Authors: K.D. McEntire
Easing the car out of the parking space, Eddie settled into the line forming at the edge of campus. Around them other seniors threw their things into their trunks or backseats and revved their engines, lining up quickly behind him and shouting holiday well-wishes at one another. The air was cold, not frosty—not in California—but still chill enough to turn cheeks pink and make eyes sting.
“Why is it that you,” Eddie continued, waving at Pete Abrahms who cheerfully leapt into his dad's van beside them, “have to go around reaping people who're already dead? I mean, doesn't that just seem a touch backward to you?”
They reached the front of the line. Eddie signaled, turned right, caught the tail end of the yellow light, and within moments they were away from the campus and heading towards home. Wendy, at a loss for words, sulked in silence.
Eddie let five minutes pass, turning left, right, and left again as he took the back streets home. “Not getting an answer, huh?”
“It's my job,” she said. “It's my mom's job and it was my grandma's job and it was her grandmother's job, yada yada yada, so on and so forth. If you don't understand that, Eddie, you don't understand me after all.”
They were passing a park not far from her house where a cluster of elementary kids were learning to skate on the wide paths, holding hands and following a teenage girl in a narrow V like fluorescent-headed ducklings. Watching them, Wendy pressed her fingers to the glass, yearning.
“Hey, after fifteen years of putting up with your crap I think I understand you just fine,” he protested. “Maybe it's you who doesn't understand yourself. Maybe you just need to—”
“Stop the car,” Wendy demanded, sitting up suddenly.
“What? Oh, no, hon, I'm not gonna let you be like that.” Eddie shook his head and slapped his hand down on the auto locks. “After all this crap I don't have to put up with a temper tantrum from you. You don't get to storm off and—”
“Eds, shut your mouth for one damn second, stop the car, and open the stupid fucking door! I'll be right back!” Wendy snapped. She kicked at the passenger door, cracking the plastic, and Eddie, bewildered, stopped and unlocked the car. Without another word she was out the door and sprinting across a small local playground, fading out of sight within seconds of her feet hitting the grass.
“Damn it,” he grunted, scowling. “Not again.” Pulling the car along the curb, Eddie parked and waited, eyeing the cracked plastic with a scowl. This could take a while.
Piotr, eyes closed, waited for the first blow to fall. The blow never came.
Instead a slow sweep of sound broke through the clearing, sweet and high, vibrating at the top of the range with a crystal tone. Heat began baking his cheeks and face, and where the warmth touched him, Piotr felt his anxiety drain away, felt the soothing sweetness fill him and lift him up. The hands loosened their unbreakable grip on his wrists; the vile tongue slipped away.
When Piotr opened his eyes the Light was blinding.
The Walkers, lost in the siren song, held open their seeping, mutilated arms and welcomed the Lightbringer's embrace. Piotr began crawling forward, seeking the Light, and saw Specs doing so as well, both making their way as best they could towards the glorious, aching afterlife.
Before they could reach the edges of the Light, however, the song quieted, faded away. The Walkers were no more, taken with such rapidity that Piotr had hardly noticed their passing, and now only Wendy remained, the remainder of the Light glowing around her edges, eyes wary.
“Well, that's new,” she said, sinking to her knees, face grave. Wendy held up her forearm. Four parallel slashes, deep enough that Piotr could see the red meat inside, bled sluggishly through the material of her grey overshirt. Wendy stripped the shirt off and wrapped the thin material around her wrist. “Ow,” she complained and glanced at Piotr from beneath her lashes. “Hi,” she said, tying off the makeshift bandage, “I missed you.”
“You too?” Piotr held out his hand. Before Wendy could reach for it, Specs was suddenly there between them, hands outstretched and eyes wild.
“Take me home!” he half-screamed, ignoring Piotr completely. It was as if Piotr wasn't even there. “I saw it! You hid it but I saw it! I want to go home! I want my mommy! Mommy!” He grabbed Wendy's wrist with both arms and shouted into her face, spit flying, “I WANT TO GO HOME!”
A burst of energy—purple-cold and fierce—pulsed out from him in a wave so powerful it knocked Piotr a full fifteen feet backwards. It was like nothing he'd ever seen or felt before, like nothing he could have ever imagined. Wendy, trapped by Specs' tight hold around her wrist, sagged in his grip. Her face, red from the exertion of channeling the Light, bled white within moments and her lips turned bluish at the edges. She began to gag.
Horrified, Piotr struggled to his feet as Specs released Wendy's wrist and bent over her, shoving his small hands
the flesh of her stomach and pulling something small and round and sharply glowing from deep within her gut. “I see you,” he sobbed. “Let me go home. Please? Please take me home?”
“Specs!” Piotr called, squinting to look at the intense ball of light in the boy's grasp. “Wendy cannot help you if you're hurting her! Specs! Specs! Listen to me!”
The boy didn't hear, only clutched the orb and rocked back and forth, sobbing.
Wendy, face down in the dirt, didn't move.
orrified and uncertain what to do, Piotr approached Specs at an angle. Just a glance told him that the ball of light was fragile; he had a sense that if Specs dropped it, the ball might shatter. Gingerly, making sure to keep his movements slow and even, Piotr wrapped one arm around Specs' shoulders and slid the other hand around the orb. It was white-hot in his hand and he hissed a deep breath, shocked by the sheer magnitude of the pain.
he whispered. “Stay with me. Do not die.”
Carefully tensing his fingers, Piotr scooped the orb out of Specs' grip and laid it on Wendy's navel. At first nothing happened, but then, just as Piotr was wracking his brain for some other way that might return the glowing thing to Wendy's insides, it began to sink through her flesh. Piotr's other arm tightened around the boy, both drawing excess energy from him and holding him back. Specs struggled for a moment before faltering, blinking rapidly several times, and shaking his head. “Piotr?”
“Ny ti i
idiot,” Piotr said evenly, rolling and unrolling his hand as Specs' essence worked its way through his system, fully healing his wounds and numbing the excruciating blaze of pain that had enveloped his orb-handling hand.
“I don't believe that I need a translation for that,” Specs groaned.
“You are okay? You are calm?”
A nod. “Yeah.” Specs wiped his hair away from his eyes, licked his lips nervously. “I think…I think that's her soul.” He glanced at the last vanishing remnants of the orb and then looked quickly away, as if not daring to stare too long lest he be mesmerized again.
Piotr said heavily, “I think you are right.” He'd heard tales of certain ghosts being able to pull out souls before, but never imagined that a soul could come in so compact and fragile a form, or that a Lost would have that ability. Pondering over what Wendy had told him before and taking into account what he knew about her soul now, Piotr had a sneaking idea of what had happened to her mother that night. He hoped he was wrong.
“I saw my mom,” Specs said forlornly. “And my dog.” He sniffled. “I wanna go home.”
“You and me both,” Piotr agreed, hugging him gently. “You and me both.”
“Ugh,” Wendy agreed from a few feet away, eyes slowly fluttering open. Coughing, she patted her head, her heart, her hip, then slowly sat up, holding her head. “I feel like I just got run over by a truck.”
“Sorry,” Specs whispered, hanging his head. “I don't know why I did that. I saw home and I just…I just…”
Wendy laughed then, softly and sadly, and smiled. “I understand. You wanted to go home. It's okay.”
Specs wiped his sleeve across his eyes. “It's okay?”
“I promise. Here.” Carefully Wendy rolled over, tucked her knees underneath her, and gingerly staggered to her feet. “Tell you what,” she grunted. “Give me a minute and I can totally make going home happen for you. But no more of that—” she waved her hand over her midsection, “that tuggy business, okay? That hurt. A lot.”
“You remember it?” Piotr couldn't keep the disbelief from his voice.
“Sure I do.” Wendy brushed the grass off her jeans and studiously avoided looking at him. “You put me back.”
back?” Piotr swallowed. “Are you saying that you yourself…were the…thing?”
She shrugged. “I guess? All I know is that I got passed back and forth for a bit. Kind of nauseating, actually.” Wendy winced. “And cold. Really cold. Outer space cold. So cold I kinda still want a jacket.”
Having no response for that, Piotr sat on the grass and waited for Wendy to collect herself. Specs sat beside him and laid his head on Piotr's shoulder. “Thank you for trying to rescue me.”
Piotr ruffled Specs' hair. “Can you tell me where the others are?”
“No.” Specs' face screwed into a miserable expression. “I don't know. They always kept me blindfolded, and after the attack I was separated from the others.” He sniffled again. “I don't know where they are. Only that they moved me often and kept me in the dark.”
Riffling through her purse, Wendy knelt beside him but took pains not to accidentally brush against him. Popping the top on a bottle of aspirin, she dry-swallowed four, grimacing at their bitter taste. “Why couldn't you sink through a door or something and escape?”
“The Walkers,” Specs whispered. “Some of them are different now.” He wiped one grimy hand across his face, smoothing away tears. “When I first got taken, they made me meet the White Lady.” He shivered. “She's horrible! She touched me and I was numb for days and days! Then the Walkers took me away. And every time I started to heal, when I might have been able to step through a wall and run away, they'd tie me up and take me to her again. She'd touch me and it'd happen all over again.”
Wendy cursed under her breath. “Was that where they were taking you today? To see the White Lady?”
Specs nodded. “It was time for my ‘treatment.’”
Groaning, Piotr flopped back onto the grass.
So close! If I'd just followed them instead of rushing in like an idiot—”
“I wouldn't have heard you if you hadn't been yelling,” Wendy interrupted mildly. “And I sincerely doubt you could have snuck past all her guards to free the kids. But this is good news, sort of.” Wendy held up a hand and began ticking off points. “We know that she's saving the Lost for something big and we know that she can strip ghosts of at least some of their abilities. Phasing through walls and whatnot.”
Then she smiled, a dark smile that seemed very unlike the Wendy Piotr had previously grown to know and love. He was disturbed by it. “More importantly, we know that they don't keep the kids all in one place, but that eventually they all get
to one place. To the White Lady.”
“I see,” Piotr said, growing excited, a plan beginning to form in his mind. “You want us to wait here and maybe ambush them,
“Exactly.” Wendy sat back on her haunches and nodded, pleased with herself.
“But what about the others like me?” Specs asked. “Are they going to be hurt?”
“I won't let them get hurt,” Wendy promised, reaching over and brushing his messy hair away from his forehead. “I'll send them home before that.” Then she straightened and Piotr knew that the moment he'd been dreading had arrived. “Are you ready to travel on, kid?”
Specs jumped to his feet, all smiles. “Really? You mean it?” Then he paused, worry flickering across his face. “Wait. Is it going to hurt?”
“Only for a moment,” she promised, reaching down and taking his hands in hers. “A pinprick. Like getting a shot.” Wendy closed her eyes and her hands began to glow.
“You promise?” Specs asked, but Wendy was fading away and the Light was building. Fearing that this would be his last chance, Piotr rushed over and pressed a brief kiss to the top of the boy's head. “I will miss you.”
“Me too. Say goodbye to Dora and Tubs for me.”
Unwilling to tell Specs what had happened to the others, Piotr chose to simply say, “I will.”
It was difficult getting words past the sudden lump in his throat. Piotr nodded extra hard to make certain he got his point across. “You shall be fine?”
“Never better. Thanks for taking care of me for all this time,” Specs said, his voice starting to dip and slide, sounding as if it were coming from very far away. “You were cool.”
You were cool too,” Piotr agreed, feeling the tug of the Light start to interfere with his thoughts. He turned his face away and closed his eyes. If he didn't look at the Light, it was easier to handle. One note, lovely and sweetly sung, broke the silence and it was over. The warmth faded from his back, the cool returned.
Pale as parchment and shaking, Wendy slid to the ground and rested her forehead against her knees. “That,” she panted, wiping away beads of sweat, “takes it out of a girl. I've got no idea how Mom could stand to do that over and over again. Reaping kids is just so
“It appears to be,” Piotr agreed. He crossed his arms across his chest, shuffling his feet. He cleared his throat. “I am glad though. For Specs. And you. You did a…a nice thing.”
“Sit.” Wendy said. “Please? I'm not ready to be alone right now.”
“Of course. How are you doing?” Piotr sat beside her, wrapped one arm around her shoulders, and took comfort from the ambient heat. Their skin steamed where they touched but neither of them minded. The moment should have been uncomfortable but it wasn't. Neither of them spoke of the fight or the empty months that lay between them, and neither wanted to. It was as if nothing had separated them at all.
“I hurt and I'm tired.” She yawned, poking at her wounded arm gingerly. “Not even two o'clock and it's been a really rough day already.” She started to sag against him and then straightened. “Oh! Eddie's still in the car! Wait here.”
Wendy pushed up against a nearby elm to stand and staggered out of the clearing toward the park proper. Piotr watched her use several slim young willow trees for support. She passed a young woman herding a group of schoolchildren with skates toward a nearby van. Piotr spotted her friend's familiar car and rested against a tree, watching as Wendy carefully picked her way down the well-maintained path to the vehicle parked at the curb.
Though he couldn't make out what she was saying, the fact that emotions were high was obvious. She gesticulated wildly for several minutes and then, surprisingly, the boy stepped out of the car, slamming the door behind him. The trunk popped open and he drew out a small case stamped with a red cross on the cover.
, Piotr reminded himself, firmly stomping on the slight surge of jealousy he felt whenever he laid eyes on the boy.
His name is Eddie.
Taking Wendy by the arm, Eddie stripped off the jacket and visibly flinched away. Piotr was certain that Eddie would bundle her into the car and drive her to a hospital, but was surprised when he did no such thing. Instead he reached into the first aid kit and popped the top on a bulky white bottle, pouring a liberal amount of liquid over Wendy's arm.
Piotr could hear her curse all the way across the park.
The rest of her doctoring went quickly; Eddie bandaged her up and stowed his supplies away. Then he and Wendy argued for several minutes, before Eddie broke away from Wendy and stomped up the path, stopping twenty feet to Piotr's right and pointing toward the trees, several degrees to the left of Piotr.
“Okay dead guy,” he said gruffly, “here's the deal. You and Wendy have to have a talk. Well, I gotta talk to her too, and I figure I've known her longer than you, so I have dibs.”
Arriving breathless a moment later, Wendy cradled her injured arm to her chest. Piotr was impressed by how smoothly wound the bandages were. Eddie appeared to have practice at this sort of thing. “Eds, stop,” she protested, but was ignored.
“Wendy says this is important, and since this is the first time she's shown an emotion other than bitchy in months, I'm gonna let my chat with her slide for now. But if you piss her off or mouth off or somehow bring the bitch-queen back before I get my say, then I don't care if you're dead. I'll hunt your ass down and kill you again. You got me, Casper?”
Raising an eyebrow, Piotr glanced at Wendy. Bitch-queen? Apparently Wendy hadn't taken their fight and subsequent separation very well either. He'd become a zombie and she'd apparently turned on her friends. Wendy, noting his appraisal, flushed as red as her hair and shrugged.
“Tell him,” Piotr cleared his throat, wrestling with all the things he wanted to say and finally, after much inner debate, settling on polite neutrality, “tell him I understand.”
Wendy relayed the message.
“Fine. Text if you need a ride home.” Eddie pointed in the wrong direction towards the woods again, growled, “I'm watching you, Casper,” and stormed off.
Feeling that it was the only polite thing to do, Piotr waited until the car's taillights had turned the corner before speaking. “Bitch-queen?”
“Shut up,” Wendy muttered. “I don't handle rejection well.”
“You don't handle rejection well,” Piotr repeated wryly.
“At all,” she amended. “Cut me some slack. That was the first time I've been dumped. I could have eaten two tons of ice cream, gotten a fat ass, and whined about it instead.”
Pushing past him, Wendy angled toward the clearing. The sun seemed warmer there and Wendy stretched out on the grass, tucking her good arm behind her as a pillow and squinting at the clouds above. In the distance the swingset creaked in the breeze and children jumped rope, chanting a nonsense rhyme in perfect lilting cadence.
“I think,” she said musingly, “I've been here before. Huh. I can't remember when.”
Settling beside her, Piotr ran his fingers through the grass and asked, “Wouldn't we have to have been dating for you to get dumped?”
“Are you kidding me? I let you in my room. I dressed up for you. We were totally dating. Or pre-dating at the very least,” Wendy replied, wriggling in the grass to get more comfortable. “And you know it. Think I hold hands with every dead guy I see?”
“Hmm,” Piotr agreed with mock gravity, “I suppose not.” He waited for a beat and then added, “So if we were dating then does this mean we're, what's the phrase, ‘back together’ now?”