Prom Nights from Hell (Chapter Three)
I stepped in, my eyes pricking with emotion when from upstairs came my dad's incredulous, shaky voice calling, "Madison?"
I took the stairs two at a time, tripping on my skirt and clawing my way up the last step. Throat tight, I rustled to a stop in the doorway to my room. My dad was sitting on the floor amid my boxes, opened but never unpacked. He looked old, his thin face gaunt with heartache, and I couldn't move. I didn't know what to do.
Eyes wide, he stared as if I weren't there. "You never unpacked," he whispered.
A hot tear ran down to my chin, coming from nowhere. Seeing him like this, I realized he did need me to remind him of the good stuff. No one had ever needed me before. "I… I'm sorry, Dad…" I managed as I stood there, helpless.
He took a breath and snapped out of it. Emotion lit his face. In a surge of motion, he stood. "You're alive?" he breathed, and I gasped when he took the three steps between us and brought me to him in a crushing hold. "They said you were dead. You're alive?"
"I'm okay," I sobbed into his chest, the release washing through me so hard it was painful. He smelled like the lab he worked in, of oil and ink, and nothing ever smelled so good. I couldn't stop my tears. I was dead-I think. I had an amulet, but I didn't know if I was going to be able to stay, and the fear of that fed my helplessness. "I'm okay," I said around a hiccupping sob. "But there was a mistake."
Half laughing, he pushed me back enough to see my face. Tears brightened his eyes, and he smiled as if he'd never stop. "I was at the hospital," he said. "I saw you."
The memory of that pain crossed behind his eyes, and he touched my hair with a shaking hand as if to reassure himself I was real. "But you're okay. I tried to call your mother. She's going to think I'm crazy. More crazy than usual. I couldn't leave a message telling her you were in an accident. So I hung up. But you're really okay?"
My throat was tight, and I sniffed loudly. I was not going to give up my amulet. Never. "I'm sorry, Dad," I said, still crying. "I shouldn't have gone with that guy. I never should have. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry!"
"Shhhh." He pulled me back into a hug, rocking me, but I only cried harder. "It's okay. You're all right," he soothed, his hand brushing my hair. But he didn't know I really was dead.
His breath catching, my dad halted in a sudden thought. He put me at arm's length, and the cold that spilled into me when he looked me over ended my tears in a soft sniffle. "You're really fine," he said in wonder. "Not a scratch on you."
I smiled nervously, and one of his arms slipped from me. "Dad, there's something I need to tell you. I-"
There was a soft scuff at the door. My dad's eyes shot over my shoulder, and I turned to find Barnabas standing awkwardly next to a short man in a loose, martial arts kind of an outfit. It was billowy. Not functional at all. He was upright and thin, with sharp features and very dark skin. His eyes were a deep brown, heavily lined at the corners. His hair, too, said he was old, the tight curls graying at the temples.
"I'm sorry," my dad said, pulling me to stand beside him. "Did you bring my daughter home? Thank you."
I didn't like Barnabas's grimace, and I had to work to not hide behind my dad. His arm was still around me, and I didn't want to move. Crap. I think Barnabas had brought his boss. I wanted to stay. Damn it, I don't want to be dead. This isn't fair!
The dark man made a rueful face. "No," he said, the word having a pleasant crispness. "She managed that all by herself. God knows how."
I wiped my eyes, frightened. "They didn't bring me home," I said, shifting nervously. "I don't know them. I've seen the guy," I added, "but not the old man."
Still, my dad smiled neutrally, trying to piece it together. "Are you from the hospital?" he asked, and then his face hardened. "Who's responsible for telling me my daughter was dead? Someone's head is going to roll over this."
Barnabas cringed, and his boss sniffed his agreement. "Truer words have not been said, sir." His eyes traveled over my room, taking in the pink walls, white furniture, and opened boxes never fully unpacked. They landed on me last, and I wondered what conclusions he'd made. With my life ending so abruptly, I was sort of like my room-everything was here, but nothing out of the boxes. And now everything would get taped back shut and shoved into a closet, all the good stuff never seen or realized. I'm not done yet.
I stiffened when the man took a step into my room, a thin hand raised placatingly. "We need to talk, child," he said, striking me cold.
Oh God. He wanted me to go with him.
I clutched the amulet to me, and my dad's grip on me tightened. He saw my frightened eyes and finally understood something was wrong. Shifting, he put himself between me and the two people in the doorway. "Madison, call the police," he said, and I reached for the phone on the bedside table. That I had unpacked.
"Ah, we need a moment," the old man said.
I pulled my attention up as he waved his hand like a bad actor in a science fiction movie. The hum of the open line cut off, and from outside, the mower quit. Shocked, I stared at the phone, then my dad standing between me and the two men. He wasn't moving.
My knees felt watery. Setting the phone back in the cradle, I stared at my dad. He seemed all right. Apart from the not-moving thing.
The old man sighed, and my attention jerked to him. Son of a dead puppy, I thought, cold and scared. I wasn't leaving without a fight.
"Let him go," I said, my voice trembling. "Or I'll… I'll…"
Barnabas's lips quirked, and the man arched his eyebrows. His eyes were a grayish blue. I could have sworn they had been brown. "You'll what?" he said, taking a firmer stance on the carpet with his arms over his chest.
I glanced at my dad, frozen. "I'll scream, or something," I threatened.
"Go ahead. No one will hear you. It will be a pop of nothing, too fast to be heard."
I took a breath to chance it, and he shook his head. My breath exploded out of me and I backpedaled when he lurched into the room. But he wasn't coming for me. Yanking my white chair from the vanity, he sat with his small body at an angle. He dropped an elbow onto the top and then cradled his forehead in his hand as if weary. He made an odd picture against the music box and girl stuff.
"Why can't anything be easy?" he muttered, fingering my ceramic zebras. "Is this a joke?" he said louder at the ceiling. "Are you laughing? Getting a good laugh out of this, are you?"
I looked at the door, and Barnabas shook his head in warning. Fine. There was still the window-though with this dress, I might kill myself if I fell. Oh, wait. I was dead already. "Is my dad okay?" I asked, daring to touch his elbow.
Barnabas nodded, and the old man brought his gaze back to me. Grimacing as if making a decision, he extended his hand. I stared at it, not reaching for it. "Pleasure to make your acquaintance," he said firmly. "Madison, was it? Everyone calls me Ron."
I stared at him, and he slowly put his arm down. His eyes were brown again. "Barnabas told me what you did," he said. "Can I see it?"
Surprised, I fidgeted, my fingers sliding off my dad's arm. Man… this was creepy. It was like the entire world had stopped, but I was a walking dead, so I guess my dad being frozen was a small thing. "See what?"
"The stone," Ron said, and the hint of anxiety in his voice struck me like fire.
He wanted it. He wanted it, and it was the only thing keeping me alive. Or not quite dead. "I don't think so," I said, sure of its value when Ron's expression became alarmed as my hand crept up to feel the stone's cool surface.
"Madison," he soothed, standing. "I simply want to look at it."
"You want it!" I exclaimed, heart pounding. "It's the only thing keeping me solid. I don't want to die. You guys messed up. I'm not supposed to be dead! It's your fault!"
"Yes, but you are dead," Ron said, and my breath hissed in when he extended his hand. "Just let me look at it."
"I'm not giving it up!" I shouted, and Ron's eyes lit in fear.
"Madison, no! Don't say it!" he shouted, reaching.
I stumbled back out of my dad's questionable protection, clutching it. "It's mine!" I shrieked, my back hitting the wall.
Ron lurched to a halt, dismay clear on his old features as his arm dropped. The world seemed to balance. "Oh, Madison," he breathed. "You really shouldn't have."
Not knowing why he had stopped, I stared at him, then stiffened when a shiver moved through me. A cramping-ice feeling rose from my palm and the amulet, and it raced through my entire body, making me stiffen. It was like an electrical shock. I heard my pulse echo in me, the thump coming back from the inside of my skin before it filled the space and made me feel almost… whole. An instant later, it backlashed with a feeling of heat to balance out the cold, and then… it was done.
My breath slammed out of me, and I stood, frozen with my back to the wall. Heart pounding, I stared at Ron. He had a miserable look, quiet and depressed in his robes. I was afraid to move. But the amulet in my hand felt different. Little sparkles of sensation still shot from it, and unable to stop myself, I opened my fingers to look. My jaw dropped, and I stared. It wasn't the same. "Look!" I said stupidly. "It changed."
His back bowed, Ron slumped into the chair, muttering under his breath. Shocked, I dropped the pendant to hold it by the cord. When I had ripped it from the black reaper, it had been a simple, gray, river-washed stone. Now it was utterly black, like a spot of nothing dangling from the cord. The black wire cradling it had taken on a silver sheen, catching the light and throwing it around the room. Crap. Maybe I had broken it. But it was beautiful. How could it be broken?
"That's not what it looked like when I got it," I said, then went cold at the look of pity Ron now wore. Behind him, Barnabas looked almost terrified, his face white and his eyes wide.
"You got that right," Ron said bitterly. "We had a hope of ending this properly until you claimed it. But no-o-o, now it's yours." His eyes met mine in wry disgust. "Congratulations."
Slowly my hand dropped, and I shifted nervously. It was mine. He said it was mine.
"But it was a black reaper's stone," Barnabas said, and I started at the fear in his voice. "That thing wasn't a reaper, but it had a reaper's stone. She's a black reaper!"
My lips parted. "Whoa, wait up."
"She's a black reaper!" Barnabas shouted, and my jaw dropped when he shook his shirt and brought out a short hand scythe, twin to Seth's. Jumping, he got between me and Ron.
"Barnabas!" Ron bellowed, cuffing him to send him stumbling back to the door. "She's not a black reaper, you idiot! She's not even a white one. She can't be. She's human, even if she is dead. Put that away before I age it to rust!"
"But it's a black reaper's stone," he stuttered, his narrow shoulders hunched. "I saw her take it!"
"And whose fault is it that she knew what it was, Barney?" he mocked, and the young man dropped back, ducking his head, clearly embarrassed.
My heart pounded as I stood in the corner, holding the pendant so tight my fingers hurt. Ron glanced disparagingly between us. "That isn't a black reaper's stone any more than a black reaper would be strong enough to leave corporal evidence of its existence behind, or…" he continued, raising a hand to keep Barnabas from interrupting, "have a reason to come back for the soul of someone they culled. She's got something more powerful than a reaper stone, and they'll be back for it. You can count on it."
Oh great. Just swell.
Barnabas seemed to draw himself back together, looking worried and scared. "He said he wasn't a reaper, but I thought he was trying to cow us. What is he if he isn't a reaper?"
"I don't know yet. But I have a few ideas."
Ron's admission of ignorance was worse than anything he could have said, and a ribbon of fear pulled through me. I shuddered, and Ron sighed when he saw it. "I should been watching for this," he murmured. Then looking at the heavens, he bellowed, "A memo would have been nice!"
His voice echoed, accentuating the muffled nothing that gripped the world. Remembering these two people weren't really people, I looked at my dad, as frozen and unmoving as a mannequin. They wouldn't hurt him, would they? To cover up their mistake with me?
"Dust to stars," Ron said softly. "We'll simply adapt the best we can."
The older man stood with a heavy sigh. Seeing him moving, I pushed from the corner to get between him and my dad. Ron looked at my raised hand as if I were a kitten holding off a dog who stopped only because he wasn't interested.
"I'm not leaving," I said, standing in front of my dad as if I could actually do something. "And you aren't going to touch my dad. I have a stone. I'm solid. I'm alive!"
Ron looked me in the eye. "You have a stone, but you don't know how to use it. And you aren't alive. This delusion of pretending to be is a bad idea. However, seeing as you have a stone, and they have your body-"
My gaze darted to Barnabas, seeing by his uncomfortable expression that it was true. "Seth? He has my body?" I said, suddenly afraid. "Why?"
Ron reached out, and I jumped as his hand landed on my shoulder. It was warm, and I could feel his support-not that I thought he could really do anything to help me. "To keep you from crossing over and thereby able to give us the stone permanently?" he guessed, his dark eyes filled with pity. "As long as they have your body, you're stuck here. That stone you took is clearly an important one. It shifted to adapt to your mortal abilities. Very few stones can do that. Usually when a human claims a stone, it simply atomizes them in a surge of overload."
My mouth dropped open, and Ron nodded sagely. "Claiming the divine when one is not is a sure way to blow your soul to dust."
I closed my mouth, stifling a shiver.
"If we have it," Ron continued, "they're potentially at a disadvantage. It's in limbo right now, like you-a coin spinning on edge."
His hand slipped away. I felt all the more alone and small, though I stood taller than him.
"As long as you remain on the corporal side of things, they have a hope of finding you," he said, moving to look out my window at a world that had slowed to almost no movement.
"But Seth knows where I am," I said, confused, and Ron spun slowly around.
"Physically, yes, but he left here rather abruptly with your body. He crossed without a stone to make a memory of exactly where you are in time. It will be hard to find you again. Especially if you don't do anything to draw attention to yourself."
Miss Anonymity. Yeah, I can do that. Ri-i-i-i-ight. My head hurt, and I held one arm to me with the other and tried to make sense of what he was telling me.
"He will find you, though. Find you and take you and that stone back with him. What happens then?" Shaking his head, he turned to the window again, the light spilling in to outline him in gold. "They do terrible things, without thought, to further themselves."
Seth had my body. I felt myself go pale. Barnabas saw it, then cleared his throat to get Ron's attention. The old man's eyes landed on me, and he blinked as if realizing what he had said. "Ah, I could be wrong," he said, not helping. "I am, sometimes."
My pulse quickened, and I felt a jolt of panic. Before the accident Seth had said I was his ticket to a higher court. He didn't just want me dead. He wanted me. Not the stone I stole from him. Me. I opened my mouth to tell Ron, then, frightened, changed my mind. Barnabas saw in my sudden fear that I was withholding something, but Ron was moving, crossing my room with sharp steps and shooing him out. Barnabas silently retreated to the hall, his mouth shut and his head down in thought, probably afraid that whatever I wasn't saying would get him in more trouble, not less. Alarm trickled through me. They weren't leaving, were they?
"The only thing we can do now," Ron said, "is keep you intact until we find out how to break the hold the stone has on you without breaking your soul."
"But you just said I can't die," I said. Just where did he think he was going? Seth was going to be back!
Ron stopped at the threshold. Barnabas stood behind him, a worry too deep for a mere seventeen years showing heavy on him. "You can't die because you're already dead," the old man said. "But there are worse things."
Great, I thought, warming when I recalled dancing with Seth, that kiss he took, the feel of his nose breaking against my knee, and the look of hatred he had given me. Way to go, Madison. Not only did I screw up my reputation at a new school, but I managed to insult the angel of death, too. Put myself at the top of his wish list.
"Barnabas?" Ron said, making me jump. Barnabas, too, looked surprised.
"Congratulations, you've been promoted to guardian angel."
Barnabas froze, then looked aghast at me. "That's not a promotion. It's a punishment!"
"Some of this is your fault," Ron said, his voice harsh in comparison to the sly smile he gave me, but Barnabas couldn't see it. "Most, probably." His face went serious. "Deal with it. And don't take it out on her."
"But Lucy. It was her responsibility!" he protested, looking young as he whined.
"Madison is seventeen," Ron said, his tone brooking no argument. "You handle seventeen. Should be a snap." He turned, hands on his hips. "In addition to your regular white-reaper prevention detail, you will be Madison's guardian angel. I'd think we could get this sorted out in a year." His gaze went distant. "One way or another."
"But sir!" he exclaimed, stumbling into the hall's wall when Ron pushed past him to the stairs. I followed, not believing this. I have a guardian angel?
"Sir, I can't!" Barnabas said, making me feel like an unwelcome burden. "I can't do my job and watch her! If I get too far away, they'll take her!"
"Then keep her with you when you work." Ron went several steps down. "She needs to learn how to use that thing. Teach her something in your copious spare time. Besides, it's not like you have to keep her alive. Just keep her coin spinning. Try to do a better job of it this time," he almost growled.
Barnabas sputtered, and Ron turned to smile worriedly at me. "Madison," he said in farewell. "Keep the pendant with you. It will protect you somewhat. If you take it off, black wings can find you, and the dark reapers are never far from them."
Black wings. There was that phrase again. Just the name invoked a nasty image in my thoughts. "Black wings?" I asked, the two words sounding completely foul on my lips.
Ron paused on the first step. "Filthy vultures left over from creation. They smell wrong deaths before they happen and try to snitch a bit of forgotten soul. Don't let them touch you. Because you're dead, they can sense you, but with that stone they will think you're a reaper and leave you alone."
My head bobbed up and down. Stay away from the black wings. Check.
"Cronus!" Barnabas begged, as Ron started downstairs again. "Please. Don't do this to me!"
"Find some wind and make the best of it," Ron muttered when he reached the downstairs landing and headed for the door. "It's only for a year."
He crossed the threshold into the sun. The light hit him, and he vanished, not all at once, but from the feet up as he moved into the light. The sun streaming into the house seemed to glitter, and then the distant mower roared to life.
I took a breath as the world began to turn again with the sound of birds, wind, and someone's radio. Bewildered, I stood beside Barnabas. "What does he mean, for a year?" I whispered. "Is that all I get?"
Barnabas looked me up and down, clearly peeved. "How should I know?"
From in my room came a startled "Madison? Is that you?"
"Dad!" I said, running into him as he came out. He turned it into a happy hug, his arms around me and smiling as he looked at Barnabas. "You must be the boy who brought Madison home last night. Seth, was it?"
Huh? I thought, shocked. He had already met Barnabas. And how had my dad gone from protective anger to congenial dad so fast? What about the accident? Or the hospital? The crashed car? Me being dead?
Barnabas shifted from foot to foot in what seemed like embarrassment, shooting my gaping-mouth expression-a look to shut up. "No, sir. I'm Barnabas. One of Madison's friends. I was with her last night, too, after Josh left. It's good to meet you, sir. I just came over to see if Madison, uh, wanted to do anything today."
My dad looked proud that I had managed to make a friend without his help, but I was majorly confused. Clearing his throat as if trying to decide how to treat the first boyfriend of mine he'd had the chance to meet, he took Barnabas's extended hand. I stood and watched in wonder as they shook. Barnabas gave me a slight shrug, and I started to relax. It seemed everything had been wiped from my dad's thoughts and a fake memory of an uneventful evening put in its place-a teenager's dream of CYA to the max. Now all I had to do was figure out how Ron had done it. Just for future reference.
"Hey, do you have anything to eat around here?" Barnabas said, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck. "I feel like I haven't eaten in years."
Like magic, my dad fell into jovial-parent mode, talking about waffles as he stomped downstairs. Barnabas started after him, hesitating when I took his elbow and drew him to a stop.
"So the story is Seth brought me home and I watched TV the rest of the night?" I asked, wanting to know how much damage control I'd have to manage on my own. "I never went off that embankment?" I added when he nodded. "Who's going to remember last night? Anyone?"
"No one living," he said. "Ron takes time to be thorough. He must like you a lot." His gaze dropped to the stone about my neck. "Or maybe he simply likes your pretty new stone."
Feeling nervous all over again, I let go of his shirt and Barnabas schlumped after my dad-who was now yelling at us from the kitchen to find out if Barnabas could stay for breakfast. I straightened my dress, ran a hand over my mussed hair, and took slow, careful steps down after him. I felt really weird. A year. I had at least a year. I might not be alive, but by God I wasn't going to die all the way. I'd figure out how to use the stone I took and stay right where I was. Where I belonged. Here with my dad.