I didn’t grow up in Phoenix. What, did you think I did? Nobody grows up in Phoenix, silly. Sometimes kids live here for a while, but they leave again. Phoenix is a city of imports, visitors and people who are just passing through. No, I grew up outside Flagstaff, in the part of Arizona that actually has weather and trees instead of cacti.
I was still in high school the first time I died. It started out like a normal Friday at my high school, with a bunch of classes I wasn’t interested in and a bunch of classmates I hated. This was in the days before Columbine, when it was okay to be a goth in school. Or at least minimally threatening.
“Freak,” somebody was yelling as I went by. It didn’t mean much – anybody could have said it, and it came from a crowd. I didn’t even get mad anymore; I was pretty much numb to the regular comments and the occasional shoving or tripping.
Rather than stick around to get made fun of at lunch, I went back to the woods behind the school and hung out there, sometimes with the other goths and sometimes by myself. Today it was by myself, probably because it was early December and not worth braving the cold for everyone. I didn’t mind, though. I was in the mood for quiet.
I pulled out my notebook and started scribbling – I’ve always considered myself something of a writer, even if I don’t think I’m very good at it – and I had been at it almost ten minutes when I heard footsteps behind me. I didn’t think much of it at first. I just figured one of my friends had come to join me after all.
I was wrong.
“Hey, freak show.” I looked up at that. Long white legs, topped off with a cheerleading skirt and sweater. Perfect American girl face. Blonde ponytail. She was smoking.
“Hi,” I answered her.
“You mind if I join you?”
I hesitated, wondering if this was the start of some elaborate prank, but I couldn’t figure it out and I didn’t see any of her friend around. I shrugged. “Sure, go ahead.”
She sat down next to me on my log. The silence was ridiculous, loud in my ears and distracting me from my notebook.
“Nothing good in the cafeteria?” I said. I regretted it the minute it came out of my mouth, it sounded so stupid.
She took the cigarette out of her mouth and exhaled. “I can’t stand it in there. Too many people.”
“Really? I always thought you were the type who liked people.”
“Nah. I hate ‘em. Crowds give me headaches.”
“How do you stand football games, then?” By this point I was honestly curious.
“Same way I can be out here in the cold wearing this,” she said, tugging at her short cheerleader skirt. “I’m used to it, doesn’t mean I like it.”
That made sense. “I like crowds okay as long as they’re ignoring me.”
It was quiet again for a few minutes. My hand hovered over the notebook, but nothing was coming.
This time she broke the silence. “How do you put up with it?”
“What?” I was so surprised I didn’t really hear what she said.
“The teasing. I don’t let anyone know I have social anxiety because I’m afraid they’ll make fun of me – and if you tell anyone, I’ll destroy you – but you don’t seem to let it get to you.”
“I would be dead if I let it get to me,” I told her, because what was she going to do or say that people didn’t already do? Why not be honest?
“Well, I admire your honesty,” she said, and stood up. I didn’t look at her.
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Oh, I’m not patronizing,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of time to get to know people. I’d get rid of the cheerleaders if I could. But people would notice.”
“What?” I asked, turning. I saw the silver in her hand and pulled back instinctively. I fell backward, slamming against the ground. The knife came down hard into the wood of the log, but that was better than my body, which had been there a minute before.
“The hell?” I tried to scramble away from her and to my feet at the same time, without much luck at either one. She grunted and pulled the knife out of the wood.
“Sorry about this,” she said, and I swear to god she sounded sincere. “I need freshmen to keep me young.” Her eyes had taken on a red cast and the air around her seemed warped somehow. I wondered if I was going crazy. Of course, if there’s a time to go crazy it’s probably when you’re being threatened by a cheerleader with a giant knife.
She came at me again, vaulting over the log and diving at me knife first. I tried to roll out of the way and the knife buried in my shoulder instead of my chest. I didn’t feel the pain at first, but when she wrenched the blade out, I definitely felt it then. I screamed, wondering if anyone back at the school could hear me.
The cheerleader was sitting on my chest now, pinning me down and studying me. “You know, though, you give me an idea.”
“An idea where you don’t kill me?”
“Not quite.” She pinned my arm down against the ground and pressed the knife against it.
The cut didn’t feel all that deep compared to the one in my shoulder, but it burned. “What are you doing?”
“You said yourself you’d be dead if you let things get to you, right? So if you did kill yourself, nobody would think much about it.” She repeated the motion, carving a second and a third line across my wrist. I tried to pull away but she was insanely strong for her thin cheerleader’s body.
There was enough blood on my arm that I was able to pull it loose, her grip slipping on my slick skin. I flailed at her, smearing blood across the school logo on her chest.
“You’re a lot more trouble than you’re worth,” she yelled at me. I only struggled harder, though I was starting to feel light-headed. I managed to get at her face and tried to drive my fingers into her eyes, hoping to find a week point.
She slapped my arm away, but her face was covered in my blood now. Where the blood sat, her human skin started to peel and flake off, showing bright red scales underneath.
Now I knew I had to be delusional. Maybe it was the blood loss, and this was what dying was like. Visions of demon cheerleaders.
“Crap, now I have to fix my face,” she said, gingerly touching her damaged skin. Far away, the bell was ringing the end of lunch. She stood up and studied me like I was a cafeteria lunch and she was deciding whether to finish me off.
“You’ll bleed out soon enough,” she said, as much to herself as to me. “I’ll come back for your soul after the game tonight. I don’t think you have much fight left in you.” The second bell rang and she swore under her breath, hurrying back toward the school.
I didn’t watch her go because I didn’t have the energy to turn my head. I knew I would die if I didn’t get help, but I couldn’t find the strength to sit up, let alone drag myself back to the school. All I could do was lay there and stare up at the sky, clear and blue and cold. I felt my limbs getting cold too, and I thought irrationally that I was melting into the sky.
So it didn’t surprise me when a bird landed just in front of my face and said hello.
“Hello, bird,” I said cheerfully. I doubt I was even speaking out loud at that point.
“My name is Starling,” she said with a serious tone. “You’re dying.”
“I think I’m dead,” I told her.
“Not quite yet.” Starling cocked her head at me. “Do you want to die?”
“I’ve thought about it.” I said honestly. “But now that I’m bleeding? No. I don’t.”
“Good.” She hopped out of my field of vision. “This is going to hurt.”
“Are you going to stop me from dying?”
“No, I’m going to kill you,” I heard her. “But you’ll be better afterward.”
The pain was like nothing I can describe while I’m awake, though I dream about it often. I’ve written poems about it, but nothing that goes anywhere. Nothing that can explain it. I think Starling plucked my organs out like they were food for her children and replaced them with a nest she build inside my chest for herself.
I’m only ninety percent sure that’s a metaphor.
“You’ll serve me and mine,” she whispered as she worked. “You’ll tend your flock, and send along those who need it.”
I tried to ask her what she meant, but she told me not to talk and went back to her work. Eventually I passed out.
When I woke up, it was dark and the woods seemed foreign even though I knew them well. I saw light on the horizon like fires burning at the end of the world, and so I walked toward it. It was like learning to see all over again – the quality of the light was wrong, and everything seemed darker even than a Friday night in December should.
I studied myself as I walked. I felt like I’d had the flu for a week, achy all over and hungry, but sure I’d throw up at the same time. I definitely felt alive, though. I was breathing.
I went to check my pulse and noticed my wrist. Angry red scabs showed where she’d cut me open, and messy stitching held the wounds shut. How had a bird-
But that wasn’t important, I knew that somehow. I kept walking.
The light wasn’t the end of the world after all, just the football game. I was oddly disappointed. I stumbled under the bleachers, ignoring the ticket booth at the front. In between the rows of bleachers, I could see the scoreboard. The game was almost over. On the field, I saw the cheerleaders. They didn’t look very interested; we were losing by quite a bit.
The timer ran out and the opposing team cheered, heading back to their bus with their cheerleaders and their victory. Our football players headed back to the locker room as the stands emptied. I watched the girl who had attacked me say something to her fellow cheerleaders and then walk away, headed for the path into the woods.
I let her pass me and then followed. As I walked away from the bright lights of the stadium I noticed that I didn’t have a shadow.
She walked boldly ahead of me into the woods. It was nearly pitch dark, but she didn’t even hesitate as she walked, following the trail back to the log without a problem.
I did trip a few times, and looked up in fear that she would turn around, but she did no such thing. I wondered if I was just quieter than I imagined, or if she was so focused on her goal that she was ignoring everything else.
As we got closer to the spot where she’d attacked me, I realized I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do when we got there. What could I do? Attack her? She had pretty much killed me last time. Confront her? I didn’t think that would do much good. I just kept following, hoping inspiration would show up along the way.
When she reached the spot where she’d left me, she froze in her tracks. There was no body, of course. I heard her growl under her breath and start looking around. I wondered if she thought an animal had gotten me, or if she thought I’d dragged myself away after all.
“Talk to her.” The voice made me jump, and I realized it was Starling. The bird was not far away from me – I could see her clearly, a soft golden light against the dark tree she was sitting in. The cheerleader didn’t react, though. I guessed that Starling’s voice was for me and not for her.
“Looking for me?” I said, summoning up all the courage I could muster.
She spun around, her eyes visibly glowing in the dark of the clearing. I tried not to flinch.
“You should be dead,” she said, anger and confusion fighting for control of her voice.
“Maybe I am. Maybe I’m a vampire. Or- or a zombie.”
She shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. If you were a vampire, you wouldn’t have let me bleed you like that. And you would have fought back harder.”
“Hey, I fought as hard as I could.”
“Exactly.” She said it like it explained everything, so I let it go.
“So why are you killing people out here in the woods, anyway?” I asked, trying to buy time as I thought about what to do. I looked at Starling, but the bird wasn’t saying anything.
“Didn’t I tell you earlier? I need the souls of freshmen to stay young.”
“You said that, but you didn’t explain it. What does that even mean?”
She rolled her eyes, “It means that I’m a lot older than I look. The souls of the innocent – you know, freshmen – are what keep me eternally young.”
“You want to be in high school forever? Why the hell would anyone want that?”
She stepped toward me. “This may be hell for you, but high school was the best time of my whole life, you brat. I had a steady boyfriend who gave me his ring, and he was a sports hero with a letterman’s jacket, and I was a cheerleader, and everything seemed like it would be perfect forever!”
“He gave you his ring? God, whatever, Donna Reed. So you’ve been in high school since the fifties?”
She shook her head. “Not the whole time. I graduated. Johnny and I got married, and he got a pretty good job, and I got pregnant. Oh, god, it was so boring, all I could do was take care of the house and the kids. And Johnny started to complain that I was putting on weight, getting old, not taking care of myself. He left me for his secretary! Can you believe that bastard?”
“How- um- how unfair of him.” I stuttered, not sure how she wanted me to respond.
“So I showed him. I sold my soul to have the good times back. Now I get to be young and beautiful forever, and he’s old and miserable in a nursing home. Our kids don’t want anything to do with him.”
“That’s pretty terrible.”
“Isn’t it just?” she said with a smile. “And I like to visit him. The nurses all think I’m a granddaughter or something. They tell him I couldn’t possibly be his first wife. They think he’s senile, and he and I both know he’s perfectly sane.”
“Wow. That’s- that’s actually pretty impressive revenge,” I told her, momentarily distracted from the fact that she wanted to kill me.
“I don’t like it as much as I used to,” she admitted, sitting down on the log. “It’s a lot harder to find innocents, even just looking at the freshmen, and I don’t really like my classmates anymore. It’s much more complicated. I’m thinking about giving it one more try and then aging up. Just a bit, you know? I think I’d like to try college. I never got to do that back in my day, it just wasn’t what good girls did in my town.”
I nodded. Maybe if I just let her rant herself out, I figured, she would… stop? Give up? At least it was buying me time, though I wasn’t having much success with the whole “thinking of something to save my skin” thing.
“So what’s it like being immortal?” I asked her. I wondered if she still had the knife on her.
“Oh, it’s a lot of fun. But we’ve been talking for a long time now.” She pulled the blade out from her bag. Well, that answered that question, at least. “And I really do need your soul.”
“But I like my soul.”
“Believe me, you hardly even miss it when it’s gone,” she said, coming closer. “Though in your case you might, since you’ll be dead.”
Then she dove at me again. I could barely see where she was. I had to track her by the glowing light of her eyes and the barest glint of moonlight on her knife. I should have been scared out of my wits, but I wasn’t, really. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but something about the whole day… When you’ve just learned that demons are real, and been stabbed by a cheerleader, and been stitched up by a bird, and come back from the dead, maybe stuff just stops having that same impact on you.
I dodged a little more smoothly than I had earlier in the day and did not end up on my ass. That was an improvement. But dodging wouldn’t last me forever.
“Banish her,” Starling said.
The demon cheerleader looked confused. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Banish her,” the bird repeated. “You know how. Trust yourself.”
I stared at the cheerleader, my mind rushing, and then it clicked into place. I did know how. I didn’t know how I knew how, but the knowledge was there. Maybe Starling had tucked it into that nest earlier, I didn’t know and it didn’t matter. I raised my hands.
“In the name of the gods and saints, angels and spirits of this place, you are anathema. You do not belong here.” The words spilled out of their own accord, and had a resonance I didn’t think I was capable of.
“What are you doing?” She looked a little scared herself now. She tried to come at me with the knife but she couldn’t seem to make it the last inch or two to my flesh. “What are you doing?!”
“You do not belong here,” I repeated. “There are places for those such as you, where you can prey on each other and on the humans who come to you willingly.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You must go to those places.”
She turned and tried to run, but she couldn’t seem to get through the trees on the other side of the clearing. Everything was too dark and too thick and she was really panicking now, I could tell. I enjoyed it a little more than I probably should, considering how stark and plain her fear was.
I thought about all the kids she must have killed to stay young for as long as she had, and I didn’t feel too bad.
“You will pass through with me, and then you will be left to your own devices.”
She turned and looked at me. “That’s it? You just want to take me somewhere else and then I can go on with what I’m doing?”
“If you’re able,” I said, and I knew that there was a lot more to this than she understood, but I didn’t understand it either. I couldn’t have explained it to her then if I’d wanted to. “Come here.”
“No. I don’t trust you. What are you?”
“I’m a crossroads,” I told her, and I knew it was true. It was a comforting thing to hear myself say for some reason.
“You don’t have a choice.”
Now it was my turn to reach out at her, and though she tried to turn away, she still couldn’t get through the brush at the side of the clearing. I took her hands in mine, her knife falling to the ground, and there was a cold, wrenching feeling and the flutter of wings in my stomach. I would have thrown up if I’d eaten anything in the last few hours, but thankfully I’d been too busy being dead to eat anything.
She did throw up, all over my shoes.
I sighed. This seemed like the wrong moment to be worrying about that.
The clearing around us looked the same, but the fear was plain on her face. “Where are we?” she asked.
Without answering her, I took her hand and started leading her out of the woods. She didn’t fight me. She didn’t go for her knife – which was good, since I didn’t see it anywhere around us.
When we got to the edge of the woods, I could make out the silhouette of the school and the football field in the distance. There were no more lights, but the sky was clear here. The stars glowed like nothing I’d ever seen before, and the moon was only a crescent but it seemed to give off more than enough light to see by. In this light I had no trouble telling she was not human anymore – her face was marred by serpentine features and a scaly cast, even though it wasn’t colored as it had been when I bled on it earlier. I wondered why she looked that way now.
“This looks the same.” She looked at me. “You’re just crazy, aren’t you? Why’d I have to pick the crazy bitch?”
“She’s not crazy.” We both looked up. Starling was sitting on a branch at the end of the woods, still glowing softly. “This is the underworld, what lies beneath reality. It mirrors your world. You’ll be fine here, demon-child. I think it will suit you.”
She looked at me. “Where’d you get a talking bird?”
“She’s not mine,” I told her. “I think I’m hers.”
“Come along, Barbara,” Starling said, and I dropped the cheerleader’s hand. She took off running across to the football field.
“She’ll understand soon enough,” Starling and I both watched her go for a bit. Then the bird sat on my shoulder. “I’m going to take you back now. Are you up for it?”
I shrugged. “I guess so.”
I would have said the bird smiled, if birds were capable of smiling. “Good. Here we go.” Again there was the feeling of nausea, wings in my stomach, wind and a noise that was really just silence. And then I was still in the same place, but the bird was gone. My arm hurt, and it was cold and dark, long past the end of the football game. I knew my parents would be worried sick about me.