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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Alex McKenna & the Academy of Souls by Vicki-Ann Bush



After surviving a harrowing case, Alex McKenna just wanted to rest. Unfortunately, his plans are interrupted by the ghost of Seven-year-old Haven, who is lost in an in-between realm.   Despite his great-grandmother's warning, Alex crosses the bridge between the living and the dead, sending him and his girlfriend into the world of the Academy of Souls, a high school for dead teens who are unable to complete their journey.   There, Alex meets Ophelia, Haven's teenage sister, who's been searching for her for more than a century. Together, with a few friends he meets along the way, Alex must cross the treacherous terrain of the Underworld in-between, to save Haven from clutches of the Soul Gatherer and reunite the sisters.


Join Alex McKenna, Ophelia, and Haven on this harrowing journey through life after death, the importance of family, and the gift of second chances in Alex McKenna & the Academy of Souls by Vicki-Ann Bush—out TUESDAY!



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CHAPTER ONE

WELCOME TO THE ACADEMY OF SOULS


Alex scooped his hands underneath Margaret's bottom and pulled her onto his lap.


"Hey McKenna, what do you think you're doing?" she pretended to push him away.


"Just getting warm,” Alex flashed her a grin and pulled her closer “It's extra chilly tonight and I’ve waited a long time to do this with you.”


" I know what you mean,” Margaret snuggled close. “We were friends and then... I like us this way better.”


Margaret curled her arms around his neck and gently kissed it and then his cheek. "Unfortunately, I have to go home."


"Really? I thought we were gonna watch a movie." Alex held her tighter.


"No. You thought we were gonna watch a movie. I told you I needed to finish studying for that test tomorrow,” she said. “Thank the gods there's only a few weeks left before Christmas vacation. I'm worn out. Speaking of which, you'd better get some sleep tonight. The dark circles under your eyes may be very I, Zombie, but they don't look good on you." Margaret placed her hands on his chest and pushed herself up.


"Ouch. A zombie, huh?"


"Well if the drool fits. Come on, walk me to the door please." Margaret slipped on her gray wool coat.


"I'll walk you to the car. Let me grab my hoodie." Alex pulled a black hoodie o the edge of the couch.


"Always the gentlemen." She blew him a kiss.


The open door released a gush of arctic air, plastering an icy veil over their bodies.


"Jesus. Damn it's cold." Alex blew pus of breath into the night air. Like miniature white clouds, they floated, disappearing under the midnight blue sky.


After Margaret was in the car with the heater blasting, he reached in through the open window and gave her a last kiss goodnight. With promises to text when she got home, he waved as the dark green Honda pulled away. Scurrying to get inside, he slammed the door behind him and latched the deadbolt.


***


No one hated tenth grade as much as Ophelia. Ninth was bad enough, it was the start of four years of horror, but tenth was the middle. Too old to be a kid, too young to be anything else. Of course, that was at the high school she attended before her beginning.


At the Academy of Souls, four years could easily turn into an unending loop of history, math, and science. Time could be your worst enemy.


Sitting in the Grand Hall for assembly, Ophelia nervously scanned the aisles for her friends. Unlike them, confidence didn't come easy.

The Grand Hall reminded Ophelia of a short film she once saw about Radio City Music Hall in NYC. The red, brocade drapes, and feathery, gold tassels framing the stage and drawing the eye to one of the many rich patterns throughout a masterpiece of design, mimicked the well-known theater. A warm glow, emanating from gas-fueled sconces, reflected the black and gold Victorian wallpaper. Oversized seats, cushioned velvet and stued for supreme comfort, filled both levels accommodating the entire student body and staff.


Amry was the first to induct Ophelia into what would become her sanctuary. She was seventeen when she died, only two years older than Ophelia, but they couldn’t be more different. Her best friend was fearless, beautiful, and confident. She was the envy of every girl, and the desire for most of the boys. But her striking appearance was only enhanced by her inner beauty. Amry was not a cliché. She was the reason Ophelia was whole. Arriving at the Academy years after the ill-fated day Ophelia and Haven started their beginning, Amry’s persistence and kindness lifted her out of the dark lonely place of despair she had chosen to preside in. Amry never gave up on her. Day after day, she'd visit Ophelia in her dorm, and eventually she was able to persuade Headmaster Abernathy to move her into the same room. Amry stayed with her when there were no classes, sometimes in complete silence. Just to be a presence, to show she cared. Eventually Ophelia started to come around. Amry saved her.


Ophelia spotted her gliding down the hall, two aisles over. “Amry!” Ophelia flailed her arms.


Spinning to find the direction of her friend’s voice, Amry grinned when she spotted two pale arms waving above the crowd’s heads.


“Hey, where’s everybody?” Amry settled in her seat.


“I don’t know, but if they are not here soon, the security crazed Dictator Dick will write them up, and Kyle can’t aord any more negatives. He doesn’t do well con"ned to the dorms.”


Army slumped down in her seat, twirling the ends of her chestnut hair around her "nger. Her translucent green eyes smiled at Ophelia.


“I wonder how he got that name anyway?”


“Richard Cander. Richard—Dick, and he’s a power jerk. Dictator Dick, Ophelia grinned.


“You’re always so polite, Ophelia.” Amry nudge her.


“What do you mean?” Ophelia’s eyes widened.


“He’s a power jerk? Everyone knows he’s a mean bastard.”


“I don’t know. Bastard is a strong word. I think he’s trying to keep things in order, and sometimes it comes off like he’s nasty or doesn’t care. But I think it’s the opposite. You know I have reservations about using curse words. My mother and father would have been mortified.”


“Sometimes I forget you’re from 1910. People were so much more relaxed in the 1970’s. Before I died in ’79, me and my friends were saying some other things far worse than bastard.” Amry grinned. “Our little Ophelia, always seeing the good in people. That’s what I love about you, Lia,” said Amry, using her nickname for Ophelia.


“That’s just it, though. If he did, chances are he would have a harder time getting everyone to listen. This way, we may not like him, but he gets the job done.” Ophelia frowned.


“Potato, patato. Either way, Kyle’s ass is grass if he’s not here in the next two minutes.”


“Whose ass is grass? And why would anyone want an ass made from grass?” Kyle plopped in the seat next to Amry.


“There you are. Dictator Dick is getting ready to introduce the Headmaster and you almost missed the opening pledge.


You’re already skating on thin ice with him. One more, Kyle and...”


“I know. My ass is grass.” Kyle smirked.


Kyle Burkletter was the embodiment of a California boy. Golden blonde locks down to his shoulders, blue green eyes, and a tight surfer’s physique. Ophelia bet he was probably tan most of the year when he was living, but now a ghostly white replaced any color life would have given him.


“Hey, what I miss?” Bethany slid next to him.


Bethany Smithson was the doppelganger for the 1970’s it girl, Farrah Fawcett. Or at least that's what Kyle told her. Ophelia didn't know for sure, never seeing Farrah Fawcett, but she took his word for it. It seemed perfect that they had paired up though, two beach beauties both from the seventies themselves.


Kyle leaned in, softly brushing his lips against Bethany's. A deep blue spark flashed, the result of a small electrical charge when two souls came together.


“Nothing much. We were just discussing the botanical growth on my ass,” Kyle laughed.


“What?” Bethany’s brows furrowed.


“Never mind. He’s being an idiot.” Amry shook her head. Dictator Dick took center stage, adjusting the microphone to a comfortable level and the lights dimmed twice indicating it was time for silence.


“It is my pleasure to introduce the creator of the Academy of Souls and our beloved Headmaster, Barnabas Abernathy.”


Mr. Abernathy appeared on stage in his usual grand entrance. A man with a flair for the dramatic stood as smoke billowed around him hazing the purple spotlight circling his frame; all of it a contradiction to his plain black suit. His long white hair pulled back in a neat ponytail, added a softness to the many lines in his face. Abernathy had been around for nearly a thousand years. Joining the old ways of education and blending it with modern day, he guided with a stern hand but a soft heart.


Standing center stage, he cleared his throat. The raspy strain resonated into the microphone and drifted out to the enormous room, filling the space with command, and gaining recognition from the students.


“Attention! Attention everyone! Nice to see you're all looking fine today and on time, Mr. Burkletter.” Abernathy eyeballed Kyle.


“Right on, Headmaster.” Kyle flashed a peace sign.


“I wonder why those other men are on stage with him.” Ophelia whispered.


“Why and who? They’re like the secret service, only not.” Amry stretched her neck.


“You having trouble seeing?”


“Yeah. It’s okay. I’m not so sure I want to,” Amry chuckled. “What did you mean?” Ophelia leaned in closer.


“Check it out, Lia. Notice they’re wearing khakis and golf shirts. Have you ever seen the Secret Service dress like that? I mean on all the occasions they came here attached to some political parody; did they ever wear anything other than a dark suit?”


“You have a point.”


“Their clasped hands, straight posture, and scouring of the surroundings, suggests something similar. Maybe military. I guess we’re about to find out.”


Mr. Abernathy motioned for the two gentlemen to move forward. They stepped up, framing the Headmaster.


“I’d like to introduce Mr. Coal and Mr. Rain.” Their benign last names didn’t fit their ready for action stance. “They'll be monitoring the halls for the next few weeks. Pay no attention to them and continue to go about your daily business. They'll do their best not to interfere with you,” he said. “Mr. Coal and Mr. Rain are an addition to the security team. Being entry level sorcerers, I think they'll be a welcome aide to the Academy, and to Mr. Cander, who I'm sure can use the help with some of you unruly students." The Headmaster glared at Roger Mooring, who sat in the first row. A penance he was given because of his outburst at the last assembly.


"Did you see Headmaster look directly at Roger?" Amry whispered, "That boy is nothing but trouble."


“How can you tell it’s him? All I see is the back of their heads.” Ophelia frowned.


“Because he’s the only airhead who would be in the front row and catch the Headmaster’s attention. The rest of them are copasetic.”


"Now, this brings me to the nature of our assembly today. I need all of you to listen intently to what I’m about to tell you. We'll be getting a new student tomorrow, Zachary Kowal. This is the main reason Mr. Rain and Mr. Coal will be joining us.” The Headmaster let his gaze travel from the two men to the teens.


“Mr. Kowal has a dark history. The council wanted to send him directly to The Nowhere. But I have hope for him. I’m instructing all of you to stay away from him for now. If he's in your class, be mindful of his presence, but try to avoid engaging. Your safety is very important to me as well. I'll need time to fully assess his capability for rehabilitation. After which, his fate will be determined.”


“All right, he’s starting to scare me.” Ophelia rubbed her forearms.


“Chill. It'll be okay.”


Ophelia glanced at her friend. Amry was always the textbook definition of calm. The girl took things as they came. Her motto was, don't sweat the small stu. They were already dead, how much worse could it really get?


Ophelia wanted to be more like that, but she was born with a very dierent kind of psyche. In the dictionary, her picture would be right next to the word anxiety.


There was a low buzz of voices echoing through the room.


“Quiet, please. When I ask you for complete cooperation, I expect it," demanded the Headmaster.


“That's all for now, you may all go back to class. Except for you, Miss Wetherton, Miss Goodman, Miss Smithson and of course, the fourth member of your merry men, Mr. Burkletter. I would like all of you to meet me in my office promptly.” Mr. Abernathy glided off stage.


Ophelia sat unable to speak. She wiped the moisture off her palms on the sides of her pants. Struggling to swallow past the lump in her throat, she began taking quick shallow breaths.


“Lia, you okay?” Amry rubbed her back.


Ophelia closed her eyes and concentrated on slowing her breathing to a normal pace.


“Damn. I still can’t figure out how you do that.” Kyle stood up.


“Kyle. Stop it, don’t be such a drag.” Bethany grabbed his hand and tugged him forward.


“I’m just saying. How is that even possible?”


“Never mind. Come on, let’s go.” She led him toward the doors.


“You guys go on ahead. We’ll be there in a minute.” Amry smiled.


Ophelia knew why Kyle was confused. She was confused. It never made any sense how anxiety could still overwhelm her. And the breathing, she couldn’t even begin to understand where that came from.


“Hey, it's okay. We'll stay here as long as we need to.” Amry caressed Ophelia's hair.


“We better go. I don't want Abernathy to be upset with us." Ophelia got up.


Floating up the aisle, the only thought Ophelia could focus on was, why did the Headmaster pick them? And what for?


The halls were brimming with chatter from students rushing to class, but all Ophelia could see were the large double Mahogany doors leading into Abernathy's office.


The Headmaster’s office was a close second to the Grand Hall when it came to luxury. A century-old cherry desk was the focal point of the room. Headmaster Abernathy was seated, hands folded, and posture erect. Mr. Coal and Mr. Rain were on the left side of the room, each man sat on a yellow and blue, floral wing-back chair. They were as stiff in the office as they had been on stage. Dictator Dick was a different story. His grin was so wide, the Cheshire cat would’ve been jealous. He took up space in a small chair to the right.


“Come in children. Sit, please.” Headmaster motioned toward a plush four-cushion couch with a light blue paisley print, positioned in front of his desk.


Ophelia trembled. She hated confrontation of any kind. She wedged herself between Amry and Bethany. The friend sandwich was comforting.


“I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you here. I need more eyes and ears than we have available right now. I'm not asking you to befriend Mr. Kowal, just keep a watchful eye."


“Why us?” Kyle leaned forward.


“None of you display any initiative to be a part of other social activities. Other than the time you spend together, you keep to you yourselves. You won't attract unwanted attention.”


“So, what, we’re on the chopping block now?” Kyle’s tone was snarky, "You said this guy is dangerous.”


“That is precisely why I'm asking you to merely observe. You can report to me anything out of the ordinary that you might witness this boy do. However, you must keep this little assignment quiet. Understood?”


Kyle reluctantly nodded.


Ophelia looked over at Amry who was frowning.


“Mr. Abernathy?” Ophelia timidly raised her hand. “Ophelia my dear, this isn’t a classroom. Put your hand down and speak.”


“What has this boy done?”


“Done?” Mr. Abernathy raised a brow.


“You said he was bad in life, and you trying to save him,” Ophelia squeaked.


“I believe his life on earth wasn't a good one. He was thrown into the world with no one. His mother died when he was barely six years old; being forced to fend for himself from such an early age hardened him. I want to try and give him the chance in death he didn't have in life. I am trying to redeem his soul." Abernathy crossed his hands on the desk.


Ophelia looked away. The thought of a soul being sent to The Nowhere, churned the faux acids in her stomach. “Headmaster, isn't our safety important? I don't understand?"


“I don’t think any of us do, Lia.” Amry stood up. “What's really going on?”


“Tone, Miss Goodman.” Mr. Abernathy hued, “This is a delicate matter that will need your...”


“Stop. Just tell us.” Amry folded her arms.


“This is bogus, quit taking the long way around,” Kyle said firmly.


“Zachary Kowal is my sister's son. I promised her right before she crossed over that I would do everything to save him."


The four gasped. Ophelia locked eyes with Amry as she slid back into her space on the couch, and the room fell silent.


Headmaster Abernathy nodded at Dictator Dick. He turned to an over-sized étagère on the wall behind his chair and opened the perfectly crafted doors to reveal six drawers. Sliding open the first storage box, he pulled out a manila folder and placed it on the desk in front of the teens.


“Open it.” Mr. Abernathy nodded his head.


Amry reached out, and !ipped the folder revealing multiple sheets of paper.


“All your questions can be answered in this "le. We will give you a few minutes to review it, and then the rest is up to you."


After the four men left the room, the group huddled together reading the contents of the damned boy’s life.


"This guy’s past reads like a gangster rap sheet. Robbery, assault—kidnapping! We're all gonna wind up in The Nowhere because he's gonna put us there," Kyle exclaimed.


“Kyle’s right. We’re screwed.” Bethany slouched down in the seat.


"Zachary Kowal is the son of Marianne Abernathy. Huh..." Ophelia bit her lip.


"What's huh?" Kyle leaned in.


"He died a long time ago; I wonder why Headmaster didn't bring him here sooner?"


"Who cares?" Kyle furrowed his brow.


"It's just weird, that's all." Ophelia kept reading. "Says Zachary was banished to the in-between for over five-hundred years. I wonder what that is?" Ophelia's eyes widened.


"Sort of like a doorway. On one side your room, on the other, the dorm hallway. He was standing directly in the doorway." Amry grinned. "There are many in-betweens. It just depends on which one he was sent to. I mean what he saw on either side. Either way it's a cruddy existence. You're basically trapped in a world of nothing."


"How did you know that?" Ophelia asked.


"Right after I got here, I met a student who was rescued from one of the in-between worlds. He accidentally slipped into a portal that had been opened by Headmaster. Don't ask me why he opened it, I don't know,” she paused and after a moment she continued “But he did, and the trail of space looped around this boy’s essence and puff, he was there. It was only a minute or two before Abernathy reeled him back, but it was long enough for him to give a pretty good description. Of which I was forbidden to say anything about by Dictator Dick. So, keep it quiet." Amry placed her pointer finger over her mouth.


"That’s phooey. This Zachary is probably a basket case right now. Top that off with his love for crime and we're better than screwed, we're all next on a long list of victims the Academy will present him," Kyle snapped.


“We don’t have a choice.” Amry read the pages again. "He was abandoned and treated like dirt."


“The Headmaster picked us for a reason. I’m not happy about this either. But if it could save his soul?” Ophelia's voice trailed off.


“He's not a stray puppy dog, Ophelia. He's gonna cause real trouble for all of us." Kyle shoved his chair back. “This is a drag, man.”


Ophelia turned away.


“Stop. All of you. Kyle, shut up. Lia, turn back around and Bethany, well, you're fine. We don’t have a choice. We may not like it, but this is how it is. This guy is going to be here. We do our best to help the Headmaster, end of story. Agreed?” Amry tapped her fingers on the desk. “I said, agreed?”

Kyle and Bethany mumbled a reluctant yes, and Ophelia half smiled.


“Okay then, I’ll go tell them we’re ready for tomorrow.”


***


Ophelia barely slept. The trepidation of their new job left her with too many questions to count. She held her head, envisioning the havoc Zachary wreaked when he was alive. A shiver ran down her spine. Well, it felt like where her spine would be if she still had one.


A harsh thump on her dorm room window startled Ophelia into the now. Turning toward the window she saw a barrage of small stones hit the glass. Frowning, she quickly walked over to see who the pitcher was—Kyle.


Releasing the latch, she pulled up the window just in time to be a recipient of a second handful of the hard minerals. A larger rock hit her square between the eyes. Wincing, Ophelia cupped the bridge of her nose.


“Ouch! What are you doing, Kyle?” Ophelia tried to rub away the pain.


“Sorry. I guess I should have just come up.”


“Uh, yeah. That would have been less dangerous for me.” Ophelia continued rubbing.


“You okay?” Kyle’s voice tenuous.


“I’m fine. What do you want?”


“We’re all meeting in the library in about thirty minutes.


The girls are already there. Amry said she forgot to set the alarm to get you up. She had that early science class.”


“So, are you the errand boy?” Ophelia asked, sarcastically.


“No. Well, kind of. I had to go back to my room for something, and you were on the way. I volunteered.”


“Okay, you’ve done your job. I’ll be there in a few minutes. First, I need to shower and get dressed.” She stuck her tongue out.


“I deserved that. I’ll see you there.” Kyle briskly crossed the lawn.


Ophelia went to the bathroom and turned on the shower. She was the only one of her friends who still maintained the morning ritual. She gazed in the mirror while waiting for the water to steam. Squinting her eyes, she leaned in for a better view. Yup, a knot the size of a nickel angrily sat between her eyes.

Ugh, how do these things keep happening?


A haze of hot mist blurred her reflection, she took the cue and stepped into the box of steam. Standing under the rain of comfort, her body relaxed as she soaked in the peace. She had a feeling this would be the only quiet for a while. Life at the Academy was about to get a whole new meaning.


After a few minutes of bliss, she turned o the water and toweled o. Another aspect of the living she could leave behind, and yet, something kept drawing her in to perform even the most mundane tasks of the life she once knew. When she was ready, she opted for a stroll instead of gliding. It took a few minutes longer, but she enjoyed basking in the sunshine.


Ophelia rounded the corner of the library and slid through the honey oak doors. Her friends were seated at one of the many rectangular tables in the center of the room. Surrounded on all four sides by books dating back to the twelfth century, Ophelia stood for a moment taking in the aroma. It tickled her nostrils and surrounded her mind with exhilaration. She was the sponge to the waterfall of knowledge contained in this room. Its sole purpose to deliver pleasure to her waiting senses.


“Over here. What are you doing?” Amry smiled.


“Just taking it all in.” Ophelia sat down.


“Honestly, you make me laugh. You're here just about every day of the week and it still excites you.”


“Yup. There’s so much to learn. The information is practically endless. Why, don’t you feel like that?”


“Well, sure. I like coming here, but it doesn’t quite affect me the same way. Are you okay today?”


“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?” Ophelia’s eyes widened.