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Meg Cabot





































  “My son,

  Here may indeed be torment, but not death.”

  DANTE ALIGHIERI, Purgatorio, Canto XXVII

  In school they told us to follow the rules.

  Don’t talk to strangers. Safety first, they said. Walk, don’t run — unless it’s from a stranger, of course. We were supposed to run from strangers as fast as we could, the way Persephone, the girl from that old Greek myth, tried to when Hades, the lord of the dead, came after her.

  Funny thing about the rules, though. Sometimes they were wrong. According to the rules, no one in our own families was ever supposed to hurt us.

  Not running from my own flesh and blood was my first mistake.

  My second was running from John Hayden. He was exactly the kind of stranger they were always warning us about in school. No, he didn’t offer me candy or drugs. But one look into those storm-filled gray eyes, and even as a naïve fifteen-year-old, I could tell what he had to offer was something way more addictive than chocolate or crystal meth.

  How was I to know the reason his gaze was so storm-filled was because he, too, knew the pain of being betrayed by someone who, according to the rules, was supposed to care about him?

  Maybe that’s what kept thrusting the two of us back together, no matter how far we tried to run. Why else would we both have ended up on an island named for the human bones that had been found there? It turns out we have more than a few skeletons in our closets.

  By now the bones that have earned this place its infamous name — Isla Huesos, Spanish for Island of Bones — are supposed to have been removed. But the tendency for cruel acts of deception to be committed on Isla Huesos’s tempest-tossed shores hasn’t waned.

  Now it’s not my family or John that’s coming for me, but a storm. I know from the weather alerts I keep receiving on my cell phone. A large tropical cyclone, “producing extreme winds and dangerously high flood conditions,” is expected to reach landfall soon on the island where my mom was hoping she and I could make a “new start.” According to the latest warning, I should proceed with caution (walk, don’t run) to the nearest emergency shelter.

  The problem is, I’m eighteen hundred miles below the earth’s crust and the storm’s projected path.

  Still, every time my phone vibrates and I look down to see one of the alerts, my pulse speeds up a little. Not because I’m in imminent danger, but because I know people who are.

  It’s especially upsetting because, in a lot of ways, my family has turned out to be like the seawall Isla Huesos’s community leaders built in order to protect its low-lying areas from flooding: They’re not very reliable. Some of them, in fact, have turned out to be made from inferior material. They crumbled and broke apart instead of doing what they were supposed to do: keep their loved ones from drowning.

  But maybe that’s what I deserve for being trusting enough to believe the rules would keep me safe.

  All that’s changed now. This time, the only rules I’m following are my own.

  And this time, when the storm comes, instead of running from it, I’m going to face it head-on.

  I hope it’s ready for me.

  Always before him many of them stand;

  They go by turns each one unto the judgment;

  They speak, and hear, and then are downward hurled.

  DANTE ALIGHIERI, Inferno, Canto V

  He Is First.

  That’s what it said in flowing white script on the T-shirt the girl was wearing.

  “Who is he?” I asked her. If I hadn’t been so tired, I’d have figured it out right away. Instead, I thought the shirt was referring to a new band or the title of a movie or something … not that I was going to get to see it anytime soon.

  “Oh,” the girl said, smiling, clearly happy to be asked. This was evidently why she wore the shirt, to generate questions like mine. I could tell by the cheerful, rehearsed way in which she replied, “My personal Lord and Savior. He always comes first.”

  Don’t do it. Do not engage. This isn’t the time to have a theological conversation — or any conversation at all — beyond what’s necessary. Remember what John said, I reminded myself: There are hundreds of people here, maybe even a thousand. You can’t help them all, only the ones who seem the worst off, or might be about to cause trouble ….

  “Don’t you think there might be some circumstances in which He’d want you to put yourself first?” I heard myself saying. “What if there was a fire? Wouldn’t He want you to run first and pray later?”

  “Yes, of course,” the girl said with a laugh. “But I’d still be putting Him first in my heart, the way He puts me first in His heart. He’s always with us, you know, keeping us safe from harm.”

  I shouldn’t have asked. Even the person in line behind her — a young guy who’d probably died in a Jet Ski accident, judging by his tropical swim shorts and lack of a shirt — gaped at her in disbelief.

  “Have you taken a look at yourself in the mirror lately?” he asked her.

  She dropped the smile, appearing startled. “No. Why? Do I have something in my teeth?”

  She reached to open the backpack she had slung over one shoulder, but I put out a hand to stop her. If I hadn’t, I suspect she’d have found her compact mirror, then seen what the rest of us could: the crystalline shards of windshield embedded into her blond hair like diamonds from a tiara, the angry red imprint the steering wheel had left behind on her forehead when the airbag in her car had failed to go off.

  No one had kept her safe. But what would be the point in telling her so? She’d probably only start to cry, and then I’d have to waste even more time comforting her, time John had warned we couldn’t afford.

  “Your teeth are fine,” I said to her hastily. “You look great. Here, drink this.” I passed her a water glass from my tray. “You’ll feel better.”

  For the first time ever, it was hot in the Underworld. That’s why I was holding a tray of glasses, each one filled with ice water. It was a ridiculous gesture — like handing out life preservers on the Titanic. I couldn’t change what had happened to these people. All I could do was make the journey to their final destinations a little more comfortable … and try to hurry them along.

  The Underworld was currently suffering from overcrowding as well as overheating, to the point where conditions had grown dangerously untenable.

  “Thanks,” the girl said, taking the water and sipping it gratefully. This time when she smiled, there was nothing rehearsed about the gesture. “I’m so thirsty.” She said the latter in a voice of wonder, like out of all the things that had happened to her in the past twenty-four hours, her thirst was the most amazing.

  Well, dying can be dehydrati

  “Yeah,” I said. “Sorry about the heat. We’re working on it.”

  “Working on it?” the guy in the tropical shorts echoed. “We’ve been waiting here for hours. How about some answers instead of water?”

  “I know,” I said to Tropical Shorts. “Sorry. The boat’s on its way, I swear. We’re trying to accommodate as many of you as we can as quickly as we can, but we’re a little backed up at the mo —”

  “Why should we believe you?” Tropical Shorts interrupted. “I want to talk to whoever’s in charge.”

  I felt a spurt of red-hot anger shoot through me, but I fought to remain calm.

  “What makes you so sure I’m not in charge?” I challenged him.

  He burst out laughing. “Look at you,” he said.

  I couldn’t help it. I looked down at myself. Whereas most of the people in line were dressed in light casual clothing, like Mr. Tropical Shorts — some of them were in hospital gowns or even pajamas, whatever they’d been wearing when death overtook them — I had on a cap-sleeved gown, the hem of which swept my feet. Even though the material was the lightest cotton, it nevertheless clung damply to my skin, and not just because the waves from the lake had grown more violent than usual and were splashing bits of foam and spray up against the side of the dock. Curls of my long dark hair had slipped from the knot into which I’d tried to tie it, sticking to the back and sides of my neck. I’d have given my cell phone or possibly even my bra for some air-conditioning or a fan.

  But it turned out Tropical Shorts wasn’t referring to my wardrobe.

  “What are you,” he demanded, “fifteen? Sixteen?”

  “Seventeen,” I said, from between teeth I’d gritted in an effort not to throw the entire tray of water glasses at him. “How old are you? Legally you have to be at least eighteen to rent a Jet Ski in the state of Florida.”

  I knew this because my mother complained all the time that kids on personal watercrafts were always racing one another through the mangroves where she was studying her beloved roseate spoonbills. The Jet Skis hit dolphins and manatees (and sometimes even human snorkelers and scuba divers) just under the surface and killed them without the drivers even being aware of it.

  Except for this one. Whatever Tropical Shorts had hit had hit back, hard enough to kill him.

  “I’m nineteen,” he said, looking a little stunned. “How did you know it was a —”

  “It’s my job to know,” I interrupted. “You’re welcome to speak to the person in charge … my boyfriend. That’s him over there on the horse.”

  I pointed across the beach to the dock opposite the one on which we stood. There, John, on his black horse, Alastor, along with two tall, muscular men clad in black leather, was struggling to hold back a much rowdier crowd. If the line I was managing was discontented, theirs was already actively rioting. No one was being offered glasses of water over there — if they had, the glasses would have been broken over someone’s head, and the shards used as weapons.

  “Uh, no, thanks,” Tropical Shorts said, glancing uneasily away from John as he yanked on the shirt collar of one man in an attempt to pull him from the throat of another. “I’m good. I’ll just wait here.”

  “Yeah,” I said. Despite the seriousness of the situation, I couldn’t help smiling to myself a little. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”

  Just try to keep them calm, John had said as we’d made our way down to the beach from the castle. One stone can cause a lot of ripples. A riot is the last thing we need right now.

  Got it, I’d said.

  And no need to get physical with them yourself, John had said. Any sign of trouble, and I’ll be there.

  How will you know? I’d asked.

  If there’s trouble and you’re involved, I’ll know, he’d said, and given me a smile I’d thought might turn my legs to butter then and there.

  I’d managed to avert the riot Tropical Shorts had attempted to cause with his stone, but that didn’t mean everything was smooth sailing … especially between John and me. We were still searching for ways to smooth the ripples in our relationship. Some were appearing a little rougher to navigate than others. John hadn’t wanted me to help down here at the beach. He’d wanted me to stay back at the castle with Mr. Graves, tending to my cousin Alex and my best friend, Kayla, who were still recovering from the shock of having been whisked from the land of the living to the realm of the dead for their own safety — never an easy adjustment, as I well knew.

  But one glance at the sheer number of souls who had shown up on the beach while we’d been in Isla Huesos told me I’d be more useful there than at Alex’s and Kayla’s bedsides. Eventually even John had to agree.

  Still, just because we were able to agree on that didn’t mean there weren’t going to be more stones in our path. Being in a relationship, I was learning, was hard. It was probably hard even if your boyfriend wasn’t a death deity.

  If he was, though, talk about issues.

  The He Is First girl reached out to grasp my bare arm, jostling me from my thoughts.

  “Excuse me,” she said. “What’s your name?”

  Don’t get on a first-name basis with them. This was another piece of advice John had given during my hasty emergency orientation to soul guidance. You’re here to do a job, not make friends.

  “Pierce,” I said to her. I’d appreciated John’s warnings, but what was I supposed to do, lie? “Look, I’m sorry, but I really have to go.” I motioned towards the end of the line, which was snaking down the dock and then out onto the beach, past the dunes. “I’ve still got a lot of people to help —”

  “Oh, right,” the girl said, nodding sympathetically. “I know, that storm? I should have listened to the weather alerts and never tried to leave my dad’s place. I didn’t see that tree falling.” She giggled as if to say, What a klutz I am for letting that tree smack into my car and kill me! “Anyway, I’m Chloe. I just want you to know, Pierce, He puts you first in His heart, too.”

  At first I didn’t know who she was talking about. Then I remembered.

  “Uh,” I said. “Great. Thanks. I have to —”

  “No, really,” Chloe said, eager for me to believe. “It’s true; He does.”

  Was it? No one had put me first in his heart the day my grandmother had murdered me. Or my ex–best friend, Hannah, when she killed herself. Or my guidance counselor, Jade, the night she was killed. Or what about last night? Who’d put my cousin Alex first at any time during any part of his short, miserable life?

  It turned out I wasn’t the only one with doubts.

  “Do you even know where you are?” Tropical Shorts asked Chloe incredulously.

  “Um,” she said, looking around the dock. “Yes. We’re waiting for a boat. Right? That’s what she —” Chloe pointed at me.

  “Hell,” Tropical Shorts interrupted her. “We’re in hell. Why else d’you think it’s so hot? And crowded?”

  The girl glanced back at me, her blue eyes wide with alarm. “That’s not true, is it? Are we in … ?” She couldn’t bring herself to say the word.

  “Of course not,” I said, shooting Tropical Shorts a dirty look. I raised my voice so that anyone else nearby who might have overheard his outburst would not miss my announcement. “There’s a boat arriving to take you to your final destination any minute now. I’m sorry it’s so crowded, we’re a little backed up, and the weather’s not usually this hot, eith —”

  I was interrupted by a thunderous rumble, loud enough to make everyone, even Tropical Shorts, cry out in surprise, then turn towards the source of the noise: a wall of fog towering nearly fifty feet high and rolling slowly but inexorably across the water in our direction.

  It looked like something out of one of those mummy movies where the sandstorm spreads across the desert and swallows the brave army … only there was no mummy, and this was fog, not sand. And sadly, this wasn’t a movie.

  “What’s that?” Tropical Shorts asked, pointing.

�Just a little storm,” I said. “It’s normal.”

  I didn’t sound convincing to my own ears. Why did I think I was going to sound convincing to them? Which is probably why an old man dressed in a hospital gown echoed, “A little storm? And I suppose you think those are a few little birds?” He pointed above his head.

  I didn’t have to look. I knew what he was talking about. A flock of black birds had been amassing and flying in tighter and tighter circles over the beach all day.

  “Those are just some birds,” I said, feigning nonchalance. “No different than this one.” I pointed to a plump white bird — the tips of her wings and tail looking as if they’d been accidentally dipped in black ink — that was sitting a few feet away from me on the dock railing. “They’re completely harmless.”

  The old man in the hospital gown laughed like I’d made a joke — not a very funny one, since his laugh was bitter. “I’m an amateur ornithologist, young lady. I know the difference between mourning doves and ravens. That” — he pointed at Hope, my pet bird — “is a member of the Columbiformes order. They’re harmless.”

  He was right about that. Hope had, in fact, saved my life several times, though one wouldn’t know it to look at her, especially the way she was busy preening herself as if she were at a Club Med, not a weigh station on the highway to hell (or heaven).

  “Those,” Hospital Gown went on, pointing upwards, “are ravens. Scavenger birds. Want to know what scavenger birds eat? Carrion … the dead. In other words, us.”

  Chloe gasped, and she wasn’t the only one. All up and down the line, I heard murmurs of discontent. No one likes the idea of getting their flesh eaten off them, not even people who are already dead.

  It was just my luck to get an amateur ornithologist in my line.

  “Hey,” I said, reaching out to give Chloe’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “Everything’s under control. See this?” I showed them the heavy diamond pendant I wore on a gold chain around my neck. Normally I kept it hidden beneath my clothing, because horrible things had happened to everyone I’d shown it to in the past. But these people had already suffered the worst fate was going to offer them.