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I used to think death was the worst thing that could happen to a person. I also used to think it was the last thing that could happen. But if I've learned anything from surrounding myself with reapers, and living nightmares, and my fellow bean sidhes, it's this: I was wrong on both counts
"What are you doing here before the warning bell?" I asked, sliding into my seat in first period algebra II with four minutes to spare. "Isn't that one of the signs of an impending apocalypse?"
"If so, this is how I want to go out." Emma Marshall sighed, digging the textbook from the bag on her lap. "Enjoying the view."
I followed my best friend's gaze to the front of the class, where Mr. Beckhired in the wake of Mr. Wesner's untimely demisewas writing math problems on the white board with green ink. His numbers were blockish and completely vertical; he had the best handwriting of any teacher at Eastlake. But Emma's focus was several feet below his numbers, where the jeans encouraged by the new "Spirit Fridays" policy proved that Mr. Beck was much more dedicated to physical fitness than the average high school faculty member.
"And I suppose your sudden interest in math is purely academic, right?"
Her grin widened as she set the book on her desk, and it fell open to the place marked with a fat, purple-print emery board. "I don't know if 'pure' is totally accurate, but I haven't figured out how to entirely avoid academia in the school setting. I think the most we can hope for is something pretty to look at, to distract us from the inherent pain of the educational process."
I laughed. "Spoken like a true underachiever."
Emma could have been a straight-A student, but she was satisfied coasting by on effortless Bs, except in French and math, the only subjects that didn't seem to come naturally for her. And the hot new math teacher had done nothing to improve her grades. Thanks to the aesthetic distraction, she was less inclined than ever to pay attention to what was written on the board and in the book.
Not that I could blame her. Mr. Beck was undeniably yummy, from his dark, tousled hair to his bright green eyes and the scuffed sneakers he always wore, even with slacks.
"He's only twenty-two," Em said, when she caught me looking. "Less than a year out of college. I bet this is his first teaching job."
"How do you know that?" I asked, as Mr. Beck set his marker down and dug through his desk drawer for something.
"Heard it from Danica Sussman. He's been tutoring her after school, to keep her eligible for softball."
"Where is Danica?" I asked, on the tail end of the late bell. She'd been out sick for a couple of days, but she'd never missed on a game day beforeDanica was supposed to pitch that afternoon.
"Still sick, I guess," Em whispered, as Mr. Beck started taking roll. She unfolded a half-blank sheet of notebook paper. "Did you do the homework?"
I rolled my eyes and pulled out my own work. "What happened to your new interest in math?"
"It doesn't extend to homework."
"Kaylee Cavanaugh?" Mr. Beck called from the front of the room, and I glanced up, startled, certain we'd been caught cheating. But Beck was just standing there with his roll book in hand, waiting for my answer.
"Oh. Here," I said, and he'd called three more names when the door opened and Danica Sussman stepped into the classroom. She was pale, except for dark patches beneath her eyes, which she hadn't even tried to cover.
"Danica, are you okay?" Beck asked, as she crossed toward the front of the room, a blue late slip in hand.
"I'm fine." She handed him the slip, but he balled it up in one fist and dropped it into the trash can next to his desk.
"I haven't called your name yet, so you're not really late," he said, frowning, like he wasn't convinced by her answer.
"Thanks, Mr. B." But when she headed toward her desk, Danica had one hand pressed to her stomach, her face scrunched up in obvious pain.
Halfway through class, as Emma scrambled to finish her homework without ever taking her focus from Mr. Beck's face, a familiar, sharp pain began to scratch at the back of my throat.
No! My heart beat so hard I practically shook in my chair. It couldn't be happening again. Not at school. Not just six weeks after the loss of three teachers in a two-day span. My winter had felt like a series of deaths connected only by my advanced knowledge of them. I'd been hoping for a spring reprieve.
But a bean sidhe's wail is never wrong. When someone near me is about to die, an overwhelming urge to screamto cry out to his soulconsumes me. And the scream clawing its way up my throat at that very moment could only mean one thing.
I clenched my teeth so tight my jaws ached, denying the scream an exit. My hands gripped the sides of my desk, muscles so tense I accidentally pulled it back an inch, and Emma glanced up when she heard it squeal on the dingy linoleum tile.
She took one look at my face and frowned. Again? she mouthed, and when I could only nod, her frown deepened. Emma had seen me resist screaming for someone's soul often enough to recognize the symptoms. At first it had freaked her out, and a large part of me wished it still did. I didn't like how accustomed she was becoming to the cocoon of death that seemed to surround me.
Yet there were definite advantages to having a best friend in the know. Like the fact that she didn't panic as she watched my gaze travel over my classmates, waiting for the dark aura to materialize around someone and show me who was about to die. But I saw no aura, and the scream remained a steady, painful pressure at the back of my throatfairly easily stoppered, since I knew what I was doingas if the soon-to-be-deceased and I weren't actually in the same room. That thought made me relax enough that I raised my hand to be excused.
Mr. Beck started to nod in my direction, but before he could, Danica Sussman slid right out of her chair and onto the floor. Unconscious.
The entire class gasped, and chairs squealed against the floor as people stood for a better view. I was so surprised my mouth almost fell open, which would have released my painfully shrill shriek into the school.
Mr. Beck stared at Danica, blinking in shock and confusion.
Was it her? Was Danica about to die? If so, why wasn't my urge to scream getting any stronger?
Mr. Beck rushed down the aisle, but before he got there, Chelsea Simms dropped onto the floor and stuck her hand in front of Danica's face, an inch from her nose. "She's still breathing " Chelsea sat back and glanced over our fallen classmate, obviously looking for an injury. Then she gasped again, sharper than before. "Shit, she's bleeding!" Chelsea scrambled backward on her knees and bumped her shoulder on the nearest desk, as shocked whispers echoed across the room.
Mr. Beck knelt beside Danica, features tense with worry. "Chelsea, call the office from the phone on my desk. Just dial nine." When Chelsea stood, I saw what everyone else had already reacted to: the pool of blood spreading beneath Danica's thighs.
That's when the scream hit me full force. While everyone else whispered and stared, gathering around our fallen classmate until Mr. Beck ordered them back, I sat stiff in my chair, gripping the sides of my desk again, swallowing compulsively to fight back the scream that was scalding me from the inside out.
But Danica was still breathing. I could see her chest rising between the shoulders of two basketball players standing in the aisle. Her breathing wasn't even labored. But the strength of the scream within me said that someone was going to die any minute. If it wasn't Danica, who was it?
"You okay?" Emma asked, leaning close to me, eyes wide, forehead furrowed. "Is it her?"
I could only shrug. The only way I know how to check was.
I let a thin thread of the scream trail from my lips, an emaciated sound so soft no one else heard it over the steady, stunned buzz of the gathered spectators. But it was enough. With that sound calling out to the soul, I would be able to see it when it left Danica's body. Assuming she was the one about to die.
But the insubstantial form hovering over Danica Sussman was like no soul I'd ever seen. Usually, a soul's appearancemerely its representation in the physical worldmimicked its owner's size, at least. But this soul was tiny. No bigger than my fist, and irregular in shape. And Danica's breathing had not slowed.
And that's when I understood. Danica wasn't dying. She was losing her unborn child.
"I don't think I can eat today." Emma stirred a paper bowl of tomato soup with a plastic spoon. "This just isn't in good taste."
I cracked open my soda lid without glancing at her lunch, for fear I'd be sick at the sight. "I'm pretty sure they plan the menu months in advance." But that was little solace after what we'd seen that morning. Somehow, even after all the death I'd both witnessed and heralded, I'd never even considered the possibility of a miscarriage triggering my instinct to wail for a yet-unborn soul. The usual helplessness, frustration and horror that accompanied any death for me were magnified almost beyond my own comprehension. This was a baby. A child who would never be. And I didn't know how to deal with that.
"It does look pretty gory, though," Sabine insisted from across the table, ignoring her own tray as the spring breeze blew long black hair into her face. She tucked the stray strands back, exposing a mismatched set of silver hoops in her upper ear. "So is it true that Danica Sussman hemorrhaged all over the floor in first period?"
"Both true and gruesome." Em dropped her spoon and pushed her meal back as Nash settled onto the bench seat next to me with a cardboard tray of nachos. "I hope she's okay."
An ambulance had come for Danica, and though she was still unconscious, I was long past wailing for her baby by the time they wheeled her away on a stretcher. And I was the only one who knew for sure that she would livebut that a tiny, hidden part of her had already died.
"I hope so, too." Nash slid one arm around my waist and squeezed me, then dug into his chips, and I couldn't help wondering if we would have been able to save Danica's baby, if we'd both been there when it happened. As a male bean sidhe, Nash didn't wail for the souls of the dying. His gifts included Influencethe ability to compel people to do things just by speaking to themand the capacity to guide a disembodied soul. Together, we could reinstate a person's soul and save his or her lifebut only in exchange for someone else's. A life for a life. That's how it worked.
But I had no idea if it would work at all on an unborn child, without a fully formed body in which to reinstate the soul. Or if it would last, even if it did work. I mean, miscarriages happen for a reason, right? Because there's something wrong with the baby, or because the mother can't handle the stress. Or something like that. So really, a miscarriage is a blessing, right?
Or maybe I was just desperate to find a silver lining to go with the single darkest, most horrifying cloud of a death I'd ever witnessed.
"People are saying it was a miscarriage," Emma said softly, and I flinched when a guy in a green-and-white senior class shirt turned around on the bench behind her, his brown eyes shiny with unshed tears, face flushed with anger. Max Kramer was Danica's boyfriend of almost a year, and his pain and anger were so raw I felt like I was violating his privacy just by witnessing them.
"Well, people are wrong," he snapped, and Emma froze, obviously embarrassed, then turned to face him slowly.
"I'm sorry, Max. I didn't mean."
Max stood without letting her finish, towering over our entire table. "They're all wrong." He didn't raise his voice, but made no special effort to lower it either, so half the quad heard him when he continued. "Danica couldn't have been pregnant. We've never even done it. So find someone else to talk about. Or better yet, why don't you all just shut the hell up."
We stared after him as he stomped off toward the cafeteria doors, and one look at Emma told me she felt just as bad for him as I did.
"Poor fool," Sabine said, one of Nash's cheese-covered chips halfway to her mouth. "I think he really believes that." As a mara, Sabine could read people's fears and feed from the nightmares she wove for them while they slept. But even beyond her mara abilities, she had an uncanny ability to read people's expressions and body language. To my constant irritation.
"Of course he believes it." Emma would have taken any excuse to argue with the maraSabine had dragged her into the Netherworld six weeks earlier and almost sold her to a hellion, body and soul. But this time her anger was obviously about more than that; Em felt guilty for passing along what she'd heard in front of Max. "Just 'cause people are saying something doesn't make it true. My aunt had a miscarriage last year, and it looked nothing like that. There was hardly any blood. Mostly just some cramping."
Sabine shrugged, unfazed. "I'm no doctor, but if you ask me, she was pregnant, and the baby didn't belong to good ol' Max. But he obviously hasn't figured that out yet."
"Well, no one asked you," Emma insisted. "So mind your own business."
The mara frowned. "It's not like I was going to tell him!"
"Sabine." Nash half groaned.
Normally, I like it when he's irritated with her. Sabine was my boyfriend's ex-girlfriend, and she wasn't too happy about the "ex" part.
"She's right," I said, as softly as I could speak and still be heard at my own table.
"How do you ?" Emma asked, and I met her gaze reluctantly.
"Because I felt the baby die."