Authors: Elizabeth Holloway
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and
incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are
used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The author makes no claims to, but instead acknowledges the
trademarked status and trademark owners of the word marks
mentioned in this work of fiction.
Copyright © 2015 by Elizabeth Holloway
Death Becomes Me by Elizabeth Holloway
All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America by
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner
whatsoever without written permission of the publisher, except in the
case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Published by Elizabeth Holloway
Cover designed by Divine Michelle
Cover Copyright © Elizabeth Holloway
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just ourselves
It’s not working.
The wind tugs my hair back as my feet pound the asphalt on one side of the double yellow lines that divide Hell’s Highway down the middle. Aaron’s feet pound the other side.
His hand tightens around mine. He pulls me forward, trying to pick up momentum, but after several minutes of sprinting down the middle of the empty, moonlit road, the scenery doesn’t change. It doesn’t blur into the green, brown, and gray smears of pure speed I’m used to when we run together. And my tennis shoes continue to slap the ground.
“Come on, Libbi.” Aaron yanks my arm. “Run.”
“I. Am.” The words puff from my mouth in fast, stinging bursts. My lungs feel like they’ve shriveled to the size of peanuts and are about as dense. My heart flips and flops and my heavy legs are like two blocks of concrete. It was never this hard to run with Aaron before. I can’t decide if it’s physically more difficult, or if this is what it feels like to have a panic attack.
A panic attack would make sense. There are more than enough reasons to panic right now. An hour ago, Aaron and I escaped Carroll Falls, the run-down old town in the middle of Farm Country, PA that we’ve called home all of our lives. But it isn’t home anymore. It’s a prison. We need to run at supersonic speeds so we don’t get dragged back there. If we can’t run, we have a huge problem.
It means we lost our powers.
How will we keep one step ahead if we can’t run? If we can’t fly? Aaron’s worried that even with the Reaper powers to help us, Abaddon will find us easily. How much more vulnerable are we if we lost them completely when we left our territory?
My thighs burn as they pump to keep up with Aaron. He glances over his shoulder at me, his brow furrowed with concern.
I can’t look at him. I don’t want to see that hard look on his face or the fear in his eyes. I have to focus on the road. I press my lips together and push myself to do better, run faster. I can do this. I’ve done it before.
The headlights of an eighteen-wheeler sweep the sky as the truck peaks a hill about two miles ahead of us.
“Truck!” I yell and try to veer to the shoulder, out of the truck’s way. Aaron’s hand clamps around mine like a vise. His fingers dig into my skin and we skid to a stop in the middle of the road.
“Wait,” he says. “We can do this.”
“No, we can’t.” My lungs wheeze. I can hardly breathe. For the first time since I accepted Aaron’s job and became a Reaper-in-training, I wish I had my inhaler. “We’ve lost the Reaper powers.”
“No,” he says. “We can do this. I can feel it. Can’t you feel it?”
“No,” I say desperately. I try again to yank him out of the middle of Hell’s Highway and out of the path of the metal beast barreling toward us. His heels seem glued to the asphalt.
“You have to believe you can do it, Libbi. That’s Reaper 101. Remember?” Aaron’s voice slips into teacher mode. I want to slap him.
“All right, Yoda.” I tug on his arm again, though it’s useless. “But what if we became normal when we left Carroll Falls? Maybe we should try your theory out when we’re not about to be road kill?”
The whine of the massive rig’s tires grows louder and louder as it races down the long hill toward us. The headlights illuminate us, but the driver continues to pick up speed. It’s as if he wants to hit us, like smearing our insides across the road will earn him passage into some kind of sicko trucker society. Ten points each.
“He can’t see us,” Aaron blurts, but my mind is stuck on the thought of our guts strewn across Hell’s Highway like some twisted Jackson Pollock painting.
“What?” I say.
“Do you think he’d keep plowing down that hill without a care in the world if he could see us?” Aaron says quickly and gestures toward the truck with his free hand. “He’d probably kill himself if he hit us at that speed. We’re invisible. And if we’re invisible—”
“We have our powers,” I finish for him. The weight I felt crushing my chest and pulling at my feet lifts a little.
“Right.” Aaron grins. “So, let’s do this.”
“Right.” I swallow down the gargantuan lump of doubt in my throat. He trusted me with his life when I said he could get through the border and out of Carroll Falls. It’s only fair to trust him with mine now. “Let’s do this.”
We face the tractor trailer together, hand in hand. The muscles in my legs twitch, ready to sprint, ready to fly.
It’s too close.
In the time it took Aaron to convince me we still had our powers the truck has closed the distance. We don’t have time to build the speed we need to fly. And I’m not sure if I can do that disappear/reappear thing on demand. I have no idea how I did it the first time, when my best friend Kyle got it into his mind to jump off Jumpers Bridge and I caught him. It just happened. One moment I was on the other side of the bridge watching the horrible scene play out, and the next I had a hold of his hand as he dangled over the river.
The truck bears down on us. The chromed grill pushes closer. I can see the fluttering wings of a mangled moth caught in the grate. I can hear Metallica blaring from the trucker’s radio. I can smell and taste the oily exhaust of diesel fuel.
I can feel the molecules of my body vibrate and separate as the truck passes through me.
For one brief moment I see the engine, the driver’s tennis shoes, a tangle of wires, stacks of boxes filled with books, a metal door, and then the clear moonlit sky above Hell’s Highway.
When he first started training me to take over his job for him, Aaron said walking through solid objects was the easiest of the Reaper powers to learn. He was right. And this time I did it without even thinking.
“See?” A smirk lifts one corner of his mouth as he opens his hands in an easy-as-pie gesture. “We did it. I knew we could do it.”
“Sure you did.” I shove his shoulder and grin.
He chuckles and sways dramatically to the side. His foot drops back to catch his balance.
“Why must you always hit me?”
“What can I say?” I shrug and turn away. “I’m a violent person.”
“Ha.” Aaron catches my wrist. “Says the girl who refused to kill me when it was obviously the best thing to do.”
“So, I’m stubborn and violent.”
He swings me around. My chest crashes into his and his arms circle my waist. He pulls me close. His hands travel up my back, pushing a wave of goose bumps ahead of his fingertips as my body melts. His warm, soft breath tickles my forehead, my cheeks, my lips, as he leans in.
Wind whips around us like a gentle hand, nudging us along. It sweeps into the trees and the leaves rustle and chatter with impatience. I ignore it. I know we have to go. But how long can one little kiss take?
A loud crack echoes around us and I jump back, out of Aaron’s arms. Something huge and heavy thumps to the ground in the forest that edges one side of the road. The ground under our feet trembles.
The wind tore off a branch. That’s all.
I tell myself.
It’s not Abaddon. He couldn’t have found us yet.
But the part of me that’s not so sure looks up into Aaron’s startled face as his wide eyes search the forest. He quietly says, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
We take off running. For real, this time.
The black and yellow blur of the highway rolls twenty feet below us. It’s not Hell’s Highway, or even Diablo Road, anymore. It’s Route 585.
I don’t know why it was so hard for me to run before. Once I started, I mean
started, it came as easily as allowing the truck to pass through my body—like breathing. And once I finally used my Reaper powers to run, it was only a few moments before my feet left the ground.
My nerves must have gotten the best of me. I know how much our safety relies on our Reaper powers—the ability to run and fly, walk through walls, invisibility, but most importantly (for us, anyway) Aaron’s sense of when Abaddon’s near. The fear that we lost those skills for good must have shaken my confidence and made it impossible for me to tap into them. As Aaron-Yoda has said more times than I care to admit, I have to believe I can do it or it won’t work.
The fresh-manure scented breeze batters my face and hair and yanks my shirt tight against my chest. Farmland. We’re moving too fast to see anything but the rolling hills on the horizon and the smeared lines of the landscape whizzing by, but the god-awful smell is enough.
I glance at Aaron. The silvery moonlight that softened the sharp angles of his face the last time I looked at him has been chased away by the warm fingers of morning. We’ve been flying for hours.
“Are you getting tired?” I yell over the sound of the rushing wind. I still have enough energy to keep going, but only for a little longer. Plus, I could eat my own arm if it wasn’t attached to my body.
Aaron snaps his eyes to me, startled, as if he just realized I’ve been flying beside him. Then, just as quickly, his muscles relax and he smiles.
“No.” He cocks his head. “Are you?”
“A little.” A low rumble emanates from my belly. My hunger refuses to be left out of this conversation. “But I am pretty hungry.”
“Yeah, I could eat.” Aaron nods toward the horizon. “There’s a town about ten miles ahead. We can stop there.”
“Are we far enough away from Carroll Falls? Is it safe?”
“Should be.” His eyes slip to me, blue orbs surrounded by dark circles of exhaustion. “We have to eat and rest. We’re no good tired and hungry.” He turns back to the road. “There’s a diner in town that looks good. We’ll go there.”
“How do you know that?” My voice rises in a whine. I hate sounding like a petulant child, but I also hate being kept in the dark. “Is there a magic Reaper map in your head you haven’t told me about?”
“There was a huge billboard a few miles back.” He hitches a thumb over his shoulder. “Didn’t you see it?”
I squint and try to focus on the blurry world around me and fail miserably. “I can’t see anything. We’re flying too fast.”
“You can’t?” His eyebrows lift. He looks genuinely surprised.
“No.” I look around one more time, for good measure, but nothing changes. “I can see the hills way far away, but the rest is all a bunch of smears and colors.”
“Huh. I could have sworn …” Aaron tilts his head in thought and then shakes it dismissively. “I must have shown Kyle.” He gives me a sideways glance. “You probably need a few more lessons on being a Reaper. Yeah?”
“Yeah, I probably do,” I say, but my stomach growls in protest. “After we eat. Okay?”
Anxiety stirs in my chest and clenches my throat. Is stopping to eat worth the risk? Maybe we should keep going. Maybe we should run until we can’t take anymore, until our muscles quiver with exhaustion, and food and sleep are all we can think about. Maybe then, it will be safe to stop.
Aaron squeezes my hand and slows our speed so the world comes into focus. On the side of the road, nestled in the middle of a corn field, stands an enormous billboard featuring a plate of pancakes slathered in butter and syrup. “Millersville Diner” is written in blue script across the top of the billboard followed by the words “Breakfast is the Bestest.” My mouth waters.
God. I’m like Pavlov’s dogs. Show me a pancake and I drool.
Aaron’s right. We have to rest and eat sometime.
The small town of Millersville is just starting to stir when Aaron and I cross the town limits. Our feet touch the sidewalk and my legs wobble with the sudden jolt of solid ground under me. Aaron’s hand shoots out to catch me but I recover my balance without him and grin.
I got this. I may not be able to see anything when we fly, but I’m not completely helpless.
We’ve landed smack dab in the middle of the small town. Store fronts crowd the quiet street. A few stores down from where we stand, a man struggles with a set of keys. They jingle as he works one into the lock and opens the front door. The door slams behind him and he flips a sign in the window from ‘closed’ to ‘open.’
Main Street Millersville is so similar to Carroll Falls I almost expect Mrs. Lutz to round the corner loaded down with shopping bags. I imagine Kyle and his twin sister, Haley, sitting in the window of the ice cream shop on the corner waiting for me. I can almost see my brother Max waving to me with a juice box clutched in one hand from the front porch of a house that looks eerily similar to my own.
My heart swells with a sadness I never expected to feel for Carroll Falls. It’s a tired, old dump of a town, but it’s my home. I grew up there. My friends and my family are there. And I can never go back.
“Are you okay?” Aaron gently touches my cheek. When he pulls away, his fingertips glisten in the soft morning light.
“Yeah.” I swipe my cheeks with the back of my hand. “Just feeling a little nostalgic, I guess.” I quickly wipe the tears on my jeans and smooth my shirt down. “So, how does this work, exactly? Do we just go in somewhere and steal what we need?”
“We could.” Aaron tilts his head and raises his eyebrows. “The living won’t notice anything we do when we’re invisible. We could run around naked, singing the Star Spangled Banner, and snatch the purse of every woman we meet and no one would bat an eye. We don’t exist to them. Whatever we do, they either don’t see it or think they did it themselves. But why don’t we try something different?” He hooks my hand with his fingers and his eyes twinkle with mischief. Funny, since what he suggests is the opposite of mischievous. “We know we still have the Reaper powers—well, at least the ones not tied to the Scythe—but we don’t know if we still have the ability to interact with the living. Did you bring any money?”
“Yeah,” I say with a grin. I can’t help but feel like a rule-breaker too. “I brought everything I have, almost five hundred dollars, just in case we became normal on the other side of the border.”
“What do you think about sitting down in an actual diner with a real live waitress for breakfast?” His excitement is contagious. Aaron probably hasn’t eaten in a restaurant in forty years. And if he has, he was invisible.
I nod enthusiastically. “But what about the local Reaper? If we stay too long, can’t they sense we’re in their territory?”
“I don’t think so.” Aaron leads me off the sidewalk and into a narrow alleyway between two old buildings. “The only time I could sense you and Kyle was when you were in the same room with me. If we keep a low profile, we should be fine.”
“Right. Low profile,” I repeat as I follow him into the shadows between the buildings. When we’re far enough away from the street that the fine citizens of Millersville won’t see two teenagers materialize out of thin air—if they’d even notice, that is—Aaron stops and faces me. I close my eyes and let the tingle of becoming visible bloom inside of me.
“Wait a sec.” Aaron’s voice is low as he touches a palm to my chest. His fingers rest in the tender hollow at the base of my neck. My breath catches. “Not yet,” he says.
“What’s wrong?” My eyes snap open and find his.
“Nothing.” His smile is easy as he takes a step closer. So close I can feel the heat of his body against my skin. “I thought, before everyone in Millersville can see us, maybe we could…” His hands drop to my hips and he pulls me in. The feel of his body touching mine causes a ball of heat to curl low in my abdomen and a chill to spread over my skin.
“We could … what?” I tease.
“Well, there’s something I’ve been dying to do for the last week or so, but haven’t had time.” His head turns slightly, like he’s remembered something amusing. “Well, haven’t had time to do it properly, I mean.”
Aaron’s eyes dance over my face. They linger on my mouth and the ball of heat explodes into fireworks. Sure, Aaron and I have flirted and kissed over the last few days while he trained Kyle, but it was always quick and chaste. A peck on the cheek here, a kiss on the mouth there. Nothing long or lingering. But now his eyes burn with something I’ve never seen in them before and my nerves sizzle with anticipation.
“Oh?” I tip my chin up and lick my bottom lip, trying to hide my nervous excitement. My hands slip around his waist. My thumbs skim under the hem of his shirt as I move closer. “What might that be?”
Goosebumps erupt on his skin and he shivers. I smile. It’s nice to know I have the same effect on him as he does on me.
“This.” He leans down and our lips finally touch with a sudden burst of electricity.
Aaron wastes no time. He kisses me harder than he ever has before, pushing his body, his chest, his hips, against mine. Or is it the other way around? I can’t tell who the aggressive one is here, because I’m grasping the taut muscles of his back and pulling him closer like I’ve been waiting all week for this too. Which, I realize, I have.
A soft noise rumbles in the back of his throat when I slip my hands under his shirt and run them over the lines of scars that crisscross his back. I get up on tiptoe, deepening our kiss, and drag my fingers around to his chest. He makes that sexy noise again, grips my thighs, and lifts me up. Wrapping my legs around his middle, he leans me against the brick wall of the alleyway. Furious and full of energy, his mouth moves with mine. I am lost in him. The way his skin feels under my hands. How his body pushes against me. His scent. And, good Lord, his kiss.
He’s never kissed me like this before, with this much passion. There’s no restraint in the way he explores my mouth. Nothing at all holding him back as his hands slip under my shirt and glide over my curves, under my bra. And I don’t stop him.
How can I? My hands are just as busy as his.
His lips move from my mouth to my chin, to my cheek, to just under my ear. He leaves a trail of kisses down the slope of my neck and across my collarbone. My fingers twine in his thick hair.
Then my stomach decides this is the perfect time to declare how utterly unfair it is that we’re ignoring it. It growls with the longest, gurgliest whine it has ever made in my life. If people could die from embarrassment, I’d be the stiffest corpse in the world right now.
Aaron chuckles against my throat.
“Maybe we should save this for later and go get some breakfast.” He pulls me away from the brick wall and sets my feet on the ground. The part of me that does not include my obnoxious stomach sinks with disappointment. But I am awfully hungry.
The crackling, popping, burning-wood sound that usually accompanies a change in visibility surrounds him. I concentrate on making myself visible to the living and soon the noise envelops me as well.
“All right, Aaron.” I take his hand. He follows as I lead him out of the dim alleyway. “Let’s see if this works.”
In the time we spent making out between the buildings, the town has started to come alive. A few cars move up and down Main Street and a trickle of people stroll along the sidewalk, looking in the shop windows. Most of the shops are still closed, but a few have open signs in the windows.
An old man shuffles toward us, cane in hand. His soul glows with the weak light of a man reaching his scheduled death. He’s going to meet his local Grim Reaper soon, maybe today. It won’t be me or Aaron, but for some reason I can’t shake the feeling that I’m responsible for the old guy. I almost wish I was wearing the Scythe so I could look forward in time to his death.
His washed-out blue eyes peek from under his bushy gray eyebrows. He touches the brim of his cap and nods.
“G’mornin’.” His gaze slides between Aaron and me as we pass. I glance back at him and catch the old man’s shoulders shaking briefly, like he got a sudden chill.
I grab Aaron’s elbow and tug him closer.
“Did that man just see us because we’re actually visible,” I whisper, “or because he’s going to die today?”
“I don’t know.” Aaron scratches his cheek. He looks back at the man shuffling down the sidewalk then meets my eyes again. “Only one way to find out.” He grabs my hand and pulls me across the street toward an old brick building (all the buildings in this town are old and brick) with a large painted sign hanging above the double glass doors: Millersville Diner.
The scent of fried eggs, bacon, and coffee wafts from the diner. Aaron swings one of the doors open and the delicious aroma rushes me.
A sign inside the door instructs us to seat ourselves. We choose a booth near the back of the diner and slide into the ghastly-orange plastic seats. Aaron takes two menus from the menu holder perched behind the ketchup and salt and pepper shakers.