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.