Edie Kramer has a score to settle with the beautiful people at Blackbriar Academy. Their cruelty drove her to the brink of despair, and four months ago, she couldn’t imagine being strong enough to face her senior year. But thanks to a Faustian compact with the enigmatic Kian, she has the power to make the bullies pay. She’s not supposed to think about Kian once the deal is done, but devastating pain burns behind his unearthly beauty, and he’s impossible to forget.
In one short summer, her entire life changes and she sweeps through Blackbriar, prepped to take the beautiful people down from the inside. A whisper here, a look there, and suddenly bad things are happening. It’s a head rush, seeing her tormentors get what they deserve, but things that seem too good to be true usually are, and soon, the pranks and payback turns from delicious to deadly…
I was supposed to die at 5:57 a.m.
At least, I had been planning it for months. First I read up on the best ways to do it, then I learned the warning signs and made sure not to reveal any of them. People who wanted to be saved gave away their possessions and said their good-byes. I’d passed so far beyond that point; I just wanted it all to stop.
There was no light at the end of this tunnel.
So two days after the school year ended, I left my house for what I intended to be the last time. I wrote no note of explanation. In my opinion, it never offered closure and it only made the survivors feel guilty. Better to let my parents think I suffered from some undiagnosed mental illness than to have them carry the knowledge that maybe they could’ve saved me; that burden could drive my parents to the ledge behind me, and I didn’t want that. I only wanted an ending.
Earlier I had walked toward the BU T station I used for other errands, like shopping and school. There was plenty of time for me to change my mind, but I’d done all the research, and it was meticulous. I’d considered all sorts of methods, but in the end, I preferred water because it would be tidy and quick. I hated the idea of leaving a mess at home for my parents to clean up. This early—or late, depending on your perspective—the city was relatively quiet. Just as well. I’d gotten off at North Station and trudged the last mile or so.
Jumpers loved this place, but if you picked the wrong time, somebody would notice, call the authorities, and then you’d have cars honking, lanes shutting down, police cars… pretty much the whole media circus. I was smart enough to choose my opportunity carefully; in fact, I’d studied the success stories and compared the times when the most deaths occurred. Constrained by public transport hours, I arrived a bit later than the majority of those who died here, but my leap would still be feasible.
At this hour, there wasn’t as much traffic. The bridge was a monster, but I didn’t have to go all the way to the other side. Predawn murk threw shadows over the metal pylons as I faced my fate. I felt nothing in particular. No joy, but no sadness either.
The last three years had been the worst. I’d seen the well-meant It Gets Better videos, but I wasn’t tough enough to make it through another year, when there was no assurance college would be better. The constant jokes, endless harrassment—if this was all I could look forward to, then I was ready to check out. I didn’t know why people at school hated me so much. To my knowledge, I’d never done anything except exist, but that was enough. At Blackbriar Academy— an expensive, private school that my parents thought guaranteed a bright future—it wasn’t okay to be ugly, weird, or different. I was all of the above. And not in the movie way, either, where the geek girl took down her hair and swapped her horn rims for contacts, then suddenly, she was a hottie.
When I was little, it didn’t bother me. But the older I got, the meaner the kids became, particularly the beautiful ones. To get in with their crowd, you needed a certain look, and money didn’t hurt. Teachers fell in with whatever the Teflon crew told them, and most adults had enough secret cruelty to believe somebody like me had it coming—that if I tried harder, I could stop stuttering, get a nose job, dye my hair, and join a gym. So clearly it was my fault that I’d rather read than try to bring myself up to the standards of people I hated.
Over the years, the pranks got worse and worse. They stole my clothes from my gym locker, so I had to go to class all stinky in my PE uniform. Not a day went by that they didn’t do something, even as simple as a kick or a shove or a word that dug deep as a knife. I used to tell myself I could survive it—I quoted Nietzsche in my head and I pretended I was a fearless heroine. But I was as strong as my tormentors could make me, and it wasn’t enough. Four months ago, the last day before winter break, they broke me.
I pushed the memory down like the bile I swallowed on a daily basis. The shame was the worst, as if I’d done something to deserve this. Being smart and ugly wasn’t reason enough for what they did to me. Nothing was. At that point, I implemented plan B. I had no friends. Nobody would miss me. At best, my parents—oblivious academic types—would see me as ruined potential. Sometimes I thought they had me as a sociology experiment. Afterward, they’d retrieve my body and mark my file with a big red FAIL stamp.
The sky was gray and pearly, mist hanging over the river. Drawing in a deep breath, I gathered my courage. To my amusement, I’d passed a sign that read, DEPRESSED? CALL US. Then it listed a number. I’d ignored that, along with a massive heap of pigeon shit, and continued across until I was far enough out that the water would drown me fast, provided the fall didn’t kill me on impact. Now I only had to climb over quietly and let go.
A jagged shard tore loose in my chest; tears burned in my eyes. Why didn’t anyone notice? Why didn’t anyone do anything? So, maybe I was like the other lost souls, after all. I wanted a hand on my shoulder, somebody to stop me. Shaking, I put my foot on the guardrail and swung my leg over. On the other side, metal at my back, the dark river spread before me as if it led to the underworld. For me, it did. My muscles coiled, but I didn’t need to jump. All I had to do was lean into space. There would be a few seconds of freefall, and then I’d hit the water. If the impact didn’t kill me, the stones in my pockets would.
I’d planned for all contingencies.
I stepped forward.
A hand on my shoulder stopped me. The touch radiated heat, shocking me nearly to death. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched me, except to hurt. My parents weren’t huggers. So long as I got straight As, they had little to do with me. They said they were rearing me to be self-sufficient. It felt more like they were raising me to self-destruct.
I turned, expecting a corporate drone jonesing to start his cubicle time early, and on target to screw up my careful plans. In that case, I’d have to talk fast to avoid police involvement and incarceration in a mental facility. They’d put me on death watch and stare at me for three days in case I relapsed with the urge to kill myself. The lie hovered on the tip of my tongue—how I was researching suicide to make a sociology essay more compelling—but the guy who’d interrupted my exit also stole my ability to form a coherent thought. His hand remained on my shoulder, steadying me, but he didn’t speak.
I didn’t either.
He had the kind of face you saw in magazines, sculpted and air-brushed to perfection. Sharp cheekbones eased into a strong jaw and a kissable mouth. His chin was just firm enough. He had a long, aquiline nose and jade eyes with a feline slant. His face was… haunting, unsettling, even. His layered mop of dark hair gained coppery streaks in the halo of passing headlights that limned us both. In a minute or two, somebody would see us. Though traffic was light, it wasn’t nonexistent, and eventually some concerned motorist would pull over or make a call. I saw my window of opportunity narrowing.
“What?” I managed to get the word out without stammering.
“You don’t have to do this. There are other options.”
I didn’t try to bullshit. His direct, gold-sparked gaze made me feel that would be a waste of time. Part of me thought I might have already jumped, and he was my afterlife. Or maybe I was on a ventilator after they fished me out of the river, which made this a coma dream. I’d read studies where doctors posited that people experienced incredibly vivid dreamscapes during catatonia.
“Yeah? Like what?”
I figured he’d mention therapy. Group sessions. Medication. Anything to get my butt off this bridge. Right then, only the strength of his biceps kept me from flinging myself backward. Well, that… and curiosity.
“You can let me help you.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible.” My tone sounded bleak, and it gave away more than I wanted.
I didn’t mean to tell a random stranger my problems, no matter how pretty he was. In fact, that appeal made me trust him less. Beautiful people treated me well only when they were setting me up for something worse. In hindsight, I should’ve been wary that day, but I was just so tired, and I wanted so bad to believe they intended to stop tormenting me. I was ready to accept the apology and move on. Everybody grows up, right?
“Here’s the deal. We’ll get something to drink, and I’ll make my proposal. If you don’t like what you hear, I’ll escort you back here and this time, I won’t stop you. I’ll even stand guard so nobody else does.”
“Why should I? You could be a murdering weirdo.”
“You intended to kill yourself anyway.”
“I was going to be quick. You might not be. Being suicidal doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”
He laughed. “See, this is why I didn’t bring my car. I knew you wouldn’t get in.”
Weird. That sounded like we were old friends, but I’d remember someone like him. “You got that right.”
“You can walk five feet behind me if it makes you feel better.”
I wasn’t sure it did, but with his help, I climbed back over the guardrail. His argument made sense, and I was curious. What did I have to lose? He might try to recruit me into a cult. Nervous and wary, I trudged behind him, my eyes on his back at all times. I was ready to end things on my terms, not wind up living in a hole in somebody’s basement. That would definitely be worse. I shivered, wondering if this was the best idea. Yet curiosity refused to let me back out.
He led the way off the bridge, quite a long walk the second time around; the rocks in my pockets gained weight with each step. Eventually, we reached the street, passing a number of closed restaurants, Italian places mostly. He stopped at a twenty-four-hour diner called Cuppa Joe. The place had a giant mug out front, outlined in red neon. Inside, the vinyl booths were cracked and sealed over with silver duct tape. On the wall, a neon blue-and-pink clock buzzed, a low drone just inside my range of hearing. According to the position of the hands, it was 6:05 a.m., and I’d missed my deadline.
A couple of waitresses wore the ultimate in polyester chic, while old women sat nursing coffee with lipstick imprints on chipped cups, makeup caked into their wrinkles. There were elderly couples as well; men in plaid trousers and white belts, ladies in shirtwaists. Everyone in the diner had an odd look, like they were players on a set, and some otherworldly director was saying, Now this is what a diner looked like in 1955. I also counted too many customers for this hour. Finally, there was an expectant air, as if they had all been awaiting our arrival. I dismissed the thought as symptomatic of how surreal the day had become.
The hot samaritan sat down next to the window, so that the red light from the giant coffee cup on the roof fell across the table in waves. I took a seat opposite him and folded my hands like I was at a college admissions interview. He smiled at me. Under fluorescent lights, he was even better looking than he’d appeared on the bridge.
It didn’t make me happy.
“So is this where you call the cops? You lured me in quietly. Good job.” To my astonishment, I got the words out without a hitch. In his company, I wasn’t nervous at all, mostly because I half suspected he was a figment of my imagination.
“No, this is where I introduce myself. I’m Kian.”
Okay, not what I expected. “Edie.”
Short for Edith, who had been my maternal great-aunt. No one used my nickname, except me—in my head. At school, they called me Eat-it.
“I know who you are.”
My breath caught. “What?”
“I didn’t find you by accident.” Before I could answer, Kian signaled the waitress and ordered coffee.
She glanced at me with an inquiring expression. What the hell. If I was dying after this conversation anyway—
“I’ll have a strawberry milk shake.”
“Hey, Hal,” the waitress called. “Shake one in the hay.”
An assenting noise came from the back and then the woman went behind the counter to pour Kian’s coffee. She served it with a flourish, along with a sugar bowl and a pitcher of cream. “That’s how you take it, right?”
He smiled up at her. “Good memory, Shirl.”
“That’s why I get the big bucks.” She winked and sauntered to her next table.
I picked up the thread as he stirred cream and sugar into his drink. “Explain how you know who I am and where to find me. It sounds stalker-y, and I’m inclined to bail as soon as I finish my shake.”
“Then I have time to make my case,” he said softly. “Misery leaves a mark on the world, Edie. All strong emotions do. Rage, terror, love, longing… they’re powerful forces.”
“Right. What does that have to do with me?”
“Your pain came to my attention months ago. I’m sorry it took me so long to act, but I’m constrained by certain rules. I had to wait until you reached the breaking point before I could offer you a deal.”
“If this is where you offer a fiddle of gold against my soul, I’m out.”
His smile flashed. A little shiver of warmth went through me because he seemed to appreciate my wit. “Nothing so permanent.”
“I’m all ears,” I said as the waitress delivered my shake, handdipped with whorls of fresh whipped cream and a bright red cherry on top—almost too pretty to drink. Deliberately, I stirred it with my straw, ruining the beauty, and sucked up a huge mouthful.
“When humans of exceptional potential reach the breaking point— what we call extremis—we can step in.”
I choked on my drink. “Humans. Which makes you what, exactly?”
Now I felt sure this was the lead-in to the most spectacular punk ever. I craned my neck, looking for Cameron, Brittany, Jen, Allison, or the cheer mascot, Davina. She had too much melanin for Blackbriar squad standards, so they kept her in a lion costume half the school year, and when she got out of it, she ran errands for the Teflon crew, who treated her more like a minion than a friend. I didn’t see anyone from school, but that didn’t mean they weren’t in somebody’s bedroom, laughing their asses off through this guy’s button cam. This would probably end up on YouTube.
Like the first video.
Kian shook his head. “I can’t answer that unless we come to an agreement.”
“Let’s cut to the chase,” I said tiredly. “I don’t know what they’re paying you, if you’re a struggling actor, or what, but I’m not interested. This isn’t even the meanest prank they’ve pulled. Are they watching right now?”
“Wait,” I cut in. “I bet you don’t get paid unless I play along. Fine. Tell me more about this awesome deal. Can I get it for four low payments of nine ninety-five?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he leaned across the table and took my hand. Now that’s commitment to the bit, I thought.
Then the world vanished, a static skip in an old VCR tape. I remembered those from elementary school, the low-rent one I attended before my parents published, filed their first patent, and could afford a pricey prep school. That fast, the diner was just gone.
Brutal wind whipped my hair against my face. My glasses frosted over and my skin tightened with goose bumps in the icy air. A mountain stared back at me, rocky and wild. If I took four steps forward, I’d pitch off the edge. Vertigo spun my head, and I clung to Kian’s hand, unable to say a word. This looked like Tibet—or the pictures I’d seen anyway. Deep down, I’d always wanted to go… to kneel in a holy place with the silent monks. Could he know this about me? I glimpsed no civilization, just trees, rocks, and stars. The cold gnawed through me; I was dressed for late spring in Boston, not in Sherpa gear. Shock paralyzed me for a few seconds.
God, I had to be out of my damn mind. Hey, coma dream, how you doing? Let’s see where this takes you. But on the off chance it was real, I whispered, “Stop. Make it stop.”
Another shift, and we were back at Cuppa Joe. My hands felt like chips of ice. His, still wrapped around mine, radiated the same heat I’d noticed when he touched my shoulder. I glanced around wildly, wondering if anyone reacted to our disappearance. The other patrons showed no signs that anything was wrong, but people didn’t do that. Vanish and materialize, like somebody was beaming us in a transporter.
But maybe that was key. People didn’t. Kian had called me an exceptional human, implying he wasn’t. I’d been full of breezy skepticism before; it died on that mountaintop. I drew my hand away, took a couple of deep breaths, trying to calm my pounding heart.
“How come nobody even blinked? That was some straight-up Star Trek stuff.”
“This is our place,” he said. “Company owned. I can’t tell you more right now.”
“Well, that jaunt registers pretty high on the she’ll-take-meseriously meter.”
“I don’t usually have to resort to it this early in the conversation,” he admitted.
My milk shake was still sitting on the table, melting into babypink goop. “Sorry I cut you off. You said something about extremis?”
He nodded. “That’s when a human is about to die.”
Oddly, that cheered me. “So I was going to succeed.”
Kian didn’t seem so pleased. “Yes. In a sense, you’re already gone, Edie. If your fate wasn’t currently in limbo, I wouldn’t be permitted to talk to you. There’s a pivotal moment just before death, when bargains can be made. I’m authorized to offer you three favors now in return for three favors later.”
“I don’t understand. What kind of… favors?”
“Anything you want,” he said.
“Anything?” By my tone, it had to be obvious I meant things bigger and more impossible than tickets to Tahiti.
“My ability to change your life is limited only by your imagination.”
“But then you can ask me for anything,” I pointed out. “Three times. What if it’s not something I can deliver?”
“The favors requested in return will always be within your power to grant. That’s the way it works.”
“But there are no parameters of what you might ask… or when. It might be terrible. Or illegal.” Too well, I remembered “The Monkey’s Paw,” the burden of being a reader. Somebody who spent less time lost in books might’ve already signed on the dotted line.
“You were ready to throw your life away,” Kian said. “But are you brave enough to change it?”
“You never answered me. What are you?”
“How would that help you decide? If I’m a demon, I’m unlikely to admit it, so I could say anything. How would you know if I’m telling the truth?”
He had me there. I scowled and sipped my shake, the possible dangers and consequences banging around my head. Since I’d accepted I didn’t have a future, it seemed less scary to consider everything that could go wrong down the line. If my life imploded twenty years later when the bill came due, wouldn’t it be worth it to be happy first? It had been so long since I laughed that I couldn’t remember what it felt like to walk around without this awful weight in my chest.
“In a theoretical sense, say I agree to your deal. Is there a time limit on when I have to use my favors?”
Appreciation sparked in his gaze. Kian inclined his head. “The first must be used within a year. The rest within five.”
“To prevent people from getting what they want with the first, then sitting on the others until they die, thus blocking you from asking anything in return.”
“Exactly. The return favors may be collected anytime after completion of our side of the bargain.”
“So repayment could be due anytime. Talk about living under the hammer.”
“Some people feel that way. Others live in the moment and don’t worry about what might come.”
I jammed the straw deep into my glass, chewing my bottom lip. “This sounds pretty diabolical. I hope you know that.”
“I’m aware.” Sorrow threaded his tone, making me wonder what could make someone like him sad.
“Can you tell me anything about the people you work for?”
“At the moment, no.”
I’d like to glean some more information before making a decision, but his response implied he could only answer questions after I agreed to the terms. That seemed shady; it couldn’t be good if my benefactors preferred to hide in the shadows. One thing could be said of this situation; curiosity had supplanted despair as my dominant emotion.
“You said you come to exceptional humans. Why me?” I was brainy, but not the kind of smart that cured cancer.
“If I told you why we want to save you, it could screw up your timeline.”
“You mean if I learn that I solve cold fusion, then I might not. I might decide to breed rabbits instead.”
“You hate rabbits,” Kian said gently.
“Yeah.” I did—since one bit me in the fourth grade—but how weird that he knew.
“The deal is on the table. Choose, Edie.”
From here, I sensed it was up to me. “Can I have some time to think about it?”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“It comes down to a leap then, either way. You can put me back on the bridge… only this time you don’t stop me. Will it be like we never came here or went to the mountain?”
I smiled. For someone like me, there could be only one reply.
Mortal Danger © Ann Aguirre, 2014