Esprit de Corpse
Blame on You!
I BRIEFED DANTE on Kali’s conversation. Anger radiated off the sharp set of his shoulders. “You should not have touched my scythe!” he lectured, shaking his finger at me.
I bit my lip, knowing he was right, but really not wanting to hear it. Especially not when accompanied by patronizing hand gestures.
“So,” I continued, reluctant to have this conversation, “we need to get down there, right?”
He didn’t respond to that or anything else I said while we got dressed. And that hurt. If I happened to sniffle a little, it was just allergies.
I’m allergic to rejection.
We went from naked to ready in under five minutes. Dante left our cold, cold bedroom without waiting for me. Somehow, whenever he was mad at me, I felt all shivery and cold inside.
I ran after him, just in time to see him present my aunt Carey and her afterlife partner, Leslie, with a key to the apartment along with brief instructions to make themselves at home. He fastened his scythe through his jeans belt loop and draped his Reaper robe over one arm. “Andiamo,” he called over his shoulder.
I knew now that andiamo meant “Let’s go,” as opposed to ti amo, which meant, “I love you.” The universal translator didn’t always work perfectly and that led to the occasional misunderstanding. I wished now was one of them. But sadly, I understood exactly what he wasn’t saying: that I’d screwed up.
I said goodbye to my aunt and Leslie (grabbing a couple of Leslie’s awesome cranberry muffins), and gathered my own robe from its hook near the door. “Good luck with your meeting today. I hope you figure out a way to pay down your karmic debt and buy that Oracle Deli franchise.”
I caught up with Dante outside the apartment. He faced away from me, looking out over the city. His back radiated disapproval like a neon sign flashing, Told you so. Told you so. Told you so. I was torn between begging his forgiveness and kicking his backside. I decided on a wait-and-see strategy instead. Maybe I could get out of this with my dignity—or my relationship—intact.
Probably not both.
In a smackdown between Dante and dignity, Dante would win every time. I already had a bit of a history of begging with him, usually in bed.
I bit my lip as he yanked his scythe from his belt loop and activated it, sending two beams of black light in opposite directions, the top one curving outward into a vicious blade. I took a moment out of my pissy-fit to admire it. Watching a Reaper activate their scythe never gets old.
Since Lucy had withheld my scythe at my graduation ceremony, I didn’t have one yet. Can you miss something you’ve never had? I patted my thigh where my scythe would one day rest. I hoped that one day would be today. I’d worked so hard for the skeggin’ thing.
Where once Dante would have clasped my hand in his, now he wrapped his cold fingers around my wrist, keeping the contact to a minimum. Without so much as an I Dream of Jeannie head-bob, we whoosh-bammed to the Cells. This was the first time I’d ever been teleported on a scythe—it hadn’t worked properly when my body had been stuck in a coma on the Mortal Coil. Now that I was experiencing it, I wished it was more instantaneous and less like a roller-coaster ride on acid. In fact, it was exactly the way they showed wormhole travel on Stargate. Must be more of that bleed-through effect. My stomach flip-flopped. Cranberry muffin redux and reflux rose in the back of my throat.
We materialized at the prison’s massive front door. I’d been here once before on a Reaper Academy field trip. The building was long and low, a single story constructed of dark red brick being slowly strangled by centuries of nightmare-inducing vines. The front door perched in the middle, with wings shooting off to either side. Building-type wings, as opposed to the bat-like kind. On my previous visit, moaning, arguing and complaining had been audible even from outside. Sergeant Schotz had explained that was normal, so the fact that we could hear nothing this morning made me even more anxious.
Dante dragged open one of the big, double doors. I followed him in and down the long, spooky hallway lined with dungeon-like prison cells on either side. Sullen prisoners, angry prisoners and despairing prisoners all rushed to the bars, glaring, staring and way oversharing reasons why they should be released. I kept my eyes on the ground.
How must Dante feel knowing that he’d brought in some of these unhappy souls?
We reached the very last cell, Conrad’s. Monroe and Kali stood outside the bars, watching. Kali wore a horrified look, while Monroe, who’d worked here for decades, looked grim.
“What is the situation?” Dante asked, stepping up to Monroe.
“See for yourself.” The red-haired Reaper gestured inside.
Conrad stood in the middle of the cell, looking basically like the fifty-something corporate executive I’d reaped yesterday.
Except . . . he sweated and strained, obviously in distress. His hands clenched at his sides, his unnecessary breathing ragged.
His eyes bulged and his muscles rippled. In fact, his whole body expanded and contracted and then expanded again, one limb at a time. First his right arm swelled up to monster size, the skin stretched tight, growing lobster red. Then his left leg inflated like a fleshy, florid balloon, his right arm shrinking back down to normal again. Oddly, his bespoke three-piece suit swelled right along with his limbs. Kind of like how Bruce Banner’s pants always managed to cover his junk no matter how huge the Hulk grew.
When Conrad’s leg deflated, his head blew up like a giant red balloon, complete with gray horns.
It looked like he might explode, so I took a step back. I checked my outfit. At least it was washable.
We watched, mesmerized, as this horror show of monster limbs cycled through and started over. Monster arm, then leg, then head, then back. The order became more random and sped up until I grew dizzy and had to grab Dante’s arm.
At least he didn’t pull away. Maybe he needed some reassurance in the face of this grotesque scene. I knew I certainly did and clutched his arm harder.
The unholy changes came faster and faster until Conrad was just a blur of body parts. He started to turn, slowly at first, then spinning like the Tasmanian Devil. Or the two Death Valley girls when they flunked the oral exam at the Reaper Academy.
And just like Tiffany and Crystal, Conrad began to travel, spinning, spinning in larger and larger circles until his route became bigger than the cell and he spun right out through the back wall—without damaging it!
I already felt sick; now I felt as if my world was ending. I’d caused this. I was the problem. Just like with the time machine, only that time had been an accident. This time, Dante was right—I should have known better.
“Stop him!” Dante cried. He and Monroe charged back up the way we’d come, no doubt planning to circle the building and catch him.
I stuck with the god of death and destruction (and earring backs and hangovers). She looked at me and I nodded, choking back more cranberry bile. Then she raised her arms and sent a huge, blindingly bright fireball toward the cell. It took out both the bars and the back wall, leaving ragged, smoking holes for us to pass through.
The burned-out bricks and bars crackled and stank of sulfur. Bits of brick and other debris swirled through the air. I coughed, stopped breathing and swiped at the airborne particles.
Crouched to get through the bars, I heard a sizzle by my right ear. Oh, no! A lock of my awesome white hair had touched the raw and red-hot end of a bar. I ducked and wrinkled my nose. Burning hair stinks way worse than fire and brimstone.
I raced after Kali, tearing out of the back of the cell just as the boys rounded the corner, but Conrad was nowhere in sight.
“Where’d he go?” Monroe asked.
“How should we proceed?” Dante said.
“Are we in trouble?” Kali moaned.
“I know exactly where he’s gone,” I said, biting my lip. All heads swung in my direction. “He’s heading back to the Coil. You know how hard he worked to stay there. It was only yesterday we were able to oust him from his life there.”
“You mean last week,” Monroe said.
“Last week? Wasn’t it only last night?” I said, checking my death watch, shaking it and holding it to my ear.
“The clocks of Hell needed one more kick-start to align with Coil time. The Ecks men issued a press release about it. Don’t you two watch the news?”
“We were a bit busy last night, week, er, recently,” I mumbled, wondering if, with the way things were going, we might never get busy again.
“So what happened to him? And are we in trouble?” Kali chewed on one of her thirty nails.
“I’m not sure,” Dante admitted. “But I believe he turned into a demon. It was hard to tell with all the dust and debris flying about.”
“I think I saw horns,” I said.
“And wings,” Monroe added.
“You should not have touched my scythe. It is proibito.” Dante rounded on me again, as he had earlier this morning, adding a word the Hellish app failed to translate.
I was ready to shout a few choice words that wouldn’t require translation at all, but would paint the air with stinky blue smoke. I held my tongue though. No, not literally. I didn’t want to be that couple who fought in front of their friends.
I kicked at a loose brick. “What do we do now?”
“I need to go after him,” Dante said.
I. Not we. Now I had reached my personal red zone. I wasn’t being the mature one another second. “Oh, yes,” I sarcasmed. “Because that worked out sooo well the first two times.”
“And exactly whose fault is that?” Dante’s tone was so scorching that the air turned blue despite the lack of actual swear words.
My eyes opened wide with shock and anger. “I’m going to see Sergeant Schotz.” I spun on my hiking boot heel and strode away.
Now we were that couple that fought in front of our friends. If we still were a couple.