Prologue - The Bleeding Sky
The night my sister was born, Death came for my mother.
I was there to witness his arrival.
Maybe if Mama had gone to the hospital like Daddy wanted her to, Death never would’ve found her. But Mama was old-fashioned and determined to have the baby in her own bed, just like she’d had me. I was only eight years old, so I wasn’t allowed in the room with her during the birth, even though Daddy got to come and go whenever he wanted. The midwife and neighbors who came to help spent most of the day trying to keep me distracted, but I’m not dumb. Daddy kept looking more and more worried and tired out as the day went on, so I knew something was up.
The day was almost over before Mrs. Collins came down to tell me the baby was finally born, but Mama was resting and don’t disturb her. I didn’t care, though. I really wanted to meet my new sister and see how Mama was doing, so I pretended to go to bed like she wanted and as soon as the coast was clear, I made a beeline for my parents’ room. I knew Daddy was downstairs having a sandwich; Mrs. Collins had scolded him for not eating all day and insisted on fixing him something.
There was Mama, in the middle of her huge bed. The pretty green comforter was on the floor, halfway underneath it. The sheets must’ve just been changed, ’cause there was a pile of them lying all crumpled up right inside the door. They looked dirty and didn’t smell very good, so I tried not to breathe too deep when I passed them. I closed the door and then clicked the lock, just to make sure nobody else could come in and chase me out before I got my visit.
Mama’s eyes were closed and her face looked white against the pale green pillowcases. Her long, blond hair was in a messy braid and in her arms was a tiny wrapped bundle with a little head of shiny black hair peeking out. She opened her eyes to look at me and gave me a tired smile. “Gabriella, come meet your little sister,” she said in a quiet voice.
I came closer to the bed until I could better see the baby in her arms. “What’s her name?” I asked. For months, my parents had tossed names back and forth, arguing over which would be the best choice. I knew it was a game between them, but I secretly hoped they hadn’t really settled on Daddy’s suggestion of Bertha.
“We decided to name her Michaela,” Mama told me.
“Is she named after an angel, too?”
“Yes, just like you are.”
I smiled and decided right then I’d call her Mickie, like how everyone always called me Gabby.
Mama looked really tired. Her eyes were all droopy and it kind of looked like she’d been punched in both of them, with the dark rings underneath and all. And she kept yawning a lot. I guess having a baby must have been pretty hard work. It was already starting to get dark outside, so I hopped onto the big, stuffed armchair in the corner of the room and tried to decide if I should visit Mama a bit longer, or let her go to sleep. Besides, if I stayed too long, Mrs. Collins would come looking for me and then she’d scold me, which would make Daddy mad, too.
Somewhere in the middle of deciding, I guess I dozed off. When I woke up again, it was with a sharp jerk, like someone had poked me and scared me awake.
It was really cold all of a sudden. Someone had opened the window. The panes were swung in to show the pink-streaked sky. This early in spring, the air was still chilly as it drifted in to ruffle the curtains, which was probably why it was so cold. I heard voices and I rubbed my eyes and looked at the bed, expecting to see my father there.
A great, black shadow hovered directly over Mama’s bedside, so tall that it seemed to fill up half the room. It definitely wasn’t Daddy.
I suddenly couldn’t breathe right. My throat got tight and my hands got all cold and sweaty at the same time. The stranger looked wicked, wrapped all in black with a pale, pointed face that didn’t look real somehow. Bright, silver eyes glittered in that sharp face and they were fixed on Mama with the same sort of stare I’d see on my cat’s face whenever he watched the little finches flitting around in the birdbath. If the stranger had a tail, I bet it would’ve lashed just like Tugger’s always did.
The shadow man spoke and I could hear the low, velvet rumble of his voice. He didn’t talk loud, but it almost vibrated clear through my chest, like how the clothes dryer did if I leaned on it when it ran. But I couldn’t make out any words over the fast, painful thudthudthud of my heart in my ears.
I couldn’t hear Mama’s reply, either, but her eyes glittered, too, and tears streaked down her white cheeks. To my horror, the shadow man sat down on the bed right beside her and reached out to take my sister from her arms. He cradled the baby in big, white hands before bringing her close to his body. Michaela began crying in a tinny little wail and Mama spoke again. Then the stranger leaned down, so close it almost looked like he was about to kiss her. I watched and wondered where Daddy was and why he wasn’t in the room telling the shadow man to go away and leave Mama alone.
A faint, flickering glow appeared out of nowhere. It was dim at first but grew brighter, pulsing with a weird, bluish-silver light. It seemed brightest around the spot where the shadow man’s head nearly touched Mama’s. I realized the light seemed to come from out of Mama’s body and flowed through her parted mouth right into his. It looked like he was drinking her.
Mama kept getting fainter and paler as seconds passed, while Michaela’s tiny cries started getting bigger and more insistent.
My heart kept pounding like Indian war drums beating faster and louder by the second. I wanted to cry and scream for Daddy to come help, but my breath kept getting in the way, solid little gasps that hissed sharply past my clenched teeth, keeping time with the drums pounding in my ears. Even my eyes felt like they were throbbing, making Mama and the dark man waver and blur.
He was gonna make them disappear, I realized. They’d both disappear and I’d never see them ever again and it would be all my fault!
That horrible thought finally pushed me out of the chair and I scrambled straight across the room and flung myself over Mama’s body as my voice at last broke free with a high, shrieking, “Stop!”
But it didn’t stop. The deadly light just swallowed me up and an awful sensation like icy fingers spread all over and through my body, numbing everything they touched. There was a weird, not-quite-painful sort of pull, like the fingers had grabbed hold of something inside me and were trying their hardest to yank it clean through my skin. I screamed.
It only lasted a moment and then the terrible feeling suddenly disappeared. The shadow man reared back like he’d been yanked by the invisible fingers, too. He made an odd, surprised sort of noise and looked down at me with wide eyes. He looked like he hadn’t known I was even there. When he stood up, he practically floated to his feet, like a feather. This close to him, I could see his skin was a strange color. It wasn’t white like I thought. It looked gray, almost the color of the slate tiles Mama liked to paint on, but kind of shimmery like a pearl. And the color sort of shifted, the way sunlight and shadows shifted underneath the trees on a windy day.
He looked like he had shadows trapped in his skin.
Michaela’s cries were growing fainter again and Mama lay still and silent in the bed, her eyes closed. I wanted to shake her, make her open her eyes, but I couldn’t do anything except lay there, gazing up at the shadow man from the corner of my eye. My mind felt muzzy, like it had gotten smothered in a blanket. The rest of me felt like a puppet with its strings cut. My arms and legs felt so heavy I could barely move them.
The shadow man knelt beside me, his silvered gaze stern on my face. Still cradled in his arms, Michaela’s cries had finally quieted. Her breath sounded soft and raspy as she snored and I wondered how she could fall asleep so easy when such a scary man held her.
I tried to move again when he reached for me, but couldn’t do much more than shiver and whimper. My breath still hissed fast and scared from my throat. It felt like I’d never be able to talk again. His fingers brushed my face, tucked my dark brown hair behind my ear as he said something in a low voice that I couldn’t understand. It was a language I’d never heard before. A beautiful language that didn’t sound human at all. It didn’t even sound like words. His touch was light and cool, tickled a bit where his thumb stroked over my cheek. He didn’t look evil anymore. His face was still pale and sharp-angled, but it looked softer somehow, almost kind. His skin glowed the way Mama’s favorite pearl necklace always seemed to glow in the dark. I could see the pale tips of pointed ears poking up through long strands of glossy black hair. He looked like one of the people in the pictures I’d always admired in my favorite fairytale books.
It wasn’t fair for Death to be so beautiful.
And then I heard Daddy’s voice outside the door and the knob rattled loudly as he tried to turn it. “Constance? Gabby, are you in there? Why is the door locked? Why was Michaela crying?”
His voice helped me to finally find my own. “Daddy!” I shrieked.
“Gabby? Gabby, are you alright?” The doorknob rattled harder and then the door shook as something heavy thudded against it. “Open the door!”
The noise woke up Michaela, who started crying again. The shadow man glided from the bed and I managed to turn my head to watch him. He looked back at me for a second, then stooped down to put the baby carefully into her little crib. Then he turned to the window.
The thudding on the door got even louder and its entire frame shook as my father cursed and shouted from the other side. Something cracked and it suddenly flew open, hit the wall with a startling crash as he tumbled into the room. He scrambled up and raced to the bed, lifted me off Mama’s body as he called her name over and over. He picked her up and shook her a little, sounding more and more upset when she didn’t open her eyes. I knew something was wrong. She was too still and her face looked strange, not the right color. It looked almost as gray as the shadow man’s.
Why wouldn’t she wake up, I wondered. Why wouldn’t she tell us she was okay?
There were tears in Daddy’s eyes and it scared me because I’d never seen him cry before. “What’s wrong with Mama?” I whispered.
Daddy made an odd noise, like a choked-off sob, and gently laid her back in the bed. “Gabby, what happened?” he asked in a strange, rasping voice. “Why was the door locked?”
I wanted to curl up into a ball and hide. I started to cry, because I knew I’d done something very bad. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” I sobbed. “I wanted to see Mama and I locked the door so Mrs. Collins couldn’t catch me. There was a man and he was all black and had pointed ears and he drank the light out of Mama’s body. I tried to stop it but I couldn’t move and he took Mickie and—”
“He took her? Where is she?” Daddy’s voice sounded sharp and angry. I was even more afraid that he was angry at me. For locking the door. For not doing anything to help Mama.
“He put her in there,” I stuttered through my tears, pointed a shaking finger at the crib. “And he flew away, out the window.”
Daddy looked at me for a moment, before picking up the phone on the dresser and punching the buttons hard. He muttered a few words, waited a moment, muttered some more and hung up, stalked to the open window to gaze outside. I tried to sit up and discovered my arms and legs worked well enough to let me crawl out of the bed and stand beside it. But I had to hold on to the covers so I wouldn’t fall. My knees still felt shaky and weak. I slowly reached out to touch Mama’s face, shivered when I felt how cold it was.
I think that was the moment I realized Mama was never going to wake up again, never open her eyes or smile at me like she always did. The shadow man really had taken her away from us forever.
Something broke inside. One sob got free, then another, and then more poured out and I began to wail loudly, grabbed Mama’s arm and shook it as I begged her to wake up, over and over again. Mickie was still crying, too, but her little voice got lost behind my screams. Daddy’s arms came around me and he turned me around and held me tightly so my voice got muffled against his chest. I could feel him gasp and shake as he sobbed into my shoulder. In the distance, the wail of sirens cut the air, echoed over our crying.
After long moments, Daddy finally pushed me away to look at me through wet, red eyes. “Gabby, how did this happen? Who did this to you?” he choked out, took a lock of my long hair in his fingers to hold it up to the light. I blinked at it, trying to see through my swollen eyes. And I felt confused, because it didn’t even look like my hair. My hair was dark, dark brown, just like Daddy’s. But the part he held wasn’t dark at all. It looked pale, so pale it gleamed white. Just like Mama’s pearls. Just like the shadow man’s skin.
“The shadow man did it,” I sobbed and he hugged me close again. He held me until the police showed up and all the while I stared out the window, imagined that I could see a black speck flying against the backdrop of the sunset.
The sky looked like it was bleeding fire.