Blood Angel

 

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Blood Angel

Jamie Stone has one friend left, Amy Davidson, and she’s not sure she is his friend anymore. After all, he killed her and now her ghost, or spirit, or whatever she is, seems to be stuck visiting him in jail. Amy hadn’t been planning to die that day, but she had been to confession the previous Sunday and knew she should by rights be in Heaven. But if she is, life in Heaven is as confusing as life on Earth because her afterlife hasn’t come with an instruction manual. It’s come with a one-on-one connection with her killer, who used to be her best friend and now is the only person who can see her, hear her, and possibly help her figure out how to get wherever it is she needs to go.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Infinity Begins Anywhere and Ends Nowhere

 That anyone survives high school, when I think about it, is a tribute to the power of mind over murder. I know it’s tempting to ask why so many, but maybe the better question is why so few? So many minds seeking escape. So, relatively, little murder.

If I were going to paint high school, I’d need a canvas the size of the Atlantic ocean. Angular cement block buildings shaded some faded mix of puke and dinge best called Dismal Days. Fake wood desks with metal legs so shiny and hard-edged you can practically hear the echo when they scrape against the tiled floors. Metal lockers that special shade of grime gray that instantly recalls the frantic between-class open and shut clang. Oh, and high out of reach bells and big faced clocks that count off the seconds between eruptions that go off in some design only God and the principal understand, but which everyone – even the janitor – responds to like poor Pavlov’s dog.

The round black bombs with fuses springing from the top that cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote use? That’s how I’d paint the students. Bombs with backpacks. And maybe some teachers, too, although they’d be bigger, slightly more sophisticated and capable of triggering all the little bombs wedged into rows of desks.

I’m not usually a cynical person. I try to see the good in people, and even in necessary evils like school. I believe in God and I go to church every Sunday. Divine Redemption on Fourth Street. After my weekly confession, I do the penance that Father Kelly sets for me, even though he’d never know if I didn’t until he got to Heaven and God told him. If there is a God. Not that I’m not sure there is. Just…I think we can’t know what he looks like, or says, but if he exists, he has way better things to do with his infinite time than to rat out a kid.

So, really, I’m a good person, a positive person. Maybe I was a bit of a time bomb, but getting my braces off and growing a decent set of boobs my junior year kept my fuse way too damp to blow. So how fair is it that I got to be there when one of the ticking time bombs went off?

It’s funny. You go along, planning and waiting and counting down until you’re an adult and free, and then some kid you’ve known since kindergarten steps in front of your first period World History class with a gun and everything melts away like fresh spun cotton candy on your tongue.

I don’t know what sparked the fuse on the bomb that was Jamie that day, but when I looked into his eyes, I could see the fuse burning down in them as clear as I could see the peach fuzz on his chin. There wasn’t time to ask him why. Or maybe there was and no one thought of it because we were all busy wondering if we were going to die.

I still needed to know, even though knowing wouldn’t change anything. So I sat down across the table from him in the jail. It wasn’t anything like what I thought a jail would be. A little like what they show on TV, but the smells–disinfectant and despair. Kind of like I’d imagined detention would be, if I’d ever had one. Which I hadn’t, because my mom would have killed me. Irony much?

Jamie was wearing one of those loose orange jumpsuits with short sleeves and his arms stuck out skinny and pale. Orange wasn’t his color, but he was still beautiful. For some reason, that made me madder than I already was. Why after the geek had started to turn gorgeous had his fuse blown? If you’re beautiful, you don’t have to go around ruining everything by blasting at it with a shotgun.

A million things went through my mind before I said, “Orange isn’t really your color. If I were in charge of the universe, I’d make you wear shiny black tights with Captain Destructo across your chest in lipstick red.” It sounded stupid when I said it, like the naked truth sometimes does.

“Payback’s a bitch, isn’t it?” He sat there staring at me like he wished he still had a gun. I hadn’t expected that. I’d expected him to turn pale. Swallow hard enough for his Adam’s apple to bob, like it always did when he was nervous. Maybe even pretend he didn’t see me.

I focused on the fact that he was there, sitting in front of me. Looking at me. I leaned closer. “Why?”

The jaw muscles just under his ears bunched tight. His Adam’s apple bobbed. He looked away from me, toward some other orange suited guy crying to the tired looking woman across the table from him that he was sorry. It would never happen again.

Just when I thought that Jamie would refuse to look at me, to hear me, forever, he said, “Aren’t you the popular girl with all the friends? All the answers?”

I concentrated on a chip at the edge of the stained and scarred table between us. There was nothing he could do to me now. Not here. So I took off my polite church girl face, glad that Father Kelly couldn’t see me. “You’re pathetic. No wonder I stopped being friends with you.” Letting go the full blast force of my anger made me wonderfully hot and light and sharp, all at the same time. “If I knew why, do you think I’d be here asking a murderer?” I let him see all the rage and confusion I had learned to keep tucked under a smile since I graduated from the Terrible Twos. He wasn’t the only one who could do a personality backflip.

I waited for the satisfying moment when his unjust anger gave way to the massive force of my righteous fury. As long as I’d known him, Jamie had hated to have anyone mad at him. The bullies and whiners at school had always been able to shake him loose from his extra cookie at lunch. Today, my anger crouched between us, like a fiery ball of steel wool on the verge of going molten. But he didn’t melt down into apologies, or excuses, or…anything. He just sat there, as if I’d asked him what flavor ice cream he liked and he had to think about it.

My anger grew, hard and sharp, the coils painfully tangled in a tumble of good memories that now seemed impossibly false. Strangely, I could see it glowing red and smoking in the air between us. “Why?”

He put his hands up. They looked fake and plastic in the flickering fluorescent light. “The cops think I did it because I’m a punk. My mother thinks I’m just a loser. My lawyer says maybe the diet pills made me do it. Stupid. Lazy. Crazy. It’s choose-your-own-answer time.”

A guard looked his way and Jamie put his hands back down on the table. “Right now, talking to you, I’d say crazy is looking pretty good.” His fingers trembled, until he knotted them together. I wished I could cry. Not that I thought tears would dissolve his anger – or mine.

My magnificently molten anger turned cold and black in an instant.A lump of coal in a bad child’s Christmas stocking. But Jamie deserved coal, not me. I appealed to the boy I’d seen rescue a kitten caught in a tree. “I have to know.” That sounded pathetic. “You owe me.”

“Do I?”

“You’re the one who messed everything up.” Why wasn’t he sorry? Where was the boy who had sat and cried his eyes out with me when Sandy took his last doggie breath on Earth? That boy I could have crushed into oblivion with the harsh truth of what he’d done. And I wanted him crushed. Dust. Gone.

But he just sat there. Going nowhere. Just like me. “Because I got Old Skinnybutt’s rat blasting shotgun and blew a few holes in the ‘Best Little Town by a Dam Site’ image of Drisdale, South Carolina?” His voice got high and mean. “How did that mess up anything that wasn’t already messed up?”

“Oh my God. You don’t even care, do you? Not about the people you hurt. Not about your mother. What about Daniel?”

He winced when I said his little brother’s name. Good.

“Are you proud that he’ll probably have to move away just to escape being the little brother of a murderer?” Funny, I hadn’t thought about Daniel until then. He was just a kid. How would I have survived if my big brother Drew had gone off the deep end of the gene pool? Not by staying in Drisdale, South Carolina, that’s for sure.

“Shut up about Daniel.” The molten knot of steel wool hung between us again. I could see one small sign of the old Jamie, who had cared about people. About doing the right thing. His chin lifted, a sure sign he was about to make some lame excuse.

I still had a chance to get him to tell me why. To tell me he was sorry. Whatever. “Are you going to give him the thumbs up when he watches you get fried in the electric chair?”

“They don’t use the electric chair anymore, they do lethal injection, moron.” He looked away, toward the man and woman, who were both crying now, very soft and bubbly, like the white noise Ms. Anderson played for us during our French tests.

Moron.

How many times had he and I called each other that over the years and it had never hurt? Never made me angry. Until now.

“Who’s the moron? You could have just hung on for another stupid year of stupid school and you’d be free of all the stupid rules and regulations. And now you’re going to be stuck with a life sentence of bells and whistles and guys with uniforms and guns forever.”

“There’s no such thing as forever.” He kept looking at the crying couple, their hands stretched toward each other, even though they weren’t allowed to touch. “Besides, people are tired of sending their kids to school to play the shotgun lottery. My lawyer says they’re going for the big DP.”

DP. Death penalty. “They can’t. You’re not even eighteen yet. That’s not fair.” Not fair to die so young…yeah, the irony did strike me. Not fair was what you said when you got grounded for nothing worse than rolling your eyes. Jamie and I had agreed, over instant message the summer we were thirteen and simultaneously grounded, that everyone should be free to roll their eyes, even minors.

He almost shrugged, but stopped himself before his shoulders did more than twitch. “Everybody dies, Amy.”

A chill passed through me. My grandmother would have said someone walked over my grave. “Some of us don’t want to die.”

“Since when does that matter? I’m a test case. They’re tired of punks decimating the Honor Society.” He couldn’t suppress his shrug this time. His shoulders barely moved the stiff orange fabric. He turned away from the couple to stare down at his fingertip as he traced a faint reddish stain that marked his side of the table like a faded birthmark. “Besides, everybody dies.”

How could he be so casual? Dying was a big deal. You weren’t supposed to do it until you were old and creaky and so tired of living your heart just stopped. Like my Great-Grandma Kate, or even my dog Sandy. Getting hit by a bus, or having cancer, those were accidents that stole away life before the will could be written and the goodbyes said. Bad things. Unfair things.

Like being so angry that you not only pointed a sawed off shotgun at someone, but you pulled the trigger. “Not everybody kills, for gosh sakes, Jamie. Most people get in a brawl, or drink, or run away. Aren’t you even a little sorry? You killed people. Mr. Applegate, Sam–”

He slammed his hand on the table. BAM. Right over the birthmark stain. “So? This isn’t kindergarten, Amy. Saying sorry doesn’t make it all better. It doesn’t change anything.”

The crying couple stopped crying and stared at Jamie. The closest guard started to come toward us.

The guard hesitated as Jamie settled back down, his head in his hands. I needed…what? An apology? To understand? Was it even possible? I leaned in, knowing I had to make this question count. Too soon he’d be gone. “Did it make you feel better?”

He closed his eyes. “When I had my finger on the trigger, and everyone looked scared, it felt like I owned the world.” He opened his eyes. “When I pulled on the trigger, I wanted that feeling to last forever. I–”

A buzzer sounded and the scrape of chair legs against cement floor drowned out his last words. If there were any last words. I think he might have stopped talking, even if the buzzer hadn’t gone off.

He looked over my shoulder for a moment. “Guess Mom had something better to do.” He stood up and I wanted to cry. He was going away and I didn’t have what I needed. It wasn’t fair, and it was all his fault. “I hope you’re happy. You, the guy who wanted to change the world to be a peaceful place. You’re going to be an entry in the “What not to do” section of the history books.”

He laughed, an angry bitter laugh that sounded like his mom when she was fed up from a hard day. “And you? You’re dead? So why aren’t you, the good little Catholic girl who goes to confession every week, in Heaven instead of here hassling me?”

That was harsh. “I don’t know why I’m here. Believe me, it’s the last place I’d choose to be.”

I guess he knew how that felt. Because the molten coiled ball of steel wool flamed, charred up, and the ash fell away. It wasn’t my emotions I’d been seeing. It was Jamie’s. The coil formed a Jamie outline for just a moment, before balling back up. And it was beautiful, just like him. Beating purple and red, with a thick black webbing of veins.

I noticed, then, that everyone in the room had one of those coiled balls of color hovering over them. The prisoners leaving, the visitors lingering to wave goodbye. They reminded me of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Atkinson, and her description of auras. Except auras were supposed to be like body halos, not separate, pulsing spheres – not that I’d ever seen one when I was alive.

I tried to go with him, but I couldn’t. I could feel myself weakening, fading. My voice was a whisper, “I don’t know why I’m here.” I guess I still had the old Jamie superimposed over the new, angry Jamie, because I hoped he’d help. “I don’t want to be here.”

“That sucks,” he said, and then turned and joined the sea of orange filing out of the room.

CHAPTER TWO

 Life Doesn’t Go On

 Everyone was looking at him as he got out of the car.

“Have a great day, honey. This is the year you’re going to come into your own.” His mom checked her rearview mirror as she spoke. She hated to be late and they’d run slow this morning as they readjusted to the school year schedule.

Jamie knew he looked good. He’d been working hard all summer to save money for college. He’d been eating less junk. And he’d grown six inches, so he was no longer in danger of being called fat. Geek. Loser. Nerd. Those all still fit, though.

The fluorescent lights flickered, sickening the daylight that came from the open doors of the classrooms. First day of school was always worst, but Jamie was surprised to see water streaming through the hall. It reached over his shoes, to his laces, before he abruptly found himself in a canoe with a paddle painted in maroon and gold, the school colors, paddling his way down the hall. The water flowing through the hallway wasn’t deep, only up to the knees of the freshmen, who didn’t seem to notice as they slogged to the banks of lockers looking awed and confused.

“Jamie! Take my picture!” Amy waved to him with her canoe paddle, which had a gold star painted on it. Had she painted it herself? She was a talented artist and stars were easy. He’d have expected her to paint a Sphinx, or a tiara.

“Talking to me again?” He should be mad at her, but like a puppy, he was just glad that she’d shaken off whatever had made her ignore him last year. He lifted his video camera to his shoulder. “I thought you forgot my name.”

Her smile widened. “Don’t be silly.” She pushed her hair back behind her ears, which made her canoe rock. Alarmed, she quickly shook it free again. “How else could I get you over here for the traditional sacrifice?”

She stood up in her canoe and raised her paddle. He saw the edge was razor sharp as she swung for his head.

“Hey! What are you doing?” He lurched and righted himself. Was that a shark fin flashing in the water? “I thought we were friends.”

“Were. Now I have to prove I’m not a loser, like you. Why can’t you ever just be normal, Jamie?”

He tried to paddle away, but the water in the hall was rushing up against the prow of his canoe. He began to sweat and his sweat ran into the canoe, filling it impossibly quickly. To the hoots and hollers of the other kids in the hall, Amy swung her paddle again as he struggled against the tipsy canoe and lost. The sharp paddle swooshed by his head, missing by millimeters, lifting his hair. He fell into the water, surprised by the salt tang, and the depth. An endless undertow sucked at him.

“Amy,” he pleaded, raising one hand. He’d grab the paddle, no matter how sharp, rather than give in to the undertow and disappear underwater forever.

But she just smiled and shook her finger at him. “You should have worn a life vest. Don’t you know drowning is the number one killer of unpopular juniors?

#

Jamie clawed his head, so tightly that his fingertips and his temples were bleached white. The dark circles under his eyes stood out in contrast. Over the narrow shoulders of a man in a wrinkled black suit, I watched him. He didn’t look at me.

He didn’t look at Black Suit Guy, either, who said, over the rustle of the stack of papers he clutched, “Jamie, I don’t think you understand what’s at stake here.”

“My life.” Jamie took his fingers from his head, and the white spots rapidly flushed with returning blood. He slapped his chest, just over his heart. “Mine.”

Black Suit Guy’s shoulders hunched a bit, the wrinkles in the black material smoothed out as his shoulder blades flexed. “It’s my job to make certain that you understand your options. Understand what is going to happen now, so you can make the proper choices.”

Choices? Interesting, to think that there were proper choices after you’ve made the one choice that closes your life down to bars and one style fits all jumpsuits. Did that mean I still had choices, too? I was here and not inside the Pearly Gates, so there was a good chance that if Jamie still had choices, so did I. Apparently I’d missed the lecture on what was the good choice when you found yourself stuck between life and afterlife without St. Peter, or even a guardian angel, to show you the way. How hard can it be to be good when you can’t do anything except talk to the guy who killed you?

They sat at a different table than when I’d visited last time. One closer to the wall. I could see inked hearts with arrows and initials had been etched into the cement block at the level of the tables. Low enough the guards wouldn’t see, but the person across the table from the inmate would. One had a Picasso like feel, but most were more kindergarten quality–lopsided and unevenly drawn. I didn’t see the crying man anywhere. Had the crying woman he’d apologized to forgiven him, or written him off? I’m not sure why I cared, but it bothered me that I would never know.

“Choices?” Jamie and I had always thought alike. Almost alike. I would never have stolen Mr. Skinbor’s shotgun.

“Doesn’t everyone already know what should happen to me? Why don’t I just plead guilty and take an express train to the needle.” Jamie’s weirdly coiled aura writhed darkly over his shoulder. The purple and red was dull, the beat slow.

“I can’t let you do that.” Black Suit Guy tilted his arm so that his suit sleeve pulled back enough to expose the large gold watch on his wrist. His yellowish green aura was smooth, almost as slow moving as Jamie’s.

“Why not? I did it. Why can’t I just say so?”

Black Suit Guy ticked off on his ring finger, which had a heavy gold wedding band. “Because the D.A. will accept nothing less than the death penalty.” Oddly, he switched to his pinky finger–it had a gold class ring with a dark red stone in it–to tick off the next reason. “Because you’re a minor.”

“Not in the eyes of the court. Isn’t that what you said?” The old Jamie would have had red-rimmed eyes by now. But this Jamie didn’t even have a shaky voice when he asked, “If they’re willing to try me as an adult, why can’t I confess like an adult? You’re my lawyer. Shouldn’t you do what I tell you?”

“The correct term in South Carolina is solicitor not lawyer.” His neck got red and his aura flared with purplish black. “It’s complicated.” The lawyer – I mean solicitor – shuffled his papers to reveal the words Petition for Divorce. He was doing some other client’s work while he talked to Jamie.

“Yeah. Complicated. Too bad the gun jammed on your last try,” I said. Jamie ignored me.

“I’m still new at this court-appointed thing. All you need to know is that I can’t let you plead guilty. No one pleads guilty to a capital charge without at least the offer of life in prison. I–” He sighed and shrugged again. “It’s just not gonna happen. There are groups out there who are willing to fight for you, even if you don’t want them to.”

I wasn’t surprised at the news. All our lives there had been people telling us what was best for us. The old Jamie had joked about it. The new Jamie fought. “So I’m old enough to be put to death after a trial, but not old enough to say ‘Please, sir, may I fry quickly and save everyone the trouble and expense of a trial?’”

Black Suit Guy got very still. “This attitude isn’t going to help you, you know?”

“Is there any help for me?” Jamie cocked his head.

“Of course.” Black Suit Guy had never played Trivial Pursuit with Jamie or he’d have known what Jamie’s little twist of smile meant. Bzzzt. Wrong answer. “Technically, your mother is your guardian, and she has instructed me to see to your best defense.”

Jamie’s aura ball squeezed inward twice, very fast. “Mom wants me to go through a trial? What about her? Daniel?” I knew what he was thinking, because I always had. Even when he held the shotgun. Except, I hadn’t known he would pull the trigger. But still. I got that his mom and Daniel didn’t deserve the misery of a trial. And I could see what he was feeling in the dark coils of his aura.

Black Suit Guy sighed out a gust so hard that the divorce petition in front of him fluttered. But his aura stayed smooth, and beat even more slowly, a little more green than yellow. “You’re young. The DA is playing rough. Your mother wants the best for you.”

Jamie brushed his index finger against the bump on the bridge of his nose. So many ways not look at his lawyer. But that was his only escape–the direction of his eyes. “Does she? Wouldn’t killing me be the best thing? That way she won’t have to send Christmas packages, or explain the letters from jail.”

Black Suit Guy spoke with all the sincerity of Mr. Hunting, the volleyball coach, who loved to say smoking was a filthy habit and then sneak out to the teacher’s lounge for a smoke between classes. “She takes her responsibility for you very seriously.”

I couldn’t help wondering if the lawyer had actually met Jamie’s mother. But I guess, yeah, he must have. Because I’ve never met anyone more serious than Jamie’s mom. If he hadn’t met her, he might have said something about her being worried about Jamie, instead of about being responsible for him.

“Her responsibility? So she doesn’t get off the hook for me if I’m tried as an adult? That doesn’t seem fair.”

“A word of advice?” Black Suit Guy put his papers in his briefcase. Was he was handling a divorce for another prisoner, or someone free. Not that it mattered. But I still wondered. “Try to act like you’re sorry. For your mother and brother, if not for yourself.”

At the word brother, Jamie’s aura pulsed in a quick double beat. He touched his dry cheeks. A faint white shiver of surprise pulsed through his aura. “They want tears? Too bad. I’m done crying.”

How many times had Jamie been told that he would stop being teased if he didn’t react to it? That he’d get along better if he stopped being so easy to upset? Guess not. He sure hadn’t been crying when he held the shotgun.

“Too bad.” Black Suit Guy stood up. “See what you can do before next time.”

“Why does there have to be a next time?” Jamie leaned forward, as if getting a little closer might make Black Suit Guy pay attention to what he was saying. “Why can’t I just die and get it over with?”

Black Suit Guy hitched up his sleeve again and did the tch thing with his tongue and teeth. “Hang in there, I’ll do my best for you.” So much for getting his attention. I’d thought talking to my parents was bad. “You’ll understand when you grow up,” they’d always say when they didn’t want to deal.

When Black Suit Guy turned toward me, I saw the fading remains of a smile and…his little coiled aura that pulsed pale green between us for a moment, before he walked through me and toward a guard who would let him out of jail. I hadn’t ever been walked through before. It felt like the kind of faint tingling that a pair of static cling suffering socks gave off. I didn’t like it.

I sat down, just like I had last time. I wondered if I’d only imagined that Jamie saw me, because he was staring in the same direction Black Suit Guy had disappeared.

I thought about saying something, but what do you say to the guy who killed you and isn’t having any luck getting the state to do the same to him? Sorry? Life sucks and death sucks harder?

He didn’t stop staring at the guarded door the lawyer had escaped through. But his lips moved a little, and he whispered, “Back again?”

A year ago that was all he’d have had to say to get me to dump my worries out on the table between us. Why was I back? Why wasn’t I in Heaven? I didn’t know. I only knew one thing. “You can’t die.”

“Watch me.”

Nausea roiled inside me, nowhere to go. “Did you pray for that? Is that why I’m here? Because you wanted me to suffer with you?”

“I don’t pray. Remember?”

“Wish, then. Whatever you call it. Did you want me here?”

“No.” There wasn’t any anger. There wasn’t any flicker of doubt in his aura.

“So why am I here?” I whispered. I hadn’t meant to say it aloud. What terrible thing had I done for God to punish me like this? What did I need to do to move on? Pray? Perform a miracle? Maybe I should tap my red shoes together three times and whisper “There’s no place like Heaven.” And what would happen if I never found out? Was there some great dead detective I could call to help me figure out what was going on? Or maybe a Google search engine–Heaven edition.

“Maybe you have a special box seat to my flame-out performance. A reward, not a punishment? To watch me get what’s coming to me? Maybe even get to see me cry one last time.”

A year ago, we had been two overweight, unpopular best friends and now we were…what? Should I fall back on the old habit of asking him for his opinion? Or…. No. I opted for making him mad. “I’ve seen you cry tons of times. Bummer if the waterworks stop before it can do you some good in court.”

His aura shriveled up and started to beat a little faster as it hovered between us. “See? Vengeance becomes you. This is probably what all good little murdered girls do before they go to Heaven. Watch the guy that shot them put to death by the state.” The purple and red started flaring back to the deep colors of last time. He was angry. Score one for the dead girl. Sort of.

“Sounds like a good time. Do they serve popcorn?”

“I didn’t mean it, you know.” Instead of burning with a char-worthy flame, his aura was pulsing more purple than red. I don’t know how I knew that purple meant pain and red meant anger, but I didn’t need God to come down and label what was what.

“Didn’t mean what? To call me a vengeful bitch? Or to kill me?”

“To shoot you.” His words were so low, I’m not sure he said them, or just moved his lips.

“Felt like you meant it.” Like the punch in the chest with a wild pitch softball I took one time in summer camp. A solid thunk, a moment too long of breathless confusion that turns into panic just before you breathe in and pain fires through your chest, stopping your breath a second time. This wild pitch, however, had been aimed by the kid who I used to tell all my secrets to, to be exact.

I looked around the room. I could see most people’s auras, hovering in the air or nestled close into their chests. Emerald green with ice crystal veins — ambition and ruthless desire. Deep pulsing purple — want-want-want-need-need-need; desire so strong and deep it twisted and pounded and pinched a person black and blue. Small and brown like an acorn with a yellowish halo – despair. So many auras. All wanting and feeling.

All alive.

Unlike me.

Was there an aura floating in front of me that I couldn’t see? Didn’t dead people have auras? Or was it just me who was missing one?

Jamie wedged his fists together on the table, watching me like his cat had sometimes watched the dancing laser pointer before pouncing. He swiveled to look behind him, his soul making a hiccup of deep purple before it started to beat steadily. He turned back around. “My lawyer says Skinnybutt had the trigger fixed so it would go off real easy.”

Was that it? The ‘trigger did it’ defense? I don’t think so. “Nice one. I’m sure the jury will acquit you and lock up Mr. Skinbor. As long as they don’t notice that you pulled the trigger.”

“I just wanted to scare the smirks off those jerks. And then Mr. Applegate moved and I… and then it went off. And it kept going off.”

I would have believed him too, except the gray specks in the coils of his aura told me that wasn’t true. Or not the whole truth, at least. I remembered the look in his eyes after he pulled the trigger the first time. Before I fell. Surprise had been there. But satisfaction had dawned too, like when you bite into the first perfect peach of the season that you’d been waiting all spring for. And sweet peach satisfaction had been in his eyes when he shot me, last of all.

“I wasn’t…me.”

So lame. Maybe he was right. Maybe I was a VIP guest at his flame-out performance. Maybe I was supposed to make him suffer. “Who were you then? Rambo? I know it was your dad’s favorite movie. But you hated it almost as much as you hated him. Or so you said.”

The light in his eyes went away. Dead eyes in a living boy. His lips moved, but his words were so quiet they were hard to hear. “I didn’t mean it.”

I just looked at him. At his aura pulsing between us, so coiled up it was no longer beautiful, just a ropy black mess. “Did so.”

Just like that, his soul burst into flames so hot it turned white. For a second I thought it was the door to Heaven, but nothing happened except Jamie said, “Yeah. I meant it. Maybe if you’d talked to me anytime this year, you’d know why.”

If I’d been alive, I’d have been afraid. But I was dead, and no way was the boy who’d killed me going to lay a guilt trip on me. “Just because I was a bitch to you didn’t give you the right to kill me.”

“That’s why I’m here, moron.” The white hotness of his soul cooled to a glowing red. His expression didn’t change, but his aura showed me how hard my words hit. Good. I wanted to hurt him. The sweetness of vengeance rushed through me with the power of an answered prayer that would pull me into Heaven in a rush of incandescent light.

I waited a second, but I didn’t disappear. He’d admitted he’d pulled that trigger on purpose to get me back for being a cold-hearted bitch. What else did I need to do?Admit that I was a bitch? I wasn’t. I’d admit that it might have seemed like it when I somehow always managed to be looking the other direction when he passed by me in school.

In my defense, it was the meanest thing I ever did, besides telling my mom I hated her. And really, I didn’t say anything mean. I just…stopped saying anything at all. I would have talked to him this year. Not just because he’d dropped the baby fat and gotten good-looking, either.

The thing is, it’s hard to start talking to someone again after you’ve avoided him for a whole year. And he didn’t give me a lot of time, we were only five days into the school year when his fuse burned down and he exploded.

The crying man from last time was crying again, but I couldn’t hear him from across the room. His aura hovered in front of him, brown and crusted over like a rock. A rock of an aura that meant he wasn’t sorry, no matter how much he cried to the woman visiting him. I could see her aura, too. It was fluffy and light pink, with holes it in like Swiss cheese. I wished I had a paintbrush and some quality oils to capture the room.

“What do I look like to you?” I wasn’t sure he would tell me the truth, so I stared at his aura, rather than his face.

There was a pulse of reddish-purple confusion before he answered. “Like Amy.”

“Exactly like I used to? Not even a faint glow?” I hadn’t expected that.

“Like you were really there.” His soul flared with a pretty purple flush of shame.

“What do you mean? I am really here.”

“Are you?” The buzzer sounded, the chairs scraped, and Jamie was gone again.

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