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A Female Death
The Death laughed. He waved his scythe and the world behind her vanished. Two immense eyes rose behind him, surrounded by leathery skin. She heard the beating of wings.
“You are weak,” said the Death. “You’re nothing at all, Suzie. Just a girl.” He laughed again.
“Leave me alone!” Suzie walked forward but stopped as a sharp, shooting pain coursed through her.
“So weak, so worthless.”
“Go away! Leave me alone!”
The man, the strange eyes, and the entire world shattered, splitting into fragments of glass. Shards flew toward her, burrowing beneath skin. So much pain.
She looked down. The glass was gone. Markings covered each hand. The marks crawled upwards, moving onto Suzie’s neck—strangling her.
Something clawed at her throat, pulling her down, ripping her apart. She gasped for air.
She exploded into a burst of light.
* * * *
Suzie Sarnio opened her eyes as sunlight poured into the small bedroom in Eagle Two, Room Five. Wiping sweat from her face, she looked around the room. This was home now. Not just for a time, but forever. She’d failed the test. Now she could never return to the Living World.
Suzie Sarnio was a Death.
She heard her housemate Billy moving chairs in the kitchen. He was probably planning some surprise for her fourteenth birthday today.
The past year ran through her mind in a blur. She’d been a normal girl in Maryland, with normal friends, and a normal life. Then a stranger named Cronk, a hooded man waving a scythe, showed up, explaining she was a Death. Now here she was in the College of Deaths. She’d Reaped a soul, and helped overthrow the Headmaster of the College. Every new Death was given one chance to return home, a test at the end of their first year. Yesterday, she’d taken hers and failed.
“Is she awake yet?” she heard her friend Frank say.
“Haven’t seen her,” said Billy.
She pulled herself up and swung her legs to the floor. Putting on a pair of shorts and a tee-shirt, she yawned while opening the curtains. West Tower shot into the clouds in front of her, a gnarled mountain of stone writhing a hundred stories high, like an enormous stalagmite. On the far side of campus, she saw its twin East Tower, looming over the campus. Earthen mounds stretched between the two in a massive canyon-like labyrinth. She remembered her time in East Tower, and how she’d discovered Headmaster Sindril’s plan.
The Dragons need you alive, he’d told her. He’d confessed to plotting her abduction, and had re-written her final test, so the only way to pass would be to kill Cronk. She’d refused. She wasn’t a murderer. By refusing to kill, however, she’d ensured that she’d remain a Death eternally.
“You are weak,” said the Death. “You’re nothing at all, Suzie. Just a girl.” Sindril laughed again.
It was only a dream. Sindril was gone now. Probably fled to his Dragon friends.
So much had happened in a year, and now, here she was in the World of the Dead. Her home forever.
The only female Death.
She sighed and opened her door.
“You’re up,” said Billy. A crudely painted banner read “Happy Birthday Suzy.” Three large boxes wrapped in colored paper sat on the kitchen table.
“I-E,” she said.
“What?” asked Billy.
“I spell Suzie Z-I-E, no Y.”
“Guess I’ve never seen you write it.” Billy laughed. He hurried to the stove and brought a plate of warm pancakes.
“You guys shouldn’t have—” she started.
“This is a celebration,” said Frank. “Summer vacation. Three months off from school, and no more Sindril! Now maybe the ’Mentals will get the respect they deserve.”
“We don’t know what will happen, or who will take over.” Billy shook his head.
“It’s true,” said Suzie. “Frank, I don’t think you should tell anyone that you’re—”
“I won’t. I need you both to promise that you won’t let anyone know.”
“It’s our secret,” said Billy.
“You’re a Death.” Suzie nodded.
It wasn’t true. Frank was an Elemental in disguise. The situation with the ’Mentals was complex, but she hoped with Sindril gone, things would improve. Under Sindril’s leadership, the ’Mentals had been slaves to the Deaths. She’d enlisted their support to help overthrow him. Sneaking into his office during a ’Mental attack, she found proof that Sindril had allied with Dragons, the historic enemies of Deaths. The ’Mentals then helped her broadcast the proof to every Death at the College, ensuring Sindril’s downfall. However, even with new leadership, centuries of prejudice wouldn’t vanish overnight. Frank was better off if no one knew what he truly was.
“Thanks,” said Frank.
“Are you guys eating?” she asked.
“Already ate, sorry,” said Billy.
“Me too,” said Frank. “Grabbed a gorger before I got here.”
The pancakes were doughy and undercooked, but she loved them. Usually she just ate gorgers, the food that took whatever flavor you wanted. It was nice to have something cooked for once.
“I don’t know whether I should feel happy or not. I still feel torn about failing the test yesterday.”
Billy put his hand on hers. She felt a slight blush rising to her cheeks, the feeling she always got when he touched her.
“I was upset too,” he said. “When I didn’t take the test last year, a part of me felt like I‘d made the biggest mistake of my life. I’d blown any chance I’d ever have of leading a normal life, but here we are, Suzie. I’m thrilled to be here with you. This is my home now. It’s yours too.”
She nodded and smiled, taking another bite of pancake.
“Why don’t you open your gifts,” said Frank.
“There’s three here,” she said. “Jason didn’t—”
“No,” interrupted Billy. “It wasn’t him.” Jason had been their housemate last year.He had been their friend. Now he was gone, one of only two first-year Deaths who actually passed their test. The other, Luc, had bullied Suzie more than anyone. She was, after all, the only female Death in the entire world. Strange to think both Luc and Jason were back in the Mortal World with no recollection of their year as Deaths.
“Someone left this one at the door,” said Frank. “I saw it on my way in. Why don’t you open it first?” He handed her what looked like a shoebox wrapped in yellow and red paper. She opened the card.
“It’s from Cronk. It says: To the bravest girl I know. Happy Birthday, and Thank You.”
“You did save his life,” reminded Billy.
“A part of me just wanted to go home.” She sighed. “To forget all this, and see my family, but I couldn’t kill him. Sindril didn’t give me a choice.”
“That’s not true.” Frank grinned. “You always have a choice, and you made the right one. You’re a strong person, Suzie. What did Cronk give you?”
She laughed while opening the box and found a set of paintbrushes and a pad of paper.
“He knows you love art,” said Billy.
“I do.” Suzie smiled, taking another bite of pancake.
“Open mine next,” said Frank. He passed her a small box in brown paper, tied with twine. A small card on the front said: To the best friend I’ve ever had.
She opened it carefully, untying the twine and removing the paper without ripping it.
“What is it?” she asked, pulling out a worn book with an unmarked cover.
“Careful,” he said. “The ’Mentals may have preserved it, but it’s very delicate. That book’s a million years old.”
“That’s impossible,” said Billy. “It’d be dust now.”
“Difficult, but not impossible. Though I wouldn’t try to read the book, or even open it. I thought you should have it, as a keepsake. This belonged to Lovethar. Some say it was her diary.”
Lovethar’s diary. Lovethar, the only other female Death, who’d lived a million years ago.
“That’s amazing,” said Suzie. “Thank you so much.” She rose and hugged him. Tears pooled and streamed down her cheeks. How could she ever think of leaving? These were the closest friends she’d ever had. This was home.
“I guess that leaves mine,” said Billy. “It’s nothing much.”
She pulled the gift toward her, nervous to read the card. Did Billy like her as much as she liked him? They’d kissed, but maybe he just wanted to be friends. Would Frank be jealous if he knew how she felt?
She opened the card. “I’m glad you’re here with us. Happy Birthday.” She opened the box and pulled out a framed picture. At first she didn’t recognize the fierce woman holding the scythe. She thought it might be Lovethar, but when she looked harder, she noticed her freckles and that curl that never seemed to stay. The pale girl with long, black hair had to be her. Three other Deaths stood behind her in the image: Billy, with his disheveled sandy hair, icy blue eyes, and long scar across his right cheek; Frank, with his dark brown eyes, hiding their true green color; and Jason, with his glasses and awkward expression. The painting was amazing, and the faces looked very real.
“Jason helped me a bit, before he left,” said Billy, “but I’ve been drawing for a while. Never took Art or anything, and it isn’t much. I was going to give it to you before your test, but with everything going on, I sort of forgot. Guess I lucked out.”
“It’s perfect,” she said. She stood and kissed him on the cheek.
“So, birthday girl,” said Frank. “What’s the plan today? It’s summer break now, we can do whatever you want. Did you want to hang around the campus, or go somewhere else?”
“I want to go somewhere I’ve never been,” said Suzie. “Nothing on campus, but not Silver Lake or the library either. I want to see something new.”
Billy laughed. “You’re a real explorer. I thought you’d had enough of that, especially after you and I found that ’Mental village, but nope, always want to explore more.”
“It’s my birthday, and that’s what I feel like doing.”
“All right, all right,” said Billy. “How about Mors? I’ve only been once, but it’s pretty amazing.”
“Mors?” she asked. “Where’s that?”
“It’s on the sea,” said Frank. “The capital of the Deaths, and the great port. Where Deaths get most of their supplies. I’ve heard of it, but have never been.”
“Mors it is,” said Suzie.
“Pack your bag,” said Billy. “It’ll take a day just to get there. We’ll take the canal.”
* * * *
Suzie sat on her bed, remembering her first trip to the sea.
“Shut up, Joe. Mom, he’s being annoying.”
“Joe, leave your sister alone.”
Suzie turned away from her stupid brother, looking at the traffic.
“I told you we should have left an hour earlier,” said Dad.
“We’ll still make it to the rental on time. Don’t worry, honey.”
The packed SUV crawled up the long, sloping ramp leading to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Within minutes, they’d climbed high above the water below. Most of her friends had been to the Eastern Shore, but she’d never crossed the Bay. The lab they’d done last year, in second grade, really showed how endangered the crabs are.
To her right, she saw a moving cloud of black smoke.
“Daddy, there’s a boat on fire,” she said, pointing.
“Don’t be dumb,” said Joe. “It’s just a tanker. That’s its engine.”
Suzie grimaced. “Don’t call me dumb, idiot.”
“You two, knock it off,” said Dad. “I’ll turn this car around.”
“On a bridge?” asked Joe.
“Well, at least after we’ve crossed.”
Suzie caught Dad’s smile in the rear-view mirror. He scratched his moustache, and adjusted his sunglasses. Mom turned the page in her magazine. Suzie tried reading in the car once, but it made her sick.
Two hours later, the car pulled into a small town in Delaware.
“We’re here,” said Dad, turning right at a strange totem pole. “I haven’t been to Bethany Beach since I was a kid.”
They drove a mile more, and then entered the driveway of a single story house with wide porches and immense windows.
“This place is huge,” said Suzie.
“Well it’s ours for the weekend,” said Dad. “I’m going out to pick up some dinner. Why don’t you kids head to the beach? You can see it through the window there.”
Behind the rental, a tall sand dune blocked their view of a semi-private beach. Suzie ran to the bathroom and changed into her new suit. Excitement bubbled in her heart. Would she see Africa on the other side, or would the water just go to the horizon? On TV, the ocean seemed endless.
She adjusted the straps of her bathing suit, joined Joe and Mom at the back door, and then sprinted towards the dune. At the sand’s edge she kicked off her flip-flops, and walked bare foot over the hill. The sand felt warm and gritty. Tiny twigs and shell shards prodded her toes.
A seagull cawed loudly, sailing gently on a breeze. In front of her, a line of grayish water struck the beach with a frothy white crash. The wave receded, drifting away into the ocean.
“It goes on forever,” she said, staring at the boundless expanse.
“What’d you expect, dummy?” asked Joe.
I’ll never see Mom, Dad, or Joe again. It was my choice, and I chose to stay. Unlike Sindril, I’m not a murderer. I could never kill someone.
Despite her nostalgia, she smiled at the irony.
I couldn’t kill, but I am a Death.
* * * *
Billy brought them through the campus of the College of Deaths. Earthen ridges and mounds formed an elaborate reddish maze. East and West Towers shot for hundreds of feet above the rest of the campus: two towers of twisted stone. A glimmer of metal told Suzie they were near the Ring of Scythes, which surrounded the College.
They walked to a long mound with rows of arched windows. Billy led them through the open door, and Suzie was surprised to see long piers, and hundreds of small boats. The building smelled like the sea.
“There are boats here on campus?” She’d been here a year but had never seen this place.
“It’s the end of the Lethe, the canal that connects Mors to the College,” said Billy.He pointed to the rear wall, which was open. A series of small canals led away from the piers beneath arches of metal a few yards away.
“Most supplies are shipped in,” he continued. “I figured we’d take a boat out. We’re actually right next to the Ring of Scythes. You’ll see it clearer from the boat.”
Billy bought them each a ticket and they climbed onto a low barge with skulls carved near the bow. A tall Death with dark skin and long, braided hair helped her aboard.
“You’re the girl,” said the Death. “I’ve heard of you. Is it true you killed Headmaster Sindril?”
“No,” said Suzie. “What are you talking about?”
The Death shrugged and helped Frank into the boat.
“Doesn’t matter to me,” he said, “but there’s many talking about you.”
“We don’t want any trouble,” said Billy.
“Of course,” said the Death.
He untied the boat and they bobbed on the gentle canal water. Four Deaths with oars pulled. There were a few other passengers, and a large pile of boxes in the center of the barge. It swung away from the pier and Suzie stumbled.
“Let’s sit down,” said Billy. “It’ll take a while to get there.”
He and Suzie sat near the bow, with Frank behind them. The boat slid past the outer rocky wall of the building, and they were outside again. An enormous arch, bigger than any she’d seen in the Ring of Scythes loomed in front of them. The Ring was formed from massively oversized scythes, which stretched into the air, connecting to form arches. Only Deaths and ’Mentals could pass through the Ring, which could be sealed. She’d learned that the hard way, when Sindril sealed her out. Why did she keep thinking about him? He was gone now, nothing to worry about. He’d fled the College, returning to his friends the Dragons.
Where the Lethe Canal passed beneath the Ring of Scythes, two scythes stretched into the sky, forming an archway of solid metal thirty feet high. The long-haired Death stepped behind her.
“Left over from the Great War,” he said. “All the scythes in the Ring are, but those two were the greatest of all.”
“Were they?” asked Suzie, looking back toward the College. East Tower was directly behind the boat; West Tower had vanished behind its twin.
“My name is Eshue,” said the Death. “Esh-oo-ay.” His accent was African, and he moved in a strange, dancelike manner. “My father is captain of this boat. Welcome.”
“You know who I am,” said Suzie.
“The female Death,” said Eshue. “Susan.” He nodded and gestured to the scythes again. The boat passed under them. Beneath the enormous blades, Suzie’s skin tingled.
“A wonderful use of mortamant, don’t you think?” Eshue chuckled. “The scythe can slice through anything. Light and dark, life and death, truth and lies. You know that already, though. Have you been on the Lethe before?”
“No,” said Suzie.
“This is the canal that feeds the College, the vein that connects mouth and heart, heart and body, in the World of the Dead.”
Frank gave her a look and rolled his eyes. She sighed. This was going to be a long trip. They passed beneath a long bridge, and civilization faded. The crowded College, its mountainous towers, and its glimmering Ring of Scythe grew smaller. Open fields and scattered trees stretched around the canal. Dense forest spread across the horizon on either side. She stood and walked to the side of the boat. The canal’s still waters rippled behind the oars. Another barge carrying enormous boxes passed in the opposite direction. She leaned down and reached toward the water.
“Don’t,” said Eshue, grabbing her hand. “Don’t touch the water. It is bad luck. The Lethe is cursed. They say the souls of Deaths who cease go here, forever forgotten. They drift the currents, trapped between the city and the College, never able to reach the sea.”
“That sounds like a superstitious old tale,” said Billy.
“Maybe so,” said Eshue, “but on my father’s boat, please do not touch the water. I don’t want bad luck.”
Suzie sat down again and Eshue walked away.
“Why do Deaths cease?” she asked Billy. “I know that if we’re killed in this World, we get erased from everything. But why?”
“Next she’s going to ask what happens in the Hereafter,” said Frank.
“He’s right,” said Billy. “There’s no answer to that. It just is.”
“So if I’d killed Cronk—”
“You’d be in the Living World now,” said Billy, “and none of us would remember his name. Suzie, you can’t spend the rest of the year obsessing about the choice you made. It’ll drive you crazy. You’re here now, that’s all there is to it. Yesterday you said you were glad to stay.”
“I am,” she said. “It’s just—”
“I understand,” he said. “Believe me, I do.”
“What is there to do in Mors?” she asked, changing the subject.
“I only went once myself. Last summer, a few of my friends went for a few days. We looked around, went to the port and the beach, and of course there’s Silver Fair. You’ll love that.”
“It’s like an amusement park. Well, sort of. Don’t forget that Deaths are taken when they’re kids, so plenty of them are our age. Silver Fair is great.”
“An amusement park. Never thought they’d have one of those.” Suzie smiled and watched a cloud drift by. She tried to imagine what an amusement park for Deaths might look like.