EZVID WIKI loves Blood Day, and made this list to prove it. This made my day, so thank you, Peiasantiago for including it. Weebly won't let me embed it, so here's the link.
I thought I was nearly finished, I really did. I'd been writing my novel, The Collins Widow, for months, I'd cried and laughed and been sent into anxious fits right along with my (supposed) main character, Stella Barstow Collins. I had atmosphere, I had main characters that sang, I had antagonists, and most importantly, I had a monster.
But something wasn't quite right, and I had no idea why. It just wasn't enough.
So I put The Collins Widow away for a while, and wrote the first half of Sanguine. But still, my wonderful little gothic novel nagged at me from the back of my mind, twitching and whimpering for me to pay attention to it. I didn't know how to fix it, and it was slowly driving me mad. Okay, more mad. What was I missing? What was the element that was going to make it all shine? What golden thread could I tug to pull it all together? All I knew was that I was in love with the story, and most of all I was in love with one of the side characters, a ghost named Lavinia who haunted Stella's house.
THAT. WAS. IT.
At this heady realization, that Stella was not the only focus of the book, I sat down and wrote a single sentence: Lavinia did not know there was a monster under the village until her husband stopped coming home for supper. That was it, that was enough, and now I knew what I had to do. I began writing Lavinia's story, and suddenly I was sailing. My book was working, my book was delicious and dark and dreadful in the best way. I added chapters from the townspeople and suddenly my antagonists had agency, they had reasons for what they did, and good ones.
When I was a kid, I had a noisy little device called a rock tumbler. The rock tumbler was a horrible little machine despised by parents everywhere, and freely given as gifts by well-meaning relatives. The point of the rock tumbler was that you could put any old ugly stone into the contraption, plug it in, and then leave it to work its magic. You left that ugly rock to tumble around for a few days, and when you came back, you'd have a gem, a shining, pretty thing. Or that was the idea. Sometimes an ugly rock is an ugly rock, and no amount of tumbling is going to change that. But sometimes your rock would become something beautiful, riddled with colors and stripes of shining metal, and you would have a precious stone.
Sometimes stories need to tumble around in the skull, left alone to wear away the dullness and grit, before they emerge, shining and beautiful. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes a story is just ugly, or boring, or too silly to bother continuing. The Collins Widow came out of my skull tumbler shining and beautiful, and I'm thoroughly committed to bringing it to life.
I don't know if I'll keep that first lovely sentence. I don't even know if The Collins Widow will ever be published. But the point is that no matter how wonderfully eloquent and beautiful and horrific a book idea seems in your head (or on paper, or on a spreadsheet), sometimes you have to let go of your notion of what a book should be and go with what the book needs to be. If I'd stuck with my first inclination of only writing Stella's point-of-view, I would be a very bland horror writer indeed. Sometimes you have to put in more work, and sometimes you have to let something tumble around before you can see what's really inside.
If you're lucky, it's full of beautiful, lovely terror that demands to be written, grotesquely obsessed over, and then polished up like a shining agate from my childhood rock tumbler. If you're lucky, the story works, and all the ugly grinding noises that so upset your mother will be worth it.
If you're lucky, it will be gorgeous.
It’s like a slow creeping inertia that methodically envelops the brain. Blocked, stuck, in a rut, whatever you call it. Every writer experiences it, though many – for whatever reason – will not admit that it buyexists. There is, of course, a cure, which may be why so many reject the idea that the creativity has stopped. All you need is time, they say. Go back to the beginning, try again, try harder, stop admitting defeat.
I’m so tired.
My mind often slides toward silence, the dark, something soothing as a warm pool, a summer day, a tranquil scene spread out before you. Mine is the dark, the quiet, and I can never find the quiet these days. I can never seem to reach the tranquil part of my mind, the place where I can let go and allow the thoughts to flow. Children, diets, worry, illness, school, money, relationships, money, groceries, money. Where does it end? Where can it end when everything is an endless loop, knot of anxiety that never ends, never untangles, is never satisfied with the time and energy expended upon it?
Claim politics. Current events. Gun control. Abortion. No one appreciates art anymore, so why bother? But they are all excuses. Art comes from within, art is a subversive act that needs no vindication. We make art in the face of dysfunction, greed, violence, disdain. We make art because we cannot bear not to.
What happens to us when the art refuses to come, though? Are we people, like everyone else? Or are we filled up with our thoughts, the way the colors change at a certain time of day, the way your wife says a word, imaginary people and places and things and horrors and beauty and love and disgust and hate and lust. Are we really people? And if we are, why does it hurt when we are empty?
I am empty, but filling.
There is no one word that fills me with joy, but rather thousands of words, millions of words. I am made of words, my skin is punctuation, my eyes are quotation marks, my breath is every word that exists to describe a sigh, my guts are in italics. The rest of me is words, infinite and forever. And when my soul is sick, my words grow sluggish. When I am too spent to feel the way they taste in my mouth, I must stop the noise, the thoughts, the way I worry. I must stop and step back into the darkness and the silence.
It’s always there, waiting for me to shut the world out, shut my thoughts down. It’s always there, waiting for me to breathe. My mind slides toward silence and I allow it, and that’s all it takes. I am filling up again until the next interruption, the next frenzied thought, the worry and the blame and the inability to turn off, to shut down.
But for now, the silence. I am filling. That is all that matters.
I try. And I get up again and write.
It's Sunday night at 10:22 PM, and I have once again deactivated my Facebook account.
I've written about this before, but I'll say it again, veering off from the crowd is such a goddamn freeing, liberating feeling. Every time I do it, I feel I can breathe again, think again. Every time I do it, I close my eyes and revel in the silence.
So why do I do social media at all, you might ask. Why don't you just stay off the social channels for good, J.L.? Focus on the important things, the writing things, and forget about the noise. Why do I do it? Short answer: because I've been promised the world if I conform. Because every site featuring every indie blowhard get-rich-now scammer proclaims it so. If I am on Facebook, glorious things will happen! I will find readers and influence...other readers! If I get a thousand followers on Twitter, fame! Notoriety! The Nobel Prize!
I can't listen any longer. I am tired, and all I want to do is write.
Earlier today, a friend tried to show me a Superbowl commercial. "No, thank you," I said, "I don't watch commercials." I found the idea so offensive that I was perhaps a bit too forceful in my words. And yet, I do watch commercials. For marketing, for attracting reader interest, for being absolutely and insanely entrenched in the crowd in the off chance that I might one day speak to the right person. But these slick men and women (in a format that hearkens back to the infomercials my grandmother watched in the 1980s) don't promise that I'll become a better writer, that I'll write a spectacular book, that I'll blow my readers away with my voice and story structure and craft. They all have one thing in common: the point is to make money, and lots of it. Throw out schlock and put a snazzy cover on it, and then market the everloving heck out of it.
It's not that I don't want to make money. It's that I want to keep my soul. I want to get better with every book, and I want to feel the intensely-expanding burn in my chest when a story is about to burst forth. I can't do any of these things if I'm obsessed with money. There's a reason for the old cliche about the starving artist/writer/whatever. Sometimes you need to starve for a while to build that fire in your belly. Sometimes you need to step away from the crassness of business to focus on the words.
There is loneliness in solitude, but the road to hell (for me) is paved with unnecessary small talk.
Today, my husband told me I needed a year to write. Maybe even five years to write. Nothing else. Just write. No social media, no noise. He knows me, you see. He can see me struggling with balance, the art life versus the people life. Even though I argued with him at the time, I realized he was absolutely and maddeningly correct. I am just not the kind of writer who can wear many hats. I have one battered and torn hat, and it's the only hat for me, and I love every crease and stain and tear. So I'll just keep wearing my writing hat now, eschewing all the sleek and elaborately polished hats for the time being.
Just write. Just write. Just write.
If you subscribe to my newsletter (you can sign up on the home page!), you may have already seen the cover for my next book. The Collins Widow will be releasing this Spring, and I am so excited about it. The cover designer is Kealan Patrick Burke, the author of a bevy of fine horror novels himself, and he did a fantastic job.
It follows Stella Collins, recently vindicated in the death of her husband, who travels across the country to a strange house her husband owned in the village of Goodhope, Massachusetts.
And, of course, that's where the fun begins.
I hope you like the cover! Stay creepy, friends!
May I present to you Wicked, Clockwork Heart, a short and bittersweet tale of love, loss, and magic. It is available wherever ebooks are sold. Here's the synopsis:
Summer's heart doesn't beat, it ticks along with time. Her mother claims she's wicked, that her clockwork heart is cold and unworthy of love. But when Summer meets Noel, a country boy who loves Summer just the way she is, she wants to believe she can be happy. Happiness is tricky, though, especially where magic is involved. Summer learns the ruby that powers her heart came from a powerful witch. And Summer is just what she's looking for.
In this short story, J.L. Murray weaves a tale of love, loss, betrayal, and devotion. Of dancing bears and tinkered treasures, magical rubies, witches, and gold filigreed hearts. Wicked, Clockwork Heart is sure to stay with you long after the book closes.
You can find Wicked, Clockwork Heart at Amazon or your preferred source for ebooks. And stay tuned tomorrow, when I will be posting an exciting cover reveal for my forthcoming novel, The Collins Widow.
Stay creepy, friends!
As a writer, I hear all sorts of opinions on who I am and what I do. Writing is not art. Writing is art. Writers shouldn't talk about craft. Writers don't talk about craft enough. Writers should focus on characters. Writers should focus on plot. It's all overwhelming, and everyone has an opinion about everything, it seems. Of course in reality, people have always had opinions, but now those opinions are all public at the same time, all equally passionate and sure of themselves. Which is a wonderful thing most of the time, but as an artist, it can be taxing.
It's different to be on the other side of those opinions. It's been a strange life since I began writing professionally, and if I said the wonder and joy of creating wasn't fraught with danger and pitfalls, I'd be lying. There is a strange sense of being not-quite-real when you write about imaginary people. As Scott Fitzgerald put it, "Writers aren't people exactly. Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person." The severe self-examinations that lead to examining the lives of characters to make them more real can be, in its most dangerous incarnation, a form of creative self-harm. Why did I do that? What was I hoping to achieve? What happened to me to make me react in such a way to that event? These are all good questions which humans can use to better themselves, but when you find yourself asking yourself what your motivations are for choosing chicken instead of fish, you know you've gone a bit too far down your own rabbit hole.
The hard part of any sort of public life, of course, is to weigh carefully the things that we must hold dear, and to reject that which is harmful. The things about writing that I keep close are the beauty of creation, the satisfaction in bringing people to life who did not exist before, the joy of carving into the pure prose of a rough draft and coming out with something gorgeous and very much its own entity. Admittedly, there is a bit of the holy in any kind of writing, and we all revel a bit in our chance to play God. Creation, destruction, rebuilding, these are the tools of the trade. So when you think a writer is being a bit obtuse, a little out-of-the-real-world, try to remember that we do not live in the real world by design. Forgive us our trespasses and acts of doltish pride, we know not what we do. And when we know what we do, we are usually wrong.
But I digress.
Now on to the things to reject, for they are many. Here, I only speak for myself, but perhaps it may strike a note that many will recognize, and even better, more may see and understand. Writers are essentially artists, and as such, we are sensitive to things which may seem mundane and silly to others. We must see the world as children, in order to be able to describe absolutely ordinary things with succinct precision and enthusiasm. Something I've learned to avoid are reviews of my work (though they are always immensely appreciated). It is none of my business if someone did not like a book, and writers should stay well enough out of the conversation. It's difficult enough to write a story, and when you bring debate over the color of curtains into the mix, it is absolutely none of our business whether someone finds symbolism in that. We make the art, we do not get to dictate what readers get from it.
This could be a blog post purely on the things in the world we would do well to reject. But to avoid that sort of negative laundry list style of writing, I will only say this: WRITING IS HARD WORK. That's all you need to know. It is hard enough to craft a novel, to feel a story blooming in your chest and eyes and belly and to pull it out thread by shining thread. It is hard enough to spend your days banging away on a keyboard or scratching away on paper for no other reason than to develop your writing voice. It is hard enough to plot out a story that didn't exist before, to spend weeks, months, years sketching a barely passable rough draft, to spend weeks, months, years revising said words until something like a book emerges. One can spend their entire life on simply thinking about one story, and yet most of us who try to eke out a living at it are lucky enough and hardworking enough to grant themselves multiple stories, dozens sometimes. Hundreds, even. It is hard enough to do all of this. And what I mean by this, my long-awaited point that I'm trying to make, is this: It is enough. It is enough to write, to make stories, to fill the world with something that didn't exist before.
It is enough, and you are enough for doing it.
I spent years feeling inadequate, years beating myself up for all the things I tried to do but failed. For all the things I was ill-equipped to learn, that I did not have the time or energy or capacity to do. I should be many more things, I thought. I should be able to successfully market my books, I should be successful at proofreading and editing and artistic representations of the stories. I should be able to do this or that, I shouldn't be only one thing. And yet, none of it was true or valid. It's great if you can be everything, but in truth, it sounds exhausting. Ever since I was a child, I knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be good at. And do you think at any point I dreamed of advertising or catchphrases or ROIs? Good Lord, no. I wanted to write, and so that is what I set out to do. By all rights, I've already achieved my childhood dream, and yet, even now, I beat myself up for what I cannot do. It's hurtful and without merit, and it has nothing to do with me, just as someone's criticism of my body of work has nothing to do with me. If we as writers focused half as much on craft as we do on our desperate clutching at algorithms and promotions, can you imagine the beauty we'd bring to the world? If we didn't care about agents or sales and clutched as desperately at our art instead of our pockets, the world would become infinitely brighter, exponentially more gratifying and full of exquisite, eloquent words.
Yes, writers are poorly paid and widely taken for granted. I do not offer a solution to that problem. Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new system. The readers are there. The readers want more. But if we are only writing what we believe they can handle, we are doing them a terrible disservice. Perhaps what is needed is a revolution of the soul, perhaps we should boycott rehashed plots and two-dimensional character, eschew the old in favor of the new, reject the tired tropes for the shining threads that burn in our hearts and brand themselves in our minds. And, at last, perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. After all, instead of asking "Why don't we write the fire in our hearts until it burns the very paper it's printed on?" it is far more democratic to make a statement. "I will write the fire in my heart until it burns the very paper it's printed on."
In the name of our craft and our art, I urge you to do the same in the coming year, in this brave new world, in the living dystopia where beauty, truth and wisdom are so, so terribly needed. Do not practice creative self-harm. You are enough, we are enough. Being gifted at one thing is not a failure, it is absolutely rare. We cannot be everything, and we cannot bear to be required to account for the revolutionary act of feeling pride for our art, for our calling. Because no one sets out to be a writer, rather writing finds you. It calls to you with its siren song, and if the calling is real, you won't want to hear any other songs. You will sway and dance to that song until the end of your days, and feel privileged to so. Being called to a purpose has never been an easy life. Indeed, writing is a bit like becoming a monk as we reject the outside world for what we know shines within us. So too, there is a reverence that must be adapted, a respect for the words and whatever forces that leave the stories lying around, to be picked up by those who can see them, polished, and turned into something tangible.
You are a writer. You are not a writer. You are already many things, so loving only one thing, knowing only one thing is almost overkill. Being gifted is enough, and so are you. I would even argue that you are more than enough. You are the light that the world needs most right now, and all you have to do is shine.
J.L. Murray is the author of thirteen novels, including Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Blood of the Stars, and Monstrous. She lives in Eugene, Oregon with her family and a growing menagerie of pets. She can be reached through her website at JLMurrayWriter.com, her Facebook page, and on Twitter.
I recently received a review in which the reviewer scathingly researched how many times I wrote the word "said." This was tempered with another recent review where the reader hated the first two books in the same series, liked the third, and for the fourth gave a raving five-star review.
My point being that reviews don't matter. Sales don't matter (but of course they do help keep the lights on). The only thing that matters is that you find elation in what you do. Pride, perhaps even a taste of rapture. I loved writing the series I just mentioned, and it being my first toe dipped into the water of publishing, it was the first time I felt absolute joy in my work. The fact that, almost five years after the fact, that people are still reading, still debating, still feeling so passionately about the characters in said books, well that speaks to the power of story.
Go forth in the coming year without thinking about readers, without worrying about sales or reviews or how something will be received. The world has changed, literature has changed, but good writing, unique writing and delight in the craft will always be in our lives as human beings. Embrace the change, follow your characters down their respective rabbit holes (no matter how weird things get or how deep and scary, for in fear there is beauty). Writers are the portents to the future and we can show future generations that in the midst of chaos, we made art. In the midst of despair, we wrote of hope and love and adventure, and yes, we wrote deliciously of fear and terror.
As we set forth into a new year, let us make art that speaks to our souls. This is the art that will speak to the souls of generations to come. So when our grandchildren say, "Well, what did you do?" we can proudly say, "We made ugliness beautiful and thus created hope in the world."
(This post originally appeared on Facebook)
It's been a long time coming, and Frankie was getting mighty impatient with me, but Hoarfrost (Blood of Cain, Book Two) is finally out! Throw the confetti and release the balloons, for better or worse, our girl has arrived. You can purchase Hoarfrost here.
To celebrate, from November 1st to November 5th, three of my novels will be free. Blood Day, Eat the Ones You Love, and Blood of the Stars will all be available for no cost. And just as a heads up, if you have Kindle Unlimited, all my books are free all the time. Blood of the Stars is my editor's favorite book to date, as a quick aside, so I hope people will try it out.
In addition, I received a nice surprise review in my email yesterday. Underground Book Reviews gave Monstrous a stellar review of five stars, and it's now in the running for best book of the year on that site. You can read the wonderful review here, and check out some of their other reviews while you're at it. They do some pretty cool stuff for indie writers.
In conclusion, here is a list of things I'm working on or planning to work on. It's not a promise, and I make no guarantees as to what will be done when, I can only tell you what I'm excited to be creating.
AUGURIES OF INNOCENCE: Noir detective werewolf short story.
THE HOUSE ON CARAVAGGIO STREET: I am so, so excited about this one. It's the first in a series called the VILLAGE OF GOODHOPE series, and each book will be a standalone horror novel based in (you guessed it) a creepy little town called Goodhope. And let me tell you, there are a LOT of stories there. The first will be my take on the haunted house pastiche, and if it works out, it's going to be fantastic.
SANGUINE: book three in the Blood of Cain/Frankie Mourning series. This is still in planning stages, but I'm hoping to do a twisted road trip book.
UNTITLED JENNY NOVEL: Nothing set in stone here, but I've been thinking of doing a third book in the Jenny Undead series for a while now. I'm hoping to dig into this after SANGUINE wraps up.
So, now I've shown you the workings of my mind. HAPPY HALLOWEEN AND STAY CREEPY, FRIENDS!
Hoarfrost is finally out with beta readers and will be available on Halloween! I'm really excited to finally share this story with you all, and to finish this chapter (hah) of Frankie Mourning's life.
So here it is, Hoarfrost. Pre-order it on Amazon here, and read book one, Monstrous, here. And as always, thank you, thank you, thank you for your support. I can never repay all the kindness my readers have shown me, so I'll just keep writing books for you all to read.
"Are you a good father, Jason?"
Jason Halloran turned slowly, the light from the house flickering in his eyes, the white mark glowing on his arm. He'd taken off his suit jacket and tie, his sleeves rolled up to the elbows. The wet, gray sky behind him was quickly deepening to dusk, filtered through thick clouds. It was threatening to rain on the dark, choppy sea. Barnacle-crusted stones cut into my bare feet and droplets of salt water collected in my hair. The air smelled clean and sweet and I was sure this would be my favorite place to die.
And for a little while, I could stop seeing Dekker's face every time I closed my eyes.
"Why are you alive?" Jason shook his head. "You should be dead by now. You should have been fucking dead hours ago."
"Poison is a shit way to kill someone, Jason. You're going to have to think outside the box."
I came here to die. I smiled pretty when Jason fixed me with his cold smile in a seedy bar, handsome and charming if you didn't know what he was. But I knew. I went along when he invited me out to his house, which, he claimed, had "a view to die for." I pretended not to get the joke. I drank wine laced with enough sleeping pills to drop a horse, and watched his blooming surprise when I didn't collapse. And I feigned delight when he offered me three lines of powder to snort, even though we both knew it was not cocaine. I did everything I could to let Jason Halloran kill me. But that was before I knew about the girl.
"What are you going to do to Mirabel?"
"Mirabel?" he said, seeming not to recognize her name. Then he blinked several times, his pulse jumping in his throat. Tears filled his eyes, a shadow of shame passing over his face. When he spoke again, it was in a heated whisper. "How did you know about her?"
"Your daughter," I said. "What are you going to do to her?"
"Nothing," he said, watching me. He was afraid. I could feel it, smell it. He was strong, I could see the sinewy muscle of his forearms. Strong on the outside.
"You're weak," I said. "Get on your knees."
Ravens were gathering in the sky, flying low around us, screaming at Jason. He glanced at them, a haunted look in his eyes.
"You don't understand," he said. "I don't want to. I don't want to. But her mother left us here. She left us and Mirabel...she looks so much like her. She looks so much like her mother."
"She didn't leave," I said, pulling out my knife. Jason's eyes widened. "You killed her. She's walled up in the basement. At least, she was."
"There's no way you could know that."
"There is, actually," I said. "You were so sure I'd die after that cocaine you left me alone for a long time. A very long time. You couldn't even bear to watch me die, could you, Jason? What was it really? Rat poison? It left a nasty aftertaste in the back of my throat, if it makes you feel better."
He didn't say anything. Just stared at me as if I were the most frightening thing he'd ever seen. He looked at me like I was a monster. I shrugged, smiled.
"I busted open the concrete where she was buried. See, I have this...thing inside me. It lets me see into the cracks. I'm not sure what it is, not really. But when I want something, there's not a whole lot a shitty human being like yourself can do to stop me. You didn't even feel it, I bet. Maybe you were in your room, crying. Maybe you were getting off on the whole prospect of killing an innocent woman. But you didn't feel it when I put my hands on that concrete wall and let go. You didn't feel it when the plaster fell away from all those bodies wrapped in plastic. When the cops come, they'll find them. They'll know what you did. Your own wife. And the six other women you have down there."
"You...then you saw–"
"The room where your daughter was locked up?" I said. "I sure did. Did you hear the part about the cops? I have no affinity for law enforcement, but she's just a baby."
"You can't kill me, I'm bigger than you," he said, looking at my knife, not listening to anything I was saying. I turned the hilt of the knife in my palm. Turn, turn, turn, the dense light of Western Washington gleaming dully off the blade.
"It might seem that way, Jason," I said, still turning the knife. His eyes were on it, following it hypnotically. "I can see how you might make that mistake. Except I keep telling you, when I put my mind to something, there's not a whole lot you can do to stop me. You thought I was an easy mark, I get it. It'd be kind of cute if you weren't a serial killer."
He frowned. His fingers twitched. "I could kill you," he said under his breath, as if he were reassuring himself. "I could kill you and then kill her. I've got money. I could disappear. Become someone else."
I smiled. "You could. It's never as good as it sounds, though."
"You talk too much." His voice was guttural and hoarse, the shame leaving his face, replaced with something brutal and cold. He took a step toward me. He was taller than me, but small for a man.
"I get that a lot," I said. "But I just can't seem to stop myself once I'm on a roll. See, my daddy was a preacher. Not the good kind, the take your money and run kind. The kind who has affairs with his parishioners. Just not that great of a person. But he was my dad, and Lord, could that man talk. He could talk his way out of a snowstorm, that's what my mom used to say. He could talk out of both sides of his mouth and people would thank him for his time. I guess I got it from him, because I can chat up just about any sort of person in any situation. Take this one right here, for example..."
"I don't care," Jason said, what little patience he'd been holding onto disappearing. "I'm going to put you in that wall with the others." He lunged at me, his expensive shoes scraping against the barnacles, the skin of his knees shredding as I stepped out of the way and he toppled over, grasping at the air. It was so easy that a laugh fell through my lips. He turned quickly, from his hands and knees, grabbed my ankle, pulled. The force of the rocky beach against my back as I fell sent a glorious pain radiating through my whole body, and there was a satisfyingly audible crack. I felt the back of my shirt sticking to the blood and open wounds, gashes opened up by sharp barnacles and broken mussel shells, sharp rocks, and bits of driftwood, the salt water burning as it mingled with my blood. My skull throbbed where it bounced off a rock and something was wrong halfway down my rib cage. I struggled to move, but I couldn't breathe. My knife had fallen from my hand and I felt around for it, but only touched sharp rocks and sand.
"You're not talking now," Jason said, straddling my chest, all his weight on me. I finally managed to suck in air, my lungs burning from more than just having the wind knocked out of me. I grinned through tears, tasting my own blood. The screaming ravens were getting louder and I knew that soon they would be swarming above us.
"I found you," Jason was saying. "I picked you up. I brought you here to kill you. It was me, it was all me. You're just a girl from a bar."
"You're wrong," I said, gasping in between words. "I've been following you for a week."
"Liar." His eyes had gone bright, his cheeks flushed.
"Go ahead," I said, getting some of my wind back. It hurt to speak, but that never stopped me before. "Try to kill me."
"What?" A raven landed next to me and turned its head upward to caw at Jason. He waved his hand at it and it flew away.
"I came here to die, Jason. It's never stuck before, but who knows? Maybe you're the one." He was staring at me, his eyes uncomprehending. "Except, you had to go and mess with your daughter. Why'd you have to go and do that?"
"Shut the fuck up," he said, his voice a low moan. He finally put his hands on me, wrapping his thick fingers around my throat.
Relief flooded over me as I felt the world blur, dark spots floating in my vision, a brightness to the sky that I knew was just my imagination. I could just let go. I could die by the sea, staring up at the beautiful steel-colored sky. My lungs were in agony, but it would be over soon. I felt the familiar throbbing in my chest, scratching against the inside of my skull. I could let it go whenever I wanted, let whatever was inside me take care of Jason Halloran. Stars appeared in my vision, tantalizingly close. I could just die. The cops were on their way, and I'd planned to be gone by now. But they would save Mirabel, and I would get a chance to sleep. And maybe, this time, I wouldn't wake up.
"Daddy?" The fingers eased. The weight on my chest shifted.
"Mirabel?" he said.
I coughed as air filled my lungs yet again. There was something wrong, I hurt myself when I fell. Broken ribs, probably. I breathed through the pain, touching my throat where Jason had choked me. My other hand touched something cold and smooth. I took my hand from my throat and grasped the handle of my knife. A raven landed next to me and regarded me with something like quiet pity. Another landed on the other side of me, then another.
"You're a bad man," said the voice. A child's voice. But Mirabel stood there, nearly a woman. How old was she? 14? 16? How old had I been when I discovered evil in the world? How old when I realized my own family wanted to hurt me?
"I forgot to tell you," I said, the words like glass in my throat. "When I was in the basement, I unlocked Mirabel."
Jason was staring at his daughter, his lips loose and quivering, a string of drool falling onto his shirt, already smeared with dirt and blood. He was still on top of me, but I couldn't die now. I couldn't leave Mirabel alone with her father, even if the cops were on their way. God only knew what he'd already done to her, and I had to make sure he wouldn't ever hurt her again. I had to be sure he wouldn’t hurt anyone again.
"Remember what we talked about?" I said, and Mirabel nodded solemnly. Her nightgown, once white, was dirty and gray from the basement, her wrists and ankles crusted in scabs where he'd chained her up.
"I called them," she said, her voice high and scared. But there was a strength there, too. She was shaking, her eyes wide, but her jaw was set. As if she made a decision and was determined to see it through. "The police are coming. And my aunt is coming, too."
"Good girl," I said. The ravens were multiplying around me, unnaturally quiet. Bearing witness to what was about to happen.
"No, Mirabel. I love you." Jason stood then, and I felt light. Like I could float right up to the sky if I wanted to. But when I sat up, everything hurt. Breathing sent a familiar jolt up my spine and I knew that at the very least I'd cracked some ribs. I stood slowly, watching as Jason walked toward his daughter, arms outstretched. Mirabel backed away, her face filled with disgust.
"That's not love," Mirabel said, her voice radiating a sureness I wished I could replicate. So young, and she already knew what love wasn't. "You're sick, Daddy."
"Go in the house, Mirabel," I said. "Just like we talked about."
Mirabel lifted her hand, dropping something metallic on the rocks. Keys. "No one knows about this car," she said, not taking her eyes off her father, a victorious cruelty playing on the edges of her mouth. She kept looking at her father as she spoke. "And I won't tell them you took it. It'll take them a long time to find it. I'll say I found him out here like that."
"Like what?" said Jason, his voice weak.
"I never saw her, Daddy. And I hope it hurts."
"You can tell them whatever you want," I said.
"I never saw you," she said, finally looking at me, surprised that I was so close, right behind her father.
"Look away," I said, my lips so close to Jason's ear that I felt him stiffen, my hand gripping the knife. He didn't turn. He didn't run. He just went rigid with expectation.
"No," said Mirabel. "I want to make sure. I want to see it happen."
"Mirabel," Jason moaned. "No."
"See what you've done to her?" I whispered and he shuddered. "Maybe she'll be just like you." He whimpered as I slid the knife through his ribs, like cutting cold butter. I felt my breath come faster as I wrapped my arm around his waist and eased him to the ground, pain exploding where my ribs had broken, my vision blurring, but it was already done. I blinked, dizzy, looking down as Jason moved his mouth open and closed on the ground. The cloud of ravens seemed to burst, each taking off with a cacophony of screeching and rising into the sky to soar in a circle above us, watching, screaming. A warmth shuddered through my body, the pain forgotten. Or perhaps the pain was part of the pleasure. I heard myself moan as I straddled Jason's chest, just as he'd done to me. I was still holding the knife, now dripping with dark blood.
"I usually have a nice chat before this point," I whispered. Jason was gasping under me, watching me through the pain, his eyes trailing to the sky, to the ravens. I cleaned the knife on his shirt, turned to Mirabel to tell her to go in the house again, but I could see the shape of her moving through the sweetgrass, heading toward the shining glass house. I imagined Jason drinking whiskey from a crystal glass, looking out at the sea while his daughter was chained in the basement.
Jason was trying to say something, his eyes on me again, but there was no sound, only a thick gargling in the back of his throat.
"Don't try to talk," I said, "just listen. She's never going to be okay. You know that, Jason, I know you do. She's alive because of me, but you've broken her; you made her something that she never asked for, filled her with a darkness that will never ever go away. But she's going to live, and you're going to die, and in a way, there's poetry in that." A raven landed on my shoulder, looking down at Jason, who blinked, looking from me to the raven and back again. He opened his mouth, trying to speak. I put my ear next to his mouth to hear.
"Are you Death?" he breathed, choking on the words. I watched him for a while, struggling to draw breath, trying to survive, but his blood was staining the pale, craggy rocks all around him, soaking the sand beneath. A trail of it ran through the bright, sharp stones and barnacles and driftwood, a stream of blood that mixed with the soapy, soft waves as the tide came in, and when the water receded, there was nothing there.
"Nothing so fancy," I said. "I'm just a girl from a bar."
"No. I see you. I can see midnight in your eyes. I can't believe I didn't see it before."
"You're dying," I said.
He stopped for a moment, his eyes moving around, as if he were trying to take in the world, as much as he could soak up before everything went dark. He took a long, shallow, shaky breath, his eyes tearing from the effort and the pain and the loss of hope.
"No, you're not Death," he gasped. "What are you?" His eyes found mine, searching. "What are you?" I frowned, surprised, the tingle of tears behind my own eyes.
"I don't know." The raven on my shoulder squeezed hard with its talons, then pushed off into the air to join the others, circling us in the sky.
"Do it," he said. "Finish me off. Take my sin from the world."
"Your sin will stay on her skin for the rest of her life," I gritted my teeth as I brought the knife to his throat. Heat filled my belly and flooded my eyes with a light that felt both familiar and alien. The sky was black with birds. I felt my hand moving of its own volition as I screamed, Jason's face changing, shifting, a dying man turning to a woman, scarred and mocking. Laughing.
"It's not you," I said. "It's not you. You're dead."
"I'm going to stay on your skin until the day you die." Her voice, her face, her laugh.
I brought the knife down then, blood gushing against my face, metal against bone sending a shock wave down the nerves in my arm. But it didn't matter, I brought the knife down again and again, blood gushing through my fingers, solid bone reduced to sand. I couldn’t stop, some force inside of me driving me through the pain in my arm, my ribs, forcing me to turn that face into something unrecognizable. Something that wasn't her. I fell away at last, feeling the stones cutting into me once again, my sobs echoing across the water. It wasn't her, it couldn't be. It couldn't be my mother.
I'd already killed her.
But when I dared to look at the body, neck and face a mess of gore, the eye that still remained was bright blue, the oxford shirt stained red, the large fingers slack. It was Jason Halloran, of course it was. I'd killed a killer, just like I always did. It was just another killer. But my heart beat so fast it hurt.
I watched Jason's unmoving body and tried to breathe in the wet air, the seawater rushing up and carrying away blood and bits of bone, the bottoms of my feet stinging as the salt water dampened the cuffs of my jeans. I fished a nearly-empty pack of smokes from my pocket and pulled one out, my hands shaking, the cigarette bent as it hung from my lips. But my matches were wet and stained red and I spat the cigarette from my lips, and when the wave came up on the shore again, the sea carried it away. I looked back at Jason, still and dead.
My vision went funny and I squeezed my eyes shut, opened them again. Jason hadn't moved, but the air around him shifted in waves, like trying to watch a scrambled television channel. The sound of the sea became muted, then was quiet. The ravens overhead cawed down at me without sound. I touched the back of my head, wondering if I'd fallen harder than I realized. I looked back at Jason's body again, touching something wet and sticky and painful on the back of my head. Then I blinked and Jason disappeared. The sand where he had lain was clean but for the barnacles and the broken seashells. No sign that a man had just died there.
"What the hell?" I said, and it was the only sound I could hear in the crushing silence. The world around me was buzzing, but not audibly. I could feel it coursing through my body. I reached out to touch the place Jason had been, hoping I was seeing things, hoping this was a dream. My hands felt bare ground where his corpse had been and I fell back, shaken. I looked around me, a lump in my throat. I looked at the house, the windows dark now, no trace of Mirabel. The keys she'd dropped on the ground were gone.
I stood, the pain that had wracked my body vanished, the lack of pain more jarring than the agony. I turned and took a step toward the water. The waves had stopped lapping onto the shore, and appeared to be shuddering in place under the gray light, giving the impression they were trembling. And then a noise, a cracking, shifting, popping. I watched the water as it turned white, a fine layer of crystals forming on top. I recognized the noise then. Ice. The crystals atop the sea grew, and I watched a coat of hoarfrost travel as if it were alive, crawling up the shore, covering the sand, the barnacles, the broken shells. It stopped when it got to me. I looked up at the sky, but my ravens were as gone as Jason Halloran's body.
"What the fuck is this?" I said aloud, my voice booming in the near silence. A perfect circle surrounded me, the hoarfrost covering everything else. I turned to see Jason's house, shining with icicles as if crusted in diamonds. When I looked back to the sea, there was a warm light in the distance, just beyond the horizon. I squinted. It couldn't be the sun, the clouds were too thick. The wind blew across the water and there was an odd tang, like the sharp smell of electricity.
The warm light brightened, expanded, until it filled the horizon. It lifted up and blossomed out, rising up into the sky. Then it seemed to grow larger at an alarming rate, the burning smell in the air stronger, filling my mouth with the taste of smoke. I realized the light wasn't growing, it was moving, shifting and tumbling and crashing like an ocean wave, rising up, filling up the sky with fire, sliding across the ice as if the two belonged together, as if fire and ice were always meant to work in synchronicity, the ice of the sea not melting a bit, the hoarfrost growing ever higher around me. And when I looked above me again, the sky was made of fire.
When the blistering wave hit, I felt the heat of it. The sky was bright, as if the very clouds had become tinder, and the ice on the sea burned white and gold and red as the fire made its way inland. Tears fell down my face as I choked on smoke. I ducked as the fire crashed all around me, my eyes blurring from the heat, but it didn't touch me. It didn't burn a single hair on my head. I watched as everything in its path was reduced to ash. My heart was beating in my ears and set the time for the carnage. One heartbeat and the field of sweetgrass was gone, replaced with hard, blackened earth. Two heartbeats and the house was gone, nothing but cinders left as the fire passed. The forest beyond the house disappeared at four heartbeats. By six heartbeats, there was nothing. As far as I could see, all that was left was ash and smoke, and as the wave of flame receded in the distance, the hoarfrost crawled along the decimated landscape, covering the charred earth once again with ice.
"You've done this," said a voice. I froze when I heard it, tears instantly wetting my cheeks. I turned slowly.
"Daddy?" I whispered. It was him, he was standing in front of me, narrowing his eyes. He looked just the way he looked that last night when he took me home. When he'd slapped my face, striking me for the first and last time. "You're not real. I saw you die."
"You've done this, Frankie," he said, raising a hand and pointing a finger at me.
"I didn't," I said, staring.
"But you will," he said, still pointing at me. "There's something inside you, we always knew. You're not yourself when it touches you. You can stop this, Frankie, but you have to be strong. Do what's right, you hear me? I didn't raise a sinner."
I swallowed hard and felt my tears dry up. I scowled back at him. "The fuck you didn't."
"Don't speak to me that way."
"You lived in sin and you left it on my skin," I said, my voice coming out in a whisper. "You could have stopped them, Mom and Becky. You could have ended it. You'd be alive now if you listened, you arrogant bastard. I wouldn't be standing here if you cared enough to let Beatrice help me. I wouldn't be a killer if you'd saved me. Why the fuck didn't you save me, you son of a bitch? Why didn't you save me?"
He took a step toward me and I realized he was wearing the clothes he was buried in. He lowered his hand and his narrowed eyes widened. "The devil's had his claws in you since the day you were born," he said. "No one can save you."
He turned his back to me and I felt a white-hot anger fill me up. He took a step toward the sea and I grabbed at him, angry, ready to fight. But my hand slid through him like smoke, and then he was gone. And when I blinked again, the hoarfrost disappeared, the waves lapped at my feet, and I was standing on the beach, covered in Jason Halloran's blood. I cried out as the pain returned. When I stumbled, I fell onto Jason's corpse. And when I looked up at the house, Mirabel was watching me through the wide, shining windows.
I rolled off Jason's corpse and lifted myself to my feet. The ravens were screaming again, the waves were crashing, my heart was beating in my ears.
"What are you doing, doing, doing?" said a voice echoing in my head. It was growing dark and in the far distance I could hear sirens. I had to get out of here. I saw the keys Mirabel dropped on the ground.
"Killing a killer, same as always," I said, swallowing down bile. It wouldn't help anyone to panic right now, it wouldn't help anyone if I cracked and went batshit crazy, not with what I knew was inside of me. I turned to see the wraith, wrapped in shadows like a cloak, hooded face an absence of light so dark it hurt to look. The hallucination was still fresh in my mind, so vivid that it felt real. It was like my nightmares, surreal and vivid, but ultimately it would fade and I would barely be able to recall it by the end of the day. The dreams were getting worse, though, and starting to seep into reality. Like today.
I could still taste smoke.
"We didn't tell you to kill him, him, him," said the wraith, pointing to Jason Halloran.
"I don't do what you say anymore."
"We gave a task, task, task. What are you doing here? He still has her, her, her. Your sweet sister, in Cain's service. We won't help you save her until you follow orders."
I limped past the wraith and my vision went white as I bent to pick up the keys. I waited for the pain to pass, the ground cutting into my feet. I tried to remember where I'd taken off my boots, and I looked toward the house to see Mirabel still in the window. I had to get out of here. I was covered in blood and I’d just killed a man. Where I'd taken my boots off was highly unimportant. I held the keys tightly in my hand and made my way toward the sweetgrass.
"Cain will hurt her. Don't you care, care, care?"
"I care," I said, walking gingerly. I could see lights flashing on the other side of the bay. It was lucky Jason had chosen such an isolated place to live. Not lucky for him, though. "Just let her die,” I said. “Let her go. It's better that way."
"We don't have that power, power, power."
"So you'd let my sister go if you could?" I was walking toward the house as quickly as I could, but I was still maddeningly slow.
"We'd let you go, too."
"We," I laughed. "Are you a collective now?"
"We told you to kill him. Why are you here, here, here?"
"I think that's pretty obvious. I'm fleeing the crime scene."
"We told you to kill Thomas Dekker, Dekker, Dekker." I stopped, rage in my belly. I could feel the power inside me, the dark substance that I didn't understand. It moved and shifted and grew agitated, jumping under my skin. The ground beneath my bare feet rumbled, opening up cracks in the dirt all around me, the sweetgrass falling away into the chasms. I closed my eyes, trying to control it, and after a moment, the ground stopped shaking. I opened my eyes and looked at the wraith.
"Don't say his name," I said through gritted teeth. "Don't you ever say his fucking name."
The ravens swarmed down, a tornado of feathers around the wraith. And when they took to the air again, the wraith was gone.
I passed the cops on the lonesome, two-lane highway that wrapped around the edge of a short stone cliff just above the sea. The Honda was not a bad car, and even barefoot, the soles of my feet slick with my own blood and gritty with sand, I was able to drive with little effort. The back of my rib cage sent waves of agony through my body, and I thought about stopping when I saw a gas station on the horizon. But my shirt was shredded and covered in red darkening to rust, and my hands were sticky with Jason's blood and flesh, so I continued on, down the highway. I took the exit into Bellingham, and turned the car into the parking lot of the motel near the highway I'd checked into.
I pulled the dwindling pack of Lucky Strikes out of my pocket and finally lit a cigarette with the car lighter. I cracked the window and let out the smoke in a shaky breath, feeling pain in my lungs as I coughed. If Dekker were with me, he would watch me closely with concern. But the thought of him sent a cold stab into my belly and I stubbed out the barely-smoked cigarette in the ashtray.
My chest ached and it had nothing to do with a broken rib. The memory was sharp and sudden and made me feel dizzy with its crispness. A motel room, cheap and smelling of a tobacco pipe. Dekker in bed, an empty bottle of whiskey on its side. It had been easy, getting him drunk. And it hurt. I felt the pain all night, but when Dekker finally succumbed to exhaustion, tears sprung up in my eyes and cascaded down my cheeks. I was afraid my sobs would wake him, so I gathered my things quickly and headed for the door.
Don't look at him, I told myself. Just don't look at him. Remember what happened last time.
I couldn't stop myself. I turned to look. I felt something inside me wrench, as if someone had grabbed hold of my insides and twisted.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. "I want to stay." I opened my mouth to say more, but that was it. I wanted to stay and that was all. I left him my car, my cherished Challenger, the only thing left from my dad. I walked to the street and stuck out my thumb. I didn't take his wallet. I didn't take money or clothes or the motel shampoo. I just left. I left and it was the right thing to do. But goddamn if it didn't hurt like hell.
I paid for my room five days in advance, in case I didn't come back from Jason Halloran's house right away. I knew I wouldn't really die, not for good. But I had a bone to pick with my so-called employer. I wanted to speak to him in person, and thought my chance to meet him would most likely happen in that empty hollow between death and life, the desolate crossroads where I'd first met the wraiths. I parked in the back corner of the motel parking lot.
I was nearly to my room, walking along the boardwalk that led down the rows of doors, when I saw the car. There wasn't another Dodge Challenger like that, and I knew it right away, parked across the street, empty. My hand was on the doorknob, my heart hammering in my throat.
"I know you're there," said a deep, muffled voice from the other side of the door. My mouth went dry. "You may as well come in."
I closed my eyes, trying to breathe. A long moment passed and it seemed the world had gone quiet again. No cars, no laughter or TV laugh tracks coming from the rooms, the owner stopped yelling at his slovenly son in the office across the parking lot. I half expected the sky to turn to fire. A raven landed on the sidewalk next to me and I opened my eyes. He blinked at me gravely, seeming almost sympathetic. A truck blazed by on the street, honking its horn, breaking the spell. I turned the knob.
It was dim outside, but the blackout curtains had been drawn in the room and no lights were on. I blinked in the darkness. I could feel him there, smell him, feel the heat and soul of him. There was movement and a lamp flicked on. And he was there. Sitting in my motel room in a ripped vinyl chair, a gun balanced gently on his knee. His eyes were cold when I found the courage to look at his face.
"Hey, Frankie," Dekker said. "Where've you been?"
"Dekker." I barely had breath to say his name. I sank back against the closed door, having no energy to propel myself any farther into the room. I winced.
"You're hurt," he said, with no indication that he was planning to help. He watched me as if I were a specimen in a jar. I remembered the shine in his eyes as he had his hands around Roo's throat back in Montana. The sheer joy I'd seen on his face as he squeezed...
"Are you going to kill me?" I said softly.
A brief cloud of hurt passed over his features, clearing almost immediately. "No," he said. He seemed to notice the gun for the first time and picked it up off his leg, setting it on the floor, near his foot. "I'm not here to kill you, Frankie." He sounded tired.
I pushed myself off the door with some effort and staggered to the bed, easing myself down and closing my eyes. "That's a shame," I said. "I've been trying my best to die."
"Same old Frankie."
"Never claimed to be anything else."
He was quiet for a long time. I wanted him to come over and tell me it was all okay, I wanted him to say he knew why I left and he didn't care, I wanted him to get angry and scream. But all he did was watch me.
"How'd you find me?" I opened my eyes and turned my head slowly to look at him. The day had caught up with me and everything hurt. There was a whistling wheeze when I drew in breath.
"I'm a detective."
"You were a detective."
"It never really leaves you," he said. "Besides, I have friends. If I want to know something, I have all the resources to damn well know it. I've known where you went, Frankie. I know what happened in Spokane. I know what you did in Gold Bar, Washington.
That was a doozie. Rocked the whole state, finding out about that priest. And the way they found him, that was fucked up. Not that he didn't deserve it."
"So you've got friends in low places," I said, "I get it. So what?" It hurt having him here, the way he was looking at me. A cold, broken stare, every word like an accusation, each syllable a blow to the chest. I struggled for air again.
"Why did you leave your car?" he said, leaning forward. His brow furrowed, lines in his face that hadn't been there before, bags under his eyes. "You love that car. It's your dad's car."
"I don't fucking want it,” he snapped. I flinched, sending another wave over me, this time physical. "I just mean," he shook his head, took a breath, and when he let it out he met my eyes, neutral coolness the only discernible emotion. "It's your car, Frankie. It doesn't belong to me. It's a part of you."
"I wanted you to have something," I said, my voice weak. I wouldn't cry in front of Dekker. I couldn't. This whole thing would fall apart if I cried. "And it was the only thing I had to give."
"I can get my own car," he said. "It just reminds me..."
"It reminds me of things I'd much rather forget."
I swallowed thickly, nodding."Did you come here to return my car?" My voice wavered. Dangerously close to tears. I was so dizzy, so tired, but I would not fucking cry in front of Thomas Dekker.
"No," he said. "I need you."
My eyes widened. "What?"
"I mean, I need your help with something. It's right up your alley."
"I can't. Dekker, I...I can't."
"You'll change your mind when you hear about it. This isn't some stunt to get you back. Not that I ever had you. You were pretty clear about that."
"Yeah," I said, "I was."
"Fine," he said, anger seeping into his words. "Just listen. You think it's too much to ask you to listen?"
I closed my eyes again, emotion swelling in my chest. I couldn't do this. I couldn't be here looking at him. It hurt too much. "I'm listening," I said, wheezing again as I tried to catch my breath.
"Bodies," he said. "They're washing up on shore in a little town down the Oregon coast. Middle-class, people with clean backgrounds, professionals and well-to-do housewives, couple of small business owners. Every couple of days, someone washes up."
"That doesn't really sound–"
"I wasn't finished." I opened my eyes to see him, sitting on the edge of the chair, elbows on his knees. His gaze was intense.
"Okay," I said. "Go on."
"They're frozen. Solid. No indication of how they got that way. They were, nearly all of them, seen the day before by friends or family, and found dead before they could even file missing persons."
I frowned. He had my attention. "Frozen," I said. "Like before?"
"Covered in hoarfrost."
I remembered my hallucination, the frozen sea, hoarfrost crawling up the shore. And a sky made of fire...
"Do you think it was Cain?" I said.
"I don't know. But just before the corpse washes up, the sea freezes."
I stared at him. "What did you say?"
"Savage Bay doesn't normally freeze at all. It's cold, but it stays above freezing. But it turns to solid ice, all the fish float to the top when it's all over. And there's a body, frozen to the core, lips blue and eyes white and looking like something from a horror movie. They're still dressed, except..."
He looked uncomfortable. "Their hearts are gone."
"Still dressed. Frozen solid. A small, fist-sized hole in their clothes, and the hearts are just gone. Like someone reached in and took them."
"So the killer has a thing for hearts."
"It happened after they were frozen."
My pulse was still jumping, and I felt something. Not fear exactly, but something like a dark resolve. My chest definitely hurt now, and I wasn't so sure it had anything to do with Dekker being there. I couldn't breathe and the edges of my vision darkened.
"Was there fire?" I said weakly.
"In the sky? Or as a wave? Was there fire, Dekker?"
"No," he said frowning. "There wasn't any fire. Why would you ask that? Do you know something?"
I shook my head, trying to pull in air. "It's nothing. Just a dream I had," I rasped. I tried to suck air in hard, making a wet, gasping sound.
Dekker sat up straight. "Frankie?"
He was on the bed in seconds, lifting up my shirt, rolling me onto one side to look at my injuries. I tried to scream, but nothing but the damn wheeze came out.
"Jesus fuck, how are you still walking around? What happened?"
The words came out in hiss. "I was trying to die."
"So you let someone beat you to death?"
"He poisoned me first." I couldn't see through the tears of pain, the room was a dark blur. "I saved her, Dekker. I saved Mirabel." But I couldn't speak any more after that and everything went dark.
I tried to open my eyes, but it was as if time sped up while I stood in the same place. My dreams were scattered with visions of Dekker screaming into the phone. A man in an old 70s army jacket, dirt under his fingernails, holding up a syringe, blinking rapidly behind the greasy lenses of his glasses. Dekker holding my stomach, crooning at me to hold still. The prick of a needle in my arm, then the foggy sweetness of sleep. A voice saying, I can't give her that much, it'll kill her. Then a deeper, familiar voice: Trust me. You're not going to kill her.
The world lurched as I struggled to regain consciousness. I felt movement, the world sliding beneath me as I lay perfectly still.
Nausea swept over me as the pain in my ribs came to the surface, my throat raw and my lungs aching. I opened my eyes, a familiar smell all around me. I was clutching the dash of a car, my car, the Challenger. And when I looked over I saw that Dekker was driving. It was daytime, the hot autumn afternoon sun beating into the car, the smell of my father all around me.
"Dekker," I croaked.
"Morning, sunshine," he said, picking a styrofoam cup out of the console and handing it to me. "I took the liberty of getting you fixed up."
I reached for the cup, but recoiled in pain.
"Oh, right, an explanation. You had a rib sticking right into your lung. He had to cut you open a little."
"He?" I said.
"Yeah, this doctor." He reached over without taking his eyes off the road and slipped the full cup of coffee into my hand. "Well, he was a doctor once. I couldn't really take you to a hospital. I thought you'd appreciate that."
"You should have left me there," I said. I recalled my father's accusing voice: The devil's had his claws in you since the day you were born. I tried to breathe slowly through my nose, but my chest still hurt. I focused on the pain to distract me.
Dekker glanced over. "You'd really rather die than spend a few days with me?"
"It doesn't have anything to do with you." I took a sip of the lukewarm coffee, grimacing a bit at the taste, but happy for the moisture on my throat. I took a longer drink.
"You always have been a terrible liar," he said. I closed my eyes, opened them again, trying to get my bearings. The world was passing by all around us, too dizzyingly fast to comprehend. I felt too strange, too surreal. "What did you give me?"
"Something to stave off infection," he said. "And something for the pain."
"Where the hell are we?"
"Goddammit, Dekker," I said, my voice still fuzzy. I blinked hard, trying to make my eyes focus. I felt like I could just slip back into sleep. "I had shit to do. I paid for that room in advance."
"Yeah, that was two days ago."
"You must have been tired, Frank."
"Don't call me that."
"Why'd you leave?" The question was so abrupt, so sudden that it was a shock. I shook my head, trying to will the fuzziness out. "Before you're thinking clearly enough to lie, I want to know the truth. I know you, Frankie. Better than anyone else in the world, maybe. I know you and I'm willing to bet you did it for a reason. You love me, I know you do. And I told you I was obsessive. So before your mind is clear, I want you to tell me: Why did you leave?"
"I can't," I said, fighting the feeling of sick that was spreading from my stomach down my nerves, my skin sensitive and prickling, the world tilting.
"Tell me anyway."
I took a breath, feeling pain on one side of my rib cage. "Don't make me do this," I said, my vision going dark around the edges again. I was suddenly heavy, too heavy to keep afloat. I closed my eyes.
"Stay with me, Frankie," he said, reaching over and taking the coffee from my hand. "Just answer the question."
"I want to sleep."
"You can sleep after."
"I couldn't stay. I'm sorry," I slurred, my voice thick.
"Because of you," I said. The world was moving oddly again, consciousness failing me again. "Because they want you dead." I started falling then, slipping into sleep, but Dekker shook me.
"Who wants me dead? Frankie!" The car turned, slowing to a stop, the sound of gravel under tires as he pulled over. Dekker turned and I worked to focus on him.
"Thomas Dekker, that's what they said. And they won't shut up about it. They're always there, always." I squeezed my eyes shut. "You shouldn't have drugged me."
"If I hadn't, you'd be screaming in pain. Frankie, look at me." Dekker's voice was loud, even though he said it softly enough. But it resonated in my head in a way that cried out as clear as a bell. I blinked, trying to focus. You’ve done this, Frankie, my father had said. Just dreams, they weren't real. The fire wasn't real, none of it was. My father was rotting in the ground, and there was no fire.
"I don't want to," I said, my lip quivering. "It hurts."
"I know, baby, just one more question. Then you can go to sleep."
"I can't tell you anything. If I tell you, you'll want me to stay. You're supposed to hate me."
"I don't hate you. Well, maybe a little. I'm just mad at you."
"Because I left."
I felt his large hand encompass my smaller one. He was so warm. "I know. I was there when you woke up, remember? Who wants me dead? The wraiths told you that?"
"Abel wants me to kill you. I don't know why. Maybe to punish me. Maybe because the world is foul and mean and full of shit. And because I don't deserve you."
"Frankie, you have to know that's bullshit. You deserve better than me. You saved my life."
"You wouldn't be risking it if you hadn't chased me. You're going to die because of me."
"That's crazy, you can't know that."
"I had a dream," I said. "Everyone's going to die. Poof, in a cloud of smoke." But I was losing my train of thought, sliding from wakefulness.
"You can go to sleep now, Frankie." His voice was soft as he smoothed my hair away from my face. "Just for a little while, you don't have to worry about saving anyone but yourself."
"I can't save myself," I said, my voice far away. "I'm already gone."
I was almost asleep when I heard him say, "Not if I can fucking help it."
When I opened my eyes again, the car was no longer moving and I was alone. A motel stood in front of me, dove gray paint peeling. The sign said Traveler's Rest. Next to the motel was a pancake restaurant, the windows dark, with no sign but the one that said Open for breakfast only! A large picture of a pancake printed on a plastic banner flapped in the wet wind. I could see a fish restaurant on the other side of the pancake house, but couldn't make out the name.
I reached back to grab my leather jacket, which was lying across the back seat, gasping in pain as I moved. I pulled up my shirt to see that someone had wrapped a bandage tightly just under my breasts. Slowly, turning my body gently, I pulled the jacket from the back seat and eased it around my shoulders. I realized I was shivering, the sky the dark light of either early morning or dusk. It was hard to tell through all the clouds. The parking lot didn't tell me much, but I could smell a wetness in the air, a clean, misty smell that only came from the Pacific Northwest. And when I opened the car door, I could hear the crashing of the waves.
Stepping carefully out of the car, putting my arms through the sleeves of my coat, something on the dash caught my eye. A key with a magenta plastic tag, the number 201 in bold white lettering. I grabbed it, closing the car door, sucking breath through my teeth at the pain that radiated through me. I looked at the rickety wooden staircase set into the side of the motel with trepidation.
"This is bullshit," I said under my breath.
I made my way up the stairs, taking breaks to catch my breath every few steps, key grasped tightly in my hand. By the time I reached the top, the sky had started to darken. Dusk then, not morning. I had just put the key in the lock of 201 when the door of 202 opened.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty," said Dekker, leaning against the doorway. "Thought I'd let you rest." He watched me wrestle with the key.
"I could have been murdered," I said. "The car doors weren't even locked."
"Isn't that what you wanted?" There was something goading in his tone, an edginess that irritated me.
"Where the hell are we, anyway?"
"Never heard of it."
"It's not a bustling metropolis like Helmsville."
"Are you going to help me with this key, or are you just going to crack wise all day?"
He walked over and turned the key in the lock, grinning like an idiot. "I got us separate rooms," he said, standing too close. I could feel the heat coming off him. I couldn't help but flash on the memory of him pinning me against a wall in Helmsville, our mouths covering our own cries...
"Fine, great," I said curtly. "Look, I just need to get these bandages off. I don't know who did this to me, but you're not supposed to bind broken ribs any more. It causes complications."
"Didn't know you were an expert."
"I have experience," I said. "Can I go in now?" He was leaning toward me, his eyes too intense, too dark, the heat of him almost overwhelming. I felt dizzy from the aftereffects of the drugs, and he wasn't helping.
"Get some sleep," he said. "We have to be up bright and early."
"To go to work, of course. We're not a couple of drifters any more, Frankie. We're upstanding citizens."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Oh, and if anyone asks, your name is Dolores Peck."
"Dolores Peck?" I blinked stupidly at him, his smug grin pissing me off. "Can you please tell me what the hell is going on?"
"You'll see," he said, standing up straight and smiling wider. "Bright and early. That means no wandering around."
"What are you, my mother?"
"Jesus, I hope not. Your mother was horrible."
It was like a slap. But Dekker was already in his room and the door swung shut, the porch shuddering. I pushed open 201 and slammed it behind me, satisfied that the entire building seemed to shake. Maybe it would topple over and I wouldn't have to look at Dekker's smarmy face ever again.
I clicked the light switch, the bulb flickering before filling the room with a garish light. Walking to the large window, I opened the heavy drapes and froze for a moment. We were right on the bay, a low roof in front of the window not obscuring the miraculous view beyond. A cold beach lay below, scattered with driftwood and boulders. A family was drinking out of mugs and had a small fire going in the distance, but it looked as small as a matchstick from where I stood. Waves crashed down, the tide coming up in sudsy, white-tipped bursts onto the sand.
I swallowed hard. Before a week ago, I'd never been to the ocean. I'd been near it once when I was still the Vigilante Killer, but at that time I'd been more concerned with staying hidden than swimming. I had to admit, the view was not unpleasant, but the hallucination on Jason Halloran's beach nagged at me. The wave of fire, setting even the clouds aflame, the water freezing, it had been so vivid. And then Dekker telling me the ocean was freezing in real life, in the real world, in this very town, it all seemed too coincidental to be a fluke. I looked up at the sky and expected it to brighten into a giant plume of flame, but it stayed as sullen and gloomy as I felt.
I closed the curtains, holding my side to turn and look at the room. It was shabby and smelled of mildew, but it wasn't bad. TV, microwave, mini-fridge, and a nice, big bed. I walked over to inspect a heap of something dark on top of the bedspread. I picked up the hanger and realized it was a black pantsuit. I touched the polyester fabric, feeling the unpleasantness of it. A plastic shopping bag lay underneath and I hung the suit up to inspect the items. I pulled out a white button-up shirt, a clearance tag still attached. A package of unflattering underwear, a few bras. At least Dekker realized I needed clothes, but I wasn't sure why he'd gotten the pantsuit. Looking down at my bare feet, I regretted leaving my boots at Jason Halloran's house. My muddy and ripped jeans and shredded shirt were covered in old blood which, to Dekker's credit, looked like someone had tried to wash. Some things don't wash out, though.
I'm going to stay on your skin…
My mother. I was aware that I was going completely insane, the apocalyptic dreams, the hallucinations. But my mother, it was still a shock to see her, even if I knew she wasn't real. I was just a little girl when my mom and sister changed, and it was only a few months ago that I found out why. The thing I'd killed, by that frozen lake in Montana, was not my mother. It was something else, a monster wearing her face. The thought of that thing, that aberration, staying on my skin made me sick to my stomach.
I shook my head, returning to the task at hand. I pulled out an ugly pair of tan loafers from the bag, dropping them on the bed. There was one more item left and I pulled it out, my heart beating fast as I felt it. I dropped the empty bag.
"Dekker, what are you doing?"
It was leather, but I knew what was inside, should I dare to flip it open. I set it on the bed and looked at it. After a moment, I reached down and opened it fast, as if it were a poisonous snake. It was a badge. I picked it up. A picture of someone who looked vaguely like me was on one side, an official ID card. There was a gold badge on the other side. I picked it up to look at it.
The letters were unmistakable on both the badge and the ID. Three large letters, one set in blue, the other in black. Both sent a wave of dread spiraling through me.
J.L. Murray is the bestselling author of the Niki Slobodian series, After the Fire, and Jenny Undead.