Fifteen-year-old Billy Ballard, the most bullied kid in school, is tricked into becoming the new Pestilence.
Fifteen-year-old Billy Ballard is the kid that everyone picks on. But things change drastically when Death tells Billy he must stand in as Pestilence, the White Rider of the Apocalypse.
Now armed with a Bow that allows him to strike with disease from a distance, Billy lashes out at his tormentors...and accidentally causes an outbreak of meningitis. Horrified by his actions, Billy begs Death to take back the Bow. For that to happen, says Death, Billy must track down the real White Rider, and stop him from unleashing something awful on humanity—something that could make the Black Plague look like a summer cold.
Does one bullied teenager have the strength to stand his ground—and the courage to save the world?
A Junior Library Guild Selection
Riders of the Apocalypse Series, Book #3
A portion of proceeds will be donated to the Alzheimer's Association.
Excerpt from Loss
THE DAY BEFORE DEATH CAME FOR BILLY BALLARD…
Praise for Loss
"Jackie Morse Kessler has a keen eye for capturing the awkward uncertainty of adolescence, which she wraps quite deliciously in a coating of mystery, fright, and suspense. LOSS is a treat for readers, a one-of-a-kind, twisty turny carnival ride through Billy Ballard's struggles and triumphs. I loved this book."
—Andrew Smith, author of The Marbury Lens
"I lost sleep to finish this, and I'm not sorry at all. Jackie Morse Kessler's prose illuminates an ancient, disintegrating king as poignantly and effortlessly as it does a bullied teen; it's easy to see ourselves reflected in Mita's grief and Billy's desperation. LOSS is whip-smart and elegant, a truly worthy companion to HUNGER and RAGE."
—Saundra Mitchell, author of The Vespertine
"Gritty and raw with powerful truths. An addictive read."
—Sophie Jordan, New York Times bestselling author of Firelight
…Billy was on the ground, getting the snot pounded out of him. Again. No special reason this time; maybe it was because it was Tuesday, or because Eddie Glass didn’t like Billy’s hair. Maybe, if you listened to Billy’s mother all those years ago when he’d first started getting pushed around by his classmates, Eddie “secretly liked Billy” and this was how he showed it.
For whatever the reason, Eddie was kicking the hell out of him, and Billy was taking it. He knew it would be over soon, real soon, and if he just protected his head and stayed curled into a ball, Eddie would get bored and stomp away, and then Billy could go on with his life.
The next kick didn’t fall, so Billy made the mistake of glancing up through his laced fingers. The sun backlit Eddie for a brilliant moment, and time stretched as Billy saw not a high school bully but a man in white, hands fisted by his sides, his face hidden in shadow…
…and then time snapped back into place as Eddie landed one more kick, a brutal one that nearly cracked a rib. Billy couldn’t help it: he cried out.
Maybe that’s what Eddie was waiting for, because he stepped back, assessed Billy, and let out a satisfied grunt, like a pig snorting after particularly fine swill. Eddie got the expected high-fives from his fellow thugs as they moved on in search of other targets.
Billy lay on the filthy alley floor, alone and hurting, breathing in the stench of old pizza and spoiled cheese, silently thankful that Eddie hadn’t done anything to his face. It was becoming harder for Billy to hide his injuries from his mom now that the weather had gotten better. No way he could have disguised a broken nose or blackened eye; the one time he’d tried to cover a bruise with his mom’s makeup had resulted in a rash. Hell of a way to discover he had sensitive skin.
He let out a teakettle hiss through his teeth. He was grateful the beating was done, yes, but a small part of him seethed over the sheer indignity of getting beaten, again, of how dealing with the likes of Eddie Glass was just a piece of the daily routine. That part of Billy was disgusted by how he had to map out his routes to and from and inside school, how his mantra was Keep Your Head Down. Deeper than the disgust was the desperation to unleash his fury and fight back. But Billy’s anger was overcome, as always, by the gnawing dread that defending himself wouldn’t do anything but make the Eddies of the world return in packs.
“That’s true sometimes,” a woman said.
Billy jerked his head up to see not a woman but a girl standing over him, a girl in a red leather coat, pants, and boots, the color licking at her as if she’d caught fire. The girl loomed somehow, even though she was neither tall nor big, and though she wasn’t that pretty, something about the way she looked, the way she stood, was altogether sexy.
“Other times,” she said, “it’s just an excuse.”
“What are you talking about?” Billy’s voice was scratchy, breathy, betraying both his fascination and his fear—there was something terrifying about this girl who’d appeared from nowhere, something dark and wet and hot, coating the air between them and making Billy think of freshly spilled blood.
“Why you don’t fight back.” She held her hand out to him.
He stared at the offered hand, surprised that her leather glove was a dull brown instead of red. It should be red, he thought as he took her hand; everything about the girl should be red.
Then all thoughts disintegrated from his mind as a rush of power charged through him, shooting up his hand up to his head and down to his toes, instantly transforming his blood to lava. Just as he was about to scream, the girl released his hand. Billy, still on the ground, tried to catch his breath and failed. Gasping, he watched as waves of heat streamed from his fingers.
“You’re good at caging it,” the girl said. “But soon enough, it will claw its way free.”
He wanted to say, “What?” but he was still in pain from Eddie’s attack and the girl’s whatever-the-hell-that-was, and now he was more than a little freaked, so the question came out as “Whuh?”
“Your rage.” She said the word lovingly. “You’re so angry. But you’ve talked yourself out of being allowed to feel that way. You’ve convinced yourself that if you fight back, that will make it worse. It might,” she said. “Then again, it might not.”
He stared up at her. It felt like his eyeballs were jittering in their sockets.
“You’re angry,” she said. “But you’re also afraid.”
His heartbeat confirmed her statement in triple time. Warmth flooded his cheeks, betraying his embarrassment. Flustered, he shouted, “You don’t know me!”
She smiled brightly, and Billy found himself momentarily dazzled by the sheer delight on her face. “Of course I do,” said the girl in red. “But you don’t know yourself. Yet.” And then she was gone, vanished like specters at daybreak.
He closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. When he opened his eyes again, the memory of the girl in red was nothing but a tickle in the back of his mind, a nudge telling him to get up.
Billy slowly hauled himself to his feet. His body was hurting—after a session with Eddie’s boots, how could it not be hurting?—but nothing seemed to be broken. His clothing wasn’t even ripped. He probably had bruises, though. The same bruises he’d had for years.
There was a moment of bitterness, a sour churning in his stomach as Billy grabbed his fallen backpack by its single, dangling strap and hefted it over his right shoulder.
Get over it, he told himself. Just grin and it’ll be okay. Marianne’s waiting.
That was enough to get him moving. So what that he’d rather crawl under a rock and hide? Marianne was waiting for him.
He pasted a false smile on his face and walked—not limped, no, not today—out of the alley and around the corner to the front of Dawson’s Pizza. Outside the store, he paused to look through the large front window. Teens filled the pizzeria, packing the tables and lined in rows three deep by the counter and in back by the video games. Over in the corner, right by the window, Marianne Bixby had snagged a table just big enough for two.
Billy’s fake smile melted into the real thing as he drank in the sight of her. Marianne was in black, as usual, but the clothing paled compared with the raven black of her hair. Oblivious to the cacophony around her in the busy store, she texted on her cell phone as her bookbag stood guard on the other chair at the table.
In Billy’s pocket, his phone buzzed.
He glanced at the message—it was from Marianne, who was wondering if he was weaseling out of his turn to buy the pizza—and then he put the phone back in his pocket and took a deep breath. This was always the hardest part: walking in. No matter how many times he did it, it never got easier. If not for Marianne, he’d never go to Dawson’s Pizza; why choose to be adrift in a sea of sharks? Walking into the pizzeria meant that he was welcoming anything that happened, from being mocked to getting pinched to being shoved from behind. It terrified him. But knowing that Marianne was right there waiting for him was enough to make him forget his fear, just a little. Just enough.
He took two steps toward the door…and that’s when he saw Eddie Glass near the front of the store, hulking over a packed table. Billy stood transfixed as he watched Eddie glower and the teens scatter. He flinched as Eddie and his cronies snorted laughter and sat at the newly vacated table. He felt the echoes of pain in his side where Eddie’s foot had slammed brutally home.
Billy shook off the memory of the beating, but the damage was done: He couldn’t go inside. Marianne knew him far too well—one look, and she’d know that Eddie had jumped him, again, that Billy had been a punching bag, again. And she’d tell him, again, that he should talk to someone, try to get someone to help him make it stop, and he’d nod and say yes and would change the subject because he’d long since learned that adults don’t always have the answers they claim to have, and the rest of the afternoon he’d see pity in Marianne’s dark eyes.
No. He’d sooner stick needles under his fingernails than deal with that.
He turned away and trudged home, careful to take the longer, more populated route instead of cutting down side streets. Always Be Careful; that was right up there with Keep Your Head Down. Billy’s life was about caution—at home, dealing with Gramps; at school, wondering when the Eddies there would lunge from the shadows.
Billy Ballard was sick of being careful.
Five blocks away from home, Billy fished for his house key, both to get him inside quicker and to give the appearance of a weapon, just in case he’d been followed. Not like he’d really fight, but still, appearances mattered. Everyone knew that. One look at Billy, and people saw right away that something about him was different. What was it about himself that infuriated people like Eddie Glass? Was it his face? His hair? He had no idea. As far as he could tell, he was completely average. But there had to be something there, something he couldn’t see, couldn’t change with hair color or piercings or clothing. Something intangible and yet permanent, branding him forever as a target.
Billy was sick of being different too. Maybe others wanted to stand out, to define themselves with proud, loud colors that screamed their independence. He wanted only to blend in with the crowd, because then he’d finally, finally not be the guy that anyone and everyone would push around.
By the time he walked up the front steps to his house, he was ready to shut himself away from the real world, ready to deal briefly with Mom and Gramps and then escape to his bedroom—except something pale green caught his eye.
Hugging the screen door was a sticky note, the sort used by deliverymen when no one was home to sign for a package.
Curious, Billy pulled off the note. He couldn’t read most of the text on the paper; the ink was barely visible, like it had faded. The company name was all but nonexistent. Actually, the only things he could clearly make out were his own name and the checked message.
þ SORRY I MISSED YOU—WILL TRY AGAIN LATER!
For no good reason, a shudder tripped up his spine. He had no idea what someone would have mailed him—he wouldn’t be sixteen for another two months, so it was way too soon for birthday loot, and the winter holidays were long gone. Maybe he’d won a contest.
A whisper in the back of his mind—a memory, a dream, something tangled between fact and fiction—and he pictured a man in white, filthy and yet pristine. Billy couldn’t see his face, and a part of him (the same part that so desperately wanted to stand up to Eddie Glass) was grateful. It was too soon to see that face, to know why the man’s brow gleamed silver.
Billy distinctly thought: The Ice-Cream Man wants me to wear the Crown. And then it was gone, snuffed out like a spent match.
He shivered again, and then he frowned at the slip of paper in his hand. It probably wasn’t even real. Just some joke waiting to be told, a prank not yet pulled. And if it was a real message about a real package, then the deliveryman would return. He crumpled the note and shoved it into his front pocket, and then he unlocked the front door. Stepping inside, he called out a hello.
No answer. His mom and grandfather must have been out on an errand. Or maybe they were at the doctor’s again. Fine by Billy. He relished the silence of an empty house.
He shut and locked the door, then stepped back to make sure the full-length poster was still in place, that it wasn’t ripped anywhere and the black tape covering the doorknob didn’t need to be changed. He stared at the poster critically and decided it was fine—where there had been a door was now a two-dimensional overstuffed bookshelf. The handle to the world outside was nothing but dead black.
Satisfied, he shuffled down the hallway, barely noticing the reflective tape on the carpet that led to the bathroom, or the barren walls that once had teemed with family photos. Outside his bedroom, he took out a second key to unlock the door. A memory teased him: Marianne a couple of years ago, marveling over the locked bedroom door and telling Billy how cool it was that he had so much privacy.
If the lock had been for privacy, Billy would have agreed.
He entered his room and shut the door, not bothering to lock it because Gramps was out of the house. The bedroom was standard fare: the bed, of course; the desk that had once been his dad’s, complete with a computer that Billy had bought with birthday money; the closet with a hamper that only partially succeeded in housing clothes, whether dirty or clean. Bookshelves, overstuffed with paperbacks. Television seated on top of the bureau. And posters, decorating the walls: various sports stars and bikini babes and rock legends all competed for attention in eye-straining colors and contrasts. Maybe his room was nothing out of the ordinary, but to him it was a sacred place. Here, he didn’t have to worry about what lurked around corners, waiting to pounce. Here in his room, Billy was free. It was a gilded cage, perhaps, but he was grateful for the bars.
He dumped his backpack by his desk and pulled out his cell phone. His fingers glided over the keys and summoned Marianne’s number, and he texted her an apology for not meeting her. He gave her a tried-and-true excuse: his mom needed him home because his grandfather was giving her fits. Not a lie; it just hadn’t happened yet. Billy was used to making sacrifices to help out with Gramps.
Marianne texted back right away. No worries, she wrote; the pizza was lousy today anyway. But tomorrow, he was buying.
Reading her answer made him smile. For a moment, he imagined Marianne not as his best friend but as his girlfriend, imagined telling her how he felt…
That would be a mistake.
No, mistakes could be fixed. Telling Marianne Bixby he wanted to kiss her would be bad. Horrifically bad. The sort of bad from which there was no return.
He sighed as he pocketed his phone. Feeling more battered than he did when Eddie Glass was kicking him, Billy grabbed his iPod and flopped down on his bed. He didn’t plan on falling asleep, but five minutes later, he was out cold.
Thirty minutes after that, he woke to his mother’s screams.
Copyright © 2012 Jackie Morse Kessler
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