‘My son, Here may indeed be torment, but not death.’ Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, Canto XXVII
In school they told us to follow the rules.
Don’t talk to strangers. Safety first, they said. Walk, don’t run – unless it’s from a stranger, of course. We were supposed to run from strangers as fast as we could, the way Persephone, the girl from that old Greek myth, tried to when Hades, the lord of the dead, came after her.
Funny thing about the rules, though. Sometimes they were wrong. According to the rules, no one in our own families was ever supposed to hurt us.
Not running from my own flesh and blood was my first mistake.
My second was running from John Hayden. He was exactly the kind of stranger they were always warning us about in school. No, he didn’t offer me candy or drugs. But one look into those storm-filled grey eyes and, even as a naive fifteen-year-old, I could tell what he had to offer was something way more addictive than chocolate or crystal meth.
How was I to know the reason his gaze was so storm-filled was because he, too, knew the pain of being betrayed by someone who, according to the rules, was supposed to care about him?
Maybe that’s what kept thrusting the two of us back together, no matter how far we tried to run. Why else would we both have ended up on an island named for the human bones that had been found there? It turns out we have more than a few skeletons in our closets.
By now the bones that have earned this place its infamous name – Isla Huesos, Spanish for Island of Bones – are supposed to have been removed. But the tendency for cruel acts of deception to be committed on Isla Huesos’s tempest-tossed shores hasn’t waned.
Now it’s not my family or John that’s coming for me, but a storm. I know from the weather alerts I keep receiving on my cellphone. A large tropical cyclone, ‘producing extreme winds and dangerously high flood conditions’, is expected to reach landfall soon on the island where my mom was hoping she and I could make a ‘new start’. According to the latest warning, I should proceed with caution (walk, don’t run) to the nearest emergency shelter.
The problem is, I’m eighteen hundred miles below the earth’s crust and the storm’s projected path.
Still, every time my phone vibrates and I look down to see one of the alerts, my pulse speeds up a little. Not because I’m in imminent danger, but because I know people who are.
It’s especially upsetting because, in a lot of ways, my family has turned out to be like the seawall Isla Huesos’s community leaders built in order to protect its low-lying areas from flooding: They’re not very reliable. Some of them, in fact, have turned out to be made from inferior material. They crumbled and broke apart instead of doing what they were supposed to do: keep their loved ones from drowning.
But maybe that’s what I deserve for being trusting enough to believe the rules would keep me safe.
All that’s changed now. This time, the only rules I’m following are my own.
And this time, when the storm comes, instead of running from it, I’m going to face it head-on.
I hope it’s ready for me.
Always before him many of them stand; They go by turns each one unto the judgment; They speak, and hear, and then are downward hurled.
Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto V
He Is First.
That’s what it said in flowing white script on the T-shirt the girl was wearing.
‘Who is he?’ I asked her. If I hadn’t been so tired, I’d have figured it out right away. Instead, I thought the shirt was referring to a new band or the title of a movie or something . . . not that I was going to get to see it any time soon.
‘Oh,’ the girl said, smiling, clearly happy to be asked. This was evidently why she wore the shirt, to generate questions like mine. I could tell by the cheerful, rehearsed way in which she replied, ‘My personal Lord and Saviour. He always comes first.’
Don’t do it. Do not engage. This isn’t the time to have a theological conversation – or any conversation at all – beyond what’s necessary. Remember what John said, I reminded myself: There are hundreds of people here, maybe even a thousand. You can’t help them all, only the ones who seem the worst off, or might be about to cause trouble . . .
‘Don’t you think there might be some circumstances in which He’d want you to put yourself first?’ I heard myself saying. ‘What if there was a fire? Wouldn’t He want you to run first and pray later?’
‘Yes, of course,’ the girl said with a laugh. ‘But I’d still be putting Him first in my heart the way He puts me first in His heart. He’s always with us, you know, keeping us safe from harm.’
I shouldn’t have asked. Even the person in line behind her – a young guy who’d probably died in a jet ski accident, judging by his tropical swim shorts and lack of a shirt – gaped at her in disbelief.
‘Have you taken a look at yourself in the mirror lately?’ he asked her.
She dropped the smile, appearing startled. ‘No. Why? Do I have something in my teeth?’
She reached to open the backpack she had slung over one shoulder, but I put out a hand to stop her. If I hadn’t, I suspect she’d have found her compact mirror, then seen what the rest of us could: the crystalline shards of windshield embedded into her blonde hair like diamonds from a tiara, the angry red imprint the steering wheel had left behind on her forehead when the airbag in her car had failed to go off.
No one had kept her safe. But what would be the point in telling her so? She’d probably only start to cry, and then I’d have to waste even more time comforting her, time John had warned we couldn’t afford.
‘Your teeth are fine,’ I said to her hastily. ‘You look great. Here, drink this.’ I passed her a water glass from my tray. ‘You’ll feel better.’
For the first time ever, it was hot in the Underworld. That’s why I was holding a tray of glasses, each one filled with ice water. It was a ridiculous gesture – like handing out life preservers on the Titanic. I couldn’t change what had happened to these people. All I could do was make the overcrowding as well as overheating, to the point where conditions had grown dangerously untenable.
‘Thanks,’ the girl said, taking the water and sipping it gratefully. This time when she smiled, there was nothing rehearsed about the gesture. ‘I’m so thirsty.’ She said the latter in a voice of wonder, like out of all the things that had happened to her in the past twenty-four hours, her thirst was the most amazing.
Well, dying can be dehydrating. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Sorry about the heat. We’re working on it.’ ‘Working on it?’ the guy in the tropical shorts echoed.
‘We’ve been waiting here for hours. How about some answers instead of water?’
‘I know,’ I said to Tropical Shorts. ‘Sorry. The boat’s on its way, I swear. We’re trying to accommodate as many of you as we can as quickly as we can, but we’re a little backed up at the mo—’
‘Why should we believe you?’ Tropical Shorts interrupted. ‘I want to talk to whoever’s in charge.’
I felt a spurt of red-hot anger shoot through me, but I fought to remain calm.
‘What makes you so sure I’m not in charge?’ I challenged him.
He burst out laughing. ‘Look at you,’ he said.
I couldn’t help it. I looked down at myself. Whereas most of the people in line were dressed in light casual clothing, like Mr Tropical Shorts – some of them were in hospital gowns or even pyjamas, whatever they’d been wearing when death overtook them – I had on a cap-sleeved gown, the hem of which swept my feet. Even though the material was the lightest cotton, it nevertheless clung damply to my skin, and not just because the waves from the lake had grown more violent than usual and were splashing bits of foam and spray up against the side of the dock. Curls of my long dark hair had slipped from the knot into which I’d tried to tie it, sticking to the back and sides of my neck. I’d have given my cellphone or possibly even my bra for some air-conditioning or a fan.
But it turned out Tropical Shorts wasn’t referring to my wardrobe.
‘What are you,’ he demanded, ‘fifteen? Sixteen?’
‘Seventeen,’ I said, from between teeth I’d gritted in an effort not to throw the entire tray of water glasses at him. ‘How old are you? Legally you have to be at least eighteen to rent a jet ski in the state of Florida.’
I knew this because my mother complained all the time that kids on personal watercrafts were always racing one another through the mangroves where she was studying her beloved roseate spoonbills. The jet skis hit dolphins and manatees (and sometimes even human snorkelers and scuba divers) just under the surface and killed them without the drivers even being aware of it.
Except for this one. Whatever Tropical Shorts had hit had hit back, hard enough to kill him.
‘I’m nineteen,’ he said, looking a little stunned. ‘How did you know it was a—’
‘It’s my job to know,’ I interrupted. ‘You’re welcome to speak to the person in charge . . . my boyfriend. That’s him over there on the horse.’
I pointed across the beach to the dock opposite the one on which we stood. There, John, on his black horse, Alastor, along with two tall, muscular men clad in black leather, was struggling to hold back a much rowdier crowd. If the line I was managing was discontented, theirs was already actively rioting. No one was being offered glasses of water over there – if they had, the glasses would have been broken over someone’s head, and the shards used as weapons.
‘Uh, no, thanks,’ Tropical Shorts said, glancing uneasily away from John as he yanked on the shirt collar of one man in an attempt to pull him from the throat of another. ‘I’m good. I’ll just wait here.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. Despite the seriousness of the situation, I couldn’t help smiling to myself a little. ‘That’s what I thought you’d say.’
Just try to keep them calm, John had said as we’d made our way down to the beach from the castle. One stone can cause a lot of ripples. A riot is the last thing we need right now.
Got it, I’d said.
And no need to get physical with them yourself, John had said. Any sign of trouble, and I’ll be there.
How will you know? I’d asked.
If there’s trouble and you’re involved, I’ll know, he’d said, and given me a smile I’d thought might turn my legs to butter then and there.
I’d managed to avert the riot Tropical Shorts had attempted to cause with his stone, but that didn’t mean everything was smooth sailing . . . especially between John and me. We were still searching for ways to smooth the ripples in our relationship. Some were appearing a little rougher to navigate than others. John hadn’t wanted me to help down here at the beach. He’d wanted me to stay back at the castle with Mr Graves, tending to my cousin Alex and my best friend, Kayla, who were still recovering from the shock of being whisked from the land of the living to the realm of the dead for their own safety – never an easy adjustment, as I well knew.
But one glance at the sheer number of souls who had shown up on the beach while we’d been in Isla Huesos told me I’d be more useful there than at Alex’s and Kayla’s bedsides. Eventually even John had to agree.
Still, just because we were able to agree on that didn’t mean there weren’t going to be more stones in our path. Being in a relationship, I was learning, was hard. It was probably hard even if your boyfriend wasn’t a death deity.
If he was, though, talk about issues.
The He Is First girl reached out to grasp my bare arm, jostling me from my thoughts.
‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘What’s your name?’
Don’t get on a first-name basis with them. This was another piece of advice John had given during my hasty emergency orientation to soul guidance. You’re here to do a job, not make friends.
‘Pierce,’ I said to her. I’d appreciated John’s warnings, but what was I supposed to do – lie? ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I really have to go.’ I motioned towards the end of the line, which was snaking down the dock and then out on to the beach, past the dunes. ‘I’ve still got a lot of people to help—’
‘Oh, right,’ the girl said, nodding sympathetically. ‘I know, that storm? I should have listened to the weather alerts and never tried to leave my dad’s place. I didn’t see that tree falling.’ She giggled as if to say, What a klutz I am for letting that tree smack into my car and kill me! ‘Anyway, I’m Chloe. I just want you to know, Pierce, He puts you first in His heart, too.’
At first I didn’t know who she was talking about. Then I remembered.
‘Uh,’ I said. ‘Great. Thanks. I have to—’
‘No, really,’ Chloe said, eager for me to believe. ‘It’s true; He does.’
Was it? No one had put me first in his heart the day my grandmother had murdered me. Or my ex-best friend, Hannah, when she’d killed herself. Or my guidance counsellor, Jade, the night she was killed. Or what about last night? Who’d put my cousin Alex first at any time during any part of his short, miserable life?
It turned out I wasn’t the only one with doubts.
‘Do you even know where you are?’ Tropical Shorts asked Chloe incredulously.
‘Um,’ she said, looking around the dock. ‘Yes. We’re waiting for a boat. Right? That’s what she—’ Chloe pointed at me.
‘Hell,’ Tropical Shorts interrupted her. ‘We’re in hell.
Why else d’you think it’s so hot? And crowded?’
The girl glanced back at me, her blue eyes wide with alarm. ‘That’s not true, is it? Are we in…?’ She couldn’t bring herself to say the word.
‘Of course not,’ I said, shooting Tropical Shorts a dirty look. I raised my voice so that anyone else nearby who might have overheard his outburst would not miss my announcement. ‘There’s a boat arriving to take you to your final destination any minute now. I’m sorry it’s so crowded. We’re a little backed up, and the weather’s not usually this hot, eith—’
I was interrupted by a thunderous rumble, loud enough to make everyone, even Tropical Shorts, cry out in surprise, then turn towards the source of the noise: a wall of fog towering nearly fifty feet high and rolling slowly but inexorably across the water in our direction.
It looked like something out of one of those mummy movies where the sandstorm spreads across the desert and swallows the brave army . . . only there was no mummy, and this was fog, not sand. And, sadly, this wasn’t a movie.
‘What’s that?’ Tropical Shorts asked, pointing.
‘Just a little storm,’ I said. ‘It’s normal.’
I didn’t sound convincing to my own ears. Why did I think I was going to sound convincing to them? Which is probably why an old man dressed in a hospital gown echoed, ‘A little storm? And I suppose you think those are a few little birds?’ He pointed above his head.
I didn’t have to look. I knew what he was talking about. A flock of black birds had been amassing and flying in tighter and tighter circles over the beach all day.
‘Those are just some birds,’ I said, feigning nonchalance. ‘No different than this one.’ I pointed to a plump white bird – the tips of her wings and tail looking as if they’d been accidentally dipped in black ink – that was sitting a few feet away from me on the dock railing. ‘They’re completely harmless.’
The old man in the hospital gown laughed like I’d made a joke – not a very funny one, since his laugh was bitter. ‘I’m an amateur ornithologist, young lady. I know the difference between mourning doves and ravens. That’ – he pointed at Hope, my pet bird – ‘is a member of the Columbiformes order. They’re harmless.’
He was right about that. Hope had, in fact, saved my life several times, though one wouldn’t know it to look at her, especially the way she was busy preening herself as if she were at a Club Med, not a weigh station on the highway to hell (or heaven).
‘Those,’ Hospital Gown went on, pointing upwards, ‘are ravens. Scavenger birds. Want to know what scavenger birds eat? Carrion . . . the dead. In other words, us.’
Chloe gasped, and she wasn’t the only one. All up and down the line, I heard murmurs of discontent. No one likes the idea of getting their flesh eaten off them, not even people who are already dead.
It was just my luck to get an amateur ornithologist in my line.
‘Hey,’ I said, reaching out to give Chloe’s arm a reassuring squeeze. ‘Everything’s under control. See this?’ I showed them the heavy diamond pendant I wore on a gold chain round my neck. Normally I kept it hidden beneath my clothing, because horrible things had happened to everyone I’d shown it to in the past. But these people had already suffered the worst fate was going to offer them.
I sure hoped so, anyway.
‘This diamond turns black as a warning whenever there’s danger or trouble,’ I explained. ‘So we’re all good.’
‘Really? I’d say we’re screwed, because that rock’s about as black as you can get.’ Tropical Shorts pointed to his own arm. ‘And I know a little something about black.’
I glanced down. Tropical Shorts was exaggerating. But the stone had gone from its normal silver-grey to the same inky black as Hope’s wings and tail tips.
Damn. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the diamond had turned colours, considering what was going on all around us. Maybe, in addition to acting as a detector for Furies, the diamond also changed colours in inclement weather.
Before I could say anything, Chloe asked wonderingly, ‘Is that like a mood ring? I had one of those once. It would be the prettiest purple around my mom and sisters, but whenever my dad was in the room it turned black. My dad got so mad he threw it out. He said it must have been broken.’
‘Must have been,’ Tropical Shorts said, raising his eyebrows at me. ‘Is that why you drove away from him in the middle of a hurricane and banged up your head? You and your dad not get along so well?’
‘What?’ Chloe’s fingers fluttered nervously to her forehead. ‘What’s wrong with my head?’
‘Nothing,’ I said, hastily burying my diamond back beneath my dress’s bodice. ‘Look, everything’s going to be fine. We’re having a few technical difficulties right now, is all. We’re doing everything we can to fix them. We appreciate your patience.’
Only I wasn’t sure how you fixed fog – let alone thunder or temperatures soaring into the nineties or scavenger birds – in a skyless place housed in a vast subterranean cave where sunlight never shone. Sure, the black orchids and other flowers that bloomed in the courtyard of the castle up the hill didn’t need sunlight in order to grow. They were what my mom, the environmental biologist, would call non-photosynthetic ‘cheaters’.
But technically, so was I. All of the Underworld’s full-time inhabitants, including my boyfriend, had cheated death in one way or another . . . though some more recently than others, so they weren’t as familiar with the etiquette of the realm of the dead.
At least that’s what I tried to remind myself when I heard someone running down the pier and turned around to see my cousin coming towards me at a breakneck pace.
‘Pierce,’ Alex said, skidding to a stop in front of me. Panting, he leaned over to rest his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. ‘Thank God you’re OK. I thought I’d never find you.’
I don’t know which was more shocking: the sight of my cousin Alex wearing a black kerchief round his head, pirate-style, with a whip coiled in one hand, or the fact that he was showing concern for my well-being. Both were equally out of character.
‘Alex,’ I said when I’d recovered from my shock. ‘When did you wake up?’ The last time I’d seen him, he’d been back in the castle, stretched out on a cot in the kitchen, floating in and out of consciousness – a not uncommon reaction, I’d been told, to being raised from the dead, then brought to the Underworld. ‘I thought Mr Graves—’
‘Is that the weird old guy in the top hat?’ Alex straightened and wiped some sweat from his forehead. ‘Yeah, it was pretty easy to ditch him.’
‘I would think so, considering he’s blind,’ I said hotly. ‘And he isn’t weird. That’s how ship surgeons dressed back in the eighteen hundreds, when he first got here . . .’ My voice trailed off as I realized from Alex’s expression how insane I must sound.
‘Right,’ Alex said, sarcastically. ‘That’s not at all weird.’
‘You didn’t hurt him, did you?’ I asked, eyeing the whip. Then my heart gave a nervous thump. ‘Where’s Kayla?’
Alex’s jaw dropped. ‘Oh, God. Don’t tell me Kayla’s here, too?’
I couldn’t believe it. ‘Alex, of course she is. Don’t you remember? We brought her here to protect her from—’
‘Never mind,’ Alex said, shaking his head. ‘It’s too late to go back for her. The kid and that crazy-ass dog are right behind me.’ He reached out to grab my wrist. ‘Come on, Pierce, I heard something about a boat. We’ve got to find it.’
‘Alex,’ I said, now staring down at his hand. ‘What are you talking about?’
Alex looked impatient. ‘Pierce, don’t you get it? I’m rescuing you.’
Each in his eyes was dark and cavernous, Pallid in face, and so emaciate That from the bones the skin did shape itself.
Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, Canto XXIII
‘Come on.’ Alex tightened his grip on my arm. ‘We don’t have much time. I overheard that blind guy tell the kid that all hell was about to break loose—’
I winced at my cousin’s choice of words as the crowd of mostly senior citizens, plus Tropical Shorts and the He Is First girl, began to murmur again in alarm.
‘No.’ Yanking my wrist from Alex’s grasp, I shoved the tray of water glasses at him. He took hold of it instinctively, letting me snatch away the whip. ‘You want to help keep hell from breaking loose? Give these people water. Got it? Water. Not whips.’
Then, lowering my voice so those nearby wouldn’t overhear, I asked, ‘What’s wrong with you? We brought you here to keep you out of danger – to get you away from the people who were trying to hurt you back in Isla Huesos. Remember? Seth Rector? Coffin Fest? Ring a bell?’
Alex’s dark eyebrows lowered into a scowl. ‘Of course it rings a bell. I’m not an idiot. I finally find the evidence I need to put away those bastards for good and, the next thing I know, I get knocked out and I wake up in some—’ He hesitated, his scowl turning into an expression of confusion as he looked around. ‘What is this place, anyway?’
Of course he couldn’t remember. Seth Rector had purposefully locked him into a coffin in the Isla Huesos Cemetery. He’d suffocated to death.
I, on the other hand, don’t think I’d ever be able to forget the memory of Alex’s lifeless body tumbling out of that casket, though John and I had done everything we possibly could to find him in time. Then, after finding him dead, we’d done what some might consider the unspeakable . . . and others would consider a miracle.
‘Go back to the castle, Alex,’ I said to him gently. ‘Find Kayla. I know I should have been there when you woke up, but you’ve been asleep for hours, and Mr Graves was so worried about the—’
I broke off, realizing it was probably best not to mention the word pestilence. But Mr Graves was convinced – and John seemed to agree – that the fog, the unbearable heat and the ever-darkening cloud of ravens above our heads were all due to one reason: the souls of the dead not being sent quickly enough to their final destinations . . . or pestilence, as the ship’s surgeon called it.
Worse, I was the one who’d insisted John help me search for Alex. I was the one who’d made him – and Frank, and Mr Liu, and little Henry, who’d been the cabin boy on the ship on which all the men had served – spend so much time away from their world.
So if Mr Graves’s dire prediction was coming true it was entirely my fault.
‘Worried about the what?’ Alex asked.
‘Boats,’ I said, instead of pestilence.
My cellphone buzzed. I knew why without having to check it. It was another text warning me of the storm approaching Isla Huesos. Except, of course, I already knew there was a storm approaching Isla Huesos. Frank, the Liberty’s second mate, had known about it without even watching the Weather Channel or receiving a text. He’d merely glanced up at the sky the morning we’d gone looking for Alex and noticed the reddish glow in the clouds.
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, Frank had said. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.
If we had taken his warning more seriously, maybe none of this would be happening and I wouldn’t be standing here, having to explain the situation to my cousin Alex.
Well, you see, Alex, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, even though you got killed last night by some jerks from your high school, my boyfriend, the lord of the Underworld, and I brought you back to life. So now you’ll never get sick or grow old.
The bad news is you have to stay forever in the realm of the dead that exists underneath the cemetery in your hometown. No time for questions, as I have to get these people on their boat to their final destinations before this place implodes. The end.
Hmmm, that probably wouldn’t work.
‘Look, Alex, you’re in the Underworld,’ I said to him baldly. ‘I’m sure you remember reading about it in school –’
He stared at me, his expression blank.
‘– or maybe not. In any case, you’re safe here. Or relatively safe, anyway. Everything is going to be all right.
You just need to be a little patient—’
‘Get used to hearing that one,’ Tropical Shorts advised Alex with an eye roll.
‘You know, there’s still plenty of room for you over on that other dock,’ I said to Tropical Shorts, pointing across the way. He clamped his mouth shut. I turned back to Alex. ‘Now, what’s with this whip?’
Alex looked down at the tray of glasses he was holding, his expression still slightly dazed. ‘I . . . I found it on my way here. It’s funny ’cause I was wishing for something to use to protect myself from that freaking dog that was following me, and it . . . it kind of just appeared. Did you say the Underworld ?’
I nodded. If there’d been time, I could have explained to him exactly why his wish had come true: it was courtesy of the Fates, who operated as sort of invisible caretakers of the Underworld and provided almost anything their full-time mortal inhabitants desired on demand. Waffles for breakfast? They appeared like magic, piping hot and swimming in butter. Dresses in your exact size that most flattered your figure? I had a closetful. A weapon with which to protect yourself from John’s over-exuberant, massive hellhound, Typhon? Apparently a whip would conveniently appear.
The only thing the Fates would not supply was what Alex seemed to want most . . . an exit from their world.
But there was no time to explain any of this to him.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘The Underworld. Now go on back to the castle and find Kayla and I promise everything will be all—’
‘Wait. The Underworld ?’ Alex’s voice cracked. ‘Where dead people go? How stupid do you think I am? There’s no Underworld—’
The last person I expected to come to my aid was the He Is First girl. But that’s what happened.
‘Have faith,’ Chloe said, laying a gentle hand upon Alex’s arm. ‘If you keep Him first in your heart, He’ll do the same for you.’
Tropical Shorts rolled his eyes. ‘Here we go again.’
‘It’s true,’ the He Is First girl said to him. To Alex, she said more gently, ‘I’m Chloe. I heard her call you Alex. That’s a nice name. Did you know Alexander means protector of men?’
‘I didn’t know that.’ A flush had begun to creep from the neckline of Alex’s T-shirt all the way to his dark hairline, I guess because Chloe was touching him. Despite the angry red wound on her forehead and blood in her hair, she really was very lovely, especially when she smiled, like she was doing now. ‘Uh . . . Chloe’s a nice name, too.’
‘Thanks,’ Chloe said. ‘It’s from the Bible. It means young and blooming.’
‘Uh,’ Alex said, looking down at her hand. ‘That’s nice.’
Great, I thought as I looped the whip through the sash of my dress. Alex had been in the Underworld less than twenty-four hours, and he was already attracted to a girl with whom he didn’t have the slightest chance of having a relationship, because in a few minutes she’d be leaving for her final destination.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The people in my family seemed to have an uncanny knack for picking exactly the worst person to fall in love with, myself included.
‘I’m Reed,’ Tropical Shorts leaned in to say to them. He obviously didn’t like being left out. ‘That’s from the Bible, too.’
Chloe looked perplexed. ‘I don’t remember anyone in the Bible named Reed.’
‘Really?’ Reed folded his muscular arms. ‘When the pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, where did she find the basket holding the baby Moses?’
Chloe’s reply was automatic. ‘Floating among the reeds.’
Reed smiled. ‘There you go.’
Alex smiled as well. ‘Cool,’ he said, and fist-bumped Reed, causing Chloe’s hand to slip off his arm as he did so. Alex apparently didn’t notice, but Chloe did. She looked even more perplexed.
I could sympathize. Confusion over Alex’s behaviour was nothing new. Also, I’d gone to an all-girls school most of my life, so boys were a mystery in general, with the exception of my boyfriend: he was a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
I was starting to suspect that was one of the things I found so appealing about John. He might have been frustrating at times, but at least he was never boring. Or, as Mr Smith, the Isla Huesos Cemetery sexton (and resident expert on the Underworld), once put it, Eternity is a long time. So, if you have to spend it with someone, I could see wanting to spend it with someone impossible . . . but interesting.
A horn sounded so loudly it seemed to shake the dock. Everyone jumped, even me. Hope let out a startled screech and took off. Her white wings were easily discernible, however, against all the black ones above our heads.
Unfortunately, I was all too familiar with that horn – I’d just never heard it quite so close before – and I recognized the rumble that followed the ear-piercing blast. It wasn’t thunder or my cellphone vibrating, letting me know the latest weather alert from Isla Huesos. It was a ferry engine.
‘It’s OK,’ I said. I couldn’t yet see its bow cutting through the thick wall of fog, but what else could it be? ‘That’s just the boat.’
‘It’s coming?’ The He Is First girl gasped with excitement, looking around bright-eyed at the other passengers. None of them could summon up her same enthusiasm, maybe because they were mostly all in their eighties and nineties and were still really upset about the humidity and the remark the other old guy had made about the ravens eating their flesh. ‘Oh, yay! I’ve been waiting for this day my whole life practically. I’m finally going home.’
Alex had brightened up. He looked about as excited as Chloe.
‘Great,’ he said. ‘Our chance to get out of here.’
‘Uh, Alex.’ I watched as he looked around frantically for somewhere to set the tray of water glasses I’d handed him. ‘You aren’t getting out of here. Only they are.’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked, continuing to fumble with the tray. ‘The boat’s coming. You just said so.’
‘Right,’ I said, aware that Chloe’s lovely blue eyes had gone wide and troubled as she watched our interaction. ‘But we can’t get on the boat. Only they can.’
Alex shoved the tray so roughly that a few of the glasses tumbled from it, dropping into the lake. ‘You said we were going home.’
‘No, Chloe said that,’ I pointed out. ‘And she didn’t mean home home. She meant—’
‘I meant I’m finally going home to Him,’ Chloe said, still wide-eyed. She looked at me questioningly. ‘That is where the boat’s taking us, right?’
‘Absolutely,’ I said to Chloe.
If they ask, John had told me earlier, tell them the boat is taking them wherever they want to go. Heaven, their next life . . . whatever you have to say to get them moving so we can load the next batch of passengers.
Where do the boats take them? I’d asked him.
He’d shrugged. How would I know? The only ones who return to tell us are the ones who don’t like where they got sent.
Also known as Furies, I’d thought with a shudder. I’d had more experience with them than I cared to.
But they only return to earth, I’d said, just to make sure I’d got it straight, to possess the bodies of stupid people. Right?
Weak-willed people, he’d said with a smile. And yes… usually.
Usually? I hadn’t liked the sound of that, but there hadn’t been time to ask more questions.
‘What about them?’ Alex pointed at the crowded dock opposite the one on which we stood. I could no longer see John, but Frank and Mr Liu were still hard at work subduing the far more aggressive passengers waiting there.
‘Those people are leaving, too,’ I said. ‘But they’re not going back to Isla Huesos, either. And I’m definitely sure you don’t want to go where they’re going.’
Oh, my God, how much plainer did I have to make it? Did I actually have to say the words out loud? It seemed rude to blurt it out in front of them – They’re dead, Alex. But it seemed like I was going to have to, since my cousin was being so obtuse.
‘Well, I’m sure as hell not staying here.’ Alex stood so close to me, our noses were nearly touching. ‘How am I going to help prove my dad didn’t kill anyone if I’m stuck in the damned Underworld?’
‘As soon as we’ve helped these people, we can go back to the castle to discuss how we’re going to help your dad.’
‘Go back to the castle to discuss it? Who are you now, Principal Alvarez?’
What had happened to the old Alex, I wondered, who was so moody and withdrawn he barely said an entire sentence in a single day? Being revived from the dead affected everyone differently, I supposed. It had made Alex a real pain in the butt.
‘Hey,’ Reed said to Alex. ‘Don’t take it out on her. She’s just doing her job.’
Maybe Tropical Shorts wasn’t so bad after all.
‘Yes, I’m sorry you won’t be coming with us,’ Chloe said to Alex. ‘But please don’t worry. I’m certain the Lord has another plan for you.’ She glanced at me. ‘For both of you.’
‘Oh, I can assure you,’ said a new, deeply masculine voice from behind me. I turned to see John sitting, tall and dark and disapproving, on the back of his horse, Alastor. ‘He does.’
Excerpted from Awaken by Meg Cabot. Copyright © 2013 by Meg Cabot LLC.
First published 2013 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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