Can a timid girl find bravery as the first female Death?
Thirteen-year-old Suzie Sarnio always believed the Grim Reaper was a fairy tale image of a skeleton with a scythe. Now, forced to enter the College of Deaths, she finds herself training to bring souls from the Living World to the Hereafter. The task is demanding enough, but as the only female in the all-male College, she quickly becomes a target. Attacked by both classmates and strangers, Suzie is alone in a world where even her teachers want her to fail.
Caught in the middle of a plot to overthrow the World of Deaths, Suzie must uncover the reason she’s been brought there: the first female Death in a million years.
The Girl Who Looked like Death
She wanted to scream but no sound came. She wanted to run, but her legs wouldn’t move. The hooded man grinned.
Suzie’s heart pounded as she opened her eyes. Laughter echoed in the back of her head. The terrible laughter she heard every night. She wiped the sweat from her face, pushing aside the sheets. Sunlight spilled into her room from between frilly curtains. Mom would be knocking on the door to wake her soon.
She turned to one side as the dream started to fade. Every night the same nightmare. Every night she heard the laughter. The hooded man with a scythe. The feeling of complete terror.
What did it mean?
Above her clock radio, a worn teddy bear stared at her with its single eye. She pulled the bear to her chest and clutched it with her bony fingers.
Suzie Sarnio. The hooded man had written her name down. He always wrote it right before the laughter began. The man looked like Death. But why would Death have a stammer?
“Suzie,” said Mom, knocking on the door. “Come on, you’ll be late for school.”
Suzie changed, staring at the mirror in her pink-wallpapered room. Each rib stuck out from her chest; she counted all twenty-four. The skin on her face stretched tightly over her skeletal face, and dark patches surrounded each of her gray eyes. As much as she tried to comb it, her long black hair tangled into stringy knots. Her arms hung from her shoulders like twigs, and her legs looked too weak to hold her up. In the past few months, she had lost nearly half of her weight. She glanced at an old picture, taken last year, on the first day of seventh grade. A chubby, pigtailed girl with freckles smiled back at her from the photo. Her braces gleamed in the sun, only a month before their removal. Suzie sighed. She opened the door, looking for a moment at her room. She didn’t want to start another year of school. Slowly, she turned around.
“Hey, squirt, watch out,” said Joe.
“Sorry.” Joe was a pest and a bully, but he was her big brother, and Suzie supposed she loved him.
“Get your skinny butt out of the way already. We’ve got a run before school.”
“Today’s the first day—”
“After last year, coach says we have to practice early.”
Suzie stepped aside, watching the bulky frame of her brother lumber downstairs.
“Later.” He winked at Suzie. “Have fun at school.” He ran out the front door, slamming it behind him, while Suzie went to the kitchen and sat down.
“I’ve made you a special breakfast,” said her mother, carrying a plate and a glass of orange juice.
“Let me guess, something big.”
“I’ve made three eggs, two slices of sausage, four pieces of toast, two slices of bacon, a bowl of oatmeal with raisins, and a doughnut.”
“Mom, I keep telling you, I eat as much as I can.”
“You’re skin and bones, literally. Your father and I are worried sick. You have another appointment with Dr. Fox after school today. Did you take your pills this morning?”
“No, Mom, but I will.”
Suzie gave up arguing. Her parents, friends, and doctors were wrong. She didn’t want to lose weight. Everyone kept talking about anorexia, about eating disorders. The strange thing was Suzie ate more than she ever had before. She ate twice as much as any of her friends, hardly exercised, and certainly never—what was the word the doctor had used—oh right, purged. Gross. No, the way Suzie ate, she figured she should be fat. Only she wasn’t.
Suzie managed to eat most of the massive breakfast. Her stomach ached, but maybe a little would stay this time. She wiped her mouth, rubbing her fingers across the bones of her face. Doubtful.
“Are you ready for school?”
“Go brush your teeth, and I’ll be in the car. Don’t forget, we’re picking you up at one for your appointment with Dr. Fox.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Today’s your first day of eighth grade. Isn’t that exciting?”
Suzie didn’t answer. What would her friends say? She’d spent the summer avoiding them, dropping out of camp and swim club. She was embarrassed. She honestly didn’t want to lose weight, and didn’t have an eating disorder, but she appeared skeletal.
She brushed her teeth in silence, dragging her feet. She put on her backpack and got in the car.
“Honey, you’re nervous, but you’ll be fine. Tell people you’ve been sick, and—”
“I’m not sick, Mom. If I was sick, the doctors would cure me. If I had an eating problem, they’d work with me. I eat more than ever, and I hardly exercise anymore. This doesn’t make any sense.” Suzie wiped a tear from her eye.
“Are you sure this isn’t because of Bumper?”
Bumper. The family beagle for ten years. He had died three months ago, about the time Suzie had started losing weight. Mom believed the two were connected. Dr. Fox agreed. Sure, Suzie missed Bumper, but that wasn’t the problem.
“No, Mom, I was sad for a little while, but I never changed what I eat. If anything, I eat more now.”
“Susan, you’ll be all right. I promise. Your father and I will continue to get the finest doctors, until we figure out what’s wrong with you. Remember what Dr. Fox said last time? For now, the best thing is to go to school and be around other kids.”
She sighed. Mom still didn’t understand, and if Mom and Dad didn’t relate, her classmates would be even worse. They pulled up in front of school, and she gave her mom a quick peck on the cheek.
“Don’t forget. One o’clock.” Mom smiled, trying to hide the strain in her eyes.
“Suzie, my gawd, you look like death.”
Crystal hadn’t changed. The smiling redhead with large blue glasses and the ever-present smell of cherry bubblegum was her best friend. She was grateful Crystal had spent the summer away. “Did you have a nice summer? How was Colorado?”
“My summer was great. Colorado’s cold. Geesh, what happened to you, Suzie?”
“I’ve been sick,” said Suzie. Not a complete lie, obviously something was wrong with her, but she didn’t know what.
“Sick?” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “You look like you’re dying.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Crystaaal. Suzieee,” shouted a voice from across the parking lot.
“Oh gawd, it’s Monica,” said Crystal. “Let’s go inside quick.”
Suzie and her friend started to walk away, but the tall, lanky girl with small eyes caught up to them. Monica. She wasn’t too bad, if you ignored her whiny voice and her inane stories.
“Hiii guys,” said Monica. “I missed youuu this summer. Did you lose weight? The funniest thing happened the other day…”
Suzie realized the worst of the day was over. She got teasing looks from the kids and concerned frowns from the teachers, but like Monica, most people were too wrapped up in their own little world to pay any attention to her. Even Crystal eventually stopped asking questions.
“Tell me again, do you like the way you look?”
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked.
Suzie snapped to attention. The day had blurred by, and she was sitting in Dr. Fox’s office, wearing a hospital gown.
“Suzie, I asked if you like the way you look?”
Suzie was cold and annoyed. The office smelled of bleach, and the fluorescent light overhead hummed like a dying fly. Dr. Fox glanced up from her notes and smiled a dry, lifeless smile she probably practiced in front of a mirror.
“No, Doctor.” She repeated the same answers she had given last time, and the time before. “I despise the way I look. I’m a damned skeleton. You can see every bone. I love to eat, I don’t purge, I hardly exercise, and I actually feel fine.”
“Yes, that’s the strangest part,” interrupted Dr. Fox. “Every test seems to indicate that you’re at the peak of health. No lanugo, no joint issues, no skin problems, and your stomach and the rest of you are actually functioning fine. I’ve almost completely ruled out anorexia, but your weight is still drastically low. It’s like your calories are vanishing into some other dimension.” She laughed. “My husband wishes that would happen with me.”
“May I get dressed now?”
“Susan, I will get to the bottom of this. I have called a specialist in from the West Coast, from San Francisco. He might be able to shed some light on this condition. Your mother and I set up the appointment for next Thursday.”
“May I please get dressed now?”
“Yes, yes. I’m sorry I can’t do anything else for you.” Dr Fox sighed.
None of them knows what’s wrong. To them I’m just another puzzle to solve. She dressed and gave Mom a smirk, turning up her lips on one side to show she was unhappy. Mom smiled and shrugged.
“We’ll figure out what’s wrong, honey,” Mom said. They lied; no one knew.
* * * *
The next day was even worse. Now that the kids were starting to settle back into school, they had more time to notice her.
“Suzieee,” squealed Monica, her breath reeking of garlic and orange soda. “You’re skinnier than a skeleeeton. It’s weeeird.”
“Gawd Monica,” said Crystal. “Leave her alone already.”
Suzie rolled her eyes and sat at her desk.
“Susan Sarnio,” called Ms. Warwood, glancing up from a seating chart. “Would you come here for a moment?”
“Oooh.” The few who didn’t speak aloud were certainly thinking it. The whole class watched. Suzie’s face reddened as she got up and walked to the teacher.
“Yes, Ms. Warwood?”
“Susan, are you all right? When I took roll yesterday, I noticed you appeared tired.”
The whispers behind her grew louder. Couldn’t she have waited until after class? And on the second day of school.
“I’m fine,” said Suzie. “I’ve been ill lately.”
“Yes, well, tell me if there’s any way I can help. Have a seat, dear.”
This was going to be a terrible year. Suzie didn’t even raise her head when the teacher started talking about books or maps or whatever. She sat at her desk, staring at her hands. Each bone poked through her tightly stretched skin. She counted nineteen bones in each hand, not counting her wrists. Disgusting.
Finally, the bell rang for lunch. Mom had packed four sandwiches, three apples, two cans of soda, six bags of potato chips, and two candy bars. Overcompensating again, despite the doctor’s orders to feed her normally. Suzie ate one sandwich and an apple, putting the rest back in her bag. She sat in a corner, not talking to anyone, not even Crystal. She didn’t have the heart.
After lunch, she had math, her least favorite subject. She walked up the stairwell and trudged into class. She sat down and felt a soft squish. A boy behind her started laughing. Suzie got up slowly, eyeing the gum he’d placed in her chair.
She didn’t even tell the teacher. She stood; tearing the wad off her pants, then threw it on the floor and sank back into her seat, hiding her head in her hands. Everything went dark.
“Are you all right?” Suzie sat up slowly. Mr. Thompson, her math teacher, was standing over her, worried. “Do you need to go the nurse?”
Suzie got up. Somehow, she had landed on the floor. She must have passed out. That was new; now the doctors would have even more to worry about.
“Paul, why don’t you help Ms.…?”
“Suzie. I’m Suzie Sarnio.”
“Right. Paul, take Suzie to the nurse’s office, please. The rest of you, back to page thirteen.”
Suzie got her bag and followed Paul to the nurse’s. She had always liked Nurse Cherwell. She had rosy cheeks and always reminded Suzie of a massive gingerbread cookie. Her office smelled like peppermint.
“Oh deary, deary, dear. What’s the matter with you, sweetheart?” Nurse Cherwell had a voice like gumdrops. Suzie had only been to the nurse’s office a few times before. Last year, they’d called her to tell her about Bumper. It had seemed surreal at the time, the year was winding down, and everything was going well. Then she found out her dog had died, and they told her in an office resembling a gingerbread house.
“I fainted in class. Maybe I should go home.” Suzie didn’t need to go home, but why stay any longer at school? The kids were making fun of her, and she wasn’t in the mood for gingerbread.
“Deary, my deary, sweet poor dumpling, oh my. I guess we’ll have to call your mommy and get you straight to beddy-bye, now won’t we, deary dear?” Nurse Cherwell smiled a huge smile full of marshmallow-white teeth and reached down to pinch Suzie’s cheek.
Mom arrived soon after. She spoke to the nurse and gave Suzie a frown.
“Did you eat the lunch I packed for you, Susan?”
“Mom, I ate what I could. You packed a dozen lunches in my bag, and I’m your only kid in middle school.”
“You have to take care of yourself, honey. It’s only the second day of school.” Mom sighed.
For the first time, Suzie sensed how stressed her mother was. Mom wanted to understand what was wrong, but was helpless. She wiped a tear away, trying to hide it, but Suzie had seen. She reached up and gave Mom an enormous hug, wrapping her skeletal arms around her mother’s waist.
“Come on, Mom, let’s go home.”
* * * *
“You okay, squirt?” Joe bounded through her bedroom door. He smelled of sweat and dirt.
“I’m okay,” said Suzie. She sat up in her bed, putting her book aside. “They teased me a lot today.”
“You? My sister? I’ll beat ’em up.” He slapped her on the back playfully, making Suzie slump forward. He leaned closer to her and peered in her eyes. His cinnamon gum stank.
“Tell me honestly.” He lowered his voice to whisper. “What’s going on? You’ve been losing weight since Bumper died. Mom and Dad are freaking out.”
“I’m not trying to scare them, Joe. I’m sure I look anorexic or something, but I keep eating and eating and nothing changes. It must be some disease the doctors haven’t heard about, they’re bringing in a specialist and everything.”
“Suzie?” Joe sat next to her and wrapped his big, muscular arms around her wiry frame. “You’ll be okay?”
“I will be, yeah.”
“Susan,” called Mom from downstairs. A moment later, her head appeared in the doorway. Joe released Suzie and stood.
“How are you feeling honey?” asked Mom.
“Why don’t you both come down for dinner?”
“Okay, Mom,” they said in unison. Joe turned to Suzie and smiled. They headed downstairs and sat down.
“Your father had an urgent call, and won’t be home until late,” said Mom, carrying a steaming dish of delicious-smelling rosemary chicken and potatoes to the table. The doorbell rang.
“I hope it’s not the Mormons again,” muttered Mom, rising.
“I’ll get it,” said Joe. Whenever Dad wasn’t home, Joe tended to act like the man of the house. Suzie wasn’t sure if he was annoying or endearing, or perhaps a little of both. Mom sat down, and Joe opened the door.
“Can I help you?”
A hunchbacked man in a black robe, carrying an immense scythe, stood in the doorway. Something shiny hung around his neck.
“Er, um. H-h-hello. I-i-i-s Su-su-su-Susan here?”
Joe laughed. “Halloween’s not for over a month, man. Why don’t you come back then?” He started to close the door, but the strange man lowered his scythe, propping it open.
“What are you doing?” yelled Joe.
“P-p-please. I n-n-need to ta-talk to Susan,” he stammered.
Suzie gasped, remembering where she had seen the strange man. He was the one who opened the door looking out in the strange dream she kept having.
Mom touched the blade of the scythe and drew her hand back in surprise.
“That thing’s real,” she said. “Get out. Get out of my house!”
“P-p-p-please,” he started again.
“Wait, Mom,” Suzie said, rising. Joe, Mom, and the strange man turned to her. “I want to talk to him.” Was it the man from her dream?
“Susan, sit down,” said Mom, her voice trembling.
“No, it’s okay,” said Suzie. She walked to the door. The man seemed scared, even a little confused. He was probably her father’s age, but was nothing like Dad. His face was chubby, unshaven, and pockmarked, and his blond hair was uncombed. A golden chain with a charm hung from his neck. He raised his scythe and nodded. Joe held the door, ready to slam it, but Suzie stood in the entrance.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“My n-n-n-name is K-k-k-Cronk. C-Cronk Averill.”
“C-Cronk Averill?” laughed Joe. “Is this guy for real?”
“I’ve c-c-c-come to t-t-t-take you b-b-b-back.”
“Take me back where?” asked Suzie.
“You are a D-d-d-d…”
“A Death,” said Cronk. Joe reached for Suzie, but before he touched her, Cronk grabbed Suzie’s arm. His speed surprised her. She yelled, but he raised his scythe and lowered it, cutting the air. Suddenly, the house, Joe, Mom, and the entire world vanished. Colors and smells, noises and strange sensations, flowed past Suzie in a blur.
She opened her eyes. She was standing in a field. Cronk stood in front of her, frowning.
“What did you do?” she demanded. “Where are we?” She looked up. It was sunny. But there were two suns.
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Excerpt © 2014 by Christopher Mannino and Muse It Up Publishing. May not be duplicated without permission.