Read Almost Alive (The Beautiful Dead Book 3) Online
Authors: Daryl Banner
“Seriously, Winter, who in Undead hell have you been talking to?”
“Ann. Pair of kids on the street. Who cares. Why is Shee here?”
“Then where is she?”
“Somewhere far away.”
“I need more than that, Hel.”
“After the party.”
“You’re going to tell me about my
after the party. You can tell me about
“No. After the party.”
“You can’t tell me about both of them after the party.”
“Yes I can, and will.”
“But they have nothing to do with each other!”
to do with each other.” Helena faces me, her eyes fierce and black. “Your mother went after Shee. She’s gone
I stop. “What??”
That’s when the assault of a thousand happy cheers commences, and the rosebushes and the innocent trees and the bushels of grass become people. “Surprise!” screams a tall man. “Surprise!” shouts a gaggle of girls in unison. “Surprise!” From ladies I’ve never met to men I’ve never seen, I’m attacked in all directions by cuteness.
And at that cuteness, I scream to make blood curdle.
From the crowd of merry partygoers, Marigold’s round, plump face emerges. I might still be screaming, I don’t know. Her choice of eye shadow today is a rather scary shade of green and her lips are shiny and blue, and she’s grinning at me, positively thrilled with my screams of terror—which she is likely taking to be screams of joy.
At last I’ve stopped screaming, my hand clutching my chest where there ought to be a racing heart on the verge of cardiac arrest, and I sputter: “M-M-M-M—”
“Marigold, silly! You’ve forgotten my name!” She giggles, all her chins wiggling. “How I’ve missed you!”
Helena leans into me. “You didn’t have to overdo it on the ‘acting surprised’ bit.”
I ignore her, run a hand through my hair, then put on a shaky smile and say, “Thank you, Marigold. This is quite a surprise.” I survey all the eyes that are on me. Some of them are glistening with excitement. Some of them are squinted in concern or suspicion. Others look dismayed, curious, confused, quizzical.
“Aren’t you simply excited to see everyone? I’m so excited to see you. I make steel things now!” She gives a wave of her hand and I notice a large, frightful bend of metal that I think is supposed to be an archway. Flowers are set in little grooves in the metal, pink and yellow and white ones. If I were the flowers, I wouldn’t trust the strange contraption I’d been set in and beg for a wind to carry me to safety.
“You’re very creative,” I decide to say, choosing my words. “And … I’m really glad to see you again. I’m …” I turn, facing all the people that have come for the party. Sadly, I recognize zero of them. “I’m glad to see you all again,” I announce, praying some person I
know returns a kind glance. The only eyes that meet mine are cold, confused, or wary ones.
“Tell me, dear. Would you like to cut into your cake now? It’s a triple-layered French vanilla crème!”
I will not venture to guess what it’s
made of, knowing her history with
. “Thank you, Mari. It sounds … delicious, but I think I’ll—”
“Oh! Hush, dear, we have to do it again.
on the way, now!” Marigold grabs my wrist and pulls me into the bushes while she shouts, “Hurry, hurry! Places, everyone! Get into your places!”
I’m thrust into the space between two thorny bushes where I slouch, frowning, and wait for the next explosion of noise. During this small reprieve of activity, I’m left with Helena’s interrupted words circling through my skull: my mother is gone, Shee is gone, my mother went after Shee, my mother is gone because of Shee. What could possibly have driven my mother to leave this city in pursuit of a crazy half-human-half-scorpion lady who tried to destroy me?
I just looooove surprises!!
” sings Marigold in a hush.
Well, to be fair, Shee also wanted to be my best friend. Shee was … a peculiar and lonely individual. At the first hint that I was at all like her, she picked me up and carried me halfway across the world with her creepy giant fly-wings, then deposited me from a great height into a hole in the ground where I basically broke.
But if she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have met the twins, Rake and Robin, who saved me from that hole. Robin even repaired me. That’s where her natural medic skills kicked in; it’s no wonder she’s grown into a doctor.
Also, it was the hints from Shee that led me to discovering the location of Garden. In truth, I have more reasons to thank Shee than to blame her. Despite that, a single word of thanks is difficult to find upon my tongue for the likes of the creepy, scorpion-human amalgamation that insists on the title of Empress Shee, apparently.
All the shouts and screams and hollers explode once more. I’ve apparently missed the cue.
Stepping out from my thorny womb, I greet the loud world of jollity with smirking pensiveness. Helena will not slip away from me so easily; she owes me about a hundred answers and then some. Through the crowds, I can’t catch sight of John, which is furiously annoying until quite suddenly the crowd seems to part and, at Marigold’s beckoning, I’m pulled forth to join him at the center of the city’s attention.
John looks upon me. I look upon him. He’s cleaned up even more so than before, somehow. His eyes seem to sparkle and a smile spreads across his shaven face. I still feel a rush of excitement when he looks on me. Whether he’s brooding or bright-eyed and kind, that’s my John’s handsome, chiseled face. I must believe it, even if I don’t.
“Winter,” he says, his white teeth shining.
And after that, everything is suddenly quite okay. Soon, the crowd breaks off into groupings of chatter and drinking. Plates of berries and sugared apple slices and other various treats tickle the lips of Livings’ mouths while tall torches burn in rainbow fury to light the supposedly dark courtyard of roses, petunias, and blooms. The sun is setting, according to the Humans.
According to John. “Having fun yet?” he asks, striking up a conversation after a pair of Humans decide at last to leave us alone.
I’m staring at Helena who is annoyingly far away and inaccessible, occupied in some conversation with three other highly primped Undead. “You can see the sunset?”
“Yeah.” He looks into the horizon, squinting. “Bright and burning. Really, really bright orange. Like a great big tangerine that’s been dipped in liquid fire.”
I look in the same direction as John. I see a sky as grey and dull as grey’s ever been. “And you realize no other Dead can see what you see?”
“Yes. I don’t know why. Can’t explain it any better than you can. Or any better than Doctor Collin could.” He shrugs, like it’s no big deal. “Maybe there’s something wrong with my eyes,” he says, smiling.
“Maybe there’s something right with them,” I reply.
Then we’re staring into one another’s eyes. He pours into me with this levity, this lightness I can’t stand. Why does it madden me so much? Is it because I want him to be as miserable as I am? Do I resent how happy he is? Do I resent him for not remembering anything? He’s already somehow broken the Undead physics of our eyes, so why can’t he also, like, magically remember his First Life?
But I guess you can’t choose your miracles.
“So … you’re my Reaper,” he says. I nod. “Okay. I’m still getting my head around all the, uh, terminology.”
“It’s normal.” I try a smile.
“And Helena is
Reaper? … because she was there on your first day, right?”
“Yep.” I’m studying his arms, studying his shoulders as he talks. Even his mannerisms are the same as the John I knew. It’s such a strange concept, to forget everything utterly about your First Life, and yet for your body to remember so much.
“Are you anyone else’s Reaper?” He screws up his forehead, all those adorable wrinkles showing. “Sorry if I’m being too … inquisitive. I’m just really very curious about you. You’re the first person I met in this world, so I feel really … attached to you.”
I stare into his face. Really, John? Are you sure that’s the only reason you feel so
to me? “I Raised one other. A girl who was missing half her arm. She ran away from me, screaming. It didn’t go so well.”
“Ah.” He nods, reaches out to touch the pink petals of a nearby bloom. “I really lucked out with you.” He flashes me a smile, dimples and all. “Couldn’t have asked for a better Reaper, had I any way of asking beyond the grave.”
Maybe you did, John. “Thanks,” I say, brushing away the compliment the way one wafts away an odor. “When you’re ready, and when you’re settled in, and perhaps when you’ve truly and definitely become comfortable with your Second Life here in the Necrop—sorry, in New Trenton—I want to tell you something.” I realize I’m not looking at him when I say this.
“What’re you gonna tell me?”
“Some truths. Some … things.” I don’t know what it is. An instinct. A gut feeling. Paranoia. For some reason, I can’t bring myself to just tell him everything, to tell him that we knew each other quite intimately in his First Life. “I don’t mean to keep them from you,” I point out, picking at my fingernails. “I just want to wait until—”
“Until it’s the right time,” he finishes for me. I look up at his eyes. “I understand. Whenever you feel like it’s the right time, I’ll be ready.”
He smiles, as if he knows what the hell he’s asking for. He doesn’t. The truth will gut-punch him, I’m certain of that. Fairly almost kinda certain of that.
Suddenly another pair of Undead men have come up to us to chat and make introductions. I notice right then that Helena’s at last freed herself from the fools with whom she was making too much talk-talk. Impolitely, I break away and weave myself through the crowds of people and plants in hot pursuit of my target.
I catch Helena by a bushel of tulips. Though I notice them, the irony is missed on me as I say, “It’s time.”
“Oh, you poor, sweet, tired little thing.” She grins, which looks horribly unsettling on her pointy face, and she pats my cheek with due condescendence. “No matter how you’ve pestered me since I Raised you, I will always secretly adore you.”
“Tell me about my mom. I’ve waited quite patiently.”
“Yes, yes, you have.” She pokes at my chin, pinches my cheek. “Have I ever told you what a brave, important soul you’ve become?” She lets out a single cackle. “Oh, when I first Raised you, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. You pushed and pulled against every single thing I handed you, pushed and pulled, you little rebel, you little troublemaker you.” She runs a hand through my hair. I flinch, squinting suspiciously at her. “I bet you were much like that in your First Life. Weren’t you, Claire?”
Hearing my real name, my lips part, silent, wordless.
“Forgotten you’d told me? Oh, I remember.” She smiles again, all the angles of her pale, powdery face looking so wrong when she does. “I wouldn’t forget a thing as precious as a person’s First Life name.”
“Anna,” I say back to her, and her eyes flash with surprise. “I wouldn’t forget yours, either.”
“I … nearly forgot I’d told you.” She cackles again, places a hand on my shoulder and leans in. “The truth is, Winter, in chasing after Shee, your mother did the right thing. The Warrior Julianne, they call her … Ha!”
Julianne. Hearing the name aloud, a cold sword of ice strikes through my chest and I issue a sigh of pain.
“A person can give themselves a thousand names,” says Helena, “but none can take away the true spirit within. Your mother did right. You did right. John did his best and I … I …” Her eyes flash open. “Oh … Oh my.”
I frown. “What’s wrong?”
“The sun!” she cries out, drawing the attention of some others near us. Her eyes transfixed to the sky, I turn to look, but all I see is the infinite swirling silvery-grey wash. “The sun, the sun, the sun! Oh!”
“Helena.” I stare at her, seriously concerned. Has the world lost its mind? First John and now her …? “Helena, there’s no sun. Are you drunk or something?”
“I see it! Winter!—Oh! It’s so beautiful!” Her voice is shrill with an ecstasy I never thought Helena capable of. Her mouth hanging open, her eyes wide and unblinking, she swallows in whatever beauty she thinks she sees.
That’s when I notice her hand. “Helena, your hand!”
“Winter!” she cries, oblivious, her eyes still glued to the sky while the hand she’d placed on my shoulder quickly begins to crumble. “Oh, Winter!—Look! Look! Look!” Her arm falls to pieces right then, followed immediately by her other arm, her ear, her shoulder …
“HELENA!” I scream, grabbing at her as if I can somehow stop it.
“It’s so beautiful!” she cries out.
And then her face falls apart and I choke on the dust of Helena Trim as it swirls around me, dusting the tulips and my outreached hands, dancing into my opened mouth. I cough and bring my horrified eyes to the pile of bones and metal shards and jet-black hair at my feet.