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“Oliver, take a deep breath. You’re going to make yourself faint.”

After his conversation with Angela Starr at the café, Garren channeled his inner Dale Earnhardt and sped past several red lights in his haste to find my mother. He was now standing in the middle of the art gallery, breathless and desperately trying to speak to my baffled mother in actual words instead of gibberish. The only thing she could understand was that I was the reason for his visit though a chicken could figure out that much themselves, with him constantly pointing at me.

My mother gently took him by his arm and led him away from the lobby, away from her concerned friends who had forgotten all about their previous conversation the moment a winded, twitchy police officer hurried into the building (after ten attempts of pushing a door that needed to be pulled). She helped him onto a bench in one of the rooms displaying Greek art pieces.

“Tessa, what happened? Did you have an encounter with one of those creatures again?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Well, yeah, one of them possessed Amy and almost made her fall from the roof. It’s a long story. He’s freaking out over nothing.”

“It’s not nothing!” He blushed at two elderly women passing through the doorway, affronted by his tone. “Kala, the council is going to have our heads because of their recklessness. I found this in her pocket.”

When Garren showed her the strange dagger, I expected her to be frightened or angered, siding with him that the dagger’s sudden appearance was my fault, but she simply looked amazed. She held the dagger in her own hands, her fingers trailing across the intricate marks carved into the handle. Elena described the incident on the roof: how a flash of light emerged from my birthmark in the shape of a raven and destroyed the creature before taking the form of the dagger. Lost in her own thoughts, my mother nodded, half-listening to Elena’s story, and I heard her whisper that the dagger was even more magnificent in person.

“I’ve only ever seen this in my books. It’s remarkable.” She lifted her eyes from the dagger. “I wouldn’t worry, Tessa. The blade of Charon is meant to be hidden but I’ve read that it can be summoned if a reaper is in danger. It appeared because it sensed you were in danger.”

As I thought, Garren had overreacted to the situation but I would be lying if I was not secretly relieved that he was wrong.

“See, Fairy Godmother? The council won’t care that it disappeared from its hiding spot.”

“Oh no, the council will certainly be concerned.” I sat beside Garren, now sharing his anxiety. “They understand that reapers don’t purposely call the dagger to them, in most cases, but they have to ensure that there was actual danger. As I recall, when your grandmother once summoned it, the council interrogated her for hours. There was a small trial…nothing too serious, dear, but this is very good.”

“I think our definitions of good differ. How is this good?”

“Because you can tell the council what’s been happening,” she explained with an encouraging smile. “Once the council knows the truth, they’ll take the dagger back and make sure those nasty little creatures don’t harm you ever again. You can put all the worry of Fin’s death behind you and let them handle it.”

“Is a trial necessary? Can’t we just send the dagger back with a note that says something like I’m sorry that it popped up in my hand when I was about to get attacked by a monster?”

My own question was answered when a wren, with cinnamon colored feathers and a white stripe above one of its eyes, flew through the open window and landed on my knee. A tiny scroll was tied around its right leg by a red ribbon. Garren muttered that the wren belonged to Cedric, the leader of the council, and ducked his head between his knees, as if the wren was about to shoot lasers out of its eyes. The wren raised its leg towards me. At my mother’s insistence, I untied the scroll and skimmed its contents.

Dear Miss Byrne,

It has to come to the council’s attention that at twenty minutes past three this afternoon, on the rooftop of Belmont Falls High, you summoned the blade of Charon from its secure location. As you should know from your studies, this is a breach of law fifty two, section C, paragraph three, which states that such a summons must be authorized by the council through a deciding vote.

The council understands that young reapers such as yourself have little control over their abilities and accidents may happen, which is why we require your attendance, along with your guardian Oliver Garren, at a trial this Saturday, December 19th, at 8 PM. At the trial, we shall allow you to plead your case and then decide whether or not you will be punished. Witnesses are permitted for your defense. Sage will remain by your side and guide you to the proper location on the day of your trial.

Sincerely,

Cedric Cullen

Grand Master and Protector of the Realms

Elena rested her head on my shoulder, reading over the letter several times. My stomach twisted into a thousand tiny knots at the threat of being punished for something out of my control. Though my mother believed that I should tell the council about the shadow creatures and my suspicions surrounding Belmont’s death, a small doubt nagged at me that the council would not be as lenient as she imagined. Most of my doubt stemmed from Garren’s near heart attack, brought on by the risk of upsetting the council.

The wren tilted its head to the side. “Do you have to read this too?” I asked Garren. He nodded, taking the scroll from me. “Why is a bird taking me to the trial? Why can’t they just tell me the location?”

“The council loves their secrecy and no, Fin, the bird didn’t use magic to fly across the sea in less than a day.”

Belmont closed his mouth, looking embarrassed, and angrily punched Elena’s arm as she giggled at him. That single punch was enough to start another longwinded argument.

“Cedric has a way with birds. He’s able to speak to them from any location. Tessa, when you meet with the council, I urge you to be respectful and polite. Some members have little patience around children.”

“Well, this Cedric guy sounds like a pr—”

My mother placed her hand over my mouth. “Sweetheart, don’t say such things. The council has eyes and ears everywhere, especially around those who are awaiting a trial. Take it from someone who learned that the hard way. Until it’s over, let’s not say anything that could get you in more trouble.”

“You’ve met the council before?”

“Yes, when I was eighteen. It’s a story for another time,” she said, playing with her wedding ring. “Your grandmother was once put on trial as well, though hers ended on far worse terms. There’s no reason to worry about this trial. You simply state the facts and the council will see that you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s merely a formality. I remember how stuffy some of them can be so I’ll pick out the perfect outfit for you.”

“Great. Mom, could I uh talk to you alone for a minute?” I asked, holding the back of Elena’s dress to stop her from scratching out Belmont’s eyes. “I’m having trouble with figuring out what piece to use for the gallery.”

Leaving Garren to deal with the quarreling teenage ghosts, who soon dragged him into their argument, I followed my mother to her private studio. Her studio was covered from wall to wall with artwork, created by her, my brother, and me. The exhibition, at the moment, was the last thing on my mind and she did not need to use her sixth sense to know that I had no intention of discussing art. As I sat on her desk, I glanced at a painting of a field of flowers near the door. It was one of my first pieces, done when I was four years old.

“Are you nervous about the trial? If you like, we can practice before Saturday. I remember my trial vividly and I doubt much has changed over the years.”

“I—I don’t want to go in front of the council.” Warm tears stung my eyes. My mother was stunned by the sudden quiver in my voice and grabbed a sketchpad from her desk. “They’ll punish me, whether they believe me about those creatures or not. What if they’ve been watching me before I summoned that dagger? They’ll think that I’m just like Damon.”

She handed me the sketchpad, my usual method to relax when I was upset. “Why would you think—that’s ridiculous. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Yes, I did. I hurt someone. I don’t know how I…it just happened and I didn’t do it on purpose or maybe I did. Chief Parker’s right. I should have my own room at Erinyes.” My mother cupped my cheeks in her hands and brushed away my tears. “O—or we could share a room. He’d love that. He was right about me from the beginning.”

“Enough. I don’t ever want to hear you say that. Where is this coming from, Tessa?”

Fighting back more tears, I opened up to her about the fight with the stranger in Mr. Mitchell’s office on the day he was pushed down the stairs. I could see her tense up, from her fingers anxiously tapping against the edge of the desk, as I mentioned his skin turning corpse-like and his arm only returning to normal when I released my grip.

“Y—you think I’m a monster too,” I said, averting her gaze. Ever since I was a little girl, I hated the idea of disappointing my parents. I had only seen her this tense one other time, minutes after that incident and she genuinely thought I was dead. “I am just like him.”

“No, sweetheart, you’re not. I know such a sight must have been quite alarming. I didn’t think we’d get to that topic in your lessons for a couple years. You are not a monster. Say it so I know you understand.” I nodded, muttering, “I am not a monster” under my breath. “Your abilities are growing at a faster rate than usual. I remember the first time it happened to me. I was a senior in college and your father and I were in his bedroom—”

“Mom!” I exclaimed, disgusted.

“Oh, hush. I’m sure you’ve read worse on the internet. Our abilities don’t just mean that we’re a passageway between life and death. We’re also quite dangerous. When we feel heightened emotions like sadness or fear, our untapped abilities come to the surface, without us even realizing it. What happened with that man was you protecting yourself,” she said, squishing a ladybug on her desk with a tissue and holding it in the palm of her hand. “Just as we can give life, like what you did in helping Connor that day…” The ladybug’s legs began to move. “We can also take it.”

To my amazement, the ladybug was dead once more, lying on its back. “It’s why we have the council. They keep reapers in line…making sure none of us abuse our gifts. As you get older, you’ll find yourself with more power than you ever thought possible. It’s up to you to make sure that you use it wisely. I think we’ll need to skip ahead a few chapters for lessons this week.”

“Maybe go over the council rules too. Apparently, by now, I should know rule fifty two, section C, paragraph three by heart.”

Amy’s possession provided the perfect opportunity to visit my grandmother the next day. My mother turned it into a family trip after school, which made Ryan so excited that he squeezed his juice box and squirted apple juice all over Belmont’s face. Upon hearing that I was meeting with the council, my grandmother was overjoyed, earning stern looks from both of my parents. She quietly congratulated me for continuing the tradition and assured me that the members of the council were as harmless as teddy bears (though she did warn me that the ‘old bats’ had giant sticks up their backsides).

When I told her about Amy’s possession and the shadow creature mocking me with the song, I was surprised to see that she was not the least bit unnerved. She laughed it off as the other reaper’s pathetic attempt to scare the family. My father, afraid for her safety, had offered to let her stay at our house until the council dealt with the problem but she refused, insisting that she was capable of handling an ‘arrogant fool with an ego the size of the sun’.

Two straight hours of arguing back and forth between my parents and grandmother was unsuccessful, only leading to my father handing my grandmother twenty dollars for losing a bet they made on his wedding day. I suspected that my parents hoped that my grandmother would side with them and her fear would deter me from pursuing my investigation but it had the opposite effect. If anything, my grandmother’s fearlessness inspired me to be the same: to not let this other reaper or their minions scare me from finding out the truth.

While my parents spoke with the nurses about heightened security measures for the room, lying that a dangerous ex-girlfriend of hers was recently released from prison, I spoke with my grandmother in private (though it was not so private with Elena and Belmont standing on either side of me) about Chief Parker’s odd behavior and my plans to question Rhys during the hiking trip. She promised to keep an eye on me from afar, in case I found myself in danger.

In the week leading up to the hiking trip and my trial, my mother increased my lessons from once a week on Friday afternoons to twice a day. She wanted me to better understand my abilities as a reaper, so I was not afraid the next time a new ability suddenly emerged, and the lessons, which were infinitely more interesting than in the past, proved that I honestly knew nothing about being a reaper.

The council had all kinds of laws, written in a hefty, leather-bound book that had a spine thicker than my waist. I soon realized that the council made it astonishingly easy to break one of their precious rules. It seemed that one little mistake was enough for them to send a reaper or guardian to the Meadows, a deceptive name.

The Meadows was a prison where the guilty were sent directly after a trial, without the chance to visit their loved ones. Once the council decided that the accused was guilty, the person was forced to drink water from the Lethe river, causing them to lose their identities and wander around for an eternity. Those who were guilty of very serious crimes were sent to a similar prison yet, along with losing their memories, they had to endure an eternity of punishment, based on their personal fears. Such harsh punishments made me wonder if the council believed in redemption, that a person was capable of changing for the better after making one mistake.

“Tessa, your ride is here,” my father shouted from downstairs.

I shut the mythology book I had borrowed from the school library, leaving a cat-shaped bookmark on one of the pages. Ever since my visit with my grandmother, I was determined to find out more about the shadow creatures and how to defeat them without a magical dagger that was summoned through my birthmark. The first step was identifying the creatures by an actual name and I managed to narrow it down to a few possibilities.

Sage flew through my bedroom door, my ragdoll cat at its tail feathers. I sprayed her twice with the bottle on my nightstand.

“Purrsephone, no. We do not eat our guests. Are you ever going to stop laughing?” Belmont was snickering into his sleeve. Hearing my cat’s name, chosen when I was eight years old, made him cackle like a hyena. “I was eight and I thought it was cute.”

“Of course you would, Byrne. You’re weird. Not weird weird…a good weird.”

“In your language, is that a compliment? Come on, Sage,” I said, opening my backpack to hide the small bird.

My father was speaking to a middle-aged man, dressed in a black suit with a matching black tie and chauffeur hat, in the living room. Most people would find it strange to hear their father discussing video games but it was just a typical day in my house. He was like a child, showing the man that he was nearly finished with his latest game: Underworld Uprising, or Baxter the Bunny’s Forest Adventure if my mother was around while he played with my brother. Ryan was on the couch, surrounded by bowls of chips and pretzels and slicing through hordes of zombies with a chainsaw.

“Hello, Miss Byrne,” said the man, greeting me with a kind smile. “Are you ready to go?”

“Um yeah. Dad, you might want to switch the games. I think she’s almost done exercising upstairs and she won’t want to see Ryan cutting off zombie heads.”

“She’s right, kiddo. Time to put away the chainsaw and help Baxter find his way to Sunshine Hollow.” As he sliced off another zombie’s head, Ryan whined that he was almost finished with the level. My father was torn between letting my brother continue and risking my mother catching him killing zombies instead of helping a anthropomorphic bunny in overalls find his friends. “Sorry, little bear, but if mommy finds out you were playing this again, daddy will have to sleep on the couch for a week and he won’t get to see mommy’s new pajamas that she bought while he was away.”

I scrunched my nose in disgust, wishing that I was as naïve as my brother. “Nice,” whispered Belmont, with a smirk that suggested he was imagining my own mother in some pose straight out of Playboy.

“Well, that’s another thing to talk to my therapist about when I’m in my thirties. Thanks for adding to the list, Dad. I’m not sure if I’ll be home before that meeting tonight but if not, I’ll tell you all about it in the morning,” I said, grabbing my house keys from the glass table near the front door.

“Your mother and I will be up when you get home.” He wrestled the controller away from my brother, who held on as if it was a piece of valuable treasure. “Have fun at Claire’s.”

When the chauffeur (“Call me James,” he insisted as he opened the back door of the Rolls Royce parked outside my house) turned into the Hilton’s driveway, I wondered how he was able to distinguish their home from the others, considering each house in the neighborhood looked eerily similar. The single difference, nearly invisible to the untrained eye, was the H adorned on the iron lock of the front gate. All the times I imagined where Hilton lived, when she was not making my life a living hell at school, I expected that it was like Belmont’s, uninviting and ornately decorated to boast their vast wealth. I was surprisingly reminded of my own home, with the many portraits hanging on the walls resembling a miniature art gallery.

“Mr. Hilton had some business to attend to before the trip and the other guests haven’t arrived yet. Would you like a tour while you wait?” he asked, hanging his hat on a rack near the door.

“I’m a little worried about getting lost in this place.” Reaching into the pocket of his suit jacket, he handed me a pamphlet. Inside was a detailed map of each floor of the mansion. “Seriously?”

“It was made after the third staff member disappeared this month. He was the head gardener. One minute, he was washing his hands in the bathroom and the next, he simply vanished. His body was never found, just like the others. I’ve heard the maids say that if you listen closely at night, you can hear the ghosts begging for help.”

“That was almost convincing. If you want to make some quick cash, when they leave for a vacation, you should offer a haunted tour. The people in this town are embarrassingly gullible so you’d make a fortune. I get a cut of the profits for giving you the idea.”

Mr. Hilton had not been joking about his love of art. In between family portraits and random pictures of Claire, from the days of being a chubby toddler to her most recent school picture, there were pieces from the gallery, most of them painted by my mother. James was in the middle of showing me around the enormous kitchen (including the new, fancy refrigerator from Japan that had its own TV) when Principal Hilton passed by the door, looking very impatient as she spoke on the phone.

“No, it was scheduled for today at noon. Of course I made an appointment with—Jasmine!”

A frazzled girl in her late twenties hurried towards her, her high heels clicking against the marble floor. Judging by the bags under her eyes, she had not slept in days.

“Didn’t you make an appointment at the spa?” she hissed, covering the lower end of the phone with her hand.

“Y—yes, Mrs. Hilton. I did it right after I set up the…” Her tanned face soon turned chalk white. “I had it written down but when I was checking on the reservations for lunch, Claire asked me to help her with something and I must’ve gotten distracted and forgotten to make the call. I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t pay you to forget things. You may think you’re irreplaceable but I can assure you that you’re not. You can ask the line of other girls who had your job before you were out of diapers. It’s fortunate that an acquaintance of mine owns this spa and can rectify your mistake. This is your last warning. One more mistake and you’ll be back to serving fried garbage at some lowly diner. Is that understood?”

“Is it alright if you continue the tour on your own?” asked James, his eyes following Principal Hilton down the hallway. “Jasmine doesn’t take it well when something goes wrong and I don’t want her losing her job.”

After assuring him that I could navigate the mansion on my own, with the help of the map, he gently placed his hand on Jasmine’s arm and grabbed the pill bottle that she retrieved from her purse. She was seconds away from a panic attack as he steered away from the kitchen, fretting that today would be her last day as Principal Hilton’s personal assistant (“I know Claire did this on purpose. She’s hated me since day one, James,” she said, sniffling). Belmont grabbed a chocolate chip cookie from the jar on the counter.

“Sucks that I’m dead. If I was still alive, I could help her.”

Elena crossed her arms. “You help someone? Did you just see that pig fly by the window?”

“Hey, I always comforted Jas when she messed up. The first time, it was at a brunch with my family and the Hiltons. Claire blamed her for the fruit bowl having both red and green grapes. I found her crying in the kitchen while I was looking for a beer and offered to help out.” He bit into the cookie. “Go down on her for a few minutes and she stops having her little freak outs.”

Disgusted, I snatched the cookie from him and chucked it in the trash can. The fleeting hope that he had any compassion was gone in an instant and it made me question if him saving Hilton from being Dr. Baxter’s punching bag was truly selfless or some manipulative act.

“What, now you’re mad at me?” he asked, two steps behind me on the staircase. “It helped her not be upset anymore. Why is it a problem how I did it?”

“Because it wasn’t about helping her. You did it because she’s a hot girl and you can’t control the tiny carrot in your pants. I bet you wouldn’t have helped if she wasn’t pretty enough for you.”

“Ti—who the hell said it was tiny?” He pointed at Elena, offended by my accusation. “Did she say that? She didn’t have anything else to compare it to so what does she know?”

“The fact that you’re more offended by that than how you took advantage of some poor girl proves what I’ve known about you since the day I saw your smug face that first day in second grade. You’re a pig, Belmont.”

“At least I’m not some prude princess. Maybe you’re just jealous that the closest you’ve gotten to anything like that is when someone has to give you CPR because you fainted in the middle of class.” I stopped at the top of the staircase, my nails digging into the railing. “It’s a real waste, if you ask me. You could’ve at least been ugly so you have an excuse for why you’re seventeen and haven’t gotten past first base. Wait, have you even done th—”

SMACK!

Belmont clutched his cheek, blood trickling through his fingers from the cut inflicted by my ring. A white hot rage was burning inside me and all I wanted was to tear off his lips with my bare hands. Elena was ironically quiet, looking more concerned with me than with teasing her former boyfriend.

“You know, I never had to help you. There’s no written law that says reapers have to help ghosts find out how they died, if it was an accident or not. I did it because for some stupid reason and against my better judgment, I felt sorry for you. Dressing in clothes that I would never wear, getting close to your jerk friends, and almost getting myself killed by some stranger? It’s all because you want to prove that you want to find your killer. You want to know why no one’s looking into it? Because you were…no, you still are a terrible person. Why should I keep helping someone who doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself and doesn’t appreciate everything that I’ve done? Those creatures didn’t show up until I started digging into what happened to you and now, I have to go on trial and if the council doesn’t believe me, I’ll be punished but you don’t care.”

“Byrne, I—”

“I want you to go.”

“If you want me to go wait in your room until your little PMS fit is over, fine. I’ll—what the hell?” His right arm began to vanish into thin air, starting with his fingers. “What’s happening?”

“I said I want you to go. See, I can make you cross over for good whenever I want. It’s something I learned from my latest lesson with my mom but I never thought of actually using it until now. Once you’re gone, you’re gone, Belmont. There’s no coming back and I don’t need to keep looking for your killer.”

“T—Tessa, stop it,” stuttered Elena, watching the rest of his arm vanish before her eyes. With his arm gone, it spread to his neck. “Don’t do this.”

“Why not? It’s not like you want him here. You’ve hated him hanging around since you found out he was a ghost too. Why shouldn’t I just get rid of him?”

“Because this isn’t you!” Elena moved in front of the slowly vanishing Belmont (“Byrne, this isn’t funny. Make it stop,” he pleaded with a shaky breath, panicking over his lack of a right leg) and reached for my trembling hand. “I know you, Tessa. You don’t want to do this. If you do, you’ll prove him right. You’re not helping Fin because you feel sorry for him. It’s because you’re a good person. You’re the best person I know…it’s the one thing I’ve been sure of since the accident. Please don’t let that change.”

Belmont’s body returned to normal. As he checked that all of his limbs were intact, Elena sighed in relief and threw her arms around my neck.

“Don’t let him get to you. You know he’s a jackass,” she whispered. I was calmed by the scent of her vanilla lotion, a smell that lingered even after she became a ghost. “Once this whole killer mess is over, he’ll cross over and we won’t have to see him ever again.”

With a comforting smile, she took the map and offered her own personal tour, knowing the house like the back of her hand. I extended my arm, blocking Belmont from joining her in the east wing.

“Let me make something clear, you pompous prick. We barely spoke before the night you died so don’t presume you know a damn thing about me. You don’t know me or what I’ve been through…”

Belmont swallowed hard, for once not having any witty remarks. “You’re right. I’m sor—I’m s—I shouldn’t have said any of that. You’re wrong about one thing. I do appreciate what you’ve done and at the trial, I’ll tell that to the lame council.”

The east wing, nicknamed The Princess Wing on the map, was entirely devoted to Hilton. Elena and Belmont did not bat an eye at the fact that she had four rooms serving as her closet, each dedicated to a specific season, but I could not, for the life of me, understand how one person owned that many clothes. One of the doors differed from the rest, painted pale blue with an etching of a raven.

According to Belmont, it was the sole room that Hilton was not allowed to remodel when her father allowed her to have an entire wing to herself. Dubbed the Inspiration Room by her father, it was where Hilton was sent to do her homework and study for tests. Despite being friends since birth, neither of them had ever been allowed inside, with Hilton’s excuse being that it was the ugliest room in the house.

When I opened the door, I realized why she kept her friends out of the room: from wall to wall, it was filled with my own artwork. I recognized several pieces, some of them made when I was as young as seven.

“Didn’t you make this for back to school night in second grade?” asked Elena, picking up a clay cat sculpture on one of the tables. On the bottom of one of the front paws were my initials. “Why would it be in here?”

As I walked around the room, reminiscing about making the different works, I spotted a notebook on the white desk in the corner. The first half of the notebook was filled with crudely drawn pictures of me being murdered in creative ways, such as an alligator tearing off my head and an elephant crushing the rest of my body. The rest of the pages contained drawings of different outfits (some of them very similar to clothes Hilton had worn before) and at the very end was a brochure to a fashion school in New York, with hearts drawn around the name.

“Make sure that Stella and Chanel get their baths before we leave for lunch. Remember that Stella likes—what are you doing in here?”

Hilton was standing in the doorway, dressed in a lacy red chemise and a matching silk robe that stopped far above her knees, with Jasmine, her eyeliner smudged on the edges, at her heels and struggling to keep two Maltese in her arms. The dogs were dressed in matching cashmere sweaters and for a moment, I wondered if it would be sad to admit that their clothes likely cost more than mine. I quickly placed the notebook back on the desk.

“Isn’t it bad enough that I have to see you at school, Byrne? Now I have to deal with you when I wake up in the morning?”

“You just woke—you know it’s noon, right?” Elena pinched my arm. “I’m uh here for the trip with your dad and his club. James picked me up early so he said I could look around the house until everyone gets here.”

“Of course you’re on first name basis with the help. With those clothes, you fit right in,” she said, her icy blue eyes passing over my hoodie and dark, ripped skinny jeans in disdain. “Do you like my father’s little shrine to you? When I got to decorate the wing, I wanted to demolish every inch of this room and turn it into my own personal spa but no, he wouldn’t allow that.”

“Yeah, that sucks. I should probably go downstairs in case—“ Hilton placed her arm across the doorway. “Or not.”

“Did you know he makes me sit in here to do my homework, day after day? He says that being around success and talent will rub off on me. Do you think he’s right?” (“A—are you asking me or is this rhetorical?” I asked, feeling like Hilton was a lion about to kill its prey) “He’s not. All it does is fuel my hatred. I’m shocked he hasn’t offed your parents so he can adopt you and have the daughter he always wanted. You could probably shit in your hand and wipe it on a piece of paper and he’d think you’re the next Picarasso.”

“It’s actually uh Picasso but that’s not important. Look, I didn’t ask him to make this room. He just really likes art and you’re kind of an artist too…with your fashion stuff. Those designs in your notebook are amazing. I recognized one of them from an outfit you wore last year. I didn’t know you actually designed your own stuff.”

Her right eye twitched. “Listen to me, you dirty little curry muncher.”

Elena forced both my arms to stay at my sides, before I could break Hilton’s nose a second time. To both Hilton and Jasmine, it looked like I was shaking in anger.

“Don’t ever go through my things again. I could make your life so much worse. I doubt Chace would think you’re so great if he knew the things I did about your messed up family. I hope crazy isn’t contagious.”

The only reason that Hilton was not screaming for her mother, with her hands over her bleeding nose, was Elena, who continued to hold onto my arms and pushed me towards the door. She loosened her grip once we were back downstairs, far away from that harpy. The other members of the Odyssey Society were in the living room and, unsurprisingly, they were mostly men, except for two women around my mother’s age who were laughing at Mr. Hilton’s jokes.

“Tessa, here you are. Come, come, no need to be all by yourself,” he called, waving me over to him.

He introduced me to the two women, Isabelle Leone and Danica Kim, who had moved to Belmont Falls just last year and were recent additions to the club. Isabelle was a member of the police department (“But if you ask Caleb, I’m nothing more than a secretary with a gun. Honestly, he needs to get his head out of his ass,” she said, already making her one of my favorite people in this town) while Danica, the more outgoing of the two, owned a chain of high-end boutiques with a part-time hobby as a nature photographer.

I soon learned that despite not being as adventurous as her other half, she had no problem with putting sexist morons in their place, shutting up Chief Parker when he loudly proclaimed that the trip was unsafe for ‘little girls’ (“Then there was no reason for you to come, Caleb. Did you bring your blankie with you in case you get scared?”). Parker and some of his friends were outside, tossing around a football. As he caught the ball, he winked at me and flexed his biceps.

“I see Chace has his eyes on you,” said Danica with a sly smile. “You better be careful. He’s as charming as his father.”

“A toad has more charm than Caleb,” remarked Isabelle.

“Oh, there’s the queen bit—bee herself. Don’t make eye contact, Izzy. If she doesn’t see us—and she did. Cecile, how wonderful to see you again"

As Principal Hilton and a half dozen other women, reminiscent of ducklings following their mother, walked into the room, dressed like she was off to a fashion show in Paris, Isabelle quietly explained that the two women had a strained relationship with the so-called stepford wives of Belmont Falls. Principal Hilton was far more accepting of Danica, with her modelesque appearance and budding fashion empire (though she sometimes slipped in a condescending remark or two). Isabelle was not as well-liked by the middle-age clique, who she loved to call ‘the botox brigade’, due to her job, never bothering to hide their contempt when they blatantly told Danica that she deserved better.

“You’d think Dani would be the target of their jokes considering they all have the same hair,” she whispered, referring to Danica’s ebony pixie cut with dark red highlights. “But she’d never dare insult Dani or else she wouldn’t get the inside scoop on the latest fashion crazes.”

Danica’s voice went up three octaves as she spoke to Principal Hilton. “I see you took my advice on the hair. It looks fabulous.”

“You do have a sixth sense about these things. I do wish you would join us at the spa instead, darling. Claire’s decided to spend some time with her father and go with him on this silly trip.”

An alarm went off in my head at the news of Hilton joining the cave expedition. My doubts that she had ever spent time outdoors willingly were confirmed by the surprise on Belmont and Elena’s faces. He suggested that I was the reason for her sudden change of heart, possibly planning to shove me off a cliff or feed me to a bear.

Her smile briefly faltered when she noticed Isabelle. “Hello Isabelle. I would invite you as well but we both know you’re not a spa person. You’re too busy directing traffic or whatever it is that they have you do at the station.”

“Actually, I love a good spa day but Dani likes getting her hands dirty. She even insists on competitions after we’re done, to see who has the most scrapes. She’s won the past three times.”

“Past four,” corrected Danica. “You should’ve seen us after the last trip. I needed to take three showers just to get out all the dirt.”

“How…interesting,” said Principal Hilton, looking seconds away from puking up the single carrot she ate for breakfast.

She shifted the conversation from scraped knees to Danica’s trip to New York for a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. The women squealed like schoolgirls when she mentioned meeting Antonio Vitale, an apparently famous Italian designer (Elena was hyperventilating at the mere thought of seeing him in person) and convincing him to host one of his exclusive fashion shows in Belmont Falls.

“Really, we should be thanking Izzy. She made her grandmother’s famous tiramisu for a party I went to and he could not stop talking about it,” she said with so much love in her voice that it made the petite brunette turn ten different shades of red. “I swear he’s just coming here so he can taste more of her cooking, not to show off his newest designs.”

“Hmm, well, it’s just remarkable how well someone like you has done for themselves.”

“Someone like me?” (“Here we go,” mumbled Isabelle, bracing herself for the worst) “What does that mean?”

“I’m sure your parents expected your career to be more…medically-oriented. Don’t misunderstand me, Dani. There’s nothing wrong with going against expectations.”

“Oh, I understand you perfectly, Cecile. I have a few thoughts on the subject myself. Would you like to hear—”

Isabelle gasped. “Dani, is that—yes, I think it is him. What a small world. I’m so sorry, Cecile. We just spotted an old friend of ours. Who could imagine that he was part of the club too? He must be one of Declan’s newest recruits. A joy talking to you as always.”

Taking Danica by the arm, she led her out of the living room to prevent her from making a scene in front of the other guests. Belmont joked that they reminded him of me and Elena, as Danica repeatedly pointed at Principal Hilton and made a few rude gestures.

Before I became my snooty principal’s next target, I sneaked out the back door and was greeted by a football zooming towards me. I was about to duck to the ground until Belmont raised my arms, allowing me to catch the football before it collided with my face.

“Nice catch, Byrne! Maybe you can replace Danvers on the team. He hasn’t made a decent catch all season,” joked Parker. I was still hunched down towards the ground, my eyes closed. “You okay?”

“I just had a flashback to when we used to play dodgeball but yeah, I’m good. At least I didn’t get a bruise this time. My hands just sting a little.”

With a quiet chuckle, he grabbed the football and tossed it back to Danvers, who missed it by a few inches. I was taken aback as he began to lightly massage my hands.

“Does that feel better?”

Elena mocked him, thoroughly unimpressed. “W—what?” I stuttered, going brain dead for a second. (“Your hands,” he said, flashing me his signature smile that made plenty girls at school weak in the knees) “Oh, I uh guess so.”

My answer earned me a sharp pain in my foot, courtesy of Elena stomping her heel. She insisted that this was one of his many ploys to charm a girl into the backseat of his car.

“Tessa, you’re not actually falling for this, are you? Anyone can rub their fingers back and forth over someone’s hands. It’s not—”

Her rant was cut off by a screechy “Chace!”, followed by Hilton roughly bumping into my shoulder. She wrapped her arms around his neck, like a python constricting its prey, then planted a kiss on his cheek, leaving behind a glittery pink mark.

“Do you like my new dress? It’s a Vitale original,” she boasted, spinning around to show every angle of her short-sleeved pink dress with a low back. “My mother bought it for me right after his latest show in Paris. They practically snatched it off the model when she got off the runway.”

“That’s…cool?” he asked, his eyes darting to me for an idea of how to respond but I was just as clueless. “Um, you know that we’re going hiking on this trip, right? It’s a lot of walking and maybe you should at least change your shoes. Heels and hiking don’t usually mix.”

“I’ll be totes fine. If we get attacked by something, you’ll be there to protect me. Besides, as if I’d ever dress like Byrne. I like to look good, not poor,” she said, side-eyeing my clothes.

“I think I look good,” I shot back, with a small shrug. “Will got this for me last year for science pun birthdays.”

“Science pun birthdays?” asked Parker, sounding genuinely curious. It was the first time he was ever interested in a conversation involving Will. “What’s that?”

“Just this fun thing we do. Every year, our birthday presents have a theme. He loves Star Wars so I got him this shirt that said ‘May the force be with you’ but instead of the word force, it has the equation and he got me this hoodie.”

The hoodie had a picture of a cartoon cat in a box with The Cat in the Box by Dr. Schrodinger written along the side. As I explained how it referenced a famous physics experiment, Belmont and Parker looked at me like I was speaking a different language while Hilton looked as if she would rather be sticking her hand down a garbage disposal than listening to me.

“You’re talking physics with three idiots who thought Dr. Pepper was a real doctor? Good luck,” said Elena.

I decided to spare their few remaining brain cells from overexerting themselves. “It’s easier to understand if you know about physics but I like cats too so that’s why he got it. The picture kind of looks like my cat Purrsephone so—” My cheeks reddened when Parker sniggered. “I know it’s weird. That’s what you come up with when you’re eight and interested in Greek mythology.”

“No, I get it. I like that stuff too. My dog Polly is actually Apollo. We just call him Polly because my mom said it was cuter…and after all these years, she’s convinced herself that he’s a she.”

Claire’s upper lip curled. “What the hell are you—oh, finally, someone here who is actually interesting. Rhys won’t make me want to throw myself off the roof.”

“I heard he’s bringing his latest fling. Be nice to this one, Claire. You had the last girl crying in the bathroom for two hours. Aren’t you over Rhys by now?”

“So what’s the plan? You can’t just ask my brother what he was doing the night I…you know,” whispered Belmont.

I rolled my eyes as some of the boys wolf whistled, presumably at Rhys’s new girlfriend. Danvers was particularly crude, joking that he would steal her away if Rhys was not careful.

“I’ll be subtle. You said he was a biology major. I can tell him that I’m interested in the same and wanted some advice. The best strategy is to play it cool. Hilton will be too busy trying to hump Parker behind a tree so there won’t be any distrac—”

The hair on the back of my neck stood on the end at the sound of a familiar giggle. Elena and Belmont both clutched their stomachs, seemingly ill. I headed back into the mansion (“Tessa?” asked Parker, confused) and towards the nearest bathroom. My hands gripped the edges of the porcelain sink and it suddenly felt as if something was squeezing my heart. Hearing the door knob turn, the only sound besides my own heavy breathing, I reached for the closest object: a bar of soap. I only lowered the soap when Garren walked through the door.

“What are you doing here?”

“Your mother told me that you were spending time at Claire’s and since I know you two get along about as well as a cobra and a mongoose, it didn’t take long for me to figure out the truth. I told Chief Parker that I was interested in joining the club. I was talking to him and Dr. Baxter when I saw you run in here faster than a speeding train. Did something happen?”

Ignoring his question, I moved past him and shut the door, turning the lock. “Tessa, you can talk to me, even if it’s not about reaper business. Is Claire—why do you two look so ill?” he asked, seeing Elena on the toilet and Belmont on the floor, still clutching their stomachs.

Quietly counting back from one hundred, I handed him my phone. “Ninety seven. I—I need you to call my mother.”

The door knob jiggled and seconds later, it swung open, revealing a girl with a bobby pin in her hand, leaning against the frame. She was only a couple years older than myself, with sultry chocolate brown eyes that were simultaneously mesmerizing and intimidating and dark red lips. Her dark tresses fell just past her shoulders, her bangs swept to one side to hide the burn mark on the left side of her temple. The only way to truly describe her was every parent’s worst nightmare.

“Aw, don’t do that. She’s such a buzzkill,” she whined, a hint of a Mexican accent in her voice.

I mentally cursed at myself when I felt my knees slightly buckle. Garren stood in front of me protectively, keeping me pressed against the wall.

“I see you’ve got your guardian now. Sucks that you got someone as pathetic as him.” She smirked at the nauseous Elena and Belmont. “I see I still have that nasty effect on little ghosts. Sorry. It goes away when I leave…or you get used to it after like ten minutes.”

“Don’t speak to any of them, Vivienne. I don’t know how you escaped but—”

“Oh no, Oliver, you’ve got it all wrong. I was released on good behavior. The doctors at Erinyes said that I’m all better. I’m surprised your daddy didn’t tell you that I’ve been out for months. We both know how much he hates me. The feeling’s mutual, by the way. I’d gladly get sent back there if I got the chance to snap his neck.”

“Months?” I asked, speaking for the first time since she entered the room. I disregarded Garren’s warning to not speak to her. “When did you get out?”

Vivienne’s face softened when she caught the sliver of my face not hidden by Garren. She admitted that she had been released during the first week in October and planned to visit me until she spotted members of the council spying on her. The council was watching her every move as a precaution, still unsure that she was fully rehabilitated, making it difficult to do much besides hole herself up in hotel rooms.

Despite being secluded from the rest of the world, she managed to catch up on what she missed and when she heard about my accident, she headed to Belmont Falls and even visited me at the hospital. Garren denied her claims, sure that the council would never let her within ten feet of another reaper.

“If you had a real guardian instead of this coward, you never would’ve gotten hurt. I’ve been watching you for a while…you and your little ghost friends. I kept my distance because I didn’t want the council up my ass.”

“Then why show up now? Why are you dating Rhys Belmont?”

Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “Is my muñequita jealous?” (“Hardly,” I replied with a scoff, avoiding Elena’s gaze) “It’s not dating. Well, he thinks it is but he’s just a way to pass the time until I get what I really want. He gets the job done…mostly.”

“How do you know Tessa?” asked Garren, sensing that her visit was more than her wanting to connect with a fellow reaper.

“Oh, we go way back. I’m her first. First friend, first—”

“Um wrong, dollar store J.Lo,” interrupted Elena, angrily. Vivienne raised her brow in amusement. “That would be me. We’ve been friends since second grade and she’s never even mentioned you so don’t go bragging about something that isn’t true.”

“Let me rephrase then. First friend that would actually acknowledge her in public.”

Vivienne’s comeback was like a knife in the gut to Elena, who lowered her eyes to the floor. I always considered her my first real friend, having met her at the park a week before starting second grade, and even then, I knew that our friendship would not be easy. I remembered how she believed that her friends would never approve of me, whether it was because of my lack of wealth or my clothes, and at the time, she cared about maintaining her popularity.

It meant a lot of sneaking around after school and passing secret notes to each other during class. Though I never cared about hiding our friendship, I knew, deep down, it bothered Elena that she felt ashamed for letting her other friends bully her into hiding a part of herself.

Vivienne was someone who thrived off of that shame. “You must be Elena,” she said, gazing down at the petite blonde. “Hmm, you’re not that pretty in person. You think you know Tessa better than anyone, don’t you? Well, you’re wrong, cheerleader Barbie.”

“Get out now, Vivienne. I want you out of this town or I’ll go to the council to make sure you never leave Erinyes again,” threatened Garren.

“You have no power over me so enough with the empty threats. I’ll stay as long as I like.” I heard Rhys calling her name down the hall. “That’s my boyfriend. We must be leaving soon. I’m so excited for this trip.”

She whispered in Elena’s ear before leaving the bathroom and in the reflection of the mirror, her lips twisted into a familiar smirk that I had seen dozens of times. Once she disappeared from the hallway, acting all lovey-dovey with a naïve Rhys, I bent down to Elena, who had her knees pulled up to her chest.

“What did she say to you?”

“Just because you’re a ghost, don’t think I can’t make you suffer. You were friends with her?”

“It’s…complicated. Finding out what Rhys knows is more important. Maybe we can use Hilton as a distraction to keep him and Vivienne apart.”

“The only place you are going is home, Tessa,” said Garren, shaken from our encounter with Vivienne. “Until I speak with the council and have actual confirmation that they agreed to her release, you are staying as far away as possible. My father would have told me if they were even thinking of releasing that monster. I can call him and straighten out this whole me—”

Garren was silenced by a swift blow to the head. I placed the toothbrush holder back on the sink and reached into his jacket pocket, taking out his cellphone.

“Byrne, did you just—are you nuts?” asked Belmont, his eyes tore away from the unconscious guardian and towards a stunned Elena. “Why did you do that?”

“This is our only chance at getting close to your brother. Vivienne is doing this on purpose. It’s no coincidence that she showed up now, pretending to date the one reason we’re going on this stupid trip. Just because she couldn’t visit me before, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t spying on me…on all of us somehow.”

“You think she’s the reaper we’re looking for?”

I shook my head, seeing Mr. Hilton and the rest of his club climbing into large, black cargo vans. “No, she’s been in Erinyes too long. When you’re released, your abilities come back slowly. She had no reason to attack you anyway. You’re not her usual target.”

Catching up to the group, I waited behind Danica and Isabelle, who were arguing over whether to replace Principal Hilton’s shampoo with hair remover (“Dani, I’m a cop. I can’t break into someone’s house,” hissed Isabelle) as revenge. Parker glanced back, in the midst of wrenching his arm away from Hilton, and gave me a helpless look that said I can’t get away from her. Hilton yanked him into one of the vans, along with their fathers, Dr. Baxter, Rhys, and Vivienne.

“Whatever that means. What’s the story with you two?” he asked, catching Vivienne wink at me before pecking Rhys on the cheek. “You’ve mentioned that place before. What is it? I thought bad reapers get sent to a meadow prison.”

Erinyes isn’t a prison. Well, the people there think it is but it’s somewhere that young reapers get sent for rehabilitation. It’s easier to believe that kids are more capable of change than adults. If they prove that they’ve changed for the better, they can be released but most of the time, they’re hopeless cases. My mother says it’s more common for the reapers to die there, either by the council’s orders or their own hand.”

“So it’s like an insane asylum. How did she end up there? If the council puts you on trial just for having a little knife, she probably did something lame like calling them a bunch of names.”

“Not exactly,” I said, shifting uncomfortably as I thought back to how a nine year old Vivienne was sent to Erinyes, supposedly for the rest of her life.

Explaining Vivienne’s history was not an easy task when we were stuck in the back of a van, surrounded by a dozen middle-aged men, several of them eyeing me like a juicy steak. I pretended to be texting on my phone, as a way to avoid their lecherous stares and to talk to the invisible ghosts on either side of me without being seen as crazy.

Vivienne was hardly the first young reaper to be sent to Erinyes, the institution more well-known for its pre-pubescent patients than the grown adults, and she was not even the youngest, that honor belonging to a seven year old boy with a mountain of rage issues, but her story was a cautionary tale to all reapers just beginning to learn about their gifts.

She was considered a prodigy, having developed her abilities quicker than most, which was attributed to her parents both being high-ranking members of the council. To the public, she was nothing more than an innocent girl with vast potential: popular, sweet, friendly, the star of her soccer team, and a girl scout. All of that was revealed as nothing more than a perfectly crafted façade on the morning of her ninth birthday.

With her parents constantly gone for council business, her father had hired a fellow reaper in their hometown of Santa Fe to continue Vivienne’s training. The reaper, a girl in her early twenties named Carmen who worked part-time at a clothing store, never reported any suspicious behavior to the council. That morning, she had gone about her usual routine, stopping by the local bakery to pick up a birthday cake, and when she arrived at the Reyes house, she found Vivienne cooking breakfast (scrambled eggs, pancakes, and sausage) in the kitchen. Carmen was pleasantly surprised when the young girl told her that her parents decided to skip council meetings for the day to be there for her birthday but when she went to greet them in the dining room, there were no party decorations.

Vivienne’s parents were sitting at the table, broad smiles on their faces, and at first glance, it all seemed normal except for one minor detail: they were tied to the chairs with rope and a pair of forks kept their hands pinned to the table. Underneath their clothes, a fancy suit and tie for him and a long-sleeved floral printed dress for her, their flesh had been terribly burnt, the skin on her mother’s cheek hanging on by a mere thread. Gashes ran along her father’s face from one side to the other, as if he had been scratched by a beast, and the blood under her mother’s fingernails indicated that the scratches and bruises all over her body were of her own doing.

The vacant expression in their eyes made them look more like zombies than humans and the only sign of life were their eyes (well, only her father’s left since the other was shoddily ripped out and lying on the plate before him) slowly moving back and forth. Carmen would have saved them, or at least alerted the council, if it were not for a boy, one of Vivienne’s teenage neighbors, plunging a knife into her back.

According to Carmen’s report, when questioned by the council, she told them that the boy’s eyes were just as vacant and he forcibly tied her down to the chair beside Mrs. Reyes. Carmen recalled how Vivienne walked into the room with four plates on a tray, blissfully humming the lullaby her mother sang to her every night.

Four days had passed before a member of the council was sent to check on her parents and Carmen. The three were still sitting at that same table, Vivienne taunting Carmen with a ‘sausage that her mother always raved about to her friends’. The council discovered that Vivienne had been playing with her parents and Carmen like puppets, which explained why her mother, now missing half an ear, was repeatedly stabbing herself in the leg with a steak knife, the blood dripping down to the massive puddle on the floor.

Carmen was not much better off, the left side of her face partially burnt (the muscles of her jaw visibly moving as she chewed a piece of burnt meat that was definitely not from a cow) and several bones sticking out of her left arm. Vivienne herself was enjoying her food, acting like it was any other normal day.

The council member managed to knock her out when she was busy yelling at Carmen for not chewing with her mouth closed, breaking her control over the three captives, but the damage was too severe: her parents succumbed to their wounds while Carmen was left in a catatonic state (only able to communicate through her memories).

The day of Vivienne’s trial, the room was uncomfortably tense as the people about to decide her fate remembered her as a sweet, talented girl. Each shocking truth revealed, from how Vivienne lured her parents by pretending to be ill then paralyzing them with a potion to the intimate details of the torture, just chipped away at the face she presented to the world until all that was left was the soulless monster. Vivienne showed no remorse for her actions, only wishing that she had more time to ‘play’ with her parents.

Elena and Belmont were rightfully disturbed by the gruesome tale. The vans stopped at the entrance to the woods for the expedition.

“After the trial, it took them three days to decide what to do with her,” I said, stepping out of the van. “Most of the council was ready to throw her in Erinyes and throw away the key but some still saw her as that innocent girl. My mother always said they were never sure if that had been an act or something made Vivienne snap that day. The council covered up what happened to her parents by wiping the memory of every person in that town. None of them could remember Vivienne, her family, or Carmen. Only Carmen’s parents had their memories because they’re reapers. I hear she hasn’t moved once since she was rescued, either because of the trauma or because she blames herself. Maybe it’s both.”

Elena avoided bumping into one of the men. “Blames herself for what? She’s not the one that went psycho. Why would she think it’s her fault?” she asked, thinking it was obvious who was to blame for that horrible day.

“The potion that Vivienne made was from a book in Carmen’s family library. It was banned in the 18th century because reapers were misusing it to toy with regular people and even other reapers. She blamed herself for teaching Vivienne how to control people too. All reapers have that ability but it’s not taught until we’re past eighteen, sometimes never if your teacher doesn’t think you’re mature enough to handle it. Even then, Vivienne knew how to get her way. She manipulated Carmen into teaching her by complaining that the lessons weren’t challenging enough and saying that Carmen was the sister she always wanted. Carmen lost her two younger sisters in a bad car accident the month before she started helping Vivienne. You can imagine how hearing Vivienne say that made her feel.”

“Maybe Oliver was right that she escaped. Someone like that…wouldn’t the council keep her on a tight leash?”

“I don’t know what to think. I wouldn’t put it past her to trick the hospital into letting her out but after all these years, they must know all her tricks. Vivienne is the council’s problem, not ours. We need to get Rhys alone.”

“I don’t get why you didn’t mention it before.” I glanced over at Belmont. “If you could just mind control my brother into telling us about the night of the party—”

“No. This is exactly why some reapers never get to learn. It’s not something to take lightly. I’ve done it before on little animals…sometimes on Purrsephone when she freaks out at the vet but that’s all. It’s violating a person and it’s disgusting. Honestly, I wish I couldn’t do it.”

“Byrne, it’s one time. I’ll seduce your crazy ex-friend away from him and you get him to talk.”

“Three things wrong with your plan. One, you’re not her type.” Elena rolled her eyes when he bragged that he was every girl’s type, his head swelling from his ever-growing ego. “Two, she’ll see what you’re doing from a mile away because unlike you, Belmont, she’s not an idiot. Three, I just told you that I will never use that power on an actual person. We’ll get him alone somehow. It’s not like they’ll be attached at the hip 24/7.”

I could not have been more wrong. As we hiked along the winding trail, to the tune of Hilton’s constant whining, I wondered if it was possible that Rhys and Vivienne’s lips were surgically sewn together. Barely a second passed between them breaking apart after a passionate kiss and her lips moving somewhere else on his body.

For the first time, Hilton and I were in agreement, her face just as disgusted as mine. When she was not whining about the long walk or sickened by Rhys’s attempts to swallow Vivienne’s face, she was flashing a seductive smile at Dr. Baxter, their spat at school apparently in the past. Belmont quietly encouraged me to use my abilities to force Vivienne away from her brother, promising no judgment if I made her walk into a tree or straight off a cliff.

“What color is your dress?” Parker walked beside me, tossing the football between his hands. His friends were hanging back, watching us like we were part of a reality show. “For the winter ball. I want to make sure the corsage matches.”

The mention of a corsage distracted me from Vivienne sliding her hands under Rhys’s shirt.

“The—oh, I don’t do dances. I haven’t gone to one since like fifth grade. They’re just not my thing. Will and I would usually hang out, bingeing old sci-fi shows or sneaking into the chemistry lab. Last year, we were trying to make a new element. It didn’t end so well...we’re sort of the ones that made that big hole in the ceiling.”

Parker grinned, remembering how Mr. Simpson, the high-strung Chemistry teacher, almost had a heart attack at the sight of the gaping hole the morning after the dance. “I thought this year might be different. Nelson’s still in the hospital and it’s our senior year.” He shrugged when I brought up that Belmont, the former ‘king of the school’, always brought Claire as his date to the dances and, before her accident, that honor was reserved for Elena. “Am I Fin? Technically, I’m supposed to take the hottest girl and that’s you. If you need money for a dress, I’ve got you covered.”

“I don’t need you to—”

I was about to turn him down until I noticed Vivienne finally stopped dry humping Rhys’s leg. Her dark eyes were burning a hole through Parker’s skull. It was like a light bulb switched on in my head, the pieces of a plan coming together, and I looped my arm through his, batting my eyelashes.

“You don’t have to do that. I have plenty of dresses but I’m not sure which one is best. Maybe after the trip, you can come back to the house and I can try them on for you.” (“Babe, tone it down a little. You’re starting to draw blood,” uttered Rhys between kisses) “To be honest, I’m kind of worried that they’re too revealing. Don’t worry about my parents. They’re going out to dinner and my brother has a sleepover tonight. It’ll be just the two of us…unless you don’t want that.”

He was surprised yet excited by my flirtatious tone. “Is that a trick question? I’d love to help you out. Being friends with Claire all these years pretty much makes me an expert when it comes to fashion.”

“Can’t wait.” Mr. Hilton shouted that we were less than a mile away from the caves. “Wow, Rhys and his girlfriend really like each other. You know what would be funny? If you made it look like he peed himself.”

“Watch this.”

The football struck the canteen in Rhys’s pocket, knocking it to the ground and spraying both him and Vivienne with water. Her first instinct was to chuck the canteen at Parker, who was failing to hold back his laughter along with his friends, but she managed to stop herself, choosing instead to cry into Rhys’s shoulder. He cupped her cheek and whispered softly to her, pressing his lips against her forehead.

His loving smile was replaced with a snarl when he overheard the boys’ raucous laughter. “Dick move, Chace!”

“Sorry, man. I thought you two needed to cool off a little,” he said between laughs.

“I’ll try talking to Rhys. You two keep an eye on Vivienne,” I whispered to Elena. “Knowing her, she might rip Parker’s heart out.”

Pretending to need to re-fill my own water bottle, I walked in the same direction as Rhys, making sure that I was not too close. He muttered under his breath though the bits I heard involved shoving the football down Parker’s throat. I was startled by a loud snap and soon, leaves were raining down all around me.

A shirtless Dr. Baxter was leaning against a tree, a dent in its trunk, shaking off bits of bark from one hand while holding a phone to his ear with the other. A pink dress and a pair of heels were in a pile by his feet. He lowered his voice to barely above a whisper.

“It would be easier if you were here to calm him down. He’s growing impatient. He’s been talking about silencing her for good. No, I know that’s not what you want. I’ll try talking to him again though it’s like reasoning with a brick wall. You weren’t wrong to trust me. Everything will go on as planned but there may be a problem if she—”

Hilton, a men’s button-down covering her bra and panties, joined him, playfully planting kisses on his neck. He ended the call and slid the phone into his back pocket.

“Finally. That call took forever. You better not be cheating on me, Brendon,” she said, tracing small circles on his bare, sculpted chest.

“Who?”

She giggled. “You, silly. Are we playing a game?”

“No. I um was distracted by that call. Some mother complaining that her son doesn’t have the grades to get into my class next year.” He pulled her closer by tugging on the waistband of her panties. “Now you have my full attention.”

“Good. We only have a few minutes before my dad notices that I’m missing.”

I continued down the path to the nearby river, blocking out Hilton’s increasingly loud moans. Rhys was filling his canteen with water.

“Hey…Tessa, right?” he said, unsure, as I opened my empty water bottle. “You were at Fin’s memorial.”

“Surprised you remember me. Your brother never really did and we were classmates for years. Sorry about what Chace did before. We were goofing off and I dared him to try to hit one of the trees. Guess his aim isn’t that great.”

“I’ve seen him in plenty of games. His aim is fine but he’s a teenager. I was one not that long ago. No harm done...and I’m sure Viv is already over it.”

“You two are cute together. How long have you been dating?”

“About three weeks now. She just moved to town and we met at the café. She forgot her wallet so I offered to pay, we started talking, and now we’re dating. My parents weren’t happy about it since she’s not from what my dad calls ‘our circle’ but it doesn’t matter to me. It’s the first time my mom is siding with him about that stuff. Vivienne’s a little different from the girls I usually date. Once you get to know her, she’s a sweetheart. Between you and me, her accent kind of sealed the deal…there’s something about hearing her speak in Spanish. She calls me her little bicho.”

It was obvious that Rhys remembered very little from his Spanish classes over the years. I feigned a smile, knowing that Vivienne’s pet name for him was more insulting than cute.

“Seriously, you two are like relationship goals. I want something like that when I’m older.”

“Chace isn’t the one?”

“Ch—no, no, we’re not—we’re just friends…sort of. It’s not really defined. Before this year, we barely spoke to each other. We don’t exactly run in the same circles at school. I’m sorry about what happened to your brother but between you and me, he was…”

“A prick?” Rhys, like his brother, was very blunt. “You don’t have to sugarcoat it because he was my brother. I know Fin was hard to deal with…try living with him. Not that he deserved to be killed—”

“I thought the police said it was an accident.”

He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “My brother was an idiot most of his life and no matter how much I tried, he never really had a plan for after high school. He’s thrown parties at the Falls…taken countless girls to that bridge for reasons I’m sure a smart girl like you can guess. He’s done plenty of dumb things but the cops are saying that he somehow tripped on a bridge and fell to his death. It’s not like he couldn’t swim and even if he was hurt, no one heard him scream for help?” His voice choked up as he spoke, tears welling up in his eyes. “If my dad wasn’t such close friends with Chief Parker, I would go down to that station and raise hell until he told me who made him say it was an accident. My brother deserves better than to be mourned as a stupid teenage jock who got too drunk one night.”

“If you really think it wasn’t an accident, then the killer is still out there, possibly someone in this town. Do you remember anything from that nigh—”

Rhys’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he fell to the ground, Vivienne standing behind him. I checked my surroundings for any sign of Elena or Belmont, a feeling of dread creeping up inside me that she was the reason for their disappearance.

“What did you do to Elena?!”

Vivienne smirked. “Ooh, does someone only care about what happens to a certain blonde? I’ll keep that in mind for the future. They’ll live…as much as a ghost can. I just taught them an important lesson that ghosts aren’t invincible. I used to think that Rhys exaggerated when he said his brother could be an annoying little shit but he was right. It’s cute how they thought they could hurt me. You should be more worried about yourself. I’m doing you a favor.”

“Pfft, yeah, I remember your favors. No thanks. Why don’t you do Rhys one and leave him alone? For some reason, he actually likes you…or, he likes the act you put on for him. You must love having him as your little toy. He’s so clueless that he doesn’t even know you consider him nothing more than a bug. Go away.”

“Let me spare you the endless hours of boring stories about his adventures. I already checked his memories the first day we met. He was nowhere near the Falls when Fin was murdered. That whole night, he was busy painting a nursery with the little brother and he only spoke to Fin once. He was telling him about some college program before the sister stormed in, snatched the phone, and started bitching at Fin about a big secret. Cross him off your crazy suspect list.”

“The only one here who’s crazy is you…hell, maybe I am too for all that time I spent believing you. You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson the first ten times but I was fourteen and gullible, something you loved to take advantage of over and over again.” She crossed her arms, looking more amused than hurt by my rant. “Is that how you got released? They looked back at past memories and thought ‘Hey, if this fourteen year old thinks she’s changed, then she definitely has’?”

“Wow, your parents really did a number on you, Tessie.” (“Don’t call me that!”) “Did your mother have someone from the council mess with your memories? Because from what I remember, it wasn’t all bad. The three of us had so much fun together. You enjoyed it.”

“Because you made me! I was nothing more than your puppet. You used me just like you use everyone else. Carmen, your parents…”

As Vivienne stepped over Rhys’s unconscious body, I resisted every urge to run away, even if it meant witnessing Dr. Baxter humping Hilton against a tree. The alarm bells were ringing in my head, screaming for me to keep running until I was back with the group but I firmly stood my ground, to show that I was no longer that gullible little girl. With each step closer, my resolve was weakening.

“Tell me something. If it was all so horrible, why did you keep my jacket? I saw you wearing it when Rhys was going through pictures from the party. It still looks good on you.” Her eyes traveled up and down my slim, hourglass figure. “Even better now that you’re all grown up.”

“Why are you here?” I asked, exasperated.

“For you. I thought that was obvious.”

Her smirk faltered slightly at the tiny giggle that slipped from my lips. “If you had said that three  years ago, it probably would’ve meant the world to me. Back then, you used to seem so cool. There I was, the awkward, artsy girl who everyone thought had some terminal disease because she fainted randomly in the middle of class, and here you were, the sexy rebel in the leather jacket who didn’t give a fuck about rules or what people said about her. I should’ve realized then what you were doing the minute you started talking to me but I was all caught up in your act…because it fulfilled this secret desire that younger me had to be like Belmont and his friends, so I could actually talk to Elena at school without having to orchestrate all these convoluted ways to just ask how she did on a math test. I’m not fourteen anymore so I won’t fall for your tricks. Do you know how long it took for me to put myself back together after what you did to me?”

Vivienne was oddly silent. Recalling a time in my past that I had spent years trying to forget created a giant lump in the back of my throat, making it difficult to do something as simple as breathing. Every word out of my mouth was a word I had written in my diary countless times, everything I wanted to tell Vivienne once I was no longer under her thrall.

“You were still my dirty little secret so I could never tell Will or Elena why I was so broken and miserable. Hilton and her minions were loving it. You gave them plenty of ammunition to make me feel like shit every day and right when I’m starting to move past it, to figure out who I am when you’re not in my head, you’re back again…like a fucking bulldozer ready to tear it down.”

“Tessa—”

I shoved her roughly, causing her to stumble on her heels and against a nearby tree. Before she could say a single word, I pushed her again, this time keeping her pinned with my hand curled tightly around the collar of her leather jacket.

“No, I’m talking. If I were like him, you would’ve been dead the second I heard you laugh. I could’ve let Oliver call the council but you don’t want that. If they learned you were in Belmont Falls, anywhere near me or my family, they’d send your ass straight back to Erinyes. I would love to watch that happen but unlike you, I’m capable of compassion. I can just as easily change my mind.”

“I’m warning you—”

She groaned as my elbow dug into her throat. “Let’s change it up. I’ll be the one warning you. You are going to stay the hell away from me, my family, my friends, and everyone else in this town. If I find out that you’re helping the other reaper and someone else gets hurt, I don’t care if it’s that piece of garbage Chief Parker, I’ll send you back to that padded room.”

“Other reaper? What are you talking about?”

“Play dumb all you want. I’m sure you two are part of some secret society of psychotic reapers that get a sick thrill out of destroying people’s lives. They probably helped you get out of Erinyes and sent you here. You can tell him, her, whatever the hell they are…that they can send all the monsters they want. They don’t scare me.”

I cried out as her fingers pinched the underside of my arm and in a split second, we switched positions. My face was now pressed against the tree, with both my arms pinned behind my back.

“Look at my little doll, dishing out threats. You almost had me shaking. I’m not here as your enemy, Tessa. I’ve never been your enemy. Everything you’re saying is what your parents beat into your head.”

“You don’t listen to a word other people say, do you?” I said, struggling against her grip.

“It’ll take time for you to see that but I’m a patient girl. You only have to remember one thing. It’s what I’ve held onto for the past three years.” Her hot breath tickled my ear. “The last night we were together, under the stars and drinking that cheap whiskey I stole from Dr. Sergei’s office. That’s proof that it wasn’t all bad. I know you remember that night…when you—argh!”

The weight of her body was lifted off mine and I turned around to see Elena on her back, yanking her long, wavy hair. Belmont lowered the log in his hands, cheering Elena on for the first time instead of arguing with her. Vivienne threw the persistent blonde off of her, panting heavily.

She wiped a spot of blood from her lip. “Oh, that’s it, you little ghost bitch. You’re going to find out why they put me away for all those years. I’ll start by making you cut off your precious hair.”

The only thing preventing Vivienne from finding a creative way to murder a ghost was me, standing in front of a breathless Elena. “It wasn’t an empty threat, Viv. You come anywhere near her again and I’ll make sure the council gives you the punishment you deserved.”

Her lips curved up into a manic smile. “Viv, huh? See, it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes back to you. Don’t feel too bad when that happens, Gisele Buttchin.”

I glared at Belmont, who snickered quietly to himself. He shrugged, muttering, “What? That was pretty good”

“Is that all you’ve got? I’ve heard better insults from a preschooler.” In the midst of holding Elena back, her legs kicking the air, I heard a soft pounding in the distance. “Come on, give it another go, crazy pants.”

“Elena, don’t. She won’t bother us again.” The pounding grew louder then went completely silent. “Let’s just wake up Rhys and get out of here. I’m not about to be attacked by a bear.”

A few light slaps on the cheek were not enough to wake Rhys. If I was not able to feel his pulse, I would have thought that Vivienne killed him.

“Just smack him with the water bottle. He likes it rough,” she suggested with a playful smile.

Twisting open my water bottle, I tilted it over his face when I spotted a set of paw prints that stopped right next to his body. The tracks looked brand-new (I blamed a trick of the light when the closest prints deepened, revealing the worms hiding beneath the dirt), as if an animal had passed by the river in the last five minutes. I was distracted by something wet dripping onto my fingers but instead of water, it was a long, string of drool.

Being winter, no one would find it strange to see their breath. The only problem was that my own putrid breath was not hitting my face. I staggered backwards, the bottle smacking Rhys’s chest (proving that he was a heavy sleeper when he did not even flinch), as a giant dog, nearly eight feet tall, with mangled black fur and glowing red eyes appeared across from me. With a sharp tug on my sleeve, Vivienne made a dash for the forest.

“Keep moving!” she shouted, a fearful quiver in her tone. I had never seen her this frightened, except for when the doctors forced her to sit in the ‘black room’ at Erinyes. “Would you stop caring about ghosts? It can’t hurt them!”

My heart skipped a beat each time I heard its paws pounding into the dirt. Vivienne helped me climb up a tree, refusing to let me stop until we were on one of the highest branches. I breathed a shaky sigh of relief as Elena and Belmont appeared on the branches below us.

“Since when do wolves get that big?” asked Belmont, checking for any sign of the monstrous dog.

“Shh. It’s not a wolf. It’s a hellhound and they can hear ghosts,” I whispered, feeling like my heart was moving at a thousand beats per minute. Vivienne rocked back and forth on the branch, her eyes shut and her hands over her ears. “A—are you okay?”

“Who cares? She probably brought it here to scare us, Byrne. Well, I’m pretty sure I shit myself when that thing was running after me so mission accomplished.” He clapped mockingly in Vivienne’s face. “No wonder they put you in a loony bin.”

“It wasn’t her. A hellhound bite kills a reaper in minutes. They’re not supposed to be above the surface.”

“T—the council sent it. He was right. They didn’t actually want to release me. This is how they handle problems now. They pretend that they believe you’re better and then have you killed. I should’ve known it was a trick.”

“Oh, spare me. You’re not much of an actress so the council must be full of morons,” said Elena, not sounding the least bit sympathetic. “None of us will fall for—Tessa, come on. She’s faking it.”

I had let Vivienne rest her head in my lap, a method that usually relaxed her. Having visited Erinyes several times, I was the only one who understood Vivienne’s fear. The hospital had a reputation for its extremely harsh treatments, whether the patient was six or sixty. If a patient broke the rules or was considered too disruptive, they were sent to The Black Room. The experience in that room was different for each person but from what Vivienne had told me, the room was able to change based on a person’s fears.

If facing their fears was not enough to break them, which was difficult when dealing with people guilty of heinous crimes, the doctors would put them in near-death situations to teach them a lesson about their own mortality. One of those situations involved releasing a pack of hellhounds in the confined space and the doctors only gave the antidote when the patient agreed to follow the rules.

“You don’t get it. It’s…a reaper thing.”

“Putting her head in your lap?”

“Elena, you died in a car crash. It was quick. Being bitten by a hellhound is like being stabbed by a thousand knives over and over and just when you think the pain is gone, it gets ten times worse. The doctors at Erinyes use them to get patients to comply. It’s not fun to feel like you’re dying while the people who could help just stand around and do nothing.”

I seized the branch as the tree shook violently. The hellhound, somehow looking bigger than before, was on its hind legs and pushing against the tree with its paws. With each push, the tree was tilting more and more to the right and I scrambled to find some way out of this mess that did not end with my death. The trunk snapped in half, falling rapidly towards the ground. I braced myself for the impact, hugging the trunk with all the strength I could muster. The tree crashed with a resounding thud and I rolled onto my back, lightheaded and seeing little dots dancing in front of my eyes.

“I’ve got you, Te—”

The hellhound knocked Elena aside, like she weighed less than a feather, with a swipe of its paw. Before I could so much as stand on one leg, its paws pressed down on my chest, making it painful to just breathe. Drool trickled onto my face like rain drops as its hovered over me. I winced from the pain of its claws digging into my chest. As it opened its massive jaw, wide enough to swallow me whole, I closed my eyes, accepting that there was no escape. The heavy weight was suddenly lifted off my chest and instead of the sound of a jaw snapping shut, I heard a series of growls.

Too afraid to move, I turned my head to the side. There were now two hellhounds but the newest arrival, slightly smaller with darker fur and a x-shaped scar on its back, was fighting the other. The smaller hellhound knocked its opponent down the hill and I scooted back as it ambled towards me. With just its nose, it was strong enough to nudge me across the ground until I was hidden behind a large boulder. I peeked over the top of the boulder to watch the fight between the two hellhounds, thinking that I was beginning to lose my mind.

“Where’s Vivienne?” I asked as Elena and Belmont joined me at my hiding spot.

“I offered to take her while Ellie got you. We were almost by the river when she punched me and ran off,” said Belmont. “Why are we not doing the same? Especially now that there are two…”

“The smaller one saved me. I don’t know why.”

“So it could eat you all by itself?”

“No, it pushed me over here…like it was protecting me.”

The smaller hellhound howled in pain as the larger one dug its bloodstained teeth into its shoulder. No matter how much I wanted to help, I doubted that I could do much damage. The fight continued on, each getting in blows and suffering some, until the larger hellhound suffered a bite to the neck. Its menacing red eyes darted towards me before disappearing down the hill.

“Is it over?” asked Elena, peeping through her fingers. “Did the nice one win?”

“I think so. Wait here.”

I chased after the smaller hellhound, limping on its front leg. The tracks led me back to the hiking trail towards the caves. As I followed the tracks, my feet dwarfed by their size, I noticed that they slowly began to be shaped less like a dog’s. I stared down at the final two tracks, just outside the caves where I could hear Mr. Hilton’s voice. The prints were not much bigger than the ones made by my sneakers and definitely human.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”


Submitted: August 07, 2016

© Copyright 2022 skv. All rights reserved.

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