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Dead Beautiful




I didn’t know anything about DEATH until I began studying philosophy. That was how I learned the truth about Descartes, about the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, about my past. My mother used to tell me that matter was neither created nor destroyed, only transferred. She was filled with old theories that she would make me recite back to her, as if she were trying to tell me something about the world but couldn’t find the right words. I never gave them much thought until she and my father were killed, but by then it was too late to ask what it had all meant. It wasn’t until I enrolled at Gottfried Academy that I began to make sense of who I was and what I was fated to become. But first, let me tell you about the peculiar circumstances surrounding the death of my parents. Because it was their deaths that set off the strange chain of events that led me to where I am now. And because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my first year at Gottfried, it’s that sometimes you have to look back in order to understand the things that lie ahead.




The Encounter in the Woods


My parents died on a hot August ­evening. It was my sixteenth birthday, and my best friend, Annie, and I had snuck out to Santa Rosa for the day to celebrate. We took her car and spent the afternoon at Buzzard’s Point Beach, tanning, flipping through magazines, and walking along the jetty. Around five o’clock, just as the tide began to come in, we packed up our towels and headed home so we’d be back before our parents returned from work.

Annie was driving, her long sandy hair fluttering out the open window as we sped down Prairie Creek Drive. It was a scenic road that started at the coast and wound inland, meandering through the redwood forest. Annie didn’t want to drive through the national park; the route was narrow and dark and gave her the creeps, but for some reason I felt that it was the right road to take. After ten minutes of convincing her that it was the fastest way back to Costa Rosa, she complied.

“So when are you seeing Wes again?” Annie asked me, adjusting her sunglasses.

Wes was a senior, tall and smart with perfect teeth, the captain of the soccer team, and the only guy in our high school worth dating. Unfortunately, all the other girls felt the same way. They followed him around in groups, giggling and trying to get his attention. I would never be caught dead doing that, partly because I thought it was pathetic, but mainly because I didn’t have time. I had lacrosse practice, homework and a part-time job. And although I was decently popular, I had never been the outgoing type. I liked to pick my friends, opting for quality over quantity, and since I spent most of my time outside working or reading instead of socializing, I always assumed that Wes didn’t even know my name. So when he asked me out, I was speechless.

“Saturday, supposedly. But he said he would call me this week and it’s already Thursday... ​Maybe he changed his mind.”

Annie rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course he’ll call.”

I hoped she was right. I worked at a farmers’ market on the weekends, manning a fruit stand. Wes had stopped by two weeks ago and asked me to help him pick out apples for his mom. He was completely lost when it came to fruit; there are so many different kinds of apples, he told me, running his hands nervously through his hair. Afterwards, he asked me to the movies, and I was so surprised that I dropped the bag of apples, letting them roll about our feet. Ever since our date I hadn’t been able to think straight about anything except for the buttery kiss he had given me in the darkness of the theatre, his lips melting into mine with the taste of popcorn and salt.

I shook off the thought and shrugged. “I don’t even know if he likes me that much,” I said. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

“Well, I think you guys are perfect for each other,” Annie said, leaning back in her seat.

I smiled. “Thanks, An,” I said, and turned up the radio.

We’d both had a crush on Wes for ages, but Annie would never let it come between us. She was the beautiful one, modest and graceful with a gentle personality that was easy to love. I, on the other hand, was impulsive and skinny, and wished that I could be more like a character in a novel, so I would finally stop blurting out the wrong things at the wrong time. My brown hair was wavy and had a life of its own, with a sideswept fringe that had seemed like a good decision at the time, but never stayed in its proper place once I left the hairdresser. I preferred outdoors to indoors; running to walking. As a result, my knees were always covered with Band-Aids, and my cheeks were sun-kissed and sprinkled with freckles.

The road grew narrow, making sharp and unexpected twists and turns as we drove north into the redwood forest. My wet hair dangled around my shoulders, and I ran my hands through it while it dried in the warm California breeze. Ancient trees lined the kerb, and the sky began to turn an ominous shade of red. That summer, the weather had been strange and unpredictable, and after a day of blue skies, clouds were beginning to hover on the horizon.

Annie slowed down as we rounded a bend. The car smelled of sunscreen and aloe vera, and I was prodding my cheeks, inspecting my sunburn in the visor mirror, when I spotted the car. It was a rusty white jeep with a roof rack, parked on the shoulder of the road, by a cluster of trees.

I sat up in my seat. “Pull over,” I said.


“Pull over!” I repeated.

Annie pulled in next to the Jeep just as the remains of the California sun folded into the clouds. “Is that your dad’s car?” she asked, taking the keys out of the ignition.

“Yeah,” I said, confused, and opened the door.

“Why would it be here?” Annie asked, slamming the door.

I had no idea. He was supposed to be at work. He and my mother were both high school teachers in Costa Rosa, almost an hour away from here. Cupping my hands, I peered into the jeep. It was empty, with objects strewn across the seats, as if my father had left in a hurry. The giant trunks of the redwoods stood a mere three metres away, creating a boundary between the road and the forest beyond, which was quickly being swallowed by darkness. I reached into Annie’s car for my jacket and pulled it on.

“What are you doing?” Annie asked apprehensively.

“He’s got to be in there,” I said, and made for the edge of the forest.


I stopped. “Maybe he went...hiking. They do that kind of stuff sometimes on weekends.” I tried to say it with conviction, but I didn’t believe it. “I’m just going to check it out.”

“Wait,” Annie cried after me. “Renée! It’s getting dark. Maybe we should just wait for him at home.”

Without responding, I walked back to Annie’s car and leaned through the passenger window. I fished around in the glove compartment until I found the flashlight that her parents kept for emergencies.

“Don’t worry; I’ll be back in few minutes. Stay here.” And without saying another word, I turned and ran into the woods.



The redwood forest was cool and damp. My wet bathing suit soaked through my clothes as I darted between the trees, my sneakers sinking softly into the earth while the ferns and underbrush whipped my shins.

“Dad?” I shouted into the darkness, but my voice was overpowered by the wind rustling through the branches. “Dad, are you here?”

The beam of my flashlight bounced wildly about the trees as I ran, illuminating pockets of the forest in brief and sudden flashes. The giant redwoods loomed darkly around me, the tops of their trunks extending far above the fog, which had just begun to settle on the ground.

It felt like I had been running for ever when I stopped to catch my breath. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a glint of light reflecting off the ground. I slowed to a walk and edged towards it. My hand trembled as I guided the flashlight in its direction. It was a coin. I prodded it with the tip of my sneaker and walked forward cautiously. A long thin sheet of white cloth was embedded in the dirt next to it, and I followed it into the darkness.

As I stepped deeper into the forest, the air seemed to drop in temperature. I shuddered, pulling my jacket around me tightly, and scanned the ground with my flashlight. It was scattered with coins and pieces of white cloth. Curious, I bent over to get a closer look, when somewhere in the distance, the leaves began to shift. Then movement; the soft thump of footsteps against earth.

I raised my eyes to the shadowy thicket that surrounded me. It was still except for the wind rustling the branches above. Relieved, I took a step forward, when my foot hit something soft and large.

The muscles in my stomach tightened as I lowered my flashlight to the ground. And then I saw it. A hand, as pale as porcelain, its delicate fingers curled into the soil. I followed it to a wrist, an arm, a neck, a face streaked with dirt and shrouded with strands of long chestnut hair.

I gasped and looked away. The pungent smell of rotting leaves wafted through the air. Reluctantly, I looked back at the body.

“Mom,” I whispered, barely audible.

She was lying on her back, her arms limp by her side. Her eyes were closed, and I might have thought she was sleeping if her skin hadn’t been so pale. Her thin athletic legs, which I had inherited, were now cold and stiff, though they still retained the same girlish shape that she was so proud of.

I leaned over and placed my fingers below her jaw. Her skin was freezing. I don’t know why, but I checked her pulse even though I knew she was already dead. Lifeless, she looked older than usual, as if she had aged ten years. Her cheeks were unusually sunken in, and her glasses were nowhere to be seen. Without them, the skin under her eyes looked raw and exposed, drooping down in circles like the rings of a tree.

My father was a couple of metres away, coins scattered around his body. The flashlight slipped from my fingers and landed softly in the dirt, rolling until its beam shone on my father’s legs. As I stared at his boots, slumped unnaturally to either side, I felt my breath leave me. I wanted to look away, to run back to the road and call for help, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave because I knew that these were the last moments I would ever have with my parents.

“Why?” I choked out. When I was growing up, my parents had always seemed to have an answer to even my hardest questions. But now, for the first time, they were silent. I wiped my eyes and touched my mother’s lips. They were parted just enough for me to see a thin shred of cloth peeking out. Gently, I pulled it from between her lips and held it in front of the light. It was tattered around the edges and had the soft consistency of gauze. I turned it over in my hand and looked down at my mother. There were no signs of violence, no bruises or scratches on her body, no blood. But the gauze, the coins​ – this was the work of a person. The mere thought of it made my heart race. I turned and stared into the darkness, wondering if I was alone.

The woods seemed to be caving in on me, the tops of the trees circling and bending together. Images of my parents dying clouded my mind, and I felt dizzy and disoriented. Holding the cloth in my fist, I rested my head on my mother’s chest and closed my eyes, listening to the creaking of the trees and hoping that when I opened them it would be morning and the woods would be empty and filled with sunlight, and everything would be clear. Around me the cool night air blew through the branches, and the shards of white cloth fluttered on the ground, like moths clinging blindly to a screen.



The day they buried my parents, I felt the first chilly breath from my past. I was lying on the floor of our living room, staring at the insects collecting on the edges of the windowpanes, when the doorbell rang. Annie’s mom, Margerie, who was staying with me through the funeral, answered the door.

“Mr. Winters, I’m so glad you came,” she said in a hushed voice.

I listened. The quiet murmur of voices, the sound of shoes scraping against the mat, and then a deep cough.


“Renée,” Margerie said gently.

I didn’t move. Two feet stopped in front of me. I stared at the large brown shoes, the tassels, the creases embedded just before the toe.

“Renée, your grandfather is here.”

I sat up. My hair was matted to the back of my head.

“Hello, Renée,” my grandfather bellowed in a deep voice. He extended a large leathery hand to help me up. He had a professorial essence, with white hair, inordinately long earlobes, and a fleshy, oversized face that seemed stretched with gravity. The sweet aroma of pipe tobacco emanated from his clothes.

Ignoring his hand, I lay back down. Brownie Winters, my mother’s father. It seemed odd that we shared the same last name, even though I hadn’t seen him since I was seven. He had gotten into a loud argument with my parents, and then he was gone, the screen door slamming behind him. I hadn’t heard from him since. Not even a card on birthdays.

“You missed the ceremony,” I said coldly, staring at the folds of his neck.

He sighed. He had my mother’s eyes, watery blue and somehow sad. “I didn’t find out what had happened until this morning. I hope you can forgive my absence.”

I said nothing. My mother used to tell me stories about the rigid rules he’d set while she was growing up in ­Massachusetts, about how he was only concerned with money and appearances and the family name, which was why he demanded that I have her name instead of my father’s. My mother’s childhood seemed so different from mine, growing up on a dreary estate in the woods. She’d always said it was lonely, that she had spent more time with her housekeeper than with her parents, which was probably why she and my father had moved to California. Our house was the kind where you could touch things, my mother used to say. It was modest but lived in, with stucco walls covered with photographs, and big glass windows that let in the morning light. The grass was never mowed on time, and the pool out back was littered with leaves and beetles that always got stuck in my hair; but on a hot summer day it all seemed perfect. I stared at my grandfather’s shoes. They looked uncomfortable.

“I’m going to be staying with you for a while,” he said, putting on his spectacles. “For a long while, I think. Your parents willed me as your legal guardian, which I’ll admit came as a surprise, given the outcome of our last encounter. A pleasant surprise, of course, though I never would have wished it to happen under such tragic circumstances. I’ve always regretted not being a part of your life.” He paused, and then spoke again, his voice gentler. “It sometimes helps to dwell on the good memories. They remind you that happiness does exist, though it may not seem that way now.” When I didn’t respond, he shifted his weight. “Well then, I suppose I’ll look forward to seeing you at dinner, which will be served promptly at seven thirty.”

I closed my eyes, willing myself not to cry. Even though he was my legal guardian, and almost the only family I had left, I didn’t care if he stayed with me or if I never saw him again, and I definitely wasn’t planning on eating dinner. I had lost my appetite completely since the night in the forest. I was alone, utterly alone, and I had no idea where my life would take me, or how I would live now that my parents were dead. People filed in and out of the house, but to me they passed in a haze, resembling shadowy figures more than actual humans.

My grandfather hovered above me, but I remained silent and waited until I heard him pat the pockets of his trousers and retreat to the kitchen. Overhead, the ceiling fan churned the air until it grazed my neck in thick, hot breaths. 



The next week went by in a blur. I spent most of my time wandering around the house, trying to keep cool and avoid my grandfather, who seemed to always want to talk about my future, even though I was still stuck in the past. He was a professor​ – a retired professor now​,ever since my grandmother passed away when I was a baby. Now that he was here, I was practically confined to the house. Almost overnight my life became a regimented routine. “Rules help us live our lives when we lose the will to do it on our own,” he said. He’d brought his estate manager with him, a bald, saggy man named Dustin, who cooked, cleaned and chauffeured my grandfather around. Meals were served three times a day: breakfast at seven, lunch at one, and dinner at seven thirty. Sleeping through breakfast was prohibited, and I had to finish everything on my plate before I could leave the table. Normally that wouldn’t have been a problem, but the food Dustin served wasn’t the easiest to stomach: foie gras, escargot, beluga caviar, black pudding (which wasn’t actually pudding), sweetbreads (which weren’t sweet or made of bread) and spiny lettuce that looked more like a reptile than a vegetable.

My grandfather corrected my table manners at dinner, eyeing my ripped jeans and tank tops with distaste. My posture was terrible, he said, and I held my fork like a barbarian.

Tonight was no different. I scowled at him, wanting to fight back, but I had quickly learned to pick my battles and I didn’t have time for an argument. I glanced at the clock. It was eight. I had to get out of the house. Everything​ – the plates, the silverware, the roll of paper towels hanging over the sink, the jar of coins sitting on the mantel​ – reminded me of my parents, of the way they died. But if I wanted to leave, I had to do it soon, because for the first time in my life I actually had a curfew. Ten o’clock.

“I’m going out tonight,” I mumbled.

Dustin stood in the corner of the room in an antiquated suit, his hands clasped behind his back as he gazed at the ceiling, pretending not to listen. I stared at him uncomfortably.

My grandfather put his fork down. “Please, try to enunciate.”

I repeated myself, this time louder and more annoyed.

“Better,” he said, and checked his watch. “It’s getting late, though. You should stay in tonight.”

Outside, the sun was setting over the houses that lined our street. “But it’s still light out,” I protested.

“I don’t feel comfortable with you going out at night by yourself. It’s not safe.”

“I won’t be alone. I’ll be with...Annie,” I said, improvising.

“I’d rather you not go,” he said firmly.

“Then I should probably go upstairs, where I can sit alone in my room for the rest of my life, because that would be the safest thing to do.” Picking up my plate, I stood.

Dustin moved to collect my setting, but my grandfather waved him away, and I felt slightly victorious as I turned my back to them and carried my dishes to the kitchen.

“Renée,” he called out to me, “may I ask you a question?”

I ignored him and turned on the tap.

“How did you find your parents?”

It caught me off guard. The sponge slipped out of my hand and sank into the soapy water.

“I already told you.”

“Yes,” he said quietly, “you did. But I think there’s more.”

I didn’t respond.

“I know we haven’t talked about your parents; I wanted to let you mourn them in your own way, without my interference.”

The kitchen was cramped​ – a tiny room of appliances just off the dining room​ – and I could feel my grandfather’s eyes on me through the doorway.

“I haven’t been present in your life up until now, but I know how difficult it is to lose someone you love. Your mother, Lydia, was my daughter. Her death was no accident. We both know that. After all, you were the one who found them.” He paused. “Please, humour an old man.”

For the first time since he’d moved in, his words seemed reasonable. I turned and raised my eyes to his. “We were driving back from the beach when I told Annie to take Prairie Creek Drive instead of U.S. 101.”


“Because I thought it would be faster,” I said, not revealing the true reason, which was that I’d felt inexplicably pulled in that direction.

“What happened next?”

“I saw their car on the side of the road. We pulled over and I went into the woods. Annie waited for me.”

“And then what?”

Scenes of the redwood forest flashed through my mind. “I just kept running. I...I didn’t know where I was going; I just knew I had to go deeper.”

“And then?”

“And then I saw the coins.”

The tap was still running. I watched the water cascade over the dishes.

My grandfather’s voice broke the silence. “And then what happened?” he said gently.

I turned to him. “That’s it. I found them. They were dead. Do you want me to relive the entire night? You know what happened. You read the police report. I told them everything I know.”

I turned away and wiped my eyes over the sink.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I know it’s difficult for you with your parents gone, and now with me here. It’s strange and unexpected that the fates should bring us together again after all this time. But think. Does it not seem odd to you that you happened to stumble across your father’s car on the side of the road, and that you were then able to locate the bodies of your parents, which were more than a kilometre north of their car? The redwood forest covers eight hundred square kilometres, yet you were able to find them within half an hour.”

“Maybe it was a...a coincidence.” That was what the police had called it.

He raised a white, bushy eyebrow. “Was it?”

“What are you implying?”

“I’m not implying anything,” he assured me. “I’m just trying to understand.”

“I don’t know how I found them. I just did. I didn’t even think about it; I just started running.”

My grandfather looked like he was about to say something, but instead he leaned back in his chair and rested his chin on his fist. “You need new shoes. The ones you have on now are far too juvenile for a girl your age. We’ll get you a pair next week.”

Baffled, I looked down at my Converse sneakers. His remark shouldn’t have made me angry, but it did. Here he was with his questions and rules and ten o’clock curfew, making me get rid of my favourite sneakers, forcing me to relive the one moment in my life I wanted to forget, and generally ruining my already ruined life.

“I don’t want new shoes,” I screamed. “I want my parents back.” I ran upstairs, slammed the door to my room, and slid to the floor in an angry heap. Without thinking, I called Annie. She answered on the third ring.

“I have to get out of here,” I told her. “Can you pick me up?”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”



We drove to the marina. I’d barely seen Annie since the day we’d gone to the beach. When I hadn’t come out of the woods that night, she’d called the police, then went in to find me. After they discovered me with the bodies of my parents, and brought me home, she hadn’t asked about what I’d seen or how I’d felt. I was relieved that she didn’t know what to say, because I didn’t either. How could I explain to her that I had died that day in the forest too, that nothing had meaning any more? The things I used to love​ – lacrosse, the beach, books, history, movies​ – they all seemed pointless now.

And then there were the people​ – the neighbours, the girls from the lacrosse team, the relatives, people from town​ – constantly stopping by the house, telling me about how they’d known my parents and how much they would miss them. For the first time in my life I was actually glad that my parents hadn’t let me have a cellphone, because it was one less thing to answer. The police came. They had questions. Did I know why my parents were in the forest that day? Had they behaved unusually in the days prior? Did they have any enemies?

“No,” I answered. “No.”

But the hardest part was making sense of it all. The cause of each of their deaths was a heart attack, which could have been reasonable had it not been for the circumstances. It was too much of a coincidence that they’d both suffered from a heart attack at the exact same time. Yet the medical report confirmed that everything else inside their bodies was intact and healthy, and that there were no signs of violence, struggle, or anything out of the ordinary, with one exception: autopsies revealed that soil and ribbons of white fabric were found in the mouth of each of my parents. Was there anything strange about the fabric? “No. Just ordinary gauze you might find in any hospital,” the police told me. But no one knew why it was there.

The police deemed that the heart failure had been brought on by a “hiking accident”, but to me it was anything but resolved. “How could it be an accident?” I’d shouted at the police officers, the doctors, the nurses. “Do you actually expect me to believe that they both died of a heart attack at the same exact moment? That’s impossible. They were healthy. They were supposed to be at work. They had gauze in their mouths! How is that natural?” They gave me sympathetic looks and told me I was going through a rough time and that they understood. They were going to keep the case open. But I knew there wasn’t enough evidence to base a case on. Was it murder? I wasn’t sure. Why would anyone want to kill my parents? And why the forest, the coins, the cloth? If someone had killed my parents, it was intentional, and that meant they were still out there. But then there was the way my mother had looked inexplicably older than she had the day before. How could that be? Maybe they were hiking and had heart attacks. Maybe it was suicide. Maybe I was losing my mind.



When Annie and I got to the marina, we took off our shoes and walked down to the rocky beach, beside the dock on the far side of the bay. The pier and the boats, which were so colourful by day, were now shadowed in shades of blue.

“Thanks for picking me up,” I said, dipping my toes in the water.

“Any time.” She sat down on the rocks. “So I ran into Wes the other day.”

I looked up at her expectantly.

“He asked about you. He wanted to know how you were doing...with everything, you know. He said he’s been calling but you haven’t called him back.”

“He called me?” I was surprised. I hadn’t thought about him at all in the past week, and it never crossed my mind that he could have been thinking about me. Since the night in the woods, it seemed like the phone had been constantly ringing​ – friends, neighbours, the police, insurance companies. Eventually I just stopped answering, letting my grandfather deal with it.

“He said he left messages on your answering machine. He was worried. He just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“It feels like years since I saw him,” I said almost to myself, and smiled. For the first time since my parents died, I felt the inkling of something other than numbness. Thinking about Wes​ – about the stubble on his chin, his smooth, muscular arms, his curly brown hair, and the way he had run his hand down the back of my neck when he kissed me​ – it was almost as if nothing had happened and I could return to the life I’d had before. I hadn’t felt anything since that night in the woods; I hadn’t allowed myself to. Instead I’d spent the last week in a trance​ – my body wandering around the house as if it were alive, when inside my mind was with the dead.

All of a sudden I felt an incredible urge to feel something more: pain, happiness, it didn’t matter. In front of me the water was tenuously still, as if the night air were weighing down on it with immense pressure.

I didn’t have a bathing suit on, but it didn’t matter. The far side of the marina was always deserted at night. I tore off my clothes and jumped into the bay. My lungs constricted at the shock of the sudden cold, and the salt water stung my eyes.

When I surfaced, Annie was wading in, holding her hair above her head with one hand. I splashed her, and she let out a shriek. Diving underwater, I swam deeper. The boats around me bobbed idly in the water, their reflections stretching into the horizon. I looked to the shore. Annie was near the rocks, floating on her back and staring at the sky.

And then I saw something rise to the surface.

It was round and long, and had what looked like a train of tattered clothes hanging off it, lolling in the ripples of the water. Its surface was a sickly white.

I screamed and swam back to shore, my arms thrashing wildly in the water.

“What happened?” Annie said frantically.

I pointed to the bay. “There’s someone floating out there.”

Annie stood up and looked. “The buoy?” she said finally.

“I thought –” I said between breaths – “I thought it was a person.”

Annie looked at me, worried. “It’s just a buoy covered in seaweed.”

Embarrassed, I blinked and forced myself to look at it. Leaning over, I let out a sigh of relief. She was right. “I’m sorry. I must be losing my mind.”

As if on cue, a light turned on and flashed into the water. “Who’s there?” someone called from a boat harboured in the bay.

“Oh my God,” I said, not wanting to be seen in my underwear. “Let’s get out of here.” And in the light of the moon we ran back up the beach.



After Annie dropped me off, I snuck through the back door, hoping that my grandfather had gone to bed. I’d just barely made it through the kitchen when a figure loomed in the doorway.

I froze.

“I see you’ve gone swimming,” my grandfather said sternly. Even at this hour he was still wearing an expensive tweed suit and dinner jacket.

“I was feeling a little stuffy.”

My sarcasm wasn’t lost on him. “Do you think this is funny?” he said loudly.

I jumped at the sudden sharpness in his voice.

“You could have gotten killed. Do you think my rules are arbitrary? That I enforce them just to punish you?”

“Killed. Like my parents? Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad if it meant I didn’t have to live like this any more.”

He studied me. I clutched my sweatshirt against my chest and waited for him to say something. It was so quiet I could hear the water dripping from my hair onto the linoleum floor.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he said. “It wasn’t my intention. Go dry off and get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”



The next morning I woke up late and tiptoed downstairs. For the first time since he’d moved in, my grandfather had let me sleep through breakfast. It should have felt like a victory, but was so out of character that it made me suspicious. My grandfather was in the living room, sitting in my father’s reading chair, a newspaper resting in his lap. Dustin was clearing a cup and saucer from the side table. I entered the room cautiously, trying not to draw too much attention to myself.

“Renée,” he said, almost warmly, “come in.” He motioned to the sofa across from him.

He was outfitted in trousers and a dinner jacket, with one of the French-cuffed shirts that Dustin starched and ironed every night. His thinning white hair, which was normally impeccably groomed, was tousled on the side, from leaning his head on his hand, I guessed. He took a sip of water, and I braced myself for punishment.

“Please sit,” he said.

Dustin pulled out a chair for me and produced a napkin and place setting.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about your situation,” my grandfather continued.

I fidgeted with my shorts while he spoke, and studied his large, ruddy nose​ – a nose so massive that it seemed impossible for it to have ever existed on a younger person’s face.

“And I have decided to send you to school.”

I shook my head. “What? But I’m already in school.”

“This is a boarding school. And an elite one at that.”

I stood up in shock. My entire life was here: Annie, my friends, my teachers, the people I grew up with. They were all I had left. I was about to begin my sophomore year, and I had just made the school lacrosse team and gotten into  Advanced History, which was normally closed off to sophomores. And of course there was Wes...

“But you can’t!” I cried, though I wasn’t so sure. How could he make me leave when my life was just beginning?

He clasped his hands over one knee. “It’s high time you got an actual education. A classical education. I’ve seen how schools these days operate, letting young people choose what they want and don’t want to study. It’s an ineffective method that has been disproved over and over again. Gottfried Academy has been around for centuries. I’m sure it will provide you with the same strong foundation that your mother had.”

I meant to interrupt him, but when he mentioned my mother, I went quiet. I didn’t know that she had gone to boarding school. She had told me stories about her childhood, about high school, and about how she met my dad, but she’d never told me that she went to boarding school, or that it was prestigious. My dad had to have gone there too, since they’d met in English class. Why would she omit those details?

“I’m not going,” I said defiantly. “You can’t make me.”

He sighed and shook his head. “On the contrary, I can. Your parents entrusted me with your safety, as stipulated in their wills. As your primary guardian, it’s my responsibility to do what I think is best for your future.”

“But they hated you. Even when they were alive they wouldn’t let you see me. So how can you possibly think you know what’s best for me? You don’t know anything about me.”

“That may be the case,” he said quietly, “yet the fact still remains that I am your grandfather, and you are a minor. I know more about you than you know about yourself. Now, sit down. Please.”

I cringed and sank into my seat.

“Whether you like it or not, I am your legal guardian, and you’re going to Gottfried. Now, I’m going to speak plainly and clearly. You are not safe here, Renée.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your parents died. I don’t know why or how or by whom, but it certainly was not by natural causes.”

“But the police said—”

“The police believe that they both had some sort of heart attack. Do you think that’s true?”


“Neither do I.”

“ what, then? You think someone murdered them? That someone chased them into the woods and killed them?”

My grandfather shook his head, his jowls quivering. “I don’t know, Renée. I only know that it wasn’t an accident. Which is why we have to leave.”

My mind raced through all of my options. I could run away, stay with Annie and her parents. Or I could just leave and never come back, live in a train like The Boxcar Children so my grandfather couldn’t find me. I had to talk to Annie. Maybe she could help me convince her mom to adopt me.

My grandfather must have sensed my dissent. “We depart tomorrow morning. I will physically place you in the car if necessary.”

“Tomorrow? I can’t leave tomorrow. What about my friends?”

Suddenly I didn’t care if there was some killer out there who wanted to chop me to pieces. I was staying, and I was going to find out what happened to my parents. “I’ll never go,” I said defiantly. “Not with you or your stupid butler.”

Dustin coughed in the corner of the room, but I didn’t care.

“We don’t have time for this,” my grandfather said. “The semester begins in a week. You should be grateful that Gottfried is letting you enrol this late. If it weren’t for my outstanding ties with the school, they probably wouldn’t have even considered you.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, angry tears stinging my eyes. “Why would I be safer in a different school? Why don’t we just go to the police?”

“The police were here; do you remember how helpful they were? Gottfried Academy is the safest place you could be right now. I’ve left a suitcase in the hallway outside your bedroom. Pack lightly. You won’t need much. The weather is different on the East Coast, and Gottfried enforces a strict dress code.” He eyed my shorts and tank top. “I daresay your current wardrobe will not do. We’ll find more appropriate attire when we land.”

I thought I had misheard him. “The East Coast?”

“Gottfried is on the western edge of Maine.”

I almost fell out of my chair. I expected Gottfried to be an hour, maybe two, away from Costa Rosa, but moving to Maine was different. I had never been to the East Coast before. The phrase alone conjured up images of stern, expressionless people dressed completely in black; of dark and unfathomably long winters. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the degrees of unhappiness I would experience if I had to move there.

“I can’t go!” I screamed. “I won’t—”

But my grandfather cut me off. “Do you think your parents would want you to stay here, wallowing in self-pity as you’ve been doing for the past week?” He gave me a cold look and shook his head. “No, they would want you to move on with your life. Which is exactly what you’re going to do.”

The conversation was over, and I stormed out of the room. I went upstairs and sat by the window, tears blurring my vision as I watched the heat rise off the pavement in the morning sun. It was unreal how much my life had changed in just one week. Both of my parents were dead, and I had no idea what was going to happen next. But I wasn’t scared. I was alive, and as I picked up the phone to dial Annie’s number, I closed my eyes and made a promise to my parents that I would never take that for granted again.


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Coming from sunny California, the mist-shrouded Academy was a shock, with its strange customs, ancient curriculum and study of Latin - the language of the dead. Then I discovered that the school has more than one dark secret...
I also discovered Dante. Intelligent, elusive and devastatingly gorgeous, most people can't decide whether they love, hate or fear him. All I know is that when we're together, I've never felt more alive - or more afraid. Desire. Danger. Destiny.
Little did I know that this is what I would find at Gottfried Academy.

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Book information

Lexile Measure
Accelerated Reader level
5.1 UY

Author information

Yvonne Woon

Yvonne Woon grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, in an old stone colonial house surrounded by woods. It was here that she first developed a taste for the macabre, and she has been writing mysteries ever since. Yvonne attended the prestigious Worcester Academy prep school in Boston, where, like Renée, the length of her skirt was routinely measured. She first began thinking about Latin and the Undead while studying in the library of Colunbia University, New York, where she obtained a Masters of Fine Arts in fiction. Dead Beautiful is her debut novel.

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Reader reviews

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“AMAZING! 110 out of 10!”
Amazing! Completely heartbreaking and full of complete and utter riveting tension! But with a sad yet happy ending. Can't wait for the next one! If she doesnt write a sequel I will be very upset!
“Dead Beautiful! Beautifully written!”
These kind of books always have me glued! Such an amazing interpretation of the undead - have not read anything like it before!! The use of words is enthralling and the use of history makes you believe and with every page. I just couldn't wait for the next. It makes me think so much, which I love about a book! Anyone into dark romance books must read this!! You won't want to put it down!!
“Dead Beautiful - too much like Twilight?”
It seemed the book was fundamentally about the exact same thing as Twilight. Boy & girl meet. boy is an outcast, the girl is new and "speaks her mind." Althought they meet in different circumstances to Twilight, i do believe these two books are very much alike. However, having said that, I did thoroughly enjoy reading this book, it made me giggle a few times and I really want my own Dante.
“This is the best book that I've ever read!”
This is the most exiting and riveting book that I have ever read. I bought this book yesterday at around 6pm and finished it at midday today. I have read all sorts: vampire books, angel books, spy books, wizard books, the lot, but never a 'zombie' or 'undead' book before. Dead Beautiful is a one in a million book and I would recommend it to every girl who loves to read. And even to ones that don't. On a scale to 1-10, 100000000. Fantastic, amazing, breathtaking. It keeps you on edge and you never want to put the book down.

Press reviews

“Riveting and different...a real page-turner.”
“This is a very different take on the supernatural that may be around us. A great read for all teens who like this genre (and those that are not so sure). The relationship between Renee and Dante grows and grows and with the last sentence in the book Yvonne Woon is likely to have you in tears.”
“Dead Beautiful pulls you in from the start...I loved it!”
“A compelling, heartbreaking and heart wrenching novel that I couldn't put down...the most romantic book I have read in a long time.”
“It’s been a long time since I was surprised by a book...It reminded me of reading Twilight for the first time.”
“Yvonne Woon’s young adult novel raises gothic romance to dizzy new heights; a dazzling debut that blends elements of Twilight, Romeo and Juliet, Ghost and heart-melting fantasy into one big, beautiful, bewitching story. Woon’s tense, spine-tingling teen thriller really does breathe new life into the dark corridors of the paranormal with its to-die-for love affair and the added dimension of some cleverly worked ideas based on ancient mythology, Roman ritual, Greek tragedy and the philosophy of Descartes. Dead Beautiful is an intelligent, well-written, fresh and original story of forbidden love with a sensational double twisting cliffhanger that is guaranteed to break young hearts everywhere. The hottest read around for cool teens.”
“From the first few pages I was gripped. A fantastic and unique story with plenty of mystery, intrigue and romance. I don’t think I could have asked for anything more. I enjoyed it so much and the ending is just bitter sweet. Yvonne Woon must have done a fair amount of research (that or she is incredibly knowledgeable) in Latin, Philosophy and some other subjects talked about in the book. It just made the story all that more interesting... Fans of Twilight and The Immortals, I think you guys would especially enjoy this... I rate this book 5/5.”
“This was a welcomed and unusual addition to the paranormal genre that had both an independent heroine and a really sweet guy for a love interest. While this book could have been a standalone, I am very excited to see where Woon will take the story next, especially after an ending where everything was answered, yet raised so many questions for the future.”
“A superb paranormal romance...This book had all the perfect ingredients for a fascinating read. I thought that Renee was a brilliant female character who was really interesting and engaging and goes through a huge amount of character development over the course of the story. There's lashings of romance mixed with dark and mysterious secrets and plenty of action to grip the reader entirely...The ending was mind-blowingly good and shed light on lots of the mysterious happenings throughout. This opening installment has got me well and truly hooked on the fascinating Renee Winters and Dante Berlin and I can't wait for the sequel.”
“Yvonne Woon’s young adult novel raises gothic romance to dizzy new heights; a dazzling debut that blends elements of Twilight, Romeo and Juliet, Ghost and heart-melting fantasy into one big, beautiful, bewitching story...Dead Beautiful is an intelligent, well-written, fresh and original story of forbidden love with a sensational double twisting cliffhanger that is guaranteed to break young hearts everywhere.”
“I was captivated by the story from the moment I picked it up ...Yvonne Woon has created a detailed and interesting mythology that is slowly revealed as you are reading...Love interest Dante is a perfect brooding, mysterious stranger that a lot of us girls can't resist! I know I'll be picking up a copy of [the sequel] Life Eternal as soon as it is available and I would recommend this series to any paranormal fan - especially lovers of Twilight!”
“If you loved Twilight you'll love this book... I loved the setting, the writing style and the main character. I read the whole thing in two sittings as found the plotline really engaging and found it really easy to rocket through... A gothic and mysterious boarding school with an antiquated curriculum and code of conduct was just a little bit too awesome for me!...A welcome addition to the paranormal romance genre.”
“Moving from a sunny American state to a mist-shrouded school? Finding your soul mate who is also hiding a secret? Sound familiar? Our bookshops have been swamped with supernatural / vampire romances, so what's so different about this one? With trepidation I started to read...and didn't stop until I'd finished the whole book, cover to cover...This book has depth and layers, artfully woven together. [Woon has] taken a simple concept by Aristotle and expanded on it, ".. a single soul dwelling in two bodies." Throw in some transcendentalist concepts (your soul rising beyond your body), along with some Latin, and suddenly the book is more than just a Twilight wannabe...Dead Beautiful has pace, romance and is skillfully written. A worthy début novel by Yvonne Woon. She's a writer to watch.”
“I really enjoyed this book, it was fast moving, gutsy and engaging. Once I picked it up I found it very hard to put it down. The plot was just fantastic, and original...What I loved most was the use of classic literature to help tell the story...It grabs you, and when it finishes you don't really know what to do with yourself. Superb.”
“Dead Beautiful is FULL of so many twists and turns, it felt like a trip to Alton deserves to be read, understood and loved.”
“Wow! From page one you’re thrown into a whirlwind of surprises, suspense, mystery and honestly, this isn’t your average paranormal book. The story has exciting twist and turns and the storyline wasn’t predictable at all. I found myself engrossed from the beginning... Renee is such a likeable character, one that is well developed, head strong, determined to uncover the truth - and that makes her a kick-ass heroine in my books.”
“Dead Beautiful is a paranormal romance but in some ways it is not as predictable as some that I have read. We know from the very start that Renee and Dante share some kind of power but we are kept guessing as to exactly what it is. The reader finds out things just as Renee does and I think this keeps you turning the pages. Gottfried Academy was probably my favourite part of the book. It is like a more grown up version of Hogwarts and full of mystery and secrets.”
“I really enjoyed this book, I think it's very different to other paranormal romance books and I loved that. An absolutely amazing start to a new series that I will definitely be seeing through till the end.”

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