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       The Black, p.1

           D. J. MacHale
The Black


  This isn't what I expected death to be like.

  Not that I thought about it much. Or at all. For the record, it isn't completely horrible. Being dead actually has perks. Nobody tells me what to do. I don't get hungry, though I do miss calzones. I don't even need sleep. Or deodorant . . . I think. Best of all, being a spirit means I'm no longer bound by a physical body so I'm free to travel to places and see things I could only imagine before.

  There, I said it. Spirit. I'm a spirit. "Dead" refers to what I was. "Spirit" is what I am. The number one fact of life is that you can't duck death. That's normal. What isn't normal is what's been happening to me since I died, and that's why I'm not ready to accept this fate. Something twisted is going on and I'm having a hard time dealing because I've yet to learn all the rules of this new life. Or death. I'd just as soon mind my own business, have a little fun, kick back, and make the most of the afterlife. But that's not an option because I have landed square in the middle of Trouble Town. I'm not alone, either. This isn't just about me, it's about those I've met in this new life . . . and those I've left behind.

  So much has changed, but one thing hasn't: I'm still me. I have the same thoughts and feelings I had when I was alive. That's both a comfort and a curse because as wild as it's been to glimpse eternity, I'd be lying if I said 1 didn't miss my family. Even my witch sister, Sydney. That's the biggest downside of being dead. You have to leave behind the ones you care about. And calzones.

  Though, I can't leave everything behind completely. Not yet, anyway. People I care about are in danger and I may be the only one who can help them. For reasons I'm still trying to understand I've been targeted by a spirit who is bent on causing trouble between the worlds of the living and the dead. Based on what's happened already there's no way to know who will be left standing when the dust settles.

  I've traveled a long way since the day of my death. To explain exactly what brought me to this point means going back to the other side. To the Light. It's a place on the far end of a long road that stretches two ways. I know the route back. What lies ahead is another story. A mystery. There are still choices to be made . . . choices that will affect my future and the future of everyone else who travels the road.

  The Morpheus Road.

  My name is Cooper Foley and this is my story.


  "Don't be an idiot. Just go to the lake until things calm down."

  My sister was telling me what to do, as usual, because she knows everything.

  "I'm not going to run away," I countered. "I can handle those guys."

  Sydney groaned. She did that a lot, mostly when I didn't do what she wanted, which was always. Sydney and I might have looked like each other—we shared the same dark hair and blue eyes—but that's where the similarity ended. For one, I'm better-looking. The guys who tried to get with her probably had a different opinion but I'm sticking with mine. She was only a year older than me but treated me like I was a lower form of life that shouldn't be allowed to breathe air that could go to someone more deserving. Like her.

  I didn't care what she thought.

  "Wow," she said sarcastically. "Such a tough guy. What if the police want you to give up their names? What'll you do then?"

  I shrugged. "I already gave them names."

  "What!" she screamed.

  "Relax. I didn't tell them about you. Or your dim boyfriend."

  Sydney glared at me with anger and confusion. Her cool was broken, which was saying something because normally she was ice.

  "Why?" was all she managed to get out.

  "I didn't have a choice. If I didn't give them something, I'd be sitting in juvie right now fighting off a bunch of hard cases who really are tough. Besides, they had it coming."

  "I don't believe this." Sydney moaned as she paced my bedroom floor.

  It was her fault that I was in Trouble Town to begin with and I think she felt guilty about it. Guilt was an alien emotion to Sydney so it was fun to see her squirm. She normally had it all going on . . . which was her biggest problem. Our parents expected her to be perfect and she mostly was, for a heartless vampire. But she resented the pressure and that caused tension in Foley-world. Her latest act of defiance was to announce she was getting a tattoo. Our parents went nuts and threatened to hold back her college money. For somebody headed to Stanford, that was serious. I don't think Sydney really wanted to get inked, but my parents' threat drove her straight to the low-life tattoo guy.

  Her big rebellious statement backfired. The tattoo caused a nasty infection that landed her in the emergency room, where she got fixed up and smacked with a bill for a couple hundred bucks . . . money she didn't have and couldn't ask our parents to put out. She didn't want them to have the satisfaction of knowing they were absolutely right about the tattoo being a dumb idea. She was stuck until her boyfriend, Mikey, offered a way out. He knew some guys with Yankees tickets that they were willing to let Sydney scalp. Whatever profit she made, she and Mikey would split. Sydney had no idea how to scalp tickets and Mikey was an idiot, which is how I got involved. I knew how to get things done.

  I liked the idea of Sydney owing me so I took the tickets, sold them for a decent profit, and bailed her out with the doctor bill. I felt good about it, too. She was still my sister. Everybody was happy . . . until the cops showed up at our door. Turned out the tickets were bogus. Counterfeit. I guess there were some angry people at Yankee Stadium who found people sitting in their expensive field-level seats . . . with legit tickets. Oops.

  "I should give them Mikey's name too," I said. "That fool had to know the tickets were fake."

  She shook her head. "No, he's not bright enough to do something so dumb."

  "Well, those other dirtballs knew. Nobody messes with me like that. I hope they do time."

  Sydney jumped to her feet. "Why?" she screamed. "Why is it always about you?"

  "You made it about me when you asked me to get you out of trouble."

  Sydney's eyes flared. "Go to the lake, Cooper," she said in a seething whisper. "Do the smart thing for once in your life."

  She stormed out of my bedroom, throwing a parting shot for the rest of the house to hear, "Get over yourself for once and just go!"

  I actually felt bad for her, not that I'd tell her so. Whatever problems I had would blow over. I always found my way out of Trouble Town. But Sydney was different. It must have killed her to know how badly she had messed up . . . and brought some lesser mortals down with her. Still, I wasn't about to do what she wanted, which was to go to our family's lake house and hide out for the summer. I didn't want to run scared. That wasn't me.

  "What the heck?" came a voice at my door.

  It was Marshall Seaver, my best friend.

  "Can you believe it?" I said. "They want me to get out of town like some mob guy who has to lay low until the heat dies down."

  Marsh knew about the tickets, but not about the tattoo and Sydney's involvement in the whole mess.

  "Maybe you could just go for a week or two," he offered.

  "No. They're talking the whole summer. That lake is death, Ralph. What'll I do up there? Fish? That gets old after eight seconds. The place is great if you're six or sixty. For everybody else . . . torture."

  My family had a cottage on Thistledown Lake, a couple of hours north of our home in Stony Brook. I used to love spending summers there, especially when Marsh came up. We always had a blast just hanging out and being kids. But we weren't kids anymore.

  "What's Sydney's problem?" he asked.

  Marsh stood there in his hoodie with his blond hair falling into his eyes. We'd been tight since kindergarten. He was like my brother. But the older we got the more he seemed like my little brother. He wasn't an idiot. Far from it. But where he liked building model
rockets and reading comic books and camping out, I was, well, I was scalping baseball tickets. I can't say which of us was better off.

  "Who knows?" I said, ducking the question. "My parents aren't even making her go. She gets to be on her own for the whole summer while I'm sentenced to two months at Camp Kumbaya."

  I hated not telling him the whole truth but it bothered me more that I was being forced into a corner by everybody, including my best friend. I picked up a football and threw it into a chair. Hard. It didn't make me feel any better.

  "Mikey the Mauler's downstairs," Marsh said, pressing. "He threatened to hurt you. What's that all about?"

  "Nothing," I said. "Forget it."

  "Did he give you the fake tickets?"

  "No! Let it go, all right! It's none of your business."

  Marsh was asking all the right questions and I didn't want to lie to him so I jumped up and went to the bedroom window. It was wide open . . . a tempting escape hatch.

  "It is my business!" he shouted back. "You did something stupid, and now you're going to have to take off for a couple of months to get away from the mess, and poof! There goes summer."

  I slammed the window shut so hard it made the house rattle. "That makes it your business? Because I'm ruining your summer?"

  "That's not what I meant," Marsh said, backpedaling.

  "Yeah, you did," I countered. I hated it when he only saw things through his own naive perspective. "Gee, sorry, Marsh. I should have thought it through before doing anything that might spoil your fun. How inconsiderate of me."

  "Don't go there," he shot back. "I know this isn't about me, but it's not just about you, either. The stuff you do has fallout."

  "Fallout? I'll give you fallout. The cops threatened to throw me in juvie unless I told them where I got the fake tickets . . . so I gave up a couple of guys. And you know what? I don't care because those dirtballs set me up. But now I'm looking over my shoulder in case they find out I ratted and come after me. That's fallout. So I'm sorry if I messed up your plans to pretend like we're still twelve, but you know, things happen."

  "That's cold," he said softly.

  "Move on, Marsh. We're not kids anymore."

  "I know that."

  I should have stopped right there but I was too worked up.

  "But hey, who am I to judge? Do whatever you want. I'm sure there are plenty of guys who want to hang out with you and watch cartoons. I'm not your only friend."

  I hesitated, then added the killing blow, "Or am I?" The pained look on Marsh's face said it all. I'd gone too far.

  "Have a good summer," he said, and walked out of the room.

  I didn't mean to hurt him but I was frustrated and Marsh was an easy target. I should have yanked him back into the room to tell him why I was so angry, but I didn't want him to know the truth about Sydney. Marsh liked Sydney. Heck, he probably loved her. To him she was perfect and I wanted to protect him from the truth. I did that a lot, especially after all he'd been through.

  Marsh's mother was killed a few years before. It was a tragedy that seemed to freeze time for him. I'm no shrink but I think he didn't want to let go of the life he had when his mom was there, which is why he still thought like a kid while the rest of us continued to grow up. But he was my best friend and as years went by I did my best to shield him from anything negative that came his way. Who knows? Maybe it was partly my fault that he still acted like he was twelve.

  There aren't a lot of things I regret, but not stopping him from leaving that day is definitely on top of the list. Instead of sucking it up and going after him, I picked up my football and slammed it against the wall again . . . an act of total futility. I knew I wasn't thinking right and had to get control of the situation.

  "Ralph!" I yelled, calling out as I ran out of my room and down the stairs. That's what I called him. Ralph.

  I already had a plan. Summer vacation had just started and Marsh had come up with all these adventures for us to go on that I had promptly trashed. I didn't want to waste time camping or sailing when we could be at the beach hooking up with any girl who drew breath. But now the beach was out and I had the perfect compromise: Marsh could spend the summer with me up at Thistledown. We'd roll the clock back and goof off like the old days. We could even hang at the lake beach and scout for local talent. Everybody would win.

  Except I was too late.

  "He's gone," my mother said.

  "I'll catch him."

  I went for the door but Mom stopped me.

  "He said he thought you'd agree to go to the lake," she said. She looked stressed. I guess having one of your kids arrested will do that.

  "Yeah. Maybe it's not such a bad idea."

  Her tension melted. "Oh thank god."

  "One condition," I said. "I want Marsh to come up." It was a no-brainer. Mom loved Marsh.

  "Are you kidding? That's a great idea but—"

  "But what?"

  "I just invited him. He wasn't enthused."

  I thought about chasing after him, but decided not to. It was the second time I had made that same mistake in five minutes.

  "We had an argument," I said. "I'll give him time to cool off and then make nice."

  Mom frowned. "He's the last person you should be arguing with."

  "Yeah, I know, Mom. I'm an idiot."

  "You're not an idiot. You're just—okay, sometimes you're an idiot."

  "Thanks. When are we leaving?"

  "Tonight," she said quickly, headed for the stairs.

  "What's the rush?"

  "The sooner we get out of here the sooner I'll stop stressing about police and . . . and . . . counterfeiters. I can't believe I just said that."

  "This isn't TV, Mom. Nothing's gonna happen."

  "I know, because we're leaving tonight. Pack."

  Mom was being dramatic but if it made her happy to be on the next stagecoach out of Dodge, I wasn't going to ruin it for her. Besides, it could work out perfectly. I'd take a few days to scope out the situation at the lake and lay some groundwork for the festivities. By then Marsh would have calmed down and would be open to my invitation... and apology. Neither of us carried a grudge for long. We were too good of friends for that.

  I was beginning to think that after the drama of the past few days, the summer could actually end up being pretty decent.

  It's amazing to know how totally wrong I was.


  The town of Thistledown existed for exactly three months every year.

  That's what it seemed like, anyway. As far as I knew, every fall the place was dismantled, packed up, and put into storage to wait for the tourists to show up again the following summer. The lake was about seven miles long and surrounded by miles of thick woods and the occasional summer cottage. The town itself was at the southernmost tip. It was three blocks long and loaded with places to buy T-shirts, ice cream, and fried food. There was a mini golf course, a drive-in movie, and a marina where tourists rented boats that they'd take onto the lake and try not to run into one another with.

  We had a big cottage right on the water with a dock, a float, and a motor boat that we used to take out for hours, hunting for the best fishing spots. Since Sydney and I spent most of the summer trying to injure each other, my parents always let us invite friends up to keep us occupied. Though I had lots of company, the best times were always when Marsh was there.

  The guy was amazing. He knew about everything. All you had to do was mention some random topic like seaweed and he'd know that Chinese people use it as medicine because it has a high percentage of iodine. Me? I didn't even know what iodine was. Whether we were building rafts or launching model rockets, we were always doing something different and fun. Marsh wanted to know how things worked. He was fascinated by the science. I just liked the boom.

  Having Marsh around was a good thing because life among the Foleys was usually intense. Somebody was always pissed off at somebody else for not doing something they should have known better about. I got away from
it as much as possible, which is what made hanging out with Marsh so great. Marsh didn't judge. We pushed each other, but in a good way. He made me think and I made him act.

  I thought a lot about Marsh and the good times we'd spent together as I sat on the dock in front of our lake house. Part of it was due to my guilt over having insulted him, but that wasn't the whole story. I was becoming a different person and it wasn't just about getting older. If I was to guess when it was that things started to change, I'd say it was around the time that Marsh's mom was killed. Her death was tragic... and violent. She was a photographer who was on assignment somewhere in Europe and got trapped in a building that collapsed in an earthquake. It was a bad way to go... not that there's any good way to go. It destroyed Marsh. I didn't see much of him for a couple of months afterward, and in that time things got strange.

  For reasons I can't explain, guys started getting in my face. Challenging me. It was usually over dumb stuff like "Hey, who you looking at?" But it often led to a fight. I got a reputation for being a brawler, which only led to more guys challenging me. I didn't want to fight, but what could I do? I became a target for every tough guy who wanted to prove they could take me.

  For the record, nobody could.

  The fighting put me on the radar of some guys who weren't exactly model citizens. They were still in school but didn't go to class much. Or at all. They always had money but none of them had jobs. At least not in the regular sense. They always had something going on, most of which was illegal, like taking bets on football games and printing fake IDs. One time I went with them to rip off some copper from a construction site. There was nothing clever about it. It was flat-out stealing. I knew it was wrong but I have to admit, it gave me a rush. I didn't even make that much money out of the deal but it didn't matter. It was exciting.

  It wasn't the kind of fun Marsh would approve of so I didn't tell him about it... or about anything else I did with those guys. Marsh eventually came out of his self-imposed exile, but things were different and we didn't hang out as much, and I guess I have myself to blame for that. It was tough being one way with my new friends and another person with Marsh. I wasn't even sure which was the real me. A couple of times Marsh got on me for skipping school, but I told him he sounded like a grandpa and he backed off.

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