When Milton and Marlo Fauster die in a marshmallow-bear explosion, they get sent straight to Heck, an otherworldly reform school. Milton can understand why his kleptomaniac sister is here, but Milton is -- or was -- a model citizen. Has a mistake been made? Not according to Bea ''Elsa'' Bubb, the Principal of Darkness. She doesn't make mistakes. She personally sees to it that Heck -- whether it be home-ec class with Lizzie Borden, ethics with Richard Nixon, or gym with Blackbeard the pirate -- is especially, well, heckish for the Fausters. Will Milton and Marlo find a way to escape? Or are they stuck here for all eternity, or until they turn eighteen, whichever comes first?
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DALE E. BASYE has written stories, essays, and reviews for many publications and organizations. He was a film critic, winning several national journalism awards, and the publisher of an arts and entertainment newspaper called Tonic. He lives with his wife and son in Portland, Oregon.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In Generica, Kansas, Christmas wasn’t something you felt in the chill of the winter air or the warmth of a generous smile. It was announced by the sixteen-foot tower of crystal angels at Grizzly Mall—the Mall of Generica.
And this year was no different—at first. Exhausted shoppers filed by, momentarily entranced by the shimmering, heart-faced, bare-bottomed cupids. That is, until Marlo Fauster smashed them to bits with the oar she’d stolen from Spoiled Sports Sporting Goods.
“Let’s go!” shrieked Marlo, a blue-haired, thirteen-going-on-thirty-year-old girl, to her gangly younger brother, Milton. Shards of shining wings and harps rained down around them.
The two children bounded across the showroom floor, Marlo running with a look of fierce determination and Milton running out of pure fear. Unbeknownst to both of them, they were also running out of time.
Milton had spent most of his young life avoiding trouble: staring at his shoes, shuffling along unnoticed, ducking away from tense—or even remotely interesting— situations for fear of their potentially dangerous potential. He only felt truly safe when tucked between the covers of a book, experiencing life secondhand.
Marlo, however, was a different story.
Too far was where Marlo lived. If something didn’t involve petty (and not-so-petty) crime, it just wasn’t worth doing.
Maybe it was all just a cry for attention. Unfortunately, Marlo’s latest acts of thievery and vandalism were drawing far too much attention. At least that’s how Milton saw it through his thick, Coke-bottle glasses as his sister dragged him toward his untimely demise.
They ran past stunned shoppers into the mall concourse, Marlo waving her oar as if rowing furiously through a human sea. Milton fought to keep up.
“That should buy us some time from security!” Marlo squealed with manic glee. It was at times like this, Milton thought, that he was in the presence of—and grudgingly related to—a new kind of evil.
“And you should have bought that stupid oar!” Milton replied, panting.
“Why would I buy an oar?” she asked, giving Milton’s arm a sadistic twist. “We live in Kansas, short bus.”
The two siblings darted around a corner and burst into the Grizzly Mall food court.
“Then why . . . ?” Milton stammered in front of Tongue Thaied.
“For the sport of it,” Marlo said with pride. “If I pull this off—the most conspicuous holiday heist in Grizzly Mall history—I’ll be a modern-day Kleptopatra.” She paused dramatically, her dark eyes twinkling with reflected Christmas lights. “The stuff of shoplifting legend. And all that expensive makeup is just icing on the cake.”
Milton stared at the pink Goodbye Puppy bag underneath his arm as he trotted onward.
“So all this makeup . . . you didn’t need me to just hold it for you back at the cosmetics counter . . . I . . . I just stole . . . lip gloss?”
“And Suburban Blight cheek bronzer with free-radical scavengers and lipid-rich amino moisturizers,” Marlo said while descending an ascending escalator. She grinned. “Welcome to the life, my gullible little apprentice. You are but putty in my skillful hands.”
Behind them, a full-bodied mall security guard lumbered in hot pursuit. Another chunky-style defender of mall law soon joined him, slurping down a smoothie.
Milton looked behind him. Despite their weight being nearly double their IQ, the guards were closing in.
“I can’t believe you tricked me into stealing for you!” Milton barked in his squeaky, just-turned-eleven voice.
Marlo snickered. The fact that she could run clad in several layers of black thrift-store dresses, holding an eight-foot oar, and still manage to maintain a superior attitude was impressive.
“You might get all the A’s in the family, but I certainly aced you,” she snorted, her black lips catching on a fang.
Milton and Marlo rushed into the mall’s massive atrium, joining a crowd gathered around a white, globby sculpture. A fierce marshmallow bear, frozen in mid-attack, loomed over the horde of gawking Genericans. Below the twenty-foot-tall sugary bruin was a banner declaring “Welcome to Grizzly Mall: Home of the State’s Second-Largest Bear-Themed Marshmallow Statue!”
Marlo’s oar sliced through the mass of shoppers like a thin, wooden shark fin.
“Try to blend,” she whispered to her trembling brother.
Milton squished the pink bag of lipstick, fruit-scented creams, and vials of pricey gosh-knows-whats under his armpit. Despite the heat radiating from the mob, Milton shivered. Something—or someone—was near, something so cold that it robbed the heat from his very bones. He squinted through his thick glasses and noticed a dark smudge. He wiped his lenses, but the stubborn smudge was still there, hovering on the edge of the crowd that filled the atrium. The dark smudge was a boy.
A hulking boy. A cruel boy. A boy all too familiar to Milton. A boy who, in many ways, resembled a smudge. A boy whose eyes were dull, dark, wicked slits. A boy whose skin was like puffy, freckled dough that gave off a sickly sweet smell like rotting fruit. A boy named Damian.
Damian sneered at Milton and ran his grubby finger across his throat as he lurched from the mall commons into the heart of the mall. Milton gulped and shut his eyes. On the insides of his eyelids, however, he replayed scenes of Damian’s notorious cruelty, all of which—unfortunately—starred Milton.
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