Something soft and warm—definitely hand-sized—settled on my chest, and then moved to the right, headed uphill. I wasn’t sure why I expected to be looking into the baby blues of some hot guy when I opened my eyes. Maybe it was because I’d just had the best dream of my life. But I certainly didn’t expect to be staring into washed-out, ghostly blue eyes.
There was a hamster perched on my chest, its white-and-brown fur covered in grime. Specks of dirt covered my nightshirt, and bits of gravel clung to my bedspread.
Startled, the hamster scurried off my chest and disappeared under the covers. I jumped off the bed, almost face-planting into the worn-out carpet in the process. I ran from the room, wanting to scream again. My heart was still thumping when I slowed outside my little sister’s bedroom. Her door hung cracked open, and my gaze fell first to her bed. Finding it empty, I scanned the room. Early morning light spilled into the bedroom, casting shadows over Olivia’s slight frame.
With her back to the door and head bowed, Olivia sat on the floor. Crimson curls curtained her face. Stepping into the room, I tripped over one of her baby dolls. I forgot about the hamster as I stared down at the doll. One of her arms had been twisted off. Olivia had taken a Sharpie to the doll’s face, marking out the eyes. Then, in the ultimate act of weirdness, she’d scribbled the word “SEE” across the doll’s forehead.
My palms felt sweaty. “Olivia…”
She stiffened. “Ember? I did something bad this morning. You’re gonna be so mad.”
Dreaded words from a five-year-old, but I already knew what she’d done. I moved around the bed even though I wanted to turn and run. There were times Olivia scared the crap out of me. “What did I tell you, Olivia?”
She tilted her head and stared up at me. Her green eyes were wet with tears, shining like glittering emeralds. “I’m sorry.” Her lip trembled. “Squeaky got scared when I brought him back in the house. He ran off before I could stop him.”
Somehow I managed a smile as my eyes fell over her nightgown. Brown flakes of soil spotted the crisp cotton, and dirt sprinkled her little arms and chubby fingers. The shoebox in her lap was covered in filth.
The very same shoebox I’d used to bury Squeaky in the backyard last night.
I squeezed my eyes shut, mentally stringing together as many cuss words I could think of. I should’ve known she’d do this. A violent shiver went through me.
Olivia just couldn’t let dead things be.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “But Squeaky loves me and he needed me.”
I skirted around her and dropped to my knees. “Squeaky didn’t need you! Olivia, you can’t do this every time one of your pets dies. It isn’t right. It’s unnatural.” Like it hadn’t been natural to bring back the dead pigeon she’d found in the driveway the other day. Or Smokey, the cat she’d discovered alongside the road.
“But… I did it to you,” Olivia insisted.
I opened my mouth, but what could I say? Olivia had done it to me two years ago, and I was just as unnatural as Squeaky. Even more so… “I know, and trust me, I appreciate that. But you can’t keep doing this.”
She flinched back. “Don’t.”
I glanced at my hands, unaware I had reached for her. Frustrated, I let them drop to my lap. “When things die, it means it’s their time to go. You know this.”
Olivia jerked to her feet. “You’re gonna take Squeaky away from me.”
The scent of death clung to the shoebox, invading my senses. Horrified, I wondered if I smelled like that. The urge to sniff myself seemed too strong to pass up.
“Please don’t take Squeaky,” she went on, getting ready for an Olivia-sized breakdown. “I promise not to do it again. Just let me keep Squeaky! Please!”
Olivia stopped moving, but her nightgown still swung around her knees. “Ember, are you mad at me? Please don’t be mad at me.”
“No.” I sighed. “I’m not mad, but you have to promise me you won’t do this again. And mean it this time.”
She bobbed her head eagerly. “I won’t! So you’ll let me keep Squeaky?”
“Yes. Just go get the stupid hamster.” I stood, sighing. “He was under my blankets.”
A bright, beautiful smile broke across her face as she whirled around and took off toward my bedroom. I trailed behind her, my skin crawling as I glanced at the twisted doll. The door to my bedroom hung haphazardly on its remaining hinge.
This house was old, like Civil-War-era old. Everything sagged or slanted at crooked angles. Paint peeled off the walls in sheets like snakeskin. Nothing stood straight. The air smelled of death and decay.
Almost like the house had died two years ago.
Turned out that Squeaky was still under my covers, doing God knows what. Olivia held the squirming ball of fur close to her face. “I get to keep you!”
I clasped my hands together to keep them from shaking. “Put Squeaky in his cage and get ready for school, Olivia. We’ll… pretend this didn’t happen, okay? And go brush your teeth.” I paused. “And don’t even think about wearing your princess dress to school today.”
She stopped in my doorway. “But I am a princess.”
“Not at school. Go.” I pointed toward her bedroom, ignoring the way my stomach was churning.
Olivia skipped down the hallway, completely clueless to how messed up both of us were. “Normal” didn’t have a place on my list of words describing us. I wasn’t even sure “human” would get a vote.
Alone in my bathroom, I stared down at my shaking hands, at the charcoal smudge on the tips of my index finger, and ordered myself to pull it together. I couldn’t afford to lose it. Olivia needed me to be strong. I glanced at my reflection and forced a smile. It was broken.
And I also had the hugest zit ever on my temple.
After a quick shower, I padded out to the bedroom, yanked on the first clean pair of jeans I found, and grabbed a cardigan off the back of my desk chair. A slinky top would have been so much prettier, but the scars patchworking across my arms would have been visible. Apparently Olivia’s healing touch didn’t fix everything.
In gym last year, one of the girls—Sally Wenchman—had seen the scars while I’d changed. Sally had called me “Frankenstein,” and the nickname had stuck ever since.
I snatched my sketchpad and shoved it into my book bag. On the way out, I grabbed the flesh-colored gloves off the chair and slid them on. The long-sleeved shirt hid most of the gloves, and the kids thought I was trying to hide the scars.
It was partly true.
“Are you ready?” I yelled, stomping down the steps. “We have, like, twenty minutes.”
“Yeah,” came the muffled response.
Following the sound of her voice, I found Olivia at the table eating cereal… in her princess dress. Dammit. The kid was weird enough without wearing the same damn dress every day. “Olivia, what did I tell you?”
She hopped up from the table and dumped her bowl in the sink, turning back to me with an impish grin. “It’s too late for me to get changed.”
I stared at her, dumbfounded. “You’re such a brat.”
She came to my side, a tentative look on her face. Slowly, she reached out and wrapped her fingers around my glove-covered ones. When I nodded, her grip tightened and all was right in her world.
Two years had passed since I’d been able to touch Olivia without some sort of barrier between her skin and mine. When she fell and scraped her knee, I couldn’t kiss it and make it better. If she cried, I couldn’t hold her. I couldn’t even remember what the closeness of someone else felt like. This whole super-special-touch-of-death crap sucked.
Olivia was currently on this kick where she thought she had superhuman strength or something, so I pretended to let her pull me through the house and out to where my Jeep was parked. The dull, black paint gave it a world-weary look, and it needed new tires and brakes. Still, it was my baby. I could caress its smooth, outer frame and roam my hands over its soft interior all I wanted. My heart fluttered to know it wouldn’t keel over and die from my toxic touch.
All the way to school, Olivia obsessed over a new toy she had seen. It took everything for me not to beat my head against the steering wheel. Before jumping out in front of her elementary school, she leaned forward for her obligatory air-kiss. Up close, we were undeniably sisters—with the same deep, auburn curls and freckles.
“Be nice to the other kids today,” I reminded her. “And, please God, don’t touch anything dead.”
She sent me a rather adult look before racing across the walkway in a flurry of pink and glitter. I sat there for a moment, watching as she disappeared among the other pint-sized people. Dad used to say that Olivia had an old soul in her, and I hadn’t really understood that until lately.
I glanced at the clock in the dashboard—five minutes to make it to homeroom without getting another tardy. Collecting tardy slips had become sort of a hobby of mine. One day, I would have a pretty collage of pink paper with angry red writing. I’d hang it on the fridge for Olivia. She dug pink things.
* * *
Ten minutes later, I slid into my seat with another late slip in my hand and a disgruntled look on my face.
“Again?” whispered the tawny-haired boy beside me.
I sent him a haughty look, only to be met with a broad grin. “What does it look like, Adam?”
He shrugged, still grinning. “Maybe you shouldn’t oversleep?”
Adam Lewis was the only person in Allentown High who hadn’t stopped talking to me after the accident. Sandbox love—that was what we had—but it wasn’t like I could tell him I was late because my little sis had dug up her dead hamster this morning and brought him back to life. I kind of wanted to keep him as a friend.
Adam gave me a puzzled look. He was cute in that nerdy kind of way, but nothing other than friendship lay between us. There couldn’t be more. Ever.
Our teacher narrowed her eyes, her lips drawn in a tight line. Mrs. Benton had a no-talk policy during homeroom, which added to her unpopularity among the students. I turned back to my notebook and started scribbling, waiting for the first period bell to ring. I kept thinking about what Olivia had done while I started to sketch the old oak tree outside our classroom window.
My version of the tree looked nothing like the one outside. Maybe it was the fact I’d opted for thick clouds in the background and turned each branch down so the edges were jagged, instead of capturing how the early morning sunlight illuminated the red and golden leaves.
My sketch lacked life. Like me.
I had no idea how Olivia could bring back the dead. For all I knew, she could’ve been born this way, but it had taken a careless driver and the twisting of metal to spotlight her unique talent two years ago.
I had died in the car, along with Dad.
Those new-age people totally lied. There was no bright light at the end of a dark tunnel. No angels waited to cart me off; no dead family members lingered in the shadows. There was nothing, absolutely nothing… until I felt something tugging on me, pulling me back into my body. It didn’t hurt, but I felt strangely empty—almost like a part of me had stayed in the black abyss. Maybe I’d left my soul somewhere in the hereafter.