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By sevynwarr All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Fantasy

Prologue - Chapter 4


Anne fled through the woods, chased by the darkest fear that she knew. 

The moonless night was cold, dark and empty, seemingly holding its breath in anticipation of horrors yet to come.  The crisp September air was untouched by the slightest breeze, and the stars filled the sky in spectacular display. 

Anne’s breath tore through her throat in ragged gasps, puffing white into the still air.  The rocky ground made running treacherous.  Uneven terrain had already resulted in a badly sprained ankle, which jolted painfully, shooting agony up her leg with every step, but she did not slow.  She could not slow. 

Her fear kept her going, putting one foot in front of the other, despite the pain.  Its icy hand gripped and twisted her insides, pumped adrenaline through her veins, and would not allow her to stop.  The pounding of her heart thundered in her ears like the beat of a drum, and she found herself in step with its cadence.  Thump-thump.  Thump-thump.  Thump-thump.

Tree branches snatched at her as she ran, not knowing where she was going, and not caring, so long as it was away from him.  Blood ran down her bare shins from bleeding welts, soaking into her socks.  In some vague, detached part of her mind, she upbraided herself for not wearing something a little more modest than her favorite miniskirt on such a cold night.  More pressing concerns chased that fleeting notion away almost as soon as it occurred.  All that really mattered was getting away.  She could worry about welts later.  If there was a later.

She could hear his breathing behind her, like the deep grunts of a wild beast, chasing her through the trees.  Thinking of what would happen when he caught her made her want to scream.  Deep down, she knew he was no good the moment he stepped from his truck.  Maybe it was the much vaunted women’s intuition telling her something was wrong.  But what did she know about changing flat tires?  That was what AAA was for.  Except that her phone had no bars on the mountain road between Pine's Crossing and Blake Rapids.

And she was stupid enough to feel grateful when he first pulled up behind her.  Childhood admonitions never to talk to strangers danced on her brain, mocking her in her flight.  She should have gotten back into the car and locked the doors until he drove away.

Her mother went on, and on about how awful men were, and how getting divorced was the best thing that she ever did for herself.  In Anne's experience, sure boys got a little grabby if you let them, but they were not nearly that bad.  Insane as her mom seemed at times, it appeared as though she was right after all.  There was only one thing a man wanted from a pretty young woman, especially when there was no one around to see him take it by force. 

He seemed so friendly at first.  Though the hood of his jacket hid his face in shadow, Anne could hear the smile in his voice.  Then he tore at her lucky T-shirt, ripping it down the front.  Slamming her against the car hard enough to knock the breath from her lungs, he tried to lift the ruined shirt over her head and tear her bra off.  The only thing she could think to do was knee him in the junk and run for dear life.  Unfortunately, miles from anywhere, there was no one to hear her scream.  Equally unfortunate was how little time it took him to recover and chase after her.

“Can you run forever, child,” he boomed behind her, hardly sounding out of breath at all.  “I can.  You will not escape me.”

Fear throttled Anne's heart in a chokehold, pulsing through her veins like ice.  Her lungs burnt, and the back of her throat was raw and painful.  What little saliva she managed to work into her mouth was thick and sticky.  Tears streamed from her eyes at the pure agony shooting up her leg every time her injured ankle came down, and her feet were bruised because she was wearing her cheap slip-ons with the paper thin soles.  Despite her terror at being caught, she knew that she could not go on much longer.  At any moment he would grab her from behind, and do horrible, horrible things to her.

Stumbling, Anne burst into the open on a wide, slanted shelf of rock overlooking the small valley in which the Township of Blake Rapids lay nestled.  Save for its lights in the distance far below, the world seemed to end in darkness over the cliff’s edge.

Limping frantically to the precipice, she looked down, hoping for a convenient trail leading to the bottom, or perhaps only a short drop.  She saw nothing but empty space falling away into blackness.  There was no chance of jumping safely to the ground.

Choosing left, Anne started along the edge, hoping to find a way down, but she froze when she felt eyes boring into her back.  Turning, she found the man silently watching her from the edge of the trees.  Though his face was shrouded in shadows, she could see a nightmare visage in her mind, leering as he tore her clothes away with his eyes.  For a moment, it felt as though her heart had exploded within her chest.

The sheen of sweat coating her skin froze, sending a violent shiver up her spine.  Groping at her torn shirt, she held it closed with one hand.  It was the only movement her body suddenly seemed capable of.  Her feet were nailed to the ground by his unseen eyes, and she could hardly breathe, held in that paralyzing gaze as she was.  Unable to say where she found the strength, Anne managed to tear her eyes away from his, and began backing slowly away.

“Leave me alone,” she screamed at the dark figure, trying to force terror-frozen muscles to move with more urgency.  He merely watched her, slowly cocking his head to the side within his hood.  “Just leave me alone!”

“Defiance,” he purred, taking a step out into the open.  “I love defiance.  Its savor is so very sweet.  I would add it to myself if I had no other plans for you.  A pity.”

“Get away from me,” Anne shrieked, continuing to back away.

“I, unfortunately, cannot grant that request.  You have wasted much of my time.  We have little left for pleasure now, only business.”

Anne was surprised to realize that he was not very tall.  Before the chase began, she could have sworn that he towered over her, but her terrified imagination seemed to have been running wild.  The two of them were almost the same height, though he was twice as wide.  And she knew from experience that he was much, much stronger than she.  Her earlier struggles against him were met with the indomitable ease of a bulldozer plowing through a crowd of kittens. 

“I have a message to send,” the man said, stepping toward her as his breath puffed white with a slow exhalation.  “And there is really only one way to send it.”

Without bothering with the intervening space, he grabbed her by the throat.  In the time it took for Anne to blink, he was ten feet away, and then he was strangling her.  Still burning from the chase, her lungs screamed for air as she fought to breathe.

With little effort he lifted her with one arm.  Her feet dangled above the ground, and she tore at his wrist with her hands, struggling as violently as she was able.  His grip never lessened a hair.  She wanted to scream, to yell her defiance into his shadowy face, but not even a peep could escape her throat.

“Why,” he asked as though pulling the desperate question directly from her mind.  “I would say that you could call me Methusalam, if you still had the capacity for speech, and killing demons is what I do best.  Fresh death draws a demon like shit draws flies.  Five thousand years I have hunted them across this earth, and the hunt provides no new challenge.  I have already found her and the hunt has not even yet begun.  What fun is that, I ask?  No challenge at all.  But you.  Oho, you.  You will be the first move in a whole new game.  How long do you think it will take for the demon to find me instead?  How many people will I have to kill before she grows angry enough to hunt me down?  Shall we find out together?”

Irregular white spots began dancing through Anne’s vision with no discernible pattern, and her world was going dark around the edges.  Her fingers were numbing, and the reason why she clawed at the hand around her throat escaped her.  Drowning in confusion, she was afraid of… something, but what?  What was happening to her? 

Horrifyingly, two eyes began glowing with amber light inside Methusalam’s hood, peering up at her as she dangled in his grasp.  Anne’s strength left her at that sight.  She went limp, unable to struggle further.

“When she comes,” Methusalam’s voice became the wails of a thousand tortured souls, moaning in agony and despair, “you will remember jumping to your death because you cannot deal with the discovery that you are pregnant.  You will tell her nothing about me.  Let us see what she will make of that, shall we?”

Staring into those glowing eyes, Anne could feel something in her mind changing.  The chase through the forest was fading away, replacing her terror with dread of an inevitable, life-changing event just nine short months in the future.  She could feel her memories being devoured by those amber orbs, and then they were rushing away.  Cold wind whipped at her, and she realized that she could breathe again.

Tumbling head over heels, Anne drew in one deep, gasping breath before she hit the ground far, far below.

Indeterminate time passed. 

She found herself lying, face down, on some rocks.  Her body felt very strange.  In fact, she did not really feel much of anything.  A sensation of being slightly insubstantial hung heavy on her.  She felt… empty. 

Opening her eyes, Anne found herself looking into the staring eyes of a corpse, partially hidden behind a stray lock of dark hair.  The face looking back at her was a bloody mask.  With a shriek, she scrambled backward, fear leaping in her heart. 

Where was she?  What was she doing here?  Her recent memory was just… gone.

The body on the rocks was torn and broken, one leg twisted almost backwards.  The neck and back were bent at angles a human spine was never meant to bend, following the contours of the ground upon which it lay.  And there was blood, oh so much blood, staining the rocks all around.  Streams and droplets of it were splattered outward, making a perverse star-like pattern with the dead girl in the center. 

“A-are you all right,” Anne asked shakily.  She knew it for a stupid question, but if the girl were somehow alive, it would mean that Anne was not alone in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, with a corpse.

That was when she noticed the silver thread attached to the palm of the dead girl’s outstretched hand.  Glowing faintly, it snaked across the rocky ground toward Anne’s own right hand.

For a few seconds she stared at the thread attached, in no visible way, to her palm.  She had a strange urge to gnaw on it with her teeth, but her eyes soon slipped to the corpse beyond, distracting her from it.  Certain details began to penetrate her awareness through the shock of blood and gore.  That was her lucky shirt, and those the no hassle slip-ons that she wore to Mark's house because his mom forbade shoes on her carpet.

Shuddering, Anne knelt slowly, really looking at the blood-covered face for the first time.  And then she screamed.  It was a high-pitched, hysterical sound that went on, and on, and on without the need of breath to sustain it.

“This is a nightmare!  This can’t be happening!”

Scrambling to her feet, Anne turned and ran.  If she could just get away from the body—her body—perhaps…

The silver thread snapped tight, stopping her in her tracks.  She could not get away.  No matter how she yanked or pulled at the thread, it would not come free.  Again, she felt the urge to go at it with her teeth, but she was unable to see how that would be any more effective.

“What’s going on?”

Shaking violently through terror unlike any she had ever felt, Anne tried to remember.

And then it came to her, like dawn breaking over the mountains.  She parked her mother’s car to the side of the road, ran through the trees crying, and stepped over the edge of a cliff.

“But why!  Why would I do that?”

It made no sense.  She had no desire for death.  There was so much to live for.  Doctor Farnsworth had finally convinced her of that.  Why would she jump off a cliff?

“I’m pregnant…?”

Brow furrowing, she placed a hand on her belly with a shake of her head.  It was just as flat as she remembered it being.  She hardly felt pregnant, though, it was not as if she really knew what it was supposed to feel like to begin with.  The most she could remember doing with a boy was a bit of grabby-grabby, and maybe more than a little kissing.  And she was pretty certain that the whole Immaculate Conception thing her preacher tried to feed her was a load of BS, no offense to the Virgin Mary intended.  It made no sense.  Still, she could feel the weight of the monumental changes it would bring to her life, and the fear of everything it would entail was so real that once she thought of it, it was hard to think of anything else. 

Pacing beside the body—her body—Anne began babbling. 

“I’m dead.  Oh my god.  I’m dead.  Oh my god.” 

She repeated the mantra over and over again as her life’s blood dried on the rocks, staining them red. 

Occasionally she added a, “what am I going to do?”

Then she noticed the sky. 

Above her, the moon was full and huge, bigger than Anne had ever seen it by far, dominating the sky.  She could have sworn that there was no moon earlier, but that was hardly the only discrepancy.  The sky looked almost cartoonish and two-dimensional, as if it was painted on a huge pane of glass.  The stars, far too numerous, did not twinkle.  Perhaps most frighteningly of all, there were cracks in it, like someone had taken a hammer to that gigantic glass sheet.  Light shone through the gaps as if the sun was just beyond.

Anne stared upward, dumbfounded.

“What the hell?”

“Pretty, isn’t it,” someone said behind her.  “I’ve always thought the ethereal sky looked awesome.”

“Oh my god,” Anne cried out in surprise, instinctually jumping away from the sound.  The syllables crowded one another on the way out and she said them like a single word.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” the voice soothed with a slight note of guilt. 

A small figure cloaked in shadows stepped forward, seemingly out of thin air.  Anne was not particularly tall, but she stood a head taller than the shadowy figure.  By the voice, she was a girl about Anne’s age.  She seemed to be wearing some sort of hooded cloak, like a cheap grim reaper Halloween costume, but it was hard to tell.  Shadows seemed to gather around her unnaturally, hiding many details from view, and where her face should have been visible in the hood there was nothing but blackness, like looking down into the depths of forever.

A ghost of memory.  A hooded man.  Running.  Two points of amber light in the darkness.  Then nothing, like a heavy door slamming shut between Anne and the wisps of memory floating through her mind.

Choking on sudden fear, Anne took a few steps backward, until she realized she was moving closer to her own bloody, broken corpse, and froze in place. 

“Wh-who are you?”

“I’m Batman,” the diminutive figure said in the gruff tone that many girls used when mimicking male voices, and that sounded absolutely nothing like a male voice whatsoever.

Anne blinked, staring at the other girl.  She realized her mouth was hanging open and closed it, swallowing hard.  A lump of sheer terror seemed to block her throat and it took three tries to do it.

“Uh... wha-what,” she stammered.

“Just kidding,” the girl said, lowering her hood with skeletal fingers to reveal a spill of straight, if a bit unkempt, dead black hair.  Instantly, the haze of shadow that seemed to surround her was dispelled.

She was thin to the point of appearing sickly, with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes.  There were dark shadows like bruises around eyes of such dark blue that they almost seemed black.  Her skin was so white that it nearly glowed in the darkness.

“Cheer up, Anne.  It’s not the end of the world.”

Anne shook her head confused.

“You’re… the girl from the grocery store?”

“Mia,” the girl provided.

“I-I’m dead,” Anne mumbled numbly, pointing toward her mangled body, unable to think of anything else to say.  She wanted to cry, but for some reason, she was unable.  Her eyes burned, but no tears came.

“What?  Really?  You mean a Grim Reaper showed up at a death?  The chances of that happening are positively incalculable.  Egad Holmes, you’ve done it again!” 

“Uh,” Anne drew the sound out while her brain tried to wrap itself around Mia.

“What happened?”

Anne decided that she was too emotionally drained to care much about Mia’s sarcasm.  Her mind seemed to be swimming in a sea of ragged numbness.  Looking back to the bloody mess on the rocks, she shuddered and turned away again quickly.

“I… killed myself,” she said after a long pause.  Had she really?  Her memory said that she had, but…  Two amber points of light in the darkness.  There was something important about that.  It seemed urgent that she tell someone about it.  But the thought was gone almost as soon as it came.

“Why?  I remember you looking pretty depressed for a while after your parents got divorced, but you seemed like you were doing a lot better lately.”

“I’m pregnant.”

Anne was still confused over why her memory insisted upon that.

“Ah,” Mia nodded.  Her brow furrowed and she leaned closer to Anne, peering at her with concern.  “Um, I know this is a bit of a weird question and all, considering the circumstances, but, uh, are you all right?  You’re kinda acting a bit weird.”

“I just killed myself,” Anne cried, pointing at her broken corpse on the ground.  “How am I supposed to be acting?”

“Right.  Sorry.  My bad.  Don’t bite my head off.”

“Um, why are you here?”

“I’m your friendly neighborhood Grim Reaper.  It’s a part time job.  One of the perks of being the daughter of Death.  You know, skeleton.  Black robes.  Scythe.  He's not really like that, but you get the idea, right?”

“What,” Anne felt even more confused as Mia pulled out a notebook and began flipping through pages.  “You’re not making any sense.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Mia huffed as she cut her thumb on something in the sleeve of her robes and dropped a big fat blob of blood onto a blank page of her notebook.  “I just like to chill with corpses because, you know, they’re such great conversationalists.”

Mia glanced meaningfully toward Anne’s body on the rocks.

“Yeah, I’m clearly a crazy person who just happened to show up right after you died, and just happens to be able to see disembodied souls.  ‘I see dead people.’  Oh, and I just happen to be dressed in death robes.”  At this, Mia shook one of her voluminous black sleeves in demonstration.  “They’re all the rage these days.  All the kids are wearing them.  Sorry, I seem to have left my scythe in my other pantaloons.  Or maybe my mom died and made a deal with Death to have a child in return for more life.  And here I am, slaving away in the middle of the freaking night to send ungrateful souls on their way.  I get no gratitude, you know that?  I don’t even get paid!  ‘A job well done is its own reward.’”

She said the last in her laughably bad Batman voice with a flair of mockery, whilst making air quotes with her hands.

“Let’s see here.  Hmmm.  Looks like you’ve got another thirty-eight years left to live.  This might just be your lucky day.  Let’s see what kinda shape your body’s in.”

“Lucky day,” Anne asked numbly.  “I just killed myself.  How is it my lucky day?”

“You may have instantly won an all-expenses paid trip to a place where there’s no such thing as reality TV, really awful remakes of good movies, and reboots of movie franchises that just started like ten years ago,” Mia suggested.  “That’s gotta count for something.  But if it doesn’t, I might could send you back to the land of the living.  Everyone’s got a set amount of life.  I have no idea how that's decided or why.  Don't ask me, I only work here.  We Grim Reapers are kinda like IRS auditors for your soul. You were due more life than you got, so, if your body’s up to it, I can revive you.  See that silver thread?  So long as that’s still attached at both ends, and your body can still function, a Reaper can fix you up.  Just don’t go at it with your teeth.  I know you can feel the urge to do it, and that urge only gets stronger with time, but don’t.  Bad things will happen.  I mean, seriouslyBad things.”

“Really,” Anne asked hopefully.  “You can undo it?”

“Ooh.”  Mia shook her head.  “Yeah… have you seen your spine?  It’s looking like the long and winding road that leads to catastrophic organ failure.  I can heal minor things, but not that.  You probably shattered every bone in your body and liquefied your insides.  Ker-splat!”

“But,” Anne protested, feeling her hope being slowly and painfully ripped away.  “But I don’t want to die!”

“Maybe you shoulda thought of that before you tried out your Peter Pan impression,” Mia raised an eyebrow.  “Next time, think happier thoughts on the way down.”

“But you must be able to do something,” Anne protested,

“Sure, I can make a few more sarcastic comments and go back to bed.  School in the morning, etcetera.”

“But,” Anne protested as she reached for Mia’s arm.  To her horror, her hand passed right through the diminutive girl as though she was not even there.

Staring at her hand in shocked horror, Anne dropped to her knees, unable to stand any longer.

“I don’t want to die,” she repeated in a whisper.

“Them’s the breaks, as my stepdad likes to say,” Mia shrugged.  “Everyone dies, some sooner rather than later.  But eventually, Death’s lovechildren come for everyone, because the old man is way too lazy to get up off his butt and do it himself.  The hardest part is already over.  I can’t revive you, but I can send you on your way.”

Anne’s head slumped forward as the full weight of what was happening settled into her.  She was really dead.  There was no going back.  Why had she done something so stupid?  It made no sense at all.

“Can you tell my mom that I love her,” Anne asked quietly, looking up into Mia’s face.  Though skeletal, and despite her sarcasm, she bore a very warm and compassionate expression.

“Of course,” Mia nodded.  “Are you ready?”

“No.  But go ahead.  I don’t think I ever will be.”

Nodding, Mia removed a long knife that appeared to be made of glass from inside the baggy sleeve of her death robes.  She placed the sharp edge to the silver thread attached to the palm of Anne’s right hand. 

“Goodbye Anne,” Mia said.  “I’d give you a snappy one-liner to send you on your way Bruce Campbell style, but it’s the middle of the fricken night, and I’m tired.”

With a deft flick of her wrist, Mia sliced the silver thread connecting Anne to her body.  There was a slight jolt, and she felt almost as though she was floating.  Then the world faded away around her into a quiet and peaceful embrace.

Chapter 1

Though it was only September, the air’s biting chill forewarned of the coming winter.  It was a bit early for it, but the round leaves of the white-barked aspens, which mixed with the pines carpeting the rocky peaks around Blake Rapids, were beginning to change color. 

This winter was going to be a bad one.  Everyone in town agreed. 

All winters were bad in Blake Rapids, of course, but some were worse than others.  The thought occurred that if John Denver had ever spent a winter here, he would have given up singing about Rocky Mountain highs long before he hit that life-ending low of his. 

Cold wind blasted up the side of the cliff, whipping Mia’s hair, which hung loose down her back.  Her dark blue jacket flapped in the gale, sounding like a flag in a windstorm.  Far below was a dark patch on the rocks.  It looked black due to the distance, but she knew it would be the ruddy brown color of dried blood up close.  Her nose and cheeks stung with the cold, and her eyes watered, as she leaned precariously outward from the same ledge where Anne Carson leapt to her own Rocky Mountain low. 

Though invisible from her vantage point, there was a chalk outline on the bloody rocks below, and yellow police tape roping the area off.  Mia had seen it on the news.  The animals, of course, ignored the barricades, and came to lick at the blood anyway.  Mia had already disregarded the police tape marking off the ledge she was leaning out from.  The police were still investigating the area for signs of murder, but the local news anchor said it was just a formality.  Despite Anne’s torn shirt, authorities were quite confident that it was a suicide.  There was no note to conveniently explain the reasons behind Anne's decision to try her hand at flying, but not everyone took such considerations when ending their own lives.

The flat tire on her mother’s car up here, in the middle of nowhere, was seemingly the last straw for a girl that had been deeply depressed, and undergoing therapy, since the divorce of her parents.  She ran into the woods and right over the edge of a cliff.  Whether it was on purpose, or if the moonless darkness obscured the drop until it was too late, were topics of considerable debate amongst the ten thousand some-odd residents in town. 

Though Mia knew the exact reason behind Anne’s jump, she was unable to even tell the poor girl's mother.  To draw attention like that was as good as killing herself, and everyone she knew and loved as well.  Things might be different if her own life was the only one in danger, but the Hunters were ruthless, and would kill everyone even mildly associated with her after she was gone if they ever caught her. 

She performed a vital service to the dead, and the Hunters saw her as some sort of demon.  Hiding from them was part of being a Grim Reaper.  She could never reveal who and what she really was, not even to her own mother.  So she lived her life, doing her best to appear as unremarkable as was humanly possible.  She got average grades, did average things, and generally tried to be the biggest nobody that ever was, or would be.  The lives of everyone she knew were at stake if she attracted the wrong kind of attention.

Leaning out over the same, life-ending drop as Anne, Mia felt a very odd sense of freedom.  Did Anne feel the same as she plummeted downward? 

“What am I even doing up here,” she muttered. 

There was something strange going on, and Mia was not quite able to put her finger on what.  That was why she was there.  While talking to Anne, the poor girl had certainly acted pretty weird.  She was confused, lacking lucidity, and had to stop and think before answering the simplest of questions.  It was like trying to talk to someone who was hit over the head, except that disembodied souls were impervious to just about anything that could keep them from thinking clearly.  And there was the fact that her T-shirt was torn down the front.  Mia was a bit skeptical over explanations on the news that it could have resulted from the fall. 

She supposed Anne’s behavior could have simply been shock at having actually gone through with killing herself.  But a little voice in the back of her mind kept screaming that she was missing something that was right in front of her face.  And so, she skipped gym, her last class of the day, and came to investigate.  She figured that, having her own unique perspective on things, and having talked to Anne after her death, she might see something that the police had missed.

Unfortunately, as was becoming painfully apparent to her, Mia had absolutely no idea what to look for, or even where to start.  Coming all the way up here had been a stupid idea, and a waste of time.  Sherlock Holmes, she was not.  She hardly even rated a Watson.

As the wind tore at her clothing, Mia looked out over the snug valley that had been her home for the entirety of her life.  She had always wondered why the town was called Blake Rapids, because there was nothing like actual rapids anywhere near it.  The Blake River was like, twenty miles away, and Blake Canyon was even further.  But the town had been there for a long, long time, and so far as she knew, it had always been called Blake Rapids.  Despite the somewhat inappropriate name, the view out over the town and the surrounding mountains was pretty enough, so the trip was not a complete waste of time.

The sun shone down in beams, playing across the small town, and the surrounding forested mountains, moving swiftly over the landscape due to the quick pace of the clouds streaking across the sky.  It was like something out of a movie, a truly breathtaking sight.  For a long moment Mia simply stood on the edge and watched the sunlight play across the valley, shining down like spotlights from the heavens.

Most of the time, Mia could not wait for the day when she could finally leave Blake Rapids behind, and never look back.  Of course, to do that, she would have to figure out what she wanted to do with her life after high school first.  But sights like this almost made her think twice about getting the heck out and never coming back.  Almost.

“I’m such an idiot,” Mia grumbled.  “What did I think I was gonna find up here?”

With a heavy sigh, Mia felt her shoulders slump.  All she had really wanted was to do something important for once, despite the danger of standing out.  To be recognized.  She had spent her entire life doing her best to blend into the background.  There were those who would kill her if they knew who and what she was, and probably not all of them Hunters.  But she was tired of hiding; tired of never standing out.  She wanted to be somebody; somebody important.  Was that so much to ask?

She was so sick of hiding, of lying to everyone she knew, of having a father that refused to even admit they were related to each other, and a mother that she could never say more than two words to without arguing.  She was sick of only having one single friend, and of being so pale, skinny, and ugly.  If only she could just get away from it all.  If only she was normal like everyone else.  Then she would have no reason to keep hidden.  She could be herself, stand out all she wanted, and be someone important if she was so inclined.

Being a Grim Reaper was important, she supposed, and she did love doing the job.  But it was hardly enough.  She could never tell anyone, take any credit, or be praised and thanked for what she did.  She had to hide her face from the souls she helped to cross over, even though it freaked them right, the frick, out after going through something as traumatic as death.  She could never be appreciated, or rewarded for doing well.  All her work would forever be a complete secret between herself, Death, and the souls she sent on.

She had recently come to realize that, after a lifetime of pretending to be a nobody, she was no longer acting.  She really was nobody.  And she hated it.  What would she even do with herself if she had the freedom to stand out?  She no longer knew. 

Was this all there was to life?  Was this all there would ever be for her?  Hiding herself away behind a mask of the soul-crushingly ordinary, in the smallest, most out of the way town on earth, until the day she died?  Would she spend her entire life as a nobody just to keep the Hunters off her back? 

Mia closed her eyes and leaned as far out over the cliff as she dared.  With the wind blasting up at her, it almost felt like she was flying. 

For a brief moment she thought that if she simply leaned forward a little, it would all be over.  She would never have to worry about arguing with her mother again, or whether or not her father even knew she existed.  She would never have to worry about what she would do when high school ended and real life began.  She would never have to look at her own ugly face in the mirror again, and know that there was no guy on earth that would ever ask her out on a date when there were so many other, much prettier girls all around her.  Most importantly, any danger hanging over the people she cared about would be gone.

No more hiding. 

No more lying.

No more fading into the background.   

It could all be over.

She would certainly be somebody then.  Much like Anne Carson, everyone in town would know her name.  All she had to do was shift her weight a tiny bit, and let herself fall.

That brief second of weakness passed, and reality returned.  Mia opened her eyes and sighed once more, watching the shafts of sunlight chasing each other across the mountainside beyond town.  What would Doctor Farnsworth say if she told him she had been a hair away from killing herself today?  Especially if she explained the real reasons behind it to him.  He would probably send some nice young men in their clean white coats to take her away to a lovely padded cell.  Or worse, he would tell her mother.  And her mom would scream, uninterrupted, at her, without bothering to stop for trivial things such as eating, sleeping, or breathing, for about three years straight.

She did not really want to die.  Not really.  But sometimes, the thought did occur to her that things would be so much better that way.  She had never come so close before, and it frightened her.  What if, in a moment of self-pity, she actually had let herself fall? 

There were things to live for.  She knew that there were.  It was just that, at times, the bad in her life appeared to outweigh the good by such a margin that things seemed forever hopeless.

One of the shafts of sunlight fell across the cliff’s edge where she stood, bathing her in light and sudden warmth for a second.  And then it was gone, moving out over the town.  And she decided that every now and then it could feel good to be alive.  But it always drifted away, leaving her behind.

The chime on Mia’s watch marked the hour, startling her, and making her flinch.  She tipped forward, off balance, and began to teeter on the brink between life and death for real.  Wind-milling her arms, she managed to catch herself before taking the same last step that Anne had, and fell backward onto the hard, rocky ground.  Without the extra weight of several textbooks in the backpack hanging from her shoulders tipping her center of balance backward a bit, she might have gone over the edge.  The prophecy given by her ninth grade math teacher had actually come to pass.  There had, indeed, come a day where Algebra saved her life.

“Ouch,” she muttered, massaging the pain in her right hip.  Why did she always manage to land on her keys?  She was going to have a bruise! 

Laughing guiltily, Mia poked her head out over the drop.  The distance to the ground seemed to triple before her eyes, making her suddenly dizzy.  That was a very close one.  Her heart was racing in her chest, pumping adrenaline through her veins, causing her to tremble. 

“Holy crap,” she cried.  “I almost died!”

Suddenly her thoughts of suicide seemed like twenty pounds of stupid crammed into a five pound sack.  She had almost actually fallen!  What had she been thinking leaning so far out over the drop?

Shifting her eyes to the murderous watch on her left wrist, she blinked.  How could it possibly be three already

“Oh crap,” she cried as she scrambled to her feet and rushed toward the bicycle leaning against a tree on the edge of the slanted shelf of rock.  “I’m gonna be late!”

It was several miles back into town, and she had an appointment in just one hour.  At least it was mostly downhill, making for a much faster and easier return trip along the steep mountain roads.

The bike was black with flames painted on it.  A boy's bike.  No matter what anyone said, the flames were completely awesome.  Girl's bikes were always pink or purple with stupid plastic streamers on the handlebars.  So not her style!  When she saw those flames, she refused to have any other bike.  Even now, three years later, she still thought they were awesome.  The only annoying thing was the seat.  It was a lot narrower than those on girl's bikes, and was far more uncomfortable than merely being half the width could possibly account for.  How did boys sit on the things?  She would have thought that their dangly bits would make riding on that hard, narrow seat to be something akin to medieval torture. 

Riding a boy's bike pissed her mother off to no end, making it worth any discomfort.  Besides, she would soon be able to afford a car, and that was infinitely cooler than flames on her bike. 

Ah, to have a car.  A car was freedom.  A car was independence.  A car meant not being tied quite so tightly to her mother's fanatical whims.  It meant being able to go to the Pine's Crossing Mall whenever she wanted, or to the drive-in theater over in Harmon for the Saturday night double features.  Halloween was the next big holiday and they were already playing old slasher movies in preparation.  She loved slasher movies, especially the older ones.  They were her very favorite.  Though she technically had no boyfriend to go with, she supposed she could drag Mike.  He was a friend that was a boy.  It was close enough for government work.

As Mia ducked under the police tape, she paused.  There was something on the ground at the edge of the trees.  Bending, she picked it up and examined it.  A cigarette butt with three green lines and the Marlboro logo at the burnt end of an otherwise white filter, and it looked fresh.  She was pretty far back from the road.  This was hardly a spot someone would bother trekking to just to have a smoke.

Had Anne smoked a cigarette before jumping?  Or maybe one of the investigators?  Perhaps it was a clue of some sort.  But a clue to what, she could not say.  Shrugging, she stuffed it into her jacket’s breast pocket.  Maybe she was just being paranoid, but something in the back of her mind told her that she ought to hold onto it, just in case.  Chances were very high that things were exactly as they appeared, and Anne had simply killed herself, but as Mia walked her bike back to the highway, she could not help but feel that she was missing something. 

Anne had been a patient of Doctor Farnsworth, Mia’s own therapist.  Maybe she could get him to talk about her during her session.  If she managed to make it back into town in time for it, anyway.  She had no idea what relevance anything he could tell her would be, but she would never know until she tried.  Or maybe she would just make an enormous idiot out of herself.

“You are not Nancy Drew, Mia,” she muttered to herself as she reached the road, threw her leg over the bike, and began pedaling.  “Quit trying to act like you are.”

Chapter 2 

Mia could think of few things that she and her mother ever agreed upon.  And by few things she, of course, meant no things.  One of these points of disagreement was Mia's need for therapy.  Another was who should pay for it.  Personally, Mia thought that, of the two of them, her mom was the one that could use some therapy.  She figured that if she was being forced into Doctor Farnsworth's office at gunpoint, her mom should, at the very least, be gracious enough to pick up the tab.  Her mother, on the other hand, was under the highly mistaken assumptions that Mia was utterly insane, wanted to be a boy, sacrificed small animals at the full moon, feasted upon the virginal blood of young runaways… and should pay for her own damn therapy bills. 

Seventy-five bucks a week was an entire third of what she made working at the family store.  If not for throwing all that money away on therapy that she neither needed, nor wanted, she would long since have been cruising the streets of Blake Rapids in her very own car. 

Hatred was not exactly the emotion she felt toward Doctor Farnsworth.  It was more frustration at the inescapable situation that filled Mia with anger.  He was just a convenient target, even if he was only trying to do his job, despite being annoyingly smug about it.  He obviously took sick pleasure in watching her squirm.  Though saying she hated him was a little strong, saying she liked him was equally so. 

Her opinion of him was highly colored by the fact that there was something very uncomfortable about a man four times her age asking about some of her most private thoughts and feelings.  As such, she preferred to keep as quiet as was possible, forcing him to work for the ungodly sum of money she tossed at him every Friday.  She also felt uncomfortable being alone with an older man on top of all that.  She had always been a bit wary of men she was not well acquainted with.  Hell if she knew why.

She was never actually alone with him.  He liked to cover his ample behind in the case that a girl accused him of conduct unbecoming a terminally smug therapist.  Tami, the twenty-something secretary, sat at the reception desk in plain sight through the open office door, but she was too far away to hear or participate in the discussion.  Currently, she was wrapping a lock of blonde hair around the eraser of a pencil while blowing a bubble with her gum, probably still playing solitaire on her computer as she had been when Mia arrived.  Highly professional as always, Tami was.

Tami sneezed loudly, drawing Mia’s attention from the game of Halo she was playing with Doctor Farnsworth.  Looking over, Mia suppressed a giggle as she watched the secretary pick up her gum from the desk and stuff it back into her mouth, before wiping at the screen of her computer with a tissue. 

Turning her attention back to the game, Mia continued dispatching alien hoards and zombies, waiting for Farnsworth to speak.  Hell if she was going to be the first one to say anything.  She could feel his eyes on her, but said nothing.

She wanted to see if he could tell her anything about Anne.  Mostly if he had noticed her seeming like she was getting ready to try Olympic diving off the edge of a cliff—great form, but that landing is probably going to lose her a few points with the judges.  There was something about the death that kept gnawing at Mia.  If she could somehow prove that Anne was killed, rather than killing herself, she could get her fifteen minutes of fame, and then fade happily into the background again.  That was all she really wanted.  To be important for once in her life.  To have done something that people would remember and thank her for.  To know what it was like, for just one day, to not be Mia Barnes, chronic nobody.  Or, more accurately, Mia Barnes… wait, who was that again…?

Of course, there really was nothing to indicate that Anne’s death had been anything other than suicide.  Just a hunch.  But again, hell if she was going to be the first one to say anything to Farnsworth.  She had standards, etcetera.

Doctor Farnsworth was a man of short stature, maybe a head taller than she was, wide and round through the middle.  He wore a tacky sweater vest over a long sleeved, button up shirt and tie.  The rectangular outline of a pack of cigarettes bulged from the breast pocket of his shirt beneath the sweater.  He always smelled faintly of a combination of tobacco smoke and fabreeze.  His thick, thick glasses seemed to magnify his hazel eyes to a comical size under a graying mass of thinning hair.  His face was wrinkled and sagging with age, giving him the rather unfortunate likeness of a basset hound.

“You know,” he said.  “I usually keep these games for the boys, back when I still had boy patients, that is.  I think you’re the only girl I’ve ever had in here that had any interest in them.”

Shrugging, Mia made a noncommittal noise in her throat and continued playing.  Through interactions with her friend Mike, she had learned that such a noise was Dude for “whatever.”  She preferred role-playing games, the ones with girls as the main character.  Well, the ones with girls that were more than just eye candy for horny teenaged boys anyway.  And there were no shortage of those… on both counts.  Halo was okay, too, she supposed.  Mike loved it, so she was pretty good at it.  The story was great, and the second game had this awesome and heroic military chick in it.  She liked stories where the girls were just as badass as the guys.  And that was why Ripley from the Alien series was her hero. 

“You sure there's nothing you'd like to talk about,” Farnsworth asked.  “Seems like an awful lot of money to be paying just to sit here and play my games.  I use these for ice breakers, and you don't seem very concerned with breaking any ice.”

Mia shrugged again.  She wanted it to be very apparent how little she enjoyed being there.  If only she could find a flashing neon sign to wear around her neck.  Maybe he would get the picture then.

“That’s one of the things your mother is worried about, you know,” Doctor Farnsworth said with a resigned sigh.  It looked as though he was finally getting the hint.  “She thinks that you purposely do things that are, shall we say, unladylike, simply to make her angry.  She's afraid you want to be a boy, rather than a girl, and doesn't really know how to deal with that.  She doesn't approve of young ladies spending so much time playing video games and watching bloody horror movies.”

“Girls can't like video games?”  Mia sniffed indignantly.  “The fact that it pisses her off is just an added bonus.  She never understands.  Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I have to like nothing but girly things!  Why is that so hard for her to get?”

In her efforts to stay off the Hunters’ figurative radar, Mia kept away from after school clubs, activities and sports.  Not that she cared much for sports anyway.  Athletic was not the word anyone would use to describe Mia Barnes, stick figure extraordinaire.  What else was she supposed to do with her time?  Sit around and stare at the walls?  Video games filled a rather large portion of time that would otherwise be spent doing nothing.

Eying Doctor Farnsworth suspiciously, she sighed.  That was far more than she intended to say. 

“There’s nothing wrong with liking things most other girls don’t,” he soothed.  “If your self-image doesn't include enjoying the same things that other girls your age do, that's fine.  It's okay to be a bit different from everyone else.  But—”

“Good.  Tell that to my mom!”  Mia cut in, but he just kept talking over her.  Apparently he was used to it.

But are you sure that you're doing the things that worry your mother because you actually enjoy them, or is it because you want to make her angry?”

“Does it have to be one or the other?  Because both sounds good to me.”

Doctor Farnsworth chuckled.

“Fine, fine.  I’ve met a tomboy or two in my time, all ready to prove to the world that you’re not a weak little damsel in distress, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”

Mia frowned at him.  She had always hated that term, tomboy.  It seemed like being insulted for trying to be herself.  She was not a boy, nor did she particularly want to be one, so being called one because she preferred bloody horror movies to soap operas, and video games to squeeing over something cute and fluffy, really annoyed her.  Might as well tattoo “Outcast” or “Weirdo” on her forehead while they were at it.

Awkward silence fell once again, and the game continued to the soundtrack of clicking and creaking controllers.  Mia drew in a deep breath and let it out as inconspicuously as possible, working herself up to ask about Anne.  Her cheeks flushed a bit as she considered the best way to go about it, and she felt like a grade A, first class idiot.  Thinking about interrogating Farnsworth over Anne was one thing.  Actually doing it was something completely different.  What was she supposed to ask?  What answer was she even looking for?

“So, uh, Anne Carson was one of your patients right…?”

“Yes,” Farnsworth said darkly.  “Yes she was.”

“Did she ever, you know, tell you she wanted to kill herself?”

“I don’t really see how that is any of your business, Mia.  Would you like me to go around talking about your sessions with other people?  No?  Well, you should expect me to give the same consideration to all of my other patients too.  Even those who are, unfortunately, no longer amongst us.”

A flash of realization crossed his face.  Sometimes he could be so expressive that he was the next thing to a human cartoon character. 

Oh,” he said, slapping his forehead.  “Is that why you’re so quiet today?  I didn’t realize the two of you were friends.”

Mia blinked at him.  How had he come to that conclusion?  Whatever, maybe he would be willing to spill the figurative beans if he thought that was the reason Mia was giving him the silent treatment.

  “Uh… yeah.  I guess.”

  “It’s always hard, and sometimes very confusing, when a friend or loved one decides to take their own life.  Those of us left behind often feel angry, and betrayed.  We blame ourselves for not seeing that it was coming.  Do you want to talk about it?”

  “Do you know why she wanted to kill herself,” Mia asked.  “Did she tell you?”

  “I’m afraid not,” Doctor Farnsworth sighed.  “Last summer I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn of her suicide.  You knew her.  You must have seen what a wreck she was after the divorce?”

  Mia nodded.  Even though she and Anne rarely interacted with one another, most of those interactions being between cashier and customer at the family store, she had certainly noticed the other girl’s depression.

  “But now?  I was as shocked as anyone.  She was doing so much better lately, a new boyfriend, better grades in school, smiling more often than not.”

  Well this was certainly going nowhere fast.  Mia wracked her brain for anything that might draw a relevant detail out of Farnsworth.

  “She, uh, told me she was pregnant,” Mia said.

  “Oh,” Doctor Farnsworth drew the sound out as the gears visibly turned in his head.  “Now things begin to make sense.  Have you told the police?  Well, no, you’re a bit shy, aren’t you?”

  Mia gave him her best glare.  Unfortunately, he seemed impervious to its powers.  She was not shy!  She was just quiet and unassuming, as a good little nobody should be, there was a difference.

  “Well, they’re interviewing me tomorrow on the matter.  I’ll tell them about it for you then.”

  “Uh, okay,” Mia shrugged uncomfortably. 

  Well, so much for that idea.  It certainly seemed to have led her exactly nowhere.  But still, she had one new bit of important info on the matter.  Those that interacted with Anne more regularly than she, were surprised that she killed herself.  And, Farnsworth had known nothing of Anne’s pregnancy, if pregnant she truly had been.

  Mia remembered the completely bewildered and confused look on Anne’s face as she gave her reasons behind taking a long walk off a short slab of rock.  She seemed to have been just as surprised that she was saying it as Farnsworth had upon hearing it.  It was like having eight pieces of a thousand piece puzzle, and trying to figure out what the picture would turn out to be. 

  If those that knew Anne well were surprised to hear she was dead, and even more surprised to hear the reason why, maybe Anne was lying.  Maybe someone killed her.  But that left the question of why Anne would protect her murderer.  Nothing was coming together in Mia’s mind.  There were too many vague pieces that she could not mentally fit together in any visible pattern. 

  “Do you want to talk about how Anne’s death makes you feel?”

  “Wow,” Mia raised an eyebrow.  “Smooth.  You’d almost think you went to school to learn how to do this sorta thing.”

  “I’ll take that as a no,” Doctor Farnsworth said with a frown.  “I remind you that you were the one that brought the subject up in the first place.  If it wasn’t bothering you, you wouldn’t have said anything about it.  I picked that up in school learning how to do this sort of thing.  Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

  “Whatever,” Mia sighed, turning her attention back to the game.

  More awkward silence followed, and Mia was getting ready to simply stand up and leave if the good doctor was just going to sit there and soak up her money without saying anything.  At last, he cleared his throat.

  “Has your mother talked to you about why she's had you start seeing me?”

  “Nope.  About all I get out of her are comments about how awful I look in black, and rolled eyes whenever I do anything I enjoy.”

  She gestured toward the TV to indicate video games in general as one of those things she enjoyed that her mother rolled her eyes over.

  “Well, let me explain something to you,” Doctor Farnsworth began, and Mia stopped paying attention, returning it to the game and blasting away aliens with her sweet, sweet shotgun.  It was the same speech that every adult in the universe tried to feed her.  Her mother knew best.  She should do what her mother told her to do.  Blah blah blah.  Yada yada yada.  She should let her mother dress her however she wanted, and never have a thought, opinion, desire or feeling of her own, just like a pretty little porcelain doll… minus the pretty. 

Well, what happened when her mother had no idea what was best?  What happened if her mother had no idea who her father was, or what Mia had inherited from him?  What happened when Mia wanted to dress in her own way, enjoy her own things, and be her own person?  What happened then?  She was so sick of people feeding her that same old spiel, and had no desire to hear it again from yet another person. 

Mia was not her mother.  The two of them could not possibly be more different from each other, so how, exactly, was her mom supposed to know what was best for her?  She never even tried to understand Mia’s own likes, dislikes, wants and desires.  Why was it so hard for everyone to just understand that?  It was so simple.  Mia just wanted to be left alone by everyone to live her own life in her own way.  Was that so much to ask?

  “You didn’t hear a single word I just said,” Farnsworth finally said with his voice raised slightly to get her attention.

  “Well duh,” Mia replied.  “Thank you, Captain Obvious.  I just can’t allow you to sit here while so many crimes out there go unsolved.  The world needs your vast powers of observation!”

  Doctor Farnsworth snorted a laugh.

  “Well, at least you're just as selfish and sarcastic as every other teenager on Earth.”

  “And you’re fat, bald and old, but you don’t see me pointing it out,” Mia shrugged.  “Oh, wait, I just did.  Isn’t there some sorta rule against you making fun of me?” 

  “Nope.  Here's the thing, Mia.  I'm not your mother's therapist.  I'm yours.  Do you want your relationship to be better than it is now?”

  Mia gave him a sour look and turned her attention back to their game. 

  She never really tried to make her mom mad.  Although, sometimes it did feel really good to do it.  It was just impossible to be herself without making her angry.  The two of them had, literally, nothing in common.  They naturally struck sparks against one another every time they were together.  It was all because her mom refused to even try understanding one single thing about her!  Mia was not a pretty little princess.  She never had been, never would be, and never wanted to be.  In fact, the very thought of it abhorred her.  But her mom just would not let the idea die.  Why could she not just understand that Mia was the way she was, and liked being who she was?  She was always trying to change her, make her do things she hated, and be someone that she was not.  And then she got mad when Mia refused, or tried to explain that she would rather do something else. 

  Doctor Farnsworth cleared his throat conspicuously.

  “Fine.  Yes.  You think I like fighting with her?  I don't.  I hate it.  She never understands!  She wants me to be like her, and I’m not!  I want to be me, but she won’t let me!”

  “Well, you see, that's never going to happen, unless you stop being so selfish.”

  “And how am I being selfish?  She’s the one being selfish, and never even trying to understand what I want.”

  “Because it’s all about you isn’t it?  Did you ever stop to consider her feelings?  At all?  Even once?”

  Mia glared silently at him.  It was just like arguing with her mom.  Doctor Farnsworth just did not get it, and nothing Mia could possibly say was going to make him understand. 

  “There’s this lovely thing called compromise,” Doctor Farnsworth said with something of a sadistic grin.  “It’s what life is all about.  You give a little so you can take a little.  You haven’t given anything.  All you do is take.  It’s all about you.  You are the center of everything, just like every other teenaged girl on earth.  So, you can learn to compromise, or you can be miserable for the rest of your life.  Do you understand?”

  “Yes,” Mia sighed. 

  Why did she have to be the one to make the first move?  Her mom was the one causing all of the problems.  Mia was not her pretty little porcelain doll, to sit on the shelf and never have a mind or life of her own. 

  “Good.  I have homework for you this week.  I want you to start three conversations with your mom that don't end in fights.  No anger.  No sarcasm.  Or else it doesn’t count.”

  “No sarcasm?  Argh, sincerity!  My only weakness!  Would you like a pint of blood too?  Or maybe a kidney?  I don’t think I’m using my spleen… whatever that does.  What does a spleen do, anyway?”

  “Were you aware of the fact that sarcasm is a way of expressing anger, Mia?”

  Mia was not.

  “Some people don’t know any other way to express or release their anger, so they make a joke out of it.  You’re a very angry person, Mia, but you don’t really seem to have any outlet for it.  And now it’s built up to the point that everything you say is oozing with sarcasm, and you probably don’t even realize it.  In fact, today is the first time I’ve ever gotten a genuine, sincere answer out of you.  You see, most people tend to get offended or insulted when everything you say to them is sarcastic.  They feel like you’re patronizing them.  You might think on that the next time you speak with your mother.  Maybe your tone of voice, your body language, and the way that you say things, more than anything else, is what starts the arguments between you.  But what would I know, I’m just a therapist, right?”

  “Right,” Mia agreed with a nod, and then she realized he was making fun of her, so she gave him her best glare.  What a dick!

  “Here’s something for you to think on.  A simple question that may not be very simple to answer.  What is it that makes you so angry?  What is the source?  You can add that to your homework assignment as well.  If you can find the root of it all, you can then learn better ways of dealing with it.  Ways that don’t drag others around you into screaming matches.”

  “I can tell you what makes me angry,” Mia said, looking conspicuously around the office.  She was a lot more aware of the sarcastic tone in her voice this time.

  Was that really what was happening?  Mia tried to think back to recent arguments with her mother.  Had they started because Mia was being sarcastic, or because of something else?  It was hard to say for sure.

  Farnsworth rolled his eyes at her before continuing.

  “And I want you and your mother to go out and do something together, again, without fighting.  And again, watch the sarcasm.  If you want things to get better between the two of you, the first step is learning to talk to one another without screaming at each other.

  It was Mia’s turn to roll her eyes.  She hated being treated like a child, and Doctor Farnsworth seemed to think that he needed to talk to her like she was three.  And on top of that, these stupid homework assignments of his were not going to be pleasant.  Why did she have to be the one to start things off?  Her mom was the one that shipped her off to therapy with a complete stranger instead of coming to her and asking what the problem was.  The entire situation just pissed her off to a ridiculous degree.  If Farnsworth wanted a source of her anger, there was one right there!  But that had not been the beginning of the troubles between them.  Mia had been angry at life in general for a long, long while now.  There were so many things that made her mad.  Choosing just one of them, or the root of them all, was not an easy thing. 


  “Fine, I'll do your stupid homework assignments.”

  “Good.  We'll talk about how it went next week.  In the meantime, you might also think about washing that black dye out of your hair.  It might make things go a little smoother when you try to talk to your mom.  You know, show her that you're at least trying to see things from her point of view?”

  Mia blinked at him.

  Lifting a stray lock of dead black hair she shrugged.

  “This isn't dye.  It's my natural hair color.”

  “Oh, sorry.  My mistake.  Wow, I have never seen a mother and daughter who look so different from one another in my entire life.  I thought for sure your hair must be red like hers.  Anyway, how are things with your stepfather?”

  “Steve?  He's cool.  He never yells at me.  Though, I think he's afraid mom will stab him or something if he does.  I get along better with him than I do with her, if that's what you mean?”

  “Hey Doc,” Tami called from her desk.  “Time to wrap it up, your next appointment is here.”

  “Thanks Tami,” he called back, and then began scribbling on his notebook.  “Well, looks like that's it for today.  We will continue this discussion next time.  Remember your homework, and keep this in mind.  If you fail to complete it, your next assignment is going to be much, much worse.”

  “Could you say that again while stroking a cat?  I think it’ll really work for that whole Bond villain thing you’re going for.”

  Doctor Farnsworth chuckled as he gathered Mia's game controller and put it away with his own.

  “I'll see you next week, Mia.  I look forward to hearing how things went.  You have my number if you change your mind and feel like talking about Anne, or need someone to listen.”

  “At the rates you charge,” Mia asked.  “Right.  Like that’s gonna happen.”

  Frowning, she shook her head.  She had never really noticed before, but everything she said really was sarcastic.

  “Suit yourself.  I am here if you need me.”

  Nodding, Mia snatched her backpack, feeling the weight of her school books inside.  So much homework so early in the school year.  It was horrifying.  Usually the teachers let everyone ease back into school before dumping a mountain on them, but not this year. 

  The task of completing three entire conversations with her mother without a single word spoken in anger, or sarcasm for that matter, seemed herculean in nature.  It was never going to happen.  The two of them were rarely able to say three words to each other without shouting.  How was she ever going to manage?

Chapter 3

  “Oh hey, you're the girl from the grocery store, right,” a girl Mia's age said from a padded chair near the door leading out to the small parking lot behind Doctor Farnsworth’s office.  She lounged like a lazy cat, leaning back with her legs crossed boy style, left ankle resting on right knee, with her arms resting on the backs of the two chairs to either side of hers. 

  She was pretty, with dark hair hanging loose to her waist and cheeks rosy with the chill in the air outside.  Mia always wished her hair would grow that long, but it never reached much further than halfway down her back.  She had icy blue eyes and was wearing hip-hugger jeans and a Hello Kitty T-shirt that was about three sizes too small, showing off her pierced belly button, bra straps, and the feminine contours of her body.  She had a dark jacket folded over her lap with a flaming skull on the back.  An ingenious combination if ever there was one.  Mia was quite impressed.

  The other girl tapped the side of her head with a finger and closed her eyes.  “I can see the name on the name tag… it’s Melissa?”

  “Uhg, call me Mia.  I hate Melissa.”

“I didn’t know Mia was supposed to be short for Melissa?”

“It’s not,” Mia shrugged.  “Or at least I don’t think it usually is.  I just hate my boring, overused name.  Erin, right?  Your mom teaches eighth grade math at the middle school, doesn’t she?”

  “Yeah, that's me,” Erin grimaced at being associated with something as catastrophically uncool as a math teacher.  “That your bike out there?”


  “Sweet flames.  I like.”

  “Hello Kitty and a burning skull, nice.”

  “I had one with a bloody knife sticking out of Kitty's forehead, because, you know, anything that cute must die, right, but they actually suspended me from school for wearing it last spring.  Super lame, huh?  My parents made me toss it out.  They were pissed.  So, you come here too, eh?”

  “I just started during the summer.  My mom thinks I'm crazy and will end up going on a four state killing spree, because I haven't worn pink since I was seven.  I keep trying to tell her it'll only be three, since I have nothing against the people of Nevada, but she never listens.”

  Erin laughed merrily.

  “You're funny.  Never would have known.  You’re kinda like me.  You know, one of those people that just sorta blends into the scenery at school.  Well, guess it’s my turn, see you around.”

  Standing, she flipped her hair out of her face with a practiced flick of her hand and glared at the open door to the good Doctor’s office. 

  “Time to go and get asked embarrassing questions by the Crypt Keeper.  Joy.”

  Mia blinked, feeling the corner of her mouth rise a bit in a surprised smile.  Another girl, her age, who knew what the Crypt Keeper was?  Not an everyday occurrence, that.  She normally avoided befriending other girls on general principle after a lifetime of being treated like subhuman gutter trash by pretty much all of them for not being blessed with their good looks, but maybe Erin was different.

  “I heard that,” Doctor Farnsworth called through his office door.

  “Yeah, and?”

  Mia laughed at the mocking challenge in Erin's voice. 

  She had no idea what made it pop into her head.  Maybe it was the Crypt Keeper comment, or her growing desire not to be such a lonely, friendless nobody, or something else.  But as Erin strode toward the door to the Office of Doom, Mia stopped her.

  “Hey, Erin,” she said, and then fumbled for what to say next as the other girl turned back to her.  “Uh, wanna, maybe hang out sometime?  I’ve got the director’s cut of Army of Darkness.”

  Erin’s eyes went wide and then she smiled.

  “Dude!  Seriously?  I’ve been trying to find a copy of that for like, ever!  It’s like an ultra-limited edition.  It’s only my most favorite movie in the whole world.  How did you know?”

  “Lucky guess,” Mia shrugged.  “It is the greatest cinematic masterpiece of all time, after all.”

  “Wow, seriously, where did you find it?”


  “Ah man, you’re so lucky.  I never find copies of it there for under a billion and a half dollars.  Does it have the original ending?”

  “Yup,” Mia nodded, then quoted, “‘oh no.  I slept too long!’”

  “Sweet,” Erin grinned.  “God, where have you been all my life.  Seriously, if you were a dude, I’d totally let you touch boob.  Uh, do you know Gayle Tilden?”

  “Um,” Mia looked upward as she tried to put a face to the name.  “Short black dye job.  Lots of piercings.  Always wears black makeup?”

  “Yeah, that’s her.  Well, her parents bought this new TV that’s like so ginormous that it has smaller TVs orbiting around it, with super surround sound and everything.  Seriously, the thing has got to be bigger than the small screen at the movie theater in the mall.  It must have cost all the money in the world or something.  We have got to watch it on that TV.”

  “That would be awesome,” Mia said, surprised at how easily this was all going.  She had never been very good at making new friends.  “Will she be all right with it?”

  “Of course she will.  And if she isn’t, well, too bad for her.  Hmmm.  You work every weeknight, don’t you?  Or, at least, you always are when I go into your store.  Gayle’s at her grandma’s this weekend, but we should be good for like, say, next Saturday?”

  “Yeah,” Mia said.  “Sounds good.”

  “Cool, I’ll introduce you two next time I see you at school.”

  “Okay.  Awesome.”

  “We’re the Antiestablishment Club.  We’re always looking for new members.  There’s only two of us so far, because no one else cares.”

  “Isn’t that…?”

  “An oxymoron?  Yes.  Yes it is.”

  “Uh, cool, I guess.  Down with society, or whatever.”

  “Exactly.  Or whatever.  So yeah, I’ll see you at school, or something.”

  “Yeah, see ya.”

  Erin turned and walked into Farnsworth’s office, leaving Mia with Tami, who was trying very hard to look like she was doing anything but eavesdropping on their conversation, and failing very miserably at it.

  “You wanna come too,” Mia asked.

  Tami cleared her throat and suddenly appeared to find that her game of solitaire was the most interesting thing in the entire universe.

  “See you next week, Mia,” she said, keeping her eyes on the game, cheeks coloring just a tad.

  “Joy,” Mia repeated, copying Erin's earlier tone perfectly.

  Beyond the office’s front door was a cement ramp beside a set of stairs with a railing between.  Mia walked down the ramp toward her bike, chained to a rack conveniently placed against the side of the red brick building.  She smiled when she noticed that Erin’s own bike, bright red, was also a boy’s bike. 

  She felt strangely good.  She had reached out to another person, and not been slapped back down as she always feared she would be.  It was something of a different experience for her.  For so long she had been so focused on being invisible that it felt really, really awesome to actually try and make a new friend or two.  She was tired of fading into the background while life passed her by.  One or two more friends should be okay.  It should be safe enough.  No one was going to think a girl with a couple of friends was weird.  Nothing bad would happen to them for getting involved with her.

  As Mia unlocked her bike, something caught her eye.  She walked the bike over to one of those cement ashtrays that you see at parks.  There were about a thousand and one cigarette butts sticking out of what looked like kitty litter, and all of them looked exactly the same.

  Reaching into her jacket pocket, she removed the one she had found up in the mountains.  Holding it up side by side with one of the butts from the ashtray, she found them to be identical.  All white with three green lines and the Marlboro logo at the burnt end.  They were the same cigarettes her mother used to smoke, Marlboro Menthols, with that weird, almost minty smell to the smoke.  Not many people smoked menthols, in her, admittedly, limited experience.  They certainly sold far fewer of them at the store.  Her mom had because she thought it made her breath smell better than it did with regular cigarettes. 

  A weird sensation oozed up Mia’s spine, causing her skin to crawl and her hair to stand on end.  Doctor Farnsworth smoked the same brand and type of cigarettes as someone who had been at the scene of a death.  Most murders were committed by people acquainted with the victim, or so that was what movies and TV had led her to believe.  And as everyone knew, television never lied.

  She glanced back up through the glass door to Farnsworth’s building, feeling as though she was being watched, but there was no one there.  She could see Tami still playing solitaire, oblivious to the world.

  Stuffing the two identical cigarette butts into her jacket pocket, Mia hurriedly unlocked her bike and started pedaling toward home. 

  Shaking her head, she laughed nervously at what an idiot she was being.  First of all, what reason would Doctor Farnsworth have had to go to the place where Anne jumped from?  And better yet, what reason would he have to kill her if she had, in fact, been killed.  With her dead, his net income would be lower.  Second of all, there had to be tens of thousands of people in the world that smoked those same cigarettes.  It was just a coincidence, nothing more.  She could hardly imagine Farnsworth doing anything as strenuous as walking through a quarter mile of forest to have a smoke at the site of a suicide.  Fat and old smokers rarely took to hiking, in her experience.  That was just stupid.  Not to mention creepy.

  It was another piece added to a puzzle where she had no idea how many pieces there were supposed to be, how they were supposed to fit together, or what the end picture was supposed to look like.  How did detectives even manage to get anything done?  Mia was about to start tearing out her hair in frustration, and she was barely even doing anything yet.

  Anne Carson was dead, and the more Mia thought about it, the less it seemed like a suicide to her.  Maybe she was just seeing things that were not there in hopes of living the fantasy of having solved a murder, and all of the attention it would get her.  Maybe. It almost felt like she was the only one in the world that could see that it was raining, whilst everyone else went about their lives as if the sun was shining.  How could she possibly be the only one to see it?

Chapter 4

  Mia liked to think of the alarm clock as her greatest nemesis.  On the nightstand, beside her bed, it began shrieking like a wounded bird of prey.  There were few sounds more hateful than that of a digital alarm with something to prove, especially when the sun had yet to rise.  Was it possible for an alarm clock to be bitchy?  Inanimate object though it might be, it seemed to take sadistic pleasure in startling her awake.

  No morning person, she, was Miss Mia Barnes. 

  The racket forcibly dragged her from the warm, vague depths of slumber, and into the cold darkness of her bedroom.  Reaching blindly, she felt around until her hand finally brushed the clock and she hit the snooze button, cutting the noise off in mid shriek.  She would have liked to throw the stupid thing against the wall for good measure, ceasing its foul whining forever, but it was expensive, and she already threw enough money away to little point or purpose these days.

  Now, there would be nine lovely minutes of silence before it all began again.  Mia wanted nothing more than to sleep through to the next alarm.  She would not be that late for school.  She could skip showering, and if her hair was a bit greasier than normal, no one would be the wiser.  That was one of the perks to being a nobody.  Few people noticed that you even existed.

  With a displeased groan, Mia rolled over.  If she failed to get up now, she would keep hitting the snooze until she was an hour late for school.  Besides, according to her mother, not showering every day was a mortal sin.  This, coming from a woman who knew about as much about God as she did about brain surgery, despite a penchant for taking his name in vain at every opportunity.  Mia was no expert on religion herself, but she was pretty sure that was a no-no.

  Sitting up, she yawned, rubbing bleary eyes until they focused.  Why did school have to be so early?  Waking up at the butt crack of dawn was not something Mia Barnes suffered gladly.  And that was exactly the word for it.  Suffering.  Why would anyone in their right mind ever choose to get up before sunrise of their own accord?  Might as well continue the parade of torture by shoving bamboo under her fingernails over her morning cereal, or something equally as gruesome.

  Tossing her covers aside, Mia switched the alarm off and shuffled out of bed.  The hardwood floor of her room felt like ice beneath her feet, sucking any and all warmth straight out of them.  With a surprised yelp, she danced onto the large shag rug that covered the majority of the floor beyond the foot of her bed.  Yawning loudly, and in a decidedly unladylike way, she reached for the light switch.  The sudden and blinding glow of the single fixture above caused her to squeeze her eyes shut until they adjusted.

  The walls of Mia's room came to a point above her, following the contours of the roof.  She thought that the attic room was awesomely unique because of its shape, but it sure could get cold at times.  Before Mia was born, the room had belonged to her mother.  And before that, her grandfather.  Her great grandfather, a coal miner with big ideas, built the entire place with his own two hands after returning home from World War II and going to college on the government’s buck. 

  The head of her bed rested against one wall, nightstand beside it.  Opposite the bed was a small desk with the old family computer.  She was still rocking Windows XP, but it got the job done for most internet stuff and homework.  There was a large window, with blinds drawn, above the desk, which overlooked a whole lot of nothing behind the building.  To either side there were bookshelves, though one was mostly filled with DVDs, comic books and videogames.  To the left of the bed, not quite against the wall because of the slant, was a small stand with a TV and several gaming systems.  To the right was a railed off staircase that led down to the second floor.  Against the railing lay her dresser.

  So many horror movie posters plastered the slanting walls all the way up to the pointed ceiling that little, if any, of the wood paneling beneath showed through.  Mia was rather proud of her collection.  Some of them were actual double-sided theater originals, and others were obscure and hard to find.  A few might even be worth real money, not that she would ever part with any of them. 

  Not even for a car. 

  Well, maybe for a car.

  Rummaging around in her dresser, Mia pulled out fresh underwear, socks, and a pair of jeans.  Black acid wash, because it felt like a retro kind of day.  She rarely wore them, though she was not entirely sure why.  Probably because they were a bit stiff, never having been properly broken in.  Tisking, she shook her head at an empty shirt drawer.  Laundry.  She knew she was forgetting something last night. 

  With a sigh of annoyance, she turned to the mess of discarded clothing littering her floor, sorting through until she found a shirt that smelled relatively clean, adding it to the pile in her arms before heading down the stairs to the door at the bottom.  Carefully, she stepped over the stair that creaked loud enough to wake her mom, whose bedroom was directly below.

  Whilst within her fortress of solitude, Mia always kept the door locked.  It was not so much that she had anything to hide, more that she enjoyed her privacy, especially now that there was a guy living in the house.  And it was always good to have a place to retreat to when things got exceptionally bad with her mom.  It was a place where none could intrude and tell her how awful she was simply for existing.

  Turning the lock, she hurried left to the bathroom at the end of the hallway.

  Mia loved hot showers.  She could stand under that hot stream of water all day.  It normally woke her up in the morning, filling the bathroom with warm steam to fend off a cold morning's chill while she dressed and brushed her teeth and hair.  After her morning routine, she wiped a hand across the condensation on the mirror to make sure she looked passable.  Sometimes, she hated even looking at her own reflection.

  Most offspring of Death were indistinguishable from anyone else by appearance.  And by most, she meant every one of them but her.  According to the doctors, Mia’s gaunt, pale, sickly features were from an overactive metabolism, possibly caused by her mom's smoking and drinking during pregnancy.  Her body burnt through calories about three times faster than normal, and she was always hungry.  When she hit twelve or so things really got nasty, to the point that she almost died, and now she took special vitamins twice a day to keep from starving to death.  On top of that, her mom was no longer allowed to smoke near her, because the secondhand smoke was making things worse.  There was little to her but skin and bones.  She was so slender and, frankly, androgynous that she looked like a little kid.  With shorter hair, she could easily pass for a ten-year-old boy.

  Mia knew that other girls mocked her behind her back.  And to her face sometimes, even.  They always had.  She always tried to make it to the gym locker room before, or after, the majority of the others in the class had already changed, so there would be no one to witness her stick figure, pale, underdeveloped body, while smiling those smug, amused smiles of theirs at her.  She knew that she looked hideous.  Did they have to rub it in at every opportunity? 

  And the boys, well, she might as well not even exist as far as they were concerned.  Here she was, sixteen years old, without ever having been asked on a single date.  How pathetic was she?  There were one or two boys she liked, but she was hardly pretty enough to attract their attention.  Her face flushed bright red in the mirror when she thought of taking the initiative and asking a guy out to the upcoming dance.  Okay, maybe she was a little shy after all.  She imagined polite refusal was a little optimistic to hope for in that case.  Outright laughter would be far more likely, followed by cutting words about her looks.  If the other girls were evil, boys could be a thousand times worse without even realizing it.  Stupid boys!

  If only she was prettier, the boys would come to her.  And she was quite aware of how contrary that sentiment was to her normal disdain for anything and everything that could even remotely be considered girly.  Maybe it was a little hypocritical, sure, but nobody wanted to be ugly, least of all, those that actually were ugly. 

  Shaking her head, she scowled at her reflection. 

  “Who needs them anyway!  I don't even wanna go to the stupid dance.”

  Leaving the bathroom, Mia tossed her pajamas into her room, and walked down the hall to the kitchen.  The first floor was the grocery store that her family ran.  The second floor was where they lived, two bedrooms, one of which Steve used for an office, the bathroom, tiny laundry room, a kitchen and living room, and her third floor bedroom.  It was cramped, but they survived each other, and she did have her fortress of solitude whenever she needed some space to herself.  It was actually the biggest room in the living section of the building.

  The kitchen, like everything else in the cozy apartment, was a bit small, with stove and fridge on one side, sink adjacent to them, and a counter styled like a bar, with built in dishwasher, making up the third side of an open box.  Beyond the bar was the living room.

  Rummaging in the cupboards, Mia came up with some pop tarts and a box of generic brand corn flakes.  The majority of the stuff that they sold in the store, excepting soft drinks and a few other things, was generic brand.  There was little difference between brands, except the boxes they came in, and that one cost them three dollars to put on the shelf, while the other only cost fifty cents.  It was just smart business to go with the generic brands, and it helped them to keep their prices reasonable in the bad economy.  At least that was how her mom explained it.  Her mom would special order name brands if requested sometimes too, for a fee, which, strangely enough, no one ever seemed to complain about.  Her mom was an epic businesswoman.  If there was anything she knew how to do, it was how to make a profit running her store.

  Dropping her pop tarts in the toaster, Mia poured herself a bowl of cereal and sat at one of the stools on the opposite side of the bar next to where someone had left the TV remote the previous night.  Switching the TV on, she flipped through a few channels as she ate, but found nothing interesting and turned it off. 

  Drinking the remaining milk straight from the bowl in the way that made her mother snap at her about manners, Mia rinsed it in the sink, snatched her pop tarts, and hurried back to her room.

  Hanging on the door was a sign that said “Zombie Test Facility, Keep Out!  Authorized Personnel Only Beyond This Point”.  Opening the door, she grabbed her backpack and shoes from where she typically left them at the bottom of the stairs, and snatched her jacket from the closet opposite the door.  Trying to juggle everything, she made her way back to the living room and dropped onto the couch to put her shoes on.

  Finishing off her pop tarts, she zipped up her jacket, and slung her backpack over her shoulder, stumbling a bit under the weight of it.  Sighing, she stepped out the door, locking it behind her with her key.  Another boring day in the life of a social outcast awaited.  Joy.

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