Lila was sitting primly on the edge of my bed, eyeing me as critically as ever as I tried on the clothes she’d brought over.
“You haven’t gained any weight at all?” she asked. “Your boobs look smaller if anything. Have you been using the crystals I gave you?” She had one of her perfectly manicured fingers twisted up in the chain of the pendant she always wore.
I sighed and shimmied out of the dress. My hips and chest had always been too narrow for Lila’s tastes. One would almost think she was a dissatisfied boyfriend rather than a childhood friend with the way she acted, like my unkempt appearance was somehow a personal affront, but I was used to it.
“They don’t work,” I told her, pulling my t-shirt back on and wincing at the itchy lace of the push-up bra Lila had forced me into. The truth was that I’d actually thrown them into the trash after Lila had given them to me. They were pretty, but I wasn’t into Lila’s weird mumbo-jumbo spiritualist crap her mother had indoctrinated her with, and Marisol had always disapproved of her giving me that kind of stuff when we were kids. She would have been disappointed if I gave in to Lila’s peer pressure and let her start doing spells on me.
Lila huffed and rolled her eyes, taking the dress from me and setting it down with the other previously discarded items. That pile was much larger than the stuff she’d deemed passable. “I thought Grace’s things would fit you better since she’s taller,” she said in a tone that implied this was somehow my fault, “but I guess not. I wish you’d just let me buy you something.”
I gave her a look. That was the one thing I wouldn’t budge on. She could use me as her human dress-up doll all she wanted as long as the clothes were hand-me-downs from her numerous cousins. New clothes were off limits.
My door opened suddenly, Joel’s head appearing in the gap. He scowled when he saw Lila, and she returned the look with a stony glare of her own. I turned my head toward the ceiling and prayed the two of them would at least make an effort to be civil.
“Just wanted to let you know I won’t be home for dinner,” Joel said guardedly. “I’m gonna go watch the game with some guys from work.”
“Of course,” Lila responded immediately, her tone turning simpering. “Wouldn’t want to miss a chance to go be a manly man and watch some sports with the boys, right?”
“Lila,” I hissed, but Joel had already slammed the door shut. I could hear his footsteps as he stomped down the hall and I winced when he slammed the front door.
“What?” she asked innocently.
I shook my head disapprovingly, but didn’t say anything. She knew what she’d done and no amount of me complaining would make her stop doing it. I was surprised she didn’t say anything worse, considering how she talked about my brother when he wasn’t in the room. And I really didn’t want to get into that.
“Well, you’ll just have to make do with a nice jacket,” she said with an air of finality, standing up from the bed and rifling through the clothes she’d deemed acceptable for the aforementioned article of clothing. “Dan’s probably waiting on us already, so we’ll have to do your makeup fast.”
Dan? But Dan wasn’t….
“Dan’s dead,” I said, too confused by Lila’s comment to maintain any level of sensitivity about her boyfriend’s death.
“What the hell are you talking about, Pemberly?” she asked, cocking her head to the side quizzically. “Dan’s right here.” She held up her hand, fingers intertwined with the rotting flesh of a corpse.
“What’s wrong, Pemberly?” she asked as I took a stumbling step backward. But her voice was wrong, distorted by the blood pouring from her mouth and down her front as Dan’s hand punched through her stomach, the fingers curling inward like it was beckoning toward me.
“What’s wrong?” she said again, and this time I could hear the grating sound of Dan’s decaying vocal cords underneath her trill soprano. “What’s wrong?”
There was a loud crash from the wrong side of the bedroom wall. I breathed out a silent scream into Joel’s pillowcase as I jolted into wakefulness and then launched out of bed.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. The nightmares, the paranoia, all of that was supposed to vanish along with Dan. None of this should still be happening. And there was only one reason why it would.
It really wasn’t over.
Another clatter had me jumping nearly a foot in the air. I took a few deep breaths to calm down and threw open the door to Joel’s bedroom.
Seb was parked on his ass in the bathroom doorway, clutching the bandages wrapped tightly around his torso. All of Joel’s grooming products were littered across the floor, some of them still rolling loudly across the tile.
“I don’t even know what to say about this,” I remarked wearily.
Seb scowled. “Just help me up, okay?”
“Are you sure?” I hadn’t forgotten him snapping at me for trying to touch him last night.
He turned his face away, but nodded, nevertheless looking extremely unhappy about the whole situation. I sighed and leaned down to slide my arm under his so that I could lift him up. He was definitely more muscular than me, which made him heavier despite my slight height advantage, so getting him back to his feet was a challenge that had me out of breath within thirty seconds.
“Looks like the sedentary life of a librarian has not done wonders for your level of fitness,” Seb commented.
“Nice guess, but no,” I said, shoving him in the direction of the shower.
“Ouch! Watch it.”
“I’m trying to help,” I replied tiredly. “You’re the one that decided to face-plant in my bathroom.”
“Well, move your arm then, Peaches. That fucking hurts.”
“Stop whining.” I gave him another little shove and almost laughed when he hopped two steps to keep his balance. “And what’s with you and that nickname?”
“Nicknames are part of my charm.”
“Is my foot in your ass a part of your charm too?”
He glared at me for that comment, but silently allowed me to help him turn around so he could sit on the toilet while I turned on the water and made sure it was a reasonable human temperature. Joel insisted on taking cold showers for some ungodly reason so it took forever for the water heater to get up to speed.
Walking Seb to the shower had been one thing. Getting him into it without either of us dying in the process was wholly another. And holding him up while he tried to disrobe? Absolute catastrophe.
“You keep moving! I’m going to fall over!”
“No, you’re not, I’m holding you up!”
“You’re going to kill me, I swear to god.”
“I’m trying to help you, you big baby. Jesus.”
Finally, after reaching a level of dampness that had me feeling like I’d just taken a shower myself, I got Seb situated, letting him rest one hand on my shoulder, the other on the bar along the shower wall. I could now see that his tattoos did indeed extend along the entire right half of his body, excluding his face. The stitches on his chest and abdomen, red ugly lines with raised edges, bisected huge sections of the designs. I wondered how long the process of getting them had taken. And how much it’d hurt, for that matter; they even continued past the line of his briefs, which he was still wearing despite much protest. From him, not me.
“Do you want to try sitting down?” I asked after a few minutes, more for my sake than his. My arms hurt and I wanted to sit too.
“Oh sure,” he replied with obvious sarcasm. “I’m confident that will be very comfortable for me.”
I rolled my eyes. “Look, I’m already uncomfortable with this situation as is, okay? I’m setting parameters.”
“Your ‘parameters’ are going to cause groin chafing,” he replied huffily.
“I’m sure you’ll live. Now sit.”
He continued scowling as I massaged shampoo (Joel’s ultra-tropical blend with extra moisturizing powers or some shit) into his hair. “You’re what, twenty-three?” he said, eyes scrunched shut as I redirected the shower head onto his scalp.
“Twenty-one,” I corrected.
“So it should be fine,” he continued. “It’s not like you’ve never seen a penis before. And it’s not like you don’t already know I have one.”
I stopped in my tracks. “Well….”
“That’s not technically true.”
“The part about seeing a penis before, asshole. What did you think I meant?”
He opened his eyes in surprise and immediately squeezed them shut with a hiss of pain. “Shampoo! Shampoo!”
I sighed and moved the spray to his face so he could rub the suds from his eyelids. It was like dealing with a child. Or Lila. She’d been at least as fussy as Seb during the course of our friendship.
“You’re kidding right?” he asked, once the shampoo ordeal was over.
“No. I really haven’t.”
“You’re a virgin? Seriously?”
I snorted out a laugh and nearly dropped the showerhead. “As much as my brother might like to think so, god, no.”
“Ohhh,” Seb said, wide-eyed. “Huh. Weird.”
“I’m usually a lot better at picking up on that kind of thing. I’m just surprised.”
“The short hair wasn’t a giveaway?”
He shook his head. “Should it have been?”
I shrugged. “I guess not. I really only did it for convenience. Ready for conditioner?” He nodded and I squirted a massive dollop into my hand before moving my fingers back into his hair. Aside from the initial weirdness at Seb’s near-nudity, the whole process of helping someone bathe was oddly relaxing. He seemed to be enjoying it a lot more now as well, giving little hums of pleasure whenever I scrubbed at his scalp.
“So you never answered my question,” he said.
“About how I knew Dan was a zombie? I was at the hospital when he died. It’s kind of a no-brainer when you see someone a week after their funeral.”
“But no one else noticed?”
“Lila—Dan’s girlfriend—didn’t tell anyone but me, I think.” I wasn’t sure why she’d even told me. I’d never put stock into her obsession with the occult. I certainly wasn’t the most obvious of candidates when it came down to confiding in someone about your boyfriend coming back from the dead.
I grabbed the back of Seb’s head and started rinsing. After being released, he shook his hair like a dog and sucked in a deep breath, blinking the water from his eyes.
“What was his girlfriend?”
“Lila?” I stared at him blankly. “A telemarketer?”
Seb rolled his eyes. “No, I mean, what was she? Banshee? Vampire? Selkie, maybe? That’s not too uncommon around here.”
“Why would she be anything?” I wondered.
“Because,” he said slowly, “the only humans I meet who know about…monsters…are people I share a breakroom with.”
“Well, what does that make me?”
“That’s,” Seb said pointedly, “what I’m trying to find out.”
I squeezed some shaving cream into his right hand and watched as he attempted to spread it evenly across his jaw with one hand. “You’re not planning on shaving like that, are you?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Well,” I said hesitantly, “Lila’s mom was one of those spiritualist types, and Lila was kind of into Wicca, but she was still human. I think?”
“You don’t seem too sure.” He squinted at his appearance in the mirror I’d propped up on the edge of the tub. Privately, I thought he looked like a five year old with a bubble beard pretending to be Santa Claus, but I was going to keep that to myself. “Hand me the razor?”
I placed one of my spares into his hand (Joel would kill me if I let Seb use one of his) and watched as he tried not to Sweeney Todd himself with the blade.
“Is there any way to actually tell?” I asked, watching as he scraped precariously at his chin with the blade.
“Yes, but none that would help you figure out your friend now that she’s dead.” He glanced over at me, and asked, “She is dead, right?”
“And I assume her death is related to your foolhardy zombie revenge-killing.”
“Yeah,” I said again.
“Interesting,” Seb remarked with a lingering look, before turning back to his reflection in the mirror and finishing up.
I frowned and waited till he gave me the signal before aiming the showerhead back at his face so he could rinse off the rest of the lather.
“And your brother wasn’t aware of any of this?”
“He’s hardly ever here,” I admitted. “And even if he was around, he’s got his own life to worry about. He hated Lila anyway. He refused to even get out of the car when he took me to her funeral.”
He laughed—I didn’t think it was particularly funny—and made a curious expression. “Help me stand up again?”
I did so, helped him climb out of the shower, and then there was an awkward moment in which Seb held onto the towel rack while I did my best to dry him off without feeling like either of us were being violated. It was more or less a successful venture, even if the only part of him that was actually dry when I finished was his head.
“Turn around?” he asked. I did so. “Arm?” I stuck it out dutifully so Seb could use it as a source of stability as he changed out of his wet underwear and back into the clothes Joel and I had let him borrow from each of us—sweat pants from me, a t-shirt from my brother. “So how did you find zombie boy?”
“Shitty amateur detective work,” I said to the wall. “The three of us used to go to Karma before. He just never stopped going, I guess.”
“Interesting,” he said again, but to my surprise, he didn’t push any further than that. “Done. You can turn back around now.” He was shirtless still, but that was part of the process as he now needed new bandages to replace the ones he’d taken off before showering.
And if I’d thought helping Seb shower was an ordeal, nothing could have prepared me for the horrors of first aid with him. Every single thing I did was grounds for complaining or criticism. I couldn’t move an inch without him whining about something.
“Hold still,” I muttered, trying to dab at his stitches with a cotton ball while he squirmed all over the place and did everything in his power to make the task impossible.
“It stings,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
“That means it’s working.”
“I know that.”
“Then stop complaining about it.”
He scowled at me. “Dr. Jekyll has a better bedside manner than you.”
“Maybe that’s because he has a crush on you,” I suggested mockingly, switching to an antibiotic ointment and liberally slathering up my fingers.
Seb scoffed. “With that obvious layer of repression? No, thank you.”
I stopped to give him an incredulous look. “You think my brother’s gay, too?”
“Gay? Highly doubt it. But I know denial when I see it.”
“Don't say that," I replied automatically, the words coming out harsher than I’d intended.
“What, your brother’s a homophobe?”
“Obviously not,” I said with a frown. “He’s just—Just don’t say that kind of stuff around him, okay?” I wasn’t sure if there was any merit to Seb’s assessment, but Joel had always had trouble with his romantic endeavors. I didn’t want Seb stirring the pot.
“Fine,” he replied after a moment, and that was that.
When all was said and done and Seb was once more swaddled in several layers of gauze—this time wrapped a bit less expertly—I wanted nothing more than to head back to bed and sleep for twelve more hours. I couldn’t though, because there was a useless lump who refused to shut up about his sword.
“Jesus. Do you want me to just go get it for you?”
“I’m not sure if I trust you with such an immense responsibility,” he replied, looking for all intents and purposes absolutely sincere as he told me this. “It’s probably best if you let me handle it.”
“Great. Then be quiet for five seconds and let me watch TV. You’ve already invaded my personal space and wasted my day off, the least you can do is keep your mouth shut.”
“Where do you work again?”
I sent him a fierce glare, one that managed to keep him quiet for more than a full five minutes, much to my surprise. In hindsight, his ability to stay silent for the duration of the entire episode should’ve have tipped me off to the fact that a bombshell would land the second he opened it up again, and boy, he did not disappoint.
“This is going to sound really weird,” he announced the second the show went to commercial.
I made an absent noise of acknowledgment, not even bothering to humor him this time. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him rubbing nervously at his palm, eyes darting everywhere but never straying in my direction.
“Can I go down on you?”
I choked on my own spit and nearly fell out of my chair. “What the—are you for real?” My head jerked around so fast I felt like I had whiplash. “Did you really just ask me that?”
“I told you it’d sound weird!”
“There’s a fucking difference between weird and uncalled for! What part of the conversation where I told you I was a lesbian didn’t get through to you? What on earth would make you think that I’d say yes to that?”
He jammed the first two fingers of his hands into each temple and screwed his eyes shut in frustration. “That’s not—I wasn’t trying to—”
“How else would you expect me to take that?”
“Look, never mind, okay? Forget I asked.”
“Easier said than done,” I muttered, turning up the volume on the TV, hoping the noise would drown out the buzz of anger threatening to pour out of my throat. It wouldn’t do either of us any favors if I let myself get too upset.
Somehow, in between fuming silently and trying to concentrate on the pseudo-soap playing on the TV, I fell asleep again, this time waking when the front door closed loudly. I blinked up at Joel who was surveying the living room with a clearly disapproving expression.
“Still here, huh?”
“Well, what’d you expect?” I replied grumpily, looking over to find Seb out cold on the couch. “He can barely walk. It’s not like I exactly enjoy babysitting him.”
“Right.” Joel sighed, kicking off his shoes, throwing his keys back onto the coffee table and plopping down on top of me in the recliner, his feet disgustingly close to my face.
“You’re squishing me.” I shoved uselessly at his back, finally resorting to tickling his ribs just under his scars just so I could get him off of me long enough to catch my breath. “You’ve really packed on some weight lately, Jesus.”
Joel rubbed absently at the spot where I’d pinched him, nose wrinkled in discomfort. “Not my fault you’re so scrawny. Come on; help me with the groceries and I’ll start dinner.”
It wasn’t uncommon for us to eat well after midnight. I worked part-time, almost always in the afternoons, which allowed me to more or less keep up with Joel’s hectic schedule at the hospital. We tried to eat together whenever we could.
When I looked inside the grocery bags to see what Joel had bought, I raised an eyebrow. “Enchiladas? That’s the third time this month.”
“What can I say?” he replied with a casual shrug. “It’s in my blood.”
“Funny.” I snorted and turned away so I could start working on the sauce. Joel didn’t know I knew—hell, he might not have even been aware of it himself—but the more stressed he became, the more frequently he had me cook things Marisol used to make when we were kids. So Mexican dishes were typically not a good sign. At least this time I had a fairly good idea as to what was causing the stress: the culprit was still fast asleep on the couch.
My eyes starting watering within seconds of cutting the onions, so Joel took over while I washed my hands and then turned my attention to slicing the lettuce instead. “Look, he’ll be gone by the end of the week, okay?” I said after a minute, in hopes that it would placate Joel and put an end to the tense silence that had quickly built up between us.
“I’d feel better if you’d just tell me what happened,” he muttered, throwing the chopped onions in the pan and turning on the stove.
“It’s not that easy to—”
“Do I smell onions?”
Both Joel and I turned to find Seb’s head peeking curiously over the couch. “Enchiladas,” I told him, secretly grateful for the interruption. “They’ll be done soon.”
“What kind?” he asked, squinting suspiciously at the bag of cheese in my hand.
I shook it meaningfully and gave him a look. Seb just rolled his eyes.
“Can I have some meds to tide me over till you’re finished?” he asked. “I’m dying over here.”
I looked questioningly at Joel and he sighed before turning to rifle through the medicine cabinet. “He can have ibuprofen,” he said, handing me the bottle. “Tell him he can deal with it. We’re not a pharmacy.”
“Yeah, I’ll pass on the message.”
Not surprisingly, Seb wasn’t too happy to be denied narcotics, but managed to keep his grumbling to himself while Joel and I worked on getting dinner ready. I appreciated the fact that my brother was making an effort to help me; after the shift he’d just had it was shocking he was still on his feet.
Finally the food was done and we headed back to the living room to eat. It would have felt odd for Joel and me to sit at the table while Seb was on the couch, unwelcome guest or not, and this way we could turn the TV on just to have the excuse to avoid having to make conversation.
Seb, of course, did not comply with our expectations. “So,” he said slowly, “you guys are downright domestic, huh? Wouldn’t have pegged you for the type.” He was looking at me when he said it, but something told me it was meant for Joel instead. And to top things off, Seb continued talking despite our unresponsiveness, feeling the need to add: “I guess the dead parent thing tends to do that to a guy.”
To be fair, the ensuing events should have been obvious to me the minute Seb opened his mouth. Nothing—absolutely nothing—good had ever come of him saying a goddamn word.
Joel and Seb were on the ground within seconds, Seb’s shoulders pinned under my brother’s knees as Joel punched him square in the face.
“What the hell!” I shrieked, leaping forward to pull the two of them apart. “What is wrong with you?”
“I want him out,” Joel spat, shrugging me off as he stepped away from Seb. “I want him gone, Pemberly. You hear me?” He was staring straight at Seb with a look that reminded me of a caged animal surveying its prey.
“Okay, okay.” I helped Seb back up into a sitting position, looking at the growing red stain on his bandages with concern. “Jesus.
“Just a ripped stitch,” he said with a pained groan as he tried to settle back into a comfortable position. There was a bit of blood where his lip had split open, and a blossoming red mark high on his cheek, but he was otherwise none the worse for wear “Tell your—” Joel’s bedroom door slammed shut. “Tell Dr. Jekyll I’ll be out of your hair tomorrow. I wasn’t ever planning to stay that long anyway.”
I sighed and slouched down in the recliner. “Are you actively trying to get him convicted for murder?”
“Of course not. I was just making conversation.”
“No, you weren’t. Don’t bullshit me.”
“All right, Peaches. Calm your tits.”
I jabbed a finger in his direction. “See, that, that is exactly what I’m talking about. The nicknames, the attitude, that’s going to get you strangled in your sleep one day.”
He snorted, letting his eyes fall closed. Like that, with a perfectly relaxed expression, he was remarkably beautiful—even to my eyes—and I had no doubt that his looks were one of the few reasons he’d lasted so long with such a prickly exterior.
“I’m serious,” I insisted. “I’m honestly surprised you aren’t being targeted by giant bat dudes—”
“—On a daily basis.”
He shrugged. “It works well enough for me.”
“See, that’s not exactly the phrase I would choose after watching you provoke a former kickboxing champion into trying to pummel you to death.”
“Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish,” he replied with a smirk.
“How’d you even know about his mom anyway?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know the answer.
“I may be halfway to legally blind,” he said, gesturing toward his glasses, “but I’m not a moron. Have you seen this place? It screams Little Orphan Andy.”
I sighed. “Can we just move on to a safer topic? For once?”
He hummed absently for a moment before responding. “We could talk about your traumatic childhood instead.”
“Not exactly what I had in mind,” I said, getting up to clear our dishes.
“No? How about one of those reality TV talent shows? No one at work ever seems to shut up about those.”
“Don’t watch them,” I called out over the sound of the faucet as I hastily scrubbed at our plates before tossing them into the dishwasher.
“Shame.” Seb’s eyes followed me all the way back to the recliner, and I gave him a quizzical look as I sat down. “We could always fall back on reminiscing about you losing your monster-hunting virginity.”
“You consider that a safer topic?” I asked.
“Safe and fun are mutually exclusive,” Seb said with a self-satisfied grin. “And I like fun.”
“Which is why no one likes you,” I replied. “Can’t we just watch TV instead? Believe it or not, I don’t actually want to sit and talk about one of the worst nights of my life with you.”
“Only one of? Do you make a regular habit of murdering people?”
“It wasn’t murder,” I said tightly, “and Dan wasn’t a person. I was fixing things. It’s not like I could tell the police they should be looking for a guy who’d been dead for the past two months.” I didn’t mention the countless nightmares, seeing Lila’s lifeless features on every stranger’s face, jumping out of my skin every time someone so much as brushed against me.
“Well, whatever helps you sleep at night.”
“He was already dead!” I shouted, realizing that my fingers had formed claws on the armrests of the recliner, and I was half-poised to leap at him already. I didn’t need to feel guilty about this on top of everything else.
“Guess the debate’s settled then,” Seb remarked, looking far too satisfied with himself for someone who had nearly been assaulted twice in a single night.
“I’m going to bed,” I said coldly, getting up from the couch and stalking down the hall to the relative sanctuary of my bedroom.
“Have wet dreams for me!”
I slammed the door shut and slid down it till my butt hit the floor, tucking my head in between my knees to take several calming breaths.
I couldn’t remember being this angry in years. I couldn’t wait till Seb was gone.