Authors: Christina Bauer
Copyright © 2013 by Ink Monster LLC
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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It’s been one month, three days, and six hours since I last ‘got my gladiator on’ and battled in the Arena. Not that I’m obsessing or anything. Sure, I can sneak in and watch someone else fight, but that’s a snore.
I roll over on my dingy bed, scooch under the drab covers, and watch the gray drizzle outside my window. Mondays are the pits.
Mom’s voice echoes into my bedroom. “Time to get up! You don’t want to be late for school, do you, honey?”
I roll my eyes.
I want to be late for school.
Raising my head, I open my mouth to say just that, and then decide against it. Instead, I bite my lower lip, yank the pillow over my head and groan. Loudly.
“Don’t make noises at me, young lady.” Mom rustles papers in the kitchen. “I’ve a letter right here. You’re on something called the Official Watch List for Unreasonable Tardiness.” Her footsteps echo down the hall and pause outside my room. “You’ll be suspended from high school at this rate. What do you think about
I peep out from under my pillow. Mom looms in my doorway, her fist set on her hip. She’s a quasi-demon like me, so she resembles a lovely human with a curvy figure, amber skin, chocolate-brown eyes, and chestnut hair that falls in
waves over her shoulders. All quasis have a tail; Mom and I both sport the long and pointed variety. The big differences between us are laugh lines, some grey hair and our opinion of what’s ‘dangerous’ for eighteen-year olds.
I fluff the pillow and slide it under my noggin. Being suspended means no school. Maybe even catching a few Arena matches on the sly. I wag my eyebrows. “And suspension would be bad because?”
“I’d make it that way.”
Ugh. She would, too.
Off go my covers. “This is me getting up.”
“Good.” Mom stomps away.
I shower, pull on some sweats, and sleepwalk into the kitchen, seeing the familiar lime-green appliances, mismatched furniture, and peeling linoleum tile. Everything looks peaceful, quiet, and empty. Another typical Monday morning before another average day at school.
I’ll have to charm Walker into taking me to the Arena later. Until I’m called to fight again, it’s better than nothing.
A thick white envelope sits at the center of the kitchen table. I scoop up and read: “To the Quasi-Demon, Miss Myla Lewis, 666 Dante Row, Purgatory.” I lick my thumb and run it over the loopy calligraphy.
My long black tail flicks in a nervous rhythm.
Frowning, I tap the unopened letter against my palm. No one sends me fancy stuff like this. In a blur of motion, my tail darts across my torso, grips the envelope with its arrowhead-shaped end, and tries pulling it from my fingers.
“Hey now!” My tail’s always had a mind of its own. For some reason, it’s
decided this letter is dangerous. I jerk the envelope out of reach, but not before one corner gets totally shredded. “Now, look what you did.” My tail slinks behind me to curl guiltily about my ankle.
I reread the outside of the letter. Nothing here to worry about. I
a quasi-demon (mostly human with a little demon DNA). I’ve spent all eighteen years of my life in Purgatory (where human souls get judged for Heaven or Hell, aka the most boring place in the history of ever). This letter’s like dozens of others that hit our doorstep each week. Why’s my tail on a mission to trash this thing?
I stare at the words again, feeling like they should read: “Open this to turn your life upside-down and your heart into mush.”
Clearly, I’m having an off-morning.
I slip the envelope-slash-time-bomb into my mangy backpack. I’ll read it later at school.
Mom steps into the kitchen. “How’s my sweet baby, Myla-la?” Yes, I’m eighteen years old and Mom still uses pet names from when I was three.
“I’m good.” I open a cabinet and pull down a box of Frankenberry cereal.
Mom eyes my every movement, her forehead creasing with worry.
“Did you sleep well last night, Myla?”
Oh, no. Here it comes. I square my shoulders and mentally prepare my ‘I’m so very-very caaaaaaalm’ voice. “Absolutely.”
“Any bad dreams?”
“Nope.” The ‘calm voice’ isn’t working so well this time.
“Hmm.” She taps her cheek. “Met anyone lately? Made any new friends?”
I grit my teeth. All my mornings start off with maternal interrogations like this one. I find it’s best to give soothing, one-word answers. “Negative.”
“No friends at all?”
“Only the same one since first grade.” I raise my spoon for emphasis. “Cissy.”
“That’s good.” She offers me a shaky grin. “You’re safe.”
I shoot her a hearty thumbs-up. Today’s cross-examination ended relatively quickly; maybe Mom’s getting less overprotective. A grin tugs at the corner of my mouth.
“More than safe.” I speed-chop the air, karate-style. “I’m a lean, mean, Arena-fighting machine.” Wincing, I freeze mid-chop.
How could I be so dumb?
Mom loses her freaking mind whenever I say the word ‘Arena.’
There’s a pause that lasts a million years while Mom stares at me, her face unreadable. Finally, she moves. But, instead of jumping around in hysterics, she flips about and rifles through cabinets in search of a coffee mug.
Wait a second.
This morning Mom cut her interrogation short
she didn’t panic when I said the word ‘Arena.’ I wind my lips into an even-wider grin. Sweeeet. Things
be changing, after all.
Leaning back in my chair, I watch Mom pour coffee. I know she goes overboard because it’s just me, her, and this nasty gray ranch house. I have no brothers, sisters, or straight answers about who my father is, except that he’s some kind of diplomat. Add it all up and Mom’s a wee bit clingy.
Or, at least, she
to be. I drum my fingers on the Formica. A less
overprotective Mom opens up all sorts of possibilities. I could watch more matches. I could fight in more matches. I could develop interests in things other than the Arena.
Eh, maybe it’s a ‘no’ on that last thing.
Mom slides into the chair across from mine, her large brown eyes watching me through the wisps of steam curling from her mug. “Want a ride to school today? I don’t mind waiting outside the door.” A muscle twitches at the corner of her eye. “You know, in case anything happens.”
My heart sinks to my toes. Then again, maybe Mom’s worse than ever.
“Uhhhh.” My mouth falls so far open, some Frankenberry rolls off my tongue and onto the tabletop. Did she
offer to stand outside school all day long ‘in case anything happens?’ Cissy told me how parents get extra-twitchy during senior year. A shiver rattles my spine. My Mom
a huge nightmare.
I force a few deep breaths. “Thanks for the offer.” It’s getting really hard to keep my ‘calm voice’ handy. “I’ll pass this time.”
Suddenly, the air crackles with energy. A black hole seven feet high and four feet wide appears in the center of the kitchen.
Out of the void steps a ghoul.
My fingers twiddle in his direction. “Hey, Walker.” Technically, he’s named WKR-7, but I’ve called him Walker for as long as I can remember.
“Good morning.” Walker nods his skull-like head. If he were a few inches taller, the movement would knock his cranium through ceiling, and he’s on the
short side for a ghoul. It’s a mystery how Walker and the rest of the undeadlies handle an eternity of being so crazy-tall.
Walker pulls back his low-hanging hood, showing pale, almost colorless skin and a strong bone structure. He sports the same hairstyle from the day he died: a brush cut with sideburns and no beard. Great black eyes peep at me from deep sockets.
I grin. It’s nice to have Walker around. Most ghouls are obsessed with rules and act irritating as Hell. But Walker? He pushes boundaries like a pro, especially when it comes to sneaking me into the Arena. Having him around is like having a cute and somewhat sneaky older brother, only one without a pulse.
“Be careful, Myla.” Walker’s thin lips droop into a frown. “That’s no way to greet your overlords. I don’t mind, but other ghouls could send you to a re-education camp.”
I roll my eyes. Purgatory is one massive bureaucracy with the charm of suburbia and the fun of a minimum-security prison. All the work’s done by unpaid quasis like me (we’re not allowed to call ourselves ‘prisoners’). Ghouls keep us in line and make sure we’re–
–super happy in our service.
I’m ready to complain about all this to Walker for the millionth time when Mom pipes into the conversation.
“Greetings, my beloved overlord.” She’s laying it on thick to make up for my sloppy hello. “Want some decaf?” She bows.
Walker nods; ghouls love java.
Mom picks up one of Walker’s loopy sleeves, rubbing the fabric between her
fingertips. “This is a little threadbare. Are you here for a new one?” All quasis must perform a service; Mom sews and mends robes. It could be worse. My friend Cissy’s mom is a ghoul proctologist.
“No, thank you.” Walker eyes the coffee pot greedily.
Mom hands him a full mug marked ‘Afterlife’s Greatest Ghoul.’ Her chocolate eyes nervously scan his face. “What service do you require then?”
Walker frowns. “Myla must battle in the Arena today.”
A huge grin spreads across my face. When human souls reach Purgatory, they’re given a choice: trial by jury, or trial by combat. Based on the result, they end up either happily floating around Heaven or having their souls consumed in Hell. If the human selects a trial by jury, then it’s someone else’s problem. But if they choose combat–and the combatant in question is totally evil–then someone like Walker ends up in the kitchen of someone like me. I’m one of a few dozen quasis who kick butt. Literally.