Chapter One

Wine rose up and splashed against the side of the wine glass as thunder boomed outside. Emma didn’t remember what happened. She was lost as to how she got home. But she did know she was home. At least, this looked like her parents’ house on the East side. Her neighbours partying next door almost drowned out the sound of Bach. Yes, it was definitely home.

Emma sat down in the recliner, her legs draped over the overstuffed arm. The rich black leather was slick and the room smelled like metal. The wine glass skidded between her fingers, and as Bach’s Minuet in G rose, the glass fell and bounced off the carpet. The carpet sucked in the Merlot like a dying cactus. Emma flicked on the light to clean up the mess. It was then that she realised that she was soaked in blood.

“What…” she trailed off, having the sudden, strange feeling of her voice being something she hadn’t heard in a long time. She wondered why.

Then it all came tumbling back to her, like a ball rolling down a steep hill; she had been alive, then she had been dead, and now she was alive again.

Well, that’s one sentence I never would have thought I’d think, Emma mused, ignoring the carpet stain completely and touching her stomach. She placed her hands all over her hips and belly. There were absolutely no wounds or bullets that she could feel. Death had probably healed her. Though he’d forgotten to clean her.

She called out to see if her parents were home and there was no reply, so she went upstairs, making sure to memorise every detail of the house along the way. Because, really, she could die yet again. When she’d finished observing the house, she threw off her clothes and stepped into the shower. The warm rivets of water calmed her down and allowed her to organise her thoughts.

The confused girl took a deep breath and tried to remember exactly how she had died… She had just gotten off the train at the train station, and, well, there was a psychopathic murderer who decided that that day would be the perfect day to start killing random people. Two, to be exact, or more if the killer shot more after Emma.

Emma wondered where the guy was.

When she turned off the shower, she could hear the typical sounds of evening birds and children laughing merrily outside. The sounds were just too normal for today; Emma had died, and kids were just having fun playing soccer on the streets. It was too strange for her.

With familiar, routine movements, she got ready for bed, even though it was only six o’clock. The pouring rain beating against the windows and the occasional bang of lightning was comforting; she liked weather that others detested.

Emma’s temporary comfort dissolved into nothingness as she came back down from her bedroom and once again saw the emptiness of the living room. The TV was almost always on at this time. The news would play, while her mother browsed magazines and her father played classical records. But now, the rather eerie silence plagued the room, plagued the whole house. It sent chills down Emma’s arms and legs. Where were her parents? They never left without leaving a note. A quick scan of the room confirmed that no such note was present. But her parents never went out anyway; they were completely unsocial, and sometimes it baffled Emma how they got to meet each other in the first place.

She sighed, wishing that she had the comfort that only the sight of her parents could bring, and half-heartedly cleaned up the blood and wine. Then she lit the fireplace and sat for a while on the carpet, letting its warm glow entrance her. For a moment, as she stared into the flickering flames, she felt blissfully free from life and death. There was just she and the fire.

Then the phone rang and snapped Emma out of her trance. She stopped the loud music of Lana Del Rey by flipping open the cell and putting it to her ear.

“Hello?” she said into the phone.

What’s wrong, Emma?” the unmistakable voice of her best friend, Opal, said at once. Only she could be able to find the weariness in Emma’s voice, no matter how much Emma attempted to hide it.

She waited for an awkward pause while wondering what to say.

“Nothing,” she finally decided on.

Honey, that’s the most common lie ever told. Come over. I was going to ask you anyway, because my parents are out until Monday afternoon. But your tone is begging me to invite you over.

“Hey!” Emma said indignantly. “I am not begging you!”

I didn’t say you were,” Opal replied. Emma could practically hear her roll her eyes. “I said your tone was. Just come over.

Emma bit her lip. It was a habit of hers to think rationally about most decisions she made, but the answer to Opal’s request became obvious immediately. Emma had to come over. After all, it felt strange and ominous to be in an empty house, meaning she wouldn’t be able to sleep.

“Alright,” she muttered.

Good. Bring pyjamas,” Opal reminded her carefully. She nearly always forgot her pyjamas.

“Oh yeah! Wait, already wearing them.”

You need help.

“Says the teenager obsessed with My Little Pony.”

Shut up.

“Fine.”

Fine.

They hung up the same time. A broad grin was spread across Emma’s face. She always enjoyed their playful “arguments”.

She extinguished the fire and clumsily collected her bike from the hallway. Rain assaulted her when she opened the door and, squinting through the rain, she rode out of the house and through the complex maze of streets that made up the residential area. It was nighttime, but streetlights illuminated the road and pavement and lit up the slashing rain.

The ride to Opal’s house didn’t last long. Emma left the bike on the walk up to the door and it fell to the ground, its wheel spinning pathetically. Opal answered as soon as the doorbell chimed through the house. She was unbelievably and effortlessly pretty, but seemed oblivious to it.

“Emma! You idiot! Why didn’t you bring an umbrella? You’re soaked!” Opal exclaimed frantically, probably more worried about the state of Emma’s hair than the goosebumps that covered her skin.

“I can’t ride one-handed, and I need one hand to hold an umbrella,” she explained clearly, an eyebrow disappearing into her hairline.

“Well, you should learn,” Opal chided, disappearing into the laundry room and coming back out with a fluffy towel. Emma took it gladly and followed Opal through her very white house, up to her bedroom (which, sadly, was thrice the size of Emma’s).

Opal didn’t waste any time in getting into the business. “Why so blue, Mini Moo?”

The true answer was that Emma was confused because she was alive. How would this go down with Opal? Not very well. She’d laugh the night away and believe that Death’s deal was all a joke. So Emma decided to give her an answer that was true but didn’t disclose the whole truth.

“Well, my parents are gone, and I don’t know why,” she answered simply.

“I do!” Opal exclaimed happily, but her smile faltered. “Mum told me that your mum and dad are visiting your aunt in hospital down in Sydney.”

“Aunt Maude?” Emma whispered.

Opal nodded sympathetically.

“But why is she in hospital?” Emma questioned quietly.

“Apparently she’s in a coma, but the doctors can’t figure out why,” Opal informed her.

Emma sat down on Opal’s silk bed sheets. The news tumbled upon her and crushed her a like a giant Indiana Jones boulder.

Aunt Maude was the person whom Emma had been waiting for at the train station. She was meant to pick her up and bring her back home, but she didn’t get off the train that she was meant to be on. So Emma waited for an hour, but no Aunt Maude arrived, and so she began to leave – but of course, kind Mr. Psychopathic Killer shot her.

“I’m sorry, Emma. But I’m sure she’ll be fine,” Opal said optimistically. It wasn’t exactly Aunt Maude’s state of health that worried Emma; somehow, it was the fact that she had been entrusted with the responsibility to pick her up. She couldn’t tell Opal, though. What if she saw the train station killing on TV and started asking uncomfortable questions?

Sure enough, after a long silence, Opal turned on her bedroom TV to fill it and a newsreader appeared on the screen.

Early this evening, four teenagers were shot at Varsity Lakes Station by a wanted killer who, at the time, was posing as a station guard. Three of the victims have been identified: Mary-Jane Stanton, Pierre Dupont and Clarissa Nightly.

As each name was read, a picture of the person appeared on the screen. Each teenager looked carefree and happy in the pictures… the people in the photos hadn’t known that they were to die early.

The bodies of the identified were left on the floor of the station, but the fourth victim remains unidentified and his or her body has mysteriously disappeared.

That’s me, Emma thought grimly.

The killer is wanted by authorities for many gruesome crimes, including the kidnapping and enslaving of one of Australia’s rising stars. Only very little is known about him, but police know that this man has committed a crime when he leaves his signature peace symbol somewhere in the vicinity. The signature baffles many. Authorities encourage any witnesses to the event to dial Crime Stoppers and provide any information.

And now let’s move to Lily Smith, who’s reporting from America. She’s with Hula, the world’s favourite parrot…

Opal turned to me.

“Weird how the fourth person disappeared,” she commented, and Emma nodded in agreement. It certainly was weird how she’d been given a second chance at life.

“So… what homework is due tomorrow?” she asked, changing the subject as subtly as she could.

“Maths, Science and Drama,” Opal said off by heart. “Speaking of homework, I need you to help do my Maths homework. I wouldn’t even mind if you let me copy your answers.”

“I haven’t done it,” Emma told her apologetically, and then smiled.

“What?”

“I just…” she trailed off. It was hard to explain. Every time she realised she hadn’t done her homework, or any sort of deadline was fast approaching, a horrible, heavy sense of dread filled her up. Yet this time, she felt fine. It was probably because she’d realised how trivial things like homework were. Life was more important, because you never knew how much of life you’d get. Mary-Jane, Pierre and Clarissa probably hadn’t even had a thought cross their mind about an early death.

“I don’t care that I haven’t done my homework,” Emma summarised, shrugging.

“Ooh, rebel,” Opal joked. “You’re off the rails, you are. But seriously. Why are there letters on here?” Opal cried, stabbing her maths book violently. “Isn’t mathematics meant to be all about numbers?”

Emma raised my eyebrows in an “are-you-kidding-me” way. “Uh, it’s algebra. Remember that thing we learned all the way back in Grade Five with all the letters? That was algebra.”

“Oh. Okay then. Teach me it.”

Emma rolled my eyes and got settled for a night of teaching algebra to Opal, the most forgetful person she knew.

Emma fell asleep when Opal was halfway through her homework, meaning she woke up in drooling all over Opal’s book. Opal was rewriting her answers on a sheet of paper, manoeuvring Emma’s hair to make the answers visible.

“Sorry,” she said hastily, moving her head. She extended the book towards Opal, but she shook her head with disgust, so Emma chucked it in the bin.

“Come downstairs for breakfast,” Opal commanded, leading Emma out of the bedroom and down into the kitchen. One moment Emma had been sitting placidly at the empty dining table, the next Opal was practically throwing cereal boxes onto the table.

“Opal!” Emma cried, worried for her friend’s sanity, as she often was. “I only eat one type of cereal: Weet-Bix.”

Opal stopped raiding the pantry and turned sharply towards Emma, so fast that her neck cracked, though she made no move to show that she’d noticed it. “You don’t just pick one cereal. What’s wrong with you? You mix! All types of cereal are so delicious in their own way that whenever I can’t decide which cereal to eat, I mix them all up. Watch me.”

Opal moved towards the table to demonstrate her eccentric eating habits. She grabbed cereals of all types, throwing a handful of each in a bowl. Then she carelessly wet it with full cream milk.

Opal ate. Emma gagged.

“What?” Opal said incredulously. ‘You don’t find my innovative idea appealing?”

“No!” Emma choked, pushing away the cereal boxes Opal had offered her and instead grabbing an apple and a banana.

Opal shook her head and finished her sugar-fest while Emma gobbled down her fruit.

“You seem excited,” Opal observed through a mouthful of Coco Pops and Sultana Bran.

Emma stopped biting into the apple. Opal was right.

“I’m not excited. Just… happy,” Emma said contentedly. She really was happy. A nice sleep (on top of Opal’s maths book) had erased the strange… melancholy feeling that had enveloped her last night. She suddenly had a bright view about life and she actually looked forward to going to school today. She was also eager to learn more about Death’s mission, although she had no idea how Death was going to reach the living world to tell her more about the mission.

She felt very cool using the word “mission”.

But she was really worried about what the difficulty of her mission would turn out to be.

The two girls spent that morning scrambling around the house to find books, lunch and hair ties, all of which seemed to have suspiciously disappeared. Emma found their pre-packed lunches deep in the pantry, the books under Opal’s bed and the hair ties on Opal’s wrist.

They left after they had gathered their things and walked to the bus stop.

“I feel really horrible rejecting my bike,” Emma pouted, dumping her bag on her lap and sitting down.

“Yes, it feels so terribly rejected and depressed because you aren’t taking it to school. And it totally has the ability to have feelings and thoughts,” Opal said sarcastically.

“Sometimes I feel like it does,” Emma said, choosing not to give a snappy retort because of Opal’s sarcasm.

“What, did you give it a name too?” Opal scoffed.

“Yes. Its name is Steve.”

Opal turned to me with wide eyes. “I worry about your mind.”

“Don’t worry, I worry for your mind too.”

“When we’re old and grey we’ll end up in a mental centre together.”

“We’ll trash the place. We’ll be off the rails.”

“So off them,” Opal finished, now laughing heartily. Emma joined in, high-fiving her friend. She made a quick grab for her wallet when the bus swerved dangerously around the corner and came to a sudden, screeching halt in front of the bus stop.

The two paid for the ride and took a seat near the front. They were rather practical girls; they chose to sit at the front because it ensured that they would get off the bus first. As soon as they sat down together, the hippie bus driver pressed down the acceleration pedal. Hard. The man turned the wheel violently to the left and Emma fell out of her seat, ending up on the floor in a messy heap with her books. Some soft laughing came from the back of the bus, but there weren’t enough people on the bus yet to cause Emma major humiliation. When the driver stopped at a set of traffic lights, only just managing not to hit the car in front, Opal helped Emma up.

“Are you alright?” Opal asked with concern.

“Yeah, I’m fine. The area around my coccyx has hardened due to the numerous times I fell on my butt when I was little,” Emma sighed, gathering up her books while she still could.

Luckily, the driver took off when Emma was comfortably seated once again.

“Please slow down!” Emma begged the driver with as much politeness as she could muster, hoping that the disapproval in her voice wasn’t too audible.

“YOLO,” the hippie said in response, taking his left hand off the steering wheel to flash a peace sign.

“You only live once, eh?” Emma muttered to herself, retreating back to her seat. “Not quite…”

Luckily, Opal hadn’t heard Emma’s indiscernible mumbling and immediately began to scold her.

“Emma, you don’t just tell the driver to go slowly! How else are we going to get to school on time? Plus, it makes a fun ride-”

“And a painful one,” Emma added. Opal went on as if there had been no interruption.

“A fun ride, meaning that we’re pumped by the time we get to school,” Opal concluded.

Emma scoffed. “Yeah, right.”

Opal shrugged. “That last part may have been a teensy bit exaggerated. But honestly, the driver – Dennis – is actually a really good driver. He’s never had an accident. You don’t go on the bus much. But if you did, you’d be used to it.”

Emma glared through the glass at Dennis’ dreadlocks.

At the next stop, three quarters of the bus filled up and rolled-up pieces of paper immediately began to whizz around the bus, hitting guys (who roared or laughed – Emma couldn’t tell the difference) and girls (who cried out and fished out mirrors from their expensive handbags to see how bad their hairstyle had been damaged).

“Hey, Opal!” said someone from behind Emma and Opal. It was Jack Adams, one of the popular guys of the school. “Join us. Why are you sitting next to Slime?”

Emma sighed as if someone had pulled a plug and she was deflating. That insult was so overused that now it was just plain annoying. Her last name was Slim, and although many girls had wished that they had Emma’s last name when she’d started high school, her quickly forming reputation as an outcast caused some smart bum to mould her name into “Slime”. The unimaginative students of Pineville Views High couldn’t come up with anything worse than Slime, so that was basically the only insult used on her.

“Ah, it would truly be a pleasure to join you,” Opal said. Emma seemed to be the only one who detected the sarcasm dripping from her voice. “But I prefer my best friend, Emma. Rain check?” Opal said the last word once again with her cleverly hidden sarcasm.

“Sure,” Jack said with a brilliant grin and Opal turned back to face the glass that separated her and the driver. She gave Emma a secret high-five.

Opal’s incredible beauty attracted the attention of all the boys and made her receive many a jealous glare from the girls. Amazingly, it never got to her head, and she had always stuck with the first person she’d made friends with in high school: Emma. Despite Emma’s oddness, her strange habits, her social awkwardness and her refusal to get into Twilight, Opal stuck with Emma. It had been three years and a bit since they first met in Grade Eight and Opal still hadn’t gone crazy.

After a lot more of Dennis’ dangerous and reckless “YOLO” driving, Emma gladly stepped off the bus and climbed the steps up to Pineville Views High with Opal. As soon as they stepped foot inside the building, the bell blared out from the speakers above them and everyone in the area jumped and covered his or her ears.

“Ugh, I’m going to go deaf from that bell. Come on, let’s go,” said Opal, and she and Emma fast-walked to their Care Class.

“Sit down, everyone,” said their Care teacher, Mr. Lazowski. Everyone complied except for one boy. “I’d like to introduce a new student, who will be attending our Care Class, 11M. His name is Joshua Mills. Please make him feel welcome.”

Joshua Mills, standing at his desk, flashed a sort of lazy, charming smile at the class. Emma could tell that the girls were swooning, while the boys were sizing up their competition. He was extremely good-looking, with perfect tan skin and dirty blonde hair, but Emma knew that every good-looking student (except for Opal) would be sucked up into the world of rich, arrogant kids and become one themselves.

“Thanks, Joshua. Take a seat. Let me call the roll…” Mr. Lazowski muttered distractedly.

When Mr. Lazowski finished calling out everyone’s name, he left the classroom and allowed the occupants to socialise. Immediately, everyone flocked over to Joshua’s desk and bombarded him with questions; the new kid fascinated them. Well, everyone but Opal and Emma. Opal was tweeting as fast as her fingers could manage about Joshua, while Emma sat in silence, watching Opal’s gloriously speedy fingers fly over the screen of her iPhone. Opal was the queen of social media and the director of all rumours that flew through the school; for many people, Opal was their first preference when it came to finding out whether rumours should be believed or dismissed

Emma preferred to observe and scrutinize the new specimen from a distance rather than approach it. The specimen was extremely charming, throwing flirty winks at girls at exactly the right times and making guys guffaw loudly. There was something sneaky in his eyes, though; something mischievous and hidden. It intrigued Emma.

Then, suddenly, everyone whispered and pointed at Emma with a scary, malicious gleam in their eyes. Joshua narrowed his eyes.

“Slime, is it?” Joshua asked casually

I licked my lips. “Emma, actually.”

“Emma Slim,” Opal added for good measure, and then resumed tweeting.

“Hm,” was all Joshua said in reply before the bell rang, signifying the end of the ten-minute Care Class.

The rest of the day passed quite quickly for Emma. She didn’t pay attention in Maths, nor did she listen in Science. During those lessons, Emma simply contemplated her situation and thought about revealing her experience with Death to the people she cared about: Opal, her mum and her dad.

If she told Opal, she would get a loud laugh in response. If she told her mum and dad, they would think she’d gone bonkers and send her off to the doctor’s for testing.

So obviously, she couldn’t tell anyone. She was in this alone. She, by herself, would have to find the person who had escaped the grasp of Death. However would she manage it?

The last lesson of the day was Drama, which she shared with Opal and Joshua. They were starting a new play, written by one of the retired Drama teachers. It was a slightly long play that gave the impression of being like a fairy tale, complete with a damsel in distress, balls and dances, handsome princes and a touch of magic.

“Ladies, take a piece of paper from the pink hat, men from the blue,” ordered the Drama teacher, Mrs. Shona. Everyone pushed and shoved to get their proper hats. Eventually, each student obtained a piece of paper.

Apprehensively, Emma looked down at the name on hers. Mirabelle, the paper said.

Darn.

That was the main female part. Looking over at the paper in Opal’s hand, Emma could see that Opal had gotten Celeste, the right-hand woman of Mirabelle (or something like that).

“For the rest of the lesson, I want you to study your lines. Before you do, though, grab a permission slip so you don’t forget to get one later,” commanded Mrs. Shona. “Sorry you didn’t get them earlier; I’d forgotten.”

The class complied, grabbing a script and a permission slip. Emma wearily glanced at hers. It was a form for some excursion to a show that looked rather dark and macabre.

“Macabre,” whispered Emma. It was ironic how Emma seemed to thinking about Death a lot.

Emma wasted the lesson blankly staring at the script in her hand, while Opal tweeted tirelessly.

She went on the bus (luckily with a different driver) with Opal back to her house and rode her bike back to her own house, eager to see if her parents were back yet. She had no idea just how many surprises were in store for her that evening.

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