Undead and undermined, p.12
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       Undead and Undermined, p.12
 

         Part #10 of Undead series by MaryJanice Davidson
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  The hood was accordianed back almost to the windshield, and I could smell so much gas, oil, and hot metal it was almost unbearable. I didn't think the neighbors were in danger; I doubt any of them could smell it as strongly as I could. Didn't seem to be bothering Garrett, though, which I found annoying.

  I coughed and swayed and said it again. "You prick. Lurking in my backseat? Are you out of your-scratch that . . . gah, Sinclair will not be pleased, and neither will our insurance company, Garrett, c'mon, jeez, I can't-you shouldn't-what the hell?" Hmm. I was sounding a little shrill. And feeling a little bitey.

  "I told you I was in the back. " He was calm and unruffled, if shy. Meanwhile, I felt like I might fly into a zillion pieces, all of them in a bad mood. "I told you the second you got in. You couldn't hear me. So I said it louder. But you couldn't hear me again. "

  I yanked on the car handle. I was going to haul him out by the scruff his neck and beat him to death with the streetlight. Or the passenger door.

  "It's true," Laura said. "He was trying to tell you. I said hi, too, but you had that look . . . the my-brain-is-on-pause look. Did you know you sort of go away when people are trying to tell you things?"

  "And then you snap back, and sometimes you've been able to follow the conversation and sometimes we have to help you," Garrett added.

  I could only assume I had a skull fracture. What- where-what was Laura doing here? "Good God!" Garrett climbed out; Laura slid out behind him. I bent and peeked. "How many people are back there?"

  "Just us. " Garrett was beginning to recover from my exclamation. Sinclair had once told me hearing God or Jesus or what have you felt like a whiplash. Across his balls. "We were waiting for you. "

  "Swell. " I ran my fingers through my hair and closed my eyes, fighting the urge to yank. Or slap. "Where to begin? I'm so pissed at both of you right now I'm gonna stroke out. Must punish . . . and yell . . . too many emotions . . . arrgh, the pain!"

  "Are you all right?"

  "Nooooooooooooooooooo. "

  Laura coughed, a delicate em-erm, and said, "We were in the same car accident you were, and we seem to be doing all right. "

  That was a matter of opinion.

  "Yes, but you caused the fucking thing! You knew you were in the backseat, but I didn't know you were in the backseat so I was startled to hear him in the backseat and then see him and then see you, you knew that would all happen but I didn't. " I stared at the mess on the sidewalk. "Also, nitwits, my mom's a taxpayer in this town. She and everyone else are gonna get stuck paying to fix the light. "

  "Since when do you even know what taxes are?"

  "Hey, great news, Laura, you just won! Here I've been wondering which of you to kill first. I'm now officially madder at you than him and will punish accordingly. To begin with: you suck. And your mom? The Lady of Lies? She lied! Again. " You'd think I could predict this behavior by now.

  People were opening their front doors to get a good look, and no wonder; the sound of the crash had ripped through the peaceful, small-town evening. I was willing to bet someone had called the cops. Hmmm, where did Sinclair keep his car registration? Because I had the feeling I was going to have to flash some paperwork. At least no one was hurt. Especially me.

  "Yes, well. " Laura couldn't look at me. Garrett had no trouble, but he wasn't nervous like she was. Just hopeful, like a basset hound watching someone open a box of jerky. "I, uh, I thought I might owe you an apology, you know, after what happened, but when I went to the mansion, Garrett met me in the driveway and we left for your mom's . . . to save time I took us to Hell first, then here. I never even made it inside. And I didn't want to see-I mean, you were the one I wanted to talk to, not the others. But we didn't want to bother your mom, so we just waited for you. "

  (Note to self: start locking the damn car. ) I should have been happy. An apology? Great! We would now live happily ever after as mandated by every happy ending in the world. No point looking back; we'd just surge forward, etc. , etc. , hallelujah, amen.

  But the needle on my Creep-O-Meter was bouncing. Not just because Garrett liked skulking in the front yard, and not because he'd had the courage to ask Laura to ride along (the Garrett in my timeline would have barely spoken to her, never mind asked for anything). No, the worst part was how Laura was willing to go straight to my mom's with a feral vampire, one she knew was damaged, one she knew was unpredictable and dangerous, one who, after being brutalized and killed didn't speak a word for something like fifty years. And then . . . then! Lurk patiently in the backseat. With an apology, no less. Then be surprised when I freak out.

  "Laura . . . "

  "I thought I was helping you. I really did. When I wouldn't give it back. You believe me, right, Betsy?" Her eyes were wide and the left one brimmed with a single perfect tear; she could have pled without making a sound. "Right?"

  I chewed my lower lip and thought it over. Which in itself was a change; even a year ago I would have fallen all over myself to accept her apology, would have been glad of anything to keep, or return to, the peace.

  Again: yes, I was very glad she'd come back repentant. But this was one of her scarier qualities. She could go from sugar to boiling lava in eight seconds. And just as abruptly, her rage would leave her and she wouldn't hesitate to make amends. It was bewildering, and unpredictable.

  And I had no choice. I had to forgive her, had to hug her and pretend some of the fight was my fault. Because I could not afford to go to war with the Antichrist.

  Not yet. And it was awful that I was even contemplating when that step might be inevitable. If I had changed a bit in the last three years, so had my little sister. When we met, she'd never skipped church . . . now we were fortunate if she went twice a month. She'd never been in a fight, hardly ever raised her voice. But she'd killed vampires and at least one human serial killer.

  To say nothing of the time she tried to kill me.

  My point: I couldn't afford a grudge, which sucked because I was pretty good at holding them. So though it was tempting to cling to my righteous wrath, I nodded and gave her a quick A-frame hug (shoulders together, asses far apart) and told her it was all right, it was no big thing, the important thing was that she'd come to her senses.

  Guess which two of those were the lies?

  She hugged back so hard I could practically hear myself squish. Really hard, and instead of resting her hands on my back she had bunches of my shirt in both fists. She wasn't hugging so much as . . . clinging. Like she was drowning or something. Like I could save her.

  "Okay, I'm glad you quit being such a mega-uh, I'm glad we got that straightened out. Listen, we've got to get back to the mansion and deal with the Marc Thing, but the car is-"

  "Everybody okay?" someone called from across the street. I turned and gave them my Miss Burnsville wave.

  "Just fine!" I lied cheerfully. "Thanks anyway. " No vampires or Antichrists over here, no, sir. Just your standard car vs. streetlight.

  "I thought we could use hell, since your car is wrecked. "

  "Eh? Oh. " Our speedy yet invisible getaway from this suburban neighborhood; that was the topic to tackle. "Mmmm, gosh, tempting but . . . how about a cab instead? Or Sinclair can come pick us up and mourn his Jetta. I think using hell as our vehicle just makes things unnecessarily complicated. " For some reason I was reminded of one of the best cartoons in the history of animation, Up (Kevin the bird was my fave, and Kevin's babies!).

  At one point, the kid, Russell, says he'll take the bus from Paradise Falls back to his house: "Whoa, that's gonna be like a billion transfers to get back to my house. " A hell-bound bus ride . . . how many transfers would it take to get back from hell?

  "We're getting Antonia now. "

  I noticed that wasn't a question. Garrett wasn't contributing much to this meeting, except to startle me half to death and nag me to take him to hell. Beyond that, he clearly didn't give a shit.

  "You said," he remin
ded me, like we were on the playground.

  "Well, yeah, the me from the original timeline promised, but right now? Right this second right now?"

  I didn't think Garrett was going to answer, but he did, and was I concussed or did he sound pissed? "If it was the king, would we stand and discuss?"

  "But it's not the king. " As soon as it was out, I could have jammed both hands over my mouth. Wow. Elitist much? The sneaky undead craft-mad knitter had a point. But then, so did I. Sinclair was the king; weren't things different for him by definition? For me?

  I had no idea if I was right, and less interest in finding out. When I heard "not the king" come out of my mouth, the part of me that had no interest in becoming Ancient Betsy decided the discussion was going to go Garrett's way.

  "I don't know if we can get her or not," Laura-I'm-not-a-killjoy-I-swear said. "There's so much about Mother's home I don't know. But I can at least get us there. Can help you talk to her and find Antonia. "

  "That's nice of you. " This, in as neutral a voice as I could manage. Had she ever called Satan Mom or Mother before? Usually it was her or my mother or that evil creature. What was next? Mother's Day brunches? "I'm glad for the help and I'm sure Garrett is, too. "

  "You promised," he nagged yet again. He'd make Antonia a wonderful housewife. He could knit sweaters and hector Antonia about mowing the lawn. A regular 1950s family, with fangs. On both sides, come to think of it.

  "Well, I really feel as though I have to . . . and I want to, also," she assured Garrett.

  Hmmm. (I was hmmmming a lot these days. ) In other words, I'm sorry and please take advantage of my regret to help your lackey. This way you don't have to talk me into anything, won't that be nice?

  Her expression told a similar story: I'm sorry, please let me do this. I'm sorry, sorry, so sorry.

  And she was. I believed that. She was sorry, sorry, so sorry. Until next time.

  I hated fence-sitting, especially when I was the one doing it. Laura's offer was a time-saver at the very least. And since when did I turn my back on a shortcut? CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

 

  Hell is a waiting room.

  I know: rerun, right? You've heard this before, because I've said it before. (Also: thanks for paying attention!) But I never ceased to find it weird and unsettling. Of all the things I'd expected-waterfalls of lava, flames, the shrieks of the damned, no parking, no returns, no way out, no hope, no refunds-a waiting room seemed anticlimactic at the least.

  Even worse, my odious dead stepmother, the other Antonia, was at her customary place in hell: the assistant's desk, the place where, if this had been a CEO's office (which it sort of was), her right-hand gal would have sat.

  But the Ant did more than greet the damned (or the just-visiting). She helped Satan with all sorts of things to lighten the load of running hell every day for many thousands of years. They weren't friends, but the Ant respected the bejeezus out of Satan, while Satan was grateful to the Ant for bearing her (Satan's) daughter.

  Oh, and almost being friends with Satan? Keeping the devil's appointment book? Speaking of the Lady of Lies in glowing and respectful terms? I was the least surprised person in the history of human events to discover all that was true about my loathsome, revolting, detestable stepmother.

  "Not a chance," she said by way of greeting. I was annoyed to see she appeared on top of things-she'd sucked at day jobs while she was alive, but was a terrific assistant in death-and pleased to see that she dressed even more badly in hell. Though maybe that went hand-in-hand with being in hell. "Run along, children. And you, whatever you are. " Her nostrils flared as she eyed Garrett . . . skinny, tense Garrett.

  "I want Antonia. "

  "You can't have me," my slutty stepmother replied primly.

  To his credit, Garrett didn't groan and vomit. "The other one. "

  "I'm not sure this is the way to go about it," Laura murmured, laying her fingers on Garrett's forearm. "Just blurting it out like that. "

  "I want Antonia. "

  "I guess ignoring everyone's advice is another way to go," I commented, then turned to the Ant. "I'll take a cinnamon hot chocolate, extra whip, with whole milk. "

  "You've never been nearly as funny as you imagined. "

  "But you always managed to raise the bar when it came to being greedy and selfish. Go fetch yon boss, pineapple hair, before I show you I'm my mother's daughter. "

  She snorted. Which I expected . . . threatening her with my mother only worked in life. Not only was the Ant right not to fear my mom anymore, she probably didn't have to fear me, either. What I found most interesting, though, is that the Ant showed no shock at seeing us step through Laura's doorway into the waiting room.

  Laura had to actually cut doorways through space with her Hellfire sword . . . I knew what it looked like going through, but I'd never seen it when someone came through to somewhere I already was. I hoped it was cool and dazzling. That would be a nice change.

  The Ant, I couldn't help notice, hadn't moved to obey my command.

  "Where's your boss?" I whined. "I gotta go shrill all over her ass. "

  "None of you have appointments or are expected, and my boss, as you uncouthly put it-"

  "Uncouthly? Don't make up words. Uncouthly. Please. "

  "-is busy, which even Betsy should be able to understand. She's quite busy. Do you understand quite busy, Betsy?"

  "Yeah, it's a state of being you've never endured. " Ha! Take that, pineapple hair.

  "Oh really? Busy is putting it mildly. There are over sixteen billion souls on this plane. "

  "Sixteen billion?" If I'd had to guess, I would have tried . . . I dunno . . . ten million? "Get out of town! Sixteen billion?"

  "Sixteen billion seven hundred ninety-four million eight hundred twenty-four thousand and three. "

  "It's so weird and gross that you know that. "

  "And they all have needs, of course. Which is why we're set up here. To meet their needs. "

  "So they need to burn forever or whatever their personal hell is?"

  "Exactly. We serve them. It's not the other way around. I'm told it's never been the other way around. All of which is to explain how busy the boss is. Of course," she added, her tone softening as she looked at Laura, "I'm sure she'll make an example for you, hon. "

  "Don't you mean she'll make an exception?"

  The Ant flapped her press-on nails at me, subtly painted Screeching Whore Red. "That's what I said. "

  "Because that's kind of a big Freudian slip," I tried again. Why was I the only one who found that unsettling? Simple: Laura had nothing to fear in hell . . . who'd be psycho enough to try to harm her? And Garrett didn't care about anything, and could focus on nothing, until he had his werewolf gal-pal back in his big, strong, neurotic, undead embrace.

  The Ant patted her tall yellow hair. "Don't use words you don't understand. "

  "Okay. I understand pummeled. I understand maimed. I understand acid and burns and deface and mutilation and disfigure and scar and damage and-"

  "Please find out if Mother will see us," Laura asked with the flawless manners taught by her preacher dad. It was just as well . . . as fun as verbally kicking the Ant's ass had been (Yahtzee!), it wasn't getting us anywhere.

  And there it was again. Mother. Not my mother. And was it me, or was Laura getting less annoyed when she spoke of the devil or found herself in the devil's presence or found herself manipulated into a course of action by the devil?

  Because she used to hate it. Her. Whatever. But now, even if she wasn't seeking Satan's company, these days Laura didn't seem to mind the company, if you get where I'm going.

  "At once," the Ant said, and disappeared like a soap bubble: shiny and silent. Garrett was staring straight ahead, almost vibrating, but waiting for a command like a leashed rottweiler. Laura was trying not to look pleased, and I was trying not to freak out more than I already had.

  I too
k my phone out of my purse-I'd pulled the beat-up handbag (I was a shoe girl, but gave not a shit for bags) from my (his) wrecked car, slung it over one shoulder, and brought it to hell, though I'm not sure why. Maybe I thought I'd want to buy a hot dog while I was here, pay for a few rides?

  I looked at my phone and told myself, again, that it was good I didn't let Sinclair know what I was up to. He'd freak, he'd order, he'd worry, he'd have a nervous breakdown, he'd yell at me from inside my head, then he'd yell at me in person. And the tiresome lecture when he found me again . . . I could feel myself yawn just thinking about the droning.

  Also, he might have insisted on coming with . . . and Laura might have let him.

  So I'd texted that I'd been delayed (truth) but would get back as soon as I could (truth) and there was nothing to worry about (untruth).

  Because knowing he'd want to come . . . well. That made it easy. Sure, I was acting like a scary movie heroine, someone from, say, Saw XXXVII. I went to hell with the Antichrist and a feral vampire on the spur of the moment and didn't tell anyone where I was going. I deserved to have my head cut off or my face eaten or whatever a script writer (if my life were a horror movie, and I were a busty starlet) could think up. And it was all fine as long as it meant Sinclair was (relatively) safe.

  Sinclair? In hell? No way. Only one Sink Lair family member was going to hell three times in the same week, and it wasn't the guy whose entire family had been murdered before he was voting age.

  Oh. Oh. Oh. Did . . . did I just refer to myself as a Sink Lair? Have things gotten as dreadful as that? Back in hell in the same week looking for Antonia while dealing with the other Antonia (a hellish curse all its own), a summerless future lurking a thousand years down the road, no Louboutin shoes since there was no Louboutin, and now this? Curse you, Satan, for poisoning everything you touch!

  "I gotta sit down," I managed, seconds before I did so. And for the first time I was glad hell was a waiting room. No shortage of chairs, so that was good. But they sure were uncomfortable and that, I figured, went with the territory. CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

 
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