Chapter One
Alona Dare

Dying should have been the worst moment in my life.

I mean, hello, getting run over by a school bus full of band geeks while wearing the regulation gym uniform of red polyester short shorts and a practically see-through white T-shirt? It doesn’t get more tragic than that. Or, so I thought.

On Thursday, three days AD (after death…duh), I woke in the usual way—flat on my back and just to the left of the yellow lines on Henderson Street with the heat of a bus engine passing over my face.

It wasn’t “the” bus, obviously. The one that killed me was probably still being repaired or maybe decommissioned or whatever they do with vehicles that now have bad juju.

I coughed and sat up, waving the hot plumes of bus exhaust away. I know, weird, right? No lungs, no body, no breathing, but hey, whatever. I don’t make the rules, I just live here…sort of.

I got to my feet just in time for Ben Rogers’s Land Rover (his dad owns a dealership…lucky) to pass right through me. I flinched, but it didn’t hurt. These days, nothing did, but it was taking a while to get used to that. Ben, of course, didn’t notice a thing, just kept jabbering on the cell phone pressed to his ear. He couldn’t see me. Nobody could.

If I seem pretty calm about this whole being-dead thing, it’s only because I’ve had a few days to adjust. The first twenty-four hours? Definitely not among my best. Listen, if anyone ever tries to pull that whole “I had no idea I was dead until I turned around and saw my own gravestone” cliché on you, they’re lying.

First of all, headstones, as they’re properly called, take months. Especially special order Italian rose-marble ones with weeping angels on top. Second, if standing by your own crumpled and limp body on the street isn’t enough of a clue, try following it to the hospital and watching a hassled and tired-looking emergency-room doctor pronounce “you” dead, even as you’re shouting at him to listen to you, to please look at you. Then, how about when your dad finally arrives at that cold little room in the hospital basement, where the hospital people show him “you” on this grainy and horribly unflattering closed-circuit television?

I tried to talk to him. My dad, I mean. He couldn’t hear me. Nothing altogether new about that. Russ Dare only hears what he wants to hear—or so he always says. That’s what makes him such a good corporate negotiator…or a complete bastard if you listen to some people. But this time, he wasn’t ignoring me. I could tell—his eyes weren’t doing that squinchy annoyed thing at their corners. And then he started to cry.

My dad–the one who’d taught me that “show no emotion” is the first rule of getting what you want–stood in that tiny antiseptic-smelling room alone, his face gray under his golfing tan, and tears lighting up like silver streaks on his cheeks in the flickering fluorescent lights.

That’s when I knew. Even before he said, “That’s her,” in this choked-up whisper that was nothing like his normal booming voice. I was dead. Maybe not all of me—after all, some part of me was still here and watching everything happen. But it was definitely my body on that television screen, covered by a crisp white sheet, looking smaller and frailer than I’d ever seen myself, and my hair all tangled and snarled around my too-still face.

That had been the breaking point for my dad. Even as the hospital people had shoved forms at him to sign, he’d asked over and over again, “Someone will fix her hair? She doesn’t…it’s not like her to look like that. She would hate it.”

I drew in a deep breath (ironic, I know) and shook my head. None of that mattered now anyway. Sometime soon, very soon, a big bright light was going to shine in the distance and suck me in. Then I’d be living the life–or some imitation of it–of sunbathing on a white sand beach with NO sunscreen, nonvirgin mojitos, and an endless selection of shoe stores where everything was free. Hey, it was heaven, right? Before that happened, though, I wanted to see everything I could. A girl only dies once, you know?

I rounded the corner to the parking lot with a spring in my soundless step and realized that for the first time in my…well, for the first time ever, I couldn’t wait to get to school.

People always assume that being popular and pretty makes high school some big playground. Shows how stupid people can be. When you’re homecoming queen three years running, varsity cheerleader cocaptain, and first attendant on the prom court as a junior, there are certain responsibilities and expectations that must be met. The slightest variation–talking to the wrong person; wearing the same sweater that a geek, in a rare moment of fashion consciousness, wears as well; buying a burger instead of a salad–can tip you into obscurity or worse.

Case in point: Kimberly Shae. Kim had everything going for her—a rich family, flawless Asian features, and a metabolism that let her eat anything and still stay light enough to remain at the top of the cheerleading pyramid.

Like most of us in the inner circle, Kim got drunk, or pretended to, at all of Ben Rogers’s weekend woods parties. Except, this one time, Kim drank too much, or at least enough to forget one of the major popular girl tenets: drink enough to be silly and flirty, not enough to be stupid and horny. Someone with a camera phone caught her in the act with her longtime crush and our host, Ben Rogers, behind the school-spirit tree.

Yeah. All the guys would have killed to be in Ben’s place, and not a single girl at that party could honestly say that she hadn’t fantasized about doing the same thing. (Ben’s been considered the most eligible guy in our class since the third grade, and consequently, every girl dreamed of being the one
to break him.) But getting caught? That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Pictures circulated within hours, and as of Monday morning, Kim knew better than to sit with us in the caf. She relegated herself to one of the second-tier tables. Our cafeteria doubles as an auditorium, with a big stage at the front of the room, so there are steps and levels built right in.

The closer you are to the orchestra pit–the smallest, most exclusive level–the more popular you are. I’d worked hard pretty much my whole life to maintain my status at the pit table (a disgusting name, but not my idea, so whatever). You can’t just coast on your looks. My mother taught me that, in her own messed-up way. Maintaining the illusion of perfection, and being the envy of every other girl in school, took a lot of time and effort, but I gave it my all, and it was worth it.

I mean, take my funeral yesterday, for example. I’d never seen so many people from my school show up in one place. Outside of school, of course. (Thank God my mother had been too “distraught” to attend the graveside service. Emotional outbursts would have been okay. Vomiting into the flower arrangements…not so much.) Anyway, someone had gotten organized and handed out black armbands with my name puffy-painted in pink on them. They brought flowers and candles and boxes of Kleenex. People I didn’t even really know—like that one chunky girl in pre-calc who always wore these ugly baggy sweaters like they made her look thinner…yeah, right—came and cried over my casket. Well, near it anyway.

I’d even heard talk of a permanent photo memorial of yours truly in the main hall, right next to the glass case of baseball and soccer trophies. (As a varsity cheerleader, I can assure you we suck at football, and if the trophy cases were any indication, we had sucked at it since about 1933.)

It sounds bad, but to be perfectly honest, I felt a little relieved to be dead. Not at first, of course. After I’d gotten over the shock of it, I’d been well and truly pissed for a while.Then again, spending the night in the morgue with your body does tend to make you a bit grumpy. All I could think about were all the things I’d be missing. No more hot fudge sundaes on the sly? No more kissing? Or anything else? I’d died a freaking virgin–that was so not the plan.

But then, the next morning, when I’d found myself transported to the center line on Henderson Street, the sun warm on my face, the roar of the buses overhead, I’d realized something else. All the things I wouldn’t miss. Among them, I’d been dreading the thought of college next year. Starting over, building up followers again, and competing with other girls like me from surrounding schools…ugh,
totally exhausting. Now I didn’t have to worry about it. My popularity was frozen forever at its peak. I felt like I’d crossed the finish line of a race that I hadn’t even known I was running. I’d died before I could ruin my life, and while that sort of tanked, in a way it was kind of great, too.

Anyway, after yesterday’s impressive display of mourning, I couldn’t wait to see what my friends would come up with next. Had my fellow cheerleaders, Ashleigh Hicks and Jennifer Meyer, had time to work on the candle-wax sculpture of my face that they’d discussed yesterday between hiccups and sobs?

I picked up my pace, eager to get to the building and take a look at the main hall before the bell rang and everyone started milling around. All those bodies passing through me–they couldn’t see me to avoid me, and I couldn’t dodge all of them–made me feel queasy.

The first sign of something wrong, though, appeared before I got even close to the main hall. Halfway through the parking lot, I caught Katee Goode, a wannabe popular sophomore (third tier in terms of caf tables), glancing around covertly before pulling off the black band around her left arm and letting it drift to the ground.

The fabric caught the brisk breeze and scuttled across the gravel, finally catching on the rough edge of a rock near my feet so I could read the words: Alona Dare, Rest In Peace.

“Hey!” I called in outrage after Katee, but, of course, she didn’t even twitch at the sound of my nonexistent voice.

I crossed my arms over my chest. Fine. Let her be the one weirdo without the black armband. She’d never make the pit table at that rate.

Except as I watched Katee join her group of stupid little sophomore friends, I realized that none of them were wearing armbands anymore either. The cluster of band geeks (fourth tier, better than math geeks but not as good as science geeks because the science geeks could always be counted on to blow something up), just behind Katee’s group of friends, were also black armband”“less.

My heart started pounding a little harder, and a cold film of sweat covered the back of my neck. For being dead, I certainly still “felt” a lot, and right now, that feeling was complete and utter horror.

I turned in a circle, just to be sure, the gravel strangely silent beneath my heels. But no . . . not a single person in view wore the symbol of mourning they’d all so proudly displayed yesterday. How could that be?

Ignoring the long-held instinct to remain calm and look bored, I bolted for the school entrance and the Circle.

Three wooden benches, donated by alumni, made a U shape around the flagpole out front, and this was the
domain of my people. First tier, all the way. The popular crowd had lounged and lingered here for the better part of a decade, handing possession down to the next group of young hopefuls.

The benches were worn smooth by hundreds of perfect asses–like Ben Rogers’s–and the flagpole had borne silent witness to, like, hundreds of pre-first-hour hookups. All of it took place right in front of the office, too, because we could do that. We were “the good kids.” Let a burner try any of
that, and you’d see detention slips flying. I’m not saying it’s fair, just that that’s the way it works. Everybody knows it.

I arrived at the Circle a little out of breath (yeah, I know, dead! Still…) and a lot closer to the bell ringing than I wanted to. It was harder than usual to get through the crowds of students ambling toward the building. I never realized how much I counted on people recognizing me and getting out of my way. Shame that was over.

As seniors, we finally rated seats on the benches, and my friends had taken their usual places. Ben Rogers was stretched out full-length on the bench closest to the parking lot, his group of would-be concubines encircling him. Seriously, all they were missing were the grapes to hand-feed him, and those big Egyptian fans.

No armband on Ben’s Abercrombie-covered arm, butthen again, he hadn’t bothered to wear one yesterday either.

I wended my way through Ben’s future conquests to find Ashleigh and Jennifer, along with Leanne Whitaker, another senior varsity cheerleader, huddled near the flagpole and texting fashion critiques of the unwashed masses in Target jeans and no-name T’s to each other.

They were armband”“less too.

Swallowing the urge to throw up, I turned in a quick circle, looking for the trademark glossy black hair that belonged to my BFF and cheerleading cocaptain, Misty Evans.

After an endless moment, when my heart would have stopped if, you know, it already hadn’t, I found her on the bench farthest from me, half hidden by Leanne and the others.

I could only see Misty’s left shoulder and the side of her head, her ponytail bobbing as she talked to whoever was next to her. That was enough, though, because at the top of her left arm, I caught a glimpse of familiar black fabric and pink lettering.

With a smile of relief, I started toward her, carefully avoiding Miles Stevens as he paced back and forth talking to Ben and Leanne (who refuse to speak to each other for reasons unknown to the rest of us), and then dodging Ashleigh and Jennifer, who decided to ditch Leanne and leap, giggling and squealing, on Jeff Parker’s lap, nearly crushing his guitar in their hurry to pretend to be his groupies.

Ashleigh and Jennifer had been friends since kindergarten, and they did everything together, including buying matching–or at least color-coordinated–outfits for the entire year. It stopped being cute in about seventh grade, but they’d figured out their gimmick and they were sticking with it, no matter what. Just one of the many reasons Leanne called them the Idiot Twins. To their faces. Their response? “Duh. We don’t look anything alike.” Um, yeah. Leanne might be a bitch, but that didn’t make her wrong.

As it turned out, Leanne wasn’t wrong about much.

“God, Misty’s such a whore. Alona’s not even cold yet,” Leanne said to Miles, just as I passed by.

I froze at the sound of my name. In that moment of distraction, Ashleigh–Jennifer right next to her–darted through me; they were trying to get Jeff to chase them. The sensation of her all-too-solid and warm body passing through me stole my breath and rocked my stomach. But even that was not enough to let me miss Miles’s response.

He snorted. “Alona was cold even before she was dead.”

“True dat.” Leanne grinned at him, her freckled face crinkling by her eyes.

I stared at them, stunned. Neither of them had ever talked about me like that before…at least not to my face. I wouldn’t put it past Leanne to talk trash when my back was turned, but Miles? I was the one who freaking brought him into the Circle when he was new here last year. He was the only black kid in our school who wasn’t an athlete. He’d actually been a member of the chess club, for God’s sake, before I saved him. Not that it was entirely selfless or anything. He’d helped me with trig, and in the process, I discovered his ability to run wicked commentary on just about everyone in school. Including me, it seemed. God, what else had he been saying about me?

“Ungrateful dork,” I said in disbelief.

Years of habit had me striding toward Misty to tell her what I’d overheard, before two very obvious things clicked with me. First, Misty wouldn’t be able to hear me. Second, the Leanne and Miles bitchfest about me had actually started as an insult about Misty. Leanne had called her a whore, something Misty would deny, despite her string of one- or two-week relationships with fraternity boys from Milliken, the college in town. High school boys weren’t worth the effort, according to Misty.

I couldn’t figure out what would have triggered Leanne’s assault on her character. It wasn’t like there were any college guys here or that I would have been interested in any of them, even if there were.

But then, when I finally ducked and dodged my way to Misty, everything became clear.

Misty’s black armband with my name on it stood out crisply on the white long-sleeved T-shirt she wore under her cheerleading uniform top. Her black and glossy ponytail (“Condition with mayonnaise and rinse with beer,” she used to advise me) still bobbed with her movement. But she wasn’t talking. She was kissing. My boyfriend.

“Misty!” I shrieked. Of course, she didn’t react. She just kept kissing Chris in front of the whole school. ONE day after my funeral.

I didn’t know if it made me feel better or worse, but he, too, was still wearing his armband. Misty looked exhausted with dark circles under her closed eyes, and her mascara had dried on her cheeks in long tear tracks. But they were kissing.

“Do you think Alona knew about them?” Leanne asked Miles, her words drifting back to me. “I mean, I heard that’s why she threw herself in front of that bus. She found out and couldn’t face them and everybody knowing.”

“I did not throw myself in front of anything,” I shouted at Leanne, though I couldn’t tear my gaze from Misty and Chris. “It was…an accident.”

“I kept waiting for her to see them, and come here andthrow some big screaming fit.” Leanne paused. “Now, that would have been something, right?” Her voice held as much disappointment as evil glee.

“Please, Alona didn’t see anything but Alona,” Miles said.

Pushed to my breaking point, I turned away from Misty and Chris, feeling like I was going to throw up. It didn’t seem likely considering I hadn’t actually eaten anything in three days now, but I wasn’t about to bet against it, given how things had been going. Cold sweat covered my skin, and my stomach lurched alarmingly. I swallowed hard.

“Why else would she be running away from school in the middle of zero hour?” Leanne continued.

“Shut up!” I bent in half, arms cradling my stomach, and realized I could see through my legs. As in, completely through them, like they weren’t even there. From the knees down, I’d started to disappear.

“No!” I howled. This wasn’t fair. I was being taken away now? Why not yesterday when I could have died, or passed on, or whatever, in happiness? And there wasn’t even a white light…not anywhere!

“Maybe she forgot her backup mascara and had to run home for it,” Miles offered, a sneer in his voice.

I jerked my head up to glare at him. I’d told him about my backup-makeup theory in confidence.

Leanne snickered.

I tried to run, to get out of there, but my legs, half gone as they were, wouldn’t work. I collapsed on the grass, watching the line of invisibility climb to the bottom of my shorts. At this rate, I’d be gone in less than a minute.

Unable to help myself, I turned my head to see my former best friend tangling tongues with my former boyfriend, something that was not even a new development, apparently. How long had they been hooking up? How long had they been laughing at me? Misty knew almost everything about me, stuff I didn’t want anyone else to EVER know. She was the only person I’d allowed to come over to my house for years. Had she told Chris all about it? Had Leanne been mocking me behind my back this whole time? Worse yet, what if people had felt sorry for me, Alona Dare?

Hot tears slipped down my cheeks, but when I reached up to wipe them away…no hand.

“No, no, no. This is not fair. This is such bullshit. I do not deserve this. I did everything right!” I sobbed, losing control completely. Crying ruins your makeup, not to mention the eventual cascade of snot you have to deal with, which was why I’d never allowed myself to shed a single tear in the company of these people. But none of them could see me now, and I’d never see any of them again, so who cared, right?

The bell rang, and everyone around me scrambled to gather up backpacks, purses, and guitar cases. Then they walked right through me on their way to the door. First, Jeff, who was quickly followed by Ashleigh and Jennifer (whose minuscule purses did not have any room to hold any kind of candle-wax sculpture, no matter how small). Then Ben sauntered through with an arm around his two chosen underclassmen virgin sacrifices. Leanne actually stood on me and checked her lipstick in her reflection on the shiny surface of her cell phone.

“Bitch,” I spat.

Chris and Misty, holding hands, did not walk through me, but only because they were already close to the door. And besides, hadn’t they walked over me enough?

With only my head left, I watched as the entire school paraded past me, laughing and joking and worrying about pop quizzes like I’d never even existed. Like I hadn’t just tragically died only THREE days ago.

“This is hell. This must be hell,” I said, my voice nasally and clotted with tears.

As if to confirm that fact, Will Killian, the biggest weirdo loser of all time, looked right at me and smirked as he ambled by, just ahead of his pot-smoking buddies.

“Hey,” I shouted, furious. Like he had the right to laugh at me! Even dead, I was more popular than him. He was total loser material, skin so pale he practically glowed, and shaggy black hair that hung down in front of his creepy blue eyes. Seriously, they were so pale, they were almost white. And hello, he acted like such a freak, always wearing headphones and pulling the hood of his sweatshirt up, even inside the building. Rumor had it he’d even spent a summer in some mental hospital somewhere. There wasn’t a tier of popularity low enough to signal where he belonged. And he was laughing at me?

Killian looked away quickly, hunching his shoulders in his sweatshirt and staring at the ground, his usual antisocial, psycho-in-training behavior.

Wait…wait. Something about that…

I frowned, even though I was pretty sure my mouth was gone, and my thoughts were getting fuzzy. If he was laughing at me, that could only mean that he could see me. And that meant…

Chapter Two

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> <img src="" alt="" class="" width="" height="">