To the real:
Victoria, Riley, Haden, Seth, Chloe, Nathan, Meagan, Parks, Lauren, Stephanie, Brianna and Brittany. I love you all. But just remember that your characters can sprout horns and tails at any moment….
To Jill Monroe. I sent you coal and you found the diamonds. This book would not have been possible without you.
To Kresley Cole. If I could live anywhere in the world, it would be inside your books. Or your house. I could move in tomorrow. Just sayin’. After all: Kresley—Gena = Sadness. Kresley + Gena = Happiness. And yes, I love you, too.
To P.C. and Kristin Cast. I pull a muscle every time I’m with you because I laugh so hard. My life is a better place with the two of you in it! Because…what? I love you.
To Max, my husband, sweetheart and (as I’ve been told) the greatest guy ever. I love you.
To my amazingly supportive family. Mike, Vicki, Shane, Shonna, Michelle, Kemmie, Kyle, Cody, Matt, Jennifer, Michael, Heather, Christy, Pennye and Terry. I’m the lucky one who gets to enjoy (and love) you. You guys just got stuck with me. Suckers!
To David Dowling. Thank you for creating Crossroads. You are NOT a fool.
To my agent, Deidre Knight, who really went to bat for this one.
To my editors Tracy Farrell and Margo Lipschultz. You are with me every step of the way, no matter what I decide to write, supporting me, lifting me and making me better.
And to myself. Because this one almost killed me.
A cemetery. No. No, no, no! How had he ended up here?
Clearly, wearing his iPod while exploring a new town had been a mistake. Especially since Crossroads, Oklahoma, perhaps garden gnome capital of the world and definitely hell on earth, was so small it was practically nonexistent.
If only he’d left the Nano at the D and M Ranch, a halfway house for “wayward” teens where he now lived. But he hadn’t. He’d wanted peace, just a little peace. And now he would pay the price.
“This sucks,” he muttered, pulling the buds from his ears and shoving the shiny green distraction into his backpack. He was sixteen years old, but sometimes he felt like he’d been around forever, and every one of those days had been worse than the one before. Sadly, today would be no exception.
Immediately the very people he’d been trying to drown out with so-loud-your-ears-bleed Life of Agony clamored for his attention.
“Well, you should have screamed louder. Starting a war with the undead was not what I wanted to do today.” As he spoke, Haden Stone—known as Aden because, as a kid, he apparently hadn’t been able to pronounce his own name—backtracked, removing his foot from the graveyard’s property line. But it was too late. In the distance, in front of a tombstone, the ground was already shaking, cracking.
Sighing, Aden dropped his backpack, bent down and palmed the daggers he kept anchored in his boots. If he were ever caught with them, he’d be tossed back into juvie, where fights erupted as regularly as lunch was served and making a trustworthy friend was as impossible as escape. Deep down, though, he’d known carrying them was worth the risk. It was always worth the risk.
That was true. The dead had only to sense him to awaken. Which, like now, usually involved Aden accidentally placing his foot on their land. Some sensed him faster than others, but they all eventually rose.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ve been in worse situations.” More than leaving the iPod at home, he mused, he should have been paying attention to the world around him. He’d studied a map of the town, after all, and had known what areas to avoid. But as the music had pounded, he’d lost track of his surroundings. He’d been momentarily liberated, seemingly alone.
The tombstone began to rattle.
Julian sighed, the sound an echo of Aden’s.
“Yes, Eve,” Aden, Julian and Elijah said in unison. That was the way of it. He and the other three boys would bicker and Eve would step in, a formidable mother-figure without a finger to point, but a formidable mother-figure all the same.
If only that mothering were enough to fix the situation this time.
“I just need everyone to zip it,” he said. “Okay? Please.”
There was grumbling. And that was as quiet as things were going to get.
He forced himself to focus. Several yards away, the headstone teetered back and forth before tumbling to the ground and shattering. Rain had fallen this morning, and droplets sprayed in every direction. Handfuls of dirt soon joined them, flying through the air as a disgustingly gray hand poked its way free.
Golden sunlight poured from the sky, highlighting the oozing skin, the rotting muscle…even the worms slithering around the enlarged knuckles.
A fresh one. Great. Aden’s stomach rolled. He might puke when this was over. Or during.
And there was Caleb, voice number four. If he’d had a body of his own, Caleb would have been the guy taking pictures of girls in their locker room while hiding in the shadows.
As Aden watched, waiting for the right moment to strike, a second oozing hand joined the first, both straining to heave the decayed body the rest of the way from the ground. He scanned the area. He stood on a cemented walkway, high on a hill, lush trees helping to form a path and block him from prying eyes. Thankfully, the long span of grass and headstones looked deserted. Beyond was a road where several cars meandered past, their engines humming softly. Even if the drivers were rubberneckers and failed to keep their attention on traffic, they wouldn’t be able to see what happened below.
“Now or never.” Determined, he strode forward. He would have run, but he wasn’t in a hurry to ring the starting bell. Besides, these encounters always ended the same way, no matter the sequence of events: Aden bruised and broken, sick from the infection the corpses’ tainted saliva caused. He shuddered, already imagining yellowed teeth snapping and biting at him.