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I used to hate the fact that my world is built on half-truths, held together with white lies. My life itself is an illusion requiring constant effort to maintain. I lie better than almost anyone I've ever met. But if I know the truth about anything, it's this: when people say the devil is in the details, they have no idea how right they are
"It was a nice service, right?" My best friend, Emma, smoothed the front of her simple black dress, both brows furrowed in doubt. She shifted her weight to her right foot and her heel sank half an inch into the soft ground. "I mean, as far as funerals go, it could have been worse. People cried." She shrugged, staring out at the slowly departing crowd. "This would have been awkward if no one had cried."
It was awkward anyway. Funerals are always awkward, especially in my social circle, where the definition of "death" is under constant reevaluation.
"It was a lovely service, Em." I watched as people fled the open grave in slow-motion retreat, eager to be gone but reluctant to let it show. There were teachers, shell-shocked but in control, looking out of place without their desks and whiteboards. Parents, looking helpless and scared. Classmates in dark dresses, black slacks, and uncomfortable shoes, most in the same clothes they'd worn to the past few funerals.
We were all much too familiar with the routine by now. Whispered names and details. A day off for mourning. Excused absences for the viewing. Counselors on call for grieving students during every class period. And finally, the funeral, where we said goodbye to yet another classmate most of us had known for most of our lives.
I was one of those who'd cried, even though I was among the few who knew that the star of the showthe recently deceased herself2was actually still with us. Right next to me, in fact. A guest at her own funeral.
Sabine leaned closer, Nash's hand clasped in her right one, because her left was still encased in a cast. A curtain of thick, dark hair fell over half her face, shielding her from most of the thinning crowd. "So, seeing yourself in a coffin wasn't awkward? 'Cause it was awkward for me, and I'm not the one being buried today."
"Oh, no, the viewing was totally horrible," Em admitted, her brown eyes wide. Those eyes were all that was left of her, other than her soul. Everything else was Lydia's. Thin, angular face. Petite bones and slim build, similar to my own. Limp brown hair. Freckles. Feet that didn't quite fit into Em's favorite pair of shoes, stolen from her own closet while her mother and sisters shopped for her casket. "But the funeral itselfthat was nice, don't you think?"
It was, as it damn well should have been. Em had left funeral detailsin her own handwritingin an envelope on her vanity table the day we'd picked up her shoes and a few other essentials. Once Ms. Marshall was thinking clearly, she'd probably wonder why her seventeen-year-old daughter had given so much thought to how she wanted to be buried, but grief had eclipsed her skepticism at least long enough to arrange the funeral of her daughter'salbeit morbiddreams.
"It was beautiful, Em," Tod whispered, and I glanced up to find him standing next to me, where there'd been only damp grass a second before. It took more self-control than I'd known I had to keep from throwing my arms around him and trying to melt into him, which had recently replaced hoping for world peace as my new favorite impossible task.
I couldn't throw myself at him because most people couldn't see him. Reapers are sneaky that way.
Beyond that, I couldn't indulge in an embrace from my boyfriendthat word felt so inadequatebecause today wasn't about comforting me. It was about burying Emma. Being there for her.
And planning vengeance. Justice for Em and for everyone else Avari and his fellow hellions had possessed, tortured, or taken from us. Today was about plotting retribution for Emma's boyfriend. And for Lydia, and for Sabine's foster mother, and for Brant, Nash's baseball teammate.
And for Alec.
My hand twitched at the thought of him, as if I still held the dagger. I could almost smell the blood. I could still see him in my mind, one of my few real friends, his eyes filled with pain and confusion, staring up at me in fear. Until they'd stared at nothing.
I swallowed my anger at Avari and what he'd taken from us, determined to avoid ruining Emma's perfect funeral with the bellow of rage itching to burst free from me.
Today was a new start for Em, and a new start for us all. We could no longer afford to be victims in Avari's quest to walk the human world. Beginning today, we were soldiers. Warriors, battle-weary and not yet focused, but warriors nonetheless.
Warriors, at least for the moment, in black formal funeral attire. All except for Tod, who could wear whatever he wanted because no one other than the five of us could see him.
I started to take his hand, hoping no one would notice such a small motion, but then Emma made a soft, strangling sound and I looked up to see her staring ahead, frozen like a deer in mortal danger.
Her mother was heading straight for us.
"Kaylee, thank you so much for coming." Ms. Marshall sniffled and reached for my hand, and her tears triggered more of my own. "Thank you all." She glanced at everyone but Tod, whom she couldn't see, and when her gaze lingered for a second on her own daughter, hidden behind a stranger's face, Emma burst into fresh sobs.
"We wouldn't have missed it, Ms. Marshall," Nash said, while I wrapped one arm around Emma.
Sabine stared at us both. The funeral hadn't upset her at all, that I could see, and she obviously didn't understand why it had bothered us, beyond the lie we were telling the world, since Emma was still alive and mostly well.
"Thank you." Ms. Marshall sniffled again, and she didn't seem to notice that her own heels were sinking into the soft earth. "I know Emma would be happy if she could see you all here now."
Em sobbed harder.
"I'm sorry, I don't believe we've met." Ms. Marshall dabbed her eyes with a damp tissue and held one hand out to her own daughter.
Emma cleared her throat and shook her mother's hand. Her mouth opened, but nothing came out.
"This is my cousin. Emily," I said. "She's just lost her parents, so she'll be staying with me and my dad." That was the best story we could come up with. It was heavy on coincidence, but just as heavy on necessityEm had to live somewhere, now that she'd lost everything she'd ever had. Except for us.
Ms. Marshall's expression crumbled beneath a new layer of sympathetic grief, and her voice shook. "I'm so sorry for your loss, Emily."
But if Em heard her, I couldn't tell.
"She loved you so much!" Emma threw her arms around her mother and buried her tear-streaked face in her mom's hair. "She wouldn't want you to forget about her, but she doesn't want you to worry either. Or to
" Em nearly choked on her own tears, and we all stood there looking as helpless as Ms. Marshall looked confused and
devastated. She was crying again, and so was I. "Or to
stop living. She wants you to live," Em said into her mother's ear. "And to hug Traci and Cara a lot. And to make yourself happy. She's sorry she called your boyfriend an idiot. It shouldn't matter that he's kind of stupid, if he makes you happy, so Emma would want you to go for it."
She finally released her mother and stepped back, wiping tears with her bare hands. "So you should go for it."
Ms. Marshall's tissue was soaked and when she blinked, more tears fell. "I didn't realize you knew Emma. Do you go to Eastlake?"
"She will," I said, when I realized Em's flood of words had dried up, leaving her speechless and evidently mortified by her outburst. "But she knew Emma from
before. We were all three really close." I couldn't tell whether or not Ms. Marshall believed meor whether she was even capable of thinking my hasty explanation through at the momentbut she nodded and wiped at her cheeks again.
"Kaylee, when you feel up to it, I hope you'll come over and take something from Emma's room. To remember her by. I'm sure she'd want you to have whatever you'd like."
"We will," Em said before I could speak.
Ms. Marshall frowned, then nodded again and started backing away from us in heels crusted with mud from the recent rain. "Thank you all for coming." Then her two remaining daughters each put an arm around her and led her to the long black car waiting with its engine running.
"I think I scared her," Emma whispered, clutching my hand.
"Yup." Sabine's nearly black eyes were dilated and her mouth hung open just a little. As a maraa living NightmareSabine fed on fear, but she'd been going hungry a lot lately, since grief and anger had finally overwhelmed the nearly constant state of fear we'd all been living in for the past few months.
"I'm pretty sure it's rude to feed from the dead girl's family at a funeral," Nash said, one arm around her waist, his fingers curled around her narrow hip. He used to hold me like that. I used to like it. But Nash and I were over. We'd been over before we even knew we were over, and I still wasn't sure he'd completely accepted that yet. But it made me feel better to see him touch her in public.
He'd been touching her in private since the very day we broke up.
Sabine lifted both brows at him. "You expect me to believe that if someone threw a pie in your face at a funeral you wouldn't lick your lips?"
"If someone threw a pie in my face at a funeral, I'd
" Nash frowned. "Well, that'd be really weird."
"Weirder than seeing yourself buried?" Tod's hand slid into my grip, his fingers curling around mine, now that there was no one near enough to see me holding hands with empty air. No one except Sophie, my real cousin, and her boyfriend, Luca, who watched us from the other side of the open grave. They knew all about Tod. In fact, my undead reaper boyfriend hardly even registered as "strange" to Sophie anymore, considering that her own boyfriend was a necromancer. And that Luca and Sabine were the only ones among us who'd never died.
Nash's death was classified information, available on a need-to-know basis, and so far, his mom and brother didn't think anyone needed to know. Including Nash.
Emma and I had both died twice, and for me, that second one actually stuck. Now I was a "resurrected American," better known, in colloquial terms, as life-challenged. Or undead. Or the living dead. But I'm not a zombie. I'm just a little less alive than your average high school junior.
"No," Nash said, in that short-tempered voice he seemed to save just for his brother. "Having a pie thrown in my face at a funeral would not be weirder than seeing myself buried."
"Then Em wins this round." He glanced around at the last of the mourners, including my father, who leaned on his crutch, chatting softly with Harmony, Tod and Nash's mom, and his own brothermy uncle Brendon. "Let's get out of here. I've had enough death for one day."
That really means something, coming from a reaper.
"You okay?" I tossed Emma a T-shirt from my dresser, and she pulled it over her head. We were nearly the same size, now that she was Lydia. Which meant that the clothes we'd snuck out of her mom's house no longer fit her.
"Yeah." She kicked one of Styx's rubber dog bones out of the way and stepped into a pair of my jeans. "I don't know what happened at the cemetery. I mean, it's not like I'm really dead, but as soon as my mom started talking to you, I just lost it."
That was true. She'd been staring at her mother and sisters for two straight days, at the viewing the day before, the funeral today, then the actual burial, and she hadn't lost it once. Not until her mother was within arm's reach.
"Don't worry about it. You've been through hell this year, Em. I'd be worried about you if you weren't upset." Though actually, I was worried about her. Very worried.
Emma sat on the edge of her bed to pull on a pair of sneakers, and if I'd reached out from the end of my bed, I could have touched her. We'd given up nearly all the floor space in my room for the extra twin bed, and I'd had to get rid of my bean-bag chair, which was a real shame, considering we didn't actually need a second bed. Emma could have had mineI hadn't slept in it once in the nearly two weeks since my birthday/her death-day, in part because I no longer needed sleep, though I'd discovered that I did need rest.
But telling my father that I was spending most of my nights at Tod's place, whether or not my reaper boyfriend was actually at home, would have been.
Well, that wouldn't have been a pleasant conversation. Even if my dad had his suspicions about how physical our relationship had become, I was in no hurry to confirm them. I may have been practically grownand technically deadbut I would always be his little girl. He'd made that more than clear.
And I loved him for it.
More comfortable in our regular clothes, Em and I met everyone else in the front of the house, where Sabine had helped herself to a soda without getting one for anyone else. "All I'm saying is that Emily and Emma are practically the same name. No offense, Em," she added when we walked past my father's chair, where the mara was perched on the arm, hopelessly wrinkling the black slacks she only wore to funerals. And, truthfully, she only wore those because Nash had insisted black jeans weren't good enough.
"None taken." Em headed into the kitchen and took a seat at the bar, where she rested her forehead on her folded arms.
"At least she wasn't named after a can of soup," Tod said, and Sabine shot him a scowl. Her last nameCampbellhad come from a hungry worker at the church where she'd been abandoned as a toddler.
"Emma and Emily are pretty similar." Nash sank into my dad's armchair and wrapped one arm around the mam's waist. "Wouldn't you rather pick something different? I mean, you could be anyone you want. It could be fun. None of the rest of us got to pick our names."
Em didn't even look up.
"We called her Cynthia for three days." Tod shoved a pillow over so I could sit with him on the couch. "She couldn't remember to answer. Calling her Emily is just easier."
"Who cares what you call her? Emma is still Emma, and that's all that matters, right? That she survived." Sophie shrugged in her spaghetti strap dress, leaning against the wall by the door like she wanted to stay but needed to be near an exit, just in case.