The gym is packed by the time we finally arrive, a little over two hours for the start of Fall Formal.
After being held hostage by Alyssa and Katrena in the guest room for well over an hour, their chatter driving me crazy as they curled my stubborn hair and applied light layers of makeup to my face, it had taken me an additional thirty minutes to build up the courage to leave the room.
I had stood in front of the full-length mirror they had dragged into the room for far longer than I should have, staring self-consciously at the way my body looked in the dress Axel had surprised me with this afternoon.
He had taken my ‘no poofy dresses’ comment seriously, presenting me with a perfectly tailored peach silk dress. The fabric gathered at my hips, trailing delicately down my hips. I had no idea how he managed to get it to fit me this well, a little too well actually because it is practically clinging to me, but I didn’t care to ask.
It was the gesture that had counted.
The irony that I had spent a full week training with him on how to fight back against something design to kill but still required some time to force myself into bravery, was not at all lost on me. It was just that, not once since I had lost all that weight had I shown this much skin on purpose.
I had grown up in a house where something was trying to kill me, or at least occasionally hurt me in some way, but leaving myself that exposed was new to me.
In a way, it was scarier than my unknown future.
The school seems to have gone all out for this event, transforming the gym to the point where it is almost unrecognizable.
Long rows of twinkling lights line the ceiling, casting a soft glow around the large room. Round tables covered in burnt orange and bright red tablecloths have been placed around the rim of the gym, creating a makeshift dance floor in the center. They have even catered the food, the smell delicious to even me.
For a small school with an even smaller budget, I am thoroughly impressed.
Axel’s eyes once again travel the length of me, slower this time than they did when we were at his house, and he bites his lower lip. My face heats, my stomach coiling as it always does when he looks at me like this.
He is the picture of damn perfection right now, his dark suit doing wonders for him and his usually messy hair gelled back stylishly, only the most unruly of locks escaping. I stared at him the entire car ride here, wondering how things managed to change between us in such a short span of time.
If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that I’d of spent even half much time with Axel Browning as I have so far this year, I would have asked you what you were taking. But now? Now I can’t imagine not spending most of my day making sarcastic comments at him as he performs ordinary tasks.
“I know you said no waltzing, so-” He takes my hand into his, leading me onto the semi-crowded dance floor. “-how about we just dance instead? Unless you’d rather not.”
“No, it’s fine. I kind of want to.”
He places one hand on my lower back, bringing the other one so that it rests on his chest. I place my head against his chest, letting his earthy scent surround me. Even after spending all this time together, the smell of his still makes me think the most inappropriate things.
“I was trying to think of a way to tell you how absolutely stunning you look right now, but I have come to the conclusion that a word for that hasn’t been invented yet.”
I smile, even though I know he can’t see me. “I don’t really know how to respond to that. Well, other than to let you know that it is the most romantically cheesy thing anyone has ever said to me before. Thank you. Not just for the dress, but for everything. I know this has been a change for you as well, and I can be beyond difficult six out of seven days a week, but you haven’t budged one inch. You have been the one constant thing since all of this madness started. You didn’t have to do this, any of this, and I know for a fact I don’t deserve even an ounce of how amazing you have been.”
“You deserve a lot more than you think you do and I intend on showing you all of that.” He kisses the top of my head. “And I know I didn’t have to do anything of this, but I wanted to. Not everything is horrible all the time and I feel like you’ve lost sight of that this year. Eveline, sometimes things can just be as they are, no drama. My mother is right, sometimes you just have to stop with all the worrying and enjoy the little shit. I just wanted you to have one good night full of amazing little things, even if it was just one night.”
“I know this might ruin the moment, but I just want to say ‘sorry’ in case everything goes to shit and I try to kill you in a few months.”
His body shakes in silent laughter against my own. “Um, thanks? I know things aren’t turning out anything like we had hoped they would, but I am serious about not giving you up without a fight. I don’t care if it means duct taping you to another chair, I am not losing you. Whatever it takes, I will do it.”
This would be the perfect moment for something magical to happen. I mean, this is literally the scene in every cheesy book and movie where something unexpected happens. I am in an overly decorated high school gym in a gorgeous dress in the arms of an amazing guy who is saying the most perfect thing, this is when that moment is supposed to happen, right?
If this was one of those books or movies, this is the moment where Lillian would call and tell us that her friend finally got in touch with the Reaper. She would tell us how to stop me from becoming a crazed killer and all my problems would be fixed.
This would be the start to my ‘happily ever after’.
But this is not one of those things and, instead of getting my magical moment, things go so damn sideways that not even my morbid imagination could have dreamt it up.
I only catch a glimpse of her, but it is enough to cause me to pull away from Axel and race toward the exit she walked out.
“Mom?” My voice doesn’t sound like my own as I call after the hospital gown wearing blonde who is tearing her way across the school lawn. “Mom, stop!”
She skids to a halt, whipping around to face me, and the whole world quits turning.
The woman in front of me is an exact replica of my mother, and genetically is her, but it also isn’t her.
Her face has thinned out completely, her cheeks razor sharp. Her eyes are sunken in, devoid of all passion. They are glossy, glazed over and hallow.
She is a wisp of a person, no longer a portrait of fine curves and femininity.
Blood trickles down her bruised and swollen arms, leaking from the holes where she has ripped out her own IVs.
Tingles erupt across my skin so suddenly that there is no time to stop the changes from happening.
“Mom?” I whisper low, taking a hesitant step towards her. “You need to get out of here right now. There’s a, it isn’t safe.”
“Nowhere is safe.” The lack of emotion in her voice makes my skin crawl. “The world is an unsafe place full of unsafe people, Eveline.”
I barely see the scalpel she has in her hands before she lunges for me, her teeth bared as she snarls like some kind of rabid animal.
Her should-be weakened body slams into mine and, as I was taught, I grab onto her so that we are both tumbling to the ground. She rolls during the fall, landing on top of me. My hands fly up in front of my face protectively, the scalpel slashing into my skin.
“Enough!” a voice orders from behind us.
My mother rolls off of me, the bloodied weapons still clutched tightly in her small hands. She backs away, coming to a stand-still next to the almost completely cloud covered Reaper who called her.
The clouds dissolve as he steps out of them, still as breathtaking and as lethal as before. “Did you miss me? I told you turning them into your slaves could be fun and look at how much fun I am having. You know, I thought I had killed her but, imagine my surprise when I found her alive and weak. Getting into her head was much easier with all those drugs clouding her.”
“You, you’re the reason she didn’t wake up. You’ve been feeding off of her this whole time, haven’t you?”
“Guilty as charged.” He smiles triumphantly. “Were you not expecting me this soon? I told you I’d be back for you, but you knew I’d hadn’t left. I was planning on it but, as I wandered downtown for a drink to cool me off from that little stunt you pulled in the woods, a nice group of ladies was talking about your poor mother. I was waiting for them to mention a funeral because that would have been the best time to show back up, but then they mentioned sending flowers to the hospital and I figured this would be much more fun than bringing one of the others from the coven back with me. Didn’t see that coming, did you?”
No, I hadn’t.
“How do you do it?” I question, watching my mother as she shifts from one foot to the other. “In the woods you didn’t even try to attack my friend. You’ve been in town this whole time and haven’t tried once to hurt them. How do you control your impulses around a Nexxus?”
The Reaper shakes his head in disgust. “Looking for a way to stay with your little plant controlling boyfriend? I will teach you all of that once I get you back. Don’t worry, you won’t miss him for long. No, once you get a taste of someone more of your own you won’t ever think of him again. Be glad it was me they sent or else he’d of been gone the moment your lips touched him. My father must be rolling in his grave right now because of you. Did you know he once called you ‘the perfect weapon’? If only he could see you now, throwing yourself at some Nexxus boy. You know what, maybe I won’t teach you anything yet. Maybe if you had come willingly then I would have but, now that you’ve caused me some issues, I don’t think I will. In fact, I am going to take great pleasure in watching you kill that boyfriend of yours and his sweet little baby sister when you turn eighteen. Then I’ll show you how to control it, just so you know you could have stopped yourself.”
The image of Alyssa, battered and lifeless, pops into my head and I cave. “Fine, I’ll go with you. Just undo whatever you did to my mom and I promise I won’t fight you.”
“Oh, sweetheart, what makes you think that’s an option now? Not only are you coming with me now, but so is she. I’ve decided to keep her. You know, like a pet?” He glances over my shoulder, scowling as he does. “Son of a bitch, you again? You just don’t know how to stay out of things that don’t concern you, do you? First you have your dirty little Nexxus paws all over something that should be mine to play with and now you’re interrupted my well-planned speech. Well. Eveline, this could have been easy but your boyfriend just ruined it.”
He snaps his fingers and my mother lets out a scream, throwing herself at me once again. I roll out of the way, narrowly missing the scalpel blade as it rushes past my face.
For someone who has been snacked on by a Reaper for some time now, she sure as hell as moves fast and has a ton of energy.
She kicks me in the ribs as I attempt to stand and I hear one of my ribs snap loudly.
Air rushes from my lungs and I am on my knees, wheezing loudly.
My mother knees me in the face, sending me toppling backward. She crouches on me as soon as I hit the ground, the blade burying itself into the shoulder over and over again.
Vines spring free of the ground, twisting around her arms and pulling her away from me.
I take the momentary break from being stabbed and let go, allowing my Reaper side to take over. My adrenaline kicks it into high gear right as she tears through the vines and comes charging at me. I swing, knocking her out with one blow.
She hits the ground and I freeze, unmoving until her chest begins to rise and fall steadily.
Who knew there would be a day when I had to punch my own mother in the face to prevent her from stabbing me?
I spin quickly towards where Axel is fighting the Reaper, branches flying towards the still nameless man from every direction as thick roots thread themselves around his legs. Vines joins the roots, cutting into the Reaper’s skin as they tighten and blood begins to stain them.
Taking off in a full sprint towards the two, I drop my shoulder at the last second to maximize the impact of my hit.
The Reaper doesn’t seem me coming and I catch him off guard, my shoulder slamming into his side and knocking him back a few feet. I tuck my body into a roll as Axel taught me, landing in a low crouch.
I throw a glance back at Axel. “You good?”
“Yeah, I’m go-” He stops mid-word, his skin going a shade of white that I have never seen on a person before.
The Reaper’s laugh is what draws my attention away from Axel and back to him.
My heart drops.
He has my mother by the throat, her feet dangling off the ground by a few inches. She doesn’t kick, doesn’t yell, and doesn’t fight. She just allows him to hold her up, her glazed over eyes locking with mine.
“Put her down,” I plead, inching towards them with my hands out submissively. “Put her down and I will come with you. We will leave right now and there won’t be any other issues. He won’t fight you or try to stop you either. Please, just put her down.”
The Reapers smiles. “This could have played out a dozen different ways for you, but you just had to be stubborn. You just had to fight, didn’t you? Did you really think you stood a chance of beating me? Holy shit, you did. You remember this, Eveline. You remember how easy this could have been for you.”
The sickening sound of breaking bones echoes around as he flicks his wrist, snapping her neck.
Her eyes roll into the back of her head and he drops her, her body hitting the ground.
Everything stops moving for a second, literally everything, and my mind takes that second to process what I just witnessed.
“No!” I wail, tears streaming down my cheeks and I fall to the ground.
I stare at my hands, numbness wrapping itself around me.
“Time to go, Eveline.”
His voice shoos away the numbness and a white-hot rage takes over, heating the blood in my veins. All the pain I was feeling a moment ago vanishes and I stand up.
Lightning strikes a few yards away from us, thunder shaking the ground viciously.
I move quickly but it feels as if I only took one step, clearing the distance between the Reaper and I so that I can wrap my fingers around his throat.
His eyes go wide and he gasps. He wasn’t expecting an attack; he wasn’t expecting me to be this strong.
Neither was I.
“You killed her,” I growl through clenched teeth. “You tell me right now how you do it, how you control yourself, or I will rip your damn head off.”
The sky tears itself open, thick sheets of rain toppling down onto us.
The ground trembles at my every word.
“Not going to hap-”
His words are cut off the moment my free hand buries itself deep into his chest cavity, my fingers wrapping around his heart. It struggles to beat in my palm.
“Tell me, now.”
“My father was right.” Blood trickles from his mouth and down his chin. “I never believed him. I thought it was a myth but I can feel it inside you. You’re going to be a glorious thing one day, sweetheart. I should have snapped her neck sooner.”
“This could have played out a dozen different ways,” I repeat his words back to him, my voice cold and calculating.
I let go of it all, listening to the Reaper’s frantic screams as his entire body bursts into flames. I continue to hold him in place, the fire not affecting me, until the Reaper is nothing more than ash blowing away with the wind.
I shake my head, warning him away with a hand. “Stay back, I just need a minute.”
“Eveline, how did you? What did you?”
I don’t hear much else of what he says because his words drone out as I stare at the lifeless pile that is my mother. I know that I heard the bones snap and I know what that means, but I was hoping she would somehow have survived. I was hoping she would somehow get up, shake it off, and lecture me for something pointless.
But she won’t. She will never get up, she will never move, and she will never lecture me about anything ever again.
She won’t do anything again.
The word hammers itself into me over and over again until it becomes too much to hold onto and I break.
I slam my fists into the ground, the earth cracking under the blow. Thunder shakes everything around us and lightning strikes, the smell of burning wood wafting up to meet me.
“Holy shit,” Axel whispers from behind me.
The rain is so thick that I can no longer see him, no longer see anything in front of me.
I curl into myself as the weight of everything crushes me and I drift off into the blackness calling my name.