Meg is dying–fast. There’s only one way for her boyfriend to save her. The Bank of Souls.
“Tomorrow it’ll come and tomorrow she’ll be dead!” Danner stood over my cot, all dark and shadowy, though the fireplace crackling behind him did cast light on one thing—his shining green eyes. Or I guess that’s two things technically. To the right of the fireplace, Birdie hunched, sunken and gray like the armchair he sat in.
“Well darn, Danny,” I coughed, “quite the inspiration.”
He leaned over and softened some. “Shh, Meg, please, just rest.”
“Well, according to you, I’m about to have plenty of that in eight hours—give or take.”
His glistening eyes laid on me and though the darkness in my cabin’s living room obscured it, he curved his lips in a smirk—the same smirk he gave me at the prison courtyard before introducing himself as my future husband. But like my health over the last forty-eight hours, it quickly vanished.
“All we can do is pray for dayligh’,” Birdie said, his voice hoarse.
“I’m sick of praying, Birdie!” Danner rose. “We’ve got to do something!”
“You willin’ to go out there durin’ curfew and risk meetin’ the courier halfway?”
“I think my odds at taking a bullet are better than hers right now.”
“That so?” Now Birdie rose, wrinkled and still hunched, he managed to meet brawny Danner eye-to-one-eye. Like it did for Danner, the flames shined off Birdie’s single iris and only deepened the shadow in his crater of the other. “I know the odds, kid, and they ain’t good. You’re better off sittin’ your stubborn butt down and waitin’ for her medicine to come.”
“Dad, please—” I shut my mouth. Birdie’s singular stare darted to me. Despite the warmth, a shiver tore through my bones.
Birdie walked around Danner and slowly approached. “What did you call me?”
“Dad,” I said it lower, but stronger somehow. Of all the eighteen years he’d raised me, never once had I called him Dad. He never taught me to.
A tear welled and he knelt beside me and laid his heavy, thumbless hand on my whole one—another friendly reminder from the dictatorship not to ever buy cow meat from the black market again. “Darnit, Meg. I told you what to call me.”
“God forbid, right? Even on my death bed.”
“You’re not gonna die, Meg.”
“Just like Mom wasn’t going to?”
A tear escaped and he quickly turned away. My own eyes remained dry. I didn’t have the luxury of thirty years of memories. Not even a full twenty-four hours. I only had the reminder of the curse, the plague I was from birth.
Danner returned to my side, soft again. “Do you want me to stay?”
Sweat dripped from my temples; heat, pain, and love will do that to you. “Kinda.”
He chuckled. “But I’ve got to do something, Meg.”
“Then kiss me.”
He grabbed my hand in his and whispered, “With this audience? I’ll really die before you do.”
“Romeo didn’t care.”
“Yeah, and look how that ended up.”
I sighed. “But unlike Juliet…I am really dying, Danner.”
His head bowed and he kissed my hand. Hot tears landed on my skin. He peered up again. After what felt like eons, he slowly leaned in and pressed his soft lips to mine. Bitter sweet, like black coffee and milk. Another luxury we’d been deprived of for years. My aching muscles eased. My eyelids grew heavy. My breathing hastened.
Danner recoiled. “Meg? Meg!”
“Meg!” Birdie cried out. Their loud voices drifted as my head throbbed. Burning stabs cut through my heart. I gasped and grabbed my chest. But I couldn’t feel my hand. Only my heart. The rapid slicing. From every angle. Cutting through my veins. Ripping at my arteries. My lungs squeezed in. A million pounds. I dropped back. This. Was. It. My odds. Maybe I’d meet. Mom.
Finally. Say hi. Or sorry.
“Meg!” Danner shouted, her lifeless, thin body like the weight of a child in his arms. He held her tightly. “Please, don’t do this. I need you.” Tears soaked his face. And rage consumed his heart. They did this to her. To her mother. To his grandparents. Their neighbors. Scraps and shackles. Crap hospitals. Criminalizing private anything.
Birdie dropped to his knees and sobbed. “Meg, my Megan. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Danner shut his eyes. Meg’s face that day in the prison courtyard filled his mind. Still thin, but fuller. Her skin glowing with sweat and her dark eyes plain yet penetrating. Makeup was for rich girls. Not that she needed it.
She sat against the iron gate, writing on a torn piece of bed sheet with a pen she’d stolen from an officer. She had wrapped the flashy pen in some bed sheet, too. Danner was the only one who saw her do it.
The meat-head sat in his cozy desk chair, writing in the new prisoners on his clipboard with an old, red-feathered ink pen. He prided his penmanship—refusing to use the government provided tablet. Meg had been eyeing the pen the whole time she waited in line. By the time she was third, she feigned the most believable sneeze attack you’d ever seen. Everyone panicked—not wanting to catch the latest pestilence—even Meat-Head. He sprang from his comfy chair like someone jammed a dagger through his cheeks, dropping his pen and notepad. Meanwhile, Meg stumbled forward, still sneezing, and slapped her hands onto the table. As she turned around, she swiped the pen and slipped it into the back of her pants, her sneeze explosion finally ceasing.
Meat-Head was so disturbed he’d called in backup and took an abrupt break from his post.
And that’s when the thought hit Danner and he just knew it. He knew one day he’d marry that crazy girl. And he had to tell her.
“I saw what you did.” Danner opened with.
She stopped writing and looked up at him with those eyes. “And?”
He smirked. “And I’m your future husband.”
Meg huffed, but then smiled, too.
Danner opened his eyes. And gently pulled Meg away from his chest. Her mouth hung open slightly. But now she was dead.
A knock rattled the front door.
Birdie continued sobbing as Danner carefully laid Meg on the cot and then rushed to the door. He opened it. Night masked the surrounding woods up to the porch, but a ray of moonlight snuck through the trees and onto a brown paper box on the doorstep. Danner glanced around. The courier couldn’t of disappeared that fast. Danner grabbed the box, slowly, before shutting the door and locking it.
Birdie looked up, his face wet with tears and snot. He frowned at the odd package as Danner scanned it. Not the Black Market’s usual white, imitation government box with realistic insignias and a fake return address.
“Who’s it from?” Birdie finally spoke.
“Then don’t open it. Could be a bomb or something from the Regime.”
Danner clutched the box, his eyes traveling to Meg, her skin paler than ever. He strode from the room and into the half kitchen. He snatched a knife from a drawer, set the box on the counter, and then sliced the tape that sealed it.
As Danner opened the box, Birdie stepped into the kitchen. A clipboard with a paper lay at the bottom.
“What the hell is it?”
Danner slowly removed the clipboard and read the crimson printed words:
I, Danner Adam Mitchel, on this sixth day of September, year 2033, hereby choose to pledge that in the place of Megan Marie Blackwell, I shall offer my life in exchange for hers.
Danner’s heart pounded. Beneath a line with an empty space, cursive writing spelled: Anticus Mordem, Owner of the Bank of Souls.
Danner looked inside the box again. A red-feathered pen lay in the center.
Birdie rushed to his side and grabbed the clipboard. As he read it, he shook his head. “What kinda sick bast—”
Danner clasped the pen and snatched the clipboard back, then walked out of the kitchen and into the living room. Meg still lay there. Her skin now yellowing. Danner approached her. He suddenly remembered what he’d stowed in his left pocket. A ring he’d traded five batteries and a week’s worth of flour for. A six month’s wage. He had the proposal all planned.
He’d built a small table from two of his dining chairs and set it in his backyard beneath the best looking tree he could find and then sprinkled it with purple flowers—her favorite color. He was going to cook wheat pasta for her and then ask the big question. But before he could, she got food poisoning from spoiled berries and now here they were, two days later.
Danner reached in his pocket and removed the ring. Rose gold. Plain but beautiful, like Meg. Lifting her limp hand, he slid the ring onto her ring finger. “If this works, I’ll see you on the other side, Juliet.” He gave her one more kiss before pressing the red-feathered pen on the empty line and filling it with his name.
A pang thrust through his chest. He staggered before hitting the floor.
“Danner!” Birdie dropped beside him and began compressing his chest. “No, you ain’t goin’, too, kid! C’mon!” He pushed down hard. Over and over.
“Dad?” Meg’s voice.
Danner’s chest seared at the sound and he forced himself to look at her. Her skin shone its normal pale, kissed with red. Her dark eyes alive—and terrified.
As she jumped out of the cot, Birdie stopped compressing. “Megan? But…”
Megan took over. She pumped and pumped. Pressed her lips to Danner’s. Breathed out. Pumped some more. Breathed out…
“No, no, Danner, don’t you dare!” She cried as she pressed harder.
The pain spread until it swallowed. And Danner gave his life.
“No!” I cupped Danner’s cheeks. His eyes were open. But distant. I touched his neck. Nothing. I slowly scooted away. What kind of nightmare am I living? I died only to wake up to this? No. It isn’t real. I’m still dead. Maybe this is hell. My punishment for killing Mom during labor.
“Meg.” Birdie smashed my dark hopes. He held out a clipboard, his hand trembling.
I took it. Read the words. And Danner’s signature.
I shook my head. “This isn’t possible.”
“You…” Birdie’s voice quaked, his blue eye wide. “You died. I—I saw it. And then Danner signed. Dropped to the ground.” His body shaking, he muttered the rest.
My heart raced. Beside Danner lay a red-feathered pen—exactly like the one I swiped from that tool at the prison. I snatched it and then noticed a rose-gold ring on my wedding finger. Oh my God.
I clasped my mouth. My head thrashed as my mind swirled. This is hell. A living hell.
I closed my eyes. Tried to breathe. To think. What would Mom do? Dumb question. I’d never know. Birdie forbade asking about her. And he never brought her up. She could’ve been a dream this whole time. A good dream. Not like this. I took another deep breath. And opened my eyes.
I looked at Danner. Gone. Somewhere else. But I wasn’t ready to let him go.
I ripped the paper from the clipboard and shoved the feathered pen in my back pocket. As I stood to my feet, Birdie did, too.
“What are you doin’?”
“I’m going to find this Anticus Mordem guy. And make him bring Danner back.”