Did my Reaper have to be so far away?

I threw myself into the empty seat next to Kali. Some teacher’s pet at the front of the class turned around and gifted me with a withering look. As if I weren’t nervous enough already.

The classroom reminded me of a dungeon. Although the common areas of the building were formed of concrete blocks painted institutional gray, our classroom appeared to be much older, constructed of rough-hewn stone set in crumbling mortar. Some of the bricks seemed damp and slimy. Fungus and spiderwebs adorned the room. At least there weren’t any chains or actual implements of torture hanging from the walls.

Unless you count the fact that the professor had just finished writing tonight’s readings on the board. Three chapters? In addition to all the catch-up work I had to do? Could I ask the time lords to make time for me? Could they do that?

“Welcome to ‘Reapage 101,’ Ms. d’Arc. Perhaps you could express to our friend Reaper Alighieri that next time he should get you here before we begin.”

“I think I can safely say, Professor, that next time I’ll be getting myself here. And I’ll make sure it’s on time. Sorry.” The further I went along with that explanation, the more I felt like a schoolgirl. One of the reasons I always hated the idea of going back to school was how powerless teachers could make me feel. Well, I was an adult now and no one could make me feel like a stupid kid again. I sat up straight and checked out my classmates.

Three young women in cowboy hats in the back row giggled. The one in the middle flicked her blond hair back over her shoulders. She snapped her gum and swung her cowboy-booted feet up on her desk.

A nearly identical girl on her left—same blond hair, same cowboy-esque fashion sense—copied the gesture, her own boots clunking onto the work surface in front of her. “Like, that’s so rad, man.” She brushed her overlong bangs out of her eyes and I realized she was Asian, which made the blond hair look very exotic.

I glanced at Kali, raising an eyebrow in question.

“Ignore the Death Valley girls. They’re not actually stupid, but they like to appear that way.”

Okay, I’d met girls before who went out of their way to play dumb; I could handle that. I wanted to check out the other students, but the professor moved on quickly. Kali held up her handout so I could figure out where we were. I listened to the lecture, taking notes and trying to stay focused. Class was harder than I remembered and I was out of practice.

I did mention I hated school, right?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that Reaper Academy was different from any other school I’d ever attended. But I had an unexpected advantage: losing my parents and being shuffled around meant that I hadn’t internalized much in the way of religion, despite my brief stay with my preacher grandfather. I wasn’t intimately familiar with the Bible—Old or New Testament—or with any other major religion, for that matter. As a child, I’d prayed not to God, but to Santa. After all, he delivered. The other students each had the religion of their time and place drilled into them and they had a lot to unlearn. I did not. Go, atheists! (Not that we’d been right, either.)

Aunt Carey was really big on ethics, though. She’d been a little smug about teaching me to follow a nonsectarian moral code. We’d believed we were morally superior since we were doing what was right because it was the right thing to do. Not because we were going to get rewarded or punished in the hereafter. In fact, we hadn’t given the hereafter much thought at all.

The first hour of class went pretty much as expected. The readings were interesting in some parts and dull in others. The giggly girls at the back of the room were annoying. The brown-noser at the front of the room was also annoying. And the sitting still nearly killed me, figuratively speaking. Since I’d been in Hell, I’d spent a lot of time running around, first looking to go home and then, once I’d moved in with Dante, looking for ways to earn my keep. At my old PR job, I was constantly running around the office going to meetings, seeing clients, getting coffee, making copies.

Maybe the class got a break every day midway through the afternoon or maybe Professor Schotz declared one in deference to my fidgeting. It didn’t matter. I was just grateful for the chance to get up and move around.

Kali insisted she didn’t need another cigarette; she was trying to cut down. So we walked outside the classroom and hung around the hallway. It was exactly the sort of thing I’d done in high school. The Death Valley girls hightailed it to the washroom, chattering about makeup and hair-care products as they passed. I let out a long sigh of relief as their giggling and the clump-clump of their boot heels echoed away.

I hadn’t worried about my looks much since I’d arrived in Hell. I had plenty of other things on my mind and no extra Karma Kredit points for hair color and makeup. Char had referred me to a great stylist whose punishment for excess vanity on the Coil was cutting hair for free for all eternity. I ran my hand through my soft, healthy layers. Since beings of all sorts and from all ages resided in Hell, all styles were current. I wore a shag cut that to me was retro, but to some had been the hottest thing when they’d taken their last spin around the Coil.

Dante had gifted me with my hiking boots and a few other sensible clothing items that he seemed to like so I wore them all the time. I had only one pair of earrings that were now, thanks to my new friend, short one butterfly back. I didn’t even bother with makeup anymore. My soul-body—that is, the one that had popped out of my Coil body back in the men’s room that fateful day—was free of blemishes and scars. At least until I managed to get new ones. It was like a body reboot and I was enjoying my flaw-free skin for now. But unlike me and my new Zen attitude toward my looks, the Death Valley girls dyed and primped as if they expected the being of their dreams to pop up any second. My heart gave a little flutter when I realized that the being of my dreams was currently collating papers at the front of the room; I heard the rustle-rustle via the room’s open doorway. My eyes narrowed. I hoped to Hell none of the Death Valley girls had their hearts set on my Reaper. But they’d shown no interest during the first half of the class so I relaxed. Maybe I wouldn’t have to kill them after all.

Could I even do that?

I hadn’t been able to check out the two classmates sitting directly behind me, but apparently they’d noticed my late entrance. They walked up now. No, not walked. They swaggered or at least the one in front did. He was the taller and broader of the two and he wore a college letterman jacket. He stomped up to Kali’s side, smiling, but even though I didn’t know the man, something about his smile seemed phony—predatory, even.

I smiled back at him. After my earlier revelations about not being the underworld’s greatest judge of character, I decided to keep an open mind. It was hard, though; I disliked this guy on sight.

“Hey, Kali,” the jock said. “Doin’ a little charity work?”

Kali’s eyebrows drew together. “Say what?”

“Hangin’ with the in-betweener,” he sneered, gesturing in my direction with his chin, as if he couldn’t be bothered to actually look at me.

“What are you talking about?” Kali asked. She stood up straighter. Or maybe she actually got taller. Who knew with gods?

I stepped closer to her side. “Are you referring to me?” I glanced down, reading his name off his jacket since he hadn’t introduced himself. “Rod.”

“Nobody’s talking to you, Limbo Bimbo,” Rod hissed in my face. “We know all about you, right, Horace?

The second guy, who had “geeky hanger-on” written all over him (no, not literally) nodded hugely, his entire face following his out-thrust chin up and down.

Assured that his wingman had his six, Rod snarled, “Why don’t you go back up to the Mortal Coil where you belong? Living thing!” He spat the last two words. I repeated them to myself silently. When had “living thing” become an insult?

“Yeah. What he said,” Horace added. Then he looked kind of ashamed and took a step backward.

Rod’s verbal attack left me speechless, which is pretty unusual for me. This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered prejudice for being alive among the dead and demonic, although most beings seemed more curious than bigoted. It had never been bad enough to make me feel unwelcome, but I certainly didn’t need a couple of blockheads riding me about it. I held my temper and tried to figure out the best strategy for handling this. I might have been in Hell several months already—probably a lot longer than these newly dead jerks—but here at Pit U, I was the new kid on the block. Maybe they hazed everybody who joined the class mid-semester.

“Hey, guys.” I held up my hands in a gesture meant to say Look! I’m unarmed, which contrasted mightily with Kali’s body language since she was never un-armed. “What’s all this—”

“Is this about your dumb jock pal who got sent packing?” Kali cut in.

Rod took a step back. “So what if it is?” He pointed right in my face. “She shouldn’t be here.” I was tempted to bite his finger, except it didn’t look too clean.

When neither Kali nor I responded, Rod pointed at me again. “She’s taking up a spot that should have gone to somebody else who might actually use it. She’s just going to sit through the training, then get her appeal granted and go back to her nice life upstairs, in her old body, forgetting everything she learned down here. I was told when I signed up that they’re looking for continuity, for commitment. She’s just killing time.”

Kali opened her mouth to defend me, but I cut her off. “No, it’s okay, Kali. Rod’s right. I have been just killing time. But I’ve put that slacker attitude behind me now and I’m looking to make the best of the time I have here. I may not be willing to commit for centuries but are you?” I paused. Suddenly the rest of the hallway must have become very interesting to the boys. They looked anywhere but at Kali and me.

I figured as much. These guys were only interested in earning enough points to get themselves a decent reassignment, just like everybody else. Back on the Mortal Coil, it usually comes down to money. Here in Hell, it’s the Karma Kredit points. More assured of my footing, I carried on. I might not actually own the moral high ground, here, but at least I was renting it. “I’m sorry your friend didn’t make the cut. But I don’t think the timing is right to pin it on me. I only decided today to start Reaper training. So if your friend was already flunking out . . .” I let the sentence hang. Let them do the math.

Rod opened his mouth and closed it again. Horace looked a little lost and dangerously close to thinking on his own.

Just then the three blondes clunk-clunked up the hall from the washroom, their makeup a little heavier, bleached hair artfully tousled. “Whassup?” asked Crystal/Amber/Tiffany. I hadn’t yet learned to tell them apart.

“We’re trying to get straight with Ms. Staying Alive,” Rod answered. “I was just explaining to her how we don’t like her kind around here. You’re either dead”—he hitched one thumb over his muscular shoulder—“or you’re gone.”

“Oh, it’s okay, Rod. She’s got dual citizenship,” one of them, I think Crystal, supplied helpfully. “She’s not wandering around up there having a great life.” She pointed at the hallway ceiling, then lowered her voice and whispered, just loud enough for everyone to hear, “She has coma toes.” Behind her the other two blondes nodded. Everyone looked at my feet.

“Coma toes?” Even Rod and Horace looked confused.

The spokes-blonde shook her overlong bangs from her eyes, looking just a little bit exasperated with our apparent ignorance. “You know, coma toes. It’s the medical term for when your feet are asleep. It’s when you have one foot in the grave, like Kirsty here and are waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Actually, it was my jaw that dropped. Never had I heard anyone mix so many metaphors in one simple and totally inaccurate sentence. It was almost poetry. And not like the stuff Dante writes.

Rod turned to me, shaking a finger in my direction like I was a misbehaving child. “You may think you’re some god’s gift to the underworld, but I’m here to tell you you’re not. It’s not all about you, you know.”

Everyone stared at me, no doubt wondering how I was going to respond. Progressing from taken aback to skeggin’ furious, I opened my mouth to let him have it just as the guy from the front row poked his head out into the hallway and called us back in. Apparently he didn’t take breaks.

I snapped my mouth shut, unwilling to make enemies on my first day. “He’s not worth it,” Kali told me, laying a hand on my shoulder. I nodded my agreement, pushed my anger down inside me and allowed her to guide me back to my seat.

The rest of the afternoon progressed in much the same manner as the earlier part. I fumed for the first few minutes, so angry at Rod I could hardly concentrate, but eventually the importance of my mission coupled with the interesting nature of the lecture overcame my fury and I paid attention. It was a good thing I did, because we covered a lot of important ground.

We learned that most souls find their own way to Hell when their bodies die. A large portion of our job would be to chase down those souls that either couldn’t or wouldn’t make their way to Hell on their own. This included people who didn’t want to leave their situation, either because they loved it or hated it too much to put it behind them, as well as people who were too stupid to even realize they were dead. If a soul was in really deep denial, it might put up quite a struggle.

Occasionally somebody like my ex-boss Conrad, who’d made a Deal with the Devil and then didn’t want to go when his time was up, would make a run for it. That’s when Reapers took on the role of bounty hunter. We’d have to hunt down the soul, nail it with our scythes and drag it back to Hell. You might earn a Karma Kredit bonus point for snagging a runner. But it wasn’t often a newbie Reaper was given those kinds of assignments; circumstances had to be exceptional. Sergeant Schotz, in his role as head of the Reaper Corps, preferred a Reaper with some really meaningful field experience under his or her belt.

Professor Schotz droned on. Dante occasionally interrupted to clarify something or point out that one of my classmates had a question.

It wasn’t long before my mind wandered back to my own personal experience. Dante had been sent that day in the men’s room to collect Conrad’s soul and transport it back to Hell. Since I now knew they only sent Reapers when they expected a runner, how had they known that Conrad would try to back out of his Deal? Did they conduct a prophet-and-loss analysis before assigning missions so the Reapers knew exactly what to expect? How had they not seen my wrongful reapage? Were the seers ever wrong? Should you not believe everything you’re foretold?