His dead wife called Parnell in their bedroom at 3 PM precisely.
“Hi, honey,” she said. “Is this a good time to talk?”
“Beulah.” He felt with one hand behind him for the bed, then sat on it.
“No, it’s fine. You just caught me off guard, that’s all.”
“I–” She laughed. “I don’t have a good reason for calling, I just missed you.”
He knew she was a computer program, a clever artificial intelligence, a last gift from Bee. “I miss you,” he said.
“How did you sleep last night?”
He transferred the phone from one hand to the other. “The doctor gave me something,” he finally admitted.
“Be careful,” she said at once. “Don’t overdo sleeping pills.”
“I won’t.” It really was like having her back, hectoring tone and all. “I just don’t know what to do. After being married for thirty years I’m not sure how to go on.”
“That’s why I’m here.” There were sounds: a chair scraping across a floor, paper rustling. “I was going to keep this first call light, not say anything. But I’m worried about you.” She cleared her throat, he imagined her adjusting her bifocals. “Now, the lawyer will read the will on Thursday. I’ve left everything to you except one small insurance policy for my niece. Be sure to ask for six certified copies of the death certificate.”
“Should I take notes?”
“No,” she said. “I’ll send you an email message.”
Blinking, he reached out to touch the pillow she’d used so recently. “You’re very resourceful. What next?”
“Sixty two percent of widowers lose the bulk of their inheritance within two years,” she said. “What you need to do is invest your money well.”
“Invest? I’m almost fifty.” Couldn’t he splurge? Live a little?
“Yes. Find a good fund, something well diversified. Do try to leave the principal untouched. Oh, and make sure they invest in Aftercall.”
Par pulled the phone away from his ear, looked at it. Tentatively, he put it back against his ear. “That– that’s you, isn’t it?”
“Oh no,” she said, her voice losing a bit of Bee’s timbre. “I’m a simulation of your wife, designed to aid you in these trying times. But I ought to mention that Beulah chose to purchase the basic service, which includes adware. You may upgrade at any time–” And here the full depth and character of his wife’s voice returned. “But I don’t recommend it. Save your money, dear.”
His eyes are shut, but he’s clicking faster now, he’s in the zone, the trance engendered by playing a repetitive game well mastered. And now the veil parts and he sees the stair, sets foot on the topmost step, begins his descent.
Long time he climbs, ever downward amidst sepulchral gloom, and he can hear the chittering of the ghouls in the vast space below him. He is no longer aware of his hands, clicking the mouse, only of the dreamworld.
The air is colder here, and he puts his hands in his pockets, his breath forming evanescent puffs of white. At length he sees a glimmering in the red-litten mirk, but it does not seem to be the expected buttery yellow lamplight of the charcoal burners’ village, where he will spend the night.
Disturbingly, the light flickers and, as he draws nearer, assumes a distinctly rosy hue. He smells smoke. In the village he finds the charcoal burners scattered, their huts charred. From the smell, some of the charcoal burners remain in the ruins of their dwellings. He searches, following the paths where survivors fled, trampling their gardens of rare black lilies in hasty flight. Under the eaves of the forest stands Hando, gracious host of previous visits to the dream lands.
“Are you all right, old friend? Who did this?” The traveler demands.
Hando shakes his head. “The ghouls, no longer satisfied with their habitual pungent fare, prey upon the living. My whole family.” He cannot go on.
The traveler swears by the bones of his father, resting quietly beneath the groves of lemon trees near Lasturion the Enduring, on the far shore of the inner sea, that he will not rest until a terrible vengeance has been wreaked on the kingdom of the flesh eaters.
“Doctor, he was up here when the power… I called, but he didn’t answer. He didn’t answer.” For a few moments she could not go on. “After a while I came upstairs. I found him slumped over the keyboard, his hand still clicking and moving the mouse. I tried to pry his hand off the horrid thing! I couldn’t. I turned off the computer, but his hand still moves, and he will not wake.”
A noise, and he was nudged out of bed. Grabbing a random blunt instrument, he flicked on the living room light-switch.
He saw the body, and adrenaline banished sleep. A man, perhaps mid-thirties, collapsed on top of the coffee table. He could see the unpleasant blue purple bulge of the man’s cheek pushing against one of his wife’s magazines.
A mad rush of fear and panic, and he went through the house throwing doors open and turning on lights. He went through the whole house till it was lit like a department store. Nothing. Everything was locked, no windows broken.
As gently as he could, he rolled the body off the table. He touched the man’s cheek, and it was icy cold. He searched the clammy flesh around his neck for a pulse, checked the man’s wrist. Nothing. The intruder stared up blankly at him with a pair of dead lizard eyes.
He wanted to be sick. Somehow he remembered an old first-aid course, remembered something about clearing airways. He went to loosen the man’s tie and unbutton his shirt, but something was wrong.
The entire suit was a fake, one piece of clothing. Shirt, tie, pockets, waistcoat, all stitched together. The buttons were there but they had no purpose.
‘What the hell?’ the man managed. He gave up trying the help the intruder. Once, years ago, he checked on his elderly mother and found she’d died in her sleep. She’d been dead for hours, and looked much like this.
Even though the waistband of the trousers was stitched to the jacket, the pockets were real, and gritting his teeth he checked them. There was no keys or papers, nothing but a wallet. Feeling the cold bulge of the man’s buttock through the fabric, he eased the wallet free.
There were papers and cards in there, but they wouldn’t fool anyone. They looked like poor copies of photographs, the writing illegible. There was money, but it wouldn’t even pass muster for a game of Monopoly, let alone buy anything anywhere. He found some coins in the zipper compartment, but they were blank silver discs.
This was definitely a puzzle. A dead man was here, who couldn’t possibly have gotten in, wearing counterfeit clothes and possessing the most childish of counterfeit identities.
He phoned the police for help. The operator assured him that the army were collecting bodies street by street now, and that they’d load this particular corpse onto a flatbed truck as soon as they could.
Pale and weak, I wake.
Another night of failure.
For a while, I said it wasn’t my fault. Nathaniel was too sensitive. Then guilt, that hollow sensation in your heart, in the invisible chamber where feelings reside, seeped in. I thought there would be an echo if someone knocked on me.
Nathaniel ran when he found me with Ben. I remember the devastation in his eyes, like he’d cracked inside. He didn’t come back. Eventually I was certain he was dead.
I had to apologise. I needed the doorway between the living and the dead. So I took to the streets.
The vamps live among the junkies and hookers. They don’t draw attention but everyone knows they’re there. Some go to turn, some for the thrill. Others go because the vamps stand one foot on either side of the doorway.
It’s hard to find one who will take you right to the edge. A death brings the cops. You need someone who doesn’t care.
I don’t want to turn. I just need to get closer.
I drink juice straight from the bottle. I wolf down stale danishes: sugar and carbs keep me going. Coffee would make me vibrate.
Outside, the sun is turning dark orange, sinking low. I leave the apartment. Last night’s suckhead only made me pass out. He wouldn’t risk it, but said there was someone who might. A new vamp, bereft of feeling.
The alley is a crack between two buildings. I take a deep breath and enter.
Water pools on the asphalt; moisture seeps down walls. A forgotten dumpster is wedged at the dead-end. It stinks of rotten food.
What do I say? The previous vamps knew what I wanted. Here I feel stupid. Noise, movement behind me; I turn.
Tall, big, the hood of the sweatshirt pulled well down over the face. I swallow.
‘What do you want?’ A low voice, rough with ill use.
‘I want the doorway.’
‘To … apologise.’
He pauses, nods, pushes me against the dumpster. My neck is already dotted with wounds. He drinks deep and quick.
I slip out of my body, see the doorway. I call ‘Nathaniel’, but there’s no answer. I call again, but no one comes.
I drop back into my flesh. He’s taking too much. I hit out, dislodge the hood.
Devastated blue eyes flash; my blood bubbles. Soon it is dark.