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  • Malorie Nilson

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.


“You weren’t yourself yesterday. I mean you were, but extra stressed. Sort of mousy. I barely heard you utter a word all day. Was it because we were called into the Headmaster's office?”


“No. It wasn’t the highlight of my day. You know I hate dealing with adults, but that wasn’t it.” Ophelia looked away.


“What then?” Amry reached out and patted Ophelia’s hand. “It was my anniversary.” Ophelia's voice shook.


“Oh. I’m so sorry. I forgot. No wonder you were a bundle of nerves.”


“It’s okay. It’s over, and time to move on.”


“Hey, what happened to your face?’ Amry reached out but Ophelia quickly retracted.


“Don’t. The damn thing is throbbing. Kyle thought it would be a good idea to throw rocks at my window.” Ophelia’s eyes narrowed.


“Kyle, you’re an idiot.” Amry glared at him.


“What? It was an accident. I told her I was sorry.”


“He did.” Bethany chimed in.


“Can we get on with this? Zachary gets here in twenty minutes.” Ophelia glanced at the antique clock on the wall. "We don't interact, just observe. If any one of us sees Zachary acting strange or doing something he shouldn't, we report it immediately to the Headmaster, right?"


Ophelia trembled as a cool breeze swept across the base of the neck. She shivered. Whipping her head around, a shadow danced across the glass of the large rectangular window toward the back of the room.


"Did you see that?" Ophelia whispered.


"What?" Amry leaned in.


"That shadow? It was right behind us."


"I didn't see anything, but we better get it together. It's almost time." Amry nervously tapped her foot.


“I think he’s here.” Ophelia pointed at the door.


Everyone in the room stopped what they were reading to look up. The air carried a feeling of discontent that wrapped itself around the room squeezing out every drop of pleasure.


Mr. Coal and Mr. Rain wedged the male teen between them, escorting him to the information desk.

Zachary was tall, towering over the khaki twins. Mr. Rain and Mr. Coal didn't seem to notice. They had a firm grip on each of his arms, establishing who was in charge. His tousled brown hair and grey skin were the frame for his bulging blue eyes.


Ophelia tightened the hold on her stomach, leaning forward just enough to sooth the pain. Her anxiety had gone from ten to a hundred in the past twenty seconds.


Zachary scanned the room and stopped when his gaze met Amry. Not the type of girl to back down, she locked his stare with her own. Neither blinked. A maniacal curl of the lip almost led to words vomiting out of his mouth, but Mr. Rain tugged firmly on his arm, knocking Zachary slightly off balance and breaking his link with Amry.


Ophelia let out a long shaky breath. Remaining in solid form took a good portion of their energy. They had agreed to try and remain as opaque as possible, to appear strong. But it took its toll and Ophelia wavered, her celestial fluttered like ripples in the water.


"It’s quite all right, you're dead. Let it go, my dear," A gruff voice scraped her ears.


Ophelia jumped. I guess Mr. Rain's grip wasn't as tight as he thought.


"Miss. The tiny one. Did you hear me?”


Zachary's words disturbed her. Like a knife, they pierced through her ghostly shell and ripped open the cavity where her heart once was. It had been so long since she had seen her family. Her mother and father must have been inconsolable the day she and Haven started their beginning.


It was spring, her favorite season. The trees were growing fat with new, lush green leaves, and flowers bloomed the most brilliant hues of pink, purple and yellow. The air transitioned from an early chill to a mid- morning warmth that was perfect for tea and toast on the sun-drenched porch. Her mother had asked if she would watch Haven for a few hours while both parents did some shopping in town. The following week, her little sister would turn eight and they wanted to surprise her. They were picking up a brand-new dollhouse that her dad had ordered from England.


Ophelia didn’t mind. She liked spending time with her. As siblings go, they were close. Maybe it was the large span of years between them, Ophelia felt more like an aunt than a big sister. Whatever the reason, it was fine with her.


Their parents had been gone for about an hour, and Haven was playing in the front yard. Ophelia had nestled into a rocker on the porch and was reading one of her favorite books, Molly Make-Believe by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott. Rarely did a motor car come down their street, but they had been instructed by their father to stay away when it did. Ophelia set her book on a side table when she heard the honking of a horn in the distance. Standing to see which direction it was coming from, she noticed Haven running out into the road to retrieve a ball that had gotten away.


Ophelia bolted down the five steps and across the lawn in time to see the car coming from the right, and her sister facing the other way. Without a thought, she ran into the middle of the road and wrapped her arms around Haven, before hearing a dissonant thud. When she woke up, her sister was running toward a man standing at the end of the block. She screamed for her to come back, but it was too late. He and Haven were gone.


Through the years she was able to find out the man was a Soul Gatherer. He takes the newly deceased when their spirits are confused and lures them with hope. He especially likes the innocence of children. No one is sure where he keeps them, but a few have been able to escape. Most of them adults. Once they leave, all their knowledge of his location fades away.


Perhaps he can cast a powerful spell, no one is sure. What they can remember, is unending sadness.


Ophelia surmised he must be lost himself. Protectors, like Mr. Coal and Mr. Rain, have tried through the years to find his hidden sanctuary, but each time they get close, he manages to cloak his secret once again. The light had come for her several times over the past one hundred years and it will keep coming, until she finds Haven.


She glared back at Zachary, who was being led out of the library. A sigh of relief escaped her lips. He was going to be trouble.

***


Alex McKenna caught himself as his chin slid down his left hand. Nodding o in class was beginning to be a habit. The past few weeks after the Geranium murders had been rough on sleep. Playing the vision of losing Tom Kirkpatrick to the dark spirit over and over in his head left little time to relax. It was his self- appointed restitution for his part in Tom's demise. Alex glanced out of one of the large rectangular windows in the classroom. The grey, dingy shadow looming over the parking lot was not the scenic view Alex had expected. But his math class faced east, the stunning asphalt view was its reward. As his glare intensified, the black top of the ground below mesmerized him. Lulling his tired body into a light trance. He hadn't noticed the sudden drop in temperature surrounding him, until a gust of cold air graced the nape of his neck.


Twitching, it sent shivers down his vertebrae. From the corner of his right eye, a shadow danced across the room. Alex whipped his head around; the air was still. Was this his mind screaming desperately for sleep, or was there something here? He inhaled a deep breath through his nose and exhaled through his mouth to calm his senses. Nothing. He just might be going crazy from lack of REM sleep.


Popping a breath freshener in his mouth, he prayed the minty freshness would keep sleep at bay.



CHAPTER TWO

GHOSTS TAKE A SHOWER?


Ophelia shot up, tossing her fluffy down comforter aside, it draped to the floor. A ripple of fear stroked her ghostly spine and she shuddered. Padding her feet on the cherry wood floor, the cold cut through them like a knife. What was happening to her? She tried to cast o her latest dream, but she couldn't. Haven was out there somewhere, waiting for her to come. Normally her visions were safe. Haven playing with her toys, Ophelia teaching her how to ride a bike, fun things. But this time it was dierent. A black haze surrounded the little girl, closing in, it covered her tiny body until there was nothing left.


Days like this were the hardest. The guilt surrounding Haven’s abduction overwhelmed her. She brought her hands to her head and squeezed, the vice grip did little to alleviate the pressure that was building like a geyser in her brain. If she were like everyone else, sleep would alleviate the pain she felt. But she wasn't. It wasn't clear why she still felt the warmth of the sun, or the simple pleasure of a shower each morning. No one else in the Academy still had human ties to life like she did. Her friends tried to understand. Amry, her best friend, did better than most. However, people often fear what they don't understand. That was something her father used to say.


She decided to take a trip to see the resident healer at the Academy. Dominique Dunworthy had started her beginning about a year ago. Transitioning between the living and the ever after, her soul was sent to the Academy to wait. Being a trained psychiatrist, the council thought it would be wise to use her skills for some of the younger souls that were having difficulty.


Ms. Dunworthy had a small office on the other side of campus behind the library. Normally an appointment was preferred, but Ms. Dunworthy often made an exception for Ophelia. Considering her strange ties with the living world, the doctor was both intrigued and concerned, therefore she gave Ophelia an open-door policy.


Normally she would wait, but this morning her insides were twisted in knots. This dream was too much to handle on her own, she needed help.


Three knocks on the red door gained entrance to the one person equipped to answer Ophelia's questions.


"Good morning Ophelia, come, sit down. You caught me at just the right time. I don't have another appointment for thirty minutes. How are you doing?"


Ms. Dunworthy sat in a large black leather chair that swiveled when she pushed the ground with her feet. Her blonde hair lay loose, cascading over the top of her shoulders, and gold rim glasses surrounded her soft brown, almond shaped eyes. Insisting on a white lab coat when she met her beginning, the staff conceded because she was a doctor. Normally, no one got a choice. You're given an outfit from the time period you lived in; they say it helps to keep a newly transitioned soul more comfortable.


A well-kept secret, everyone arrives in their birthday suit.


"I'm okay. Not really. I had a dream last night that really upset me." Ophelia fidgeted with the hem of her dress.


"Hmm. I'm still getting used to hearing you say that," Ms. Dunworthy said gently.


"What?" Ophelia cocked her head.


"You were dreaming. One day we're going to figure that out. For now, though, let's address what's upsetting you. Tell me about the dream."


"I see Haven. At first, she's smiling and happy. The sun is shining and there's a golden glow surrounding her. But something startles her, she twitches, and the darkness begins to devour the light. Inch by inch it crawls closer to her. She collapses on the ground and draws her knees to her chest. Then she tucks her head down, not looking at the shadows that are about to swallow her. She yells out a name, Alex! And then she's gone. The blackness takes her."


Ophelia waited for a response, but Ms. Dunworthy just sat for a moment with her eyes narrowed, and back stiff. When she finally spoke, the explanation frightened Ophelia more than the dream.


"Did either of you know anyone by that name in life?" The doctor leaned forward.


"No. Why do you ask?" Ophelia squirmed in her chair.


"I don't believe this was a dream. I believe your sister was reaching out."


"Why do you say that?"


"The name. If you had both known an Alex in life, I'd say coincidence perhaps. But you didn't. Therefore, I think this is someone Haven wants you to know about, or maybe it's the name of the man holding her. Either way, I strongly believe she is attempting communication."


Ophelia's brow furrowed. This was not the explanations she'd expected.


"What can I do? I've tried every avenue I know to find her, but I have nothing." Ophelia quaked inside.


"Wait and see if she comes to you again, but this time, try communicating with her. Be aware of yourself in the vision. She’s searching for you, but you're the beacon. That gives you more control than you realize. Try to find out who Alex is."


Ms. Dunworthy stood up and walked over to Ophelia. She bent down and gently squeezed her hand.


"You will find her. I feel it. Pay attention Ophelia, the answers are there if you let them in."


Ophelia forced a smile before getting up and thanking the doctor for her help. Floating back to her dorm room, she trembled from the unsettling weight in her chest. Something told her she was running out of time.


***


Amry was lying on her bed when Ophelia got home. She was quiet, avoided her usual greeting as Ophelia closed the door. Another, less pressing issue than Haven's whereabouts was Amry's change in personality the past week. Normally, Amry was, well—Amry. Smiles and happiness were a daily outfit, but Ophelia wondered what was really going on inside, when the glee turned to gloom. Amry had taken an interest in a junior, Jerey Wright. They started spending nights together in the courtyard just outside Ophelia and Amry's dorm window. But without warning one evening, just after they kissed goodnight, Jerey took the light. Amry was stunned. She never mentioned a word about him again. Ophelia tried to gently coax her friend to confide in her what might have happened, but it was useless.


"I didn't think you'd be here. Don't you have that group thing for science?" Ophelia swirled around the room searching for her notebook.


"It got canceled." Amry pulled the pillow over her head.


"Oh. That's too bad. Why did it get canceled?'


"I canceled it,” her voice mued.


"You? Why?" Ophelia sat down next to her friend.


"Because I wanted to. End of story. What were you doing out so early?"


"I went to see Ms.


"Why? What's wrong?'


"Bad dreams." Ophelia floated to her own bed.


"About?" Amry rolled over.


"I'll tell, if you will." Ophelia narrowed her eyes.


"Tell what?" Amry snapped.


"Why you think Jerey left."


"I don't know."


"Yes, you do."


Amry glided up toward the ceiling and disappeared. In moments, she walked through the front door and plopped down on her bed. She held a letter in her hand.


"Where did you go? And what's that?" Ophelia stretched her neck to get a better look.


"My locker. This was waiting for me the morning after Jerey left.”


Amry,

I don't think I could ever express how much you mean to me. If we had been lucky enough to know each other during our breather years, I know I would have wanted to spend every minute with you. But the light has come for me several times lately, and I have you to thank for that. Never being in love was my burden. It stopped me from moving on and reuniting with my family. I know you'll never leave if Ophelia is still searching for Haven. I get it, I really do. You're as good a friend as you are a love, but it's my time and I didn't want to give you added pressure. I know you would have refused, and this way is easier for both of us. I hope one day you can forgive me.


Eternally yours, Jerey


Amry let the letter fall from her fingers and float to the floor. "What the skilamalink? How did he get it in your locker if he was already gone?" Ophelia gritted her teeth.


"He asked his friend Oliver to put it there after the light came for him again." Amry pulled the comforter up to her neck and folded into a fetus pose. "I thought getting a scoundrel like Zachary Kowal at the Academy might take my mind off of it. I tried to push it down deep, keep up the smiles, but yesterday Oliver approached me after the last class. Told me how much Jerey really did love me, how it was so hard for him. If it was so damn hard, then why did he go?" Amry's voice was shaky.


"I wish I knew. I'll never understand boys." Ophelia bit her lower lip. "They do the strangest things.'


"Your turn." Amry sat up. "Spill. What's going on?"


Ophelia explained her recent dream about Haven, the name Alex, and Ms. Dunworthy's interpretation.

"Visions, huh. Do you think she's right?" Amry snapped the letter up from the !oor and place it under her pillow.


"I don't know, but I'm going to try out her advice. It can't hurt. There's something else, though."


"What's that?"


"I got a feeling like Haven's running out of time." Ophelia glanced out the window. The clouds rolling in soaked up the last drop of sunlight, casting a dark silhouette in the courtyard. "I need to find out who this Alex is, and what he means to Haven.




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