CHAPTER ONE

 

“I’m dying!” The cry pierced the air, jolting me out of my trance. I blinked twice, letting my eyes adjust, then peered at the skinny blonde pleading with me from across the room.

“Seriously, Darcy, are you almost finished? This pose is killing me,” Shannon Tucker whined as she eyed me from her frozen position in the middle of the studio. “I can’t sit like this much longer. My muscles are stiff, and I’ve got a bitch of a headache.” She poked out her bottom lip. “Why’d we have to do this on a Friday night, anyway? I’m missing Grayson Black’s St. Patty’s Day party. By the time I get there, he’ll be out of green beer.”

“Sorry,” I murmured absently, thinking I could use a pint of Guinness right about now myself. My forehead wrinkled as I shifted my gaze from the easel to the paintbrush in my hand. At the sound of Shannon’s cry, I’d jerked the brush away from the canvas, and now, there was a trail of vibrant red dripping in its wake. The stream of color slowly bled across the ivory skin on my painted woman’s face. The portrait was a fairly accurate likeness of my classmate. She had the same blue eyes, blonde ringlets, and smooth, creamy complexion…and now, she had the same stream of blood dripping down her bottom lip.

 

I frowned down at the canvas. Shit. I’d just screwed up big time. My ability to foresee the deaths of people around me was all but impossible to ignore, so of course the blood was the first thing I noticed when Shannon walked into the studio. I’d never intended to feature her corpse in my work, though. Especially not in a work that I had to present in front of our whole Advanced Arts class next week. Hell, I didn’t even recall dipping the brush in red paint. The minute I cranked up the volume of some classic rock music and began painting, my subconscious had taken over—and that pesky crimson trail had found its way onto the canvas. Now, it was drizzling down the painted woman’s lips like something out of a bad vampire flick.

Darcy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do…again. If anyone saw the portrait, it was going to raise questions—the type of questions I preferred to avoid. I’d decided a long time ago not to interfere with deaths from natural causes. Not to sound callous, but I couldn’t save everyone. I had to be selective about when to intervene—terrible accidents and foul play, mostly—or I’d rarely get anything else done.

 

But you know her, my conscience argued. I glanced over at my class partner as she rose from her stool, unaware of the phantom gore still trickling from her mouth. “I think we need a quick break,” Shannon said before I could protest. She stretched her slender arms high in the air like a ballerina in fifth position. “That feels so much better!” She bounced on the balls of her feet several times before whirling around in a pirouette. I crinkled my nose when a filmy red bubble expanded across her lips and then popped, spraying bright droplets of blood as she spun. Though I’d seen this type of thing before, my stomach still flip-flopped.

 

Shannon grinned at me, oblivious. “So, how does it look?” she asked, starting toward my workspace.

“It’s not quite finished yet,” I stalled. I stepped between Shannon and my easel, debating whether I should come up with an excuse not to show her my work or just come clean about what I’d done to the painting—and about what was going to happen to her. Breaking the news to someone that she’s dying didn’t usually go over too well.

It’s not like we’re close friends or anything, I thought, trying to ignore the guilt tugging at me. More like acquaintances.

 

“C’mon, let me see,” Shannon insisted. She narrowed her eyes and strode determinedly toward my gruesome painting. I had a feeling she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

 

All right, fine. Here goes nothing. I sucked in a breath and squared my shoulders, lifting my gaze to meet Shannon’s baby blues. “You mentioned having a headache,” I started.

 

Shannon nodded, grimacing. “Yeah, it’s pretty killer. Got some aspirin on you?”

 

I crossed my arms over my chest and studied her more closely. This was usually the kind of fun part, all morbidity aside. I’m a sucker for a good mystery, after all. I’d gather clues as subtly as possible and check them against my mental list of potential ways that the person might die, trying to diagnose the cause. “Are you experiencing a dull ache or more of a sharp pain? Any dizziness or shortness of breath? Nausea, maybe?” Okay, maybe I wasn’t always so good at the whole ‘subtlety’ thing.

 

Shannon arched one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Uh, Darcy, I hate to break it to you, but I’m not interested in playing doctor.” She grinned. “I mean, I’m flattered and all, but I don’t swing that way.”

 

I groaned. “Ugh, that’s so not what I was going for.”

“Then what were you going for, exactly?” Shannon’s smile faded. “Giving me the creeps?”

 

I shook my head, more to clear my thoughts than to answer her question. Time to try another approach. “Do you have a mirror with you?” I already knew she did. It took a lot of primping and mid-day makeup checks to keep her face as perfectly put-together as Shannon Tucker’s was. Last week, I’d caught her re-applying her lipstick three times in a Painting Methods and Forms class that had lasted barely an hour.

 

Shannon looked puzzled as she studied my solemn expression. Following my gaze, she put her hand to her mouth, her eyes widening. “What is it? Do I have something in my teeth?” Shannon jammed her other hand into the pocket of her jeans and fished out a compact. She held it up to her face and squinted as she scrutinized her reflection. Her fingertips brushed lightly over the trickling blood, smearing it across her mouth like gory lip balm. I stayed silent, waiting for the inevitable. Sure enough, Shannon’s expression darkened, and she glared at me. “There’s nothing there,” she said, her tone irritated. “What’s your deal, Darcy? Why are you messing with me?”

 

Of course, she doesn’t see anything wrong. Through Shannon’s eyes—or anyone else’s, for that matter—she’d appear completely normal. Just a pretty young coed, a picture of perfect health.

 

I didn’t see the world through the same lenses as everyone else. My view was a bit darker. Imagine if Instagram had a zombifying filter—that’d be pretty close.

 

“No, I’m not messing with you.” I sighed. Telling people the truth about my secret wasn’t my favorite thing to do. I didn’t need to be psychic to know she wasn’t going to handle the news well. Most people didn’t take too kindly to having their deaths predicted at random, especially when they learned how little time they had left. My friend Charlie had once compared me to a twisted fortune cookie: sweet on the outside, but full of bad news.

 

“What I’m about to show you is going to seem crazy,” I warned, coming to stand beside Shannon. “But I need you to trust me. It’s a matter of life and death.” Yours, actually.

 

“Okay…” Shannon’s voice trailed off, and she narrowed her eyes in suspicion.

 

Pointing to her compact mirror, I said, “This is how you see yourself.” Then, I gently grabbed her elbow and guided her over to the easel. “But when I look at you, this is what I see.” I gestured to the bloodied woman on the canvas, feeling a little bit like the spokesperson in those anti-drug commercials from the early nineties—the ones that compared your brain to an egg scrambling in a frying pan. This is you; this is you on your deathbed. Any questions?

Shannon’s eyes widened and her jaw went slack. There was a moment of tense silence as she gaped at the painting. She brought her hand to her lips again and then pulled it back, her gaze shifting from her fingers to the ruby paint on the canvas.

I hurried through the rest of my spiel, hoping some of it would sink in before she went into full freak-out mode. “I know you’re probably shocked right now, but you need to listen to me. I wouldn’t be having this vision if you weren’t in serious danger. Shannon, something bad is going to happen to you sometime over the next several days. I don’t know what, or exactly when, but it’s coming. If you don’t go see a doctor, you’re going to die.”

 

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Shannon snapped. Anger twisted her features, making the phantom blood on her lips seem even more sinister.

 

I mentally braced myself. Here comes the denial. “I know it sounds insane, but it’s the truth,” I said softly. “I’m just trying to help you.”

 

“It does sound insane.” Shannon glared at me. “You’re insane.” She stormed past me and snatched her purse from the table, knocking my portable speaker to the floor. The electric guitar riffs and steady drumbeat abruptly ended as the batteries popped out and rolled across the tile.

 

“Shannon, wait.” I took a step toward her.

 

“Stay away from me.” She stalked toward the door, splattering a trail of phantom blood on the floor behind her. Shannon paused just outside the room and turned back to face me, sneering. “Darcy Harbinger, you’re a freak!”

 

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© Anne Marie Stoddard 2017