistant director of this branch.” She weaves her fingers together at her front and forces a pained looking smile to her lips. “Welcome to Phase Three.” She seems to be making an effort to meet each set of eyes staring at her. “You have all had long journeys and likely need to use the lavatories and have a rest, so we will get on with room assignments. There will be a more formal welcoming ceremony tomorrow. Males and females will have separate rooms, but share the common areas. There will be four to each room.”

A guard standing to her right hands her a clipboard, his eyes scanning the crowd.

“As I call your name, I would like you to raise your hand and remember your corresponding wing and room number.” She begins in alphabetical order and I find myself tuning her out, her voice fading to a distant drone in the background.

The guard is much more interesting. His eyes dart from face to face, looking but not finding. His hands are fists at his sides, readied but not aimed. Where all the other guards in this compound must be in their mid to late thirties, he doesn’t look a day over twenty-five. There is something in the line of his square jaw, the shape of his mouth that makes me think I’ve seen him before. Even from this distance, I can see the pale green of his eyes shining in the dying light. The color—it’s unnatural looking, almost ethereal, so out of place among his otherwise strong features.

An elbow to the ribs breaks my stare and empties the air from my head. Danny’s eyes are wide as she nods toward Ms. Dunne.

“Joanna of Zone Three,” she says, a note of impatience in her voice.

I hastily raise a hand.

“Thank you. You are in the North Wing, room five.”

His eyes blaze into mine. An electric current runs through me, I am a live wire, shooting sparks from every nerve.

I know him.

I can’t possibly know him.

I busy myself inspecting a chip in the tile by my feet, skin bristling, burning.

“You know him or something?” Danny asks in a low whisper, her voice dripping in sarcasm.

“Is he looking at me?”

“Sure is.”

My teeth clench.

“Room five? Guess we’re roomies.”

Ms. Dunne finishes off her list of names and the excitement in the room grows with anticipation of a good rest and the use of a toilet. I don’t dare look up, the pressure of his stare is one-hundred pounds on my shoulders. Why is he staring?

“North wing is the hallway behind me, East is to your right and West to the left. You will be escorted to the showers at nineteen hundred hours, for now, you are dismissed.” Sentries appear at the entrances to each of the hallways, waiting to escort us to our living quarters.

“North, follow me.” Him. His voice is deep; the monotone vibrations boom in the cavernous room, making all the other voices seem as though they’ve been sucked up by the shadows. One more glance my way before he turns on his heel to lead all of us who are northbound to our living quarters.

I pull my pack tighter onto my back, praying that no one has cause to inspect its contents. My movements are careful, mechanical as we come to a door that has a window filled with little boxes of wire. He swipes us through. We begin to pass the rooms and everyone is rushing into their assigned number. The man enters a room about halfway down and I get a sinking feeling it’s mine.

“Did he go in our room?” Danny asks, speeding up.

Suspicion confirmed.

Over Danny’s shoulder, I see the room is simply furnished, a long desk and four locker-like shelving units cover the wall to our right. Two identical metal framed bunk beds are against the far wall. Cash lounges on the bottom bunk of one of the beds, the guard standing over him. A thick vein pokes out from the collar of his uniform.

“You have the wrong dorm. Odd numbered rooms are female dorms.”

Cash sits up, hands high in false apology. “North wing, room five. That’s what the boss lady said.”

The guard grabs him under his arm to help him stand. “Wait in the hallway while I check your proper assignment.” He escorts Cash out with him, not a glance, not a word in our direction. I exhale. He isn’t looking for me.

“Ladies,” Cash says, nodding to us as he leans against the wall to wait.

Danny ventures inside, clearly amused by the situation. I follow her in, eager to put distance between me and Cash, between me and the soldier who sparks a distant flame in my memory. “I call top!” Danny shrieks, tossing her backpack on the top bunk, rushing to a door in the corner of the room that can only be a bathroom.

A mouse of a girl with nervous eyes hovers in the doorway. “I’m Joanna.” I try to smile. She looks so fragile she might shatter under the pressure of her own discomfort. She wears a burgundy dress that hangs limp on her slight frame, marking her as an inhabitant of one of our sister institutions. “Top or bottom?”

“Umm, bottom,” she mumbles, head down as she crosses the room to sit on the bunk under Danny’s.

“I’m sorry girls, there seems to have been an error with our paperwork.” Ms. Dunne announces as she enters the room with Cash in tow. “Normally we have a few empty bunks, but this group has filled all our spaces. If any of you are uncomfortable with having this young man in the same room, I can see if any of the other girls would be willing to switch places with you.” She’s all business, the apology is a formality. Her true feeling of annoyance is transparent in the slight roll of her eyes.

Danny is the first to speak. “I’m ok with it.”

“Me too,” I say, though I’m not sure I am. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t want the notorious Cash anywhere near me. These aren’t normal circumstances. I need to know what he knows. This is almost too convenient.

The other girl gives a small nod but says nothing.

“It’s settled then. This will only be a temporary situation until we can make other arrangements. If you have any problems, there is always a guard stationed here in the hallway.” Not another word, she pivots on her heel to leave. Danny follows her to the door.

“Excuse me. Sorry. I uh—I have a question.”

Ms. Dunne arches a brow at Danny, doesn't answer.

I can sense the discomfort in her voice, I busy myself with the strings tying my pack together, trying not to eavesdrop.

“I had a friend who came here a few months ago. He uh, he said he would write to me and he never did. I was wondering if you could tell me which sector he went to train in. I just—I wanted to try to—”

Dunne’s jaw tightens. She looks anywhere that isn't at Danny. “That information is confidential,” is all she says in reply, clicks her heels out of the room. My instincts tell me she's hiding something. If Greg succumbed to the virus, why not tell her?

Cash takes up residence in the bed under mine. I shudder to think I’ll have to sleep not four feet above him.

The itch of anxiety is scratching down my back, filling my head with bricks. How do I get him alone?

Danny goes back into the bathroom. I know enough about her to gather she doesn’t want to be bothered.

I clear my throat. “I didn’t catch your name,” I say to the mousey girl who is sitting on the edge of her bed, looking dangerously close to tears.

“Cash,” he says, winking in my direction.

“I know who you are. I wasn’t talking to you,” I snap, shocked at the hostility in my tone. I’m about to apologize but he’s laughing. He is laughing at me and I am suddenly fuming.

“Right, and you’re Joanna, right? You used to eat with Dianna in the kitchen.”

At the mention of her name, a thick cloud forms in my mind. Did he know her too? Surely not how I knew her.

“Sophie.” The new girl pushes the dirty blond curtain of her hair back, she’s got a pale complexion, the shade alarming close to looking green.

“Nice to meet you,” I say, grateful for the opportunity to cut off pleasantries with Cash.

We sit in silence for a time, all of us organizing our things into our respective lockers. It’s Cash who breaks the silence, “Anybody else notice all the guns in this place?”

Danny and Sophie remain quiet and shake their heads. “I did,” I say, placing the naked books I brought with me in the top of my locker under a sweater. Dianna gave them to me from her own hidden collection. Fiction isn’t part of our learning curriculum. It isn’t even allowed within the walls of the Institute. Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies and Into the Wild are the ones she told me I could keep. Absently, I trail a fingertip over their bare spines, I’ve read each at least three times and can’t help but feel like they are all set in alternate universes. It’s baffling to imagine the world was once as the authors describe it. So beautifully magnificent, majestic, filled with mystery and intrigue and freedom.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to have those,” Cash whispers, far too close to me. I turn to see the look on his face is approval. So, he thought he was the only one who didn’t follow all the rules? I still think he’s insane. Who would willingly expose themselves? Without a respirator outside these walls, anyone is as good as dead.

“You stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours, ok?”

His eyes widen, the grey-blue of his iris’ so dark they’re almost black. “I think we’re going to get along.”


Thank you for reading this sample of This Body Won’t Break, I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Follow Joanna’s journey as the New Terra Alliance hunts her across unregulated land—a land brimming with its own host of perilous dangers.


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