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I was a virgin sacrifice. And yeah, it's just as creepy as it sounds. I died on a Thursday, at twenty-seven minutes after midnight, killed by a monster intent on stealing my soul. The good news? He didn't get it. The bad news? Turns out not even death will get you out of high school .
I've always hated Mondays, but this particular Monday, a beautiful day in late April, seemed ready to deliver its very own brand of hell. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror at seven-thirty in the morning, staring at myself, trying to decide exactly how alive I should look. In the movies, people are always faking their own deaths, but I couldn't think of anyone elsereal or fictionalwho'd faked survival. I'd have to blaze this trail all on my own.
How pale would a person look twenty-nine days after being stabbed to death? That would depend on the severity of the wound, right? On the number of organs injured? On the amount of blood lost? Since no one at school knew any of those details, they wouldn't know if my performance was off. So I could play the part however I wanted. Right?
No one had to know that my pale skin and sweaty palms were really the result of a colossal case of first-day-back nerves.
My stomach churned as I stared at my reflection, wondering how I could possibly feel so different, yet look exactly the same as I had before I died, except for the new scar. Exactly the same as I would look next year, and the year after that, and a decade after that, and for as many centuries as my afterlife lasted.
"Kaylee! Breakfast!" my father called from the kitchen.
"I'm dead, Dad," I called back, dropping my hairbrush into the drawer. "I don't eat anymore."
A minute later, my father appeared in the doorway in a grease-splattered T-shirt and jeans, frowning at me. "You don't have to eat. That doesn't mean you shouldn't. I think you'd feel a lot better if you had something warm in your stomach."
I turned and leaned against the counter, crossing my arms over my chest. "That's not really how it works."
"No arguments. I made pancakes and bacon. I want you at the table in five minutes."
I sighed as his footsteps retreated toward the kitchen. He was trying. I wasn't sure what he was trying, but he was serious about it.
I crossed the hall into my room for a pair of shoes and blinked in surprise at the empty space at the center of my room, where the bed used to be. It had been four weeks since we'd gotten rid of the ruined mattress and sheets, and I still wasn't used to the new purple quilt that had replaced the blue comforter my psychotic math teacher had bled out on.
After my death, I'd avoided my room for nearly a week until my father figured out what I'd been too embarrassed to tell himthat I couldn't go in there without seeing it all in my head. Reliving my own death.
That night, he and Tod had rearranged every piece of furniture I owned until my room was unrecognizable. That was three weeks ago, and I still couldn't get used to seeing my bed against the wall, my desk slanted across one corner of the room. But this time when I glanced into that corner, I couldn't help but smile.
Tod sat in my desk chair, his curls golden in the glow from my bedside lamp, his eyes as blue as the ocean, the one time I'd seen it. Styx was curled up on my bed, asleep, paying the reaper no attention whatsoever. Half Pomeranian, half Netherworld guard dog, she was the fiercest, most dangerous six pounds of frizzy fur and pointy teeth I'd ever seen, other than her littermates. She was also a living, breathing, growling security system, bred to warn me when danger approached on either side of the world barrier.
It had taken her weeks to understand that growling at Tod wasn't going to get rid of him.
Tod's brothermy exwas wrestling with that same conclusion.
Tod stood as soon as he saw me, and I couldn't resist a smile, in spite of the nerves still twisting my insides into knots.
My arms slid around his neck and delicious, tiny little sparks shot up my spine as his hand settled at my waist, and I secretly marveled at the fact that I was allowed to touch him whenever I wanted.
This was still new, me and Tod. Our relationship was only a month old, yet somehow, he was the only thing that still seemed to fit, since my death. Going through the motions in the rest of my lifean ironic term, if I'd ever heard onenow felt like trying to fit into clothes I'd outgrown. Everything was uncomfortable, and too tight, and not as bright as I remembered.
But Tod was the same. Only better.
"Aren't you supposed to be at work? Eventually Levi's going to notice that you keep skipping out," I said when I finally had to let him go. Levi, his boss, had a soft spot for Tod, but in their line of work, leniency could only go so far. Tod was a reapermore than two and a half years dead, but perpetually nearly eighteen. He worked the midnight-to-noon shift at the local hospital, reaping the souls of those scheduled to die on his watch.
Except when he was delivering pizza. And helping me pretend I was still alive.
"I had a break and I thought you might be nervous this morning. So I brought you this." He handed me a paper cup of coffee, and I took a cautious sip. Caramel latte. My favorite, and the only edible thing I still seemed to crave since my unfortunate demise. "And this." He spread his arms, showing off a physique even death couldn't mar, and I wanted to touch him some more. Then some more after that. "I figure one or the other will make you feel better."
"Both. They both make me feel better." I pulled him close for a kiss, then didn't want to let him go. "I don't wanna go back to school today."
"So don't. Come hang out with me at work." Tod dropped back into my desk chair and swiveled to face me while I knelt to grab my sneakers from beneath my bed. "We can play naughty dress up with the hospital gowns and rearrange the supply closets."
"Isn't that dangerous? What if they can't find some important drug or equipment in an emergency?"
Tod shrugged. "Nobody's gonna die without my help, anyway, so what's the harm?"
The harm? Potential brain damage. Paralysis. And all kinds of other nonlethal catastrophes. Fortunately, his grin said he was kidding, so I didn't have to go through with the lecture.
"Kaylee!" my dad shouted, and Tod sniffed in the direction of the hall.
"Is that bacon?"
"And pancakes." I shoved my foot into the sneaker and tugged on the laces to tighten it. "He thinks I should start my first day back at school with a healthy breakfast. I think he's been spending too much time with your mom." In addition to being an amazing amateur baker, Harmony Hudson was the only fellow female bean sidhe I knew.
"It's not a bad idea," Tod said. "Breakfast is my third favorite meal of the day."
"Not today." Standing, I tugged him closer so I could slide my hand behind his neck, my fingers playing in the soft curls that ended there. "I think he needs some father-daughter time."
As grateful as my father was for everything Tod had done to try to save my life, he'd had his fill of houseguests for a while. Tod and I had spent nearly every waking moment together since my death, and for two people who didn't need sleep, that was a lot of moments, even with his jobs and my training standing in the way.
"Oh, fine. Enjoy your pancakes and homework."
"Thanks. Enjoy your sick people. Will I see you at lunch?"
The blues in his irises swirled like cobalt flames, and something deep inside me smoldered. "You'll be the only one who sees me. You don't need to eat, anyway, right?"
"Oh, now I don't need to eat "
He pulled me close again, and that kiss was longer, deeper. Hotter. Touching Tod made me feel more alive than anything else had since the moment my heart stopped beating.
"Kaylee, please come eat something!" my dad yelled, and Tod groaned in frustration. He held me tighter for just a second, then stepped back and let his hand trail down my arm slowly. Then he was gone, and for a moment, I felt empty.
That was a scary moment, but one I couldn't quite shake. I'd thought that being dead-but-still-there would feel a lot like being alive, but I was wrong. I felt like I was out of sync with the world. Like the planet had kept spinning while I was gone, and now that I was back, I couldn't catch up.
I grabbed my latte and headed for the kitchen, where I dropped into my chair at the card table we'd been meaning to replace with a real one since my dad had moved back to town seven months ago. The plate in front of me held four pancakes andI swearhalf a pound of bacon. Fried, not microwaved, as evidenced by the grease splattered all over the stove and adjacent countertop. My dad was serious about this traditional home-life thing.
It was kinda cute.
My father pulled out his own chair and started to hand me one of the coffee mugs he held, but then he noticed the latte, and his smile slipped a little. "Tod?"
"Yeah, but he's gone. He was just trying to help."
He set both mugs in front of his own plate and picked up his fork. "I'm going to assume the steaming cup of Starbucks means he wasn't here all night?"
Translation: Your undead boyfriend is supposed to be gone by eleven so you can pretend to sleep.
"He works nights, Dad." But we both knew that didn't mean anything, when the commute was instantaneous.
For the first couple of days after my death, my father had tried to stay up all night to make sure there were no unauthorized visits, and I didn't bother to point out how futile his efforts were. If Tod and I didn't want to be seen or heard, we
- wouldn't be. Both reapers and extractorsmy official new title with the reclamation departmenthad selective visibility, audibility, and corporeality. Basically, we could choose who saw and heard us, and whether or not we existed physically on the human plane.
Sounds cool, I know, but it comes with a hell of a price.
My dad set his fork down and I caught a rare glimpse of the concern swirling in his eyes. "I'm worried about you, Kaylee."
"Don't be. Nothing's changed." But that wasn't true, and even if it had been, it wouldn't have set him at ease. My life wasn't exactly normal before I died, and death had done nothing to improve that.
"You don't eat. You hardly ever talk anymore, and I haven't seen you watch TV or pick up a book in days. I walk into your room, and half the time you're not there, even when you're there."
"I'm working on that," I mumbled, swirling a bite of pancake in a puddle of syrup. "Corporeality is harder than it looks. It takes practice." And concentration.
"Are you sure you're ready for school? We could give it another week." But he seemed to regret the words as soon as he'd said them. Another week off would mean another week of me sitting around the house doing nothing when I wasn't training as an extractor, and that's what was worrying him in the first place.
"I need to go. They all know today's the day."
"They" were my teachers, classmates, and the local television stations. I was big newsthe girl who'd survived being stabbed by her own math teacher. My father had stopped answering the home phone, and we'd had to change my cell number when someone leaked it to the press. They all wanted to know what it was like to nearly die. To kill the man who'd tried to kill me. They wanted to know how I'd survived.
None of them could ever know the truththat I hadn't survived. That was part of the dealallowing me to live my afterlife like my murder had never happened. Protecting my secret meant keeping up with schoolwork and work-work, in addition to my new duties extracting souls from those who shouldn't have them.
"If anything goes wrong, I want you to call me," my father said, and I nodded. I wasn't going to tell him that if anything went wrong, I could blink out of school and into my own room before he could even get to his car in the parking lot at work. He knew that. He was just trying to help and to stay involved, and I loved him for it. For that, and for the pancakes, even if I had no real desire to eat them.
We both sipped our coffee, and I noticed that his appetite seemed to have disappeared, too. Then he set his mug down and picked up a strip of bacon. "You know, I've been thinking about this Friday " He left the sentence hanging while he took a bite.
"What's this Friday?" I asked, and my father frowned.
"Your birthday, Kaylee."
For a moment, I could only blink at him, mentally denying the possibility, while I counted the days in my head. Time had lost all meaning over the past month. Tod said that was normalsomething about absent circadian rhythmsbut it didn't seem possible that I could have forgotten my own birthday.
"I'm turning seventeen " I whispered.
Except that I wasn't. The anniversary of my birth would come and go, but I'd still be sixteen and eleven-twelfths. I'd be sixteen and eleven-twelfths foreverat least physically. I would always look too young to vote. Too young to drink. Too young to drive a rental car, should that urge ever strike.
And none of those limitations had ever seemed more pointless. What did it matter?
What did any of it matter, anymore?