Death is the middle (not the end)

 

by Charon MacDonald

 

 

 

Part I

 

“And that’s Melissa.”  Eric pointed at the goth girl sitting high above them, on the fire escape attached to the warehouse.

 

Raven’s Shadow.”  The goth said with a flat and yet irritable tone.

 

“Melissa.”  Eric repeated without a pause.  “And you’re...?”

 

“Gwendolyn.”  The young brunette was dazed.  It showed in her eyes and her voice.  “Gwen or Wendy to my friends.”

 

The goth smiled and leaned forward, hands clasped between her knees.  “Wendy, welcome to the Neverland.”

 

“...wh...what?”

 

“You see that ambulance out there?”  Eric pointed toward the mouth of the alley, where the nose of an ambulance could be seen, along with flashing lights.  Music drifted to where the three ravers sat and stood from the doors around the side of the building.

 

“...yeah...”  She looked that way, and then back at the dark-haired man.  “...did someone get hurt?”  There had been a lot of shoving in the mosh pit.  So, she’d... come out here?  She didn’t remember coming out here- all she remembered was the room spinning, and all the lights flashing, and the bodies pressing against her, and stumbling a little, her heart pounding...

 

“...someone died.  The goth announced, crouching even further forward, a ghoulish glee in her eyes.

 

The girl swallowed.  She knew she should never have given in and come to this rave.

 

“...that’s...awful.”

 

The man licked his lips nervously, and then with a hissing intake of air, gritted his teeth.  Finally, he said “...that someone was you.”

 

“...wh...what?”  Gwen repeated.  “But I’m...”

 

“Dead.”  The girl on the fire escape intoned.  “That’s not your real body.  That’s just who you were at the moment you died.  You should have dressed better.”

 

“These are my good clothes.”  Gwen protested, looking up at her. Gwen’s cheeks flushed with heat.

 

“Exactly.”  The goth was dressed all in lace and dark clothes.  Gwen had to admit the goth belonged at a place like this. And she realized that she, herself, definitely didn’t.

 

“I’m... going home now.  I’m going to find my friends and get out of here.”

 

The goth smiled a wicked little smile.  “Want to bet on how far she’ll get?”

 

Eric shook his head.  “Melissa, sometimes you disgust me.  Gwendolyn, I’m sorry, but there’s no going home for you.  No talking to your friends, either.  Not... right now, anyway.  You’ve got an appointment.”

 

She started backing away from the two ravers.  “No way.  This isn’t real.  I don’t know what was in that pill, but-“

 

“That’s why you shouldn’t have taken it.”  Eric said quietly.  His eyes showed a definite hurt, a sadness for her, and a finality that scared her.

 

“Did...”

 

“That’s what killed you.  The Ex you thought you took was laced with something else.” Eric answered her question before she could ask it.  He had experience at knowing what the dead were going to say.

 

“What?”  Her voice was weak, but steadier than it had been a minute before.

 

“Don’t know.  Does it matter?”  Melissa, ‘Raven’s Shadow’ smiled down on her, a cruel smile.  “You had the night of your life.  The last night of your life.  Now, you have to come with us.  You get to take one last look at yourself, and the people around you, and then we have to move on.”

 

“Move on?”  Her frantic eyes shot from Eric to Melissa.  “You mean-“

 

“No,”  Eric sighed, “she’s being dramatic.  Just move on to the appointment, and find out what you’re going to be now.”

 

“I don’t-“

 

“It’s simple.”  Melissa stood up and dropped off the fire escape, landing in a flurry of skirts, then rose to her feet.  Gwendolyn looked up- that was... fifteen or twenty feet... then back down to the smirk on the goth’s face.

 

“So was that.”  Melissa glanced up at where she’d fallen from and then leveled her gaze on the first-nighter.  “You’re dead.  But you were young- so you’ve got a pretty good chance of being something important.  Which is why we’re here.  Hoping to cash in on a little fortune of our own...”  She grinned, and approached the shaken teen.  “Every life has potential.  The less you did with it, the more you have left waiting for you now.  But your persona also gives you power.  The stronger your self-image, the more power you can channel...  You were young, and that gives you power, but you’re weak and that’s going to take it away!”

 

“I don’t understand...”  The brunette tried to back away from the girl, but in a blink, moving faster than Gwendolyn could see, Melissa appeared in front of her, grabbing the recently-dead girl’s wrist, and tugging on it with bone-wrenching force.

 

“I was waiting for death.  I knew what was going to happen, so I did nothing with my life.  And as soon as I knew I was at the peak of my beauty, of everything, I stepped in front of a bus.  In full view of my entire high school.  I even waved goodbye.”

 

“That’s awful!”  Gwen tried to pull her hand away, but nothing happened.  The girl’s fingers were as hard as stone, and the goth’s arm didn’t budge any more than a statue’s would have.

 

“No, it was wonderful.”  The goth’s eyes seemed to glaze over with rapture.  “All the screams, the cries, the shocked looks, and that bitch of a bus driver.  I swear she smiled...”

 

The goth smiled, and let Gwen’s wrist go with one final painful squeeze.

 

“I have a lot of power.  My parents always said I’d never amount to anything.  That I was wasting my life.  But I wasn’t wasting it.  I was conserving it.  For here, and now.”

 

Eric stepped in, his eyes plainly asking Melissa to back off.  She acquiesced and turned away from them, heading to the mouth of the alley.

 

“She’s... crazy.”

 

“No, she was smart.  She chose this world instead of life, and she did it in just the right way.  There’s not many in this city that can stand up to her.”  He shook his head.  “Even if I’d known... if I’d had a choice, I wouldn’t have chosen this.  I would’ve lived my life... we really have to go.”

 

“I...I have to?” Gwen held her wrist- it felt broken.  “Wait, if I’m dead, how can I feel pain?  You’re lying to me!  I’m not dead, I’m not!”

 

Melissa was instantly there.  The goth’s slap knocked the dead teen against the wall.  It felt like being hit by that bus.  Gwen’s head bounced off the wall of the warehouse and she fell to her knees, crying.

 

“You can still be hurt.  You can still hurt others.  You can even hurt the living, or kill them.  But be careful about that.  Only kill someone you really like... and who really likes you.”

 

“I don’t-“

 

“Will you stop saying that?  Of course you don’t understand.  I was the only one that did!  You’re lucky I’m here now, not that I’m taking an interest in you.  I just like raves.  If I’d known you were here for the first time, and that you were such a whiny self-absorbed airhead-“

 

“Melissa!”  Eric stepped between them, his back to Gwendolyn.  “She’ll know it all soon enough.  She...”

 

‘She’ was running, away from both of them, out the mouth of the alley, into the crowd- who parted for her as she ran through them- and then into a circle of empty space where two paramedics were...

 

That’s... th...that’s me...

 

Gwen looked down at herself, eyes bloodshot, lips a pallid blue, her dress torn in the front, and two burn marks on her chest.  The paramedics were putting away a defibrillator unit.  She recognized it from ER. 

I never knew it burned people...

 

Eric took her arm, gently.  “You should look at your friends, too.”

 

Melissa stood just a little past him, arms crossed, and angry.  She turned away when Gwen’s eyes fell on her.  “He said your friends.

 

Eric pointed across the circle- and Gwen saw her friends, the five of them, the three boys and two girls she’d come to the party with.  The ones who’d opened the bag of ecstasy and pressured her into taking one of the pills.  Amelia, her best friend, struggling against John’s arms, trying to get to Gwen... to her body, lying cold and still on the sidewalk.  Steven hugging Casey tight to his chest, his arms wrapped around her, looking out over her shoulder and keeping her head turned away.  And Kyle, her ex-boyfriend, who she was still friends with...

 

...had still been friends with...

 

...jaw clenched, lips pressed into a tight line, hands balled into fists.

 

“...why aren’t they dead?”  Her mind was whirling.  She didn’t know why she thought anything that she did- the thoughts she had came chaotically, and didn’t follow what she thought someone would have thought if they… were dead.

 

Eric winced, and shrugged.  “Maybe only your pill had something dangerous in it.  Maybe theirs were laced a little less.  Maybe you had a bad heart or an allergy.  I don’t know.  How do you feel about them?”

 

She looked at him with a confused gaze in her pretty brown eyes.  “I... they’re my friends.  I’m glad they’re not dead.”  Gwen swallowed.  “How should I feel?”

 

“That’s up to you.”  Eric looked at her body, then over at her friends.  “Angry, that they did this to you.  Relieved that they didn’t follow you.  Sad that they’ve lost you... I’ve seen it all.” Yeah, pretty much.

 

Gwen swallowed and turned to fully look at him.  She could see her body out of the corner of her eye and turned further away- trying to see him and only him, and ignore the crowd.  And the reason the crowd was here.  “I am angry.  I’m angry that I died!”

 

“Good.”  Melissa appeared next to her, in that faster-than-sight way she had of moving.  “Maybe once this appointment’s over, we can find out who you should be angry towards.”

 

Eric nodded in agreement.  “Come on.  You’ve had your requisite last look.  Let’s go.”

 

She felt numb, and didn’t fight, as they led her away down an alley which seemed to stretch away from the noise, the light, the crowd, and the paramedics loading her onto a stretcher-

 

-when she was right here, not there.

 

Then she wasn’t anywhere as the alley became a hole into nothing and her world went dark.

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

Part II

 

It felt like floating and falling and flying and sinking all at the same time.

 

“Transition.  One of Eric’s powers.”  Melissa... Raven’s Shadow... sounded jealous.  “Lucky bastard.”

 

“One of... his powers?”  She couldn’t see anything but them, and couldn’t feel anything but their hands upon her, and the feeling of falling or flying through an endless chill.

 

“Oh, god-damnit, you sound like every other stupid burb that’s ever died before they graduated high school.  Don’t repeat everything I say.  You’ve got to be faster on the draw from now on.”

 

“I’m sorry!  Gwen shouted at the goth- “I just died!”

 

Melissa’s black-painted lips curved into a smile.  “That’s better.  For right now, get angry and stay angry.  It’ll help you deal with others.  You are so lucky that Eric and I were there.  Otherwise, you’d be food right now.”

 

“Food?”  Gwen shrunk away from the girl’s angry eyes.  “I’m sorry,” she repeated, “I don’t understand any of this.  You’ve had-“  She stopped, suddenly aware that she didn’t know how old the other girl was, how long she’d had to get used to this.  Melissa didn’t look old, didn’t sound old, but- “how old are you?”

 

“Twenty-two.  I was fifteen when I died.  Seven years on this side of the veil...”  The girl seemed to get angry in a heartbeat... no, I don’t have a heartbeat...in a second, then...  and she seemed to recover just as quick.

 

I don’t have a heartbeat.  Her hand began to unwrap from Eric’s wrist.  Then her bones were grating togther, and her hand wouldn’t budge.  “Ow, you’re hurting me!”

 

“Don’t EVER let go during Transition.  EVER!”  Melissa was angry again.

 

Gwen waited for the other girl to recover, and tried not to cry from pain, shock, fear, and humiliation.

 

“Don’t let go.”  Melissa repeated, and kept her hand on Gwen’s wrist.  “I won’t.”  Gwen replied.  Melissa’s hand didn’t move.  “I won’t!” Gwen repeated, more forcefully.  Melissa smirked, and still didn’t move her hand.  “It’s not an escape.  It’s a torture.  An endless torture... and that’s if you’re lucky.”

 

“If you’re- well, I’m sorry I keep repeating what you say but I still don’t know what’s going on and I’m still trying to accept that I’m dead and you keep saying things that I don’t know anything about!”

 

“She’s right, Melissa.  Please, just let her rest for now.  We’ll clue her in later.”

 

“Raven’s shadow.”  Melissa repeated with a snarl, and finally let go of Gwen’s wrist.

 

Gwen wanted to rub her wrist, but didn’t dare try to remove her other hand to do it...

 

The darkness faded, and they were pulled or thrown into the light.  Not much light, it was just another empty alley, but the walls of the buildings were totally different and marked up with gang tags.  She didn’t know which gangs, she’d never been in that part of town, but she recognized that they were tags and not just graffiti.

 

Eric looked around.  “Now, why the hell are we here?”

 

Melissa let go of him and looked around as well.  “Oh, cool.  Maybe we have some business to take care of first...” She grinned and flexed her fingers.

 

“Eric?”  Gwendolyn clung to his arm.  “What’s going on?  You said we had an appointment.  Why are we here?  This isn’t it, is it?”

 

He shook his head.  She was very frightened.  Melissa looked like she was ready to get into a fight, and Eric’s eyes were roaming all over the place- to every door, window, and exit he could see.

 

She moved closer to him.  Why are they not sure where they are?  What are they getting ready for?  What is Eric looking for?  What does Melissa think she’s going to fight?

 

“Can... we be hurt... more?  Killed?”

 

“In a way, yeah.”  Eric didn’t elaborate.  Melissa wasn’t paying any attention to her anymore.  Gwen wanted to cry- to sit down somewhere and cry.  She was dead, at only seventeen, a junior in high school, and without a current boyfriend, and she hadn’t even figured out what she was going to do with her life yet.  She’d never made the cheerleaders, hadn’t gotten involved in the science, math, or debate clubs, wasn’t on any student body councils, or... anything.  I haven’t done anything with my life.

 

Melissa had said that gave people power, but she didn’t feel powerful at all.  Gwen felt scared, and weak, and helpless, and afraid, and overwhelmed, and so many other things she couldn’t even place or name them all.

 

The strongest feeling was that they were in the wrong place- and the right way was this way.  “This way...”  She started walking away from Eric, following a pull that seemed right.

 

He grabbed her arm.  “Are you serious?”  He glanced at Melissa, who was watching her with wide eyes and a growing smile.

 

“You can feel something already?”  Melissa straightened up and waved a hand in the air.  “Lead on!”

 

Eric walked next to her, his hand on her arm, protectively, ready to close his fingers tighter if he needed to.  Gwen walked along the sidewalk, watching the people in the street.  Hispanics, mostly.  This had to be the puerto rican section of the city, one of the slums.  She knew where this part of town was.  It was pretty far from the club, and her house.  We... went two miles in a minute?

 

Her breath caught in her throat.  No, it wasn’t her breath, it was something else.  She hadn’t been breathing for a while now.  “Do... we breathe?”

 

“If you want to, or if you don’t think about it, you might breathe.  You don’t have to.  After a while, you just... don’t.  That’s one way to tell the really old ones.  If they don’t breathe at all, ever, while you’re watching them.  They might be old.”

 

“How...old?”

 

“Hundreds of years.”  Melissa replied, with an awed tone in her voice.  “I wish I’d been born before Christ...  then I’d be a god now.”

 

Eric chuckled.  “You wouldn’t have known to kill yourself.  Or how to deal with this, afterwards.”

 

“I might have.”  She said, defensively, and turned to Gwen.  “Come on, point it out.”

 

“Point what out?”  Gwen asked.  She felt something.  Something she couldn’t explain, but it was up- in the building they were standing in front of.

 

“Point out your killer.”  Melissa’s eyes all but gleamed.

 

She shrunk away from the thrilled goth and clung once again to Eric.  “My killer?  I don’t know who-“

 

“Yes,”  Eric murmured, “you do.  Or else we wouldn’t be here.  Just... keep walking, and don’t think about where you’re going.  We’ll take care of this.”

 

“Take care of what?”

 

“Revenge.”  Melissa crowed.  Her hands, the incredibly strong small hands, flexed once again in front of Gwendolyn's face.

 

“I don’t want to kill anybody.  It might’ve been an accident.”

 

“I thought you were angry.  Melissa said with bitterness.  “I thought you weren’t happy that you died.”

 

“I’m... I wasn’t... I’m not.”  Gwen ducked behind Eric, putting the taller man between herself and the goth.  “We can’t kill anyone!”

 

“Oh, yes we can.”

 

“No, I mean- we’re dead, we shouldn’t be killing anyone.  And you said I should pick people I liked.  Wait, what did you mean by that, I’m not going to kill my friends!  I’m not going to kill anyone!”

 

Melissa was next to her- Gwen hadn’t seen her move.  “No, you’re not.  I am.”

 

Melissa’s shadowed eyes seemed to grow large, filling Gwen’s vision.  She... where does she get makeup here?

 

“Or I will.”  Eric added, turning to face both of them.  “You don’t have to do anything.  And... it will be your choice.  Once we find the one responsible.  You’ll choose to kill him or her.  I mean, have them killed.”

 

“I don’t want anyone killed!”  Gwen complained.  “I just want to end this, all of this!  Whatever’s supposed to happen next, let’s do that, and then-“

 

Eric’s hands gripped her shoulders.  “Since we’re here, you have to see this, too.  See who killed you.  And then we can leave, if that’s all you want to do.”

 

“Who says?  Who says I have to go up there?  Why can’t we just leave now?”

 

Melissa looked bitter, and turned away.  “There are some rules you can’t break.  Just... deal with it, and move on.”

 

Gwendolyn turned her eyes from Eric to Melissa.  She’s... sad.  What can’t she break?

 

Her grip had felt so strong, her body so solid, that Gwen couldn’t imagine anything that Melissa couldn’t break.

 

“Upstairs.”  Eric whispered.  “And then we can go.”

 

She hung her head.  “Do I have to?”

 

“You have to.”  His hands came up to frame her face, fingers cupping her cheeks.  Eric drew her head up gently but firmly.  His brown eyes met hers.  “Just this once, this one night, there’s certain things you have to do.”

 

“After that, you’re free...”  Melissa added in a pained whisper.  “As free as we can get.”

 

Does she... regret her choice?  Was this not worth stepping in front of that bus?  Is she... Gwendolyn couldn’t even think of the right words.  Melissa seemed so pleased about being dead, so enthralled with the power she possessed, but then, for a moment, there was this pain that had crept out.

 

“Okay.”  Gwen whispered, talking mostly to herself.  “One more thing, and then we can go...”

 

She led the way up the stairs, Melissa right next to her, acting like a bodyguard from the movies, and Eric one step behind, his long coat fluttering around his ankles, and his hands stretched out to either side.

 

He seems just as ready as her, but in a different way.

 

The three went up the stairs, and Gwen heard a baby crying, some loud TV, a lot of shouting, some music playing, and sounds of all sorts of people’s lives coming through the thin walls and doors.  She had never been in this part of town before, didn’t know how people lived, and couldn’t imagine ever wanting to come here or live in such a ratty building.  And I never will, now.  It can’t be true.  This has to be a dream or- anything!  It can’t be real!  Dead?  I can’t be dead, I can’t!

 

She stopped at a door that said 5C.  She bit her lip, hard enough to hurt.  “This is it.”  Her fingers touched the metal numbers on the wooden door.  “This... this is where he lives...”

 

“He.”  Eric repeated, standing behind her.  “All right.  Melissa.  It’s her choice.”

 

“Choose that he dies.”  Melissa said, harshly.  “Choose that he dies in pain.”

 

Gwen shot her an angry look.  “I don’t want anyone dying.”

 

“Anyone besides you.”  Melissa retorted.  You’re dead.  That’s really enough for one night?”

 

“YES!”  Gwen screamed!  “It IS!  IT IS!”  She felt herself crying.  I don’t breathe, I don’t beat, but I can cry?

 

Eric took her into his arms, his chin resting on the top of her head.  “Melissa...”  One of his arms reached past Gwen and pushed on the door.  It swung open at his touch.  Gwen turned around and looked into the apartment.  “There’s...two doors...”

 

Eric sighed.  “We’re not in the real world.  We’re in a spirit world, an... Eidolon-“

 

“What’s-“

 

“Oh, shut up and go in there.”  Melissa shoved Gwen through the hazy door.  Gwen shut her eyes.  It felt like passing through a big cotton ball.  When she could feel... nothing... around her, she peeked out at the apartment.  It was cheap, and lousy.  Faded paint, stained carpet, and she could see a bit of an ugly leather sofa down the hall.  A TV was blaring.

 

Eric stepped into the hall behind her.  Gwen looked back at him, then at the weird two doors- one semi-solid, like a door made of fog, and one that was solid but different from the walls and ceiling and floor.

 

Melissa didn’t follow them.  Gwen looked up at Eric.  “Where’s Melissa...?”

 

He looked depressed.  “She can’t follow us.  One of... her strictures.  Don’t worry.  No-one here can touch you.  She’ll come in as soon as someone opens the door.  I’ll try and make that happen.”

 

“She can’t come in through the door?”

 

He sighed, and explained.  “There’s two doors.  We can pass through one of them- the real one.  I can open the other, the spirit door.  She’s blocked by the real one, even if the spirit door is open.  I’ll explain all of this later.  Just head into the apartment and find the person that... feels right.”

 

Gwen wanted to go somewhere and cry.  To lie down, and stop doing all of this until everything made sense.  To go home and curl up in her bed, in her room, and have her mom or dad come in and tuck her under the covers.  To call her friends and talk on the phone.  My friends!

 

“When can I see my friends!  When can I talk to them- please don’t say never!”

 

Eric winced.  “You... let’s talk about that later.  I... I don’t feel comfortable here.  There’s... A lot of death has been caused by the people who live here.  It... can you do this quick, please?”

 

He sounded strained, and she felt suddenly very guilty.  He and Melissa were helping her, and she was making this harder for them.  “I’m sorry.”  Gwen moved down the hallway and into the apartment, glancing into the kitchen and frowning at all the dirty dishes.  There was a woman in there, drawn face, and tired eyes.  Gwen felt sorry for her, too.  Living with a drug dealer couldn’t be easy.

 

She turned away and moved on, into the living room.

 

It felt really strange to her to be standing in a drug dealer’s den, looking at people filling bottles of pills, and nobody paying any attention to her.  Not even noticing her at all.  There were four men in the room, all of them hispanics, dressed in cheap and gaudy clothes, especially compared to her rave outfit- her best dress, best jacket, best blouse, best boots...  she didn’t care what Melissa thought, she liked these clothes and-  I guess I’m okay with dying in them....  No I’m not.

 

And there was one man, just one of the men, not the biggest or sleaziest, just one of them that she felt drawn to.  She walked forward and bumped into the edge of the table.  It didn’t move- it felt solid and heavy to her.  I guess that’s why I can climb stairs and walk on the floor.  She scuffed her feet along the carpet.  If I break something, does it stay broken forever?  Gwen wanted to ask Eric.  She wanted the answers to ALL her questions, all the questions she’d have about being dead- about this world, about her purpose, her life, what kinds of enemies Melissa had been ready to fight, and why she’d said Gwen would’ve been food if the two dead ravers hadn’t been there...

 

“...this is him”  she whispered, her voice catching in her throat.  “Eric!  This is him!”

 

“Great.”  Eric sounded very pained, and she turned to see him slumped against a wall.  “Make a choice, and let’s go.”

 

She turned and ran to him, her hand reaching out and then drawing back.  “Are... is it okay to touch you?  Are you sick?  What... is it catching?”

 

He managed a grin.  “It’s okay... there’s just something bad about this place.  Probably all the drugs- all the... killing...”

 

“Killing?”  She felt that she was breathing quickly.  Gwen tried to stop, but she was too scared, shocked, to control her breaths.

 

“Probably.  They’re drug dealers.  They’ve probably killed people.  I think... you were an accident.  I don’t think... can you please just do this...”  He slumped against the wall.

 

She moved to support him, and Eric waved her away.  “Go take a long look at him, at what he’s doing, and see if you want him to keep doing it.”  Getting the words out drained him.  He hoped she’d make this quick, or else they’d have to leave and come back again.

 

“Will... we get in trouble for killing him?”  I don’t want to kill him... but... he did kill me.  Well, no he didn’t.  He didn’t shove the drugs down my throat.  My friends did... nearly did.  Did I... kill myself?

 

“It’s not as easy as that.  There’s... no real law, here.  Other than make friends with powerful people, and don’t... later, please.  Right now... just make your choice.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Part III

 

She turned away from him and went back into the living room, looking at the man again.  He seemed like a bad guy from a movie, a white T-shirt, blue jeans, short black hair, a very cruel look on his face even when he was just putting pills in bottles.  She didn’t like him.  He’d sold the drugs that killed her.

 

She turned away from the man.  “Why is it he killed me, and not Kyle?  Kyle held out the pill bottle.”

 

“I don’t know.”  Eric sat down on the floor.  He was breathing heavily.  She felt bad that this was taking her so long to figure it out.  She didn’t want him to hurt himself. 

 

Gwen turned back to look at the drug dealer.  “I can’t just say ‘kill him’, right now.  I’d want to know if he did it on purpose.  If he knew that cutting the Ex with something would kill me.  Kill anyone.  Then, maybe, maybe...”  She knew she couldn’t do it.  There was just no reason... not even if he’d done it on purpose, put poison in the pill.  I’m not that kind of person.

 

“Let’s go.”  She turned around again, turned her back on the man, and looked at Eric who struggled to his feet.  “I don’t care what Melissa wants.  I don’t want anyone else dying.  I want to go.”

 

He nodded, and a woman walked out of the side hallway and stared at both of them.

 

“Two of you?”  She snarled, and pulled something metal from her belt.  It spun and flashed in the light, and the woman was holding a knife.  Gwen took a step back and bumped up against the table.

 

Eric fell backwards against the wall.  “Oh, fuck.

 

The woman was hispanic, like the men.  She was tall, long-limbed, and older than any of the dead people Gwen had met- Eric looked only in his twenties, college age, and Melissa was a teenager, like Gwen.  No, she’s older, but she looks young.  She acts it, too.  Will I be like that, looking this old forever?

 

Gwen gulped as the woman pointed with the knife.  “Who wants it first?  You, hombre?

 

“We’ll just go.  We won’t tell anyone.  We can’t anyway...”  Gwen wasn’t sure of that, but she’d say anything to get out of here.  She’d never been in a fight before- not a real fight, anything more than pulling hair and kicking. 

 

“Or you, chica?  The woman turned and pointed the knife in her direction.  Gwen couldn’t back up any more and fell onto the table.  It felt solid and real to her, and the pill cases felt solid, too.  One fell over when she sat on it, and cracked under her weight.

 

How do things break here?  What happens if they move?

 

Eric made a grab for the woman’s wrist.  “Get out of here!”  He yelled at Gwen and pushed the woman into the side hall.  Gwen started forward.  “But, Eric-“

 

He was thrown back into the hallway.  His body slammed into the wall and left cracks.  Eric fell to his knees, the coat flapping around him from the violence of the attack.  “Eric!”  Gwen shouted.

 

“Damnit, someone open this door!”  Melissa yelled from the hall.

 

The woman stepped into the hallway.  “And I thought you were a gargoyle, from that long coat you have there.  What are you?”  She looked at the closed and open doors and smiled.  “No, not a gargoyle.”  Her voice was deep, her accent heavy.  Diablo?  Come here looking for a fresh meal?”

 

Eric staggered to his feet, leaning heavily against the wall.  “Not saying.  We’ll leave now.”

 

The woman grinned and flicked the knife out.  He jerked away from it.  “No.  I don’t think you will.”

 

“Eric?  Gwen?”  Melissa called out from the hallway.  “Goddamnit, open the door, you fucking idiots!”

 

Gwen got up and ran around the woman, through the living room instead, and into the kitchen.  One of the men stepped out of her way.  She checked herself- she’d been moving to get out of his way.  They did that at the... place I died.

 

The woman in the kitchen also moved out of her way and then took her place again, leaning against the counter.  Are they really moving for me? Do people see them move?  Wouldn’t we see holes in crowds where dead people go through them?  Did... I ever see this or did I ignore it?

 

She had so many questions- and even more fears.

 

Gwen heard a crunch from behind her, and a shout of pain.  She ran to the door and skidded to a stop.

 

“Open it!”  Melissa sounded frantic, and not like the cool, in control, goth girl she had seemed to be earlier.  Gwendolyn looked at the door, and stuck her hand out, which passed right through.

 

“Damnit, that’s not the way!”  Melissa, it had to be her, shoved Gwen’s hand back inside the apartment.

 

“I don’t know how!”  Gwen shouted, tears of frustration welling up in her eyes.

 

“Fuck it, never mind, I’m-“

 

And someone slammed into Gwen, shoving her through the door-that-wasn’t-there, into the hallway.  She felt at least one person on top of her.  “Ow!”  A coat fell across her face.  It had to be Eric’s.  Then some of the weight was gone, and she pulled herself out from the person lying on top of her, and rolled onto her back to see what was going on.

 

Eric lay face-down on the hallway floor.  Melissa had the woman held off the floor, in one hand, and had a savage smile on her face.  The woman looked irritated- not scared.  Gwen took Eric’s hand.  “Are you okay?”  He nodded, breathing heavily.

 

The woman, Gwen noticed, wasn’t breathing at all.  Oh, no...  She hadn’t been breathing inside the apartment, either, something Gwen just realized.

 

“Who are you?”  The hispanic woman asked down to Melissa’s face.

 

“It doesn’t matter.  You are so goddamn reaped.

 

The woman snorted and kicked Melissa in the stomach.  Melissa shot backwards as if out of a cannon, crashing against the far wall and collapsing to the floor.  The woman landed lightly on her feet and flicked the knife out from behind her back.  “You come into my casa, and threaten my familia, and you think you can just walk out of here without paying the price?”

 

“Your family killed me!  With some of those drugs in there!  And we weren’t going to kill anyone!  I just came here because he said I had to!”  Gwen didn’t want to fight- she wanted to leave.  She’d done everything that Eric had told her to, seen her body, her friends, and her killer.  Now she wanted to go away.

 

“Oh, you’re new.  I’ll make it quick for you.”  The woman vanished, and Melissa vanished.  There was a crunch, and the building seemed to shake.  Melissa had the woman pinned against a wall.  The woman struggled against the goth girl’s grip.  The knife fell from the woman’s hand.

 

“How old are you?”  The woman hissed, staring into the goth girl’s dark-shadowed eyes.

 

“Older than time.”  Raven’s Shadow replied.  They vanished again and the building shook once more.  Gwen saw them appear further down the hallway, and they vanished, appeared, vanished... each time with a crunch and sounds of a fight that Gwen couldn’t even see happen.  Eric got to his feet slowly, and Gwen helped him up.  He was heavy, and she barely could lift him.  I should have worked out more when I was alive.  Did that even matter now?  She had no idea.

 

“What do we do?”  She looked down the hall, where the two women were... fighting... if you could call the eyeblinks of activity a fight.  It seemed like a fight taking place in still-frame, they were moving so fast.

 

“Are they going to tear the building down?”  Each crash left cracks in the walls, or holes in the floor.  “How can she break things, and not open a door?”

 

Eric laughed, painfully.  “I can’t... tell you this now...”  He motioned toward the stairs.  “Outside.  We’ve got to get outside.  We’ll be...”

 

He couldn’t say ‘safer out there’.  It wasn’t true.  But they’d be able to escape out there- if he was willing to leave Melissa behind.

 

“Damn.”  Eric looked down the hall at the blinks of motion as the two women fought.

 

Gwen started to cry as she looked down the hallway at the fight, the part she could see.  “I’m sorry, this is all my fault.  I’ve got to help her-“

 

His hand closed on her arm again, though his fingers were weak.  “There’s nothing you can do.  And it’s not-“  He coughed.  “your fault.  Sometimes you just have to do things.  This is how-“  He coughed again.  “it worked out tonight.”

 

“I’m not leaving her.”  Gwen said, and took a step in that direction, was jerked to a stop.  “Let go of me.”

 

“There is nothing you can do to help her.  You’re too new.  You’re not powerful enough yet.”

 

Gwen pulled away as hard as she could, and Eric’s fingers slipped off her arm.

 

“I never did anything with my life...”  Gwen said and shuddered as the building creaked and groaned from the bodies slamming into it with immense force and speed.  “That means... I’ve got a lot of potential now!”

 

She raced down the hall, not knowing what she’d do, but not willing to let someone she’d just met fight for her without doing something to help.  Eric watched her go, and put a hand to his side.  It came away with a slight whitish silver glow.  I’m hurt... that knife must be part of her.

 

He went to pick it up, and felt the power inside it.  It was masked earlier, part of her aura... but this... has real power.

 

Did he dare take it?  If Melissa lost... the woman would be able to trace her lost weapon.  But if she won...

 

He slipped it into a pocket of his coat, and staggered after Gwendolyn, their ‘new recruit’.

 

Melissa kicked the woman in the thigh.  The blow knocked the woman sideways down the hall, tumbling about half the length of the hallway before she stopped herself and returned to grab Melissa’s arm.  The hispanic woman slammed Melissa back and forth against each wall, using the arm like a lever.

 

The pain was overwhelming.  Damnit...  Melissa knew she was powerful.  She’d planned for this for years, was way more than a low stone on the pyramid of power.  She had desire, she had potential, and she was getting her ass kicked by this hispanic bitch!  She jerked her arm out of the woman’s clutching grasp.

 

How... ow... fucking old are you?

 

Raven’s Shadow ran up the wall and flipped over the other woman, settling to the ground in a flourish of skirts and lace, and punched the woman in the small of the back.  Some new dead still believed they had weak points, kidneys, balls, throat, eyes... and even some old dead had never managed to free themselves of their holds on mortal bodies.  She’d been blinded a couple times before she’d managed to break that habit- and her breasts were still sensitive, enough that getting slammed face front into walls and punched in the chest was starting to really hurt.

 

The woman cried out in pain.  Melissa nearly did too.  The woman’s body was as hard as stone, or steel.

 

A spinning backfist whistled over Melissa’s head.

 

As she ducked, she saw Gwendolyn standing in mid-stride, down the hall.  She’s coming to help me?

 

Melissa laughed at the sight- what could a statue do to help her?

 

The next attack caught her in the shoulder, and she was twisted off balance and fell.

 

The hispanic woman gritted her teeth in pain.  She hated fighting other gargoyles- the dead with nearly equal speed and strength to hers, and were just as hard to hurt. Hitting them even hurt her just the same as punching a solid wall.   Fights this hard left her exhausted and weak.  They were almost as dangerous to win as they were to lose. “You fucking bitch!” She screamed at her attacker, her anger filling the hallway.  “This is my home, these are my people, you can’t just walk in here and take me on!  I am Maria Biares and I was killed by Conquistadores!”  She kicked the muerto-obsessed girl in the head, hurting her foot, but causing the girl to cry out in pain and silvery light to appear in the dark hair.  She had seen this type before- little girls who believed they knew death.

 

She was tiring, but the other girl was almost out of energy.  Maria kicked her again, in the stomach, and smiled as the girl curled up into a ball, coughing and racked with pain.

 

She brought back her foot for another kick- and the girl uncoiled, lashing out against the only leg of Maria’s that was planted on the floor.  Maria shrieked in pain as a stone-like fist cracked against her shin, and fell backwards.  The girl rose to her feet in a smooth motion.

 

“And I’m Melissa Jones, and I threw myself in front of a bus.”  The girl fell to her knees, her body unable to support her or lend strength to her solemn words.  She slumped sideways against the cracked and broken wall.

 

Maria struggled to get up- her leg sent pain throughout her body- and she barely managed to raise herself on her elbows.  She finally managed to sit up, glaring at the gothic gargoyle who dared challenge her on her home ground.  Maria didn’t see her new knife anywhere, but that was all right.  She had an older one, too.

 

Melissa watched, too weak to do any more than that, as the woman got to her knees and pulled a long obsidian blade from behind her back.  The gothic girl gritted her teeth and strained to pull herself up again, only managing at the last moment before the blade whistled down to pull herself even a fraction away.  It wasn’t enough- she watched the blade hurtle toward her chest, toward where her heart would have been.  And she hoped, prayed, that she didn’t believe that she still needed one.

 

A small hand caught the ancient Mayan’s wrist, and stopped the plunge of the dagger.

 

“...and I’m Gwendolyn Chase, and I just died tonight.”  An expensive boot pushed the woman back down to the floor, and another stepped on her wrist.  “Let us go, and we won’t fight you anymore.”

 

“You are dead, chica.  You hear me?  You are dead!”

 

“Yes, I am.”  The tip of the boot dug into the woman’s wrist, and the knife clattered to the hallway floor.  Maria struggled against the girl’s weight, but couldn’t move her, couldn’t get up at all.

 

Melissa watched, speechless from both exhaustion and shock.  She shouldn’t be able to do that.  She’s new tonight- she shouldn’t be able to do ANY of this.  The goth girl was desperately pleased to see that Gwendolyn could...

 

Eric stumbled along the hallway, his wounds causing him pain, making his head swim.  Was he seeing what he thought he was seeing?  Or was the light only coming from his side and Melissa’s head?

 

“I didn’t want to be.  Your people killed me, by giving my friends bad drugs.  I didn’t want to be here, I didn’t even want to go to the rave.  I didn’t want to take the ecstasy, but I gave in and here I am.  I came here to see what I needed to see, what Eric told me I needed to see, and I saw it, and now I want to go.”

 

“I’m going to come after you.  You and your friends.  I have friends too, we will find you and-“

 

Gwendolyn knelt, putting her full weight on Maria’s chest and arm.  Melissa watched as the newly dead girl held down the prone woman’s other arm with the teen’s free hand.  Gwen’s other hand picked the knife up off the floor.

 

“Let us go, and leave us alone.”

 

Melissa watched eagerly.  Not an hour old and already she’s threatening a gargoyle.  She knew she’d made the right choice- to do what Eric wanted, and help the girl, instead of consuming her, or even leaving her alone.  If she keeps that anger, she’ll be one strong little bitch.

 

“Never-“  The woman hissed, and Gwendolyn pricked her skin with the black stone dagger.

 

“Leave us alone, or else I’ll kill you again.”  The girl’s hand didn’t shake at all.

 

“I am Maria Biare-“  The woman’s voice was a scream of anger and implied threats, before Gwen shivered and shoved the knife deep into the gargoyle’s chest. 

 

Melissa’s eyes widened!  “All right!”

 

Gwen watched as silver light poured out of the woman, and the woman’s body faded away, the stone dagger falling to the floor and then turning into silver light that spread out to every corner of the hall before disappearing from sight.

 

Gwen fell those few inches to the floor and started to cry.  Melissa tried to push herself away from the wall and fell, only to be caught by Eric’s hands.  He knelt between the two girls and put a hand on each of their shoulders.  He looked at Melissa first, and saw the pain in her eyes, as well as the triumph, and sighed.

 

He thought he also saw a little fear.  Eric turned his head to see Gwen looking at him.

 

She felt tired, and sick, and scared.  Had that been what she’d be in a long time?  Someone who was so stubborn, so full of hate that she’d rather die than surrender?  That she wouldn’t forgive an accident?

 

Gwen forgave the man who’d cut the drugs with something, even if he’d known it would kill.  But she planned to tell the police about that apartment as soon as she could.  If she could.  If there wasn’t a rule against it.

 

She saw Eric and Melissa staring at her, and both of them barely able to move.  She didn’t feel like she could move, either, she was so tired, so scared...

 

“Eric, I’m scared.  I want to go home.” 

 

His next words scared her even more.  His deep voice said with a cold tone, “You will.  But first we have to find out where that is.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Part IV

 

The hallway stretched out in front of the three dead people and behind them as well.  This time, Eric was stumbling forward and Melissa wasn’t doing much better.  Gwendolyn was between them, a hand on both of their arms, fingers tightly clutching Eric’s sleeve.

 

The Transition was much rougher than before, like being blown by the wind instead of drifting.  She still had the sensation of being drawn in many directions at once- falling, flying, sinking, rising-  and could not understand how Eric kept them going on just a single route.  Finally, and to her relief, the rough passage was over and they stood in front of a large apartment building.

 

“We’re not going to see the Oracle are we?”  Gwen asked, remembering a movie that had a scene a little like this.

 

Melissa and Eric both gave her tired, confused, looks.  She shook her head.  “Never mind.  You said I had to meet someone.”

 

Eric nodded and slowly walked into the lobby, collapsing into one of the chairs.  Melissa made her way to a couch and fell back onto it, her skirts floating outward from her body to cover most of the seat.

 

What happens if someone sits down?  When she walked, people got out of her way... but what if she sat down in a chair, or stood still in a doorway-would she be pushed out of the way?  Would the person be trapped until she moved out of their way... would they walk through her or would she be sitting inside them?  Gwen looked at both of her escorts, the ones who’d met her when she died, and had helped her get this far.  The goth girl, Melissa (who preferred ‘Raven’s Shadow’), looked half-d... tired.  Very tired.

 

Eric was doing better, but not by much.  Gwen wanted to help- normally, if she ran into someone who’d been beat up she’d try to get them home to bed, or to a hospital.  If she knew them.  She wasn’t sure she’d do that for a stranger, unless they were really badly hurt.  I don’t know where they live?  Or... where they ‘stay’.  I guess we don’t ‘live’ anywhere.  What happens if we get hurt?  Do... do we ‘bleed’?

 

She’d killed someone, or ‘reaped’ them, another dead person.  A woman who was really powerful and had said she was old.  She’d died... or whatever it was... all at once, silver light spilling out of the woman’s chest, and then her whole body turned into light and faded away.  The dagger she’d used had been the woman’s own, and it had disappeared with the woman.

 

Silver light had been shining from Melissa’s head where the woman had kicked her, and from Eric’s side. 

 

That was a lot like blood.  Both of them were still glowing from places, although a lot less now.  Is that good?  They don’t seem too scared, just tired.

 

“...are you two... going to be okay?”  Gwen asked, looking from Eric to Melissa.

 

Melissa rolled her eyes.  “Once you’re dead, you don’t really worry any more.  You better get used to that.”

 

Gwen frowned.  She was just dead, only an hour at most.  She still worried, and she was worried for them.  “You could be a little nicer to me...  I did just save your life.”

 

“Who saved who?”  Melissa asked, irritation creeping into her voice.  “I think I saved you from that crazy Aztec bitch.”

 

“I guess so... thank you.”  Gwen admitted.  She slumped into a chair and looked around the lobby- there weren’t many people here, just the night staff, and the restaurant and bar were both closed and the doors shut tight.  “Is this... where I’m supposed to be?”

 

Eric shook his head.  “Just resting.”  He sounded like he needed it.  Eric felt very tired right now, and was glad that he could rest in a chair.  He really needed a bed, somewhere to lie down.  And he knew that Melissa would deny it, but she was hurting worse than he was- she’d suffered a lot more at the hands of the gargoyle who called herself Maria Biares.  I’ve never heard of her, but she seemed like she was sure of herself and that she could call on friends to help her...

 

He looked over at Gwendolyn, her fingers clutched around her knees, leaning forward and staring at the floor.  She’s been through a lot.  That’s the way it happens for everyone...

 

His own experience had been very different.  He wished things had worked out some other way.  But at least he was here today, had been through... a kind of ‘life’, although not the same as these two girls, or anyone else in his ally group.  “Gwen...  we’ll get going again in a little bit.  And then we’ll head for our home- the place we stay.”

 

Melissa made a sound he knew as disgust.  She had another place to stay, one that suited her more, but right now he doubted that she’d be any safer or better off there than with him and his group.  “Melissa...”

 

“I’ll stay with you,” she sounded put-upon and bored, “long enough to get this girl up to speed.”  She turned her head towards the new girl.  “Don’t take too long.”

 

Gwen glanced up and looked puzzled, then nodded slowly.

 

Eric got to his feet- he was feeling a little better.  One of the drawbacks of being dead was being able to suffer an extensive amount of damage and pain.  More so in his case than many others.  The only advantage was that there were never any lingering weaknesses- you either healed fully, or not at all.  But sometimes it was a slow process, one that left you weak enough to be reaped by someone else.  That’s why he travelled with others, and why they travelled with him.  Transition was a quick escape...

 

Gwen got up and offered her hand to Melissa who ignored it and got to her feet on her own.

 

Eric led the two girls to the stairs and down into the basement parking garage, opening the spiritual doors as he went, and walking right through the physical world’s doors as if they weren’t even there.  For him and the other dead, the physical doors only blocked sight, not passage.

 

Gwen jerked her head around as Melissa followed them through the doors.  “But... how... you...”  She stammered the words.  They’d said Melissa couldn’t go through real-world doors.

 

Later.”  Melissa said with aggravation.  Gwen held her questions.  She had a lot of them, and wanted to get all ‘this’ over with and end up somewhere they could talk and tell her exactly what was going on, what to expect, and when she could talk to her family and friends.  Eric had hinted that it was possible, but also had avoided the question when she tried to bring it up again.

 

The parking garage was dark and cold, even chilly.  Why is it cold if I’m dead?  Gwen hadn’t felt cold outside the warehouse where she’d died, or warm inside the drug dealer’s apartment.  If it’s cold here, where is it warm?  She had a sudden image of where it might be warm and hoped she wouldn’t find out.

 

Gwen tugged her jacket close around herself, and buttoned it up.  She couldn’t do anything about her skirt.  The goth, if she felt the chill, said nothing.  Not that her silence was surprising- Gwen already realized that Melissa hated to show weakness of any kind, even discomfort.  Her head had stopped glowing, and Gwen thought Melissa looked a little more assured without the obvious sign of a wound.

 

That had to be what it was.  Glowing silver instead of dripping blood.

 

“Where are we going?”  Gwen whispered as Eric led the way slowly past rows of cars.

 

“Your last... chore, for the day.”  He replied, and pointed toward a very dark corner.  “This is a nexus, a place where new souls gather.”

 

Gwen looked around. “Then where are they?”

 

“Not that many people die in this city every day.”  Eric pointed out.  “Now if you lived in LA or New York...”

 

“There’s more than one nexus of souls.” Melissa added with a little laugh.  “And... some of the new dead don’t even make it this far.”

 

Gwen winced.  She’s said that before.  The goth girl kept mentioning things and then not explaining them. But she’d stuck around, protected her, and even gave her advice.  Though not in a very nice way.

 

That meant something- Gwen hoped it was that Melissa liked her and wanted to help her.  Eric seemed like a very nice...dead...guy.  He put up with Melissa, and for some reason, Melissa had done pretty much what he’d said so far.  Maybe she’d figure all this out once she got finished with whatever came next.

 

“So... what are we doing?”  She asked hesitantly.

 

Melissa answered her as they kept walking toward the dark corner they called the ‘nexus of souls’.  “We’re finding out what type of dead you are.  I don’t think it’s gargoyle.  Though you were pretty good at the very end there...”  She licked her black-glossed lips and her dark shadowed eyes turned on Gwendolyn.  The goth’s face seemed filled with delight.  “Maybe you’re a devil.”

 

Eric made a noise of disagreement.

 

“She could be.”  Melissa added and forcefully strode forward- for a couple steps, then her legs faltered and Gwen dashed to support her.  Melissa fell against her and sighed.  “No, we’re not that lucky.”

 

“What different types are there?”  Gwen asked.  Her mind was still whirling, everything seemed like a dream.  She didn’t know why she wasn’t screaming or crying or running for home right now.  It all seemed unreal, and maybe that was why she hadn’t broken down in hysterics yet.

 

“Oh, god.  Melissa groaned.  “I think once we get you to Eric’s place, I’m going to leave.”

 

“What?”  Gwen gasped.  “Leave me?”

 

“I can’t deal with this.  You don’t know anything.

 

“Hardly anyone ever does.”  Eric interjected with a firm tone.  “Be kind to Gwen.  You didn’t know everything coming in, either.”

 

“I knew enough.  Enough to know not to act wide-eyed and ignorant.”  Melissa said in a grating voice, and her meaningful glance was not lost on Gwen.

 

“Well... you two know me already.  I guess... I’ll be quiet if anyone else is around...”  Gwen frowned.  Another rule to follow.  Why do we have to be so defensive?  I didn’t have to protect myself like this in high school.  I was ignored, but I wasn’t picked on...  this is like cliques all over again.

 

Eric stopped and looked into the darkness.  “We’re here.  Now, you walk ahead of us.  We’ll be here behind you.”

 

“What... what happens here?  Do I meet someone?”

 

“Sort of...”  Eric’s hands went into his pockets, his foot scraped across the parking garage floor.  “You’ll... see yourself.  The strongest aspect of you, and you’ll know what you are when you see it...”

 

“It?  It isn’t me?”

 

“It’s... it is and isn’t.”

 

“Can I talk to... me?”

 

Melissa sighed and pushed her, like she had shoved Gwen through the apartment door, but her arms were a lot weaker than before.  Gwen hoped Melissa would be okay.  And that nobody would try to hurt any of them before Melissa and Eric had recovered... and before she felt ready to be part of this world, and not just some scared and helpless victim.  Gwen stumbled a couple steps forward and then took tiny little steps further forward on her own.  I’m going to try to talk to me... find out more about all this.  About what I’m supposed to do now.  Anything I get a chance to ask... anything that...’I’ will answer...

 

* * * * * * * * * *

 

Part V

 

She felt lost in the darkness.  Lost, alone, afraid, and cold.  She wished she’d died in a longer skirt.

 

“Hello?”  Gwen felt very timid and stopped taking any steps forward.  She looked over her shoulder and couldn’t see Eric or Melissa.  She gnawed on her lip, hard enough to hurt.  I still can’t believe that if I’m dead, I’d feel pain...  or cold... will I get hungry?  Will I sleep?

 

Yes, she had a lot of questions for herself- or whoever showed up.

 

“Hello.”  The voice was very quiet and gentle.  Gwen’s head jerked around and she winced and brought a hand up to massage her neck.  Her fingers stopped moving after a moment as she lost her thoughts and stood stunned.

 

The Gwendolyn she saw nodded at her. 

 

Gwen looked at herself, shining within the darkness, and felt like she wanted to cry.  That’s not me at all.  She backed away a step, confronted with herself, and afraid- the sight of herself like this cut through the stupor she’d felt since she’d found herself in the alley... and then seen her own dead body.

 

“Don’t be afraid.”  Gwendolyn moved closer to her, a couple slow steps, and smiled sweetly.  “You, more than anyone, must not be afraid.”

 

“Why not?  I’m in a new world.  I’ve lost all my friends, my mom and dad... and there’s all these rules I don’t know, and... I can die again.”

 

The other Gwen stepped closer to her, and reached up and touched her hair.  “There is a lot to fear.  But you must never be afraid.  Others will count on you.”

 

“On me?”  Gwen whined, her eyes frantic.  “But- I don’t-“

 

“You have already made two friends.  You will make more.”   The other girl vanished, turned into silver light from her head down to her feet and up along her outstretched arm. Her hand was the very last piece of her to disappear, and Gwen stumbled back into Eric’s arms.

 

“What did you see?”  Melissa asked from right near her shoulder, breathless with anticipation.  Or just breathless, period.

 

“I saw myself...”

 

“Well, I know that.  Melissa uttered a hiss of irritation.  “What do you think?  How did you see yourself?  What kind of person were you?”

 

“I... I don’t know.  Nice?”  Gwen looked over her shoulder at Melissa’s face.  She shrunk away from the angry glare she got in return.  Eric’s arm clutched around her protectively.  Gwen craned her neck up and looked at him.  He seemed thoughtful. 

 

“Nice... real nice?”  Eric probed.  “Like... a teacher, a mother?”

 

Gwen pursed her lips.  “...maybe?”

 

“A Guide.”  His voice was almost reverent, and his arm clutched her even tighter. 

 

Melissa shook her head.  No, there’s no way this know-nothing is a guide.  The goth didn’t believe it.  A guide was someone with an understanding of how things worked- not just blind compassion.  Compassion was a weakness.  A guide was a defender, someone to trust.  There is no way I’m going to trust my ‘life’ or anyone’s to this first nighter.  Eric can’t believe that, can he?

 

She looked at Eric’s face and felt a deep well of depression swallowing her up.  Yes, he does.

 

Raven’s Shadow thought she knew why- and she happened to be right.  Eric wanted a Guide.  As much as he tried to fulfill that purpose, he’d never actually be one. 

 

When Eric looked down on this new girl, he saw someone who needed him.  She had a long way to go before she’d be ready to help anyone else into this life.  I have to protect her, give back what... they gave me.  It wasn’t just for his peace of mind, or only to help other people, he also knew that his group would be enhanced a lot by having her.  While guides weren’t the cap of the pyramid, or even particularly high up there, they had special... and very rare... powers in this world.  Eric hoped she’d stay.

 

He looked at Melissa and saw her expression of disgust, which brought a sigh to his lips.  “Let’s go.”  He took Melissa’s hand, and Gwendolyn’s, and started to walk across the garage. 

 

Gwendolyn saw the cars and pillars seem to stretch out toward infinity and then everything went dark and they were in Transition again.  How many times can he do this?  He’s so tired... are we safe?  She looked over at Melissa, who didn’t seem concerned at all.  Not that seeing the goth’s expression helped much.  She didn’t think Melissa would ever look worried if she thought someone was watching.

 

But she sounded worried at the apartment.  When she couldn’t get in to help.  Was that because Eric was in danger?  Or because I was... or just because she couldn’t join the fight?

 

“Where are we going?”  Gwen whispered across Eric’s body to Melissa. 

 

The goth smirked.  “A place in this city of the dead that some of us call home.”  Gwendolyn winced- she didn’t want to live anywhere the goth girl called home.  I want to live in MY home.  In my room, my bed...

 

...my family...  She felt ready to cry again.  ...my friends...

 

They appeared in a hallway.  It seemed nice, and clean, and not at all like a place the goth would live.  Eric stumbled a little, and Melissa immediately supported him.  “We need to get inside.”

 

Gwendolyn looked up and down the hall, feeling panicked.  She didn’t dare ask questions right now, with Eric looking weak and Melissa always angry at having to hear more questions.  But she was scared again- was this a place that wasn’t safe?  Was this near someone else’s... ‘turf’?

 

Were they squatting in someone else’s home?  Where did the dead call their home?

 

Melissa and Eric slowly made their way to a door, and Eric pushed part of it open, leaving another hazy ‘real’ door in the doorway.  Gwendolyn followed them, and stepped through the foggy half-solid presence.  She wasn’t getting used to this at all, but she knew what to expect now.  Like walking through something soft, that parted all around you and then filled in again.  Not like mud or water, though, something else...

 

Something I’ve never felt before.

 

Eric pushed the door shut behind her.

 

“Can anyone do that?”  She asked as the goth helped him into a very large room.  It looked like a... like another hotel room.  A suite.  A big suite.  One that took up maybe half her own house, the whole downstairs.  Gwen stopped and stared all around her at the place where Eric had brought her and Melissa.  There wasn’t any signs of life.  No clutter, nothing laying out, nothing out of place.

 

“If I let them.”  The tall man answered.  “Otherwise, they have to be like me.”  Melissa helped him lay down on the couch.  “Hey, meh...  Raven’s Shadow, could you see if anyone else is here?”

 

The goth nodded, and glanced at Gwen, and then looked quickly to Eric.  Gwen got the hint and went and sat down on the floor next to him.  I think she’s in love with him...  Once Gwen had moved, Melissa left the room.

 

Eric sighed gratefully as he pulled a small brown pillow under his head.  Gwen saw a hazy pillow stay where he’d pulled his from.  “Doesn’t that get weird?”

 

Eric’s eyes were closed.  He didn’t want to open them again tonight- at least until his side stopped hurting.  “What?”  He didn’t want to talk, either, but he owed her.  And he wanted her to want to stay around, join his group.   Feel at home here.  With us... with me.

 

“Having... two of everything.  How do we move stuff?  How do we even open doors and... when does all this make sense...?”  She sounded depressed.  He rolled onto his right side and looked at her.  Eric knew Melissa had put him down on the sofa with his feet and head facing the correct direction so that he could roll onto his side to look out across the room or to get up.  Even now, he still didn’t know whether that was because she was thoughtful, or just because she was paranoid and always ready for action.

 

“It always made sense to me...”  He murmured, and regretted saying it.  “You... just get used to it, after a while.”

 

“I don’t want to.”  She moaned and he felt her slowly rest her weight against the couch.  His hand found her hair, and stroked gently. 

 

“I’m sorry.  There was nothing we could do.”

 

Can we stop people from dying?”

 

“Well... yes, but for drugs, not-“ he sighed and changed what he’d been about to say, finishing in a rush “-only if we’d stopped you from taking the pill.”  He felt her tremble underneath her fingers.

 

“I want to see my friends.  I want to see my mom and dad.”  Her voice was very weak and shaky now.  Eric felt horrible about what had happened to her.  But what she was going through was in no way new.

 

“That’s not...easy to do.  It’s not easy to touch someone, or talk to them, or make something happen in that world...”  Eric began, slowly, testing each word in his mind before he spoke them.  He’d had this conversation before, and each time it was a little bit different.  There was no good way to have a ‘stock’ explanation ready... no way that he knew, anyhow.  Maybe she’d... find it, if she really was a Guide.

 

Having one speech, just one, that covered everything and in a way everyone could accept would make times like this a lot easier.

 

“But we can stop people from dying?  We can save people’s lives?”

 

Eric forced open his eyes and turned his head.  She was kneeling, staring at him with an almost painful intensity.  He nodded, slowly.  “Yes, but only as a living person would, and it’s never easy.”

 

“I don’t care if it’s easy.  I don’t want to see anyone die- and I don’t want to kill anyone ever again!”

 

“You didn’t-“  Eric began.  Gwendolyn cut him off, rising off her heels, her hands clutching his coat.

 

“I did!  I just killed someone!”  Gwen cried, and her hands clenched folds of Eric’s trenchcoat.

 

“No, you didn’t... She was already dead...”

 

“Don’t give me that!”

 

Eric winced and nodded.  “I’m sorry.  Yeah, you reaped someone.”

 

“Reaped her?”

 

He looked embarrassed.  “It’s the newest word.  It’s such a punk culture.  Finished her.  Ended her.  Whatever you want to call it... you stopped her existence in this world.  And it was a good thing too.”

 

“She was just protecting her people, her family...”

 

Eric laughed, and then winced and one hand went to his wounded side.  “And when you said we’d just leave... did she let us go?”

 

Gwen shook her head, feeling horrible- that there was no way out of this conversation that didn’t end up with her having done the right thing.

 

“And who was her family, that she said she wanted to protect?”

 

“Drug dealers...”  Gwen hated this, hated herself, hated the new world she’d been forced into.

 

“And she was a murderer, I could feel it.  All the pain, or most of it, was from her.  She’d killed a lot of people, on this side, and the other.  If you hadn’t done it, Melissa would have... or she would have killed Melissa, and then you, and then me.”

 

“...okay...”  Gwen started to cry.  “Okay, I killed her, and it was the right thing to do.”

 

He lifted her up, laid her partly across his chest, and wrapped a fold of his coat over her.  “Yeah, it was.”  She’s had a rough night.  Well, it’s rough for everyone... young or old.  She’d been through more than some, less than most.

 

But- she’d survived.  Not only survived, she’d forced down a gargoyle, even a wounded and weakened one, and reaped her.  To protect people she’d just met... and had little reason to actually trust.

 

We found a real pure soul tonight.  He felt good about that.  And hoped she was still pure.  As far as he knew, purity wasn’t set by outside influence, but by the choices people made and how it affected them inside.  Was Gwen still the same person she’d been when she died?  No.  Did she still have the same purity in her spirit?  He hoped so...

 

She’s going to need to keep holding on to that part of her soul... and someday learn how to fight and reap the dead.  There wasn’t any way around that fact.  Unless you managed to hide somewhere in the hills, eventually there was no way to avoid the dead and those other things that preyed on weak and fearful new souls.  The land of the dead was more dangerous than the land of the living, or so other people said.

 

He only understood that because he could see the world of living people, and compare theirs to his own.  Eric had only been there for a short, short time.  Not enough to compare the two.  He knew this world, and this world only, and was very familiar with its rules.  Because I was lucky enough to have a Guide.

 

Gwen cried on Eric’s chest, her eyes closed and tears welling up at the corners, dripping onto his shirt.  He felt her shudder, and tried to hold her tighter, but it was such an effort to even sit up a little that he couldn’t do much for her right now.  Why isn’t Melissa back yet?  He hoped there hadn’t been someone lying in wait.  The door hadn’t felt ‘forced’ when he’d opened it earlier.  He wished he was a gargoyle, and this was his haunt, then he would have known if anyone or anything had been here when he entered.

 

I wish Melissa’s haunt wasn’t so barren.  This hotel would have been perfect.

 

Gargoyles didn’t choose their haunts, exactly.  They haunted places that were important to them when they were alive- and while Melissa had known some of what she was getting into, she hadn’t known enough of what she was going to become to choose a particular place to really spend time in or care for  when she was alive.  Too bad for all of us.  But it wasn’t the end of this world...

 

He laid there for a while, letting her cry, hoping that Melissa had just fallen asleep somewhere in the suite, or was sitting and talking to one of the others in his group.  Maybe even getting taken care of- not that he expected her to ever admit she needed aid or that she’d accept a helping hand.  ((But it was a nice dream he had once in a while, that the fifteen year old first nighter he’d run into had grown up some on this side of the two worlds.))

 

* * * * * * * * *

 

Part VI

 

Eric gently stroked Gwen’s hair, feeling the strands of brown slide beneath his fingers.  She’d been beautiful when she died, a beauty that came from inside.  A beauty that nobody could have seen while she was alive.  I hope she’s ready to leave that life behind.  Everyone has to.  It’s just the way it is.

 

Would she want to start a new life, with him... and his allies?  Would she even consider that?  He called this living, it was the only life he’d known.  But she had grown up on that side of death.  Like almost everyone else, she had different hopes and dreams.  Different goals and values.  Almost none of which applied to this world.  It was sad that the dead best suited for this world were killers in life.

 

It didn’t say much for the hope that this life could be better than earthly living.

 

But there were so many things better here than there... and all you had to do was make it past your first few days, and surviving here became a lot more sure.

 

He heard a key turn in the lock of the front door.  Immediately, he began to sit up.  Gwendolyn shifted and looked up at his worried face. Eric sensed the keys he’d made, finding each of them.  Three were at the front door, and he relaxed, lying back down.  “It’s okay.”  He wasn’t sure of that, but he said it anyway, to calm her down.  If it was okay, she didn’t need to be panicked again, this soon after her death.  If it wasn’t okay, if the keys had all been stripped from his friends, then Eric and Gwen would be soon to follow, and it wouldn’t matter if she was calm or scared.  He didn’t have enough strength left to Transition to any other place.  Not yet.

 

The door opened and he heard some laughing and talking.  Eric nodded and smiled.  He recognized his friends’ voices.  “I know them.  It’s okay, they’re friends.”

 

“Hey, who’re you talking to?”  A blond man walked into the main room of the suite, and stopped still.  His eyes found Gwendolyn and he smiled warmly to her.  “Hi.”

 

The door clicked shut out in the front hall, and two more people entered the room to stand next to him.

 

Gwen looked at each of them in turn, as Eric waved a hand feebly to introduce them as he said their names- the blond man, Ryan, the woman, Ivy, and the other man, Tom.  Gwen smiled weakly and nodded, but stayed right next to his side- not scared of his friends, but not sure about them, either.

 

The blond nodded, and took off his leather jacket.  He was dressed in a very punk outfit, with some chains and spikes, and blue jeans, and boots.  The jacket was tossed over a chair, and a very fit body was revealed.  If Gwen hadn’t been so overwhelmed by the evening, she would have been appreciative of the sight.  “Hi.”  Ryan repeated.  “You meet Eric at the rave?”

 

She swallowed, and nodded, tears starting to well up again in the corners of her eyes.

 

“Holy christ, Eric!”  The young woman standing between the two guys exclaimed, suddenly. “You’ve been hurt!”  She looked around the hotel suite.  “Where’s Melissa?  Did she come back with you?”

 

The other guy sighed, and settled into a chair.  “Why can’t we meet any women who aren’t bi?”  Gwen was shocked that he’d say something like that so openly.  It hit her suddenly that she was the youngest person in the room by far.  Even if he wasn’t any older than he looked, the man in the football jacket and tan pants couldn’t be any younger than his mid-twenties.

 

Ivy laughed, and looked at Gwen for a moment with a questioning stare.  Gwen gulped and shook her head.  No way, not me, I’ve never done that!

 

The woman turned to look at the three men as she walked in the direction of the room Eric pointed to and tossed off a sweet smile.  “Oh, come on, guys, you love it.  Two gorgeous girls who sleep with each other and you...”  She blew them a kiss and shut the bedroom door.

 

“Yeah, I guess so.”  Tom started taking off his football jacket and, like Ryan, tossed it over the back of a chair.  He wandered off toward the balcony, and Gwen lost track of him as he moved out of sight.

 

“I don’t think Melissa’s going to be ready for that tonight.”  Eric said quietly to the closed door.

 

“What happened?”  Ryan settled into a chair across the coffee table from Eric and Gwen.

 

Eric looked to Gwen for permission.  She was watching the new person, still scared of anyone she didn’t know- even if they were friends of the two... dead people... who’d met her tonight.  His fingers drifted across her cheek in a gentle caress.  She blinked and quickly looked up at him.  “What?”

 

“Can I... tell him everything?”

 

“Is there a rule that you have to ask my permission?”  She wasn’t really curious now, she was tired, she wanted to go home and go to sleep.  Home... what... would I find there?  There won’t be anyone in my bed.  Not even me.

 

“No.”  Eric shook his head, but kept his eyes fixed on her.  “It’s your story.  I don’t know what you want us to say.”  Gwen thought about that but finally just shrugged.  “...whatever...”  She murmured, and laid her head back down again.  “I just want to go home.”

 

His hand hovered near her hair for a moment but dropped down to the sofa cushions without touching her.  Eric looked across the table to Ryan.  Ryan mouthed a question, which Eric was able to answer in one word.  “Tonight.”

 

Ryan winced and leaned back into the chair.  “Yeah, I need to hear this.  Who you’d run into that could take Melissa on?  Was it before or after her?”

“After.  We... met Gwen at the rave.  Helped her finish her first night, and found her killer.”  Eric was torn- he didn’t want to make the teen suffer through the retelling of her story, but he didn’t want her out of his sight, either.  If she managed to get outside, they’d lose her in the city, and might never see her again.

 

“Do you want to go out on the balcony with Tom?”  He asked Gwen.  She shook her head and stayed on the floor next to the couch.  Ryan met Eric’s eyes and saw that the group had adopted another firstnighter.  He nodded and gave Eric a quick thumbs-up.  You’ve got my blessing, man.  It’s cool.

 

Eric didn’t have much strength left to do more than give a brief account of the evening.  Ryan took special interest in a four-or-five hundred year old Aztec woman who hung out in the puerto rican section of town.  Never heard of her before.  Either she’s done a good job hiding or she just got here.  I wonder who’s going to be after us now.  He didn’t mind much.  There wasn’t much he would have done differently, if he’d been there.  The first night was the worst.  The week or two after that wasn’t much better.  He’d had a rough time getting adjusted to life after death, the crazy world he’d entered instead of Heaven or Hell.

 

Everyone else deserved that chance, too.  He was glad Eric and Melissa had been there, and even if they’d brought the group an enemy, he’d have made the same call, too.  And she was the one to reap Maria.  He believed it.  Even now, he could see that she was sticking right to the wounded Eric’s side.  That was another point in her favor.  Ryan liked her already.

 

“So what is she?”  Ryan asked Eric.  Before the other man could answer, Ryan apologized to Gwen.  “Sorry.  You’re right here.”  He waved in her direction.  “What are you?  What did you see?”

 

Gwen propped her head on her hand, and looked across the room to the blond man.  She stayed silent, long enough that Ryan felt edgy, and almost ashamed for asking that universal question.

 

“I saw...”  Gwen paused, again for quite a while.  “I saw myself wearing my favorite dress.  And I was... nice.  I didn’t say much, but-“

 

“Whoa.”  Ryan sat forward, very attentive.  “Say?  You said something?”

 

Eric struggled to sit up.  “You didn’t tell us you talked to yourself.”

 

“Why?  All she said was that it was good I’d made some friends, and that I needed to be brave, because a lot of people were going to be depending on me...”  Gwen’s voice trailed off as she saw the looks on their faces.  They don’t talk?  I asked!

 

“I asked if I could talk to whoever I met, and you said-“  They hadn’t said anything.  Melissa had just shoved her into the darkness.  Oh.  Oh!  “You mean they don’t talk?”

 

“I’ve never heard of it.”  Ryan said, peering at her.  She looked over to Eric, who immediately nodded agreement.  “Yeah,”  Eric added, “I’ve been here... a long time.  And I’ve never heard of any aspect actually talking to the new soul.”

 

“...oh...”  Gwen swallowed.  I’m nothing special.  I just took some bad drugs.  I don’t want to be special.

 

“I don’t want to be special,” she whispered, “I just want to go home.”

 

“Yeah...”  Ryan tapped his fingers on the armrest of the chair.  “Eric, how much have you told her?”

 

“We just got here.  I haven’t had time to tell her anything yet.  You know how Melissa is...”  Ryan smirked and nodded.  Eric continued.  “I’m too tired.  I barely have anything left.  We’re lucky we got here.  That woman was... very powerful.  Probably very old.”

 

Ryan glanced toward the door.  “Guess I’m staying up.  Should I tell her the rules?”

 

“Please.”  Eric lay back down.  “I’ll try to stay awake.  Gwen, Ryan’s a good guy.  You can trust him.”

 

Gwen found his hand and squeezed it tightly.  He feels warm.  Not hot, but warmer than the room.  I want to know everything... it’s so... strange here.  “Okay.”  She whispered, and felt him squeeze her hand.

 

“Ryan, I’m Gwen.  Can I ask you questions?”  Her voice cracked, and she felt like she was going to start crying again in just a second.

 

“Sure.”

 

“Can I go home?”

 

To Be Continued