I've been hard at work on Jenny Undead, and a lot of fans have expressed concerns that I'm diverging from urban fantasy to write a zombie book. One fan said, "I really dislike any genre that's so gory, but I guess since it's you that's writing it I'll just have to trust you." Another said, "Zombies? No thanks."
All this genre criticism really bothered me to tell the truth. But today (with a little help from my friend Nick) I realized the problem. We were seeing this in different ways. People were expecting me to write a formulaic people versus zombies shoot-em-out with nauseating amounts of gore. And me? I just had all these characters in my head, and they just happened to be in a post-apocalyptic world where there happened to be zombies.
So picture this: there's this girl. Jenny is her name. She ran away from home as a teenager and was living on the streets when a group of anarchists found her. Well, one anarchist, really. His name is Declan Munro, but his friends call him Munro. Jenny calls him Declan. Jenny and Declan have been happier than most during this so-called apocalypse. They and their friends have been using the downfall of humanity to blow up government buildings. Because they're quite sure that people will try to start up civilization again once the zombies die out. It's just that the zombies are taking their sweet-ass time.
So now you have the setup. Jenny is also searching for her brother, Casey, who she left with her mother when she ran away years ago. She's heard through the grapevine that he's still alive. But then Jenny gets bitten. And her life is over. Or is it? She wakes up a few days later with all the attributes of a zombie, except her mind is still intact. And there are others like her, including Casey, her long lost brother. They're called The Thirteen, because that's how many of them there were left alive after Jenny's scientist mother experimented on them when she was a teenager. And with Jenny and Casey, they've now found five of the thirteen originals. And they think they might just be the cure...
But, see, I had an image in my head when I became interested in writing this book. You have this guy that's completely in love with this girl. They're anarchists, but it hardly matters. Everyone falls in love at some point in their lives. Except, when Jenny is bitten, Declan knows she has to die. When she disappears before she turns zombie, he just assumes she's gone. He's devastated and goes a little mad. And then you have the scene that I have stuck in my head on repeat. The first time Declan sees Jenny after she "turns." It's bad enough seeing the woman you love after she's forcefully changed into a mindless drone. But there's this moment, this crystal-clear moment. Jenny speaks to him. It doesn't matter what she says, because zombies aren't supposed to be able to speak. Jenny assumes he's going to try to kill her, so she runs away, and Declan is left standing there, his whole world suddenly blowing apart. He can't even talk he's so shocked. Obviously he follows her.
This is not a romance. This is not a normal emotionless zombie book. This is not a post-apocalyptic punk rock dream world. Except when it is one of these things. And also, when it's all of these things. There are religious cults, there is violence and cursing and explosions, there is fear and revulsion and breathless despair, and there is love. And I'm hoping people will like these gritty characters as much as I do. They've been knocking around in my head for a while now, and it will be something of a relief to finally let them out.
I'm planning on writing all three books one after the other, so the entire trilogy should be available as quickly as I can write them. I hope fans of the Niki Slobodian series will give Jenny a chance. But if they don't, that's cool too. The Thirteen won't be a series for everyone. But I'm still tingling with
This is the first four chapters of Niki Slobodian: Book 4. If you haven't read the first three books, this will definitely contain spoilers. You've been warned. You can purchase the entire book for 2.99 here. Hope you like it!
“He spake well who said that graves are the footprints of angels.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“How'd you find me?” I said without turning.
I knew who he was without looking. We had never met and we had never spoken. But the moment I heard the squeal of the door's hinges, I knew who it was. My father. My real father. Pineme. I finished my drink and set the glass carefully on the bar. He sat down beside me.
“The Deep Blue Sea is supposed to be hidden,” I said.
“This place?” he said. His voice was low and soft. Almost gentle. “Wasn't hard. You're my blood. And I can see through magic, especially angel magic. Even if I couldn't, I'd be able to find you anywhere. You're loud. Even in this chaotic world I can hear you.”
I finally turned my head slowly to look at him. He was disheveled, but in an endearing way. His dark hair was gray at the temples and had been pulled back into a messy ponytail. He wore rumpled khakis and a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt. He looked like a middle-aged tourist on vacation in the wrong hemisphere. And he had dark eyes. Angel eyes. Like mine. Like Sam's.
Thunder shook the walls. It had been raining all summer in the city. I swallowed thickly and reached for the bottle, pouring myself another and sloshing whiskey on the bar. “What do you mean I'm loud?” I said, trying to distract myself.
He was watching me. “It's hard to explain,” he said.
He frowned. “It's a bit like your soul is screaming.”
I snorted and took a drink. “I'm sure it is.”
“This isn't going to bring him back,” said Pineme.
“I know you're my father, but stop pretending that you know me,” I said. I glared at him. “You left us. Right after you shoved some unnatural god-power into me while I was in the womb. My mother died because of you.”
“If I hadn't left, you both would have died, and much sooner.” There was an odd emptiness to his voice. “I have been trapped in the void since I left her. Since I left both of you. I had no idea they would find her. And you're right. It is my fault. It will haunt me for the rest of my life, as Samael's unmaking will haunt you. The guilt is killing you now, is it not?”
“Don't say his name,” I said, my voice falling to a dangerous whisper. “Don't even speak of him.”
“He'll never leave you. He's part of you now. I can feel him.”
“That's creepy,” I said. I eyed him. “Why are you old? I thought angels didn't age.”
“We age,” he said. “Very slowly, but we do grow older. My time in the Unsung made me old before my time, though. Thirty years in your world, but in the void it was an eternity.”
“Seemed like an eternity here, too,” I said. I finished the drink and reached to pour another, but Pineme held the bottle. I looked at him, irritated.
“Why are you here?” he said. “This place. Does it give you comfort? Because it was his?”
“Nothing gives me comfort,” I said. “Everyone I know is dead or dying. Everyone but Bobby Gage, and he won't return my damn phone calls.”
“You are Death now,” he said. “You will live for a very long time. Everyone you know will die.” His face softened. “I know this burden, and it is a painful one.”
“Peachy. You're just a burst of sunshine.”
“I know it's little comfort right now, but you have me,” he said. “I can help, if you'll let me.”
“I'll keep that in mind,” I said.
Pineme stood up, his movements a blur. Goddamn angels. He looked at me sadly for a moment, and I thought he would reach in for an awkward hug, but instead he just turned around and walked across the bar and out the door.
I sat there in the silence, a bitter taste in my mouth. I pushed the empty glass away and it slid off the bar and shattered on the floor. The alcohol really didn't do as much for me anymore, not since Sam brought me back from the dead. But it dulled the sensation that I had been feeling day and night for over three months now. It was a pulling in my chest, but it was also an ache. It was anxiety and frustration and confusion all rolled up into a tight little gut-busting package. It came with my job now: Ushering the lost souls over to where they were supposed to be. When they didn't go, or they fought it, or they didn't cross over out of sheer spite or hatred or anger, I could feel it. It was like a damn dagger in my chest, and the only way to pull it out was to go to them. To tell them to cross over. Sometimes they needed a little push. Even if I just wanted to let them be, give them time to figure things out on their own, I couldn't. It hurt me when they didn't go. I could only feel that the world was not right, and that it was because they were not right.
I remembered how exhausted Sam was at the end, when souls weren't crossing over. I couldn't imagine the constant pain and discomfort he must have felt. Michael had closed the way to Sheol, the resting place of the dead, and there had been thousands of spirits walking around in the end. Sam never complained. Not even once. Granted, he'd been doing this job for a few thousand years more than me, but he also was forced to appear as a nightmare whenever he was in the world. That appearance had been part of his agreement with Michael. I was at least allowed to look like myself, though I usually chose to remain invisible to the living. I had learned some tricks over the past months.
Three months. That was how long it had been. Three months of grief. Three months of loneliness. Three months of guilt. But mostly guilt. I spent every day blaming myself, going over everything that happened, as if obsessing about it could change it from being my fault. But it was pointless. It was my fault that Michael started a war. My fault that Sasha had died. My fault that Sam sacrificed himself to clean up what I had almost destroyed.
The numb bliss that the alcohol brought was fading fast. I could feel the pull again. This time I let it take me. If only to stop feeling sorry for myself. Pineme was right. It served no purpose.
I looked around when my feet were on solid ground. I was on a narrow street wet with rain. The street sign was inscribed with strange symbols, Russian maybe. Whatever they were, I couldn't read them. The pull was irresistible now that I was so close. I walked toward the source: a quaint little house on the corner. I could see by the streetlights that it had tidy white shutters. The house was dark, but the door was open. That wasn't a good sign.
I walked in and the smell of blood hit me right away. I'd grown used to it, but it always made me feel a little sick. I'd seen far too much of it lately. I didn't know if it was the riots spreading across the globe to protest New Government, or maybe just the tension of a regime on its last legs, but it seemed that all the people had gone crazy. I'd seen three families slaughtered in the last week alone, families that lived thousands of miles apart. I looked around the room at the carnage and closed my eyes for a moment. Make that four.
The small room was covered in blood and gore. The smell of burning skin and hair hung thick and greasy in the air. I looked over at the small fireplace, still glowing with embers, and saw why. What was left of a person's head, lying half in the grate, burned and bubbled into charred blackness. It had been a man once. I saw the rest of his body crumpled against the wall. Even half-burnt, I could see that his face had been brutally smashed .
I made my way to the narrow staircase, the steps creaking ruefully as I went. I could hear the sound of a woman crying. Noting the framed photographs as I went up the stairs I groaned. Happy family pictures. Three children, rosy-cheeked and dark-haired, at the beach, with a picnic blanket spread on the grass, laughing in the snow. There were so many pictures, all crowding for space in the scant amount of wall. I knew the spirit would be the mother. It was always the mother.
I reached the top of the stairs and followed the sobbing. I could feel her in my chest. Even if she'd been completely silent, I could have tracked her from the blood on the doorknob. It had dried, turning reddish brown and flaking away when I touched it. A matching bootprint stained the thin carpet in the hallway. I braced myself before I entered. I understood why some of the angels hated humans. After mere months of working as Death, I almost hated them too.
But when I opened the door and saw a wisp of a woman crumpled on the floor next to her dead children, I knew I didn't hate all humans. Just the shitty ones. Just the ones who were capable of things like this.
Four bodies filled the tiny room. Three small ones, and a woman's body that looked like she had been killed trying to protect the others. All of their faces had been smashed into pulp. There was so much blood that it pooled above the carpet. The woman's ghost was rocking back and forth. She was whispering to herself, sounding half-mad in a language I didn't understand. I crouched next to her, my boots sloshing in the thick wetness. I tried not to look at the kids, but I could see a pink hair ribbon out of the corner of my eye. I looked down to see it attached to a dark braid. It had been ripped out. I swallowed a gag.
Taking a breath and trying to ignore the warm coppery smell that filled my mouth and nose, I looked to the woman's ghost.
“I'm so sorry,” I said. “It shouldn't have to end this way. Not for anyone.”
She looked at me, startled. Realization filled her eyes. They always knew me. I didn't need a death-mask for them to know who I was. She shook her head and words tumbled rapidly from her mouth, so fast I couldn't even make out the syllables. Then she closed her eyes and started whispering again. I realized she was praying. It would be a relief for her. She would never forget any of this, but at least I could bring her some small amount of peace.
I reached out my hand and touched her lightly on the shoulder. She was still praying as she went, becoming a series of whirlwinds that would be invisible to any human but me. I closed my eyes at the thought. I wasn't human anymore. I was as far from human as it was possible to be. I was Death.
I had some catching up to do after my little respite of whiskey at the Deep Blue Sea. A pair of teenage kids who looked like brother and sister crashed their SUV into a tree. Their dead bodies reeked of alcohol. The girl's ghost just shook her head at me, uncomprehending.
“Is that it?” said the boy in a panicky voice. “Is that all we get?”
“I'm sorry,” I said. “No one gets a do-over.” Except for me. But I couldn't tell him that.
“Shit,” he said.
An old man in a stone cottage stared vacantly at an old woman asleep in a rocking chair. His body slumped, not yet discovered, next to a coal-burning stove. He reached out to touch the woman's wispy white hair that fell down her shoulders. He looked up at me when I came in.
“Who will care for my Maggie?” he said, in a gravelly brogue. “She'll die without me.”
“You'll soon be together again,” I said gently. That seemed to give him comfort and he almost smiled as he crossed over.
The feeling was starting to dissipate. The pain was receding with each soul that I helped. I was nearly done for the night, I could feel it. It would be nice to tumble into bed and get at least a few minutes' sleep before the feeling started again. The pain. The pull that haunted me like a knife in the back that I couldn't quite reach.
A man with ebony skin in a ramshackle church pleaded with me in his language. His body lay behind the pulpit with bullet holes peppering his suit. All I could ever say was, “I'm sorry.” It seemed so insubstantial, yet it was the only thing I could say. And sometimes it was enough. Some spirits just needed to hear someone else comment on the unfairness of what had happened to them. And if it wasn't enough, at least I could let them sleep with a touch. But each one left me more and more drained. It wasn't physical, from what I could tell. It was as if I could feel each death as my own. Each death was personal. I didn't want it to be, but I couldn't do it any other way.
At last, I found myself at the final stop for the night. One more soul and then sleep. It was a hospital. I'd been to so many hospitals over the past weeks that they all started to look the same to me. But there was something about this one. Something familiar.
I walked along, feeling the pull urging me forward. I recognized a heavy nurse in scrubs, but I couldn't remember exactly how I knew her. She had ducked into an darkened hallway and was leaning against the wall. She had her fingers pressed against her sinuses, like she was trying not to cry. She looked towards me suddenly, startled, but looked right through me. She couldn't see me, but she probably sensed me. And then I recognized this hospital as the one near my neighborhood. Where Sofi's nurse worked. Where Sofi was.
I felt my heart beating a rhythm in the back of my skull. I looked in the direction I was being pulled. Down the wide hall a man stood silhouetted against the window, slouching, his belly sticking out. He ran a hand through his hair. Even at this distance, I knew he was balding, with a goatee and red hair going gray. Lou Craig. I walked slowly, so slowly that the pressure was almost too much. Like my heart was being ripped out.
A larger man came from the other direction and joined Lou. He put a comforting hand on the shorter, heavier man's shoulder. I saw Lou shake his head.
“Bobby?” I said under my breath. I could hear the rumbles of their voices, and if it was possible to stop right there I would have. Anything not to hear, anything not to know. But the pulling didn't give me a choice. I was too close now.
Sofi never woke up. The doctors said it was the cancer, but the doctors didn't know that Michael put the world to sleep to fight his stupid war. Bobby Gage moved my godmother out of the city with magic, moved her whole apartment to keep her safe, and after Michael was killed and the war ended, Bobby moved the building back, too, just as if it had never budged. Not a single crack in the foundation. But it didn't really matter whether it was Bobby's casting, Michael's magic, or the disease that kept her asleep. I didn't care, I just wanted her back. She was my baba, the woman who had raised me. She was the reason I kept returning to humanity, the reason I kept living. Sofi was the person that kept me human. I couldn't think of life without her.
I was close enough to hear the men talking now, I could make out their words.
“...couldn't get a hold of her. She's not answering her phone. I've tried about a dozen times. I didn't know who else to call.” Lou's face was pale with patches of bright pink on his cheeks and nose. He shook his head. “The docs worked on her for over an hour. There was nothing they could do. They said her body just gave out.”
“You did good, Lou,” said Bobby, his voice a deep rumble. He had a full beard now and his hair, usually messy and flopping around his ears, had grown past his collar. He pushed it off his forehead. He had a big bruise on his forehead. His army surplus jacket, which could have doubled as a tent for a normal-sized person, was ripped at one shoulder. His eyes were bruised and puffy, as if he hadn't slept in days. “I'll take you home, okay? Your daughter probably misses you.”
Lou nodded emptily. He looked back toward the room behind him and shook his head sadly. “This is going to kill her, you know. That lady meant the world to her. She was the only family Niki had left.”
Bobby nodded solemnly. “Guess we'll have to be her family now.” He looked quickly toward me, searching the air around me. After a moment he turned back to Lou. “Let's go. Nothing else to do here.”
I watched them go, Bobby patting Craig on the back gently as they went. When they turned a corner and I couldn't see them anymore, I turned shakily toward the room. The door was open and I could see her in the bed, the pale green blanket tucked neatly around her. I took a step toward the doorway and saw the blanket covering her head too. Maybe it wasn't Sofi under there. Maybe they made a mistake.
But as I took the last slow step through the door, I saw her spirit, sitting in an ugly pink padded chair, waiting for me. “No,” I said, the word catching in my throat. “No, Sofi. Not you.”
“I knew it would be you, Nikita. It broke my heart to know, but it was always going to be you. I dreamed of you being the one to come for me. So long ago I had that dream. I had wondered if it was a vision. Now I know it was true.”
I couldn't go to her. I couldn't touch her or she would disappear in front of my eyes. And I wasn't ready. I stepped away from her, backing into the wall and letting myself slide to the floor. I stayed there, the cold tile seeping through my jeans and making my skin cold. I hugged my knees as I had done as a child.
“I have so much to tell you,” I said. “There's so much for us to talk about. I'm not ready for you to go.” My voice was barely above a whisper.
“You?” she said. “Not ready? I hardly believe my ears. Just look at you. Angel eyes. Brought back from the dead. Taking over for Death. Don't look surprised, I have seen it all. Did you think the visions would stop just because I was asleep?” She clucked her tongue. “You can handle anything, Nikita. You always could.” She smiled sadly. “Such a strong girl. But sometimes you make yourself fragile, I think.” The smile disappeared and her face fell. I thought maybe she would cry. But she didn't. She wrung her hands. “Please promise that you won't let this break you.”
“I don't think I can take any more,” I said. “All this death. So much death.” I felt my lip tremble. “Please. Just stay with me a little longer.”
“You know that's not possible, Niki.” She leaned forward. “I was just so tired. Tired of fighting this disease, tired of living in this old body. I just wanted to rest. Do you understand that?”
“Yes,” I said. “That's what I want to do, too. We can go together.”
She shook her head. “No. You won't be resting for a very long time.”
I felt a sharp tingle behind my eyes. “Sofi, don't leave me. Please. It's too much.”
She smiled gently. “You will get by. You always do.” The smile faded and she shook her head. “I'm so sorry you were born into this. You really never had a chance for a normal life. I tried to give one to you anyway. It just never did take.”
“It's not your fault,” I said.
“No,” she sighed. “It's no one's fault. Everyone did what they thought was right. Your father thought it was right to give you the Creator's power. Your mother thought it was right to die to save you. Poor Sasha thought it was right to bring you to me. And I thought it was right to love you. And I will always love you, dear girl. Always.”
“How do you know all this?” I said.
“I have seen so much in the past months,” she said. “Now stand up. Be the woman I raised you to be. You are strong enough, I know you are. You have to let me go. You are the only thing holding me back. You won't break, Nikita. But you have to allow yourself to bend.”
The pull in my chest was unbearable as I slowly stood, my legs wobbly and my throat tight. “I love you, Sofi,” I said.
“I know.” She stood from the chair and held out her arms. I went to her and put my arms around her one last time. And then she was gone. No sign that her spirit had ever been there. All that was left of Sofi was the empty shell lying covered on the bed. I let out a breath in a shuddering gasp. She was really gone. Never coming back.
I was alone.
I couldn't go home. It had been Sofi's home too. We had shared a life for so long that it felt wrong for the world to continue on without her in it. I let myself be pulled back to the Deep Blue Sea. It seemed like days since leaving, but it had been only a few hours.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I realized I wasn't alone. I wanted so much to be alone right now. I was numb and cold at the same time. I remembered how it felt to be a ghost when I died, before Sam brought me back. There wasn't much of a difference. Grief and death were inseparable.
Someone caught my arm and I looked up to see Lucifer looking worried. It was hard for me to look at him. He and Sam looked so much alike, except that he had golden hair where Sam's had been dark, and he was taller and wider than Sam. I looked away from his face and let him lead me to a chair, too weak to resist.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I said limply. “You just show up when people die?”
“It's been suggested to me that I don't have the best timing,” he said, sitting across from me. “I'm sorry about your godmother. I understand she was very special to you.”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice a ragged whisper. “How'd you know she died?”
“I didn't,” he said, “until I came here. I searched for you and felt your grief.”
“Searched for me? Like Sam?” Sam and his brothers had been able to feel where each of them were. It was some kind of angel connection that they all had.
“Just like that,” he said. “You have been dealt a great amount of sorrow of late.” He was frowning. “I'm not quite sure what to say to comfort you.”
“I'm guessing comfort isn't your area of expertise.”
He smiled weakly. “No. It isn't.”
“Is that why you're here? To comfort me?” He shifted in his chair awkwardly. “Spit it out,” I said, my voice quiet. I couldn't gather the energy for anything more.
“I came to ask for your help,” he said. “But I didn't realize what had happened until I arrived. I really am so very sorry.”
“My help?” I asked, weakly.
“It can wait,” he said. “I apologize.”
“Look,” I said, finally meeting his eyes. It was like a sucker punch looking into those eyes, but at least it distracted me from the cold, numb feeling in my guts. “Just tell me what the hell you want.”
He sighed, but nodded after a moment. “Erebos is in trouble. I hoped you would come with me and speak to the lords.”
“Come to Erebos?” I said, surprised. “What could I do that you can't?”
“You are Death,” he said. “Even the lords of Hell appreciate that. Erebos is in chaos. The lords fight amongst themselves. A rebel Outsider group has been killing everyone they can, and if it isn't stopped, there's going to be another war.”
“Outsiders?” I said. “You mean demon Abbies?”
“Yes, the equivalent to your so-called Abnormals.”
“I thought the Creator restored the balance,” I said.
“Balance has been restored,” said Lucifer. “As far as I know there have been no Outsider children born in the city. But that doesn't mean the Outsiders outside the city have disappeared. And it hasn't stopped them from having children with each other.”
“You talk about them like they're animals,” I said.
“No, you misunderstand me,” said Lucifer. “I want to help them. But I cannot help anyone when I cannot even get the lords to support me. They refuse to accept me.”
“Can't imagine why,” I said. “It's not like the angels have given the demons a reason to hate them or anything...”
“I recognize sarcasm, you know,” he said.
“Why do you think you can do any better?”
“I can unify the lords,” he said. “Stop the fighting, stop the killing. Families are dying for no reason.”
I flashed on the family I had seen earlier, faces smashed like pumpkins. I felt nauseous.
“Politics,” I said. “I don't have time for this.”
“I've come at the wrong time,” he said. “I'm sorry.” He stood. “Just think on it. Please. You are always welcome.” He reached out and grasped my hand. For one insane moment I had the urge to go to him. To put my arms around him. To tell him everything. Just the contact made me want to close my eyes and never let go. I couldn't remember the last time someone had touched me. I pulled my hand away.
“I'll keep that in mind,” I said. I heard a car outside, its tires crunching the gravel. Its engine cut out.
He moved to the center of the room. “Just one thing, before I go. Do you know why Samael used to come to Erebos so often?”
“Because he could forget. He couldn't feel the world when he came below. Couldn't feel the dead. It gave him comfort. Just think on it.”
He made a motion with his hand and I felt an inaudible rip in the air. Black fog crept in my vision and into my head, then with a pop it was gone. And so was Lucifer.
The door squealed open as Bobby Gage pushed through and into the bar. I looked up and met his eyes. His face was worn and pale. He looked even more tired than when I had seen him, minutes ago, in the hospital.
“Been looking for you, Niki,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
He frowned and nodded, then sat down next to me. “I'm sorry, sis. She just couldn't hold on any longer.”
“I know,” I said again, but this time thickly. My vision clouded.
“You were there?” he said. “You saw her?” I nodded. He was looking at me with a worried expression. I wondered vaguely where the hell he had been the last few weeks, but the grief was starting to wash over me. The numb coldness in my guts was suddenly flooding over with it. I bit the inside of my cheeks to fight it off, but it was no use.
I collapsed against Bobby Gage's big chest and sobbed. After a moment he put comforting arms around me and didn't say a word as I cried for a very long time.
Karen, Sofi's niece, told me on the phone that she wanted to handle all the arrangements. I didn't argue. I had no desire to organize the funeral. Sofi hadn't even wanted a funeral. I told her to call me if she needed anything.
The next few days were bleak and cold. The rain seemed to be almost everywhere. When I was pulled somewhere warm, it didn't seem real. I couldn't even remember what the sun felt like in the city. I was pulled to a place that looked like the French countryside. A watery sun shone through black clouds; a moment of brightness in a bleak landscape. There was no warmth in it, but I could almost imagine the feel of a real summer. Inside, a man sobbed over his wife's body. His own body lay not far from hers. Their faces had been smashed.
“Who did this?” I said. He looked at me blankly and answered in French. I sighed. I really had to learn more languages. “I'm sorry,” I said as I touched him. He faded to nothing, swirls filling the space where his ghost had been a moment ago, then they, too, disappeared. I frowned down at the bodies. They were hard to look at, but I made myself stare. These deaths were so similar, but they couldn't all be the work of one person. How could one person manage to kill people across the world from each other? And why? Maybe it was all a coincidence, maybe I was seeing similarities where none existed. Still, something about these killings nagged at the back of my mind.
That night I was pulled to a dusty village in the desert. This time a man and four children were killed, their faces bashed in like all the others. I touched a tall man dressed in white and looking lost and he disappeared. I crouched down over a little boy's body. I had cried myself out the day before, and afterward the numb, cold feeling had returned to my insides. It felt even colder as I looked at the boy's tiny hand, still clutching a small toy. There was no sense in all this death, all this violence. I had been human such a short time ago, but I had never been able to understand killing just to kill. It was barbaric. Sub-human, even. And it was starting to get to me.
A hiker with long hair and a beard fell off a cliff and was sitting near his body in a rainy forest. A woman in her fifties drowned while swimming near a rainy, humid beach lined with palm trees. A Latina woman in the city carrying groceries across the street was hit by a car. The driver and the car were gone by the time I got there. I never saw suicides. I figured that was because they were ready to go. I saw teenagers, but no one younger. I rarely saw the elderly, and when I did it was because someone they loved was left behind. Most of the people who had trouble passing on were those who died quickly and unexpectedly. And sometimes brutally.
I had to go to Sofi's funeral, so the last soul I helped that morning was another man with his face bashed in. He was in his thirties in a small house on a quiet street. It was mid-morning somewhere and the rain pattered gently against his window pane. He seemed to be alone. There was just the one body.
“Who did this?” I said.
He shook his head. “I wish I knew,” he said, his accent British. “I didn't know him. He just came in and killed me. I never even saw him. One second I was making eggs, and the next I was dead. Why would he do that? I've never done anything to anyone.”
“You're sure you didn't know him?”
“I told you, I never even saw him. By the time I...came to, he was gone.” he said. “I work with disadvantaged youth, for Christ's sake. Why?”
I didn't have an answer. “I'm sorry,” I said.
“That's not enough,” he said.
I nodded. “I know.” I touched him gently and he was gone. I looked down at the body. Just like the others, only this one was alone. He didn't have a family. “What the hell is going on?” I said aloud. The mutilated body didn't answer.
I didn't dress up for the funeral. I was mostly wearing black, anyway, so it didn't much matter. I just zipped my black leather coat over my wrinkled button-up shirt. The black had been an accident. The first pair of jeans I had grabbed the day before had happened to be black, and I always wore black boots. The leather jacket had been Sasha's. It was too big on me, but it made me feel better to wear it, as if he were still with me in a way. It was probably the closest I had ever felt to him.
I smoothed my hair as I walked through the doors of the funeral home chapel. The place was already packed, people filling up the polished wooden pews that filled the dank room. It had a clammy smell of mildew, mothballs, and furniture polish. The coffin in the front of the room was surrounded by flowers. I found the whole thing damn creepy. Like dead body worship. I saw Karen turn and glower at me. Remembering my eyes I reached into my pocket and pulled out my sunglasses before I got close enough for anyone to see.
As I walked down the aisle between the rows of benches, faces turned to look at me. Familiar faces. Yuri was sitting in the back and he made a motion with his hands, putting his fist in front of him, then covering it with his other hand. A sign of respect. He nodded at me. Two rows were filled with greasy-looking men with cold eyes. Each one nodded at me. Yuri's boys, I assumed. Many of them wore the same black leather that I wore now.
Yuri had worked for my father – or the man I'd thought of as my father – back before Sasha had been arrested for magic...among other things. Afterward, Yuri had worked for Naz, Sasha's right-hand man. He had sworn loyalty to me, and wanted me to lead his men doing...whatever it was that he did. After the war, Yuri came to see me. He could tell I had changed. When I told him I couldn't be a part of his organization, he had accepted graciously, looking a little afraid of me. I told him I would be around if he ever needed my help.
Lou Craig raised a hand in greeting. He sat with a pretty blonde girl who looked to be around 12 years old. His daughter, I assumed. She looked at me curiously. A pretty brunette sitting beside Craig also looked up at me and smiled. Olivia Bradley, the widow of former Congressman Frank Bradley. I had investigated his death and saved her life. I tried to smile back at her, but it felt more like a grimace. Lou must have told her about Sofi. A girl that looked to be around fourteen stared back at me from beside Olivia. Her daughter Piper, I assumed. I had never met the girl.
I saw a small group of people from the neighborhood. Our landlord, a few neighbors. They chattered amongst themselves in Russian.
A man I didn't know bowed his head to me. He was wearing a fedora and a suit that looked like something an old man might wear. His face looked young, though his eyes were shadowed by his hat, which was pulled low. Oddly, a gleeful smile spread across his face, revealing slightly yellowed teeth. I looked away from him.
I sat down next to Karen, who appraised me.
“Glad to see you dressed up,” she said sarcastically. “Rough night?”
“You could say that,” I said.
I felt someone sit down on the other side of me and looked to see Yuri, who leaned in to whisper to me. “Slobodian,” he said in greeting.
“Thanks for coming,” I said. “Sasha would have been pleased.”
“Is nothing,” he said. “Why this?” He waved a hand toward the flowers and the coffin. “Is not Ukrainian.”
“This wasn't my idea,” I said. “I'm not blood, so I didn't have a say.”
He looked around me at Karen. She was pointedly not looking at us. “Is not right,” he said. “She was an honorable woman. This is New Government bullshit.”
I shrugged. “Takes all kinds, I guess.” I didn't tell him that Sofi didn't follow any religion, and thought funerals were silly, no matter their origin. One funeral was just as good as the other.
“This is not the place,” said Yuri, lowering his voice and leaning in further. “But we plan something. Something big. You want in?”
“This is Sofi's funeral,” I said.
“We will talk later,” he said. “New Government is going to pay, Slobodian. They cannot do this shit anymore.” He waved towards the casket at the front of the room.
“Sofi isn't dead because of New Government,” I said.
“Maybe not,” said Yuri. “But her life would have been better without it, yeah?” I didn't answer. “You know how to find me, Slobodian. We bring them down.”
“ I'm sorry,” I said. “I have too much right now, Yuri.”
He shrugged. “Always room for you.” He turned to go back to his seat.
“Yuri,” I said. He turned. “I hope you bring the bastards to their knees.”
He grinned. “That is the only way I like to do business. Take care, Slobodian.”
“Friend of yours?” Karen said after Yuri had left.
“Don't get all snotty with me,” I said. “If it wasn't for Yuri, both you and Sofi would have died months ago.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it. The door banged shut as someone else straggled in. I turned to see who it was and was relieved to see Gage standing there in the back of the room, blinking in the muted lighting of the dank room. Something was wrong. He looked even more beat up than before and he moved gingerly, holding his left arm with his right hand. He had a dark purple bruise around his eye and his lower lip had been split.
Gage's eyes spotted me and began to limp towards me, but stopped, his eyes somewhere behind me. I looked to see who he was looking at, and saw the back of the guy wearing the fedora. The weird guy that had smiled at me when I had come into the chapel. I looked back at Gage. His face was livid, his eyes wide. He was spluttering and looked about to explode.
I jumped up and into the aisle.
“You son of a bitch!” Gage screamed, in a voice that barely sounded human. His voice echoed in the silent chapel. Every face was turned to him. He was shaking. He started to charge up the aisle, but Yuri blocked him at once, speaking low, his body language threatening. Gage stopped, but not because of Yuri. He was looking over the crowd again, his eyes flickering manically. “Where the hell did he go?” Gage said. “Where is he?” Tears streamed down his face and he put a fist to his mouth, as if trying to hold something in. I hurried down the aisle and nodded to Yuri that it was all right.
“Come on, Bobby,” I said. “Let's go get some air. This is Sofi's funeral.”
Gage looked at me through clouded eyes. “I can't,” he murmured. “I can't ask you.” He looked at the room as if seeing the people for the first time and looked back at me. “Jesus, Niki, I'm sorry. I shouldn't be here.” He backed away from me towards the door shaking his head.
“Bobby, wait,” I said. “It's okay. Just tell me what's wrong.”
But Gage shook his head. “I'm sorry,” he said again. Then he turned and ran out the door.
Yuri and I looked at each other, dumbstruck. “What the hell was that ?” he said.
“I have no idea,” I said. I ran out after Gage, just in time to see his old New Yorker peel out of the parking lot. As I went back to my seat, ignoring the stares, I looked for the guy in the fedora. But he was gone.
When the service was over, I walked to my beat-up little car alone. I had nearly fallen asleep during the sham of a service, and I still had to get through the reception Karen had planned at my apartment.
“Niki,” I heard a man's voice calling. I turned to see four figures coming toward me across the parking lot. Lou Craig waved. Walking beside him was Olivia Bradley and her daughter. Craig's own daughter trailed behind her father. Olivia smiled at me tentatively as she approached.
“Hey, Niki,” said Craig.
“Oh, Lou,” I said, my voice sounding as tired as I felt. “I'm sorry, I know I owe you for staying with Sofi. Things have been...” I trailed off, successfully holding the tears in this time. “You know how it is.”
“No, that isn't what this is about,” said Craig. “Don't worry about that. I got plenty of money these days.” Craig's daughter stared at me from behind her father. Her dark blond hair was cut in a bob. She couldn't have been more than twelve, but she had a haunted, gaunt look. I remembered Craig saying she was an Abby.
“Oh,” I said. I looked at Olivia. I hadn't seen her since that night. Gage and I had convinced her to flee in the middle of the night. An hour later, her house had been burned to the ground. “Hey, Olivia. Didn't expect to see you today.” I frowned.
Olivia smiled nervously. “Niki, I've been trying to call you. I didn't mean to impose. I know this is a difficult time for you.”
“It's fine,” I said. “Sofi never wanted a funeral.”
“She was a fine lady,” said Craig. “Real sorry for your loss.”
I smiled thinly. “Thanks, Lou. She liked you.”
“Niki,” said Olivia, “I just wanted to give you something.” She bit her lip. “I don't know if it's appropriate or not.”
“What's all this about?” I said, too sharply. I closed my eyes. “I'm sorry. I'm really tired.”
“It's okay,” said Olivia. She looked at her daughter for a moment. The girl smiled at her mother. She was older than Craig's daughter, and had a more well-adjusted look to her. “It's just that, since Frank died I came into a little bit of money.” She laughed and looked slightly embarrassed. “Of course it's too soon for the inheritance to come, but the house was in my name, too. Apparently Frank never did take me off.”
“Oh,” I said. “Good for you. You're better off without him, anyway.” I looked quickly at the girl. “Sorry,” I said. “He was your dad. That wasn't a nice thing for me to say.”
“My dad was a tool,” she said, her voice all attitude.
I smiled. “He kind of was.” I looked at Olivia. “So why are you telling me?”
She looked at me like I was slightly stupid. “Niki, you saved my life.”
I smiled. “Olivia, it's no big deal. I just did what anyone would do.”
“No,” she said. “I would have died that night if it wasn't for you. I'm not going to let you be modest about this.” She put an arm around her daughter. “I would have died that night if it wasn't for you.”
“I can see you've made up your mind about this,” I said. My head was starting to throb.
“I'll just get to it,” said Olivia. She pulled a thick envelope out of her large handbag. “I got you something.”
“Got me something?” I said. I looked at Craig, who shrugged. His daughter was still looking at me. She may as well have been a ghost. Craig had his arm around her, but she didn't seem to notice.
“I figured you might not take money,” she said. “And Lou told me about your bad luck lately. What with your father and all. I'm so sorry about that. Then losing your job. And now this.”
I narrowed my eyes at Craig, who found something interesting to look at on the pavement. Craig knew very little about what I really did. Gage and I told him that Sam, our employer, had died. And that was all he knew. As far as he knew, I was just an unemployed detective.
“I'm sorry,” said Olivia. “I'm ruining this.”
“Mom, would you just freaking tell her?” came the irritated voice of Olivia's daughter. I raised an eyebrow and couldn't help but smile.
“Sorry. Right,” said Olivia. “I bought you your apartment building.” She thrust the envelope at me. I stared at it.
“What?” I said.
“Well, I thought you might need the income. And I would just give you the money, but Lou talked to your partner, Bobby, and he said that you wouldn't take money. He said you'd be offended.”
“So you bought me a building?” I said, stunned.
“Well, I know that in times like these, it's nice to have something to fall back on,” said Olivia, uncertain. Her cheeks were crimson from embarrassment. “I had my parents and Piper here. And I thought it might be easier for you if you could just...you know...stay.”
“Look, Olivia,” I said, “that was really nice of you. But you saved your own life. I just made a suggestion. You don't owe me anything.”
“Yes, I do,” she said. She wasn't embarrassed now. Her eyes had gone steely. “I owe you everything.”
“I don't want it,” I said. “Just keep it.”
I turned to go, but was stopped by voice, full of teenage belligerence. “Don't be an asshole.”
I looked quickly to see Piper, her hands on her hips.
Olivia's eyes had gone wide. “Piper, no.”
Piper grabbed the manila envelope from her mother's hand. She marched over to me and thrust it at me. I grabbed it without thinking about it. “It's bullshit,” she said, her pretty little face a younger copy of her mother's.
“What's bullshit?” I said.
“You,” she said. “If it weren't for you, my mom would have burned up. Lou said you grew up with your grandmother or whatever. So I guess you didn't have a mom. Is she dead?”
“What of it?” I said, narrowing my eyes at her.
“If someone would have saved your mom, wouldn't you want to show them how much it meant to you?” The girl's face was angry, but tears were welling up in her eyes. She was barely a teenager, yet had lived through more than most people her age.
I was silent for a moment. “Yeah, I guess I would,” I said finally.
“So just take it,” she said. Her anger faded. “Please. You're the reason we're still a family.”
I looked at the girl for a long time. Finally I nodded. “Okay,” I said.
“Fine,” said Piper. But she smiled at me.
“I like you,” I said.
“I guess you're okay,” she said. “When you're being reasonable.”
I took a breath and walked over to Olivia. “Thank you,” I said. “It was a very kind gesture.”
Olivia looked pleased. “If you ever need anything, I'd love to help.”
“Okay,” I said. “I don't know how to get hold of you, though.”
“You know how to get in touch with Lou, don't you?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said slowly.
Craig shrugged. “We're sort of together,” he said. Olivia took his hand pointedly.
“No shit,” I said. I stared at the two of them. They were the strangest couple I'd ever seen. She was in her early thirties, tall, and had been extremely beautiful when she'd met Frank Bradley. Their time together had aged her, but she still had the look of rebellion from her college days. I could see where her daughter got it. Lou Craig, on the other hand, was a short potbellied ex-prison guard with a big heart.
“Congratulations,” I said.
“That's the other thing I owe you for,” said Olivia. She kissed him on the cheek.
“Well, I didn't see that one coming,” I admitted.
“Neither did I,” said Olivia, smiling. “But you can't choose who you fall in love with.”
“I guess not,” I said. I took a step towards Craig's daughter. I couldn't remember if he had ever told me her name. She flinched, and I stopped. “It gets better,” I said. She stared at me, her big green eyes wide and frightened. “It's hard at first, especially at your age, but it does get better.”
“Penny don't say much,” said Craig. “It's been a hard couple of years for her.” I saw Penny glance at Olivia, narrowing her eyes only for a split second. And I understood. Olivia had been married to the father of New Government, Frank Bradley. He had created the Registry, and all the bile that followed had been his fault. And her father was in love with his widow.
“If you ever want to talk,” I whispered, “come find me.”
Penny blinked at me. After a few seconds she furrowed her brow. “What's it like?”
“What's what like?” I said.
“Dying. Being Death. All of it. Does that get better, too?” Her voice was quiet, almost a whisper.
“I don't know yet,” I said honestly.
She nodded as if that satisfied her. “At least you're honest.”
“It won't be like this forever,” I said.
“You're wrong,” she said. “They'll always hate us.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But it's just jealousy.”
“Jealousy?” she said.
“We're special,” I said. “And they're just normal. And I think that bothers some of them.”
“It doesn't change anything.”
“It does if you make it,” I said.
I could feel the dead pulling at me by the time people gathered in my apartment. It was increasingly painful. Like a dull knife pushing slowly from the inside out. I kept my glass full of alcohol. It dulled the sensation, but I could still feel it. I needed to go to work.
Everything about the funeral had been fake. Plastic. Sofi would have hated it. The gathering afterward wasn't any better. Karen had cleaned the apartment until it didn't even look like the same place anymore. The kitchen gleamed on every surface, there was not a speck of dust on any of the shelves, and she had even replaced the old quilt we kept on the couch with a pristine white slipcover. I think she even had the carpet shampooed. The small kitchen table was heavy with food, and – to my relief – there was about a dozen bottles of booze on the counter, along with mixers like soda and juice. I ignored the mixers and went right for the whiskey, taking the whole bottle. It wasn't my favorite brand, but it would do.
Yuri and his men had not come, which I thought was pretty classy of him. Though I would have liked to talk to anyone. The people that did come were a few old gals from the neighborhood, and a lot of people I didn't know. Karen was apparently friendly with them. Middle-aged men and women that talked politics and laughed loudly at stupid jokes. No one talked about Sofi. No one even looked in my direction except for Karen a few times; but I suspected that was just so she could keep an eye on me.
After an hour and four drinks I stood up and walked towards my bedroom. I could at least get a few hours' sleep while people guffawed and pretended to be sad for someone they hadn't even known. I stopped in the hallway and looked at the door of Sofi's room. Clutching the bottle, I turned and went in, closing the door quietly behind me.
Her room was just as it always was. Knick-knacks all placed just so across her dresser, photographs lined across the top of a shelf, lace curtains prettily pulled back with ribbon. I sat down on her bed and closed my eyes. If I stopped my brain just right I could pretend she was still alive. She was just out in the living room and would come through that door with a smile when she saw me, maybe even scold me for rumpling her bedspread.
“I miss you, Sofi,” I whispered to the air. “Who's going to keep me human now?” I drank from the bottle, tipping it up to my lips and swallowing deeply. I felt the tug in my chest subside, replaced by a pleasant warmth. I sighed in relief.
The door opened and Karen came in, closing it quietly behind her. She sat down next to me and we both sat in silence for a moment.
“You hate all this, I know,” she said.
“She would have hated it, too.”
Karen nodded. “I know. But it's not for her. Funerals are for the living. The people they leave behind.”
“I suppose they are,” I said.
We were quiet for a long moment, the low rumble of voices muted through the door. “I've always been jealous of you,” she said.
“What?” I said, surprised. I finally looked at her. “Why?”
She smiled, embarrassed. I hadn't seen her smile in years. “She loved you. I mean, really loved you. She loved me because she had to, but we never really got along. But she took you in and you really loved each other. I never had that. I don't think I ever have.” She glanced at me. “I guess I haven't always been very nice to you. But things have never come easy for me.”
“Things don't come easy to anyone,” I said.
“I'm sorry about your dad,” she said. “I didn't know him, but I know it's hard to lose a parent.”
“He was an interesting man,” I said. I frowned into my hands. “I feel like I was just getting to know him.”
“How did he die?” she said.
I thought of Sasha. Of the flaming sword slicing him in two. Of trying to find his face in all the blood and crying because I couldn't find it. I realized I was tearing up. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “Hunting accident,” I said.
“Oh.” She swallowed heavily and I took another sip out of the bottle, offering it to her. Karen shook her head and smiled. “I'd be on the floor if I drank that.” Her smile faded and she frowned. “Do you think you'll stay? In the apartment, I mean.”
“I don't know,” I said. I didn't tell her about Olivia's gift. I was still sorting out how I felt about that. “It was Sofi's place. It always was. Everywhere I look I see her.” I smiled at Karen's astonished expression. “Not literally see her...”
“Of course not,” she said, looking away. She stared at the window, deep in thought. After a long moment she spoke. “What happened, Niki?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Last spring everyone fell asleep. For days we slept. Everyone. And I don't mean to be rude, but that sort of seems like your world. Do you know what happened?” She looked away from the window and looked at me. “I really need to know.” There was desperation in her eyes. I thought about what it must be like to be a Normal. And for the first time, I felt sorry for Karen. It would be worse not knowing than anything New Government could do.
“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”
“Well, what was it? What happened?”
“You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”
“Please, Niki,” she said. “Whatever you tell me I swear I'll believe you. I just want to know one true thing. It seems like everything's made up these days. What happened?”
I hesitated. “It was almost the end of the world,” I said.
She looked at me suspiciously. “Are you messing with me?”
I smiled. “I knew you wouldn't believe me.”
She bit her lip, deep in thought. After a moment, she spoke again. “I believe you.”
I nodded and closed my eyes. “A lot of people died, Karen. Good people and bad people.”
“Your father,” she said. “That's how he really died?”
“He died trying to save us,” I said. “All of us. He was a hero in the end.” I pushed my hair off my face and took another drink from the bottle. “And someone else died too,” I said softly. “A good man. He died to save me. To save everyone. He saved the whole damn world. It wasn't even his world, but he saved it anyway. And no one will ever know it. He was so damn good.” I shook my head as if I could shake the tears away.
“You loved him,” Karen said. She was staring at me.
I smiled sadly. “I don't know. Maybe I did. It was all so fast.”
“Love always is,” she said.
“I suppose that's true,” I said. “I guess I hadn't felt it before, not really. I didn't think something that was supposed to be so good could feel so bad.” I looked down. “I'm a mess.”
“You're grieving,” she said. She examined me. “Things are different for you.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“I'm not being condescending,” she said. “I just mean that it's different for you than the rest of us.” I shook my head, uncomprehending. Karen shrugged. “We just go along with our boring lives. We pay taxes, we buy things, we do what we're told to do. We're scared all the time. But you, you can't ignore it, can you? You get shoved in the middle of things all the time. I know you don't think I know, but I can see that strange things go on. And you're always there. And that's probably a very good thing. You see what's going on better than I do. Clear as day, maybe. And you can't look away. But what's more, you're not afraid.”
“I am afraid,” I protested. “I'm goddamn terrified.”
She looked me over. “No,” she said. “Not like other people. I think you get sad. Overwhelmingly sad. And I think you're angry. But not afraid. Not you.”
I was quiet for a long time. Finally I looked down at my hands. “It was my fault,” I said so quietly that I wasn't sure she had heard me.
“What was your fault?”
“That man I told you about,” I said. “It was my fault. He's gone and it's because of me. Because he loved me.” My hands blurred as I looked at them and I felt hot wetness on my cheeks.
“Could you have saved him?” said Karen.
I shook my head. “I don't know. Maybe if I would have known what was happening. Or if I had understood the situation better. If I hadn't been so angry when Sasha was killed. If I would have used my head more.”
“You're hard on yourself, Niki,” she said. “I've always thought so. You've always seemed like you carry the world on your shoulders. But you don't have to. No one does.”
“I don't know how to stop.”
“Just let go,” she said. “You can't save everyone.”
“I know,” I said. “But what's the point if I don't try? What's even left? I don't know how to be any other way.”
“There's peace,” she said. “And maybe even happiness.”
I looked at her and tried to smile, but it faltered on my face. “I just don't think it's in the cards for me.”
“Maybe not,” she said. “But what's the point if you don't try?”
Gage wasn't answering his phone. I tried a few times, but it went right to voicemail. I finally left an irritated message that demanded he explain what the hell was going on. Then I pocketed my phone and tended to the dead.
A woman with long blonde hair and a party dress watched police bag up her remains in an alley. There was blood smeared on the side of a dumpster where she had fallen. “I thought he was a nice guy,” she said.
A mother cried as she peered through the shattered glass of a wrecked car. I could make out the shapes of two car seats in the back. Her body lay on the hood of the car. “I didn't even see him coming,” she moaned. A semi-truck was on its side in the ditch, the driver crawling out of the passenger window, bloodied but alive.
And then it was suddenly night and I was somewhere warm. I looked up at the sky. The stars were bright and seemed to go on forever. I didn't want to look away. It had been so long since I'd seen the stars. It was so quiet here. I breathed in and could smell fragrant flowers. The road under my feet was red clay. There was a little house in front of me; more of a hut, really. Chicken wire went around the side of the small structure and I could make out the shape of animals huddled together. Goats, maybe, or sheep. The door of the cottage was open and swung back and forth with the breeze.
I stepped inside. A man's ghost was standing stock-still in the middle of the room. He was muttering something under his breath. As I approached, I could hear him. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” he was saying. It spilled out of his lips quickly, like it was one long word, and it kept coming. He didn't look at me. Warm copper filled my mouth, and I looked around.
A woman hugged a baby to her chest. Their faces were crushed, the baby's blood covering the woman and soaking the mattress underneath her. The man's body was spread over two other children, but no one had made it. I heard sobbing in the corner and I knew it would be the woman's ghost before I had even looked. I closed my eyes and put my hands over my face. My stomach lurched at the gore and violence and the warm smell of blood. I made my legs move and made it just outside before I threw up, my whole body shaking from the force of the retching. I wiped my mouth and stood up. Death wasn't supposed to puke.
I made myself go back in, the pulling at my chest unbearable. I tried not to breathe in too much. I felt the woman relax as I took her. She looked at me with dark eyes that were filled with unfathomable sorrow. I turned to the man. He didn't even move when I touched him and the one word he repeated over and over trailed off with his spirit.
I crouched down next to the man's body. “Is it always like this, Sam?” I said to the heavy, empty air. “Will I ever get used to it? Did you?” I felt a twinge in the back of my skull, but there was no answer. I didn't expect there to be.
I exhaled and let go of the scene, closing my eyes. I felt myself go, the world turning dark for a heartbeat, then with a dizzying rush of color I felt my feet touch down on the rough boards of the Deep Blue Sea. I stood there in the silence for a long time, just staring at the bar. I missed him so much just then. So many people had died, including Sasha and Sofi, my only family. Not counting Pineme, who was a stranger to me. But all I could think about was Sam.
I walked to the wall, my head feeling light. Nothing felt real anymore. I traced the shape of the Murphy bed that was set in the wall. Sam had created it when we had been holed up in the bar during the war. I put my hand against the metal handle. We had slept on the bed together. I remembered waking up and looking over to find him next to me, looking disheveled and whiskered and perfect. I inhaled sharply at the rush of emotions. At the crushing guilt. I drew back my hand and hit the folded up bed with all the force I had left. The shape disappeared and smoothed out into solid wall. I touched it and squeezed my eyes shut. I was so tired of crying. I caressed the wall where the bed had been and the shape reappeared. The bar had been a part of Sam, and now it was part of me. I could make it do what I wanted. But I couldn't bring him back.
“Goddamnit, Sam,” I said, my throat tight. I slid down the wall. “It shouldn't have happened that way,” I said softly, the tears coming now. I put my forehead to my knees. “You shouldn't have had to go. It should have been me.”
When I was spent, I stood up shakily. I inhaled deeply and blew air out through my mouth. I reached out and took hold of the handle of the bed, pulling the contraption out of the wall. The bed lay before me and, gathering my nerve, I lay down and closed my eyes.
“I'm dreaming,” I said. It was very dark. I could feel someone standing behind me. There were shapes moving in the darkness but I couldn't make them out.
“Does it matter?” said a voice. I closed my eyes when I heard it.
“Yes,” I said. “This isn't real. You're not real.”
“Turn around,” he said. I did, but I didn't open my eyes. I couldn't. I couldn't look at him. It hurt too much. “Niki, please.”
I looked and I couldn't breathe. He was here. He was alive. He looked down at me with his dark eyes, his black hair swept away from his face, his suit perfectly pressed. He smiled and my heart broke. “It's not real,” I said breathlessly.
“Just because you're dreaming doesn't make it less real,” he said. “I've been waiting for you.”
“Where are we?” I said.
“We're in your head,” he said. “I've been here all along. Have you felt me?”
I remembered the twinges in the back of my skull. “I don't know,” I said. “Maybe. Yes, I think I have. Why can't I talk to you all the time?”
“Because you are never quiet,” he said. “You never pause for air. Your mind is always racing around, going this way and that, never stopping. How can you listen if you're not quiet? Besides, the Deep Blue Sea was part of me, too. I'm stronger here. That's why you couldn't let it go, isn't it?”
I couldn't stop staring at him. I shook my head in confusion. “I don't know why I do anything anymore.”
He touched me and he felt warm. Could someone feel warmth in a dream? “You have doubts,” he said. “I've felt them.”
“Still stalking me,” I said, trying to smile.
“I will never leave you, Niki. Not until you want me to.”
I made myself look into his eyes. They still had the ability to drill into me, even in a dream. “What if it wasn't me, Sam? What if it wasn't me you loved?”
“I was carrying all that power around,” I continued. “All that god-power. Even when no one knew it was there. And you're an angel. What if you loved Him. What if it was the power of the Creator that made you think it was love?”
“What do you think?” he said. “Did you love me?”
I bit my lip. “I don't know, Sam. It was so fast. The world was going to end. And you were going to die.” I suddenly felt the breath go out of me. “You were going to die,” I said again. “Why am I crying?” I said thickly. “You can't cry in a dream.”
“This isn't a normal dream,” he said. He reached up and smoothed my hair away from my face. “It's you, Niki. It was always you.”
“You died because of me,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I died for you. It's different.”
“How?” I said.
“Because there's something I want you to do for me,” he said. He smiled again and it was like he was opening me up. It hurt worse than anything I had ever felt. “Something big.”
“What?” I said.
“I want you to bring me back,” he said.
I woke up clutching at the pillow. I cried then, sobs racking my body until I had no more tears. What did he mean, bring him back? How the hell was I supposed to do that? I would do anything to have him back. To have the guilt disappear. Out of everything that had happened, it was Sam's unmaking that bothered me the most. I had done that. It had been my fault. I would do anything to find out how to reverse it. But it was impossible. He was gone. The Creator had unmade him so that it was like he had never existed.
I stood up and looked around. I could feel the dead pulling at me, urging me to them. To help them. Death, so much death. Sofi, my father, Sam. Strangers that I didn't know. I felt their loss so deeply that sometimes it was hard to breathe. I needed to be away. Just for a little while. The memory of the family in the hut flashed in my mind like an electric shock. The children had been smashed like they were nothing. Who could possibly do that? I sucked air into my lungs, the pressure in my chest mounting. I needed time, more time than alcohol could give me.
“Lucifer,” I said to the empty bar. “I'm ready to help you now.”
I found this very short story I wrote several years ago. Warning: contains sex, whoring, and creepy
I killed him and that was the end of it. But you probably want the story. Well, it was stupid, really. He wanted me. He wanted me badly. I think that's where a lot of stories start. He wanted me and I didn't want him. But that's not all. This isn't a tragic rape story where I killed a man for revenge, if that's what you're thinking.
So he wanted me and I didn't want him. Simple, isn't it? Just walk away, you're thinking. Let him go. But he just wouldn't let me. Let me elaborate. This was just after the Coal Riots.
The sky had become clear for the first time in two decades. I usually work down in the bellows of the Capitol Building, but of course I had the day off. No coal, no bellows. So for once I was clean and soot-free, I could breathe without my gasmask, and the world was a beautiful place. There had been compensation from the persecution of the classes from the time of the Republic, and everyone's pockets were full these days. I bought a sandwich from a man with a cart in the park. He wore a pair of bronze goggles that were cracked on one side. I wanted to ask him why he was wearing the goggles when there was no miasma, but I saw his gasmask hanging on the handle of his cart and guessed he just wanted to be prepared.
He almost didn't recognize me.
I was wearing my best dress, a dreadful calico number with an insane amount of buttons. He didn't know me at first without my suspenders and my denim. He turned around and looked at me for a minute before he knew me. When your family is starving and you are a paycheck away from the streets you do what you have to to get by. You sell your belongings, you do odd jobs on the side. I whored myself out more than a few times when we couldn't even afford bread. I'm not proud of it. The Capitol types paid me well. They would come down to the bellows because they didn't want the soot rubbing off on their couches. They would lay their tailored jackets on a high shelf and they would unbutton their shirts so the fabric didn't rub against me. They usually didn't want much. Just an afternoon screw, and standing up worked just fine for them. It was a good thing, too. I didn't have to take my denims completely off and everyone was the better for that.
This one had squealed when he came and slumped his fat belly on my back. My head hit the cement wall and I was aching all day. It almost wasn't worth the silver he'd wiped into my hand, along with a trail of his sweat. My back was damp, too. So there he was staring at me in the park, his spectacles pinched on the end of his sweaty nose and I just didn't know what to do. So I didn't do anything. I kept walking without another word. But wouldn't you know it? He followed me.
“Angel,” he panted when he caught up to me. I kept a brisk pace, as is my usual. It speeds up the heart and the mind to walk fast. It makes me feel good. But I was walking fast to get away from the man today. I couldn't remember his name.
“I have to go,” I said. “I'm late.”
“Late for what?” he said. When I didn't have an answer he smiled a slimy smile with his small teeth lined up like boxes on a shelf. “Just give me a minute, Angel. I want to talk to you.”
“Why?” I said, stopping. “Why do you have to talk to me? What's past is past. Let it be.”
“Angel, you mean something to me,” he said. Sweat dripped in his beard, crawling down like lice. “I'll do anything. What do you like, Angel? I'll buy you jewelry, pretty baubles, anything.”
“I like to eat,” I said. “But I haven't been hungry since the Revolt. The Blue-Collars get paid a fair wage now. No more whoring. I got enough money now.” I started walking again, but he panted next to me.
“Angel, is that all it was to you? Whoring?”
“Yes,” I said. “You gave me money to pull down my denims. That's whoring. And I don't want to talk to you on the street. I don't want to talk to you at all.”
“I'd marry you, Angel,” he said, his voice a dull whine. “I'd marry you and take care of you. You wouldn't have to work in the bellows anymore. Think about that.”
“You'd marry a whore just for another screw?” I said. “That's ridiculous. Go find another whore.”
“But I want you, Angel. You're the most beautiful creature I've ever seen. And now, without the soot, you're a vision. You stop the heart, Angel, really you do.”
“You don't know me,” I said. “You shouldn't be so hasty.”
“I can't stop thinking about you, Angel,” he said. “And I won't stop until you're mine. I'll come to see you at work, I'll come to your home—”
“My home?” I said too loudly. I turned on him. His face was red and he was having a hard time breathing. “You are never to come to my home,” I said. “If my family knew about you they'd kill me.”
“Don't be dramatic,” he said. He coughed. “Hard times. Lots of girls lifted their skirts for some coin. Not all of them got a marriage proposal.”
“My kind don't lift their skirts,” I said. “And if we do it's for a completely different reason. You can never come to my home. Promise.”
“No,” he said. “Marry me. I'll go to your mother if you don't agree.”
I spied a stand of trees. “Come with me,” I said. I took his hot, moist hand and forced myself not to let go. He followed like a puppy. He thought I was consenting. I heard him chuckle behind me. We were deep in the trees before I lifted my skirts and let my appendages slither out. One pink tentacle wrapped around his round waist to hold him still and the other I forced down his throat just as he opened his mouth to scream. He writhed and jiggled like he was trying to dance and his buggy eyes popped open even further. His fat face turned purple and I saw the veins in his forehead and neck pop out. And then he was dead. He dropped on the ground with a splat, like a rotten peach. I tucked my tentacles back around me and tucked down my skirts. I headed for home.
I know what you're thinking. You think it was extreme. But you don't know my family. They would have killed me had they known. Killed me.
J.L. Murray is the bestselling author of the Niki Slobodian series, After the Fire, and Jenny Undead.