Authors: K.D. McEntire
“So, Piotr,” she said at last, “what were you doing in there? Don't the dead usually avoid the living? Or am I just an exception for you?” Her chuckle was light and sweet.
Piotr's heart lurched and he felt like a fool, imagining what it would be like to get real, honest laughter out of this girl. Seers were by their very nature dour people. If time and contact with ghosts hadn't soured her against the dead yet, it would. It always did.
Still, Piotr decided, there would be no harm in telling her. Wendy was, after all, able to see his kind and might, if fate was kind, have been a witness to whatever happened to Dunn.
“Looking for clues,” Piotr began, choosing his words carefully. He liked this girl and he didn't want to upset her unduly, but the situation merited a need for a certain amount of detail.
In the end Piotr outlined the bare bones of the situation, leaving out the horror that was the Lightbringer and the nightmare that was his recent encounter with the White Lady, stating only the rumors that the White Lady was ultimately behind the unrest among the dead and the recent rash of kidnappings. He told her about Dunn. Wendy listened in attentive silence, nodding her head at the right moments and clicking the bar against her teeth at others.
“So what you're telling me is that the Walkers,” she said the word far easier than Piotr had anticipated. It slipped easily between her lips, as if she had practice, “are kidnapping the souls of little kids all over town?”
“We call the children ‘the Lost,’ but
, this is correct. Before…before, the Walkers always devoured the Lost,” Piotr confirmed. “As soon as they got claws on them. But now…” he left the sentence unfinished.
“They're acting weird, traveling in packs. Grabbing instead of chowing down.” Wendy switched the phone to her other ear. A car pulled into the space beside them and Wendy nodded to herself, muttering, “Uh huh, okay, I get it,” until the passengers had turned the corner to the diner's entryway.
! You understand, but…you've…had experiences with them?” Piotr knew he shouldn't be surprised at this, but the dichotomy of the thin, shocked girl huddled by the highway and this young, powerful woman was still fresh and startling to him. He supposed he would have to adjust.
“I've met the Lost before. Not often, but every now and then. Once I even spotted a Walker, uh…feeding.” Wendy paled and she wrapped her free arm around her stomach, hunching over. “It was…it was horrible,” she said. Piotr ached for her but didn't know how to comfort the living over the obliteration of the dead. “Nasty.”
“So you know. You have seen.”
“Well, yeah. I've been spotting Walkers wander all over for weeks, but I didn't realize it was this big a deal. And you think they're taking their marching orders from this White Lady chick? But why? Aren't they the ultimate evil on your side of the line? They've clearly got you and yours on the run.”
“The White Lady can give them something no one else can,” Piotr admitted. “Flesh. Before now, the Walkers would look out only for themselves. Then the White Lady came. Somehow, with her touch, she can reverse their deathrot. It was a mark of their darkness, the rot. It showed us that they fed on the young. To so casually reverse the marks of such blasphemy…she's
“Gee, ya think?” Wendy sighed, rubbed a knuckle against the bridge of her nose, and tilted her head back, scowling up at the endless expanse of sky. “Great. Just what I need right now. An army of undead cannibals on the warpath.”
Piotr searched for a tactful way to express his surprise at her reaction. “Why would this concern you? You are alive. The worries of the dead, surely they are nothing to you?”
“You'd be surprised,” she replied shortly. “The concerns of the dead are sort of a big thing to me right now.” Her expression softened. “In more ways than one, apparently. Count me in.”
“You wish to help me?” Piotr was flabbergasted. “But why?”
Rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand, Wendy shrugged, flushing. “Couple of reasons, I guess. One, I don't care if they're alive or dead, no one should be messing with kids. Secondly, you were the first ghost I ever laid eyes on, so I sort of feel like I owe you. You know, for keeping me company when I had no clue what was going on. And finally, well, I've got my own selfish reasons, okay? I scratch your back, and vice the versa. I help you out, maybe you'll think about helping me with a problem I've got going on.”
“It is a deal,” Piotr said, marveling at his luck. A Seer could go places a regular spirit like himself could not; she was living, after all. “What aid may I offer, Wendy? How can I help?”
“You want to know now?”
“It is as good a time as any,
Is it a question? Perhaps I have the answer already.”
“I…” Wendy swallowed thickly. “I was wondering if you'd heard about a ghost wandering around town.”
Piotr raised an eyebrow and dared a smile. “I see many ghosts. It is my luck.”
“No, I mean…a specific ghost.” Wendy chewed her lower lip and suddenly brightened. “Wait! I have a picture, here.” She pulled the phone away from her face and pressed a few buttons in rapid succession. Piotr peered over her shoulder as she pulled up a picture of a slim red-haired woman with dark, kind eyes and a tired smile. Like Wendy, she sported a ring of intricate tattoos around her collarbone.
“This woman, she looks something like you,” Piotr said. “A sister?”
“Ah,” Piotr sighed. “She has recently died and you wish to know if she's still in the Never,
Or if she's moved on into the Light?”
Wendy gaped. “You can find out if a spirit's gone into the Light? Seriously?”
He laughed. “Of course! You think the Light leaves no mark in our world? If you find a place where the Light has been, it is special, sacred space until the marks of the Light fade. Some even worship there, hoping the Light will return.”
“To find your Light is a great blessing in the Never.” Piotr laid a hand against his heart. “It is an end to pain and suffering. Many think it is to go home again. For one at the end of their rope, essence worn thin…anything is better than fading away,
And who knows? The Light might return to that spot, taking any other ready souls with it.”
“Is that really what you think?”
Piotr shrugged. “Me? I do not know much about it. It is peaceful, I think, going when you are ready. The Light comes for them and my Lost, when they go, they always smile. I like that.”
“That's nice,” Wendy said. “I've never seen a ghost enter the Light on their own.”
“Maybe one day you will, da?” Piotr leaned over her shoulder again and frowned at the picture on her cell phone. “But I do not think I have seen this woman, your mother, Wendy.
, my apologies. I can keep a lookout, though. If you wish.”
“I do,” Wendy said, closing her cell. “I really do.”
“Then I shall help you,” Piotr promised. “You have my word. But…” He hesitated.
“But?” Wendy prompted.
“It is nothing.” Piotr waved a hand. “My friend Lily says I am like an old woman. I worry too much.”
His friend Lily?
Wendy was startled by the jolt she felt at the mention of the name. After all, it wasn't as if Piotr existed only in the vacuum of her memories. Of course he'd have friends among the dead. “If you've got a ‘but,’ I want to hear about it,” she said. Then winced. “I mean, what's got you worried, Piotr?”
“How long has it been?” Piotr asked. “Since your mother—”
“She had her accident in February,” Wendy interrupted. She didn't know why, but she didn't feel comfortable admitting to Piotr that her mother wasn't dead yet. Perhaps because every other comatose soul had the good sense to remain tethered to their body and her mother…well, hadn't. “So it's been about seven months.”
Peter's expression was grave. “That is long enough for a soul to find the Light on their own, Wendy. Or, if she didn't have the willpower to stay…she could have faded, become a Shade, is what I'm trying to say. You have met a Shade before in your wanderings,
No shit, Sherlock
, Wendy thought. After her first reap but before her mother's accident, Shades had been all Wendy had been allowed to reap. The lost and lonely souls had forgotten themselves so far that they wouldn't have recognized their Light if it'd burst into being right in front of them. Shades were their bread-and-butter, the meat of her duty as a Reaper. They were the souls she had to hunt down and the most important ones to send on. Otherwise they'd continue to fade, to pale, to vanish…into nothing. Souls lost and gone.
“Yeah,” she said, disturbed by the realization that when she'd sworn off reaping last spring that she'd also left a city full of Shades to their own devices. How many helpless souls had been suffering through the long and drowsy summer while she'd searched only for her mother? “I've met a couple.”
“I'm borrowing trouble,” Piotr soothed. “This is unlikely. Seven months is not long. We will find her if she can be found. My word on it.”
“Thank you,” Wendy said. “I appreciate it.”
“It is nothing,” he swore and bowed slightly, clicking his heels together. “Now then, I must take my leave of you.”
Piotr gestured to the diner. “I have work yet to do. Dunn was taken here.”
Wendy straightened, her color returning. Her weary concern was replaced by a steely-eyed determination Piotr found fascinating. “Here? In the diner? But being so close to the living hurts you, right? Yet you wanna go back in and look for the kid?”
” Piotr said. “I had hoped he had just gone into the Light, but there is no scorching in the Never. There is no essence, either.” He saw her confusion and explained, “Essence is like flesh and blood to the living. It is a mystery.” He sighed. “I had hoped, before…you weren't in the diner when he was taken? A few days ago, around noon?”
Sympathetic, Wendy shook her head. “No, I'm sorry. The food's awesome and I'd live here if I could, but that whole school thing gets in the way.” Brightening, she added, “But maybe your first guess was right? Maybe the kid just moved on into the Light? You didn't get a chance to check under all the booths, after all. I got in your way.”
“It is possible, but unlikely.”
Kicking at the dirt, Piotr examined the Never terrain around him with a critical eye. The fire had scoured away the spiritual remains of the tenement building that had once stood on this ground, leaving only the solid diner in its place. He'd told Wendy the truth. There was no new residue here, he could see that now, no charred traces of Light that clung to walls or seats or doors.
Closer inspection proved that the boy hadn't passed into the Light. Lily was right. Dunn had been taken, most likely by the White Lady's Walkers.
“Going in there hurts you,” Wendy said matter-of-factly, spying his troubled expression.
“But you have to see if there's anything that'll point you in the right direction. A clue.”
“Okay then.” Determined to help, Wendy hopped from her place and strolled towards the diner. “Stay here.”
“Wait…what?” Piotr hurried after, reaching for her shoulder. He drew back when he realized the folly of trying to grab her. Wendy was living; not only would his hand pass right through her, but he'd burn himself in the process. Speeding up his pace, he hurried to step in front of her, cutting her off. “I do not understand.”
Amused, Wendy stopped walking and gestured to the building. “Piotr, I can help you. It hurts you to be in there, right?” She waited for his nod. “Okay then, well, it doesn't hurt me at all, and I can see everything you see.”
“You…can see the Never?” Stunned, Piotr stepped away from her and shook his head. He'd never heard of such a thing before, even from other Seers. Most could hear the dead, some could even make the dead out—dim shapes they'd describe to paying customers—but none that he'd known had ever admitted to seeing the landscape of the Never itself. It was mind-boggling to even contemplate. “Not just me, but my world?”
Wendy pointed across the street. “Remnants of a four story hotel layered over that Burger la Hut,” she stated cheerily in a tour-guide falsetto, giggling every third word and bobbing her head left and right. “Next to the genuinely ghostly hotel, look south! In that supposedly empty lot is the remains of a fabulous fifties soda fountain with be-bop, soul hop, and rock and roll to soothe your soul! Don't worry kiddies, though the Big-Bopper-Drive-In has nearly faded away, the fifties will never die!”
Dropping the bubblehead act, Wendy jerked her thumb towards the diner she'd just been sitting in. “Not too long ago, there used to be an apartment building layered over that building, but the last of it faded away last May. I think it burned down, what, in the sixties?”
,” Piotr whispered, stunned. She was the most thorough Seer he'd ever met or even heard of. The strength of her power was stunning, and not a little frightening. “You have it.”
“Let me help you,” she urged. “Don't hurt yourself over this when I can do it for you.”
This strange girl would be the undoing of him, Piotr mused silently, before nodding. She hurried away and he sank to the earth and closed his eyes. He had to bring her up to the others, he realized. Lily was wise; Lily was old. She would know what to do.
Because Piotr was at a loss.
ddie was waiting for her when Wendy returned. She slid into the seat and said, “I needed some
time.” She flicked her gaze toward Jon, who had finished his fries and had started on Eddie's. Eddie, catching on, pursed his lips and nodded.
Casually, Wendy set her glass on the edge of the table. Then, just as casually, she elbowed it. The cup toppled off the table, hit the linoleum, and shattered, sending shards of glass, ice, and a splash of soda across the floor.
“Crap!” Wendy grabbed a handful of napkins and dropped to her knees, furtively glancing around the room. Most of the other customers were staring at her—a few clapped and whistled—but within seconds most had returned to their own conversations and meals.
“Oh honey!” Lucy exclaimed, dropping to her side bearing a towel and a dustpan. “Don't mess with that glass, Winni-girl, you'll cut yourself.”
“I'm so sorry, Lucy,” Wendy apologized, grabbing the towel from her. “I won't touch the glass, but let me get the Coke, okay?” Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted something faint and glowing under the booth next to her. Crawling to the empty booth, she mopped several pieces of ice back towards the pile Lucy was brushing up.
Beneath the table, half hidden by the table leg, was a ghostly Mets baseball cap. It was battered and ragged in several places—not just thin, the way ethereal objects got when their real-world counterparts had faded away, but covered in precise dime-size circles. Wendy was reminded of the movie
and the acid-holes left behind wherever the creature wandered.
Quickly, so no one would see, Wendy snatched the hat from under the table and backed out. Not looking where she was going, she suddenly hissed in pain. A piece of glass, about the size of her knuckle, was embedded in the meaty bulge beneath her thumb. “Ow.”
“See what I mean?” Lucy reprimanded Wendy, kneeling beside her and taking her hand gingerly. “Oh poor thing. Let me see.” She plucked the glass free and squeezed the wound to loosen any remaining particles. It hadn't gone in too deep; the cut bled only sluggishly.
“I've got it, Lucy,” Eddie interjected, extracting a miniature first aid kit from the side pocket of his backpack. “She's always bumping into stuff.”
“Well, at least go wash it in the ladies room,” Lucy sighed, releasing Wendy. Half a dozen swipes later and the last of the mess was piled in the dustbin.
“Gimme that,” Eddie ordered, ripping an alcohol pad packet open, and swabbing the cut. Jon, uneasy at the sight of blood, hunched over his homework, refusing to glance up. Eddie tsked. “That's not bad at all.”
Wendy sat through his ministrations until he tried to bandage it. “A band-aid will just come off,” she insisted, pulling her hand free. “It'll scab over. Thank you.”
“I think I need a breath of fresh air.”
Now that the gore had been cleaned away, Jon was willing to rejoin the conversation. “Again? But you just got back.”
“I'm tired and I just sliced my hand open,” Wendy snapped. “Lay off.”
Realizing that she was being too sharp with him, Wendy squeezed Jon's shoulder as she rose. “Sorry. Bitchy-me is gonna take a walk. I'm just super edgy for some reason, tonight. Call when Chel gets here.” She shot Eddie a look—
I will explain later
—and he nodded, waving her off as he reached for Camus once more.
Piotr was waiting by the car. Wendy held the cap by the bill and passed it to him, conscious of the fact that even being in proximity to her must be unpleasant for him. Under normal circumstances, before her mother's accident, Wendy would have already dug deep inside and called upon her power to reap Piotr, to set him free.
But now? Since her mother's accident Wendy had sworn off reaping all ghosts, even the Shades, unless absolutely necessary. The accident had proven just how unprepared she was for the duties of a Reaper—reaping was too dangerous, impossible to control. But if someone deserved to be sent into the Light, wasn't it Piotr? He protected children, watched over them, kept them safe. He'd told her about the other Riders who were watching his own Lost. They were in good custody, weren't they? No one would miss him, and she knew it would be the right thing to do.
I think I really intend to do it
, she mused.
I think I'm gonna reap Piotr and set him free.
But not yet. Piotr still had a job to do and Wendy, surprising herself, realized that she intended to help him do it.
When this is all done
, she promised herself,
I'll release him. Protecting children. Waking me to my own abilities. If anyone deserves to be sent on to the afterlife, it's this guy.
Wendy ignored the increased thump of her heart and sickening tightness in her gut at the thought. Piotr was dead, she was alive. Cute or not, Piotr was long meant for the land beyond the Never's eternal limbo.
Piotr said, turning the cap around in his hands. “Thank you, Wendy. I owe you much. Was there anything else?”
“I didn't get much of a look, but that seems to be it.” Careful not to get her hand too close lest she injure him in some way, Wendy pointed out the dime-sized holes peppering the bill. “Have you ever seen this before?”
After a surreptitious glance around the parking lot, Wendy settled herself on the curb and, remembering her cover, pulled out her cell phone again. The lot was empty of people beside herself and Piotr, but Wendy was unwilling to appear to be talking to herself, especially if Jon or Chel might see. With her luck, they'd run to Dad and tattle; then he'd slap her into counseling for acting crazy in public.
Piotr raised the cap up to the sunlight, peering through the holes, and Wendy wondered what the world looked like on that side, if there were colors and textures or if everything was as washed out and grey as it appeared to her. “I must bring this to the other Riders and see if perhaps they've seen this sort of thing before.”
“If they've seen a hat?”
Piotr flapped the cap. “This hat is made of Dunn himself. His essence. If he were gone—into the Light or eaten—the cap would vanish too,
But it's still whole. Which means Lily was correct; Dunn is a hostage.” Folding the cap as tightly as he could, Piotr stuffed it into one of the pockets in his cargo pants. “This complicates things.”
“I'll say.” Wendy shaded her eyes against the late afternoon sunlight, admiring him out of the corner of her eye. “So what now?”
“Nothing for now.” Piotr frowned and gestured with the cap. “I must take this to the others. The word must go out.”
“That's it? All that and you won't even tell me what's going to happen next?”
“You know everything I do.” Piotr rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. “The cap, it is a mystery but it is enough proof that the Lost was taken. Where? Who knows? It is a place to start. Now I go north to tell the others. Again,
My thanks.” He turned away.
“Wait!” Caught up in the moment, Wendy forgot herself and reached out to grab his hand. Wendy didn't think about the action. If she had, she wouldn't have touched him for fear of what her powers would do. She simply reached out and grabbed for him, hoping to stall him long enough to at least let him know how to reach her.
Just as before, his hand smoked where she touched him, but the smoke dissipated quickly and appeared painless for Piotr. For Wendy, it was another story.
Her memories couldn't do justice to the strange feeling touching him wrought. Wendy had encountered other ghosts before, so many she'd lost count, but never had she been able to feel them as anything more than a sweep of chill air while she was not using her powers. There was a momentary sense of air pressure, a yielding, but nothing more. When she was in her other state, the touch of a soul was like grasping dry ice in her bare hands, and she kept her encounters as swift as possible to minimize any pain—both for them and for herself.
Touching Piotr shocked her into stillness. His flesh was cool but not icy, almost as firm as real skin under her fingers, and where her palm pressed into the bone of his elbow a sharp jolt ran up her arm to her shoulder, a tingling wave like static electricity. The shock left the muscles of her arm jumping and twitching in its wake.
“Wendy?” Piotr pulled his elbow out of her grip, breaking the connection that bound her silent and still. “What—”
“I didn't hurt you, did I?” Wendy gasped. “Just then?”
Piotr shook his head. “I am fine. But that…what was that?”
“I don't—I don't know.” Wendy licked her lips and rubbed her hands together. Every nerve in her body felt pleasantly tingly, as if she'd passed through the eye of some electric tornado and come out the other end uplifted and unscathed. “I've never felt that before. Not even last time. You know, when we met.”
Wendy closed her cell phone and slid it into her pocket. This moment was more important than a masquerade for the living. Inside the diner Eddie and Jon were eating fries and tick-tocking their way through their normal lives; out here was insanity too immediate to be denied.
“Are you hurt? Did I…?” Piotr ran his hands wildly through his hair. “How do you feel?”
Her laughter came out a touch crazier than she'd intended it to; even to her own ears it sounded edgy and rough; high, sharp and broken. Wild. “Fine, I guess.”
“Should we…?” Piotr held out his hand, fingers splayed. An invitation. When Wendy nodded and held out her own hand in kind, he stepped closer. This time it was Piotr who reached for Wendy, threading his fingers through hers, cupping her hand in his. Wendy was helpless to stop it. Crazy electric sensations or not, she wanted to feel the intoxicating coolness of his not-quite-flesh pressed against the skin of her palm.
“This is amazing,” Piotr murmured before breaking off, bewildered smile fading. Hand in hers, his not-flesh sizzled faintly but only for a moment, and the smoke was gone in a breath. “How do you feel?”
“Alive,” Wendy whispered. “I can't…it's like…I can't describe it. I don't know.” She closed her eyes. “It's nice. It hurts at first, and it's kinda cold to the touch, but it's only, like, a second of pain and then…whoosh! Every nerve lights up. I feel like the Energizer Bunny, Piotr, like every hair should stand on end.” Wendy bit her lip. “What's it like for you?”
, but the hurt is a blink. Then…I am calm inside? Quiet? It is very nice, very relaxed. I feel…peaceful.” His fingers squeezed hers again and a pleasant warmth filled Wendy's chest at the gentle pressure. Dead or not, scarred or not, Piotr really was sort of attractive and he carried himself with such earnest conviction that even cynical Wendy found herself moved by his pleasure. She leaned in close, wanting to press her hand to his cheek when he casually added, “It is beginning to burn.”
Horrified, Wendy snatched her hand away, cursing herself for ten kinds of fool. “I'm so sorry! When it didn't keep hurting me I just…did I hurt you? I'm such an idiot! Are you okay?” She started to reach for him, to soothe her touch, and then realized what a foolish gesture that would be. She tucked her hands deep in her pockets to quell the urge.
“I am fine.” He held up his hands, turning them palm out to her. “The burn is fading.” Piotr trembled, whether in joy or fear she couldn't tell. Perhaps, Wendy reasoned, it was like stubbing your toe or picking up a splinter; it hurt more after you realized you were hurt. Either way, Piotr seemed in no pain now.
The threat of future pain didn't slow him down for long. Marveling, Piotr reached tentatively forward, fingers hovering several inches from her cheek. “May I?”
Wendy closed her eyes and nodded. Feather-soft, his fingers brushed along her cheekbone and down the side of her neck, running through her hair and lifting the curling strands off her jaw with a whispering touch. When he ran his hands along each row of ear studs the metal cooled quickly, the posts growing painfully cold in her cartilage. Otherwise, his hand on her flesh was cool, pleasant and sweet.
Gonna have to get an acrylic barbell
, Wendy inwardly mused then flushed with the realization of what her errant thought implied.
Slowly, feeling her way, Wendy reached out and mimicked his movements, brushing fingers across his eyebrows, down his nose, across his cheekbones. His lips were full and soft beneath her fingertips and the line of his jaw was firm. Everywhere she touched him, she tingled, the electric current running feverishly just beneath her skin. Inexplicably she felt sweaty and hot. Her corset was binding her torso close, and the jeans stretched across her thighs were suddenly too tight.
“This is crazy,” Wendy whispered at last, drawing her fingers away, dulling the strange, fierce tingle that turned her muscles to jubilant jelly. “This shouldn't be happening.”
“Insanity,” he agreed and folded his hands in his lap, hunching over and shifting so she saw only his profile.
“Piotr?” Forcing her traitorous fingers to remain still, Wendy held back the urge to reach out and touch his shoulder. “Are you okay?” She was almost positive that none of the light inside had leaked through her skin when she'd been touching him, but the sensation of interacting with a ghost without reaping it was so fresh and new.