Excerpt from Chapter 1
Dad, Darby, and I stood rooted in place at Mom's burial. The weight in my chest threatened to suffocate me if I looked at the lid of her gleaming casket any longer. Instead, I focused on the black birds cutting across the sky in a sharp V formation. They pressed on until the tops of the trees took them from me.
The preacher had stopped talking a long time ago. People still crowded around us, heads bent, smothering their sniffles with tissues. Someone patted my back, and I wished they would stop. No attempt to comfort would help.
The white-haired old man hovering back by the fence hacked loudly then puffed on a cigarette with a dirt-spattered hand. When we arrived at Heartland Cemetery, I'd seen him preparing another grave for a casket. He bounced on the balls of his feet, probably anxious to get the body in the ground.
Once the ground swallowed her, her death would be final, and that guy wanted to speed things up. He probably wanted to get to his coffee break or something. Heat flashed through my gut. I took a step toward him.
Dad grabbed the collar of my dress and yanked me back. I opened my mouth to say something, but the words died in my throat when I saw the tears slipping down his cheeks.
Darby had her head buried in his side. She looped her small fingers around my plaid belt, the one Mom got me for my fifteenth birthday. I grasped Darby's warm hand and closed my eyes against the pricks of hurt inside them.
The people closing us in shifted and began to wander away. The old man inched closer to Mom's casket, but Dad tightened his hold on my collar. I gripped Darby's fingers and glared at the man.
The few people remaining gave us consoling looks and said empty words before they drifted off. One was the woman who'd seen my funeral attire earlier and clucked her tongue in disapproval. Mom had loved my black eyeliner and these combat boots, though. She'd said I reminded her of herself when she was young.
"It's time," Dad said.
A choked cry forced its way out of my mouth. No, it wasn't. If we left, the old man would lower Mom into the ground. It would be final, and I couldn't stand it.
"Why?" I asked, my voice cracking.
Dad just shook his head, hugged us both to him, and turned to leave Mom with the old man.
I wriggled free and ran.
"Leigh?" Dad called.
I didn't know where I was going or what I was doing. But I needed to be away--away from that stupid man who wanted to put the final punctuation mark on Mom's life. Away from the unfairness of her death.
My breath came in quick, sharp gasps as I weaved around crumbling headstones. The sun threw bright rays on the maze of white, rocky paths and made my eyes tear up. I pumped my legs harder until I became nothing but movement. The untied laces of my left boot whipped my bare legs. Grass and mud muffled my steps until my boot flew off my foot and landed with a thwack in the middle of a cluster of trees.
I leaned over to catch my breath, unsure if I wanted to laugh or cry. Several yards behind me, Dad and Darby stood and waited. I waved them on to the gates and went to retrieve my boot. There seemed to be no one around except the trees and me. The leaves murmured to each other while the wind swayed the branches. Heartland Cemetery had more trees than the rest of Krapper, Kansas, and they all whispered and danced for the amusement of the dead.
A sudden breeze brushed over my arms and sent a faint smell of rotten hamburger past my nose. My stomach rolled. What was that? That didn't smell like the usual slaughtered cow stink that came from the other side of town. I shoved my foot into my boot and hobbled away.
The breeze and stink faded to nothing as quickly as they had come. I bent to tie my boot, but a crackling behind me made me pause. A cloud cast long, dark shadows over the headstones and chilled my skin. The hairs along my arms prickled.
The crackling came closer, and I turned my head slightly. In the corner of my eye, inky black darkness crawled up the bark of a nearby tree.
I gasped and shot to my feet. The black ink crept to the tips of the branches and ripped away its leaves, leaving it empty and naked. More darkness pooled at the bottom of the trunk and inched along the grass toward me. Every green blade curled in on itself with that awful crackling sound, dying. The darkness reached straight for me.
A shudder raced across my shoulders, and I stumbled back. My gaze caught on blackened footprints that led to the tree. Someone was doing this? But how? This wasn't possible.
I glanced back at Dad and Darby, but they'd gone on without me. This couldn't be real. None of it. I shook my head hard, trying to wake myself, but nothing changed.
Something dark fluttered from behind the dead tree. Whoever was doing this stood behind the trunk.
I dug my nails into my palms, pressed my lips together, and took a step back. A branch snapped under my boot, louder than the crackling. I froze. My heart jumped.
Scraps of muddy fabric flapped around the trunk, followed by a girl.
My flesh crept up and down my bones. Sweat trickled along the zipper at the back of my dress. That rotten meat stink kicked my stomach, forcing me to clap a hand over my nose and mouth.
The torn fabric that hung from the girl's scrawny frame looked like a prom dress. Mud and grime covered her entire body. Her mouth sagged open in a silent scream.
The darkness pooled underneath the dangling hem of the girl's dress and spread dangerously close to the toes of my boots, but I couldn't move.
The girl raised her tucked chin and looked at me. The whites of her eyes blazed behind the mud caking her face. Her open mouth held the same black gloom that dripped at her feet. A grimy tiara perched on the side of her head.
My muscles stiffened. I gasped as recognition hit me.
I knew the girl. Or knew of her. Her social circle was my social nightmare. Her name was Sarah, the popular cheerleader who committed suicide a week ago.
But how could she be here when she should be in the ground? I had to be hallucinating. My grief, the stress from the day, it was all making me see things.
Jumbled whispers swirled through the air. Was Sarah trying to tell me something? Because I didn't want to hear it. My feet finally got the message to move just before the killing darkness touched my boots. I ran.
"Mom," I called without thinking. Mom.
The old man cranked a lever that lowered her into the ground. A dull pain stitched my side, and a sob welled in my throat. I couldn't watch.
"Dad!" I raced for the cemetery gates. He and Darby stood just outside. When I neared them, I breathed, "Something's wrong."
Because what else could I say in front of Darby? If she'd seen what I saw, it would be too much to handle in one day. I stood so I blocked her view of anything behind me and resisted the urge to flip the glasses off her face.
Jo, my best friend, put her hand on my shoulder. I hadn't even noticed she was there. "What is it, Leigh?"
I took giant gulps of air and risked a glance behind me. The trees looked normal. Black death wasn't dripping everywhere. Everyone was in their graves.
That fact made me wince. "Nothing."