Without further ado, the first chapter of Monstrous.
I died on a Thursday.
The thing about dying is, no one ever comes back. Not really. Even if all your parts are put back together—even if you’re walking around breathing, talking, screwing—it’s never the same again. Part of you is always going to wonder if the world is real, if you’re still lying on a gurney somewhere bleeding out. Or, in my case, pocked full of holes from lethal injection and forgotten in a cooler.
I died on a Thursday, and three days later I woke up.
When I walked out of the motel, the sun was coming up. I pulled a pack of Lucky Strikes from the pocket of my leather jacket and tapped one out. My lighter was dying and my hands were shaking, so it took a couple tries to get it to ignite. I pulled in the smoke and closed my eyes, the northern Wisconsin air already hot and humid, even this early. The keys in my back pocket bulged and I scanned the parking lot for Jimmy Wayne Frasier's car. My eyes slid over a Camry, an F10 pickup truck, recently washed, and then froze on a rusty Chevy Nova, a pair of ratty fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view.
“Jimmy, you're so goddamn predictable,” I said, letting the cigarette dangle from my lips as I fished out the keys. I pushed a pile of fast food wrappers and beer cans off the front seat into the parking lot as I drove away. I didn't know where I was going, but it didn't matter. They would find me. They'd find me and tell me where to go next. I looked at my hands on the grimy steering wheel, ragged from my work, blood caked under my fingernails.
Jimmy Wayne Frasier was a serial killer. Emphasis on was. I’d tracked him to the motel where he had no fewer than three dead prostitutes carefully arranged on the floor. And when Jimmy, slovenly and slow, lunged for the gun lying on the bed, I had him hogtied on the floor before he even knew what was happening.
He figured it out soon enough.
“Please call the cops,” he had blubbered. “Please. I don’t understand.”
“I don't completely understand it myself,” I admitted. “I'm dead, Jimmy. But soon you will be, too.”
I watched him squirm, shaking his arms frantically behind him, as I pulled a wicked little fillet knife out of my belt and walked slowly toward him. He was crying.
“Aw, Jimmy Wayne,” I lowered the knife with a sigh and straddled the chair, facing him. “This isn't fun for me, I promise you that. I'm not what you'd call a happy person, if you get my meaning. I've done some bad things in my life. Maybe even worse than the shit you've been doing.” I looked over at the dead women on the floor and wrinkled my nose. “Though not as gross.”
I got up and stretched, my knife still in my hand. I saw Jimmy looking at it and sat back down, leaned forward. “I don’t get a chance to talk to many people, Jimmy. If I could get some much-needed psychiatric therapy, I’d jump at the chance. God knows, I need it. But what would I tell them? They’d have me socked up in the crazy house before I even got to the good part. Either that, or they’d toss me back on Death Row.” I shrugged. “That wouldn’t be so bad. In the end, I got what was coming to me. I was fine with it. Dying. But then I woke up. You believe that shit, Jimmy? I fucking woke up from being dead. And I know I was really dead, because I know that's what you're wondering. You're thinking, either I'm crazy or messing with you, am I right?”
Jimmy was a puddle of tears now. His latex-gloved hands were scrunched into balls and his face looked like a big pink prune. I stood up and he became agitated again, struggling against the rope. I raised my shirt, pointing to my belly and tracing the scar up to the middle of the Y-incision.
“This is how they do an autopsy, Jimmy. Which I'm sure you know because of your dead people thing. Also gross.” I pulled my shirt back down and picked up the knife. “I guess I got autopsied, no other explanation. Don't ask me how I'm still walking around. Maybe I'm a zombie, or a vampire. But I just keep getting hungry, thirsty, my heart's still beating, and I still have to...you know. Go to the bathroom. Was that too much information?” I watched him, shaking his head, his eyes red from crying, clear snot dripping out of his nose. “Jimmy, it's really too bad I have to kill you. You should know, you're not the only one. And none of this is really your fault. I mean, it is, but all you people are like this. You just acted on it.”
I shrugged. “Well, it's been fun, Jimmy Wayne. You are a fantastic listener. It's been a while since I've talked to anyone like this. But I came here to do a job, so I guess the question is: Are you ready?”
The Nova's full tank of gas got me all the way to the village of DeForest, outside of Madison. I fueled up with Jimmy's credit card, smiling pretty for the camera pointed at the gas tanks. I parked next door at a Culver's, ducking into the bathroom to wash my hands before grabbing two burgers and a custard shake to go. Heading south. The sun was high now and I shed my leather jacket. But even with all the windows cranked open, I was still sweating. And after a while, the fast food wrappers sweating grease in the sun made my stomach turn.
The sun was sinking below the horizon, the sky a violent orange by the time I reached the outskirts of a city. I pulled into the first shady bar I could find, eyeing the shabby motel next door, its “Vacancy” sign lit up like a beacon. I stretched as I got out of the Nova, parked far in the back of the small parking lot.
I wiped down the surfaces, taking what little cash Jimmy had in his wallet and ditching the rest. Leaving the keys in the ignition, I grabbed my duffel bag and pulled on my jacket, even though it was still hot as hell. I was out of smokes, and smelled like an animal. I slipped into the bathroom in the dark, smoky bar.
I looked in the mirror and cursed. I cleaned up, trying to drag a comb through my tangled hair. I pulled a clean shirt out of my bag, shoving the sweat and blood-stained tank top into the bottom. I desperately needed a shower, but I wanted a drink more. I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, fishing a stick of deodorant out of my bag. I smiled at my reflection, blinking as something moved in the corner of my eye in the mirror. I spun to look behind me, but there was nothing there.
“I need sleep,” I muttered, smoothing my hair one last time. I'd been up too long. Even my reflection looked weird to me now. I walked out into the bar, freezing for a second at the dozen or so people. A couple of rough-looking old guys playing pool looked up and stared at me. I ignored them and slipped onto a stool. The woman behind the bar was wearing blue eyeliner and smoking a Newport. She didn't even put the cigarette down before coming over.
“What are you drinking, honey?” she said.
“Maker's Mark and Coke,” I said, flashing her a big smile. If I was going to waste Jimmy's cash on booze, I might as well get the good stuff. “And don't go easy on the Maker's.”
“Long drive?” she said, looking me over.
I zipped up my jacket and shrugged. “Not too bad. You got Lucky Strikes?”
She nodded across the bar. “There's a machine. Use quarters. It steals dollar bills.”
I changed what was left after the drink for quarters and walked over to the cigarette machine.
“What's your poison?” said a voice. I looked around and saw a man sitting at a table next to the machine. He was reclining, with his feet up on another chair, a brown drink in his hand.
“Luckies,” I said. “Looks like I'm out of luck.”
“That's funny,” he said without laughing. “Unfiltered?”
“Hell of a choice for a girl.”
I gave him a cold stare. “You’re a peach, aren’t you?”
“Shit,” he said, looking down at his glass. “I'm sorry. I've been drinking this swill for two hours. I'm not usually a dick.”
“Rough day?” I said.
“That makes two of us.” I put my quarters in and punched the knob for Camels. I pounded the pack in my hand, smiling. “See you around.”
“Wait,” the guy said, standing. He wasn't half bad when he wasn't skulking in the shadows. Under the five o'clock shadow and the dirty tee shirt, he was lean with dark eyes that he fixed on me. “Let me buy you a drink.” His face, dead serious until this point, broke into a half-grin, dimples appearing on his cheeks. “Please.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because I want to sleep with you.” He stepped out from behind the table and walked toward me, stumbling only a little. He
smiled that half smile again and something stirred inside me.
“I'm just passing through,” I said.
“So am I.”
“I won't give you my number.”
“I won't ask for it.”
He was close to me now, his eyes a little bloodshot, but he was warm and alive and I could see myself forgetting about the world in him for a few hours. I smiled. Not the big country girl smile I'd given the bartender. It was a different kind of smile that made the guy's charming half-grin falter and sent the pulse in his throat jumping. He reached towards my hip but I grabbed his wrist. His arm was muscular and I saw the lines of a military tattoo in the dim light. He was stronger than me, but he let me hold his wrist, his dark eyes glimmering with a look I recognized.
“No promises,” I said. “Buy me a few drinks first, and I'll let you rent me a room at that flea-infested hole-in-the-wall next door.”
His smile came back, his eyes still fixed on mine. He pulled a hand out of his pocket, a big blue tag on a key ring reading “Starlight Motel” in silver letters.
“Already done,” he said. “I'm Thomas Dekker, what's your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Tommy,” I said. “I’m Frankie Mourning. Let's get that drink.”
The truth was, booze didn't do a whole lot for me anymore. I'd tried everything to quiet my head and have a few hours of peace. Uppers made it worse. They also made me chatty, which was dangerous in my line of work. Weed slowed me down. Ecstasy may as well have been an energy drink, and opiates made me feel like I had bugs crawling through my scars. There was no oblivion for me. I was still myself, no matter what I took. Alcohol was the only thing that made the nightmare end and let me get a few hours sleep, as long as I drank it fast enough.
Tommy Dekker bought me six drinks, though he himself stopped drinking after three. And by the time we stumbled toward his motel room around midnight, he felt pretty damn good to me. When he kissed me in the parking lot, his lips were hot and hungry, and he felt firm when I put my hand against his chest.
“What are you, a gym rat?” I said breathlessly.
“On the job training,” he panted, pulling me against him again. I jumped up, grinding myself into his hips, my legs around his waist, and he carried me across the parking lot, only taking his tongue out of my mouth when he dropped the key at the front door.
When we burst through the door, we fell against the wall, where he pinned me, unbuttoning my pants as I pulled off his shirt. He kissed me hard and I shoved him down onto the bed, my whole body vibrating.
“I should take a shower,” I said.
“Later.” He grabbed my waist and pulled me on top of him. I straddled him, pulling off my coat and tossing it into a chair. I unbuttoned his jeans and he started to pull up my shirt.
“No,” I whispered, pulling it back down. “Anything but my shirt.”
“Why?” he said.
“You can touch me inside my shirt,” I said, “but it's not coming off.”
“What about your pants?”
“Those are coming off right now.” But he was already pulling them off, tipping me backwards on the bed. I laughed, but his face was dead serious again, and in a heartbeat, he had his own pants off and was on top of me. I moved to kiss him, but he took my hands, lacing his fingers through mine and pressing my arms down onto the bed.
“Wait,” he whispered. His breath smelled like good bourbon, sweet and rich. His nose was nearly touching mine, and the streetlight filtering through the dirty lace curtains shone on his face. “Wait,” he said again, and I found it hard to breathe. “I just want to look at you for a second.” His dark eyes were too close, his face too solemn.
“Come on, let's do this,” I said, wrapping my legs around him. But he didn't move, he just stared at me.
“God, you're beautiful,” he said.
“Shut up and do me,” I said, laughing. But he didn't laugh. He unlaced his fingers from my left hand and touched my face.
“Okay, enough.” I took his wrist from my face. “We'll do this my way now.” I pushed him off of me and climbed on top of him.
He didn't resist. But he kept watching me. Those goddamn eyes were burning into me so hot and fierce that I couldn't breathe. I lowered myself onto him, arching my back as he arched his. He didn't close his eyes, watching me. Not looking away, watching, watching me ride him like my salvation depended on it.
The climax came fast and hard and I felt him give way at the exact same moment. We buried our cries in each other's mouths, in a kiss that was too intimate. It felt like I was telling him my secrets, like he knew me now.
I rolled off and lay panting and looking at the water stained ceiling.
“Jesus Christ, Tommy,” I said.
“People don't really call me that,” he said, out of breath.
“What do they call you?”
“Is that what you want me to call you?”
He looked over and smiled his sexy half smile.
“You can call me anything you want, Frankie Mourning.”
“I'm going to call you Tommy,” I said. “Mind if I take a shower now?”
Tommy was passed out when I got back. I slid into the bed as quietly as I could. His face was relaxed in sleep. I knew I should go. I knew I should split before they found Jimmy Wayne Frasier's car. But I was so tired. I couldn't remember the last time I slept more than an hour, maybe two days ago? Three? I leaned back onto the pillows and watched Thomas Dekker sleep. He had tattoos all over his chest and upper arms. I couldn't make them out, even with the light from the parking lot. Marines, maybe. His hair was cut short, a dark brown color, and stood up in front. He had an eyelash on his cheek.
I raised my hand in the dark and was about to brush it away, but he opened his eyes. I pulled my hand back as he watched me.
“Why won't you take your shirt off?” he said.
“Bad heart,” I said. “I have scars.”
“I didn't want you to see. They're ugly.”
“They busted you open?” he said.
“You could say that,” I said. “I'm lucky they put everything back where it belongs.”
“Are you okay now?”
“Healthy as a horse,” I said.
He lifted a muscled arm. “Come here.”
I frowned. “Where?”
“You don't want me to put my arm around you?”
I shrugged. “If you're into that.”
I moved into the space he made, flattening my body against him and felt his arm pull me in.
“See, that wasn't so bad,” he said. His eyes were closed. I wondered how many drinks he'd had today. It was admirable that he mostly kept up with me.
“I'm not usually the cuddling type.”
“Neither am I,” he said, his voice heavy with sleep. “Stay with me tonight, okay?”
“It's either that or hitchhike,” I said.
“Which are you leaning towards?”
“I guess you'll do. There are killers out there.”
“That there are. Where you headed?”
“I don't know,” I said. “Maybe east.”
“You don't know where you're going?”
“I'm waiting for a sign.”
“I'll give you a ride,” he said. “I'm going to New York in the morning. I've got a shitty Civic, so it's not the lap of luxury or anything.”
“But,” I said, motioning around the motel room, “I've grown accustomed to such finery.”
“Buck up, princess,” he said. “I'll treat you like a queen.”
I don't remember falling asleep, but it was still dark when my eyes flew open, my heart beating fast. I looked around the room, getting my bearings, my eyes moving to Dekker. He was deep in an alcohol-induced sleep. I wondered if he'd even remember me in the morning. I inched out of bed and went into the bathroom, relieving myself and then drinking straight out of the faucet. I caught my reflection in the mirror and turned away. I was about to get back into bed when I heard it.
“Frankie,” came the whisper, so familiar that it hurt.
“No,” I said. “Not again. Just let me sleep.”
“Frankie,” it came again, loud and close and inside my head. “Frankie come outside. Come, come, come. Come out, Frankie Mourning and get your redemption.”
I slipped my jeans on in the dark. I couldn't find my shirt, so I pulled on Tommy's followed by my coat and boots. I left the door ajar, peeking another look at Tommy as I slipped out.
It was a clear night, but the stars were just out of view, the city illuminating the sky with a dirty light. I pulled out a Camel and lit it, walking around the corner of the motel. A raven squawked as it landed on a rusty pickup truck. It watched me out of one beady eye as I passed. The wraiths liked dark places, so I needed to find the shadows, even in a shady, sleazy place like this.
“Hey,” I said, walking behind the motel. There was an empty lot, surrounded with a barbed wire fence, my boots crunching on gravel. “Where are you, you creepy shit?”
“That's not very nice, nice, nice,” said a voice in my head. I spun and it was crouching in front of me, seeming to bleed into the shadows. I took a drag of my cigarette and blew out smoke.
“I was sleeping,” I said. “I haven't slept in days.”
“Maybe you don't deserve to sleep,” it said. This one's voice wasn't male or female, though most times it was usually one or the other. They liked to sneak up on you when your back was turned. As far as I could tell, it was a different one every time, though having never seen their faces, I couldn't have said for sure. I called them wraiths, but I didn't think they really had names. The raven watched us from atop the barbed wire, cocking its strange little head in the semi-darkness.
The wraith crouching in front of me was covered head to toe in a hooded cloak that seemed a part of its body. The edges were indiscernible, as if it could melt into the darkness at any moment. I couldn't see its face, either, the space under the hood unnaturally dark. I sometimes wondered if there would even be anything there if I ripped the cloak off. I also wondered if the wraiths were really there. Maybe I was just imagining all this. It was a pretty thought.
But I touched the Y-shaped scar that wound its way down my breastbone and I remembered the first night I woke up. I was pretty sure I wasn't making all this up, because if anything was real, it was pain. And those first days had been nothing but agony.
“Stop staring at me,” I said. “What do you want?”
“Touchy,” it said, voice echoing in my skull. “Seems I pulled you from lover's bliss, bliss, bliss.”
The raven squawked, as if in agreement.
“You can't keep him, Frankie. You're not exactly girlfriend material.”
“I'm not trying to keep him, asshole. Now tell me what you want.”
“It's what you want, Frankie. Redemption, remember? It's why you're alive. Mostly, mostly alive.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. I dropped my cigarette onto the gravel and ground it out with the toe of my boot. “Yeah, I know. You creeps remind me every time. So where are you sending me?”
“We need you to do something a little different,” said the wraith. “Something a little outside of your pay grade, grade, grade.”
“I don't get paid.”
“That's not true. You're working toward a goal.”
“Yeah, like a company store,” I said. “With no indication of how long I have to do this or how many it's going to take to be done.”
“Even if you're never done,” said the wraith, “it's a better deal than where you'd be headed if we let you stay dead, stay dead.”
“Says you,” I said. “So what's this next job? And what do you mean, something different? Worse than a killer? Because that last guy killed a whole lot of hookers. It's worse than that?”
“You'll think it's worse.”
“Just tell me what the job is then, Morticia,” I said. “Or we could stand around yapping all night.”
“You have to go home,” it said.
“Home?” I said. “I don't have a home, I'm fucking dead.”
“You had one once,” said the wraith. “Your best place, and your worst place. All those trees and fresh air scrambling your brains. Where it all happened. The beginning of the end, end, end.”
“Oh, no,” I said, bile rising in my throat. “I'm not going back there.”
“You are,” it said. “You must.”
“I died, remember? Someone will recognize me.”
“You left ten years ago and your family never left their mountain. No one will know you.”
“I went to school.”
“Have a lot of friends, friends there? Besides, we know you only attended school for a few months. Before, before, before.”
I glared at the wraith. “Don't do this. Pick someone else. You must have other people doing this besides me. Anyone else.”
“You're the only one, one, one,” said the wraith. “Boss's orders.”
“Tell the boss to fuck off.”
“You don't mean that, Frankie.”
I looked away from the wraith, trying to slow my heart.
“I can't go back there,” I said. “Hellville is cursed.”
“Helmsville,” corrected the wraith. “Rugged country. It's beautiful there, isn't it?”
“I can't go back to that place,” I said. “Please don't make me do this.”
“It's already decided,” said the wraith. “And Frankie, Frankie, Frankie?”
“Helmsville, Montana isn't cursed. You are.”
The cloaked figure seemed to spin in front of me, and with a sound like sheets on a clothesline, the wraith was gone. And I was alone, but for the raven. I stared at the bird for a few seconds, waiting for it to screech at me. But even the bird was silent, and after a moment, it rose into the air with a flap of wings and disappeared into the darkness.
“Quitter,” I said.
Dekker was still sleeping when I slowly pushed the door open and slipped into the room. He was snoring softly, his wide chest rising and falling. I found his keys in his pants pocket. Feeling around, I found his thick wallet. I wasn't going to look at him. If
I didn't look at him, I'd be fine. If I didn't look at him, I could keep on breathing. I turned to go.
Dekker snorted loudly and I froze. I turned slowly to look at him. His eyes fluttered and I felt my heart in my throat. I didn't know why I was so nervous. He was just a roof over my head. He was a bar tab and entertainment for the night. What did I care if he caught me? But I stared at Dekker's face, stock still in the dark. And I breathed again when he started snoring again.
I backed away, watching his face. He was just a guy, and a weird one at that. He was probably a shit when he wasn't drinking. Maybe he had a wife and kids. Maybe he kicked puppies for fun. But I recognized the feeling in my chest. It wasn't love or lust or anger. It was that feeling I got when what-might-have-been slipped out of my grasp. I'd had a lot of might-have-beens in my life. For the most part, I didn't think about them. Even when they were staring me in the face, I put them out of my mind.
I shouldn't have looked at him.
“I'm sorry,” I whispered. “I'm really sorry.
Dekker's Honda was being guarded when I found it. Three ravens sat on the hood, blinking at me.
“Come on,” I said. “I don't have a choice.”
The birds flew up onto the low-hanging roof of the motel, still staring at me. I was used to the birds. They were always there. Sometimes they were the only ones I talked to for days. I turned my back on them and got into the car.
The car started nice and quiet and barely made a sound as I pulled out onto the highway. When I flipped on the headlights, the ravens were gone. I was so exhausted my bones hurt. I pulled out his wallet, my stomach churning as I looked at it. I blew air out and opened it. I'd need money. I knew he had some, he'd been buying my drinks in cash all night. I wouldn't use his credit cards, it was the least I could do. He'd have them canceled by morning anyway.
Why had I given Dekker my real name? I didn't understand it. Usually I picked something out of the air. Sally McGrady. Antoinette Carter. I'd even used Rita Hayworth once and no one batted an eye. But I'd given him my name, the name I'd been born with. The name I died with. It was dangerous. I was being risky and I wasn't sure why.
I kept my eyes on the road, glancing down at the wallet by the light of the headlights behind me. At first I didn't know what I was seeing. Then I couldn't believe it was real.
“Holy shit,” I said. “Shit, shit, shit.” Repetitive as a wraith. I threw the wallet away from me, like it was a cockroach, but it fell open on the passenger seat. As a semi truck passed me, I chanced another look at it, as it gleamed in the lights cutting through the night.
It was a badge. A silver badge shaped like a star, the words Chicago Police etched into the metal. And across the top, the word Detective.
The wraith was right. I was cursed.