“Peaches? Peaches, come on, rise and shine.”
“It’s your fault, you know.” The gravelly voice was one I didn’t recognize. "What were you even thinking?”
“I really don’t need the snide accusations right now, Muriel.”
“No need to be so bitchy, Sebastien. I’m only trying to help.”
“Well, please try elsewhere.”
I managed to eke out a strangled groan from my raw throat and opened my eyes to find Seb hovering over me worriedly. “I’m not dead?” I croaked.
“That’s still on the table as far as I’m concerned,” said the other voice.
“Stop being overdramatic,” Seb retorted.
I sat up and turned my head, wincing at the pain that shot from my neck down to my toes, and spotted what appeared to be my dark-haired savior sitting—her long black hair still sopping wet—on Seb’s bed cleaning a blood-stained knife. At least I assumed it was blood. It was a dark indigo and had an iridescent sheen, like oil, but what did I know about mermaid anatomy?
“Muri,” the woman said curtly, meeting my inquisitive gaze. “You’re welcome.”
“Or Muriel,” Seb volunteered with a sickly sweet smirk aimed in her direction. “Though she’s not too fond of that name, hmm?”
“You’re such a child,” she remarked with obvious disgust.
“You like it.”
After doing a quick self-survey—I was wearing clothes, my own clothes, over the swimsuit I’d passed out in, so at least no one had tried to undress me while I was unconscious—I closed my eyes again, a headache already starting to build at the base of my skull. “Can you keep it down? I really don’t feel too hot right now.”
“Yeah, the venom will do that to you.”
“Venom?!” I bolted upright (definitely a mistake) and promptly doubled over to smash my face into the duvet to wait out the pain. “Ah, shit—”
Seb’s hand perched hesitantly on my lower back and patted gently, like he wasn’t sure what he was doing, or wasn’t sure if the gesture was permissible. “Sorry about that one, Peaches. Mermaids love to nibble.”
I peered suspiciously at him through my right eye. “And what exactly does mermaid venom do?”
“Nothing, really. I mean, you didn’t get enough in your system to actually do too much damage, so your body is just going to be working extra hard to clean it out. Like alcohol poisoning.”
“Oh. So like…vomiting for a couple days? And a hangover?”
I’d never had anything more than a glass of wine with dinner, but I thought I could probably handle it based purely on my experience with taking care of Joel.
“Just one day, to be more precise,” he replied.
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
Muri laughed, and I slowly turned my head to focus on her. “That’s because Seb is conveniently forgetting to mention that aforementioned ‘vomiting’—” She used air quotes. “Happens at both ends.”
I gaped at her in horror, and then shot an angry glare at Seb. It was blindingly obvious now why he had been so reluctant to tangle with the mermaid.
“It’s not as bad as she’s making it sound,” Seb argued, before quickly reconsidering. “Well—”
“Leave me here to die,” I groaned, dramatically flopping back down onto the pillows with a loud sigh.
“Hey, suck it up,” Seb chided. “You’ll live.”
“Don’t infantilize me. I really hate you right now.”
He held up his hands in surrender and backed off, getting up from the bed and reaching over to grab something before tossing the object at me. I stared down in confusion at my phone, the notification light blinking an insistent yellow-green that meant I had a missed call.
“Your brother started calling non-stop pretty soon after you conked out,” Seb informed me. “I didn’t answer, but you might want to give him a call back.”
I tossed the phone aside rebelliously, letting it land with a clatter on the center nightstand between the two beds, allowing my irritable expression do the talking.
“Suit yourself, Peaches. I’m gonna go grab dinner before this one—” He jerked a thumb over at Muri, who arched an eyebrow in response. “—gets too cranky. You should be fine on your own while I’m gone.”
I grunted out a reply and was satisfied when the motel door slammed shut behind him, leaving just Muri and I, and a long awkward silence to fill the space between us. She was staring intently at her phone, fingers tapping the screen audibly every few seconds.
I slowly sat up in bed, noting that she didn’t so much as glance over even as a reflex, and took the opportunity presented by her intense focus to take in her appearance: low blunt bangs, a light smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks, eyebrows a shade lighter than her dyed black hair, an intricate tattoo of some kind of bird on her upper left arm, and blue eyes with a fleck of brown in the corners framed by thick-rimmed black glasses.
“Do you actually need those?” I blurted out without thinking.
Her head slowly swiveled in my direction. “Sorry?”
“The glasses,” I explained nervously. “Are they prescription?”
She gave me a look. “I don’t see how it’s any of your business, but yes, they are. I usually wear contacts, but the chlorine presents a bit of a problem with that.”
“Right.” Now that I’d started talking, I couldn’t stop myself. “So you and Seb…work together or something?”
She let out a short barking laugh and went back to whatever it is she was doing on her phone. “Yeah. Something like that. Look, Peaches—what’s your real name?”
“Pemberly,” I replied. “You know about the nickname thing?”
Muri stopped whatever it was she was doing and looked up at me. “The only reason Seb doesn’t use a nickname for me is because he knows it annoys me more if he uses my full name. He’s just trying to get under your skin.”
“Well, I mean, he’s slightly less of an asshole than he was when I first met him,” I pointed out, not really sure why I was playing devil’s advocate when he was such a pain in the ass, and had nearly gotten me killed by a mermaid, but I suppose we had bonded over a common problem in the last week. A fairly large and important problem.
“Oh, that’ll make a reappearance sooner or later,” Muri told me. “When he gets tired of babysitting you, or you stop being such an enigma—don’t tell me you haven’t wondered why he took such an interest in you?”
“He said he sensed something,” I replied dully.
“And clearly, he hasn’t figured out quite what caused that. So he’ll string you along for a little bit, and then when he gets bored, he’ll dump you off somewhere and you’ll be left on your own to pick up the pieces of your life again.”
“It’s not like I’m interested in him,” I protested. “Sexually or romantically.”
“But you are interested, aren’t you? Why else would you have abandoned your brother to road trip with Seb? Don’t worry, you’re not the first person he’s charmed into doing something they shouldn’t have.”
I licked my lips nervously, frowning hard as I processed what Muri was saying to me. “I didn’t abandon my brother,” I argued, voice turning hard. “Letuch sent a bunch of zombies to my house and Seb said I had to leave—”
“Like I said,” Muri interrupted, turning her eyes back once more to her phone, “Seb has that effect on people.”
When it became clear that she wasn’t going to elaborate any further, I slumped back against the headboard and continued to stare at her out of the corner of my eye, mind racing as I mulled over what she’d said to me. Should I have fought harder to stay with Joel? Hadn’t I killed Dan to be done once and for all with all this supernatural bullshit? Why had I let the two of them convince me it’d be better to leave?
By the time Seb walked in the door with a pizza box and several plastic bags under his arms, I was no closer to an answer. The smell of grease wafting into my nostrils was enough to smother most of my persistent worries, as I found myself dealing with the immediate reality of my stomach trying to turn itself inside out.
“God,” I groaned. “Really? That smells awful.”
“I’d offer you some of my salad,” Seb said, not even feigning an apology, “but it’s not like you’re going to be eating anything regardless. Your bodily festivities are due to start in the next hour or two, and trust me: you’re going to want to be as empty as possible before that happens.”
“Right,” I said miserably, my head sliding down the headboard and back onto my pillow.
Muri just sighed and stood up, walking over to Seb and swiping a slice of what looked like a ham and pineapple pizza from him, but not before he got a bite out of the crust first.
He chewed happily and beamed up at her in accomplishment.
I watched the two of them eat with envy—Seb, who shoveled his raw vegetables into his mouth like he might not get another chance, and Muri, carefully picking the layer of cheese off of her pizza before taking small calculated bites.
A phone vibrated loudly. Both Muri and I reached over toward the nightstand while Seb stared at the two of us in amusement. “This is why I keep my ringer on,” he said through a mouthful of lettuce.
I glared at him briefly before turning back to the phone in my hand. I stared at the blinking screen for a few seconds before finally deciding to answer. “Joel?”
“Pemberly? Where are you?”
I squeezed my eyes shut in frustration and ignored Seb’s inquiring looks. “Look, Joel, I accept your apology or whatever. Just stop calling me, okay? I don’t want to talk about it.”
Joel laughed, but it was hollow. “I wish I could say that’s the reason I’ve been calling.”
“That fucker was right. They came back. I’m fine though, don’t worry about me.”
“Shit. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Where are you?” he asked. “I’ll come meet you.”
I fumbled for the pad of paper sitting on the nightstand next to the bed and recited the address of our motel to him.
“I’m already headed that way,” he replied. “Should be there in less than an hour.”
“What was all that about?” Seb asked. He shoveled more of his salad into his mouth and began chewing obnoxiously.
I shook my head in disgust. “Something happened. Joel’s on his way here.”
Seb groaned as Muri looked between the both of us with blatant annoyance. “Wonderful,” she said unhappily. “Another civilian to babysit. You’ve done a real bang up job of this one, Seb.”
“It was Peaches’ fault, not mine. I didn’t get her involved in any of this crap.”
I just shrugged. I couldn’t really disagree with that.
Muri sighed and threw the rest of her pizza into the garbage by the fridge. Seb made a noise of sorrow at the sight of the wasted food, and I watched intently as she waltzed over to a blue backpack, and then bent over at the waist to rifle through it. Her denim shorts stretched alarmingly, and my eyes widened.
“Cool it, tiger,” Seb said with a snort.
Snapping upright and whirling around give us both a scathing look, Muri stalked back over to the bed with a laptop in hand. All shamefully fascinated thoughts about her perfectly-shaped rear end were wiped from my brain with that one single look.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, sure that my face was an incriminating shade of crimson.
And of course, that’s when the cramping started.
I doubled over from the sudden pain, and Seb—to his credit—sprang into immediate action.
“Come on, come on, the bathroom’s right here,” he said reassuringly as he helped me off of the bed and tugged me by the sleeve of my sweater across the room, while I made a herculean effort to gulp down the bile bubbling at the back of my throat.
Somehow, I made it to the toilet before I started heaving. Seb knelt down next to me and hovered awkwardly like he wanted to help.
“How do you feel?” Seb asked during a brief reprieve.
“How the hell do you think?”
I could practically hear him rolling his eyes. “I mean, do you feel like you’re going to shit out your colon yet?”
“That’s what it’s supposed to feel like?!”
“Well, you didn’t think it’d be pleasant, did you?”
My retort was interrupted by another spasm before I could even utter the first syllable, and I dived headfirst back into the toilet bowl. It wasn’t even like there was anything left in my stomach to throw up at this point. It was just dry heaving, punctuated by spurts of bile joining the rest of the mess.
“Dear god in heaven,” I moaned, resting my cheek against the cool porcelain of the seat.
“Sorry, Peaches, I’m all you got.”
“Do you really think now is the best time to be joking?” Muri said, and I flushed with embarrassment at the thought of her watching me in my current state. I could picture her lurking in the doorway, arms crossed and eyebrows arched condescendingly.
“Laughter’s the best medicine,” Seb replied.
I couldn’t help but let out an uncomfortable chuckle. “I don’t think it—”
And there we go again.
There was a knock on the door some time later—how much later, I couldn’t really say since my brain had all but turned into mush—and I could hear Muri leaving the bathroom to go answer it. I was too busy turning my body inside out to put any thought toward who it could be.
I made an incoherent noise of acknowledgement and started gagging again. Seb petted my hair soothingly, and I wondered with increasing panic whether I’d even make it through the next five minutes let alone a whole day.
“What the hell did you to her?” Joel demanded, marching over and shoving Seb out of the way so he could take his place at my side. “Pemberly? Are you drunk? What the hell is going on?”
My only response was another round of puking.
“Okay, shower time,” Muri said authoritatively, shoving both men out of the way with ease, clapping a hand over my mouth the keep the vomit in, and then shoving me into the tub and sliding the curtain shut. “Can you throw your clothes over?”
I ripped them off as fast as I could and tossed them onto the floor. At this point, I didn’t care whether they landed in a puddle of vomit or in the toilet itself. I just needed to get them off. I grappled shakily with the shower faucet once I was completely naked, and as soon as it was in my grasp, I jerked it quickly to the left. The water was startlingly hot but I couldn’t find it in myself to go to the trouble of fixing that.
Laying my head down against the tiled shower wall, I could hear Muri shepherding Seb and my brother out of the bathroom. The door slammed shut behind the three of them, leaving me alone to my torment at last.
I finally found the energy to emerge from the bathroom an hour or so later, limbs twitching spasmodically and feeling like I’d just lived through several natural disasters in quick succession.
“How are you feeling?” Joel asked, his hands outstretched like he wanted to reach for me but wasn’t sure if he should.
“Like ass,” I croaked, collapsing onto my bed with a loud groan.
“Muri’s ass, I bet,” Seb muttered with a smirk, which earned him a prompt and brutal punch to the base of his spine. “Ow!”
“Water?” I asked, throwing an arm over my eyes to block out the fluorescent lights. My head was killing me.
A cold glass was soon pushed into my free hand and I eagerly gulped down the icy liquid, slowing down only at Seb’s reminder that I wouldn’t want to throw that up too.
“Do you need anything else?” Joel asked anxiously.
I shook my head. “Just going to close my eyes for a bit.”
I fell asleep immediately, overcome by both the physical and mental exhaustion brought on by the strenuous events of not only that day but my encounter with the zombies as well. I didn’t sleep for very long, however. When I opened my eyes again, the lights in the motel room were still on, and I could hear the others murmuring in low voices from the opposite bed.
“How’d you get out?” Seb asked.
I rolled over and made it apparent that I was now awake, but aside from a small glance of acknowledgment from Muri, the three continued their conversation without interruption.
“I wasn’t there when they showed up. So I just ran the minute I saw the…thing.” Joel sighed and offered a begrudging: “You were right.”
I gave Seb a look which hopefully conveyed my willingness to punch him in the face if the words “I told you so” exited his mouth.
“You could have gotten yourself killed,” he said instead, which was true enough, so I let it slide.
“That’s why I decided to find Pemberly. Wasn’t exactly up for round three with Mr. Halloweentown and his goonies.”
“Letuch was there?” Seb asked, voice suddenly taking on a harsh edge. “Did he say anything to you?”
“I—no,” Joel said, shaking his head. I squinted in confusion at him, but quickly schooled my features into a blank expression. I didn’t know why Joel was lying to Seb about this, but I wasn’t going to give him away if I could help it. “I saw this huge…creature…from the car. I just kept driving and that’s when I tried to call Pemberly.”
I felt a pang of guilt at not having answered my brother’s phone calls now and I cast him an apologetic look. He shrugged, and I knew I was forgiven for giving him the cold shoulder. We’d all acted a little childish lately.
Muri made a derisive noise, apparently unimpressed by Joel’s tale. “Are you seriously planning to let these two tag along with you on every job?” she asked, directing the question at Seb with a critical glance. “They aren’t trained for this kind of thing.”
“It’s not like I really have a choice,” Seb replied shortly. “Letuch has it out for Peaches, for whatever reason, and I haven’t exactly figured out why yet. I can’t exactly call up Naomi and have her send out a detail with how short-staffed we are. Marina won’t—Naomi’ll need to talk to Peaches in person, so we can figure out the best way to go about this.”
Muri’s eyebrows climbed to new heights at this, though I hadn’t understood half of what Seb said. “You’re sure Letuch’s after her specifically?”
“Yes,” Seb replied firmly.
Muri nodded and got up from the bed, heading to the window like she expected to see Letuch standing there waiting for us now that we’d said his name for a third time.
Seb watched her for a moment before getting up himself and going into the bathroom. I could hear the water in the sink turn on through the door and could only assume that he was finally wiping off the makeup obscuring the tattoos on his neck and collarbone.
Joel just looked tired, not alarmed. Not like I expected him to be, anyway. I’d had a bit of time to get used to this whole ‘monsters are real’ thing, what with Dan coming back from the dead what felt like ages ago now.
“You’re taking this awfully well,” I said to him.
“What?” he replied, head jerking up suddenly.
“I had a mental breakdown that lasted a whole week after figuring out that Dan was a zombie. Why aren’t you more…skeptical?”
“I saw them with my own eyes, didn’t I?” he replied defensively.
“Wow. Chill out. I was just wondering. You seem awfully calm about the whole monster thing.”
Joel just shrugged. “It’s just hard to be a skeptic after all this. Doesn’t seem worth it.”
I didn’t know what he meant by that. He was looking at some distant point near the window now, returning to his previous stupor. I tried to follow his eyes, but couldn’t figure out what was captivating his interest.
“What are you staring at?” I hissed.
Without adjusting his gaze a millimeter, Joel replied. “Muri’s ass.”