Authors: Gina X. Grant
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SOME THINGS ARE BETTER LEFT UNPLUGGED
GET AN AFTERLIFE!
A PAIN IN THE CLASS
PASS OR FLAIL
SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME
DOESN’T PREY WELL WITH OTHERS
TIME WELL BENT
NO QUEST FOR THE WICKED
DEATH’S NOT SO BAD WHEN YOU CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVE
MY UNFAIR LADY
ABSTINENCE MAKES THE HEART GROW FONDLER
LOOK BEFORE YOU REAP
Previously in The Reluctant Reaper Series . . .
SYBIL ORDERED DANTE
to go find me a glass of water, then plunked down on the bench beside me, her leg brushing against mine.
“Calm down, gal-pal. Put yer noggin ’tween yer knees and try not to breathe.”
I recognized that advice from the day she and I met, the day Dante escorted me to Hell. Despite my misery, an involuntary grin tugged at the corner of my mouth.
“Oh, Sybil.” My smile faded and I dropped my head in my hands, whispering, “I’m so screwed.”
“Well, that’s a little personal, doll-face, but thanks for sharin’. And thanks to Judge Julius, you can keep on with that, you know,
Sybil nudged me with her elbow. When I raised my head and met her eyes, she said, “Now I hate to beat my gums, but you really dodged a bullet here today.”
I took a moment to catch up with her, but when I got there, I still didn’t understand. “What are you saying? You were there. I lost my appeal.”
“Right. And now you can go home with Dante and carry on wit’ yer afterlife. I’m not usually a nosy parker, but I gotta sing like a canary on this one. Take my advice. Don’t bother gettin’ that stapler evidence. Just let it go. Stay here. Be happy. In fact, I can go get you a confession form right now. Just say you knowingly sold yer soul for that Conrad guy and then Dante can get his job back and you guys can live happily ever after. Or, you know, be dead happily ever . . . whatever.”
“But I have to try again. If I lose the final appeal, I don’t get my life back and Conrad gets his twenty-five-year extension after all—an extension gained at the expense of
life. If I win, I’ll get my life back, Conrad will be punished and I’ll see Dante again when I die. It was Dante’s idea. He said when you’re over seven hundred years old, you can do another half century in your sleep. Got the advice from his buddy van Winkle. Dante promised he’d wait.”
I wasn’t sure he would. I thought maybe that was his way of saying,
Thanks for the sex. Of course I’ll call.
If he had really wanted me to stay, he hadn’t said anything.
It was hard to be mad at someone for being supportive, but I was managing.
“No, kiddo. You’re not gettin’ it. If you win, then that proves he made a mistake and scythed the wrong soul. There’s a zero tolerance policy with Reapers. He loses his job and with it, his spot here in Hell.”
“You’re saying that he won’t be here when I get back? That I’ll have to wait for him? I can do that.” Sure I could. With time out of whack, whatever time Dante had left in his next life might be only a couple of weeks for me.
“Nuh-uh. Lemme lay it out for you, Kirsty, crystal clear. If Dante gets sent back to the Coil, you can forget about ever seein’ him again. Once he’s back in the death cycle, he probably won’t even remember you.” She placed one hand on my shoulder.
“He . . . He won’t even . . .” A lump grew in the back of my throat, choking off my words. So Dante really did want to get rid of me, even at the price of the job he loved and the place he’d called home for seven hundred years. My eyes burned and my—
“Holy Jeez!” I shouted when a hand touched my
shoulder. I jumped ten feet in the air. And I mean that literally. But unlike when Dante surprised me in my hospital room back on the Coil, this time I didn’t pass
the ceiling but clunked my head painfully against it.
Why were the rules so different here?
Dante waited till I’d reseated myself before sitting on my other side. His warm thigh pressed against mine in a much different way than Sybil’s. I was sandwiched between two people I cared about. And they cared about me. I would have been happy if Dante hadn’t looked positively tortured. How much had he heard?
“I was not going to say anything,
I knew you wanted nothing more than to get your Coil life back. How could I not support that?”
My chest tightened painfully, like I was caught between a rock and a heart place.
I searched his eyes for the truth. “You don’t want me to go?”
How could you not know? All the times I told you I loved you.
Ohhh! So that’s what that means. Hell’s universal translator had rendered it as “I love bullets.” It had seemed a weird thing to say in bed, but now I knew.
you, too, Dante.”
I should be happy to stay with the man I loved—who loved me, too—but Conrad’s triumph cast a shadow over my happiness.
Mi dispiace, cara
. I’m sorry your appeal didn’t go so well, but I cannot help being glad you’re going to stay with me.” He stroked his hand down my cheek. “At least until your next appeal.”
Sybil stood, smoothing down her skirt. “I’ll leave you two love birds to yer billin’ and cooin’.”
Startled out of our bittersweet moment, I jumped up.
“Not on your afterlife, girlfriend. We’re going to fix this and I need your help. Now listen to me, both of you. I’m going to get my life back, Dante’s going to get his job back, Conrad’s going to Hell, and then Dante and I are going to be together. I want my cake, the icing and to eat it, too.”
“Then justice will be served . . . along with that cake!” Sybil crowed, fisting the air.
“We will find a way to get the right stapler.” Dante’s hand edged toward his belt loop where his confiscated scythe should have been. “Or we will find another way.”
I grabbed his hand and squeezed it. I may have never accomplished anything before in any of my lives or after but now was exactly the time to start. That bastard Conrad was having the time of
life and it was time I got it back.
Today was the first day of the rest of my afterlife!
Some Things Are Better Left Unplugged
DANTE HUGGED ME
hard. “I’m so proud of you,
for taking charge of your life.” The “finally” was implied. I prickled but kept my mouth shut.
Sybil stared at me. “Yeah, doll-face. That’s great that yer gonna do that, but how?”
I watched a small insect crawl across the floor before saying, “I don’t know. I was hoping you guys might have some ideas.”
We all sat on the hard pine bench outside the courtroom, thinking our little hearts out.
Finally, I sighed, saying, “I got nothing? You?”
Dante shrugged, “
Mi dispiace, cara.
I got nothing either.”
“I gotta whole lotta noth— Hang on a sec.” Sibyl held her finger to her lips, glancing left and right, up and down. “Ah-ha!” She brandished her day planner at an oversize dung beetle hiding under the bench. “Get outta here, ya big stoolie, before I break all six of yer legs.” She raised the book like a sword. “And wipe that shit-eating grin off yer face!”
“You’ll never take me alive!” the beetle shrieked, scuttling away.
“What was that?” I asked, half curling up on the bench so my feet weren’t on the floor. Bugs give me the creeps. I hadn’t seen many in Hell since the time flies.
“It’s a Beelzebug. They’re supposed to sweep for bugs in here but . . .” She eyed the courthouse’s ornate crown molding. Anything could be hiding in the fancy carvings and recessed corners. “We better move this confab to the staff room.”
Dante and I followed Sybil into the employee lounge, a drab room with dumpy furniture. In jarring contrast to the rest of the space, a pretty spray of flowers decorated a beat-up table near the door. “Bug spray. Keeps ’em out,” she explained, jerking her chin toward the flowers. “We can hold our bull session in here without being eavesdropped on. Now, Kirsty. About your life . . .”
My life was a mess. Afterlife, too. I really wanted to sit down. A sagging sofa along one wall sang a siren song to my spinning head. Not to mention spinning stomach. I hadn’t worked so hard to keep my last meal down through the ferry ride only to lose it here.
Dante seemed focused on Sybil, his firm grip keeping me upright—and also keeping me from reaching the sofa. “Sybil, you had something to tell us?” he prompted.
“No, I just hate being eavesdropped on. Sorry. I got nothing either.”
We all had big fat nothings. And I only had a couple of months to fix this—months, like the rest of time, being relative. But I had resolved to do something and do something I would.
Apparently, that something was to pass out.
The faces around me blurred and spun and I didn’t so much slip into unconsciousness as dive headfirst into a long, spinny journey with flashes of light, sound, and fury.
I found myself plunked into a hospital room. I often dreamed about this room. In my dreams, I’d float up by the ceiling, just like I had the day I’d been scythed, watching my body lie there in that metal-railed bed, hooked up to high-tech medical equipment that blinked and beeped.
The first thing I always did, dream or no dream, was try to force my way back into my body. I’d throw myself at the poor sleeping carcass over and over, trying to re-soul my body like a well-worn shoe.
My attempts always failed.
Sometimes I woke up back in Dante’s bed in Hell crying as if my little heart would break. On those occasions, Dante would wake up and hold me until I calmed down enough to sleep again.
Sometimes, in my dream, I’d get a pattern going with the diving and bouncing. Then I’d wake up still bouncing, dark marks appearing on my chest. I jokingly called it “rhythm and bruise,” trying to make light of it so Dante wouldn’t think I was unhappy in my life with him. I’m pretty sure he saw through my ruse, though. Perhaps my continued obsession with getting my Coil life back gave me away.
Today’s dream was different. I still hovered up near the ceiling, but everything was clearer. More in focus. As if I had somehow been transported back to my body. Well, near it, anyway.
The girl in the bed had grown gaunt and ashen. I stared at her, feeling too numb even to try to climb back into my physical body. Machines fed her, machines breathed for her. On one side of the bed, that clear plastic bag continued to fill with embarrassing yellow fluid. But I didn’t blush. I had no true presence here. I was just an observer.
But not the only one. On this trip there were people in the room. My aunt Carey and her partner, Leslie. My former boss Conrad, who’d stolen my soul and ruined my life, and Shannon, his daughter and my best friend. The women were weeping. Even Leslie, who was always so stoic.
An unfamiliar woman in a lab coat stood with them, holding a clipboard and a pen. The stethoscope necklace proclaimed her as some sort of medical professional. I could see her lips moving and she gestured toward me with the pen. Not the floating me, the bedridden me. I drifted around like an astronaut, kicking off walls until I could angle around to hear her better.
“You’ve been very brave, Carey.”
Carey sniffed. “Tha—” She tried again. “Thank you, Doctor.”
The doctor nodded, her fingers circling my ankle as she spoke. I felt nothing. What connection did I have with the body on the bed? The doctor watched her own hand stroke my calf as she continued. “A great deal of money has been spent keeping your niece in this private care facility . . .”
“Money was never an issue,” Conrad said, placing his hand on Carey’s shoulder. “Kirsty was like a second daughter to me and it happened at a company function. Paying for her care was the least I could do.”
So Conrad felt guilty enough to cover the cost of this place. Well, what needed to be paid over and above the provincial health care system. Nice of the skegging skegger. Look at me, using Hell’s all-purpose swear word. I was really starting to fit in here; good thing I was leaving as soon as I could swing it.
Carey gave him a watery smile while shrugging away from his hand. She had always been a good judge of character and apparently she liked him about as much as I do—which is to say not much.
I played his words over in my mind. He was talking past tense in terms of my care. What had changed? Had some new law rescinded whatever tax break he’d been getting? Had he maxed out a handy health care subsidy? Or was it that now that he had used my blood to forge my signature on the contract amendment, he couldn’t risk my coming back to life and denying it?
“But as you know,” the doctor continued, driving my train of thought off the rails. “The likelihood of her waking is practically nonexistent at this point. It’s very brave of you to face that grim reality. You are doing the right thing for others who could use this bed, this level of care. Others with . . . more promising prognoses.” She gripped my ankle more tightly. Not that I could feel it, but I could see her knuckles whiten from where I hovered nearby. “You’re doing the right thing,” she repeated, voice cracking along with her professional demeanor.
Carey nodded. I didn’t think she could speak if she tried.
“Our lawyers have prepared the documentation. If you could just sign here, where it says ‘Next of Kin.’ ”
When Carey didn’t reach for the clipboard, Conrad took it instead. He gently placed the pen in my aunt’s hand and supported the clipboard while she signed. Looked like he couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. Knowing him, he’d probably booked a meeting right after this and didn’t want to be late.
I peered over my aunt’s shoulder as she signed her name. For a moment I was surprised the ink was blue, rather than the red I’d become accustomed to.
she wrote on the date line. So, my time in Hell equaled about ten months on the Coil. Today, anyway. Might be different tomorrow. Ten months to the day since I’d been reaped. We were only a couple of months off in Hell.
Where did I belong now? Where had I ever belonged? I wished my soul felt as numb as my body. Instead it felt cold and shaky and desperate.
The doctor took the clipboard from Carey’s trembling hand. She studied it carefully. “She’ll only last a few minutes once we remove the breathing tube.”
Leslie held Carey’s right hand, Shannon her left. At the doctor’s nod, the nurse who’d been standing by the door came in to assist. Conrad stepped back as far as possible, pressing himself into the wall, craning his neck to watch, his face slightly manic.
The doctor and nurse worked efficiently. The doctor shut off one machine, while the nurse yanked a plug from the wall and wound the cord around another device. Then the nurse held out a tray to receive the breathing tube.
Everyone in the room held their breath. Even me.
The doctor pinched my wrist between fingers and thumb, eyes on her watch.
I floated back up to the ceiling, watching myself die.
Suddenly, I felt a tugging. Then with dizzying speed, my body sucked me in like a big, fleshy vacuum cleaner. I hit bottom with a thud and a gasp.
A gasp that was echoed by six others. My eyes remained shut so I couldn’t see.
But I could hear.
“Oh, my God!”
“She’s breathing on her own, Doctor!”
The exclamations tumbled over one another. I could hear the doctor ordering people back as she and the nurse leapt into action. I could feel them reattaching the little cardboard disks of the heart monitor. Then the near-painful squeeze of the blood pressure cuff. Shaky fingers drew back my eyelid and painful light burned into my brain.
I couldn’t see. I was blind.
I drew another loud, wet breath. My lungs burned and my throat ached. I hurt everywhere. Pain meant life. I’d kick-started my body into operation. Maybe that was why it had worked this time—my dying body had reached out in desperation and yanked its lost soul home.
I wasn’t dead yet. I was going to live. Was I going to wake? What if I didn’t? What if I was trapped in this useless carcass—aware yet unable to do anything—for years and years and . . .
I hadn’t suffered from claustrophobia since I first arrived in Hell but I sure did now. I’d been desperate to get back in my body. Now all I wanted was out again.
I threw myself upward, away from the body. I’d bounced away before, but now I was stuck, imprisoned. The judge had promised me my life back if I could find proof that Conrad had tricked me. But I couldn’t find that proof of Conrad’s forgery—specifically the ensorcelled stapler—if I was stuck in here. I had to get out! We’d agreed that being stuck in my comatose body wouldn’t qualify in the eyes of the courts of Hell as “getting my life back.” I didn’t deserve this corporeal punishment. There must have been a mistake! Would Dante report me missing? Would he assume I’d gotten what I wanted? I hadn’t, and if I was stuck in here, I couldn’t see about getting the mistake corrected. I panicked and ricocheted about inside my carcass like a fly stuck in a very small, person-shaped room.
“Doctor. She’s spiking. Blood pressure through the roof. It’s as if she’s having a panic attack.”
Cold air hit my chest as the doctor yanked my gown open. A frigid circle of metal pressed into my flesh. “Her heart rate’s out of control! Nurse, hand me that syringe of Valium, stat! Stand back. I need room to work!”
Valium? Why had she brought Valium if they were just going to pull the plug? My mind worked at lightning speed. I was trying fight, flight, and get the fuck outta here all at the same time. Oh, I realized. The Valium hadn’t been on hand for me, but in case Carey or Shannon fell apart. But now I was going to get it. I couldn’t afford to be sedated. I had to get out. I had to . . .
Sharp pain pierced my bicep. They’d disconnected my IV drip so they’d had to inject. Now more than ever I had to . . . oh, my. I felt pretty good now. Maybe I’d just take a moment to enjoy the flashing colors on the backs of my eyelids and then I’d do . . . whatever it was that was so important.
My brain felt hazy, as if a fog had risen up inside my body. A fog just like the one I’d blundered into my first day in Hell. It blanketed my brain in soft cotton. I lacked the energy and the will to escape. Peace descended. Maybe I actually
dying. I felt suspended in that dreamy space between waking and sleep. I was happy. Or at least not unhappy. Maybe just numb. I was good at numb. Lotsa practice. Go with my strengths.
I listened as my family, friend and evil ex-boss kept vigil. The doctors urged them to go home. The hospital staff would watch over me and call them in the unlikely event I awoke.
Finally, late in the evening, only Conrad remained at my bedside. I knew him by his breathing and non-stop string of business calls. The medical staff had long since departed, although they popped in now and then to take my pulse and change the embarrassing bag. A steady stream of Valium had been added to my saline drip, but I was still breathing on my own.
I heard the sound of metal scraping on tile as Conrad drew a chair over close to me. He patted my cheek and ran his hand down my shoulder. Shoving the short sleeve of the hospital gown up a bit, he left my bicep exposed. Based on what I’d seen while floating, it wasn’t much of a bicep. I could feel how shrunken and weak my body had become in the months I’d been comatose. I felt wasted in every sense of the word. Thank you, Valium.
Conrad stroked my arm for a moment then pinched me. Hard. In my mind I gasped, but my physical body just lay there, breathing shallowly.
“So. You’re not dead yet, eh? That’s good. I never wanted you to die, Kirsty. I was . . . I
really fond of you. And so is Shannon. I sometimes felt like I had two daughters, you and Shannon. Especially after you came to work for me.” He stroked a thumb over the sore spot where he’d pinched me, although whether to soothe me or erase the red mark so he wouldn’t get caught abusing the patient, I didn’t know. He’d pinched me really hard.
“I read that doctors believe coma victims can hear what’s going on around them. I keep up on this stuff, you know.”
So was he telling me this just in case I woke up? Talk about hedging your bets. Conrad always did think ahead. I would have shaken my head in ironic admiration, except I couldn’t move. All I could do was lie there and listen to his poisonous spiel. Even the pretty colors no longer distracted me.