(Read Chapter One here)
Rocking on my heels, I scan the empty living room. “Mom?” No reply.
That’s weird. Mom rarely leaves the house, especially if she knows I’m going to an Arena match. Those days she pretty much stays glued by the front door.
I look around. Our one-story ranch is a long rectangle with a kitchen on the far left and a living room in the center. Two bedrooms and one bathroom make up the far right. There’s a creepy basement too, but I only go there to shove clothes into the washer and run like Hell. Everything’s empty and open, except for Mom’s bedroom.
I knock on her closed door. “Hello?”
Still no reply.
Bit by bit, I swing the door open. Mom sits at the foot of her bed, holding a purple robe. Her amber face glistens with tears. I sit by her side and wrap one arm around her slender shoulders.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
Her voice comes out low and quiet. “I was looking for sewing supplies and found this.” She twists the robe into a ball on her lap. Tears drip from her nose onto the delicate fabric.
The over-worrying Mom I can handle. Hysterical, nagging, dramatic? No problem. But this incredible, bone-crushing sadness? It makes me want to wrap her up in a blanket, then go out and kill whoever made her this miserable.
I gently squeeze her shoulders. “So what’s that robe?”
Mom turns to me, her chocolate eyes bloodshot. “You don’t know?”
There’s a hidden knife in this question. If I answer incorrectly, I plunge it directly through her heart. My thumb moves in soothing circles on her shoulder. “No Mom, I don’t.” I hold my breath, hoping that answer will comfort her.
Mom freezes. “I see.” All the color drains from her face.
My chest tightens. Somehow, I made her feel worse, and that makes me feel like the foulest daughter ever. If she’d only tell me what happened to her.
Mom rises to her feet, hugging the robe tightly against her belly. “I need some time alone.”
“No problem. If you ever want to talk about it, I’m here.” She’s got to open up sometime.
Mom jams the robe into the bottom drawer of her dresser. “I won’t talk about it.” Her voice breaks. “Ever.”
The reality of her words slam into me like a fist. My bottom lip quavers. I never seriously considered that Mom wouldn’t eventually tell me everything about her past. But now, seeing the desperation in her bloodshot eyes, I know she never will. Whoever my father is, whatever happened to her in Armageddon’s war, those secrets will die with her.
I nod slowly, my eyes stinging. “Okay.”
She collapses on the edge of the bed. “I’m so sorry, Myla.”
“It’s fine.” It’s not really, but I don’t want to say the wrong thing twice today. Closing the door behind me, I step into the living room and plunk onto the tattered couch. Knots of emotion tighten my throat. Whatever her secrets are, they’re choking the life out of us both.
I straighten my spine. The same Myla Lewis who fights incredibly evil souls can’t give up on finding out who I really am. Bit by bit, I rise to my feet, steel my shoulders and march toward my bedroom. Time to get ready for school.
After taking a quick shower, I hunt through my closet of black t-shirts and grey sweatpants. The Department of Avoiding Quasi Nakedness assigns everyone clothing; for teenagers it’s sweats and t-shirts. My upper lip twists. What classic ghoul nonsense—like we’d all run around naked if they didn’t tell us what to wear. I throw on my least mangy sweats and t-shirt, then glance at my wristwatch. I can still catch a class before lunch with Cissy. Cool.
Swinging my backpack onto my shoulder, I head off to the nastiest, loudest and least reliable car in the universe: Betsy, our green station wagon.
Betsy’s a massive gas-guzzling masterpiece of awesomeness. She’s huge, green and filled with frayed upholstery accented by the smell of wet sneakers. Her radio doesn’t work, her engine’s unreliable, and someone glued orange pom-poms all around her windows. I love her.
I slip into the ragged front seat and rev the engine. Betsy bucks and thumps as her innards come to life. A heavy column of toxic black smoke rises behind us.
As we putter along the roads to school, I quickly give up on getting Betsy’s radio to work and scope out the landscape instead. Rows of grey tract houses stretch off in every direction. Gravel driveways divide weed-choked squares of yellow grass. Grey clouds fill the sky, as always.
Ahead there appears a red brick building three stories high with an arched roof. The wooden sign on the yellowing lawn reads ‘DL-19 School for Quasi Servitude.’ I park Betsy in a remote corner of the parking lot. This is it, school. Yuck. It’s always an extra letdown to hit class after the adrenaline rush of the Arena.
Eh, no point delaying the inevitable any longer.
I tiptoe across the yellowing lawns. The rules state that students show up on time, and ghouls follow rules to the letter. Fighting evil souls in the Arena? Cuts me zero slack when it comes to the infamous Tardy List.
With maximum stealth, I step up to a small steel door on the side of the school. If I can sneak in here, I won’t get nailed for being late. Crossing my fingers, I jimmy the door open with my tail. Please let there be no one around. Grabbing the handle, I grit my teeth and slowly swing the rusted door open a crack. Time to peep inside.
I punch the air with my fist, slip through a few more doors and step onto the school’s main hallway. Students rush by. Everyone’s wearing the same standard-issue grey sweats and dark t-shirts.
Excellent, I caught the break between classes.
I scan the monochromatic crowd for Cissy. After this morning with my Mom, I really need to see her smile.
My best friend stands by her locker. While we’re both tall, I’m more on the curvy side with long auburn hair. Cissy is willowy, her blond hair hanging in shoulder-length ringlets. She has a golden retriever tail, which isn’t good in a fight but sure looks cute on her. Seeing me, her face brightens and her arms open wide. I melt into her hug.
“Good morning, Cis.”
“Hello, sweetie.” She air-kisses my cheek, then flips about to fuss with a mangy old shoebox on the top shelf of her locker.
I nod toward the strange box. “What’s that?”
Cissy closes her locker door with suspicious speed. “Nothing.”
I set my fist on my hip and smile. “What did you rescue this time?”
“Some little cocoons.” She shivers. “Dad’s redecorating our basement again and he was going to kill them all.” Cissy’s father runs our black market. Sure, the ghouls let quasis manufacture a few things, but mostly they foist earth cast-offs on us: huge black-and-white TV sets with wire bunny-ears on top, answering machines as large as a Buick, that kind of thing. Everyone goes nuts for new stuff, which is how Cissy’s family makes their money. It’s also why Cissy’s dad goes bat-shit crazy that his daughter’s more interested in saving strays than shopping. As an Arena-fighting anomaly, I definitely fall into the ‘stray’ category, in her parent’s minds anyway. We mostly hang out at my house.
Cissy pats the top of her locker door and beams. “I think one of the cocoons will open today.”
I stare at her closed locker, my mouth screwing onto one side of my face. We don’t get butterflies in Purgatory so those are… “Moths?” I wince. This is unbelievable, even for Cissy. “You saved moth larvae?”
“False! I saved cute little cocoon thingies.” She puffs out her lower lip. “They need me.” She sniffles.
Ugh, now I made her feel bad. “No worries.” I pat her shoulder with what I hope is a comforting grin. “I think it’s pretty cool.” Maybe. I yawn and scratch my neck. What a day and it’s not even noon yet. “Did I ever tell you about the time I fought the Mothma demon?”
Cissy rolls her eyes. “Only about four hundred times.” She steps back, scanning me from head to toe. “You look like Hell…In a bad way. Were you home sick all morning?”
“Nah, they sent me into the Arena.” I wink. “Took the guy down in less than a minute.” I get into battle stance. “Let me show you what happened.” I reach toward Cissy’s neck. “This guy came at me with a classic choker hold.”
My best friend raises her arms, palms forward. “Whoa, there!” She takes a giant step away. “Haven’t we talked about this?”
I stare at my toes and play dumb. “I don’t know. What do you mean?”
“I’m glad you enjoy killing things, but–”
“They’re not things. They’re super-evil souls.” Cissy’s no a fan of the Arena. Normally that’s fine with me, but today? For some reason, it stings. Frowning, I stare at the floor. “We should get to class.”
Cissy tilts her head to one side. “Hey, honey. I didn’t mean to shut you down.” She points to her cheek. “But you did chip my tooth in fourth grade, remember? You just had to show me your screw driver.”
“Pile driver. It’s a wrestling move.”
“And that’s what I’m talking about.” She chucks my chin with her knuckle. “Why not join the rest of us in Teenager-land and talk about something other than the Arena?” Her tawny eyes twinkle as she smiles. “It would be good for you.”
Memories of this morning with my Mom flip through my mind’s eye: her trembling hands, red-rimmed eyes, and tear-stained robe. “I get that I’m different, Cissy.” My voice catches a bit. “I wish I knew why.”
My best friend lets out a long breath. “Did we have a close encounter of the Camilla-kind this morning?”
“Yup.” I frown.
“Well, then.” She sets her hand on my shoulder. “I know someone who gets to eat my brownie at lunch.” She gives my shoulder a squeeze; warmth fills my chest. Cissy knows just what to say to make everything right.
A grin tugs at the corner of my mouth. “Really?” Cissy makes kick-ass brownies.
Paulette Richards walks by, ruining the moment. “Hello there, lovelies!” She slowly waves her hand, careful to show off her glittering new watch.
“Hey, P.” I give her a limp wave in reply.
Brown-haired and cocoa-skinned, Paulette has a funky lizard tail and a talent for driving Cissy crazy. “Did you see my new watch?”
Cissy scans it with an expert glance. “Dad’s running a special on these this month.” She shrugs. “Who gave it to you?”
“Zeke! Can you believe it? He’s like the best boyfriend in the universe.” Her eyes twinkle with a red glow.
I fold my arms across my chest. “Really?” Everyone knows Zeke’s notorious for random hook-ups with gifts. Cissy’s even more notorious for being obsessed with Zeke. What a bitchy move from Paulette. My eyes narrow. “So, P. Have you met Zeke’s friends yet?”
Paulette’s lizard tail cracks behind her like a whip. “No, but I’m sure I will soon.” Turning on her heel, she almost skips down the hall.
I grit my teeth, knowing the shit-storm that’ll hit once Paulette’s out of earshot.
Cissy grabs my arm. “Zeke gave her that?” Her eyes flare red. “My. Zeke. Ryder.”
Here it comes. Every quasi has a bit of demon DNA aligned to one of the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. In my case, my deadly sin is wrath, which is why I’m such a good fighter. For Cissy, it’s envy, which is why she’s about to launch into an hour-long monologue on why Zeke should be giving her Rolexes, not Paulette. Over the years, I’ve learned to half-listen.
“…and if he hasn’t introduced her to his friends, then she’s just a fling.” Cissy sets her fists on her hips. “Plus that boy gives pricey presents to anyone who him shows him their tits.” Her gaze swings toward me, her eyes glowing red. “Myla, have you been listening to me?”
“Um, yeah.” I glance at my own watch. “Hells bells! We’ll have to catch up at lunch; class is about to start.” Unfortunately, this class might as well be on the other side of the planet. With a quick wave goodbye, I take off at a run for History.
I’m a sweaty mess when I reach the door. Inside, our teacher paces the room. She’s the hated MT-12, Miss Thing to her students. Like all ghouls, she’s tall and bony with chalky grey skin and a bald head. She’s always decked out in cherry red lipstick and matching high heels, which only make her look creepier in her long black robes. At least she always wears her hood up.
From what I’ve seen on the human channel of our crappy public access TV, quasi classrooms are like their earthly counterparts. A teacher stands before rows of students; a single door is the only way in or out. The big differences are the Oligarchy glamour shots covering the walls and the modified desk-chairs with back-holes for our tails. Taking a deep breath, I open the door.
“Class, open to page 136 in Quasi Servitude Through the Ages.”
I tiptoe into the room. Miss Thing freezes. Her coal-black eyes bore into my back.
“Myla Lewis, you’re late.”
“Sorry. I was at the Arena for–”
“I don’t want excuses.” Miss Thing pounds the tabletop; I’m pretty sure she breaks an overly-long red nail. “Just because you’re called for servitude at the Arena does not give you special rights to break the rules.”
I race into my favorite seat, which is a corner desk in the last row, AKA as far away from the teacher as possible. “Understood.”
Miss Thing glares at me for a full minute, then returns her attention to the opened book on her desk. “As we see on page 136, the quasis mis-managed Purgatory for eons, forcing Armageddon to liberate these lands twenty years ago. All of which was inevitable, since quasis are the weakest creatures in all the five realms.”
I grit my teeth and grip my desktop like I’ll snap it in two. I don’t need more ‘Armageddon is awesome’ talk today. Miss Thing taps her chin with her red pinky nail. “Who can name the five realms and their people?”
Paulette raises her hand, the better to show off her new Rolex.
“Heaven with angels, Hell with demons, ghouls in the Dark Lands, quasis in Purgatory and–” Paulette frowns.
Miss Things rolls her eyes. “Thrax in Antrum.”
Paulette’s face reddens.
Our teacher lets out a high-pitched giggle. “Don’t worry, you silly little fool. You just illustrated my point about your people being a lower form of life.” Miss Thing launches into a ‘lecture’ that’s basically a quasi-hating version of Armageddon’s war. The way she teaches history, the class should be entitled ‘Why Quasis Suck Through the Ages.’
Sighing, I pull out my textbook and try to focus. I’ve been reading the same sentence six times when someone clears his throat. Barf. I know the sound of that particular someone anywhere. Bit by bit, I turn my head and glance across the row.
That’s when I realize the awful truth: I’ve made the worst seating decision in the history of the universe. I’m parked right beside Zeke Ryder, Cissy’s mega-crush and my personal stalker.
Zeke’s power is all lust. He’s tall, pale and handsome, every inch packed with muscles and pheromones. His caramel eyes, chiseled features and messy blonde hair are perfectly matched with a monkey tail. Every girl’s knees turn to Jell-o before him, except for me, making me a challenge-slash-target since the third grade.
“Hello, kitten.” Zeke waves in my direction. He’s wearing standard issue sweats, a black t-shirt, and his trademark come-hither stare.
Pointing to the teacher, I make my ‘shh’ face.
Zeke arches his eyebrow. “You coming to my party Friday night?”
“No.” His last ‘party’ consisted of two cans of beer and the back seat of his limo. The black eye I gave him lasted for weeks. What a bust for my first attempted kiss. At least I had fun punching him.
My back teeth lock as I glance around the room. Every girl within pheromone-smelling distance aims goo-goo eyes at Zeke. Why am I the only one who thinks his Mister Romance routine is annoying? I’m probably the only senior at school who’s never had a crush, never been kissed. What’s up with that?
I straighten my shoulders and angle my body away from Zeke. I’ve got more important things to worry about than boys, THAT’S what’s up with that. I pretend to be very interested in my textbook. Hopefully he’ll get the hint.
“Not so fast, babe.” He points to the envelope half-hanging out of my backpack. “It’s not that kind of party. Take a look.”
“This was from you?” Pulling out the letter, I turn it over in my fingers. “I was going to read this today anyway.” I pause. My tail tries to shred the rest of the envelope. I smack the arrowhead end and reset the letter into my backpack.
Zeke flashes me a white-toothed smile. “Why don’t you read it right now?”
Miss Thing stares out the window, monologue-ing on how quasis sent too many souls into Heaven, which was super-unfair to the poor demons. I could samba down the aisle right now and she probably wouldn’t notice me.
Zeke has the same idea. “Miss Thing won’t see you. Go ahead. Take a look.”
I pull the envelope out of my backpack and set it on my lap.
Zeke arches another eyebrow. “I can’t believe this. Is the fearless Arena fighter too scared to open one ittle-wittle envelope?”
That did it. I tear open the letter with a vengeance. Inside I find an embossed invitation that reads: You and a guest are cordially invited to attend a diplomatic gala in honor of our ghoul overlords and their noble allies, the demons. Friday the 13th, The Ryder Mansion, Upper Purgatory. Formal dress only. Doors open at 8PM.
I run one finger over the embossed letters. “Is this for real?”
“Absolutely. You can bring a friend too, if you want.” Cissy’s crush on Zeke is nothing less than monstrous; she’ll never forgive me if I pass this up. Maybe he’s not as dumb as he looks.
After the last ‘party’ Zeke invited me to, I should be skeptical. But there are four good reasons to attend this one. First, Zeke’s dad really is a wealthy diplomat known for hosting delegations of ghouls and demons. Second, the party’s at his parent’s mansion where he’s less likely to get nasty. Third, I’ll bring Cissy (with her crush she’s better protection than parents). And fourth, the single fact I know about my own father is that he was a diplomatic something-or-other. I can’t miss the chance to learn more.
“I’ll think about it.”
Zeke’s mouth arcs into a satisfied smile. “That’s all I ask.”
I forget about the invitation until the end of the school day. Cissy and I sit in the back row of Lessons in Servitude class. It’s taught by OT-42–we call him the Old Timer–who’s known for his huge handlebar moustache, broken teeth, and blazing hatred of talking in class. His receding head of gray hair is tied back into a teensy ponytail at the base of his neck. Other than that, he’s pretty standard ghoul material: tall, dark and gruesome.
“We have an important lesson today.” The Old Timer stalks around the classroom, his thin frame setting his long robes swaying. He pulls back his black hood and scans the rows of desks, twiddling his handlebar moustache.
“Today we’ll learn how to prepare appealing meals for your masters.” The Old Timer’s thin indigo lips round into a demonic smile. “Exciting, eh?” He starts yapping about how happy we’ll make our overlords by preparing delicious dinners for them. I start doodling ‘Lessons in Stupid-tude’ over and over in my notebook.
Cissy’s tawny eyes focus on the envelope that half-hangs out of my backpack. “What’s that?”
I keep scribbling away. It looks productive and passes the time.
Cissy clears her throat. “I asked you a question, Myla.” She points at the envelope again.
I yawn. “Oh, that’s our invite for Zeke’s party Friday night.”
Cissy starts hyperventilating. “That’s an invite to where Friday night?”
I stop scribbling and realize my huge error. “Uh, I’ll tell you later.”
The Old Timer finishes his speech on pleasing our overlords. Half the class chit-chat in little groups. One guy snores in the back row.
“Impertinence!” The Old Timer stops twiddling his mustache so quickly, I think he’ll rip it off his face. “Pay attention to your master!” The room falls quiet; the sleeping kid raises his head. If the Old Timer were a cartoon, he’s have smoke coming out of his ears right now.
“That settles it.” Our teacher strides over to his desk, jotting down a quick note. “To punish your lack of focus, we shall have tests all next week.” He slaps his bony fists onto the tabletop. “That means robe-cleaning, foot massage, and groveling etiquette, as well as our lesson for today, meal preparation.”
A long groan erupts from the students; everyone sits straighter in their chairs. The dog-tailed kids stop wagging.
“At last, I have your full attention.” The Old Timer rubs his grey hands together, explaining how ghouls like things spicy, drink cough syrup like wine, and are allergic to fish. Oh, they eat a ton of worms too. “Everyone follow me to the demonstration area.”
The class steps over to a long metal table. Our teacher picks up a huge bowl of wriggling worms in his left hand and a tall bottle of Tabasco sauce in his right. “Who wants to prepare a delicious meal?” He looks like a cross between a black-robed scarecrow and Betty Crocker.
Cissy pokes me in the ribs. “Zeke asked me to go too, didn’t he? Please tell me he did.” She really needs a hobby.
I hip-check her. “Quiet, Cis. You’ll get us in trouble.”
“Myla Lewis.” The Old Timer snaps his grey head in my direction. “Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of those in servitude?”
The Old Timer sets the worm-bowl and Tabasco sauce onto the prep table. “Perhaps you believe your special status as Arena fighter means you don’t have to follow class rules like everyone else?”
I frown. The one thing that sucks about Arena matches is listening to everyone complain about my ‘special treatment’ afterwards. In all of Purgatory, there are only a few dozen Quasis across who fight in the Arena, and we’re all descended from Furor demons. The Furor are known for not one, but two deadly sins: lust and wrath. Clearly, I only inherited the wrath part, which is why I’m an especially good Arena fighter. And yeah, I do think I deserve special treatment. Hey, I kept an evil soul out of Heaven this morning. Where’s the love?
Opening my mouth, I’m about to say something to that effect when I glance into the Old Timer’s oily black eyes. No love for me there, that’s for sure. I bite my lower lip. “Whatever you say, sir.” Suck it, loser.
The Old Timer lets out an indignant puff of air. “What does the rest of the class think? Should Myla have special treatment because she wrestles a few ghosts?”
Thirty sets of eyes turn in my direction, everyone looking at me with a gaze that says ‘hey, I forgot about that freaky fighting girl.’ This attitude is an improvement, actually. Time was, they all teased me mercilessly. That ended when I put Billy Summers in hospital back in first grade. That’s when Cissy took pity on me too, wrapping me up in her little shoebox of friendship. I’ve cherished her ever since.
The Old Timer taps his foot. “Well, class?”
No one wants to get their ass kicked like Billy Summers, so they all keep their yaps shut.
“I see.” The Old Timer eyes the bowl of worms. “Myla, since you seem to deserve special treatment, perhaps you’ll demonstrate how to make worm soufflé.”
Oh my sweet evil. Not worm soufflé.
I take a deep breath. “Yes, sir.” Stepping up to the table, I eye the massive bowl of nasty, writhing and greasy worms. Even for a quasi-demon, this is gross stuff.
The Old Timer grins, showing a mouthful of cracked and yellow teeth. “First you must mush the worms into a pulp.”
I cringe. Okay, that’s totally repulsive. Scanning the room, I see every set of eyes still locked on me. I try twisting my disgusted sneer into a cool and casual grin, but I just end up looking constipated.
“Got it.” My stomach somersaults. “Is there a spoon or something?”
“Absolutely not,” says the Old Timer. “This must be done with your bare hands.”
“Oooooookay.” Bit by bit, my trembling fingers inch towards the wriggling mass of grey and brown nasties.
At that moment, Cissy lets out as yelp. “Angels! Angels!” She points to the window; the class runs to look. I follow, thrilled for the diversion.
Sure enough, a pair of angels walk the school grounds below, accompanied by the school’s Headmaster and Superintendent. The Old Timer stares through the glass, his black eyes wide as saucers. His voice comes out in a nervous whisper. “Ghouls and angels?”
Angels rarely visit Purgatory outside of Arena matches, let alone go for strolls with ghouls. My mind spins with the possibilities, returning again and again to the same thought: this little distraction puts worm soufflé time on hold! I can’t help but grin.
“What in blazes are angels doing here?” The Old Timer twirls his handlebar moustache with bony fingers, his ebony eyes lost in thought.
Cissy half-raises her arm. “Sir, class is almost over.” We’ve got fifteen minutes, but Cissy uses new math.
With his eyes still locked on the window, the Old Timer dreamily waves his hand. “You’re all dismissed.”
Cissy grips my wrist. “We’re going to your house after school.” She drags me toward the door. “This is an official emergency. We’ve got to talk.”
My upper lip curls. One guess what she wants to chat about.
(Read Chapter Three here)