Authors: K.D. McEntire
“First of all, I'm not asking for a relationship, you are.” Eddie held his hands up to stall her reply. “And before you get on your high horse, it's not that no one wants to date you. Lots of guys totally do.”
“Right, whatever.” Wendy rolled her eyes, but felt the flush work up her neck. “Everyone wants to date the class freak. Sure they do.”
“Oh please. Shut up. I'm making a point here.”
“Oh yeah? And that point is?”
that you don't have to date, Wendy. This is the real world, right? There doesn't need to be some intense connection. You don't need to be wearing some guy's jacket or whatever to, you know, blow off steam, have a little fun. Especially not with me.” He reached out, captured her fingers again, and squeezed her hand. “I am more than willing to consider less…permanent…options. For now.”
“Blowing off something,” she muttered under her breath as she sat back.
“I heard that, you perv. Secondly, maybe Chel's got a point. You're really wound up. I mean, okay, I'll admit, if you went for one of those losers I'd be jealous as hell, but…but it doesn't have to be me, I know that.”
Wendy slouched in the seat, turned her face away. “Oh yeah? If not you, then who?”
“Please. You've got that whole bad-girl gothette vibe going for you, and some people—not me of course, because I myself am a goth god—but there are some dudes who find that vibe, likewise you, sexy as hell. They'd stick around even if shit got a little weird. Who doesn't like a little mystery?”
“Reaping. The. Dead. Eddie.”
“So? They don't have to know about it.”
“Right, like I'm supposed to Bruce Wayne my way through a relationship? I see a soul, maybe my mom's, and then I'm supposed to be all, ‘Excuse me, honey, I just remembered that my house is on fire. Gotta go!’” Wendy snorted. “Not bloody likely.”
“Do you have to go send every soul you see into the Light?” He slapped the wheel, exasperated. “I mean, can't you just let a couple of them slide?”
let them go. I told you, I don't reap unless I have to now,” Wendy snapped. “It's not like I'm in this for the glory, Eddie, and I don't want them noticing me any more than…any more than they want me noticing them, but sometimes…sometimes there's no choice. Some of them,” she shuddered, “some of the ghosts aren't
Some of them scare me.”
Though she'd tried to explain before, Wendy knew she'd never have the words for the horrors Eddie couldn't see. He'd been in the operating room after the accident; he hadn't been there when she'd spotted her first Walker.
The ambulance came shortly after Piotr left her, shivering and lonely, hunched in the back of the police car. The paramedics looked her over and escorted her into the back, driving quietly to El Camino Hospital, where they left her in the ER to await medical attention. Her mother was an EMT so most of the ER nurses knew Wendy on sight. After she'd been declared bruised but intact, the nurses sat her in a corner bed and pulled the curtain, giving her privacy while she waited for her mother.
It was spooky sitting there, shrouded behind the green fabric. Wendy hopped down and opened the curtain a large crack before crawling back onto the table. Bored, she began watching ghosts wander by. Piotr had promised that the ability to see ghosts would fade but so far it hadn't. The shock of the accident had peeled back some protective layer in Wendy's mind, leaving her exposed to a different level of the world—a darker, colder place.
It didn't take Wendy long to figure out that only a small fraction of the ghosts seemed to realize that they were dead; they drifted from nurse to nurse, touching elbows and asking plaintive questions like “Where am I?” or “What happened?” They shuffled amid the staff, repeating their queries over and over again until Wendy thought she'd be driven mad by the soft, insistent questions. The rest just drifted, ignoring the living and the dead alike, lost in their own tragedies and oblivious to the world around them.
After awhile, she began keeping tally, wetting her finger and marking the paper beneath her legs when a specific sort of ghost wandered by. There were a very large number of elderly ghosts—men and women with wispy fly-away hair and age-spotted hands—most clad in hospital gowns or faded pajamas, and some sporting tubes in their noses or dangling around their necks, though the tubes faded into nothing just past their chests. There were fewer middle-aged spirits and even fewer ghosts in their twenties or thirties. She only spotted one child ghost, who was quickly swallowed by a wash of brilliant light as the orderlies rushed a gore-splattered gurney by her bed on the way to an operating room. There were no teenage ghosts in sight.
From the navel of each ghost dangled a thick silver-white cord, a twisted rope of pale, shimmering light; the cord hung between their knees and moved as they did, like moonlit seaweed shifting with the tide. The ends of some cords were severed cleanly, as if cut with a scalpel, while others broke off in ragged edges, thin and wavering as they shifted their weight. An hour into her stay, while Wendy watched, three spirits who'd come in from another car wreck faded before her eyes. Their cords had been neatly severed and they seemed glad to flee into the warm wash of light.
One ghost, however, did not wander in aimless circles. He moved through the ER rapidly, peering behind each curtain as if seeking someone specific. His middle was nearly bare—only the slimmest of cords dangled from his navel, black and sickly looking, rotted mostly through. Unlike the others, who appeared as paler, more transparent versions of the people they must have been in life, this ghost was bleached of color and stretched, thin and tall and hovering as he moved from curtain to curtain.
His face was a rotting horror.
This ghost in particular scared her, and when he approached her curtain Wendy instinctively ducked her head and buried her face in her hands.
, she thought desperately.
But Piotr was not there to hold her hand as he had before; she was alone. Wendy could feel the cold baking off this ghost in a shimmering cold-wave, like an icy version of summertime highway gridlock. The ghost hovered near her for several minutes, circling her like a jackal might circle its prey, wet snuffling noises filling the tiny space, before finally continuing its rapid progress through the ER.
No sooner had it gone than her curtain yanked back and her mother was there, arms wrapping tightly around her and the sweet smell of honeysuckle filling her nose.
“Oh Wendy, baby,” her mother whispered, eyes tracking the ghost as it disappeared around a corner. “Don't be scared, sweetie. It's not a Walker yet. It can't hurt you. Shhh. You're safe. You're safe with me.”
Startled, Wendy pulled away and searched her mother's face. There was sorrow there, and guilt. Her mother knew, Wendy realized, about the ghosts and the white man who, sniffing like a dog, had circled her bed.
Somehow her mother knew, and Wendy was no longer alone.
Eddie was oblivious to Wendy drifting off in the middle of their conversation.
“So leave the scary ghosts alone. You don't have to reap them. There's always a choice.”
“No, Eddie, we've been over this.” Wendy crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the tree they'd parked under. “If I see a ghost, that means it's trapped in limbo.
, Eddie. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. Do not move on to your next fucking life! They stay there, rotting slowly, going batshit crazy or worse, for
, unless they figure out a way to move on.”
“Or you help them move on. Like you used to.”
“Key phrase there. ‘Used to,’” Wendy said stiffly. “I try not to do that anymore. Not unless I have to.” Her hand curled into a loose fist in her lap. “I don't have that kind of time.”
“You could give up. Stop searching. It's not like you know for a fact your mom's out there somewhere.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I don't want to be selfish and take that chance.” She pressed her fingertips to her eyes and sighed. “Yeah, I might find her again. Or I might not. It's my mom, Eddie, I can't give up on the chance she's still out there somewhere.” Turning to him, she reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “What about your dad, huh? What if he'd been stuck there and I'd turned away. How'd you feel then?”
Eddie jerked away sharply. “Okay, chat's done.”
“Pulling my dead dad into this discussion is about as tasteful as throwing down Hitler in a fight, Wendy. You just don't do it.”
“Look,” she whispered, “I'm sorry. I just wanted to explain why I can't have a normal relationship with you or with anyone. I didn't mean to upset you.”
“Hell,” he said and grabbed her by the shoulders, yanked her forward, and kissed her. His lips ground against hers for several seconds, but there was little passion in it. It was simple angry punishment in the shape of her best friend's mouth. Wendy, stunned by the onslaught, held still in his grip and slowly Eddie's touch softened, his kiss deepened, and she could feel a damp spot on her cheek, warm and wet against her skin.
When he drew back they were both breathing raggedly, Eddie's chest hitching softly, and Wendy trembling.
“Well,” she said, striving for lightness, “that was a jackass thing to do.”
“I know. I know! And you didn't deserve that,” Eddie muttered, shamed, pressing his forehead against the wheel. He pounded the dashboard once, twice. “I'm sorry. I just…I—”
“I'm not mad about it,” she said evenly, letting her galloping heart slow before she dared open the door. “I said a shitty thing, you did a shitty thing, but we're best friends. As far as I'm concerned we're even. And stop beating up your car. Your mom'll kill you.”
“Shush. ‘Grrr, me Tarzan, you Jane, so shut up, woman’ won't cut it. I've known you since we were five and plus, it's totally not hot. I'm not going anywhere, even if you did just try to cop a feel.”
Eddie half-laughed, grateful for her easy dismissal, and shook his head. The shock was fading from his eyes. “I only tried to cop a feel? I thought I scored a direct hit.”
“Whole lotta padding on this corset,” Wendy replied blithely. She knew she was letting Eddie off easy, but Wendy was tired of discussing it. Case closed.
“Darn, foiled again.” He rubbed his hands along the steering wheel. “My charms have failed. I shall have to soothe my wounded ego with another.”
Wendy rolled her eyes. “Please. You're so hard up lately that you'd kiss a doorstop if it was halfway cute.” She made a kissy face at him and batted her eyes.
“True,” he said, shrugging. “I am an equal opportunity sort of Romeo.” He grinned then, slightly reddened eyes twinkling and teeth flashing in a heart-stoppingly dangerous way. “But we're okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. You're stuck with me. BFFs for life, yo.” She patted him on the shoulder. “I keep you from being bored, you keep me sane. Also, yay, backrubs.”
Eddie chuckled, amused at her posturing. “BFFs are a given. But don't you at least want to see what the fuss is all about?” He waved his hand between them. “I mean, romantically?”
“With you?” Wendy braced herself with a wide, bright grin, and then lied so hard it ached inside. “Nah.”
Eddie shook his head. “Now who's pushing people away? You really need to follow my example and at least dip your toe in the dating pool…puddle. A dating teaspoon, even.”
Gathering up her purse, Wendy snorted in reply. “Isn't dating a BFF's ex a major debacle? Anyone I'd like, you've probably already been there and done that.”
“You wound me, dear. I'm not a total slut. Anymore.” Eddie popped the trunk to fetch his bag and Wendy slapped the button for the soft-top to cycle closed, waiting until all the latches were in place to fetch the rest of her own things. The first bell rang and Wendy hurried off, leaving Eddie, as usual, to catch up.
Part of her loved Eddie and always would, but he didn't understand her situation. He'd already proven that he didn't get why she felt so guilty and torn. Wendy grimaced. Eddie thought letting her mother stay missing was a good thing.
Wendy knew, Eddie or no, that she had to find her mom.
She owed her that much.
acktracking through the streets, Piotr let the wind guide him away from the city. Lost in his thoughts, it took him a while to realize that he wasn't going to get very far on foot; it was daytime and the trolleys were packed with living heat.
There were two ways an object could pass over into the Never: sheer luck and intense emotion. Dearly-loved possessions frequently worked their way into the Never. Though Piotr often found scavenging in San Francisco moderately easy, he still counted himself lucky to find a rusty bicycle with two good wheels abandoned beneath a tree in the park.
Listening to the creak and groan of the gears beneath him, Piotr pumped his legs and made for the 101. Grey daylight never seemed to last long lately, the afternoons were growing shorter; soon darkness would fall, and with it the Walkers would roam in greater numbers.
At times like this, doing something so intensely physical but essentially mindless, Piotr wondered if the sensations he felt were the same as he had felt when he was alive. Listening to the newly dead, still attuned to their physical shells, made him think that maybe what the dead did was close enough, but he wasn't sure. Even the simple act of running, of sprinting, legs pumping and feet pounding, seemed alien some days—like, if he wanted, Piotr could force his spirit to move fast enough that his legs wouldn't be necessary. Like if he just sped up enough, he could fly away. Like the only thing keeping him grounded was the living belief that gravity worked.
Concentrating on these musings passed the time; the miles melted away beneath his wheels. Piotr had passed into San Bruno when he smelled the smoke. Frowning, he slowed the bike and, on discovering the kickstand had rusted away, abandoned it at the edge of the highway. Sniffing the air, he followed his nose all the way down the embankment until he reached the edge of a twisted and warped tarmac. Piotr hesitated at the large, rusted sign declaring the buckled concrete to be the Mills Field Municipal Airport. There was a lot of activity on the living side—the heat here was sporadic but immense—but this place was clearly the source of the strange, sweetly smoky smell.
Still deciding whether he wanted to proceed, Piotr spotted a flash of white.
It was crazy to sneak up on a Walker like this, especially since the previous few fights had been so close and the Walkers had evidently decided to start pairing up for their hunts, but Piotr was unwilling to pass up a chance to spy on a Walker when it didn't know he was near. With any luck, he might even learn something about Dunn.
Crouching down, Piotr dashed under the sagging hulk of a downed Bell P-39, hiding in the shadow of one wing. He briefly considered ducking into the aircraft itself and watching from the canopy but the plane was belly-down in the dirt, the landing gear long gone. A Walker would be able to spot him at eye-level for sure.
The flash of white came again and Piotr froze in the shadows, stunned into stillness. There were Walkers, yes, over a half dozen of them, but it was the woman clad all in white who caught his attention.
The White Lady.
It had to be her; Piotr couldn't think of another soul in the Never stupid or crazy enough to rub elbows with Walkers voluntarily. They certainly weren't attacking her. In fact, as Piotr watched, the White Lady paused at the edge of the tarmac and gestured. Pushing aside the others, one particularly decayed Walker knelt down at her feet, knees on the tarmac and toes in the dirt, tilting its face up, allowing the White Lady to push back the edge of its hood, exposing the last tattered remnants of its cheeks and forehead to the light. Then, as Piotr watched, dumbfounded, she leaned down, hood sagging, and kissed the Walker full upon the ruins of its mouth.
A billowing cloud of white burst from the Walker's chest, accompanied by the sharp increase of the smoky sweet scent that had first caught Piotr's attention as far away as the highway. As he watched, the Walker stiffened, its limbs jerking spasmodically under the White Lady's onslaught, feet drumming up puffs of grit from the dirt. Piotr gagged, turning away, but not before he spotted the point of the painful kiss.
The rumors were right; the Walkers, at least these particular Walkers, were working for the White Lady now. She paid well. The longer the two of them remained lip-locked, the more of the kneeling Walker's ruined flesh grew back. By the time the White Lady released the Walker, most of the side of his face had returned. The flesh was pale white and fragile-looking, lined with thin blue veins, but certainly more substantial than the rotted horror it'd been before.
Stepping away from the Walker, the White Lady sagged. One of the Walkers at her side stretched out a hand, which she slapped away.
“Don't touch me,” she snapped, the wind carrying her voice to Piotr a beat behind her movements. She gestured north. “Go.” The other Walkers dispersed, leaving her with the newly healed one. She helped him to his feet.
“You're now mine.” She smoothed the front of the Walker's robes. “Say it.”
It bowed. “My lady. Always yours.”
“You've been chosen, Daniel. I've got a special task for you.” The White Lady took the Walker by the bony wrist. “This way.”
They were too close and moving in his direction at a fast clip. Piotr closed his eyes, waited for the cry of discovery, but none came. When he opened them again the White Lady was all the way at the far edge of the field and topping the rise, the Walker in tow. Intent on her goal, she'd passed him right by; they hadn't seen him crouched in the shadows.
Should he go back, tell Elle and the others about what he'd learned? Piotr knew they needed this new information, but he still had to investigate Dunn's disappearance. Lily would never forgive him if he failed her.
Lily could wait.
Piotr began to move after them when a large cadre of Walkers melted through the shadows and went the way the White Lady had disappeared. There was no way Piotr would be able to follow them for such a distance across the open space without being discovered.
Torn, but knowing that he had to follow through on his original mission, Piotr regretfully backed out of the shadows and hurried toward the highway, glancing once over his shoulder to make sure the Walkers hadn't spotted him. He would push himself to the limit getting to Mountain View and then speed back up to the city. The others had to know about what he'd seen, and Lily needed to know about Dunn.
He wouldn't fail them.
Though Eddie had claimed everything was fine, he wasn't at lunch, nor was he at his locker afterward. Brooding about what that might mean, Wendy worried her way through the rest of the day until gym, last period.
They had a sub. Instead of waiting to get picked last for basketball, Wendy found herself led to the back track. Most of the class knew that this meant an opportunity to lackadaisically lap the track and gossip, and Wendy originally intended to take it easy along with the rest, but as they lined up to begin she spotted a tell-tale flicker at the edge of the field. Wendy groaned. What
The sub stood at the start/finish line with a clipboard and a stopwatch. When the whistle blew, Wendy was the only one who took off running. Ignoring the giggles behind her, she sped around the track the required three times, barely noticing the surprised, “Great time!” the sub yelled as she crossed the finish line.
Assignment met, Wendy staggered over to the sub and, panting, asked, “Since I'm done, do you mind if I take the rest of class off?”
The sub's elated grin faded. “The rest of the hour? I can't let you do that. Are you nuts?”
“I'm not leaving campus,” Wendy lied, keeping the spot where she'd seen the flickering light at the edge of her peripheral vision. “I just thought I saw a couple samples I can use for my biology project over there.” She pointed toward the edge of the field with a promising thatch of thorny bushes splashed with red and purple flowers. “It's just a little flower-picking. I'll be fast, I swear. You can hear that whistle anywhere near here.”
The bulk of the class was coming, nearing the end of the first lap. The sub glanced at them, eyed the bushes, and sighed. “Fine. But stay dressed out. I've got my eye on you. Don't you think I'll forget, either. No funny stuff.”
Skipping backwards toward the field, Wendy grinned and dropped a quick salute. “You got it, Coach!” Then she was off.
Under the patchy shade of the eucalyptus at the edge of school property, Wendy took a deep breath and glanced around. The flicker had faded while she was talking to the sub.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” Wendy muttered under her breath, angling her head to make sure the sub was paying more attention to the last group of gossiping girls finishing their first lap than to her. The instant the sub's head dipped down to mark off the last stragglers, Wendy grabbed the edge of the fence and went up and over.
The dim flicker was gone. Wendy squinted and crouched down, pushing through the thick, thorny bushes until the sounds from the school grew muted. The canopy overhead was thicker here, the shadows denser. Her mother had been great in the woods; it was as if she were a ghost herself, flitting through the trees easily. She always knew where to step, how to navigate. She never got lost. Wendy wasn't quite that good.
Resting against a nearby tree, Wendy hesitated; pushing on would take her out of the range of the sub's whistle. There was a chance the sub might not notice Wendy missing at the end of the day, but she'd seemed like one of those teachers who actually cared. It might be better to just not risk getting in troub—
Catching the flicker out of the corner of her eye, Wendy pushed through the underbrush, scouring her shins and calves against thorny wild blackberry bushes. Longingly she thought of her thick jeans, neatly tucked away in her cubby back in the girl's locker room. Shoving through the dense patch, Wendy grimaced as her sneaker splooshed into a slurry of black rot and dank mud beside a rotted out trunk.
“So-so-so gross,” Wendy groaned, making sure to look up and eye the green-brown canopy overhead. Her mother had taught her well—she could see a tangle of dead and dying branches hanging above, remnants from the storms of the previous week. Every one of them was at least seven or eight inches across, minimum. Widow-maker branches. Wendy eased back, making sure she wasn't beneath the heavy load. If the wind blew just right the whole mess would come crashing down, crushing anything unlucky enough to be directly beneath.
“Crap,” Wendy muttered. She thought now she might have an idea where the flicker was coming from. Skirting the edge of the clearing, keeping to the thorny sides, she shoved deeper and deeper in until, just as she'd suspected, she found a dim shape hovering around a heavy fall of deadwood.
“I was wondering if anyone'd find me,” muttered the ghost of the homeless man, clutching his tattered parka close. “Figures it'd be some kid playing hookey.”
He leaned in, waving a hand right in front of Wendy's face and shouted, “Hey! You! Kiddo! You turn right around and you march up to your principal and you tell him what you found here! Do you understand me? You don't just leave me here!”
“I can't do that,” Wendy said and hid a smile when the ghost jumped back.
“You can hear me? Really?” He grabbed Wendy by the shoulders and yelped, yanking back. “Shit! You're burning up, kid!”
“Yep,” Wendy said. “Side effect. Sorry.”
Waving his burnt palm in the air, the ghost eyed Wendy speculatively. “You ain't gonna tell no one about me? Really?”
“I can't draw attention to myself,” Wendy explained, sighing. She knelt down and examined the pile of dead brush and the crushed form beneath, grimacing. “You were asleep when it fell?”
“Yep. Didn't feel a thing,” the ghost said. “I guess I ought to be thankful, huh? Went to sleep cold and hungry and woke up…well, still cold and hungry but at least the weather don't bother me no more, huh?” He sighed. “So is this hell or something, kid?”
“Just the afterlife,” Wendy said, swiping her foot across the dirt to obscure the place where she'd knelt down. “I can help you with that if you want.” She stood back and eyed her handiwork. Her mom would've been proud. When the cops found the body, no one would know she'd been there. In theory, at least.
“Help me with what? You can't bring me back to life, can ya?” Despite his ragged state, he couldn't help the pitiful hope that crept into his voice.
“No.” Wendy refrained from patting him on the arm, lest she burn him further. “But I can send you on. You're…where you are right now, the Never, it's like a halfway point. Limbo, sort of. I can give you a push to go to the next place. If you want.” Eying the tree next to her, Wendy reached up and broke off a small, thin branch clustered with living leaves.
He cleared his throat. “You mean heaven?” His voice dropped. “Or, y'know, the other? Because if it's the other, I'll stay where I am, thank you very much.”
Wendy shrugged and started back toward the school, making sure to swipe the fresh branch across her path and staying to the places she'd walked before. The homeless man kept pace with her easily, passing through the dense brush without dispersing. “Not my jurisdiction. I have no clue. But you won't be stuck in the Never until your soul rots. There's that.”