Authors: K.D. McEntire
“Yes sir,” Wendy murmured, pushing off the ground and staggering towards the woods.
“Hey! Idiot!” The man grabbed Wendy by the shoulder and spun her sharply around. “You can't walk through those woods. Not at night. Go by the street.” He shoved her toward the side gate and Wendy, embarrassed, let him push her onto the sidewalk.
It took her an hour to find her way back through the winding neighborhood to the high school. “It's done,” she said, sliding in the passenger seat.
“What did she make you promise?” Her mother wiped a hand across her mouth and Wendy realized that she'd been drinking.
“To call the police on the little girl's stepdad.” Wendy reached for her mother's cell.
“Oh, hell no.” Her mother snatched the phone out of reach.
“But, Mom, I promised.”
“What did I say, Wendy? I said ‘cover your back,’ didn't I? Or did I imagine that?”
“NO BUTS, WINIFRED!” Her mother pounded the steering wheel. “We don't owe that family anything, you understand me? How would you explain yourself to the cops, huh? ‘A ghost told me to call?’ No. Absolutely not. That's not how we work.”
“Wendy, you listen to me.” Her mother swiveled in her seat and grabbed Wendy by the face, squeezing her cheeks painfully. “You listen to me and you listen good. Okay? Are you listening? What we do? What we do is the ultimate sacrifice for these people. Those ribbons of light that come out of your fingers, out of your chest? Every one of those is a second of your own life. You are
giving up your life to help them
, to send them on. You are wrapping up a ticket home with your own life for these people. So if even one of them asks for anything more, you tell them
Do you understand me? You tell them NO, Wendy.”
“I can't,” she cried. “I can't not help that little girl.”
When her mother's slap cracked across her cheek, Wendy sank against the passenger side door and wept.
“You gave that woman a gift tonight, so that's my gift to you in return. That's your reward,” her mother breathed, looming over her. “You're a Reaper now. Neither one of us wanted it like this, but what's done is done. It took the death of your best friend's father to make you this way. I love you, but the coddling is officially over!”
“No. No. I'm done arguing. You aren't putting our family and everything I've worked for in danger by reporting that man. I don't care what the ghost said. I can't risk my cover for some stranger's kid. I'm sorry, I really honestly am, Wendy, but I can't.”
“Then I don't want to be a Reaper,” Wendy whispered, wiping her tears away. “I quit.”
Her mother snorted. “Good luck. You think I didn't try that, too? You can't quit being a Reaper. It's who you are now. The best thing for you to do is learn how to do it right, how to cover your back in the living world, and how to keep yourself safe. You will be trained as my grandmother trained me, the same as her grandmother trained her. You will reap when I say to reap and you will do it over and over again until I've seen that you've done it right. As of this moment you're an adult; it's time to start acting like it.”
Wendy thought she was heartless. They didn't speak on the way home and her mother said nothing when Wendy pounded up the stairs to her room, slamming the door behind. But later that night, while her mother was on her cell talking to Nana, the kitchen phone rang. Wendy answered; it was her mother's boss.
“Winifred, hi honey, is your mom there?”
“No, she's on the other line. Do I need to go grab her? Is she on call?”
“No, honey, nothing like that. I don't have time to talk right now anyway. You just tell her that I got her message and I pulled some strings. The SFPD already sent a unit out to fetch…well, they got someone out of a bad situation. That's all you need to know to let her know, that it's all been taken care of, okay? That's all, and you write it down if you need to. Quote: ‘It's all been taken care of.’ Unquote. I'll talk to her next week. G'night, honey.”
Wendy wrote the message down, heart in her throat. She never brought it up again, but the next time her mother wanted to go reaping, Wendy went without comment and listened carefully to every instruction she was given. She owed her that much.
Pulling away from the memories before she started tearing up, Wendy grabbed her soda and gulped it down. The carbonation burned enough to clear her mind and she fought back a loud belch, pressing her hand flush against her lips and letting out a series of tiny burps instead. Setting down the glass, Wendy let her eyes wander around the restaurant, seeking anything to take her mind from her mother, her duty, her life.
ate afternoon found Piotr hesitating in the bushes outside the Dew Drop Diner. The living heat within was immense, baking through the brick as the dinner rush built. Inside, waitresses twisted through the crowd with beautiful confidence, serving coffee and ringing up orders with an efficiency he envied. The bustle of life was intoxicating…but painful.
Still, there was nothing to do but get the job done. This was the last place Dunn had been seen.
Dora, Specs, Tubs
, he thought to himself, drawing courage from the thought of them taken like this, from a place they felt safe and comfortable. He had to find a clue, any clue, to help Dunn, and he had to do it now! There was no room for fear here.
Taking a deep breath, Piotr centered his will and stepped through the wall. When he entered the diner, Piotr was expecting a mess—Walkers in feed were like rabid wolves; if Dunn had been devoured, the walls would be dripping with his essence—but everything was clean.
“What the—” he wondered aloud and dropped to his knees. “What happened here?”
Since her thoughts had been so recently centered on Piotr, Wendy was certain Piotr's appearance was her imagination. She rubbed her eyes brusquely, sure he would vanish, but he was real. Or as real as a ghost could be, anyway. Her fingers itched to open her backpack, dive into the contents, and pull out her binder to compare her sketch from last night to the slim ghost now crawling across the restaurant, his hand gripping a table for balance.
Wendy's memories of him didn't do Piotr justice. She'd thought that the fall of hair, the dark eyes, even the scar that twisted from temple to neck half-hidden by his hair had been branded into her memory, but those pale images came up short of what he really was. Had any spirit she'd ever seen glowed so bright, so fiercely? Barely transparent, Piotr looked almost real, crouched on the linoleum. He looked alive.
, she said to herself.
He was searching for something. Every few feet he leaned forward, peered underneath the booths, and then continued on; his counter-clockwise circuit of the diner would bring Piotr to Wendy's booth within moments. Eddie would understand if she did her thing, of course, but Jon wouldn't and neither would the other customers. The diner was packed, so there was no way to discreetly step into the Never to talk to Piotr face to face on his own turf.
Torn, Wendy hesitated, not sure what to do.
While the heat of living bodies was immense, Piotr found it bearable if he kept his mind clear and concentrated on the task at hand. Being dead was all about willpower; you had to have the will to keep yourself coherent. Otherwise, eventually, you'd fade away until you became a Shade, a memory of a soul. It was a terrible, horrible way to go—deaf and dumb to everything, even the Never, drawn back to the place of your death and trapped there until you were a wisp, eventually extinguished.
Dunn wouldn't have become a Shade, Piotr reminded himself as he peered under a table. He had died too young, too strong. The Lost had too much willpower, too much energy, too much life left in them when they died. Dying a brutal death turned the Lost into batteries, going on and on and on without end, rudderless in a world that quickly forgot their short time on it. It made them a target for Walkers.
Cannibalism. Eating a young soul. It was the only way for an adult ghost to permanently stave off the centuries and the constant need to be vigilant and alert, to will themselves to remain whole. To continue to exist. Of course, there was a price: every Lost destroyed ate at the ties a soul kept to the Never until the cord was gone, until the salvation of the Light was impossible.
Eventually the Walkers became monsters, shadows creeping at the edge of the abyss, silver cords obliterated; mere shells of their former selves. Some of the Walkers deemed their damnation a fair trade for the certainty of existence. The Light was a terrifying mystery. The Never was just a darker sort of life.
For Piotr, there'd never been a question of what to do. The choice had always been simple. Seek out the Lost. Keep them safe. Repeat.
Protecting the Lost gave him the will to keep going on, as it did for all the other Riders. Over the years Piotr had lost a few of the Lost—some to the hunger of the Walkers and a couple who preferred other Riders like Elle or James—but most of his Lost eventually found peace on their own.
It took time, forgetting your own death and moving on, but when the Light came, Piotr was always there to help his Lost enter. It could take decades but, over time, the Light almost always came for the Lost Piotr protected. Only Dora had been with him so long he'd forgotten when he'd picked her up. He knew that, given enough time and attention, she too would one day enter the Light.
Secretly Piotr hoped that this was what had happened to Dunn.
It wasn't that Piotr didn't trust Lily's word—she was intelligent and her instincts rarely led her astray—but if he could find proof that Dunn had simply stepped into the Light, that the Walkers hadn't dared a restaurant full of living, searing human souls, then Piotr would rest easier.
It was a best-case scenario, but he was desperate for good news.
Now, kneeling on the floor of a diner stuffed with living people, their burning hot legs scissoring through him, clipping his hip, his thigh, his shoulder, Piotr moved as quickly as he could among waitresses who poured coffee, chatted, and made change. On hands and knees he crawled, seeking the charred circle that would indicate the presence of the corridor of Light, searching for proof that something might still be going their way.
So engrossed in his task, Piotr didn't pay attention to the living in the booths. Normally the living felt a chill when the dead were near, a pocket of cold air most noticed only as they were passing through. Most of the dead had the good sense to be still when the living were near—humans tended to pass quickly by, repulsed by the icy cold—so there was less chance of injury for the dead.
Searching closely for clues, Piotr left a wake of shivering humans behind him. Several called for their waitresses, complaining about the vents. More reached for jackets or sweaters, or cuddled against their booth-mates, seeking body warmth.
It wasn't until he was resting his hand on the table on the window side of the room that he noticed the girl. Unlike the others, no gooseflesh popped up on her skin at his proximity; she did not shiver or pull away. Piotr would have dismissed this—perhaps she was used to cold—except for the rigid way she held her body, stiff and still but breathing elevated, rapid. He could feel her heat thrumming, more intense than the others, a warmth like banked coals in a pocket nimbus of heat.
Piotr paused, looking her expression over closely. The girl tensed and her eyelids swept down, the thick concealing lashes feathered across her cheekbones, but underneath Piotr could spot the gleam of her eyes. Testing a theory, Piotr shifted his weight and her gaze, nearly concealed by her eyelashes but not entirely, followed his movement. Piotr frowned, shifted again, and again her eyes tracked him.
“You can see me,” he said, wonder drying the saliva in his mouth, leaving his tongue thick and furry with excitement. A tingle began in his gut; working outward and leaving the edges of his body alight with a fierce pins-and-needles sensation. “You can see me.”
The accusation was quiet, no more than a whisper, but the girl's breath hitched and she flushed; licking her lips, she turned away and glanced around the restaurant as if searching for a savior. There was no one.
“I have to get up. Excuse me,” she told her two boothmates and rose, brushing by Piotr but not touching him, moving swiftly for the door. Piotr followed, heart hammering in his chest, and melted through the wall in time to spot her turning the corner and hurrying through the parking lot, chin tucked to chest and looking neither right nor left.
The girl was athletic, he noticed, lithe and well-muscled but small in stature, padded in all the right places. Her hair, brilliantly red at the roots and faded black at the tips, had been allowed to grow wild, tumbling down her back in a riot of curls. The clothing she wore wasn't immodest exactly, Elle often wore much less, but the cut of it and the way it clung left little to the imagination, granting the girl a fluid mobility Elle would certainly admire. Oddly enough, she was pierced and tattooed, intricate tribal designs worked around her wrists and collarbone in patterns that hurt Piotr's eyes when he looked at them too long.
Only her face, rounded like a child's, with large brown eyes and full lips, looked innocent. The rest of her whispered
But a living girl had seen him, had recognized him for what he was, and that was a siren call Piotr was unwilling to resist.
The girl approached a blue car, some new model Piotr didn't recognize, and dug through her pockets. Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she opened a cell phone and pressed it to her ear.
“Hello?” she said aloud, glancing left and right at the empty parking lot. She settled on the back of the car, her weight barely dipping the trunk down. “Yes,” she said, tilting her head towards the main road, studiously not looking at Piotr. “I can see you.”
Confused, Piotr moved to stand in front of her so she would not be able to look away. “Are you insane? What are you doing?”
“Well,” she said, meeting his eyes at last but still pressing the phone to her ear, “I've found that I look less crazy this way. You know, talking to myself.”
“I see,” he said, and he really did. He'd heard of people like her, the soothsayers and fortune tellers who actually had a touch of the Sight in their blood, Seers that a soul could turn to for aid if they were willing to pay a price. In years past, many of those women had been burned as witches. Some, at their death, came to live in the Never, promising rich rewards to the unwary and unwise. This Seer was young, though, and soft around the eyes. Perhaps this was all new to her, or perhaps it had never occurred to her to charge for her care. Most Seers he'd known wouldn't even talk to a spirit unless there was something in it for them; she seemed to be an exception.
“I am Piotr,” he began, unsure what else to say. He tingled from head to toe now, heart hammering against his ribs, waves of jumbled emotion rocking him with unbelievable force. He cleared his throat. “And you?”
“Wendy,” she replied shortly, meeting his gaze and giving him a long searching look. Piotr, unsure as to why she was staring at him so hard, broke the contact after a few moments. Wendy's expression was painfully intense; he felt as if he'd failed some vital test. “It's short for Winifred?”
When he looked back he realized that her lips had thinned into a straight, taut line. She wet them several times, as if tasting her next words. Long moments passed before she sighed, shook her head, and laughed brusquely.
“You don't recognize me.” Wendy rubbed the side of her hand against her forehead, leaving a pink mark behind. “I guess I shouldn't be so surprised. I'm just me, right? Just Wendy.”
Startled, Piotr stepped back, taking her in again, carefully this time. Wendy stared at him in turn, eyes tracing his face with something like wonder. He realized that she truly did know him in some way, though she was a mystery in return.
, I'm sorry.” Nervous now, taken aback, he clasped his hands and rocked back and forth on his heels, a child taken to task for an unremembered crime. Elle's taunts came back to him:
that old memory of yours just ain't what it used to be.
Annoyed, Piotr shoved the mocking voice away. “Should I?”
“Curly,” she replied and laughed again. The bitterness was gone now and the warmth had returned to her smile. Wendy rolled her eyes. “You called me Curly.”
The nickname was familiar but it took Piotr several seconds of actively casting back, thinking hard, before the image of the girl came. Blood-spattered and smoke-dusted, she'd been a tiny thing, eyes dilated in shock from a terrible crash and skin greenish-pale as curdled cream. It had been a car wreck, one dead, and the song of the Light fading away in the distance when he'd rode on the scene.
, now I remember you,” he said, marveling. “The highway…there was bad weather on your side…the living side, yes?” Without thought his hand stretched forward as if to touch her but he truncated the movement, embarrassed to show wonder at the reunion.
“Got it in one.” The girl, Curly—no, Wendy—kicked her chunky boots and tilted her head back, staring up at the late afternoon clouds as if willing them to drift down and envelop her, stealing her away. “I thought I was seeing things, but you said I wasn't.” She straightened and drew one knee up to her chest, resting her chin upon it. “In case you didn't remember.”
, I remember,” he said again, at a loss for what to say, and uncomfortable.
Her smile was swift, bittersweet. “Yeah, you seem to, now.” There was a clicking noise, faint but precise, and Piotr realized that Wendy had a metal rod through her tongue that she tapped thoughtfully against her teeth. He stared at it, fascinated. Why would someone do that to themselves? It boggled the mind.