According to Harukka’s computer studies textbook, a data packet within a network lived only for a limited duration. A little counter kept track of how much ‘life’ the packet had left, which decreased each time it was processed.
When the ‘Time to Live’ or value ran out, the packet died.
Harukka snuck down the stairs, heart racing. Damn it, an ogre like her shouldn’t be scared. And yet, her life had been dominated by her technophobic grandmother, to the point where she could barely comprehend her college course. Still, little concepts like TTL made sense to her. If she was a data packet, the number would be high, as she’d never done anything dangerous or uncertain with her existence.
A wooden floorboard creaked under her weight. Harukka swore and clamped her mouth shut. Stupid house, getting older and creakier with each passing year.
“Girl?” Her mother’s voice cut in from the living room like an owl’s screech. “Come and pray with me at the shrine.”
Harukka straightened her shoulders, heart racing. If she wanted to keep her life’s TTL counter from dropping, she’d stay away from strange networks and spend the evening with her mother.
But that wasn’t the plan tonight. She was seeing Wenda and nothing would stop her.
Taking a deep breath, Harukka descended the stairs and entered the yellow door to her left. In the room beyond, her mother sat like a depiction of a saint crouching before a candle-covered shrine in prayer. Besides their increased height and weight compared to a human, ogres were rugged, with thicker bones and heavy brow ridges that protected their eyes. Harukka’s mother wore her traditional white woolen Perali robes, belted at the front.
“I’m going out,” Harukka announced.
Her mother blinked, confused. “You can’t leave,” she snapped. “It’s New Year’s Eve. The worst night of the year. Come sit and pray.”
Harukka glanced at her jeans and t-shirt, which she usually changed into when she left the house, stuffing her robes into her backpack. She was sick of hiding. “Grandmother is dead. Everyone wears these clothes outside. My girlfriend invited me to a party.” Harukka took a deep breath. “I’m going.”
She had hoped to get a rise from her mother, but the older woman didn’t pay any attention to her relationship. “It’s too late,” she intoned. “Darkness is abroad, and tonight the most wicked of spirits will ride forth.”
“I don’t care.” Harukka walked to the front door. “I’m twenty. We’re ogres. We shouldn’t have to fear anything.” She pulled off the locks and chains and breathed in the fresh summer air.
“Don’t leave me alone in the house!” Mother cried, rising to her feet.
Harukka pointed to the dusty phone on the wall. “Call Auntie. The priest. Everyone that Grandmother cut us off from. It’s Time to Live.”
With that, she opened the front door and shut it behind her, running from her mother’s frantic shouts.
Harukka fled along the road, referring to the directions to Wenda’s house she’d written on a crumpled piece of paper.
It was summer, Ringstone, the last month of the year, and just after 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. The sun had set an hour ago and she was horribly late.
The party started at 6 p.m. Harruka had dithered all night. About whether she was going, what to wear, what to bring, and what to say to Wenda. Oh, she had put on a stern, confident face before mother, but that had been an act—a rush of bravado when she’d spent most of her life quivering on the inside, unable to resist her grandmother’s control.
Now, buoyed by adrenalin, she raced through the streets. She needed to get to a house in the Redcastle district, which meant a good half-hour walk through the suburban sprawl of Stonefell.
Summer heat drenched the air, and perspiration soaked her clothing. Damn it, she’d arrive at Wenda’s place looking like a sweating horse.
Lost in her own misery, Harukka barely paid attention as a vehicle zig-zagged off the road near her and crashed into a pole.
The car door thumped open and a human man staggered onto the street.
“Hey, are you hurt?” Harukka wished she carried a cell phone. She should have bought one as soon as Grandmother had passed. “Let me go to a house and ask—”
The man growled, drool running into his beard.
“Sorry?” Harukka stepped backwards.
His eyes glinted under the streetlights, the pupils wide like he was on medication. His lips curled back from his teeth as he snarled.
The man lunged at her.
Harukka shoved him away.
As she did so, a screaming presence pushed against her thoughts. Wild, heedless, wanting to tear into her mind and puppet it about into crazy things like a teenager joyriding a car…
A dark spirit! The man was possessed!
She fled along the empty street.
The old Perali religion was right. Grandmother had been perfectly justified to trap Harukka and her mother in the house for years and years. She should never have tried to see Wenda. Instead, she should have changed into her white homespun robes and sat by the shrine in prayer.
What was the point of going to college and learning about computers and TTL values when ancient, malevolent spirits threatened the world?
And while her thoughts wailed and blackened, her instincts kept her moving.
Growls echoed behind her.
Shrieking, Harukka sprinted on the sidewalk, ignoring the sounds of screeching cars, snarls, shouts and chaos around her.
Most of the shops along the street were dark, except where light spilled from an open corner store with a large, welcoming entrance designed to accommodate ogre heights.
Inside, people yelled and dragged shelves, forming a barricade.
Harukka ran, shouting. “Let me in! They’re after me.”
Voices argued, and then a burly, handsome ogre woman in a red checked shirt and baseball cap pushed a shelf aside and opened the door. Perhaps in her late twenties, she had dark hair, and a cardboard name tag pinned to her top pocket that said: ‘Elk.’
Harukka sprinted inside, panting and wheezing heavily, comforted by the store’s banality. Bright light. Rows of shelves selling packets of chips, dog food, and many cereal boxes in the portions favored by ogres. Glass cabinets of bottled sodas. Her heart raced with pleasure at being here, even if the entire place needed a good mop and scrub.
A human man, white bearded and sour-faced, skulked away from the door. A human woman, dressed too elegantly for a corner store, leaned against the counter.
“Stop letting people in!” the old man snapped. “Don’t you understand? It’s a virus! The more of us there are, the more chance we have of getting infected!”
“Virus?” Harukka asked, still wheezing from her chase.
“Yeah, Feldspar’s Syndrome. You ignoramus!” he growled. He waved his hands about. “Gas boils up from the underground and makes people go crazy.”
“We’re nowhere near any gas vents.” The human woman rubbed at a chipped fingernail. “Or the Volcanic National Park.”
“There’s gas!” The old man pointed at the worn lino floor of the shop. “It blows in…”
“Has anyone called the police?” Harukka asked.
The others shook their heads. What had they been doing? “Let’s call them—” she began.
A thump and smashing sound interrupted her. An ogre in a torn business shirt thumped against the glass doors. Blood masked one side of his face, while his single, visible blue eye gleamed with madness with its cavernous socket. An elven woman beside him, pointed ears sticking out of her wild hair, gave an ear-splitting shriek.
“Right, let’s hide in the backroom.” Elk stabbed an index finger at the rear of the store like a dagger. “This way. Go! Go!”
The glass doors cracked and shattered.
Harukka sprinted to the back door and opened it to reveal a dark concrete room crammed with boxes. Despite the heat outside, the chamber radiated cold. She leaped aside as the human man and woman pushed past her. She snapped on the switch. A dim, yellow bulb clicked on, revealing a labyrinth of dusty cardboard.
The two humans raced through next, followed by Elk. The big ogre woman attempted to close the door, only to be blocked as a huge, blood-streaked fist reached through the gap.
Growls and shuffling sounds roared outside as more of the possessed entered the main shop through the broken glass doors.
Harukka grabbed a nearby box and smashed it over the man’s protruding fingers. Cardboard tore, spilling cans everywhere, and the bloody hand retreated backwards.
With a grunt, Elk slammed the door shut and held it closed with her body weight.
Harukka helped the others barricade the doorway with surrounding junk—barrels, crates, tools—a small pile of holding back an army of the possessed.
“Will that hold it?” the human woman puffed, her elegant dress stained with dust and sweat.
“It better,” Harukka muttered. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she sank to the ground, panting. She’d never get to her party to see Wenda. And oh! Was Wenda safe? What about the others at the party? She bent her head in despair. She’d left her mother alone, too. Why had she done that? What if the possessed broke into her house?
She twisted her fingers together until she realized that everything beyond the closed door was quiet.
“They’ve stopped!” Harukka gasped.
“For now. Why didn’t you close the front security shutter?” the old man complained, pointing a finger at Elk.
“Rusted shut.” Elk checked that a heavy wooden crate was firmly in place.
“You couldn’t get off your ass to oil it?”
“I’ve owned this store for two days,” she grunted. “Nice to meet you, I’m Elkvar. Elk.”
“Mr. Brown.” The man folded his arms.
“‘Mister’ is your first name?” Elk asked.
“It’s what I’ll give you,” Brown snarled.
An awkward pause dragged out.
“Zillian,” the human woman offered.
“We need to call the police!” Harukka announced. “So they can rescue us and deal with the possessed people.” The authorities would help her go home, where she belonged.
“They’re infected!” Brown snapped. “This is because of science, not superstition!”
“Well, I’m not leaving.” Zillian checked her phone. “No service. Anyone else got one?”
Elk snorted. “Mine’s on the counter.” She pointed beyond the door.
“I only use landlines,” Brown said. “The radiation from cell phones cooks your brains alive.”
Harukka didn’t need to be a computer science graduate to know that wasn’t correct. “I don’t have a cell phone. I mean, my mother is against—”
“Perali, hey?” Elk asked.
“But isn’t ‘no phones’ an extreme way to interpret your scriptures?
Harukka folded her arms. “My crazy grandmother cut us off from everyone in the community and threw out any tech she didn’t approve. We could cook, but no television or so forth. She’s gone now, but my mother doesn’t act like it.”
“My grandparents were Perali too,” Elk said.
Harukka nodded, secretly delighted. It was good when someone else understood the old customs she’d grown up with.
Elk continued: “But when they immigrated here, they—”
“Sorry for interrupting this little soap opera,” Brown hissed. “But I notice that this isn’t only a storage room. It’s a garage with a roller door.”
“If we can escape this concrete box, I’ll call for help!” Zillian waved her phone.
“It won’t budge,” Elk explained. “There’s a motor, but it’s broken. My old man was a shit at maintaining things. I’ve spent my time cleaning the shop front.”
Brown beelined to the roller door, tugging at it, while the others followed.
“Mr. Brown,” Zillian began. “If an ogre woman can’t raise the door, a human man can’t…”
“I didn’t ask for your advice!” Brown snapped, wrenching ineffectually at the garage handle.
“If we can’t get out, they can’t get in,” Elk said.
“Hmmph.” Brown folded his arms and stalked to the middle of the box-lined aisle.
“We can’t stay here forever,” Zillian said. “I’m going on holiday to the Haven Archipelago next week.”
“We don’t know how long the people will remain crazy for,” Elk said.
“Usually about twenty-four hours, if you bother to read about Feldspar’s Syndrome.” Brown folded his arms. “Some recover with gaps in their memory, and others might never wake at all.”
“In Perali folklore, ancient spirits can’t possess the living after midnight,” Harukka offered.
Brown rolled his eyes at her. “Twenty-four hours,” he repeated. “And yet, what if it goes on for longer? What if we’re the only ones to escape infection? Outside, society could collapse.”
“Let’s wait until morning,” Elk said.
“What if we starve?” Zillian gasped, raising her hands to her face.
“We won’t die of hunger anytime soon,” Harukka reassured the panicking woman. She surveyed the dismal garage. Cinderblock walls, concrete floor, boxes everywhere. “What’s in here?”
“Haven’t done a complete inventory,” Elk explained.
Harukka cracked her knuckles. “Perhaps we can find something to help us.”
“I’ll keep watch,” Elk said.
“Any tools?” Harukka asked, determined to be useful while Elk was watching over them.
“There’s a toolbox there.” Elk pointed.
Harukka sorted through the jumbled equipment. She found some working marker pens and a boxcutter, and started slicing through cardboard packaging, revealing cans of sardines, packets of chips, candy bars, dried noodles and far too many bottles of grapefruit-flavored Sodaza.
“A lot of these are past the use-by date,” Harukka noted, labeling the outside of each box as she checked the contents.
“Yeah, they’ll have to be disposed of,” Elk sighed.
“Rubbish,” Brown interjected. “The government doesn’t want you to know that cans are perfectly good for years after the expiry. I’ve eaten five-year-old tuna that’s fine.”
“There’s a crate of cheap wine here.” Zillian removed an ogre-sized bottle with two hands.
Harukka found several taped-open junk boxes and extracted handfuls of laundry line. She threw it on the ground, frustrated to be tidying someone else’s garage. “Damn it! All I wanted to do was go to my party and see Wenda.”
Zillian hefted her wine. “We’ve got enough for a celebration here. Especially if we’re waiting until morning. Except there’s no bottle opener.”
“I’ll show you a trick.” Elk rummaged in the toolbox on the floor and removed a screw and screwdriver. “You twist this into the cork like so.”
Zillian leaned forward.
Harukka folded her arms, irritated that everyone was wasting time. And yet she couldn’t think of anything else to do.
“Then—” Elk retrieved a hammer, hooked the back prongs around the screw and tugged, her hair sweating. With a loud pop, she pulled the cork free.
Zillian shared the bottle with Elk, but Harukka refused alcohol on general principles. Instead, to attempt camaraderie with her fellow survivors, she sipped at the warm can of grapefruit Sodaza.
“Want some wine, Mr. Brown?” Zillian called.
“There’s an infectious disease being blown from the gas vents, and you want me to drink from a filthy bottle you’ve shared? No.” Brown leaned against the wall, staring at both doors. “Am I the only one with any common sense here?”
“What else should we do while we wait until morning?” Zillian said.
Brown scowled and moved to the rear door, tugging at it in vain.
“Let’s talk,” Zillian suggested, sipping more wine. “Tell me more about your shop.”
Elk pulled off her baseball cap and wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Thought I could make a few fast bucks tonight by opening. Bad idea.” She chuckled. “My old man died and left this place to me and a bunch of debts. I’m a truck driver, but I fancied a change. I play shopkeeper and then this happens.”
Harukka found herself fascinated by the beads of perspiration running down Elk’s long, muscular fingers. She stifled her thoughts and tried to focus on something else. “This place needs a good clean.” Harukka gestured around the garage.
“Yeah,” Elk said. “I hadn’t spoken to my father in years. Didn’t know he was so sick and that his store got so run down. If he’d bothered to call, I’d have helped. That’s the problem with some old folk, they cut themselves off to keep everything the same. The lawyer called me in and now I’m trying to figure out what to do with it all. Might be better to sell the place.”
Zillian sipped from the ogre-sized bottle that she struggled to hold with two hands. “This is ironic. My husband ran off with my sister last month, and I grabbed the most expensive wine in his collection. Only, I couldn’t find anything to open it with, so I came here. I wasn’t expecting people to go crazy on New Year’s Eve.”
“Infected!” Brown called.
“Want some chips?” Elk asked.
“No!” Brown snapped. “What part of ‘infection’ don’t you fool women understand?”
“But you can have an unopened packet.” Elk waved a bag of Crispin’s Crispy Squares.
Brown made a disgusted growling noise deep in his throat and faced the door. All was quiet behind it.
Harukka closed her eyes, once again wishing she’d stayed with her mother. Her TTL counter was desperately low. Everything she had done tonight had weakened her.
Brown coughed and gurgled.
Harukka leaned forward. “Mr. Brown?”
The old man turned, facing the group. His jaw worked silently.
“Mr. Brown, are you all right?” Harukka asked.
Brown surveyed his hands and feet and sniffed the air. He licked his lips and panted, his tongue sticking beyond his yellow teeth. With a sudden growl, he loped towards her.
“They’ve got him!” Harukka shrieked.
“Behind me.” Elk hefted the hammer from the toolbox.
“Don’t kill him!” Harukka said. “He’s only possessed!”
The old man charged, fingers outstretched.
Elk dropped the tool in her hands and stepped into a wrestling crouch. As Brown lunged, she pinned him in a vice-like grip.
Brown struggled and bit at her arms.
“The cord!” Harukka raced to the box she’d opened earlier and grabbed the jumble of laundry line. Under the rope was a stack of yellowed manuals.
With Zillian’s help, they tied Brown tight, binding both hands and feet. The old man continued to struggle and hiss, flopping on the garage floor like a landed fish.
Blood dripped from Elk’s arms where Brown had bitten her.
“Is there a first aid kit here?” Harukka asked.
“Nope,” Elk said. “I hope it’s not infectious.”
“Alcohol can clean wounds.” Zillian splashed the wine over the cuts
Elk winced, grunting as Zillian cleaned and bandaged her wounds. “What if I’m next?”
“What about the rest of us?” Zillian said. “Let’s tie ourselves up.”
“If the infected get in here, we’ll be helpless.” Elk kicked at Brown as he snarled and flopped on the ground. “And now we’re trapped!”
Without warning, the crack of breaking glass echoed from the shop area. Fists pounded on the door.
“They’re back!” Zillian cried.
“Maybe they only pretended to be gone, so we’d relax,” Elk said. “Now what?”
Harukka rushed to the rear door, placing her ear against it. No sounds of anything beyond. Perhaps the possessed were only at the front.
Elk joined her, listening intently for a few heartbeats and nodded. “We’re safe if we can get through there. Damn it.” She tugged at the bottom handle, but the door didn’t move.
Harukka ran to the box from which she’d taken the cord and sorted through the pile of old books. Manuals for everything from dishwashers to televisions, and there, one for a roller garage door. She flipped through it. “Maybe there’s a trick to opening it. This is a stupid manual though—it’s all text, no graphics.”
“My truck’s in the rear lot.” Elk straightened. “There’s no parking on the main road.” She craned her head forward. “What does that book say? I can’t read too well.”
Zillian’s face widened. “Don’t you need literacy to run a shop?”
Elk scowled. “It’s not that hard.”
Harukka flipped through the yellowed pages, scanning through the text under the dim lighting. “There’s a manual release switch at the top.” She stepped on her tiptoes, running her fingers around the upper part of the bundled roller door.
“You’re out late,” Elk noted after a few minutes.
“Sorry?” Harukka cleared away dust and cobwebs, expecting to feel a sharp spider bite any second.
“If you were going to a party.”
“My grandmother was this controlling, paranoid bitch who kept my mother and I prisoner. And she died this year.” Harukka kept poking, her fingers coated with grease. “It’s really hard for me to leave the house. But I was going tonight. To see Wenda. And finally I go outside, and this happens. I should never have left home.” She touched a lever and pulled it. It didn’t move. “This is stuck. I need oil.”
Elk dug around in the toolbox again and selected a tiny bottle of sewing machine oil. Her calloused fingers briefly brushed against Harukka’s as she oiled the lever. “If you don’t get out, you won’t have adventures.”
“This isn’t an adventure!” Harukka’s voice cracked, wishing that Elk’s fingers had remained with hers for a heartbeat longer. No. This isn’t the place or the time for this sort of thing. “It’s a nightmare. My mother yelled at me not to leave after dark. I should have stayed home.”
Elk oiled the switch, and Harukka jiggled it. “It’s moving.”
“I’m glad I’m here with you ladies,” Zillian said. “Ever since my husband left, it’s been lonely. All the people I thought were my friends took his side. No one’s returning my calls. I was getting stir crazy. That’s why I came here for a bottle opener.” She checked her phone. “I’ll call the police as soon as we’re safe outside.”
A sharp crack echoed through the garage as the opposite door groaned and shuddered under the weight of fists hammering on the wood.
“They’re back!” Zillian cried.
“Nearly got it!” Harukka gasped, pulling the lever.
“Let me help.” Elk’s firm fingers gripped on top of hers and together, they tugged the switch into position with a click.
“It’s not open!” Zillian wailed.
The wooden door splintered. A group of howling, snarling people pushed and shoved at the box barricade.
“We need to lift it up.” Harukka grabbed the roller door and pulled it upwards with a rusted screech, revealing a cracked, concrete driveway where a gleaming red truck cab waited. “Run!”
Zillian darted under the gap. Harukka followed, while Elk came last, forcing the shutter closed behind her.
In the distance, emergency sirens wailed into the late summer night.
“Get in!” Elk held up her remote and with a beep, the truck’s lights flashed and the doors unlocked. “No one’s going to come for us in that, and if they do, I’ll knock ‘em flat.”
Harukka sprinted for the passenger side door, flinging it open while Elk opened the driver’s.
Harukka scrambled into the seat, turned to pull Zillian into the cab with her.
Zillian bit Harukka’s hand.
Startled, Harukka pushed the human away, sending her crashing against the nearby wall, into bags of garbage. “Zillian!” she shouted, but the woman only snarled in response. The rich woman’s phone dropped from her fingers, hitting the concrete. Harukka gulped, thinking of grabbing it, when Elk hit the accelerator and reversed the truck into the rear alley. Then she drove forward, connecting to the main highway. “The infected people are dumb, so if we keep moving at speed, they can’t drive after us,” she announced.
Harukka stared at her bitten hand, now running with blood. One moment Zillian had been there, full of terrified life, and the next, something else had taken her place.
“There are some wipes in the glove box,” Elk’s voice cut into her thoughts.
Harukka opened the compartment and found a stack of sealed wet towels sampled from various restaurants and fast-food places. She cleaned her wound, wishing she’d been able to do more for Zillian and Brown. Why did she try praying to the Light to cleanse them? Find some salt and flowers? Unless it was an infection?
“You did what you could,” Elk continued. “Look after yourself as a priority in situations like this. Don’t worry, when it’s over, we’ll check on them. Make sure they get to the hospital. Brown said some people recover. If they do, I’ll give Zillian more wine, and Brown all the expired tuna he wants.”
“Let’s see what’s happening.” Harukka turned on the radio. They sped along the highway, listening to conflicting news reports of chaos. Gang violence, gas vents, ghosts—no one had any clear idea.
Harukka recoiled from the outside horrors, briefly illuminated by the truck’s powerful headlights: smashed vehicles, dead bodies littering the streets, roving groups of infected people, faces masked with blood. She closed her eyes, burying her face in her hands, praying desperately that her mother was safe.
“It’s okay.” Elk patted her arm. “They can’t get us here.”
“I wish this would end,” Harukka gripped the dashboard, moving closer to Elk as they alternated between driving and parking to conserve the truck’s charge, listening to confused broadcasts, which gradually reported the madness ending as the night ebbed.
Finally the sun lipped around the edges of the sky, and as Harukka twisted the dial and listened to the news stations, all she heard were reports of the aftermath rather than stories of more attacks or infections. New Year’s Eve had been chaos: people in comas or waking with no memory, dozens injured or dead, property destroyed and buildings set alight. “I need to check on Mom.”
“I’ll take you home. I’m sorry you didn’t get to go to your party to meet your girlfriend,” Elk said.
Harukka closed her eyes, admitting the bitter truth. It all seemed so trivial now. “It’s okay. I barely know her. She wrote the invitation on a whiteboard in class. I only wanted to chat with her for the first time. She probably likes men or something, and I’d upset her by saying the wrong thing. Or I would have sat in the corner all night with a cup of soda. I’m a failure at meeting people. Grandmother didn’t even want me to go to college.” Guilt wracked her. Her own woes were selfish and insignificant compared to the others who’d suffered tonight.
Silence stretched into the cabin.
Elk paused, then said, “There’s this great diner at Whiteriver. Does a mean steak and fries. You should try it sometime.”
“Uh,” Harukka’s heart raced painfully, and she didn’t know what to do or say. “Are you asking me out?”
“Maybe. We could do a few outings, see where it goes.” Elk turned and winked at her. “No pressure. I like a woman who can hold her cool under fire.”
“Yeah, sure,” Harukka managed through her tightened throat. So used to being called ‘girl’ by her mother and grandmother, the fact that someone else thought she was grown-up gave her a strange, anticipatory shiver, like she was opening a new door to an unknown land. She was going somewhere unfamiliar, and she liked it.
“I’ll be sorting through the store tomorrow if you want to stop by,” Elk continued.
“I’ll visit,” Harukka promised. She rubbed at her wounded arm. Bitten, scraped, but alive. Her TTL counter had dropped massively, but she didn’t care.
After all, that was the point.
Tamlyn surveyed his lounge room, cluttered with piles of CDs, vinyl records, and random pop culture magazines. Only a few hours ago, it had been tidy. He stifled an irritated sigh; everything had been neat in his residence during the period after his ex-wife and stepsons had left, and before Lukie had arrived.
He cleared his throat.
The seventeen-year-old undead girl turned from where she sat in front of the television, staring at him with her unblinking, red glowing eyes. Perfectly still, with pale, marble skin. Not breathing. At times, her body language was utterly unlike the person he’d known in school.
“Turn that down,” said Tamlyn. “The neighbors will complain. I’m going to meet Cage.” He collected his keys from the hook near the front door.
“Can I come?” Lukie slowly rose to her feet. Her voice was cracked and husky, a sharp contrast to the smooth-voiced girl he remembered. And her movements were slower and more mechanical than those of the twitchy, in-your-face person he’d known.
“I got the impression he wanted to see me alone,” Tamlyn explained, like he’d done in high school. Sometimes you had to be incredibly obvious with her. At least that bit hadn’t changed. “I’ll get your photograph.”
Lukie waved her hands in the air. “Do you understand what that photograph is to me? It came back with me from the dead, and unless I have it, I’ll starve to death—”
“I know about cache objects,” Tamlyn reminded her. They’d defeated the Baron with one, after all. “And you’re not going to waste away any time soon.” She’d told him gleefully how she’d devoured the Baron’s soul, and she hadn’t picked up on how damn uncomfortable that made him. Souls were supposed to be immortal, intangible things, not candy. “Once I speak with Cage, I—”
“Cage is a jerk!” Lukie snapped. “I’m perfectly in control of myself now, and he had no right to bind me like he did!” She stamped a foot on the ground. Luckily it was daylight and her supernatural strength hadn’t manifested, otherwise there’d be a holes in his floorboards.
“Lukie, calm down.” Tamlyn had a sharp flashback to arguments with his stepsons who often though they could leave their surfboards, swimming trunks and sand-covered towels at random locations in his house. “You asked Cage directly and he refused. But he’s going to speak to me. He’s a reasonable man,” he ignored her red-eyed glower, “and I’ll sort things out. Please, trust me. Let me do my job.” He swallowed, aware of the chill, undead presence in front of him. When night fell, she’d have the power to snap his neck…
Instead, Lukie sighed and flopped on the couch, throwing her hands up in the air. “Okay. I spent all those years being a shitty friend to everyone. I’m fixing everything now.” She patted the worn seat cushion next to her. “When you return, we’ll hang out and watch this brilliant TV station—it plays music all night! We need to talk, too. We’ve got a lot to catch up on.” At that moment, she was exactly like her old self, and his heart lurched with the buried emotion of losing his best friends to a serial killer two decades ago. Now one of them had returned. Then Lukie ran her fingers through her short, blonde hair—another unfamiliar gesture. He stepped back, uncertain again.
“Perhaps.” Opening up was the last thing he wanted to do. Especially to something that may not have been the girl he’d known in life.
Tamlyn had no idea how he agreed to it, but after an afternoon of driving Cage, the monster hunter (or ‘preserver’ as he styled himself; of people rather than horrors, Tamlyn assumed), out to the Pillars of Majesty, and back into town, they checked into a motel after sunset.
Tamlyn’s stomach churned like helicopter blades. Two years since his last hook-up with the bald, pot-bellied truck driver late at night behind the public restrooms on Wharf Street.
The elderly woman at the desk was reading a romance novel. She didn’t blink as Tamlyn signed them in. His sweating palms smeared the ink as he flashed through everything that could go wrong when a trans guy hooked up with someone he’d known for less than forty-eight hours. Cage was a complete contrast with the truck driver: athletic, handsome and looked twenty-something, even though he claimed to be over five hundred years old. Tamlyn had no idea why the monster hunter was interested in an overweight, middle-aged police inspector with a receding hairline. He’d resolved not to ask ‘why’ and enjoy the encounter, despite his growing anxieties.
The clerk handed him the key and returned to reading her dog-eared book.
The heat from the day clung to the motel complex. Sweat soaked Tamlyn’s shirt as they crossed the parking lot. To his left, a row of pines, black against the copper sunset, guarded the approach towards the twilight-touched ocean.
Tamlyn unlocked the door. Inside was a stained linoleum floor, a double bed and cracked, cream-painted walls. He opened the shutters, trying to dislodge the musty smell and attract the afternoon sea breeze.
“You look terrified, Detective,” Cage observed. “I don’t bite. Unless you like that sort of thing.” He grinned, showing perfect teeth. Despite having his legs in traction earlier, the monster hunter had now healed enough to walk around. Cage had simply ripped his plaster casts off as though they were tissue paper.
“I haven’t done this for years.” Tamlyn ran his hands through his receding, sweating hair. “And it’s ‘Inspector.’ A ‘detective’ refers to—”
“I didn’t come here to discuss ranks in your provincial police bureaucracy.” Cage pulled off his jeans and t-shirt, revealing a muscular physique covered in scars. “Last night you lived for the first time a while. Don’t lose that.”
Tamlyn gritted his teeth, considering fleeing to the car and the undead girl in his now-cluttered, disordered house.
“Oh, what the hell,” he muttered.
An hour and a bottle of rice wine later, Tamlyn lay on the bed, watching the fan wheel overhead, unable to recall when he’d last been so relaxed.
The heat from the day faded as the wind from the sea swept through the motel shutters.
He was used to most guys leaving after the act was done. And if he met them at the mall with their wives afterwards, they’d smile, make eye contact but would otherwise pretend not to know each other.
Instead, Cage sprawled on top of the worn, brown couch opposite the bed. Unable to stop fidgeting for anything longer than a few seconds, he now walked a coin across his knuckles. Left, right, left right… The harsh electric lights cast odd reflections on the preserver’s metallic silver hair, a trait indicating descent from ancient nobility. His features—tanned skin, dark eyes—suggested he’d come from the Jadetower region in the northwestern portion of the continent, but his accent was local. He could have been from anywhere.
Tamlyn still had no idea why the preserver found him interesting—Cage could have cruised any ripped tourist or surfer in the holiday town of Breakwater Bay. Not that Tamlyn was complaining. He sipped from the wine bottle and relaxed, lethargy seeping over him.
“It’s not too late.” Cage’s soft voice cut into Tamlyn’s thoughts.
“Huh? What do you mean?” Tamlyn sat up.
“For me to remove the revenant.” The coin blurred across Cage’s knuckles.
“No.” Tamlyn’s good mood faded away. He’d seen the monster hunter summon a sword of golden light from nowhere. He understood what ‘remove’ entailed.
“You’ve noticed the differences now.” Cage gave a sour smile. “Fixated on petty things, obsessed with her own passions and nothing else.”
“You’ve described every single teenager,” Tamlyn snorted.
Cage shook his head. “Also, slower. Perhaps having odd gestures or mannerisms that you don’t recall from her in life.”
Tamlyn tried to keep his expression blank, but his face twitched in fear and Cage nodded.
“Is it really her?” Tamlyn voiced the secret doubt that had raked his mind ever since meeting the undead version of his old high school friend. It had been easy to accept her last night as they stalked the Baron, especially when she’d told him her existence was temporary. He’d treated it like a weird, once-off vision.
Except she’d remained. She was here now. And despite his best intentions, Tamlyn’s doubts grew. He’d been at Lukie’s funeral, where her father Zeran had scattered her ashes on Breakwater Beach. Revenant Lukie looked like her old self, but enough things were off kilter that he wasn’t sure.
Cage shrugged. “The Underworld is a place where ghosts consume each other to survive. The toughest ones become shades—patchworks creatures with different memories and identities. You could be dealing with something that’s only mostly Lukie.” Cage flicked the coin across his knuckles again and leaned forward. “This revenant will never age. Never mature into adulthood. As a child, she’ll bear a petty grudge for eternity. She’ll get hungry and have to feed on souls. She won’t die, and even if she’s destroyed, she’ll come back unless the right rituals are carried out.” He raised his hands, and a sparkle of golden light coalesced about them. “I’ve performed the correct ritual so the Baron will not return. I could do the same for the girl.”
“No!” Tamlyn protested, sitting up.
“This is not your childhood friend,” Cage said. “This may only be something that resembles her.”
“Is there any chance that Lukie,” Tamyn avoided saying ‘real Lukie,’ “could be somewhere else?”
“Who can say? The afterlife is fractured.” The preserver stretched his legs out. “We’ll never likely know while we walk the physical world. And I can’t leave a revenant alone to prey on innocent mortals, unless someone will take responsibility for the creature.” He gave Tamlyn a meaningful look. “Do you wish to spend the rest of your life being responsible for a selfish, undead being?”
Tamlyn twitched. What was he going to do with a soul-eating teenager? “She’ll want to leave the house. The problem is, there are those who might remember her from twenty years ago, and ask questions.”
“You have options,” Cage continued. “I could cripple the revenant. We could make a sanctuary in your basement. Without souls for food, she’ll grow weak and confused, and you could keep her existing for the rest of your life. Then, as you get too old, you could appoint a new caretaker.”
An image of the Baron’s concrete prison flashed in Tamlyn’s mind. “No, I can’t do that.” He sat up. “My mother had early onset dementia. She…” He rubbed his face with the palm of one sweating hand, remembering the woman screaming at him. “I couldn’t come home to a place where I’d deliberately made her like my mother.”
“Then let me remove the revenant.” Cage rolled the coin from across his knuckles.
“No.” Tamlyn made a fist.
“If you won’t let me cripple her, how do you intend to feed her?” Cage pointed his coin at Tamlyn like a dagger.
“Lukie doesn’t want to eat people,” Tamlyn repeated. “She told me she can devour other undead, and…”
“And how’s she going to find them and hunt?” Cage said. “I have to leave soon. I don’t have time to train or care for a monster.”
“She fed on me before.” Tamlyn poked at the listless feeling in his mind that hadn’t yet gone away. “I could do it again…”
“You’re missing a chunk of your soul,” Cage explained. “You probably feel drained, disconnected from everything. And you’ve only taken a light wound. If you do it repeatedly, you’ll become as hollow as the surviving Clearwaters.”
Tamlyn recalled the Clearwater family after emergency services had escorted them from their decaying mansion. Dull and staring. Listless eyes. Trapped in their house, chewed on for decades by the Baron. Something that Ellie, the police social worker, was struggling with at the moment.
“If you can’t keep her hidden from the mundane Golden World, then you’ll be dragged into hers,” Cage said. “I told you there’s a supernatural world, the Indigo, alongside the Golden. If you stay with the revenant, and don’t conceal her, she’ll drag you along with her. Your connections to the prosaic realm will weaken. You’ll lose your friends, lovers and career. And you don’t have a vestige, so you’ll be prey for everything around you. Is it worth it all for a dead girl? One that you aren’t even sure is real or not?”
“If I go there with her, we might find things she can feed on,” Tamlyn muttered.
“Be very clear about this,” Cage said. “Enter the unknown, and ensure the revenant’s continued existence at the cost of all you have now. Or let me remove the problem.”
Tamlyn swallowed. One word from him, and the undead creature in his house would go. He could resume his normal life. That was if the creature wasn’t Lukie. He thought of his mother in the nursing home, screaming at him, not recognising him. His brother had asked why he kept visiting, and he’d replied: “That’s all I have left of her.”
Before the murders, his childhood had stretched like a perfect, endless summer. Days with the band, going to the beach after school, or sitting in the library for hours talking. Back then, Lukie had been so lively: twitching and bouncing around like an excited terrier dosed with caffeine. She’d interrupted conversations with her own announcement and observations, and composed music in her exercise books and been annoyed when the teacher asked her to repeat material from the actual lesson. So different from the slow, deliberate creature in his house.
Two days ago he’d lived a simple, quiet life without close friends. And now, whether a blessing of the ancient spirits or a curse, one had returned to him. And if it wasn’t Lukie exactly, it was all he had left of her.
He stared at his expanse of round, hairy belly and the thin line of surgical scars across his chest. He knew what he had to do.
“I’ll be responsible for her.” Tamlyn’s throat tightened.
Cage walked the coin along his knuckles again. “Can you survive an existence on the borders of the Indigo World?”
“Yes,” Tamlyn said. “What do you need from me?”
Cage flicked the coin. It landed on the back of his left palm. He clasped a hand over it.
Please don’t tell me he’s deciding Lukie’s fate on a toss.
Cage revealed the coin: a wolf’s head facing upwards. “All right.”
Tamlyn relaxed, breathing outwards. “Give me her photograph.”
“I’ll do something that’s close enough.” The monster hunter smiled. “A decision, I feel, appropriate to yours.”
Tamlyn arrived home early in the hours of the morning. Slightly drunk, and yet able to park his car at an odd angle in his driveway.
He opened the front door of his house and fumbled for the light switch.
Twin, red glowing eyes emerged from the darkness.
Tamlyn’s heart thumped. He flicked on the lights.
“How did you go?” The scarlet glow resolved into Lukie’s eyes as the undead teenager strode towards him, leaning forward, more lively than before. Then the familiarity was broken when she held her head differently than what he remembered. Another little thing that caused dissonance. Perhaps coming back as a revenant was like recovering from a stroke. Even if she stayed the same, forever, it had to be better than watching his mother slowly fall apart because of her dementia. One day forgetting things, and then getting confused at the shops, and several years later, screaming at him incoherently when he’d tried to visit her in the nursing home, begging to see a daughter who no longer existed.
And what if that happened to him? From Lukie’s perspective, he’d age and wither. His hair would recede further and whiten. He might forget things. Perhaps one day he wouldn’t remember her name, and what would she do?
But that would not happen immediately. “It’s all sorted,” Tamlyn said.
“Can I have my photograph?” Lukie stretched out a hand.
“I’ll explain later,” Tamlyn said. “Trust me on this.” He kept his face blank, already preparing for a loud, shouty argument like they’d had all the time in high school, followed by a tantrum when she didn’t get her own way, and a series of vicious recriminations afterwards. The sensible thing was to advise the obvious now: I don’t have it. But he was tired and emotionally drained, preferring avoidance to fighting. He fingered the leaden weight of the coin in his pocket. Guilt saddled him. He’d have to tell her. One day. Soon.
She twisted, staring up at him. Perhaps about to challenge him for the photograph again, and he braced himself for another argument.
Instead, she studied him, biting her lip. “Okay.”
An ‘okay’ from Lukie? Backing down? Not pushing him for once?
Deliberately, slowly she returned to the couch. “Are you all right? You were gone a long time.”
He nodded, relief flooding his body. All throughout high school, he’d often felt like she’d only offered him a one-way friendship, but then again he’d been obsessed with being the strong, silent type, and blindly oblivious of the fact that this meant that people looked you over, put you in the background.
“Everything’s fine,” Tamlyn repeated, on autopilot.
She patted the couch next to her. “Let’s watch TV for a bit, like the old days. You can tell me when you’re ready.”
Grateful, he sat next her, slumping backwards. He’d agreed to take responsibility for her, out of a sense of loneliness and duty, like he’d done with his mother, his career, his ex-wife. Burdens he’d taken on without an expectation of getting anything in return, apart from a vague certainty it was the right thing to do. But now this deal seemed better than those things. He relaxed, surprised at how good it felt to simply sit with a friend, and be.
Of course, he would have to tell her what he was holding back. About that day with Karra on the beach, or when he’d swum far into the ocean on his brother’s surfboard and how the water had become like black glass around him. And about his mother, his ex-wife and the divorce, the broken relationship with his stepsons, his mediocre policing career, and his insignificant life. Later.
Lukie gestured at the music channel, where dark-clad people leapt about the stage and flicked their long hair. “They’re called Miserica—amazing, huh? We could do some covers if we ever decide to pick up the band again.”
“Yeah,” he said, and tried to remember what he’d done with his old bass guitar.