Authors: Daryl Banner
“We’re almost there,” she tells me, taking me across a low metal bridge that runs over the long expanse of a wetted rice field. I remember passing by this on my way to my apartment with the ever-polite and forgettable Housing Manager. “Just on the other side.”
“I can’t believe I missed so much of your life,” I say suddenly.
“Oh, you know. Just the boring parts,” she replies, and I find myself genuinely chuckling with her this time. “The best is yet to come, I say! The best is always yet to come. Sure, the city’s had its ups and downs, we all have. But I think we’re all the better for it.”
Better. I wonder if Megan would agree with that.
The building is long and flat, appearing constructed of the same boring metal of the rest of the Necropolis with two tall exhaust pipes issuing steam from the roof. The door opens as we approach, motion-activated I assume. Inside we’re greeted with a more appealing atmosphere of amber-colored tile, potted plants and purple sconces along the walls. Several lounging areas are sprinkled about the lobby, each of them with a group of curiously conversing people. Robin speaks to the bald man at the desk, then signals me to follow her down a hall to the right.
We at last arrive at yet another waiting room area. It’s quiet and a thin window shows the rice field and the bridge outside. “Here, we wait,” Robin announces, taking a seat by the window.
“Wait? For what?”
“John’s being interviewed right now,” she explains. “When people need a career reassignment or a new job, or after one is Raised or has had a recent Waking Dream, they are brought here for an assessment of their skills and interests. They’re then given a job, understand? Everyone has to contribute.” She smiles gently. “Take a seat? It’s a bit different from how Old Trenton used to be, I know.”
“Right.” I sit in the first chair my feet stumble into, then stare blankly at an empty chair across from me. All this damn waiting is threatening to steal my sanity. After twelve years in the Whispers, I’d stupidly assumed I’d done all the waiting I’d ever have to do the rest of my life. If this can be called a life.
A job, she said he’s being assigned. A job, because apparently the philosophies of Old Trenton have died, and now it’s no longer about living the rest of your days carefree. They’re reinventing the world. They’re creating a society, a government … After spending all my Second Life getting used to freedom, they’re taking it all away.
“There will be a few things to learn,” Robin tells me, her voice all gentle and sweet and nurturing. “But once you figure it all out, you’ll feel right at home.”
“Yes, and soon you’ll meet all your friends at the welcoming—” Her voice cuts off, her eyes flashing. “Um, anyway, I don’t think it should be too much longer before John’s—”
“At the welcoming …? What’s that?”
“Nothing. Crap.” She picks at her fingers, clearly annoyed with herself. Lifting an eyebrow at me, she mumbles under her breath: “Supposed to be a
“Welcoming party,” she explains. “It was going to be a surprise. Marigold’s organizing it. We … Winter, truly, we missed you. We missed you and John so much. And the instant Marigold learned about you and John, she went to organizing the biggest party this city’s ever seen.”
“How’d everyone find out so fast? Oh, Ann,” I say, answering my own dumb question. “Bigmouth, she is.”
“Anyway. Will you pretend it’s still a surprise? You know, when it happens?”
I clench my fingers. So much of my experience in the Necropolis thus far has been so heavy and sad, I have half a mind to rebury John in the Whispers and go back to the way things were. I seemed so much more comfortable frozen in time, minding not a thing at all but John, didn’t I? Of course, frozen in time, I wouldn’t know whether or not I was truly happy. I guess that’s how the dead feel. That is, the real, actual dead. I’m not the actual dead. I’m the in-between, the phenomena, the almost-dead.
“Sure,” I agree, and the relief in Robin’s eyes is plain.
An immeasurable amount of time passes before I hear the quiet click of a door, two hearty laughs, and a clasping of hands. I jump up from my chair and rush to the hall. Standing there is a potbellied man in a beige suit, shaking the hand of John.
John faces me, his eyes beaming and happy, and when he sees me, his smile grows. He’s been dressed in a clean button shirt with dress pants, shiny black shoes, and his hair is styled neatly, parted to the side with a subtle wave. His face is the only thing I seem to recognize; perfectly restored to the John I used to know, minus perhaps a bit of his signature stubble. His eyes flash cheerily and I see that the grey one is, surprisingly, still a bit off-colored.
“Winter!” he exclaims, like I’m the best person in the whole wide world and he’s happy as a squirrel to see me. “How do I look??”
He’s a completely different person. Some gentle, kind, bright-eyed spirit has possessed the body of the otherwise brooding, hardened, tortured man I used to call John. This new person in front of me is, no doubt, handsome and dashing and—now after his impressive Upkeep—undeniably sexier. John was a very attractive man as a dirty Living; he’s even more so as a cleaned-up, dressed-up, snazzy-as-hell Unliving.
Why haven’t I told him yet? Why hasn’t
told him yet who he was? … who he is? The love of my life, the love of my
, standing before me and without a clue. I should’ve told him the moment his hand clasped mine in the Whispers. I should tell him right now.
“You look great,” I tell him instead.
I’m impressed by the transformation from his broken, decayed form to this mended, firm, muscular one. His build looks returned to how it was the first day we met. It was in a tavern that was, unbeknownst to me at the time, about to be raided by bloodthirsty Deathless. I’m grateful that the doctor was kind enough, clearly, to honor the body John had in his life. Doctor Collin was, after all, familiar with John’s body. I wonder if he realized it was not the first time that particular doctor cared for him.
I make a mental note to thank Collin later.
The potbellied man decides to give John another firm handshake right then, offers him a sheet of paper and says, “Your first shift starts in two days’ time, so that you may become better acclimated to the city of New Trenton.” John thanks him quietly, then faces me, his eyes flashing with excitement.
I’m looking into his bright eyes—the rich brown one, the soft grey one—when he says, “Did you hear that? They’ve given me a job.” I lift my brow with interest. “I’m going to be a bartender.”
I wait for John to say he’s joking. He isn’t.
C H A P T E R – F O U R
W E L C O M E
Seated on the curb outside of my apartment complex, bored, useless, my chin’s propped up with bored, useless hands and my elbows are upon my bored, useless knees.
Two Human kids racing by stop when they see me, and one of them, a boy with black hair, starts to laugh.
“Stop laughing,” I snap at him, annoyed.
The other starts to laugh now, another boy with a mess of sandy hair to his neck. He says, “You’re dead.”
“My mommy said the dead should be buried and stay buried.”
“Your mommy’s smart,” I say bitterly, staring at their feet.
The black-haired boy chimes in. “
mommy said I’m not allowed to talk to any. But I do anyway.” He throws a stick up in the air, catches it. “I’m Freddie.”
“I’m dead,” I answer back. It’s been hours, maybe even a day, since John and I parted. They gave him an apartment in some other section of the Neighborhood. I’d considered why they’d put us so far apart, then realized that either the Housing Manager didn’t know better, or they assumed since John has no memory of his First Life that he should be treated as a new person—and not as the man I love. I had half a fight with Ann and a tired yelling match with a sweet lady at a desk before quite suddenly giving up. I’m so depleted of fight lately, I’ve noticed. I’m so done with fighting and fighting and fighting.
“She’s Winter,” the other one says, casual as a shrug.
Winter? No she isn’t.”
“Yes she is! Look at her hair.”
The boy named Freddie takes a look at my infamous hair. Then he looks back at his friend. “Even if she
Winter, I’m not scared of her.”
The sandy-haired boy leans in to his friend and whispers, though I hear every word: “
She eats people!
Who the hell are these kids?
“No she doesn’t.” Freddie laughs at me again. A city full of thousands of things to do, and these kids find me to be the most entertaining option, sitting here on the curb as bored as a tombstone. “That was the Empress that ate people and she only did it once.”
“Twice. And my mommy said to stop calling her the Empress. Titles give people power,” the sandy-haired kid insists, sounding smart and smug. “My mommy calls the Mayor just Megan, but not to her face.”
Alright, my curiosity is piqued. “Who’s the Empress?” I ask, lifting my chin.
The two kids start laughing again. Then Freddie says, “Do you like spiders?” The other laughs even harder, then adds, “Do you like really biiiiig spiders?” The two of them can’t stop laughing. Their every laugh unsettles me more. “Hey,” one yelps at the other. “Why do you still call her Empress then? Why not call her by her real name: Shee?”
My eyes flash open. “Shee??”
“If you don’t call her Empress,” the sandy-haired kid says, “the Empress’s spiders crawl into your house when you’re asleep and they pull you apart, limb by limb, until there’s nothing left of you but your
“No it’s not!” Freddie takes off. “Hey, come back!”
The two of them chase off into the dusty distance. I’m on my feet now and only follow for half a block before I lose sight and sound of them entirely. I grunt in frustration, give up all over again, and drop back to the curb to sulk some more. Delightful news. Shee still exists and may or may not have eaten two people and wants to be called Empress. Of all places to learn such curious facts, it’s on the street by two random Living kids.
Oh well. When time passes, stuff’s bound to happen. I’m certain time has far more surprises stuffed up its twelve-year-long sleeve, whenever I bother enough to find them.
When night has fallen—or so say all the Humans who have ended their days’ work in the fields—I am fetched at my apartment by a stern-faced Helena. “Time.”
“Your surprise party you don’t know about.”
“Can you try to act surprised, please? Marigold will be devastated if you aren’t.” Helena puts a hand at my back, guides me out of my despairingly undecorated room. We spill into the streets where she adds, “Every Living and Dead you know will be there. Or, well …”
“All the ones still around,” I finish for her. “I get it. The Dead are turning to dust. Megan—sorry,
—let me know that unsettling fact. She was very kind and gentle about it too,” I add sarcastically.
Helena only purses her lips.
We walk for an eternity through the winding streets of the Necropolis. It is unsettlingly quiet, I assume because most, if not all, of the citizens are at the location of the welcoming party. “So what’s the pretense?”
“Pretense? Oh, right, the surprise.” Helena sighs. “I’m just ‘showing you our flower gardens’ and, well, you have to remember to act surprised when everyone leaps out of the rosebushes.”
“Got it.” We continue walking, the only sound being the clapping of shoes, and I ask a very overdue question. “Will … my mother be there? I heard she was given a face and a name and no one knows who she really is.”
Helena sighs. She’s been sighing a lot lately. “I’m going to tell you all about your mother and why she isn’t here, but I … prefer to save that for a better time, really.”
That’s not the answer I wanted to hear. “Hel, I’ve waited long enough.”
“Tomorrow, after your job assignment.”
“No.” We stop right under the walkway connecting two bland warehouse-like buildings. “You’ll tell me before we get to my surprise party I don’t know about. You’ll tell me right now. Where is my mother?”
the party.” She lifts two pencil-thin eyebrows, her pointy nose seeming pointier than usual. “
the party, I will tell you everything, you insufferable girl.”
“Good.” We resume walking. But I’m not done. “Can you also explain to me why Shee still exists, why Shee ate one or two people, and why everyone has to call her Empress?”