Susan Sarnio made a choice, and will spend the rest of her life as the only female Death. Last year she was bullied and ostracized. Now, to her complete bewilderment, four Deaths vie for her affection. Yet, something is terribly wrong at the College of Deaths. When a ship carrying scythe metal is attacked, many blame the newly-freed Elementals, but Susan knows the Elementals are innocent.
Shadows from the distant past come to light. Dragons circle the horizon, blood spills, and nothing is what it seems. Susan and her friends struggle to stop a war. They search for the fabled First Scythe, hoping to sway the balance, but who is the true enemy?
Chapter One—SuzieA Female DeathThe 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.
Book 1 is Available On:
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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.
Scythes hungry for souls, Deaths who enslave a race of mysterious magicians, and echoes of an ancient war with Dragons.
As her year progresses, Suzie suspects her presence isn't an accident. She uncovers a plot to overthrow the World of Deaths. Now she must also discover the reason she's been brought there: the first female Death in a million years.
The Girl Who Looked like DeathShe 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 appoi
ntment 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.
Christopher Mannino’s life is best described as an unending creative outlet. He teaches high school theatre in Greenbelt, Maryland. In addition to his daily drama classes, he runs several after-school performance/production drama groups. He spends his summers writing and singing. Mannino holds a Master of Arts in Theatre Education from Catholic University, and has studied mythology and literature both in America and at Oxford University. His work with young people helped inspire him to write young adult fantasy, although it was his love of reading that truly brought his writing to life.
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Finishing a trilogy, and the delay in time.
Finishing a trilogy is hard work, but also sad. For four years, The Scythe Wielder's Secret consumed my writing life. I dreamed about Susan and her friends, and the story was of course inspired by my own adventures abroad. Then, a month ago, I typed the last lines of Daughter of Deaths. The third novel is twice as long as either the first or second, and far more complex. I'd grown as a writer, and was immensely proud of what I'd achieved. And yet, there was a period of intense sadness. They're gone. The characters I'd lived and breathed for four years, suddenly felt gone. That's not to say the story ends happy or sad (not giving that away), but either way there isn't any more to write.
Even stranger is that no one realizes these characters are over for me. In fact, the second novel's only releasing now. And as a sequel, in terms of marketing, I still have to promote the first novel more than anything. Promote the first book? I wrote that book four years ago. Can't I talk to people about how it all ends? Eventually will, but for now, it's a strange sort of sadness I can't share with anyone at all.
When war erupts between the Dragons and the Deaths, three friends shoulder the fate of three worlds.
The thrilling conclusion to The Scythe Wielder's Secret
DAUGHTER OF DEATHS