The Oddest of the Odd

When Jane Hawkins finished giving her daughter a vigorous scolding, Meredith was sent to her room with slouched shoulders and a sullen look in her eye. Norene and I joined the woman in watching until the child disappeared into the house.

Jane sighed. “I swear, the worst part of our getting turned into zombies is that not only will I never get to see my children grow any more, they’ll hardly have the chance to mature either.”

“Cold comfort that none of you will be around long enough to grow to hate each other,” I said.

Jane shot me a sharp, assessing look, before nodding cautiously. “Not much comfort at all, cold or otherwise.”

“Why shouldn’t cold be comforting?” Norene asked, as if we hadn’t just been having a conversation about the rather short lifespan of the average zombie. “Wouldn’t it help slow the decaying process?”

Jane gave an indelicate snort, and I pulled a face. “Thanks for that, Norene, now I’m imagining a room full of frozen bodies in varying stages of decay.”

Norene wrinkled her nose. “Ew, why would you imagine that? You’re not hungry, are you?”

Jane looked to be restraining a laugh.

“Not any more so than earlier. As for why, I should think it’s because you mentioned cold and decaying in the same breath.”

“I just meant that zombies might fare better in winter or in cooler climates. Which makes it lucky you all live here, rather than somewhere warmer, I suppose.”

“Right, because I’m ever so lucky to have been turned into a zombie,” I shot back.

“I am,” Norene countered, oblivious to my growing temper. “Lucky you got turned into a zombie, that is.”

“Excuse me?” I demanded, focusing all of my attention on my banshee housemate.

“Otherwise I wouldn’t have met you, and that would be a shame,” she continued blithely.

Jane let out a strange sort of choking sound, and I snapped my head around to glare at her as her shoulders shook with restrained laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Norene asked a moment later, seeing that my attention had been diverted.

“You two bicker like an old married couple,” Jane gasped, attempting to arrange her face into something resembling calm.

My lips quirked up in a half smile in spite of myself. “The oddest of the odd couples, the renegade banshee and the vegan zombie, I murmured, low enough that it could be mistaken for disgruntled grumbling.

“What do you mean by odd couple? We’re not a couple. Or are we? Can friends be couples?”

Of course Norene managed to hear me, I thought sourly as Jane gave up her attempts to restrain her laughter.

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Everyone’s Got to Eat

Norene and I were nearing the house when I finally felt calm and confident enough to ask the question that was practically burning my tongue. “What would I do if I wanted to speak with Aldith?”

If Norene was surprised by the question, she didn’t show it. “Hmm…” She swayed from side to side as we walked, clearly lost in thought. For a moment, I wondered if she had even registered my question. “Aldith does what she pleases. I don’t think anyone knows where she lives.” Norene frowned, then brightened. “But she still has to eat just like everyone else!”

I snorted. “It’s rather obvious once you point it out, isn’t it?”

Norene shot me a pleased smile. “When shall we go to the Distribution Office, then?”

“How about the next mealtime?” I suggested, returning her smile. I still felt hungry, but now that I knew of a way to minimise the danger that feeling caused, it was easy enough to shove it aside and focus on other things.

Norene took the opportunity provided by my improved mood to skip in a circle around me. I decided it was better not to ask.

“So…what shall we do until then?”

Norene pursed her lips thoughtfully, but before she could come up with answer, she was interrupted rather dramatically.

“Norene!” a small blur shrieked, seeming to fly across the street to slam into Norene and wrap small, thin arms around the banshee’s middle. When Norene shot a grin my way, I could only groan.

“Hi Meredith! Up to anything interesting?”

“No…” she replied with a grin that was not-at-all innocent.

“Is your mother angry with Hugo again?” Norene pressed.

Meredith’s smile widened. “Maybe.”

“And are you in any way responsible?”

Meredith’s expression now had no business being on the face of a child. It almost made me think it was a good thing she was a zombie and would be able to grow up to terrorise the city. Almost.

“Mom would be mad at me if it was my fault, right?”

I couldn’t restrain a snort at that. “Depends on whether or not you’re as clever as you think you are.”

Meredith sniffed disdainfully. “Clever enough to let my brother take the blame for anything I get up to.”

“Hmm.” I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Also depends on how well your mother knows you and your tricks.”

Meredith remained confident, while Norene merely looked amused.

“Meredith Ann Hawkins!” a familiar voice yelled as a door slammed open a few houses down the street.

The confident look on Meredith’s face died in an instant.

“You probably shouldn’t forget that your mom is clever too,” I advised the child who was now hiding behind Norene.

Kill the (Un)dead Girl

When I went to sleep that night (or, technically, morning, at least by living side standards) I dreamed of brains. Vampires danced around holding cups of liquid brains just out of reach. Norene approached me several times with a whole brain on a plate, only to disappear when I reached for it.

The most vivid dream started out ordinarily enough. I was walking up the stairs to Norene’s top floor room when I heard the sobs. When I entered the room, I saw Norene, tied up the floor with her head resting on a plate. She was crying, wondering why I would do this, saying all she wanted was to be my friend.

The only thought running through my head was that I was hungry.

“Be silent,” a voice commanded from behind me. I didn’t have to turn around to know it was the lich, Aldith. This was only confirmed when Norene stopped talking at once, even her sobs no longer making a sound, though I could see tears still running down her face and her shoulders shaking.

I stepped forward to kneel next to Norene’s head and licked my lips. I reached out towards her skull—

I woke with a start, feeling as though my heart ought to be racing, or at the very least covered in sweat. That’s how one’s body was supposed to react to a horrific nightmare like that. But no, my undead, decaying body could only manage a bit of nausea that could have been hunger in disguise. I felt sick, both literally and figuratively.

How was I supposed to solve this brain problem if I couldn’t get my hands on anything to even try as a substitute? Giving in wasn’t an option. I would stand by my beliefs if it killed me.

But you’re already dead, a voice whispered in my head, sounding almost like my mother. It’s far more likely that your stubbornness will get someone else killed. Would you let someone die just to stick to your refusal to eat the brains of someone who’s already dead?

No, no, I couldn’t let that happen either. If it came down to it, I would just have to convince someone to kill me before I hurt anyone. But who would agree to such a request—well, and actually follow through with it instead of just waiting until I was brain crazy and force feed me brain juice. I could definitely see Sarai doing that, after promising to my face to kill me before I ended up with someone’s brain in my mouth.

Who else was there? I couldn’t ask that of Norene. For one, it was a horrible thing to demand of a friend. And second, I wasn’t sure she’d actually be able to overpower me if I did go brain crazy. Someone strong enough to fight me and win, preferably one of the actual undead, since at least they’d already had a chance at life it something went horribly wrong. There was that vampire fellow, but he had the same problem as Sarai did; if nothing else, it would probably be easier to just feed me brains than to kill me.

Heh. Kill the (un)dead girl.

I shook my head, trying to focus. There was the lich—the lich! “Be silent.” The voice from my dream echoed in my head. She—he—Aldith could control me. The lich could order me not to eat any brains. Of course, I would have to convince her/him of that first.

When had this become my life?

Politely Insulting

“So how bad was it really?” Norene demanded. We’d finally escaped the draugr’s company, and while I was quite sure he wasn’t fooled by my flippant remarks, I did manage to deflect his pointed questions long enough for him to grow bored of the game.

So, that was fun. Days of waiting only to get nowhere. Well, at least Norene’s babbling was enough to get us some home improvements. Also known as basic living standards—but then again, dead side residents didn’t count as living, did we?

“Margot?” The way Norene drew out the syllables of my name suggests it’s not the first time she’d tried to get my attention in the last few minutes.

“Sorry, what?” She’d asked me a question, hadn’t she? I just couldn’t remember what it was.

“How bad exactly was that letter?”

I sighed. “Bad,” I told her. “They weren’t interested, and did it in a way that was politely insulting.

“How can an insult be polite?” she countered, quite sensibly, really.

“By making it sound either like a compliment, or an expression of sympathy or something like that.” I was tired. I didn’t want to explain this sort of thing.

Tired and hungry. So hungry. I could eat an entire garden and still wouldn’t be satisfied. What I really craved, of course, was—no! Not going there. I was better than that.

“Margot…?” Was that a hint of fear I heard in Norene’s voice? “You’re looking at me funny. You’re not going to go brain crazy and try to eat me, right?” She gave a small, false giggle that immediately provoked a sense of guilt in me.

“No, no, I’m fine.” I waved her off, once again adopting a breezy, careless tone. “Just a little disappointed about the letter, no need to worry.” My words were as false as her laugh. I would love to get a bite of her br—

No! No, no, and for the last time, no! Why was my body betraying me like this? This wasn’t me, I refused to give in to such disgusting cravings. I had self control, and I would exercise it. My body was my own, and I chose what went into it, not whatever stupid magic rule said that zombies had to eat brains. Not happening.

I drew in a deep breath, then let it all out in a quick, explosive sigh. “Let’s just get back home, yeah?”

Norene agreed easily, uncharacteristically silent. I wondered how long it would be before my housemate decided I was too much of a risk to her health to keep around.

Prejudiced Scientists

Ms. Lucas,

While our department is certainly intrigued by the proposal you sent us, any arrangement involving transport between the living sector and the dead sector must be approved through official channels. Having so recently been a living sector resident yourself, you surely understand the importance of respecting the rules and strictures that keep our society…

It took every bit of self restraint I had not to tear the stupid letter into little tiny pieces and throw them in a fire, watching them burn, one by one. I entertained that fantasy for a while, promising myself that if I kept my cool here in the draugr’s house, I could tear and burn the letter however I wanted as soon as I had some privacy.

The letter was nothing short of insulting, and I hadn’t even made it to the end of the first paragraph. Were these really the sort of people I used to work with? Prejudiced jerks who couldn’t see far enough past their own noses to even think that being tossed in the dead side might not automatically make anyone a dangerous miscreant? I barely skimmed the rest of the letter, but I could tell from even that brief glance the content didn’t get any better. How could these people even call themselves scientists when they judged so quickly and with so little thought.

I refused to think about what that said about me. I was better than them. I was still better than them, zombie or not, stuck on the dead side with no resources. I knew how to keep an open mind and pay attention to the evidence and—

“That looks like bad news,” Norene announced, breaking my train of thought.

I blinked, then looked at her. “What?”

“Your face says the letter’s not what you’d hoped.”

Even while cursing myself for being so obvious, I couldn’t help a snort. “I doubt my face says anything. My voice, on the other hand…”

Norene giggled, and I gave myself a mental pat on the back for the quick, if not terribly clever, distraction.

“I must agree with Miss Rafferty,” the draugr interjected, turning to aim his foul breath in my direction. “You don’t look pleased.”

Quick, not clever, and, apparently, utterly transparent. Still, I waved the paper in the air with breezy disdain in a last ditch attempt to keep the draugr from seeing just how incensed I was. I didn’t doubt he would use my temper against me if given half a chance and a reason to do so. “Oh, I’d just hoped for more than patronising insults, but I guess I expected too much of my former colleagues.”

Payment First

I hadn’t thought it was possible, but the draugr’s house smelled even worse than I remembered. Whether I’d simply forgotten how bad it was or it really had grown worse, I couldn’t say. Nor did I much care, being too busy breathing shallowly through my mouth.

Not that it helped all that much. It was the sort of stench that I could almost feel.

“You have a letter for me?” I demanded as soon as I caught sight of the draugr seated on a chair that could’ve been throne-like if it didn’t look like it might collapse under all the mould at the slightest bit of wind. How it managed to hold the draugr’s probably not unsubstantial weight, I had no idea.

The draugr only gave me a look of disdain before to turning to Norene. “A pleasure to see you again, Miss Rafferty.”

“Coming here is always interesting,” Norene replied, nodding solemnly as if she’d been asked a very important question.

To be fair, of course, it was entirely possible that was actually the case. I couldn’t follow half of what Norene was on about at the best of times.

“And how are things with your family?” the draugr continued, making me tense up.

Norene, however, seemed unbothered. “Oh, you know, they ignore me, I ignore them, occasionally they try to speak to me and I ignore them anyway.”

“Family can be difficult.”

Norene didn’t seem to notice the blatantly fake sympathy, but then she never seemed particularly bothered by her lack of a relationship with her own kind, and she had never shown any sign of caring what other people thought of her.

“Oh, yes, that does seem to be the case with a lot of people,” she agreed. “The dead/living divide probably doesn’t help, not that I would know.”

“Speaking of the living side,” I jumped in before Norene and the draugr could get further sidetracked by their small talk. “You have a letter or something for me?”

The draugr looked at me, his blank look turning calculating when he saw the stubborn set to my jaw. I hadn’t yet figured out what he was looking for when he seemed to come to a decision. “Perhaps, since you are so new to this part of town, you don’t realise just how difficult communicating with the living side is.”

Ah. Payment first, then. Sarai may have negotiated for him to get my message across the fence, but apparently actually giving me the reply wasn’t part of the arrangement. I narrowed my eyes at him so he’d know just how little I was impressed by such maneuvering before replying, giving myself time to choose my words carefully. “Well, perhaps you’d be willing to entertain Norene while I read it?”

A self-satisfied smirk spread across the draugr’s decaying face. It was quite terrifying. “Yes, I imagine I can do that.” He stood, and I had to force myself not to choke or gag as a wave a stench flooded my mouth. “I’ll just go find that letter.”

To my dismay, the smell didn’t lessen any when the draugr left the room.

A Letter from the Living Side

I finally convinced Norene that it was time to head back home (and when exactly had I started thinking of a house on the dead side of town as my home?) after a long walk alongside the fence. I’d been told by many people that I was the most stubborn person they’d ever met—clearly, none of them had ever met Norene. To be fair, though, she wasn’t stubborn in the way you’d expect. Just selectively deaf and rather difficult to interrupt.

“Mistress Lukas! Mistress Rafferty!”

I turned stopped to turn around, giving the man who had spoken, the fae fellow with the over-large head who had brought us to see the draugr the last time a narrow-eyed look. “Who are you again?” I didn’t even try to be polite. I wanted to go home. I was tired. I was hungry. I just wanted to—no, I most definitely did not want to eat brains. Where had that thought come from? Fine, I’d been made a zombie, but I’d chosen the vegan lifestyle for a reason, and I wouldn’t let my new undead status change that.

“Jowan, Mistress Lucas, messenger for Master Stenberg,” the fae replied, seemingly unfazed by my bad temper. Considering who he worked for, I supposed that wasn’t terribly surprising.

“Right. What do you want, then?”

“Ooh, is it time to visit the draugr again?” Norene asked, letting out a delighted laugh. “He’s so interesting!”

Interesting. Well, that was one way to put it.

“Yes, Master Stenberg has requested a meeting with Mistress Lucas. You are, of course, invited along as well.” He gave Norene a smile that was probably meant to be charming, but only came across as a little creepy.

Maybe I was being unfair. But I was feeling bad-tempered at the moment, and it was far easier to take it out on the draugr’s messenger than Norene. She would make me feel guilty, and that was worse. Still, when I spoke again, my tone slipped into one of tired resignation. “What does he want this time?”

“I am only a messenger, of course, but I believe he has correspondence of some sort to pass along to you?”

My bad mood vanished in an instant. “From the living side?” I bounced a little on my toes, unconsciously mimicking Norene’s excited mannerism.

“As I said, I am only a messenger.” The apologetic look on his face appeared as false as the smile, but I no longer cared. What else could he mean by ‘correspondence’? “I am hardly privy to the details of Master Stenberg’s business dealings.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Let’s go!” My tiredness gone and hunger shunted to one side in favour of my growing excitement, I seized Norene’s hand and dragged her in the direction of the draugr’s house, not bothering to check if the fae messenger followed.

Finally, I was getting somewhere. I could only hope.