Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things
17 year old Ember Denning has made an art of isolating herself. She prefers the dead. She spends her days skipping school in old cemeteries and her nights hiding from her alcoholic father at the funeral home where she works. When her own father dies, Ember learns her whole life is a lie. Standing in the cemetery that’s been her sanctuary, she’s threatened by the most beautiful boy she’s ever seen and rescued by two people who claim to be her family. They say she’s special, that she has a supernatural gift like them…they just don’t know exactly what it is.
They take her to a small Florida town, where Ember’s life takes a turn for the weird. She’s living with her reaper cousins, an orphaned werewolf pack, a faery and a human genius. Ember’s powers are growing stronger, morphing into something bigger than anything anybody anticipated. Ember has questions but nobody has answers. Nobody knows what she is. They only know her mysterious magical gift is trying to kill them and that beautiful dangerous boy from the cemetery may be the only thing standing between her and death.
As Ember’s talents are revealed so are the secrets her father hid and those in power who would seek to destroy her. What’s worse, saving Ember has put her cousins in danger and turned her friend’s lives upside down. Ember must learn to embrace her magic or risk losing the family she’s pieced together.
Available on KU
“You know, Ms. Landry, you have the best skin I’ve ever seen on a corpse.” Ember Denning told the body lying before her. “I would know; I’m a professional.” She dusted powder across the older woman’s cheeks, her whisper conspiratorial as she added, “But if you see your sister up there, don’t tell her I said so, since I may have told her the same thing last month.”
Her latest client was predictably silent on the matter. She sighed. She needed livelier friends.
Ember squeaked in terror, spinning around, makeup brush brandished before her like a weapon.
Her boss chuckled, “What are you going to do, rouge me to death?”
She dropped her hands and shrugged, defeated, going back to her task. “It’s a powder brush, actually.”
He looked at his watch. “What are you doing here, Ember?”
She furrowed her brow, hoping she looked suitably confused. “I work here?”
That got her the eyebrow. Miller Hammond was a lot of things—including the owner of the funeral home she stood in—but he wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t buying it. He folded thick arms across his chest and fixed her with his best-hardened stare. He was trying for threatening but with his dark freckled skin and kind eyes, he looked like he should be playing God in every movie.
“You know exactly what I mean. I thought you were going to the cemetery today?”
She shrugged, eyes sliding away. “The day’s technically not over yet.”
“Girl, do not play games with me,” he said. “You need to go see your father. You missed his wake. You cannot miss his burial. You need to see him before…” he trailed off, letting his words go unspoken.
He didn’t have to say it. She needed to see him before social services came to collect her. She didn’t see the point of shoving a seventeen year old into foster care for one year but the social worker had assured Ember her opinion didn’t matter.
“Why do you even care?” she asked, tone casual as she slammed her brushes back into their proper containers. “He didn’t care about me when he was alive. Why should I care about him now that he’s dead? It’s not like he knows I’m there.”
He glanced at the old woman lying on the table. “Who are you trying to convince? You spend more time talking to the dead than the living.”
Her face flushed. She didn’t really have a good answer for that so instead she said, “The difference is, these people just died.” She snapped her rubber gloves off. “My father has been dead for years. Somebody just finally laid him down.”
“Ember,” he said, his voice soft with…something, sympathy, maybe pity. “Your dad was troubled, he—”
“—was a drunk.” Ember finished.
“He loved you.” He moved towards her but she held up her hand. He stopped, palms raised in surrender.
She hunched in on herself. She had a thing about personal space.
She gave him a ghost of a smile. It wasn’t his fault she was weird. Miller was just trying to help. He was always trying to help.
“I...” she started, apology dying on her lips.
“No. Nope. You don’t have to believe me but you do have to listen to me. Not another word. Take your skinny behind out of here and go do what’s right. Now. I’ll have Alice finish up with Ms. Landry.”
She did not have a skinny behind, she thought with a huff. “Fine,” she said, snagging her sweater from the hook by the door. “But don’t blame me when she ends up looking like one of those queens on
“Uh huh.” He waved a hand at her. “And you go straight home after the service. It’s going to be crazy in the quarter tonight. I don’t want you getting caught out in that.”
She rolled her eyes but nodded. “Yeah, yeah.”
“I mean it.”
“Okay!” Jeez, it’s not like it was her first day living in New Orleans. There was a festival in the quarter pretty much every day, especially this close to Halloween.
“Oh, and Ember?”
She turned with an exasperated sigh. “Yes?”
She gave him a lopsided smile. “Thanks.”
The walk to the cemetery was quick. Along the way, people were already celebrating. Men wore skull masks and top hats and women wore elaborate face paint and beautiful dresses in honor of Dia de los Muerta. She stared longingly at a dark haired girl with a huge red rose in her hair and sugar skull face paint. If she were a normal girl, she’d be preparing for the event with her friends. Despite having shared her birthday with the day of the dead, she’d never celebrated it herself.
She smiled at the girl as they passed but the girl dropped her eyes and moved as far away as possible on the narrow sidewalk. It didn’t hurt her feelings anymore. People avoided her as if she existed in an invisible bubble. It’s why she usually ignored Miller’s fatherly warnings about being careful. Nobody wanted to go near her. People were afraid of her. She just didn’t know why.
It was cold even for November. Swollen grey storm clouds marred the afternoon sky, casting the landscape around her in shadow. She pulled her sweater tighter around her, hoping her armhid the largest hole. She shivered as the wind picked up and swirled the fallen leaves around her feet.
She wasn’t the first to arrive at the service. A sea of strangers stood before the large mausoleum housing the remains of her father, all gawking at her with undisguised interest. They were mostly his students and other colleagues from the university, there to satisfy their morbid curiosity. Her father had no friends. It was hard to make friends when you spent your whole life as a barely functioning alcoholic; not many friends at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
She could feel their scrutiny, like tiny daggers, piercing her skin. She hated when people stared. And they always stared. She knew she was strange looking; her hair too orange, too wild and her wide violet eyes too strange. New Orleans was a superstitious place and something about her made people afraid.
She set her jaw, grinding her teeth until the muscle in her jaw popped. She just wasn’t herself since he died. Maybe she was getting sick. Thunder rumbled overhead and she squinted into the sky, inhaling deeply. It smelled like rain. Of course, it was going to rain. She hadn’t brought an umbrella.
As the minutes ticked by, she became restless. She hated waiting. It made her feel like she was crawling out of her skin. She just wanted this useless ritual to start already. People whispered to each other, their gazes heavy on her back. She glanced at the gates. She could go. She could just turn and leave. But everybody would see. She chewed at her thumbnail. What did she even care what a bunch of strangers thought about her? She could do as she pleased. She had nobody to answer to. Her breath caught on the thought. She had nobody. She stayed where she was, frozen at the thought. A dark skinned man in a long black robe ambled his way to the front of the crowd, smiling and shaking hands with the people, clasping them warmly on the shoulder like a visiting dignitary. The group quieted and the woman closest to her smoothed her hands over her blouse as if there would be an inspection after the service. Ember rolled her eyes.
“Brothers and sisters,” the man’s voice boomed in the silence, echoing off the surrounding stones. “We are gathered here to say goodbye to a dear friend.”
She couldn’t help the snort that escaped, covering it with a cough, as eyes swung towards her. It was his job to say nice things about the dead, she reminded herself. What was he going to say? ‘We’ve gathered to say goodbye to a man who was a lousy professor and even worse father. A nasty, neglectful jerk that spent his days trying to decide if he would ignore his only child or verbally abuse her to the point of neuroses. That he spent most nights passed out in his own vomit and nobody would really miss him?
She felt feverish, a heat overtaking her body starting at the soles of her feet and crawling higher. Beads of perspiration formed on her lip, despite the cool air whipping around the stone mausoleums.
She must be sick. She tuned out the preacher and his platitudes. Her eyes fluttered and she swayed on her feet, vision swimming. Was she going to pass out? She blinked hard several times and dabbed at the sweat at her forehead with her sleeve.
A wave of black umbrellas swung into the air as the sky opened up. People huddled together, trying to ward off the frigid cold and the rain coming in sideways.
She made no move to protect herself from the onslaught, all her energy focused on staying upright. Her hair stuck to her face, her sweater and black dress clinging like a second skin. She should be freezing but she was in flames, her head stuffed with cotton. What was happening to her?
The preacher droned on despite the weather. The woman in the blouse rushed forward to shield the good reverend with her obnoxiously large black umbrella. What was this ladies problem? Was she trying for extra grace in heaven? Ember’s fingers buzzed like she held a live wire, the sensation growing until she felt like a million fire ants crawled beneath her skin.
Her eyes swept the crowd, noting how people inched even further away from her. Could they see what was happening to her? Maybe they just questioned the sanity of a girl who didn’t have the sense to get out of the rain.
Her eyes scanned the perimeter, looking anywhere but the crowd. At first glance, she thought him a statue; an apparition in the deluge of rain. He sat perched on top of a mausoleum, crouched like a gargoyle with his elbows on his knees, hood shrouding his face. Three stone crosses rose behind him giving him the appearance a post-apocalyptic monk guarding a sacred shrine.
That feeling beneath her skin intensified and she fought the urge to tear at her flesh with her nails. How could anybody not see something was wrong? She balled her hands into fists, clenching until her nails pushed tiny half-moons into her palms. She felt the tiniest bit of relief if she focused on the biting pain in her palms and not the razor blades beneath her skin.
Then it hit her, pain like a lightning bolt, ripping through her skull. She would have hit her knees, but she was paralyzed, hanging like a marionette doll controlled by some unseen puppet master. Her limbs wouldn’t budge, cement heavy and useless. She tried to scream but no sound came. Nobody looked her way. Could they not see there was something wrong with her?
She had this overwhelming sense of dread; it clung to her skin like the rain that poured down on her. She was going to die like this, standing at her father’s funeral, drenched and in agony. She was on fire. She needed to cool down but the rain was as hot as the blood pounding in her ears.
Her eyes found the figure in the distance. If he was a monk, maybe he’d hear her prayers. Maybe he could end her misery. He tilted his head and she stupidly thought maybe he’d heard her somehow. Maybe he could sense what was happening.
He stood then, rising from the top of the mausoleum like another spire. He pushed his hood back. She wished she could see his face. She needed him closer. She needed to see him, to know he saw her.
Shit, she was going crazy. He was too far away to help. She was going to die there and he was going to watch.
She found it weirdly comforting. At least she wouldn’t be totally alone in the end, not like her dad. Another shot of pain seared through her, her vision whiting out. She hoped it happened soon. She could lose consciousness. She just needed the pain to stop.
Her panic ratcheted up as she felt herself losing the battle to keep herself upright. She didn’t want to die. Then she felt it; a slippery coolness washed over her, like icy fingers pressing against her temples and working their way under her skin. She wanted to cry it felt so good, soothing the searing heat like ice water through her veins.
She wasn’t sure how long she stood there, eyes closed, breathing deep, letting the break overtake her but by the time the sensation started to fade, the rain was gone and the people were drifting away. She shook her head, trying to clear the frosty cobwebs clouding her brain. She timidly took a step forward, relieved to find her limbs working.
She looked to the mausoleum in the distance but there was nobody. Had he ever really been there? Was this what it felt like to go crazy?