Formats and Prices
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 25, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
From the author of the New York Times bestselling My Dearest Darkest comes another incredible sapphic horror. When four best friends with a hunger for human flesh attend a music festival in the desert they discover a murderous plot to expose and vilify the girls and everyone like them. This summer is going to get gory.
Two years ago, a small percentage of population underwent a transformation known as the Hollowing. Those affected were only able to survive by consuming human flesh. The people who went without quickly became feral, turning on their friends and family. Luckily, scientists were able to create a synthetic version of human meat that would satisfy their hunger. As a result, humanity slowly began to return to normal.
Cut to Zoey, Celeste, Valeria, and Jasmine, four hollow girls living in Southern California. As a last hurrah before graduation they decide to attend a musical festival in the heart of the desert. They have a cooler filled with seltzer, vodka, and Synflesh… and are ready to party.
But on the first night of the festival Val goes feral and ends up killing and eating a boy in one of the bands. As other festival guests start disappearing around them the girls soon discover someone is targeting people like them. And if they can’t figure out how to stop it, and soon, no one at the festival is getting out alive.
Copyright © 2023 by Kayla Cottingham
Cover and internal design © 2023 by Sourcebooks
Cover design by Natalie C. Sousa
Cover image © Micha/Shutterstock, Moustache Girl/Shutterstock, Second Studio/Shutterstock
Internal design by Laura Boren
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Fire, an imprint of Sourcebooks
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567–4410
Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file with the Library of Congress.
Excerpt from My Dearest Darkest
About the Author
To Ally, Alex, and Simone—
I don't know if I believe in fate, but if there is something out there pulling the strings, I'm so grateful it brought us together.
And that it made sure we didn't peak in high school.
This book contains the following:
Alcohol consumption by minors
Anxiety disorders (mentioned)
Blood and gore depiction
Captivity & confinement
Dead bodies & body parts
Deadnaming (deadname not stated)
Death of a grandparent
Death of a sibling
Drugging (fictional drug)
Drug use (mentioned, not explicit)
Grief & loss depiction
Needles & syringes
Pandemic (fictional disease)
Suicidal ideation (implied)
Transphobia (mentioned, not explicit)
Am I still a monster
If I run my fingers through your hair
And kiss you to sleep?
Baby, you're in too deep.
—"Monster" by No Flash Photography
When my parents asked if I wanted a Mini Cooper for graduation, I didn't think ahead to whether or not it would have enough trunk space to accommodate my cooler full of organs.
Also, the cooler with all the sparkling waters, but that was less of a priority.
"Can you stack the coolers on top of each other?" my best friend, Celeste, suggested, pointing to my trunk with a finger that ended in a sharp pink acrylic nail. "Or put one of the back seats down?"
I shot her a look, one eyebrow raised. Celeste Fairbanks was white, with pink hair, a slim build, and long legs that seemed to go on for miles. She was taller than me by a good half a foot, accentuated by the fact that she was currently wearing white platform heels. They paired nicely with her pink heart-patterned pinafore and pearlescent eyeshadow—both newly purchased using her growing influencer income.
Leave it to Celeste to look cute before 8 a.m., the absolute monster.
"They're too tall to stack," I pointed out, crossing my arms. "And unless you want Valeria to sit in your lap the whole way to the festival, we need all the back seats."
Celeste hummed in agreement, grimacing. We were currently standing in front of the Fairbanks house, packing up the Mini for our first-ever road trip to Desert Bloom, a music festival in the Mojave Desert a few hours' drive away. The house was a modest box-shaped bungalow with a lush garden of desert plants adorning the front. Solar panels glinted on the roof, unlike most homes in Aspen Flats, whose occupants were far too stubborn to consider converting to sustainable energy—despite recent proof of the consequences of not doing so.
"You're gonna have to consolidate," said Wendy, Celeste's mom. She was nearly a foot shorter than her daughter, but she made up for it by wearing tall leopard-print heels. Despite living in California for decades, her thick Jersey accent still clung to every syllable she spoke. "See if you can fit it all in the bigger cooler, and I'll take the other one back in the house."
Celeste sighed. "It feels…kind of wrong to put seltzers in the flesh cooler."
"The flesh cooler," I repeated under my breath, biting back a smile.
Celeste's lip twitched for a moment before she cracked and broke into laughter.
Which immediately made me break too, with an inelegant snort that made Celeste laugh even harder. Something about seeing her double over trying to catch her breath only made it worse. Playfully, I shoved her shoulder and she batted my hand away, giggling behind her hand.
"All right, all right." Wendy opened the cooler with the sparkling water and added, "Help me consolidate these. You're burning daylight and I don't want you to have to drive out there in the dark. That's when all the creepers come out."
Celeste and I both groaned—though we were both still smiling—and stooped down to the other cooler to gather an armful of plastic-wrapped organs. We took turns tossing them in the cooler with the drinks. Each one was branded with the required LAB-GROWN SYNTHETIC TISSUE, FOR CONSUMPTION ONLY sticker across the front—I guess to dissuade someone from attempting an at-home organ transplant. They each made a faint crunching sound as they landed atop the ice.
"Sweetie, you sure you don't want a few more livers?" Wendy asked Celeste. "You know I got a whole bunch from Costco during that half-off sale—"
"Mom," Celeste said. "We're fine, seriously."
"All right, all right, I get it. My little girl is all grown up now and doesn't need her mom telling her what to do all the time." Wendy leaned over to me, her big blond curls nearly smacking me in the face. "But the offer stands if you want any more, Zoey. You just let me know."
I flashed her a toothy grin. "Thanks, Wendy."
Wendy was one of the few people who could actually make me smile and mean it. She'd been like a second mother to me since Celeste and I became friends in elementary school. She was always the first to offer me a place to stay or someone to talk to when I needed it. Whenever June rolled around, she drove me and Celeste to LA for the pride parade, and she was always the one yelling the loudest, wearing trans and bi flags in celebration of her daughter. She wasn't the perfect mom, but she was pretty damn close.
It took a few minutes, but the three of us managed to shove all of the SynFlesh into the other cooler and wrangle it into the back without much incident. I closed the trunk and exhaled a breath, sweat already beading on the back of my neck even though the sun had barely risen. I prayed I didn't have pit stains.
"One more thing before you go," Wendy said, taking a few steps back. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and tapped the screen. "I want pictures."
"You're the one who just said we're burning daylight," Celeste said.
"That was when you were dawdling! This'll only take a second." When Celeste scowled, she added, "You're going on your first road trip by yourselves! And your first music festival! You're gonna want to look back on this when you're my age, I'm telling you. Now get together and look cute—I'm putting this on Facebook for your Nana."
Celeste sighed and shook her head, but the smile never left her face. The two of us stepped together as I held up a peace sign and did my best not to squint too much when I smiled. Then, Celeste put her arm around me and leaned in next to my face. The heat from her cheek sunk into mine.
My heart puttered and my stomach flipped itself into knots.
"Say hot girl summer!"
Celeste grinned and said, "Absolutely not," at the same time I repeated it, voice cracking.
"Beautiful!" Wendy beamed at the screen and then held it out to us. "You look great."
If by great she meant tense and sweaty, then yes, I did. My hazel eyes were wide, pale cheeks flushed, my chin-length chestnut hair stuck to my sweaty forehead at a weird angle. I was smiling, kind of, but it was lopsided and forced. Celeste, meanwhile, had a sweet smile on her face while her hair fell in soft waves down the front of her shoulders. I looked like I was her fan and this was a picture from an extremely awkward meet-and-greet.
Celeste withheld a snicker. "Nana will love that."
"You'll be the talk of her nursing home, without a doubt." Wendy tucked her phone into her pocket. "Well, you two should get going. But be safe, okay? You take care of each other no matter what."
"Always have," Celeste said brightly.
Her mother went on her tiptoes and kissed Celeste's cheek, then turned to me and pulled me into a big hug. "I love you girls."
"Love you too," Celeste and I both said.
"All right, get out of here before I cry." She sniffled. "Safe travels."
Celeste and I said our goodbyes before climbing in the car and driving away, Wendy waving behind us as we went.
The mid-June sun beat down on the roof of the Mini as we crossed town to pick up Valeria and Jasmine, the two remaining members of our high school friend group. Before the Hollowing, Valeria and Jasmine had both been infinitely more popular at school than Celeste and I, and our paths only crossed because Aspen Flats was a tiny three-stoplight town where everyone knew each other. Before the Hollowing, Valeria had been a cheerleader for the Aspen Flats Rattlers and Jasmine was already taking college-level courses in addition to playing on the softball team. Meanwhile, Celeste and I were the sort of people who ate lunch in our freshman year English teacher's room through most of high school and spent most of our time sending each other TikToks and fan fiction links under our desks. If it hadn't been for the Hollowing, Jasmine and Valeria probably never would have given us the time of day.
When we got to Valeria's house, I threw the car into park, the cooler rattling in the back seat. Clearly, I hadn't closed the lid all the way when I snatched a SynFlesh heart out to eat on the drive over.
Eighteen months ago, SynFlesh—a substance made by using human stem cells to bioprint large organoids, which were close to, but not quite, the same as real human organs—was dubbed the greatest invention of the twenty-first century by TIME magazine. Which made sense, considering the fact that it wound up being humanity's only solution to deal with the Hollowing, dubbed the greatest disaster of the twenty-first century by, well, literally everyone.
The worst part was that the Hollowing was kinda our fault. Kinda being the operative word, because the pathogen that made people Hollow came out of melted permafrost, and we'd all learned by now we could mostly blame corporations and the military for electing to sauté the Earth in toxic fumes for profit. But there was always that thought: Maybe the last coffee cup that I threw in the trash instead of recycling was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back and sent us into a borderline zombie apocalypse two years ago.
The sound of someone tapping on the window snapped me out of my thoughts. Outside, Valeria Vega stood waving in a yellow sundress with a huge smile on her face. Valeria was Latina, with warm tan skin and bouncy brown curls pulled back from her face.
"Good morning!" she sang as she climbed into the back seat. Her smile faltered a bit as she pointed to a spot on her face and said, "Zoey, there's a blood clot on your chin."
"Really? Ah, shit." I rubbed it away with the back of my hand. "My bad."
"She ate a SynFlesh heart with her bare hands while we were driving over," Celeste said from the passenger seat, twisting around to better convey her feelings on the matter to Valeria. "A truck driver saw and nearly drove off the road."
Valeria jerked back. "While you were driving, Z?"
"What? I woke up late and needed to eat on the go. Regular people do it all the time." Over Valeria's shoulder, I spotted another figure approaching from the house next door and waved out the window. Once she was close enough to hear me, I added, "You get what I'm saying, right, Jaz? If regular people can get away with eating a McMuffin on the way to work, I can take a few bites of SynFlesh."
"I mean—sure. Until some poor kid in their car seat looks over and sees you unhinge your jaw like an anaconda to swallow a human heart whole," Jasmine Owusu said, crossing her arms. She was Black, with a soft but muscular build and rich dark skin. She'd recently woven her curls into long box braids with light purple streaks laced in. She wore a raglan shirt with the words ASPEN FLATS HIGH SCHOOL SOFTBALL written across the chest, plus ripped denim shorts.
As she climbed into the back seat, she raised an eyebrow at Celeste. "What were you doing while this happened?"
"Sitting in the passenger's seat trying to look normal so the neighbors don't come after us with torches and pitchforks," Celeste groaned, rubbing her temples. "As usual."
Jasmine withheld a snort at that while Valeria sighed and rolled her eyes.
Soon after, everyone buckled in, and the traditional fight for the aux cord began and ended with Valeria sweetly telling us we had terrible taste. She stole the cord and plugged in her phone, blasting some obscure indie pop band that would be playing at the festival.
I rolled down the windows as we hit the open road out of Aspen Flats, the breeze ruffling our hair and sun streaming in. Music throbbed from the speakers, the bassline heavy like a pulse. I pulled my dark sunglasses down while Valeria sang along to the song, Jasmine swaying back and forth while Celeste tapped her foot beside me. A pleasantly effervescent feeling coursed through me like my blood had turned to soda water. My skin was warm and my cheeks flushed.
After what we'd been through the last two years, we deserved to feel good.
Celeste took over driving just outside of Bakersfield, and I started to drift off in the passenger seat.
One moment I was staring at the brush on the side of the road, and the next I was surrounded by redwood trees. I was suddenly fifteen again, with two scraped knees and my dark brown hair—which I'd recently cut myself for the first time—hanging sharply around my jaw. In the silence of the woods, my stomach growled like a starved animal. The trees were massive and silent around me, without even a whisper of a breeze or birdsong to make it feel alive.
"Celeste!" I shouted for what felt like the hundredth time. I pressed a hand to my stomach as hunger pangs shot through me again and my knees threatened to give out. "Where are you?"
A twig snapped beneath my shoe, making me jump. I was nearly a mile away from Camp Everwood, the summer camp Celeste and I had been going to together for the last four years in the northern California woods. It was supposed to be a summer of outdoor activities, staying up late in our cabin, and spending time together.
Instead, half of the kids and counselors had just come down with a weird stomach bug. Some of the kids who smuggled in cell phones shared rumors that people everywhere were coming down with a weird stomach bug. But for the most part, they were all back on their feet and normal as ever after three days in bed.
But Celeste and I weren't getting better, and suddenly she'd disappeared into the trees.
The weight of my feet dragging through the underbrush suddenly felt unbearable, like someone had filled my shoes with cement. I stopped, leaning against a tree as I tried to catch my breath, stomach letting out another pained groan. I'd spent days trying and failing to keep down food, only to throw up anything I managed to swallow. What I didn't tell anyone was that the bile that came back up was black and viscous like oil.
As I brushed against a tree, I felt something wet.
Gingerly, I pulled away to discover blood and dirt smeared down my arm. I yelped, immediately assuming I must have cut myself. But as I ran a hand down my skin looking for a wound, I realized it wasn't me.
The blood was already on the tree.
"Celeste!" I screamed ever louder, heart hammering. If she was hurt, I had to find her. "Celeste!"
That's when I heard the soft sound of slurping to my left. A chill settled into my skin as I turned. I smelled it before I saw it: the cloying scent of coppery blood staining the air.
Hidden among the ferns was a man's corpse, jaw hanging agape in a frozen scream. A pool of blood soaked into the mossy soil around him and stained his torn khaki cargo shorts and Camp Everwood T-shirt. It leaked from his torso, which was sliced open, revealing the soft pink entrails inside.
I recognized him: Devin Han, one of our camp counselors.
I also recognized the figure slumped over him, licking her fingers.
"Celeste?" I whispered.
When she turned to look at me, it took all my power not to gasp. Her face was smeared with blood, and her teeth were sharp and elongated. Tears cut through the blood, which dripped off her chin and onto her hands where a chunk of…something was clutched between her fingers. Her nails, typically short and grubby back then, had curved into lethal-looking talons.
Her lower lip quivered with a sob. "I-I don't know what's happening to me, Zo."
I barely heard her over the sound of blood roaring in my ears as the scent of carnage became stronger and stronger. My stomach snarled, and I felt something poking into my tongue. I began to shake, vision darkening at the edges.
I dove at the body.
Before the dream could progress any more, a hand shook my shoulder. Valeria's voice broke through my sleeping brain.
"Zoey, get up. We made it to the hotel."
I shot up, dazed as my vision came back to me. I was in the Mini Cooper, Celeste, Valeria, and Jasmine all staring at me with furrowed brows. I quickly smoothed my hair and straightened up, shaking my head.
"Sorry," I muttered. "Dozed off."
"Nightmare?" Celeste asked.
"I keep having those too," Val said, a shiver going down her spine. "Like, I keep dreaming that Patricia from EHPA calls me to say that my application to leave Aspen Flats for Desert Bloom was denied and I'm stuck there all summer. It's awful."
"As if Patricia pays enough attention to us to give a shit if we don't get proper sign-offs to leave town," Jasmine snickered. "Who knows, maybe your dream version of the Emergency Hollow Preparedness Association has enough government funding to not watch Netflix on the job and actually monitor us."
"Yeah," I agreed. "That was, ah, pretty much the nightmare. The horrors of our misused tax dollars."
That seemed to placate Jasmine and Val, who offered their sympathy and slid out of the car to check in at the reception desk. Celeste, though, wrinkled her brow and frowned sympathetically.
"Camp Everwood?" she guessed.
She bit her lip. "Yeah. I get those too. But hey"—she nodded outside toward the hotel—"what better way to get our mind off things than having some vodka I stole from my mom at the pool?"
I cracked a smile. "You're a visionary, Fairbanks. Thanks."
The Hollowing is over, I reminded myself. And you're okay.
I opened my door and slid out to follow my friends, doing my best to shove the memory to the back of my mind where it belonged.
If you or a family member has been stricken with Hollowness, remember to add your name to the United States National Hollow Registry. Registration will ensure timely delivery of viable nutritional protein to your home from one of our verified distributors. You'll also be sent a link to download the HollowLife app, which allows for local EHPA representatives to remain abreast of your location and for you to log your weekly SynFlesh intake.
Any Hollow person found unregistered is subject to arrest and detention.
Remember: community safety is everyone's business.
—Emergency Hollow Preparedness Association PSA
Checking into the hotel was easy, so it wasn't long before Celeste and I were dragging the flesh cooler to our room. Val strutted beside me humming the lyrics to one of the songs she'd played in the car while Jasmine looked up takeout places nearby that might have SynFlesh options. After a deeply unflattering climb up the stairs, Celeste and I dropped the cooler on the floor of our room, gasping for breath while Val squealed and ran for one of the queen beds.
"This is so cool!" she shouted, flopping down on the pile of pillows near the headboard and splaying out her arms. "I've never had my own hotel room before."
I let my duffel bag slide off my shoulder and onto the floor next to the cooler, surveying the room. The carpet was a dingy shade of mustard yellow, and the beds had floral duvets that may well have been manufactured in the '70s. Still, it smelled like piney cleaning solution and the windows had a nice view of the pool, plus the Joshua tree–speckled desert beyond it, so I couldn't complain.
"You should have been on the softball team," Jasmine said, dropping her hard-shell suitcase, which was covered in BLM, feminist, and lesbian flag stickers, in the corner of the room. "We stayed at hotels all the time. Made for a truly incredible amount of queer drama."
"As fun as sharing a bed with every softball butch in Aspen Flats sounds, I've sworn off activities that require sweating." Val rolled over onto her stomach to look at me and Celeste. "So, you two sharing a bed?"
Celeste and I exchanged a look. At the sight of her faintly quirked eyebrow, something fluttered in the pit of my stomach, which I quickly shoved down.
I said, "I can ask for a rollaway bed at the front desk."
"Why?" Celeste tilted her head to the side and stared at me from under her long, dark eyelashes. "We've been sharing a bed at sleepovers since middle school."
- On Sale
- Apr 25, 2023
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Book Group