And thanks to me—or at least Conrad’s manipulation and me falling for it—Dante had been busted back to teacher’s aide. The demotion, temporary or not, must really rankle, especially if it came with a cut in the ol’ points paycheck. And now he was supporting me, as well. He refused all my offers to spend any of my twenty-eight little points. I hoped he hadn’t been fined on top of it. I felt guilty about my part in his demotion. Even if it hadn’t been my time to die, I’d still been the one to leap in front of the scythe, defending that skegging bastard, Conrad. And then I got mad all over and had to rein my temper back in again.
Sometimes dull, sometimes fascinating and almost always obscure, at least the course material wasn’t hard. It was a lot of memory work and common sense, just like any course. Although I could see a lot more practical applications for what I was learning in Reaper Academy than in some of the courses I’d been forced to take in high school. Like physics, for instance. Who needed to study that? You either live somewhere where your feet stick to the ground consistently or you don’t.
I spent the next couple of weeks scrambling to catch up, getting to know my classmates better, liking Kali more and liking the quarterback and his geeky sycophant less.
The teacher’s pet at the front of the room turned out to be okay, if a little intense. His name was M’Kimbi and he’d had an extremely hard life in an African nation with a very short life expectancy. Don’t ask me which nation. I was a little hazy on my geography and it seemed rude to say, “So, M’Kimbi. I’ve never heard of your country, but I’m sure it’s very nice.”
After the difficult time he’d had during his most recent go-around on the Coil, M’Kimbi wasn’t too eager to return so he wasn’t taking any chances that he might get a similar incarnation next time. Interestingly, it was his people’s religion that was, of all the religions on Earth, the closest to what actually happens when you die. M’Kimbi took great pride in that fact, exhibited mostly by turning around from his front-row seat and smiling a huge, pearly smile at the rest of us every time he got a particularly difficult answer right. Especially if someone else had gotten it wrong first. It was only mildly annoying. And besides, he kept the best notes, which he was willing to share, so we forgave him. It was hard to fault someone for being enthusiastic, but we tried.
I was kind of enthusiastic myself. I enjoyed the Reaper Academy a lot more than I’d ever liked school previously. Whereas in high school I’d skipped classes and ducked study hall, now I read the notes, studied the handouts and even picked up a few of the additional resources they always list but never refer to. Aunt Carey had sacrificed so much for me; the least I could do was graduate from Reaper school, gain access to the Coil and save her from Conrad.
So I studied hard. Love and lifesaving are great motivators.
The texts were surprisingly interesting, delineating, among other things, the differences between hauntings, poltergeists and demonic possession. The main course material had been ghost-written, and the ghost had been kind enough to visit our class and autograph our texts.
The more I studied, the more questions I had. Back on the Coil, I’d just turned to Google and Wikipedia for all my answers. Hell’s techies were still trying to get the UnderWorld Wide Web up and running. I heard there was too much downtime and they were trying to find a work-around. I hoped we’d get a reasonably priced ISP soon so I could look up things like where M’Kimbi’s country was. Maybe find a copy of that poem Dante had written. Surely after seven centuries it would be in the public domain. I would have ordered a copy, but there wasn’t an amazon.hel yet.
I also wondered why Dante had said not to touch someone else’s scythe that first day when I’d grabbed his on the road to Hell. Nothing had happened then, right?
Although Dante and I lived together, now that I was in school, we didn’t do much together socially. Who had time? I was busy studying while Dante took his teacher’s aide job as seriously as he’d taken reaping and he had way too much integrity to play favorites in class. Most beings in Hell played favorites the way I’d played hockey—that is to say, early and often. But not Dante, damn it!
But we did share the best things in afterlife: the bathroom, the TV remote and a bed. Since we usually ended up arguing over the first two, the third gave us a nice way to make up. And Dante was really good at making up.
Sometimes I picked stupid little fights just so we could make up. Although he usually saw through me, that didn’t mean he would say no. Sometimes he did say, “Kirsty, you should be studying.” Then I sulked. Oh, I studied at the same time but I can multitask.
When it was time to put the books away for another day and crawl into his huge Arabian Nights–style bed (first putting little Jenni the gargoyle out in the living room. She looked far too much like a person for me to allow her to watch), we proved to each other how much we cared. Sex before slumber was my favorite. I liked to think of it as being laid to rest. Our future wasn’t certain, but we had right here, right now and it felt so right. I didn’t want to be left.
One time we, uh, laid to rest again the next morning. Except there was no rest involved. Just lazy sex as good as it can be without kissing—mourning breath. Ewww! Afterward Dante glanced at the bedside clock. “Oh, skeg!”
No matter how off time was we were going to be late. We fast-forwarded our morning routine, skipped breakfast and practically flew into class, faces red, Dante’s robe on inside out. The cowgirls giggled knowingly, the jock rolled his eyes, while Kali high-fifteened me on my way by. I ducked my head, but I couldn’t wipe the stupid got-some grin off my face. My smile only widened when I looked at Dante and saw the same idiot-in-love grin mirrored on his face.
Another student joined the class after I did, which took some of the hater heat off me. There was a lot of secrecy around him but Kali had a great sense of rumor and was able to find out that he was a fallen angel who had joined the Witless Protection Program. His cherubic face, the halo-shaped tan line across his forehead and the occasional bit of white fluff stuck to his clothing all confirmed the rumor to the careful observer. Once his right horn fell off, revealing that it was only stuck on with Velcro, we accepted the rumor as fact. Talk about your dead giveaway. His name was Ira and we liked him immediately, even if he was a bit straight-laced. He played a mean harp.
Professor Schotz was indeed your stereotypical kindly professor, handing out guidance and encouragement in equal parts, right up until finals. I anticipated being given a written exam and when I say “anticipated,” I mean “dreaded.” At least Sergeant Schotz kept himself under wraps. I can’t say I missed him. I was more than a little leery about the fieldwork portion under the sergeant’s command.
We were given three days off to study for exams all day and I usually went out with friends in the evenings. Why not? If things went well in this portion of the curriculum, I’d be halfway to getting my scythe and hightailing it outta there.
Not that I had a tail.
Nothing could stop me from reaping Conrad’s sorry ass and dragging his soul to Hell.
Then I’d lock it in a cell and throw away the cell!
ON THE DAY of the final exam, I arrived at the classroom about an hour early. Shockingly, I was the last to show up. Time had grown increasingly weird and nobody wanted to be late for the final. M’Kimbi had tried to spend the night in the classroom until campus security kicked him out.
My entire future hung on this test. Anyone who didn’t pass would have to repeat the semester. I couldn’t afford the delay. Even if everything went perfectly, graduation day would be dangerously close to the end of my appeals window. I had to pass and get promoted to the final segment, the fieldwork part, or the judge would rule that my body should die and my aunt would be at Conrad’s mercy. That sure put the dead in deadline!
The other students and I talked among ourselves quietly while we waited for the exam to start. At least for the day, we put aside all our old rivalries and resentments except for one: Rod still hated me for the crime of being alive, which still made no sense. Really, all he had to do was wait.
Right on the bell, Professor Schotz arrived with Dante in tow. Crystal, one of the Death Valley girls (I had learned to tell them apart by now and discovered they had dyed their hair after they got here) had explained to us all that since Dante was proctoring our exam, that made him a proctologist. Between that and my “coma toes,” I really hoped she hadn’t been a medical professional in her past life. Or would be in any future one, for that matter.
Professor Schotz opened his briefcase and pulled out a single sheet of paper covered in scrawled handwriting. One by one, each of us found a reason to go up to his desk to try to read it. Even Ira. For a former angel, he was a bit of a bad boy.
“Attention, class. If I may have your attention.” Professor Schotz removed his glasses and polished them on the hem of his robe treating us to more skinny white leg than I cared to see.
Replacing the glasses on his nose, he cleared his throat. “Very good, then. Let’s get started, shall we? Reaper Alighieri will be coming around with a skull full of items, the selection of which will indicate whom you’re teamed up with for this exam.”
Teams? Just what I needed: added pressure. I hoped I wouldn’t be matched with Rod or Horace. I would have prayed, but I hadn’t yet figured out to who.
Or even whom.
Dante moved among the desks, walking up to each student and holding out the bowl-like upside-down skull. We each drew out a small object. At first I thought the hard, round object I’d selected was a marble but then I squawked and nearly dropped the petrified eyeball. Kali held hers at arm’s length, eyeing the eyeball suspiciously. We exchanged a worried glance and then checked again. “Green,” I told her, rolling the eyeball around my palm. “Hazel with flecks of gold,” Kali responded, turning hers this way and that to reflect the dull torchlight that lit the room. Behind us, Ira tossed his in the air, catching it before it hit the floor, then tossing it up again. “Mine’s purple, with horizontal slits,” he informed us. We all sighed. So it wasn’t the sergeant’s missing blue eye. Somehow that would have made the whole thing that much ickier.
M’Kimbi and two of the Death Valley girls had drawn something that made me think of kidney stones, while the remaining Death Valley girl, Rod the jerk—I mean jock—and his geeky buddy Horace all drew three matching . . . somethings we couldn’t identify. Nor did we want to, given the circumstances. We were quick to return them to the skull when Dante made a return trip collecting them for the next session.
“Everyone, find your teammates, prego,” Dante instructed. “They’ll be the other two classmates who have drawn similar objects.”
Kali and I turned our chairs around. Ira sat behind us so our little team was already a group that liked each other and worked well together. I began to suspect Dante had rigged the game in my favor. Maybe he didn’t have quite as much integrity as I’d believed, not that I was complaining. Like Sybil had said the day I arrived: “This is Hell. We play favorites.”
The composition of my team was definitely to my advantage, but was it to my partners’ as well? Kali and Ira were both supernatural beings with a lot more insight into the wide world of death and reapage than me. I worried I might drag them down. Looking around the room, I realized I wasn’t the only one who had reason to be nervous.
M’Kimbi had his hands full with Tiffany and Amber. I didn’t envy him his place on Team Valley Girl although Amber had a photographic memory. She could spout the assigned text verbatim, even if she sometimes had trouble applying it in a practical manner. Crystal, despite her tendency to crucify the language, had a fair amount of common sense. Together they made a pretty formidable team, but today they were split up. I was a little worried for them. It wasn’t a win-sum-game situation. We could all pass and I hoped we would.
Except maybe Rod. I’d be quite happy to see him held back another semester. He could repeat the semester with his friend that had failed. Maybe he’d like that. I know I would.
But that was unlikely to happen. Rod may have been a jerk and a bully but he wasn’t stupid, damn it. And Horace was nerd-smart. The jury was still out on Tiffany. The Death Valley girls depended so much on each other that it was hard to know where one’s attributes ended and the others began.
Professor Schotz clapped his hands. “Let’s get started. We have a lot of questions to get through today. There are nine of you and nine questions, so you only get one chance. Each team will choose a being to go first. That being will come to the front of the room to answer. Once a being answers the question correctly, he or she will return to his or her seat and send up the next teammate. Should a spokes-being answer a question incorrectly, he or she will be eliminated. Therefore, your performance today will reflect on you both as a team and as an individual.”
Kali and I both turned to Ira. “You go be our spokesman—spokes-angel—whatever.”
Ira’s eyes shot wide. “Shhh! That’s supposed to be a secret.”
This was the first time any of us had admitted that we all knew he was an angel. Maybe it wasn’t exactly the greatest time to ask, but I was curious. And if either of us got eliminated, I’d never know about him. The other teams were still electing their spokes-beings so I seized the opportunity.
“Why are you here, Ira?” I asked. “I thought we were all working toward getting great incarnations and maybe, down the road, earning our way into heaven. What did you do to get yourself kicked out?”
“I didn’t get kicked out. I got bored. It’s so skeggin’ dull up there. I put in a request to become mortal but I had to go through the same channels as everybody else. That meant coming here, filling out the paperwork and taking whatever they give you at the Reincarnation Station. Unlike Hell, Heaven doesn’t play favorites. You wouldn’t want to receive preferential treatment, now would you?”
He paused, probably for dramatic effect, no doubt assuming he’d asked a rhetorical question, but both Kali and I responded.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d like preferential treatment. How ’bout you, Kali?”
“Me? Absolutely. I’m a god. I live for preferential treatment. And the occasional human sacrifice. Kidding. Kidding. That was a long time ago. I’ve given it up.”