Just days ago, Madelyn Jacobs thought not getting into any of her top three colleges or snagging the guy who serenaded the summer stars were the biggest nightmares in her life. That was before being raped by her best friend’s boyfriend. That was before being put in aby the jealous bitch when she misinterpreted the scene. That was before trying to function after waking up all broken and torn, only to have a demon or something bust into her bedroom and tag her as The Keeper of some freakin’ list.
When the first person of ten dies in her presence, that’s way freaky. The second time, it’s bloodcurdling. She can’t avoid people, she tries. She can’t run, she tries. An unseen hand always ushers her to the next demise, randomly shows her the list, in windows, in mirrors, on scraps of paper, even behind closed lids, and makes her feel more powerless than ever. And the sweet singer she loves now stands at number seven. As tattered as she is, can she find a way to break the curse before others die and the lover of her heart is gone forever?
Sometimes when a person awakens from a coma, even a thirty-seven-hour one, things can be all out of whack. But no one said anything about weird, freakin’ noises. What the hell was that? Wasn’t I in my room, steeling myself for an execution by sneers and those catty, you-don’t-know-shit whispers?
I pinched my arms as I whirled around and around, then palmed my head, groaning. Um, spinning when you’re fresh out of a coma, not brilliant. Okay, definitely awake. I know I heard it, some intercom thingy, paging Dr. Grant Taylor. So familiar. Oh! The coach. Facing the Giants. More religion than football. What a cheat.
Sure, my head didn’t feel exactly right, even with the two days’ rest, but I didn’t think I required veggie dip or sponge bath supplies. Am I truly that wrecked? This certainly shoved me closer to crazy. Well…whatever. Can’t stress about it now…not when I had birds to kill.
A concussion afflicted me, along with a hideous stitched-up abrasion on my forehead and its lovely neighbor, the most stubborn zit ever to plague a face, having survived three weeks of intense chemical warfare. That flaming boil was a cherry on top of my calamity. And when I refer to those synthetic sundae toppers, it means I’ve been jerked down another level in hell and some Deity is likely laughing about it. Fucking die already! Really. Die.
Bending toward the mirror, I promptly laid waste to a chunk of frontal locks, killing two albatrosses with one proverbial stone. I puffed and fingered my new fringe. Good enough, I guess, but let’s be real. Even an extreme makeover couldn’t unmake me the senior chick with the psychotic best friend, who’d bludgeoned her with a rusty pipe from her garage.
When she caught her boyfriend freakin’ ripping me to shreds and smearing blood from my pillaged cherry all over her stupid floral sheets, she’d assumed the worst. Yeah. Let everyone think I’m a skank too. Maybe they’ll shun a traitor.
And cherry. See what I mean? Deeper hell.
I blinked away the burn in my eyes, but the one in my chest held strong. With morning crews lying about me, I’d long since ditched the radio for the comforting sounds of a broken dawn. When I closed my eyes to drink it all in, no strange blips flew out at me again.
My ceiling fan buzzed, chain chinking against a peacock globe, and box fan harmonized. Yeah, I like fans, okay? What an especially warm spring anyway. Not like there’s air in this old farmhouse. Random birds tried to outshine a soloist songbird–nice try—and a mower munched some lawn. Hope Ms. McKenzie’s, ’cause her black cat, Jinx, kept getting lost in the treacherous jungle of weeds. As the sweetness of freshly hacked greenery and gutted wildflowers hit my nose, I reopened my eyes with a zippy perusal, finding purple, purple, purple. Yep. My digs. Maybe it was just a neighbor’s TV or something.
As I tugged on a force field of toughness with the deepest breath of my life, I heard, “Psych to the E.R. stat! Security stat! Code white.” A shiver thrashed me. What the heck! Are you kidding me! Was I being punked or something? This was not cool. Not funny!
I turned every which way, and though I knew it was off, I checked my radio anyway, shifting it on and off again. It could’ve been a walkie-talkie or whatever. But whose? Where? That was hospital chatter for sure. And I’m not in the hospital. Not!
I lunged for my window—fan whipping my honey-colored locks wild—and eyeballed my sun-drenched ’hood. No utility trucks grumbled in orange-cone surrounds. No cars rushed this way. Rarely did. The only sight worthy to behold was Johnny.
Shirtless, California-bronzed and divinely lustrous with sweat, Johnny attacked the tangles with the ancient, sputtering chopper. My heart leapt at the surprise of him. Leapt. Racing now. Great! That rapidly beating betrayer of mine needed a serious reality check, bitch slap or somethin’. I suppose, it was understandable. I mean, he was beautiful and heroic, having returned from his faraway land to care for his ever-ailing aunt. Maybe he’ll stay months this time.
Though I’ll be eighteen in two months, and twenty’s not much older really, last summer, he’d spurned all my ploys of seduction, even the dirty dance I lured him into at the barbeque. Oh how I wish he woulda caved, since…since…
Well…now the bearer of black, thorny roses instead of hot and heavy dreams, I didn’t give a rat’s ass that his affection didn’t bounce back. Screw it.
A footboard creaked outside my door, suspending my fascination with the drool fest and the creepy page. I turned and slapped my mouth, blocking a shriek. Goose bumps broke out all over me and my stomach lurched. Someone, or something, passed by the sliver of openness.
The dark—yes, dark—presence outside pressed as my biggest concern. The undeniable stench of evil stung my nose and stirred nausea. Not that I’ve ever smelled evil before, but when you do, you just know. Every inch of you knows it. I seized the Louie from my closet and stood, poised by the door, ready to strike. I waited. Nothing happened. My breaths morphed into wheezy huffs.
Someone evil was here. I had no idea who. My body shook, teeth chattered.
Brody? I should’ve told the doctors, the cops, my mom. I shouldn’t be allowing a rapist to roam free, but there’s no way in hell I’m sharing my pain, not with nosey pros, not with anyone.
Some piece of blue paper drifted before my eyes, so featherlike, but I didn’t see where it had come from since my focus had been glued on the door. It snaked down to my floral area rug.
“Madelyn Jacobs,” a masculine—if you could call it that—voice said behind me. I screamed and spun, finding no one there. “Your predecessor is gone. You’ve been chosen as the new keeper of the list,” it added with the slobbering snarl of a Doberman, if one could talk.
I fled down the stairs with the bat, hacking the air with machete swings to strike down anything that got in my way.
When I nearly reached the bottom, some clawing grasp tripped me with a pain that sliced down my calf and I collided with the wood floor. My cries erupted shrill and shattered as I scampered up and fidgeted with the doorknob, that, of course, chose this moment to stick.
Victorious and free, I departed in a blaze without eating breakfast, without snatching my backpack, without dropping the bat. I just ran, surely breaking world records with my streak.
The fans still whirred back in my room. I may or may not have locked the door. I couldn’t recall if I’d actually turned the brass diamond but had no desire to go back and check.
Johnny shouted a jovial hello when I raced by. His face scrunched, as he probably wondered why I was running with a bat and maybe why I hadn’t waved back. At the correct knoll, I bounced on my heels. Come on. Come on. Doctor’s orders, driving was out of the question for two weeks, but being this rattled, taking my car wouldn’t have been a good idea anyhow.
“There’s no declining, no escaping, no rescinding! Madelyn Jacobs. You are the new keeper of the list.”
I covered my ears and squeezed my eyes shut. Okay, I was so wrong. I am totally wrecked, fried, gonzo. Sponge bath supplies might not be out of the question. Keep ’em on tap.
An agonizing five minutes or so later, the bus finally rumbled down the road. Thank God! The golden chariot arrived just in time to whisk me away from total madness. When I swept my gaze up to take in my sure rescue, something on the ground caught my eye. I jolted.
The paper? No way. Blue parchment. Singed, wavy edges. I picked it up, hand shaking, and scanned it. It held ten names in the rickety scratchings of an arthritic hand with an ink that so looked like blood. Maybe it was. And was it a good thing or a bad thing I knew two of these people? Fiona Liquori, a cheerleader from my school ranked in at number two, and Johnathan Blackwell, my beloved crush, sat in the ninth spot. I had no clue what it meant. Didn’t want to. I crumpled the thing into a tight ball and chucked it into the spindly fingers of a fire bush.
The bus squealed as it came to a halt. The door folded open, promising me safety inside. Two more riders bolted for it, sneakers slapping the pavement, and boarded behind me. My legs wobbled like Jell-O as I worked my way to the back.
I sighed, wilting into a vacant seat, and filled my eyes with hot Johnny down the road. I also saw the list, nearly etched and glowing on the pane. It wouldn’t disappear, no matter how I moved my head or how much I tried to wipe the letters off with my spit-laced thumb. The list wouldn’t die nor would the dread that had invaded every cell in my body.
Even as I dove behind tightly closed lids, the names shone red-yellow against black as though I’d stared at a dozen lights too long. I took deep breaths, and they slowly, slowly faded. I peered again at the window through the tiniest slits. Blank now. Well, except for smudges.
A sting continued to bite into my calf. To prove to myself it was simply phantom pain, I yanked up the left side of my jeans. I gasped, finding perforations in the faded denim and three glistening, vertical scratches a half-inch apart. The two-inch marks scored over yellowish-purple bruises of yesterday.
I had no clue what was happening or what anything meant, but I quaked with the certainty I’d just landed in my worst level of hell to date.
Cherries. They totally suck.