The bathroom lights danced across my reflection in the mirror, casting an ever-shifting fluorescent hue in the hollows under my eyes. The results of countless hours spent tossing and turning were starkly emphasized by the combination of Karma's lighting and the heavy black makeup around my eyes, already starting to smear at the corners. Even in this relative sanctuary, I could feel the bass line of the music playing out on the main floor of the nightclub as it pulsed under my skin in time with the flashing of the lights.
The hair on the back of my neck was plastered to my skin with sweat and I twitched uncomfortably in the skimpy mauve dress I’d dug out of the bottom of the box of things Lila’s parents had given me. There wasn’t a single article of clothing in my possession that showed more skin than a t-shirt and a pair of jeans would; not out of a sense of modesty, but for the sheer fact that looking good was a goddamn pain in the ass.
And what reason would I have for owning any sort of nice clothes anyway? I hadn’t been in any sort of formal situation since high school prom my junior year, which was why I’d ransacked Lila’s collection of cocktail dresses before heading out tonight.
Licking my lips out of habit, I winced as my tongue swiped across the razor thin cut dividing my bottom lip right down the middle. I stared almost pityingly back at my reflection as a tiny drop of blood beaded at the surface of the skin before hastily wiping it away with the back of my hand and turning toward the door. Then I hoisted my dress up to my armpits, scratched at the bit of scalp I could still reach underneath the wig, and headed back into the club.
The minute I stepped outside the door I regretted ever trying to escape in the first place. At the best of times, a loud frantic place like Karma would have been just on the tolerable side of godawful. Which was the reason I had only rarely caved when Lila begged countless times for me to go clubbing with her. Diving back into the maelstrom of noise and color— knowing what I was here to do—was almost enough to make me turn right around and hide under the bathroom sink until my brother eventually realized I was missing and came to rescue me.
I gulped down the hard knot of anxiety lingering at the back of my throat and slowly inched out of the hallway, back into the throbbing mass of bodies dancing rhythmically to a beat that made every cell in my body vibrate unpleasantly.
A man sandwiched between two writhing blondes just a few feet away caught my eye—right hair color, same casual attire—but when he sent a leer in my direction it was obvious that he wasn’t who I was looking for. I also wasn’t his type, and judging from how close those two girls were getting, they probably weren’t either.
I shook off the look with mild irritation and made my way over to the throng of people surrounding the bar. The commotion from the crowd was deafening, almost drowning out the unbearably loud electronica blasting throughout the entire club. Still, I was curious to see what had transpired in the fifteen minutes I’d spent holed up in the bathroom. I moved closer, braving the couple dozen strangers, to try and figure out what the fuss was all about.
Two men sat adjacent to each other on stools at the center of the bar, downing violently colorful shots to a cacophony of cheers and booing. The crowd’s darling was obvious: a slender blonde with intricate geometric tattoos that seemed to cover the entire right half of his body, even the shaved side of his scalp. The sharply edged designs were in harsh contrast with his soft features and clubmaster glasses. From the left side at least, he didn’t seem like the type of guy who could handle a six-pack of cider, let alone the rancid concoctions the bartender was supplying them with, but from the looks of things, he was drinking his opponent under the table.
A gap formed in the surrounding crowd as one of the spectators suddenly broke off from the rest. I quickly stepped in and took the opportunity to scan the other man’s face. It wasn’t him either. Someone in the crowd around me? Not that I could tell. So far, all my efforts tonight had been in vain. I wasn’t sure how I felt about another night of failure after weeks of trying to track Dan down through the few mutual acquaintances we’d once had and visiting his favorite haunts, hoping for a stroke of luck.
But he had to be here. He’d gone to Karma with Lila every weekend like clockwork. I’d seen him leaving the club last week when I’d passed by on my way home from work, like nothing at all had changed. Everything hinged on him being here tonight. If he didn’t show....
A loud clatter from the bar yanked me out of my thoughts.
The tattooed blonde let out a whoop of victory and slammed his shot glass back down onto the counter with enough force that the other empty glasses shivered. The loser’s head was buried in a plastic tub as he retched violently to raucous cheers from the crowd.
I wrinkled my nose as the mass of onlookers clapped the blonde on the back and then began to disperse, the stench of body odor no longer masking the yeasty smell of alcohol and the tang of vomit. I cautiously avoided the mess of brightly colored bodily fluids sitting in the plastic tub on the stool to the left of the loser and ducked out of the way of one of the waitresses reluctantly trudging over to retrieve the basin. I heard the blonde laugh as the other man got up and staggered away from the bar, bumping into me on his way toward the bathroom. I seated myself to the blonde man’s right, discreetly trying to pull up my dress when the neckline began to slip dangerously low yet again.
“How you doin’ tonight?” the bartender inquired, wiping down the counter in front of me. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Just a coke,” I replied stiffly. I’d only ever drank when coerced by Lila, and I couldn’t afford any lapses in judgment tonight anyway.
“Sure,” he said curtly before turning around to grab me a glass.
I winced at the abrupt change in his attitude. I knew my mannerisms put strangers off, especially people who were trying to be nice to their customers despite crap hours and crappier pay, but I really wasn’t very good at the whole...people skills thing.
“You don’t drink?” a voice inquired to my left. It was the same guy, looking at me now from his tattooed side, which was slightly disconcerting. There was a look I couldn’t decipher in his eyes, and I quickly averted my gaze. I glanced over instead at the tall glass doors at the front entrance to Karma.
“Not really,” I mumbled briskly.
“Okay,” he replied with a laugh. There was an audible note of derision in his voice that had my head whipping back around to face him.
“What?” I snapped.
He laughed again and gulped down another drink. “If the guy you’re looking for has eyes, don’t even bother, sweetheart.”
“Excuse me?” I could feel the hot simmer of humiliation swirling in the pit of my stomach.
His gaze was unwavering, expression unapologetic, full lips twisted into a smirk as he replied. “I’m just saying, you better be prepared to shell out for drinks, because any guy you want to leave with tonight is going to require some serious beer goggles.”
My vision, and probably my face too, turned bright red. I was speechless. I barely even noticed when the guy who’d puked finally returned to his seat.
“Who’s this?” he asked wearily, nudging the blonde.
“Just a girl who’s trying way too hard,” the asshole replied casually as if he wasn’t sitting there insulting me to my face.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I demanded, doing a mental once-over. I mean, okay, I wasn’t exactly well-versed in dressing up, but I didn’t think I’d done that bad of a job. I’d seen Lila put on makeup plenty of times, it didn’t seem that difficult. And maybe the dress didn’t exactly fit, but it was supposed to be snug. Right?
“It means,” he said with a put-upon sigh, “that you look like a cheap hooker.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I demanded, not quite sure I’d heard him correctly .
The other man guffawed loudly and slapped his hand on the counter, like anything about this conversation was actually a laughing matter. “She looks all right to me. Buy you a drink, honey?”
The blonde looked skeptical. “C’mon, you don’t even know her name.”
“It’s Pemberly,” I said automatically.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Peter. This asshole is Seb.” He jabbed the blonde in the shoulder with his elbow, but Seb wasn’t even listening.
“Peaches is a good stripper name for you, I think,” Seb continued, steamrolling right over his friend’s introductions. Guess it wasn’t just strangers he was abysmally rude to.
I opened my mouth and closed it again, taking a second to collect myself. “I thought you said I was a hooker,” I said finally.
He continued to ignore me. “Yep,” he said, popping the P. “Definitely suits you. Think I’ll stick with that.”
I stared at him incredulously. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Relax,” he said, laughing at the look on my face. “We’re all having fun, aren’t we?”
“Don’t tease her like that, Seb,” Peter interjected. “She seems like a nice girl.”
“She seems like an accountant.”
“I’m not an accountant!”
“Bank teller, receptionist, stenographer?” He listed each while ticking them off on the heavily tattooed fingers of his right hand. “The profession isn’t important, it’s the fact that you’re quite obviously, well, boring.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” I replied hotly. “And I don’t have time to sit here and—”
A glass suddenly appeared in front of my face. “Sorry,” the bartender said, handing me a paper-wrapped straw. “We were out of ice.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
Before I could take a single sip of my Coke, the straw was plucked from my hands.
“Seb,” the bartender barked. “Cut it out, or take it outside. Stop harassing the customers.”
Looking now like a kindergartner being admonished for stealing a classmate’s favorite toy, Seb reluctantly handed back the straw. I made a show of peeling off the paper, sticking it in my drink, and spinning all the way around on my chair with the glass in hand so I could more effectively ignore Seb while also scoping out the rest of the club for Dan. With my primary objective once again at the forefront of my brain, everything else seemed to become just background noise, easily put aside in favor of more important things.
It was a few minutes before I finally spotted what I was looking for, as a man, his face shadowed by a familiar university hoodie, lumbered into the bar. I watched him carefully for a few seconds as he made a beeline for the back door, pushing through the crowd of drunk clubgoers as though they were no more substantial than air. It was him. Definitely.
When I turned back around again, Seb was staring straight at me, the corners of his mouth downturned with an expression somewhere between concern and suspicion.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, sounding almost genuinely interested in my answer for the first time that night.
“Nothing. I have to go.” Leaving a couple bucks on the counter along with my nearly full glass, I slid off the stool and dashed away. I narrowly avoided tripping over the dress flats that had so far been nothing but a hindrance, intent only on pushing past the line of drunk women waiting to use the bathroom and following the man slithering out into the alley behind the bar. But when I finally exited the building, inhaling short puffs of breath that smelled faintly like rot, Dan was nowhere to be seen.
I stared around at the graffiti-covered dumpster and the crumpled up packs of cigarettes littering the ground next to the wooden crates stacked up against the back wall. I couldn’t tell if I felt more disappointed or relieved not to find him waiting there for me.
When I turned around to head back into Karma, ready to give up on my endeavors for the night, I came face to face with a pair of startlingly blue eyes and an obnoxious smirk.
“Nice place for a secret tryst,” Seb said with a breathy laugh, eyes roaming critically over our dingy surroundings.
“What do you want?” I demanded, refusing to be goaded by him. “I’m busy.”
He squinted at me quizzically. “Are you actually taller than me? Jesus, you’re not even wearing heels.”
“Yes, now you’ve made comments about every aspect of my appearance. Congratulations. Why are you following me again?”
He shrugged, leaning casually against the door, effectively cutting off my one means of escape from this conversation. “The look on your face. Had me scared.”
I scoffed. “Of what? We met five minutes ago and you’ve been nothing but a massive asshole since then. You really expect me to believe you’re invested in my welfare?”
He barked out a short laugh and straightened up, forcing me to meet his eyes. “Wasn’t scared for you. Scared of you, Peaches. Never seen a girl look more terrifying than you did just now.”
More than a little alarmed by his assessment and reminded of the fact that I had once again failed to find Dan, I took a step backwards, further into the alley, hoping I could make a break for it before one of us was forced into calling the cops. I honestly wasn’t sure which way the pendulum would swing, but I didn’t want to find out. God, who knew the plan would turn out this badly?
Dan’s voice, a gruff rattling thing, cut through the humid night air.
And then suddenly, he was in front of me, his feet slamming into the ground with a loud thud. I glanced upwards instinctively, trying to process what had just happened. There was nothing but sheer brick wall for three stories. How had he...?
He took a sudden step forward, wrenching my attention back to the grotesque creature standing before me. He was a putrid shade of gray now, his skin peeling and hanging limp from his skeletal frame. There were bruises, dark and heavy, surrounding bloodshot eyes; the hair on his head brittle and yellow where it hadn’t fallen out entirely. A streak of dark blood-turned-to-sludge trickled from the corner of his twitching lips.
“You know this creep?” Seb whispered worriedly, like he was afraid of spooking a wild animal. I could see him standing stiff as a board to my left, jaw painfully taut—the smile, playful manner, both gone.
“Please shut up,” I said firmly. Then, addressing the waxy figure staring impassively at our exchange: “Dan, you’re dead.”
“Um, I don’t think—”
Dan’s hoarse rasp stopped Seb in his tracks. “Li...la. Looking...for you, Lila.”
Well, at least stage one of my plan had worked. And I’m sure the rest would have gone flawlessly, if it weren’t for the fucking prick who refused to leave me alone.
Seb’s hand somehow found my shoulder, his tattoos a sharp contrast against my own milky freckled skin. When he spoke, his voice had an oddly ethereal quality, like I was hearing it from inside my own head. “We need to get out of here. Now.”
“No,” I replied, shrugging him off of me. He looked taken aback, eyes flitting between me and his own hand like he couldn’t understand why I was uncomfortable with him touching me. “No,” I said again, switching my attention to Dan, who still seemed convinced I was his girlfriend and hadn’t yet moved. “You don’t know how much I need to do this.”
I reached in my purse with shaking fingers for the one item I’d been able to fit into it, the switchblade I’d stolen from my brother specifically for this purpose. My hands trembled so badly I was afraid I might drop the knife, and I clenched my fist around the hilt tight enough to hurt.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Seb demanded. He grabbed my arm again with his right hand and made a forceful effort to drag me backward, toward the door, but I stood my ground.
“I’m setting things right.”
Tearing myself out of Seb’s grasp, I lunged at Dan, colliding with him and knocking us both to the ground. His eyes remained vacant and unfocused even as I plunged the blade deep into his chest. It pierced effortlessly through skin and muscle like papier-mâché.
He wasn’t breathing. His heart lay still and silent in his chest. My hands were shaking with my palms pressed against his sternum, but I felt no guilt, no remorse. There was only a sense of satisfaction and relief as I picked myself up off the ground and looked down at the man who had murdered my best friend.
I turned to Seb and smiled manically, unable to process the expression on his face in the haze of adrenaline clouding my brain. Somewhere I knew there would be consequences for what I’d done, that nothing in my plan had accounted for the possibility of a witness seeing me kill Dan, but all I could think about was the fact that after so many weeks, I’d finally be able to get a good night’s sleep, plagued no longer by my unfinished business.
Then there was a sound from overhead like the hiss of sulfur gas, accompanied by a faint rhythmic beat that grew louder as a shadow descended over the alleyway. I drew my eyes upward. Above me was a creature I had no name for, a hulking black shape with a pair of enormous leathery wings.
If it hadn’t been so obviously inhuman, I might have mistaken it for a very large man. He was dressed all in black, and his skin was nearly as dark, giving my brain the illusion that he was nothing more than an absence of light and color.
He flapped his wings twice more and then settled onto the ground, his feet just inches from mine. I reared back instinctively, my head colliding against the alley wall with a loud crack as my butt hit the pavement, sending sparks of pain through my skull and coloring my vision with bright bursts of color.
“Humans are so extraordinarily naïve,” it said in a deep voice as I tried to blink away the possible concussion. “Don’t you think so, Daniel?” I jerked my head up in surprise and glanced over at the place where Dan had been lying lifeless on the pavement only seconds before, horrified to find him picking himself off of the ground like the knife sticking out of his chest was no worse than a paper cut.
I flipped over onto my hands and knees and scrambled for the door, where Seb had just been standing, but of course now that I could have actually used some help, he had disappeared.
I didn’t have time to dwell on this for very long, however, as the winged creature landed neatly in my path before I could make it to the exit. What little light there was revealed that the monstrous silhouette indeed belonged to something that had a human face, despite the fact that he was at least seven feet in height and had long pointed claws on each finger. He wore a gold ring through one eyebrow and another through the upper curve of his left ear. He grinned widely at me, exposing two rows of gleaming fanged teeth.
“I don’t take kindly to people playing with my toys,” he said with a languid Southern drawl, reaching over to yank the knife out of Dan’s ribcage, twirling it once in his hand. His size made it more akin to a toothpick than a switchblade. “Catch.”
Seconds before the knife would have hit home somewhere in my soft human throat, a tattooed hand shot out and plucked the weapon out of midair.
“Here,” Seb said gravely, pressing the blade into one of my shaking palms. “Trust me, you’re gonna need it.”
My fingers closed clumsily around the cold metal, and my jaw dropped when I saw what he held in his free hand. “What the fuck is that?”
“What does it look like?” he shot back, giving the long silver sword a fanciful twirl.
“Seb?” the creature said. “It’s been a while. Perhaps you could return that money you owe me.”
“You know, Lettie, I’d love to, but you know how it is with the economy and everything. Business just isn’t what it used to be.”
I looked over in shock at this exchange to find Seb suddenly grinning ear to ear. This qualified as a life and death—and possibly undeath—situation. Absolutely no one should look like they’re having the time of their life when face to face with a zombie and a giant fucking bat creature.
“Why are you not freaking out?” I demanded, totally freaking out.
“I promise, Peaches, if we get out of this alive, I’ll be more than happy to fill you in. Right now, just try not to get killed.”
“Yeah, I’ll uh....” I watched as he leapt at the winged man, leaving me to deal with Dan who—and I could not believe I was actually saying this—just would not stay dead. “I’ll just...do that.” Shit.
I surveyed Dan’s decomposing features and wondered how I hadn’t seen this sooner. If I had, maybe Lila would still be alive and I wouldn’t be minutes away from meeting the same fate.
He moved first. Slowly, but that didn’t matter. He had the real advantage here, and if any ounce of consciousness still existed inside his deteriorating corpse, he knew it. Dan couldn’t die and I could. How was I supposed to win this fight?
Dan’s hands latched onto my neck before I had a chance to even prepare a counterattack. Why was I being so damn slow? He was the zombie!
I shoved the knife into his torso again and again with little effect. It didn’t even seem to distract him as his hands gripped my neck even tighter. What little air I could still squeeze into my lungs emerged in short gasps and choked wheezes. I staggered backward, grappling wildly at my own throat as my back slammed into a wooden crate, but Dan just followed me down.
My vision started to go dark. My hands scrambled for purchase against the crates, splinters digging into the meat of my palms.
A smooth plastic cylinder skittered across the top of the crate, dislodged by my searching fingers. I closed my eyes and prayed the object was what I thought it was, lurching wildly to the left to snatch it up and finally managing to untangle myself from Dan’s grasp in the process.
I gave myself less than a second to catch my breath, and then turned to face Dan once more, flicking the flint wheel on the lighter and hoping for the best. There was a click, and then nothing. I pressed the wheel until the skin of my thumb felt raw, but Dan was still lumbering toward me, and my Hail Mary had literally flickered out right before my eyes.
Dan raised his arms again and took another step toward me, his lips pulled back in a snarl to reveal gray gums and yellow teeth.
I flicked the lighter once more and thrust it at him when it ignited, diving out of the way as he exploded into a bright orange blossom of flame. I could feel the scorching heat on my skin even from feet away. My eyes stung from the noxious smoke but I forced myself to keep them open, watching as the fire scoured rotting flesh from bone.
I tucked myself between the crates and the dumpster, sucking in huge lungfuls of air in an effort to make up for the smothering sensation in my chest. I closed my eyes as Dan’s body, now not much more than ash, crumpled to the ground at my feet.
For a second I almost felt like crying. I didn’t know why, didn’t have time to dwell on the strange hollow feeling sprouting in my chest.
“Hey, Peaches,” Seb called out. I looked over to find him still locked in a fierce battle with the winged man, his sword a metallic blur as he countered claws and even larger talons. He’d lost the glasses and I could now see unobscured the bright almost electric blue of his eyes. “Beginner’s luck,” he said with a wink and a laugh—
Cut short as blood spurted from a gash extending from shoulder to hip.
I held in a scream as Seb looked down in shock at the gaping wound. His sword clattered to the ground, knees following with a dull smack as he collapsed. I watched in speechless horror, unable to move a muscle to help him, as the monster lifted a wing spattered in blood, the wickedly sharp talon at the top shining wetly under the dim streetlights.
“That was a warning,” he said.
Seb barked out a rasping chuckle. “Feels a lot more like payback.” His skin, which had been radiant under the lights, suddenly lost its luminescence as I watched the blood pour out of his chest like a macabre fountain statue.
The winged man arched a single black brow. “It might have been that as well.”
“So I have a question for you, Letuch,” Seb choked out. He had one hand pressed to the wound on his chest, the other braced flat against the pavement, the muscles and tendons visible through his skin as he struggled to keep himself upright. “What’s a guy like you doing in a place like this?”
The winged creature—Letuch—looked at him up and down with disdain.
“I don’t think you have the luxury of time to make asinine jokes, Seb.”
Seb scoffed. “And I didn’t think you had the luxury of time to buddy up with corpses. Or are you lovers? Things not going well with Talya?”
I could see Letuch’s hands curling into fists, his wings slowly unfurling as if preparing to strike. “I assure you,” he hissed, “our association was not out of desire for that thing’s company.” It was surreal to watch an equally monstrous creature calling Dan a ‘thing’ with such evident disgust, but I didn’t have time to ponder the intricacies of monster hierarchies.
Against my better judgment, I climbed to my feet and emerged from my hiding place to come face to face with the hulking creature. “Are you going to kill him?” I blurted out, not at all sure what I was planning to do if the answer to that question happened to be yes.
The man’s piercing eyes, a startling shade of amber, fixed upon me with frightening intensity. He cocked his head to the side in interest, reminding me now of a bird of prey rather than the bat he resembled. “Perhaps next time.” And then with a few powerful beats of his wings, he vanished completely into the night sky, leaving Seb still bleeding to death in a back alley next to a dumpster, and myself with little recourse to save him.
For a moment, I couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe, all my energy spent trying to process what had just happened. “I have to call 911,” I said at last, dropping to my knees next to Seb. “I have to get my phone. Are—will you be okay?”
“No hospitals,” he groaned.
That sounded like the worst idea ever from where I was sitting, but maybe he didn’t have insurance or something? I could understand that. In any case, I wasn’t going to sit here and try to argue with Seb while his blood soaked into the gauzy fabric of my dress. “Is it okay if I call my brother? He’s a doctor, he can help you.”
A stiff nod was all the answer I received and I immediately turned to grapple with the debris that littered the ground near Dan’s corpse, the contents of my purse having spilled everywhere during the fight. With the haze of adrenaline slowly receding, I became aware of the sharp pain in my bare knees as the gravel dug into my skin, and the bubbling nausea in the pit of my stomach. I tried to still my shaking hands long enough to dial Joel’s number, my blood-slick fingers clouding the screen of my phone.
Joel was understandably confused and annoyed by my request at first, but seemed to realize that it was enough an emergency that he should save the interrogation for later.
“My brother’s coming to get us,” I told Seb, whose eyes were closed now as he took deep breaths in through his mouth.
When he didn’t respond, I scooted closer to him, holding out two fingers to take his pulse. Before I’d so much as touched his neck, a tattooed hand shot out and snatched my wrist. His eyes were open now, a steely glare leveled at me.
“Don’t,” he said coldly, “touch me.”
He let go of my wrist and I quickly moved away, glancing back over at Seb as I backed up. He had stationed himself with his back against the opposite wall, and put his glasses back on, looking once again like he was asleep.
Seb’s sword was still lying on the ground, closer to me now than him. Careful not to touch any of the blood still glinting wetly on the surface of the blade, I dragged it across the pavement and slid it under the wooden crates. It was still partially visible if you looked hard enough, but it would have to do.
“The hell are you doing that for?” Seb asked, his eyes barely more than slits.
“You want to explain to my brother why we need to put a real life sword in his car?”
“Fair play.” Seb didn’t look happy about it, but I didn’t think he had the ability to put up much of a fight.
As the minutes ticked by, I began to worry whether Seb would even survive long enough for Joel to get here; if I’d be left with yet another body in this alley to take care of. My eyes darted to the heap of rags and bones, all that was left of Dan, and I climbed to my feet. Carefully, I used the remnants of Dan’s burned clothes to scoop up his remains and, with a fleeting feeling of satisfaction, tossed the whole thing into the dumpster.
Seb let out a choked-out laugh then, and I turned to give him a quizzical look. “What?” I demanded. It was the same mocking laugh he’d given me back inside Karma, before either of us had ended up half-dead in an alley. I couldn’t believe after all this that he was just taking things in stride.
“It’s just funny,” he said, swallowing heavily. I could see even from a few feet away that his lips were stained with his own blood.
“What’s funny?” I asked, to distract myself from the panic that might erupt if I allowed myself to linger on the possibility that Seb could die right in front of me.
“You think this is over,” he replied with his mouth twisted into a wry grin.
But it was over. Dan was dead. Seb was wrong. It was over.
I turned away from him and pressed my arm up against the exposed brick wall, using it as a pillow to rest my forehead against as I tried to collect myself. Seb’s words had reignited the niggling sense of emptiness that I could feel deep within myself, threatening to crawl out onto the surface. Clenching my hands so tightly my nails bit into the meat of my palms, I forced myself to continue breathing evenly, not to let any emotion show on my face.
My phone buzzed against the rough surface of the wooden crate where I had discarded it earlier before going over to tend to Seb. I scrambled to answer, barely able to gasp out a greeting to Joel before he was demanding to know where exactly I was.
“We’re—I’m outside in the back,” I told him shakily. “Past the bathrooms.”
Joel hung up without another word and when I glanced back over my shoulder at Seb, his face was slack, reminding me unpleasantly of the way Dan had looked as a corpse.
“You okay?” I asked hesitantly, not sure what I would do if he didn’t answer.
“Stellar,” he replied in a strained voice, and I breathed out a quiet sigh of relief.
As if by a miracle, Seb managed to stay conscious long enough for my brother to find us.
“It’s a long story,” I told Joel as he slipped through the back door into the alley, watching the flabbergasted look on his face quickly morph into irritable suspicion. Something—the look on my face, the state of Seb’s injuries, a combination of both—kept Joel from asking any questions as he knelt down next to Seb. He was already reaching over to better assess Seb’s injuries when I remembered the warning Seb had given when I’d tried to take his pulse. “He doesn’t like being touched,” I told Joel, whose expression took on an even more annoyed grimace. “And he doesn’t want to go to the hospital either.”
“So, what then?” Joel demanded. “He’s just going to get up and walk to my car of his own accord and then I perform surgery without touching him somehow?”
Seb blinked his eyes open and reached over to take Joel’s hand in his, the gesture startling both me and Joel. “It’s fine,” he croaked. “I’m—it’s okay now. You can touch me.”
Joel closed his eyes briefly, a sign that he was trying to keep his temper in check, and then gave me a pointed look. “You get his feet. I’ll try to keep him stable. He doesn’t have any broken bones, does he?”
I shook my head, though I wasn’t exactly sure if that was true. If it was, there wasn’t much Joel could do to help, so for Seb’s sake I hoped the gashes on his front were the full extent of the damage. The three of us slowly managed to get Seb to the door and into the back hallway of Karma, where we encountered our next obstacle.
After directing me to lower Seb back down onto the floor, Joel shrugged off his jacket and carefully helped Seb get his arms into it. I tried my best to ignore the grunts and hisses of pain he expelled as his wounds were agitated by every small movement.
“Help me get him up,” Joel told me when they finished, and I moved forward to allow Seb to hook an arm around my shoulders. Together, Joel on his right side, myself on the left, we managed to get him into some semblance of a standing position. “Can you make it to the car like this?” Joel asked Seb.
Seb nodded stiffly, face drawn tight with the combination of pain and exertion, but made no complaints as we slowly stumbled through the club and out the door, doing an excellent job of avoiding unwanted attention as Joel’s jacket covered most of the blood on Seb’s clothes. I was sure that out of the three of us, I had to look the worst, but with Seb between us, people’s eyes slid right past me.
Seb managed to hold his own all the way to the street, right up until Joel had him propped up against the car to fish out the keys. Only then did he become a deadweight, doubling the difficulty in getting him inside the backseat, and later, into the apartment without arousing too much suspicion from the neighbors as we lugged him up the front steps.
Then there was convincing my brother to actually help him, which was an ordeal in its own right.
“Give me one good reason,” Joel said, eyeing Seb’s limp form with obvious disgust. I didn’t blame him; we both probably reeked.
“He’s probably going to die if you don’t?” I tried.
“All the more reason to take him to a hospital,” Joel shot back. “I’m not risking a lawsuit if he incurs complications from being treated for a life- threatening injury on our kitchen table, Pemberly.”
“He told me not to take him to the hospital. Please, Joel. You know what that’s like.”
It was a low blow, reminding Joel of the time when he’d waited until he’d almost died before he let me drag him to the hospital to have his appendix taken out, but I had little choice but to cut deep. Joel was stubborn, and practical almost to a fault. He wouldn’t do this unless I made him.
After a few more minutes of needling, he finally agreed to make the minimal fixes to at least keep Seb from dying in our living room, which was more than I’d hoped for. While Joel performed at-home surgery, I took a shower, not only wanting to distance myself from having to look at someone’s insides, but also to remove the heavy layer of makeup I’d used to disguise my freckles as well as the blood caked on my hands and arms from transporting Seb to the apartment.
I watched with an anxious twinge in the pit of my stomach as I watched a slurry of ash, blood, and dirt swirl down the drain, feeling no cleaner once I finally stepped out of the tub and into fresh pajamas. I wasn’t sure anymore that I’d ever wash away the psychological stain the night’s events had left on me.
“Yeah?” I quickly yanked a hoodie over my sleep tank as I entered the kitchen again, relieved to find that Seb was no longer lying half-naked and bleeding on the table. Joel was at the sink washing his hands vigorously with a sour expression.
“You mind explaining to me now why I just stitched up a stranger who looks like a bear tried to rip him in half? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t many wild animals roaming downtown Portland. And then there’s the fact that I just saw you wearing a full layer of makeup and a wig. You even shaved your legs, for Christ’s sake. What the hell is going on with you lately?”
I ran a hand through my damp hair, tugging at the strands that had managed to get tangled despite the fact that they weren’t more than three inches in length. “You really wouldn’t believe me if I tried to tell you. You’re Mr. Logic; your brain might explode if I tried to explain something this out there.”
“Your capacity for inappropriate attempts at humor never fails to impress,” he replied icily. “If you don’t want to tell me, then I’m washing my hands of this whole situation. I suggest you send him to a hospital as soon as he can move again. This is not my problem anymore. Got it?”
I took a seat in the saggy armchair near the front door and watched as Joel stomped off in the direction of his bedroom, wincing as the door slammed shut after him.
“What was that about?” Seb mumbled from the couch. He was buried under a mountain of blankets, his face just barely peeking out over the heap. Joel was kind of a bastard sometimes (or, well, most of the time, really) but he wasn’t one to cause undue discomfort if he could avoid it.
“Thought you were asleep,” I said, avoiding the question.
“Nah, I’ve been awake ever since Dr. Jekyll started sticking me with a needle. Pretended to pass out again when he started interrogating me.”
“Probably for the best,” I admitted.
There was a lull then, where the only sound was that of my own breathing, echoed by the labored wheezes emanating from the couch.
“Can you do me a favor?” Seb asked.
“What’s that?” I replied cautiously.
“Dr. Jekyll said I should shower in the morning, but I’m going to need help, and I’m willing to bet he won’t be volunteering. And I’d really love some food if you’ve got it.”
I rolled my eyes and sank further into my chair. I wasn’t getting up unless the apartment started burning down. “You’re so needy.”
“Hey! I’m an injured man who just saved your life. That makes me a hero.”
“Right. From what I remember, I’m the one who killed the zombie while you got sliced up by a giant bat guy.”
“A popobawa,” he corrected. “With three-inch-long razor sharp claws.”
“Like I said: giant bat guy.”
“Zombies aren’t exactly too difficult to get rid of,” he said with a yawn, shifting on the couch until he reached some semblance of a sitting position. “They go up like a bale of hay, which you well know. You were just lucky enough to get your hands on an effective weapon before he choked you to death. That’s divine intervention if I’ve ever seen it. No skill involved whatsoever.”
“Thanks for the support,” I replied flatly.
“Speaking of which, you’re going to have a wicked bruise tomorrow.” Seb gestured toward his own neck in a choking motion. Classy. “People might make assumptions about your boyfriend’s sexual proclivities.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I informed him. “And your jokes are still tasteless.” With a groan, I moved to get out of the chair. “What do you want to eat?”
“First things first,” he said. “I want answers.”
I sank back into the chair, pulling my feet up and tucking them under myself for warmth. Joel was probably asleep already, so I wasn’t too worried about him overhearing us. Not that he’d understand or believe any of it regardless.
“What a coincidence,” I shot back. “I would also like some answers.”
He just rolled his eyes before continuing on as if I hadn’t said a word. “You didn’t seem terribly alarmed by your undead friend, for someone who’s so hung up on a popobawa.”
“Knowing that zombies exist and finding out that everything else apparently exists, too, are completely separate things,” I pointed out. “Pop culture didn’t exactly prepare me for giant bat monsters.”
“I wonder why that is,” Seb replied with a wry smile, but didn’t elaborate.
“Do you want me to turn on the TV?” I asked when the silence stretched on into uncomfortable territory.
“No, I want to continue our conversation about your knowledge of the supernatural,” he retorted, looking offended by my assumption that we were done talking.
“But you weren’t saying anything.”
“Neither were you.”
I huffed out a sigh of frustration and resisted the urge to slam my forehead into the wall. “Well, what the hell else do you want to know? You’re apparently on a first-name basis with otherworldly creatures. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to tell you that you don’t already know.”
“You’re missing the point,” Seb said.
“I’m not at all interested in what you know about zombies—which seems to be next to nothing, considering the fact that you tried to stab one in the heart, and where’d you get the idea that that would work, anyway?—I want to know why you know about them.”
“A combination of bad luck and poor choice of friends?” I offered.
Seb emitted a soft hum of acknowledgement. “I can relate.”
“You and that—you were friends?”
“Colleagues, really,” he answered. “But in my line of work, everyone knows everyone else and there’s a short supply of poker buddies, so yeah, I guess you could say we used to be friends.”
“Your line of work being?” I couldn’t hide the undercurrent of curiosity in my voice.
“You haven’t already sorted that one out?”
“I deal with things like your friend from the club.” He let his eyes drift closed as he spoke. “Of course, that doesn’t usually involve back alley stabbings, but all in a day’s work I suppose.”
“Someone actually pays you to do that?”
“Of course,” he said with a delicate snort. “Why else would I do it?”
I raised an eyebrow. “There’s not a single of shred of human decency in you, is there?”
Seb just laughed. “That’s a good one.”
“Look,” I said with a yawn, stretching my arms to try and put some life back into them. “I’m tired. Do you want your food or not?” I could feel my bone-deep exhaustion pulling me toward sleep, and it was rapidly outweighing my desire to continue this cryptic back-and-forth with Seb about the supernatural.
His eyes shot open, bright with unabashed anticipation. “I thought you’d never ask.”
I slowly got up from my chair and trudged over to the kitchen counter to throw something together. “PB&J or turkey?” I asked after surveying the meager supplies in our fridge.
“Peanut butter,” he replied without hesitation.
I made the sandwiches the way Joel’s mother Marisol had always made them for us: extra strawberry jelly (no seeds) and cut into triangles. For whatever reason, they’d always tasted better that way. After a couple minutes, I returned to the couch and set the plate down on Seb’s lap before returning to the armchair.
“Eat up,” I said wearily, sitting back down and closing my eyes.
“I’m assuming breakfast will be a little more...cultured?” he replied. I could practically hear him turning his nose up at the simplistic meal. “I’m not a kindergartner.”
I snorted and closed my eyes, burrowing deeper into the chair as I tried to find a comfortable position. “You’ll be lucky if you even get breakfast. Eat your damn food and stop complaining.”
“No reason to get snappy.”
I sighed and opened one eye to squint irritably over at Seb. “I told you. I’m tired.”
“So eat your dinner and go to sleep.”
“You’re going to sleep in that chair?” he said skeptically, taking a cautious bite of the sandwich and chewing slowly.
“Good?” I asked.
“Passable,” he replied, but took another bite immediately.
“Right. I’m going to grab a sleeping bag and camp out here, to answer your question. Just give me a second.”
I had faith in Joel’s healing abilities, of course, but couldn’t shake the paranoia that Seb might suddenly kick the bucket in his sleep if I spent the night in my own bed. Not that me hovering over him while he slept would really prevent that, but it’d at least make me feel better.
I didn’t ever make it that far, falling asleep in the armchair after a couple minutes to the sound of Seb trying to sneakily scarf down his PB&J without revealing his enthusiasm. I woke only a few hours later as Joel’s alarm blared like a siren throughout the entire apartment. I jolted awake, banging my elbow against the corner of the table next to the recliner as Joel walked in to grab breakfast.
“You haven’t been sitting there all night?” he said critically, grabbing a bagel and shoving it into the same toaster we’d been using since Marisol had bought it after I’d broken the first one by shoving a toy car in the slot when I was five.
“Fell asleep,” I mumbled tiredly. “How long’s your shift today?”
He sighed. “Long. Probably won’t be home till after midnight.” The toaster popped and Joel expertly began smearing cream cheese on both sides of the bagel, finishing in less than five strokes total. “Why don’t you take my bed and catch a few more hours?”
“I don’t know....”
“It’s just on the other side of the wall, Pemberly. You’ll be able to keep an ear on him. Come on.”
Unable to protest effectively over my own yawning, I allowed myself to be pushed along and into my brother’s bedroom, with its gloriously thick blackout curtains obscuring the dawn from my tired eyes. I collapsed eagerly onto the soft mattress, groaning in satisfaction as I inched forward until my head collided with the pillow.
Joel was right. I could hear everything he was doing in the kitchen: the sound of the fridge opening and closing, the clatter of his knife landing in the sink (I’d have to clean that up later), the jingle of keys as he prepared to leave for his shift at the hospital. I was a light sleeper. I wouldn’t miss a thing.