Everybody Hates Zombies

I sighed again. “There really was no point in coming here, was there?”

“Depends on how you look at it.” Norene’s lips curved in a smile that was a little too sly to be called innocent, though that was probably her intent. “You might draw him out if you sing.”

“Sing?” I repeated, now wary. Was she setting me up for more embarrassment? “Why would I do that?”

“Trows like music.”

“Really.” I narrowed my eyes at the banshee, trying harder to read her. I still couldn’t tell if she was being honest, or if this was another trick or joke.

Norene shrugged. “Really.” Seeing that my suspicion had not let up in the slightest, she continued. “I mean, it’s half the reason they’re stuck here over on the dead side, after all. Most people object to getting kidnapped.”

“Kidnapped,” I repeated, raising an eyebrow. “And you brought me here without warning me of that because…?”

“Don’t worry, he wouldn’t go after a zombie even if you had a voice better than a siren,” Norene explained blithely.

“Right,” I grumbled. “Because everybody hates zombies.” I remembered how I’d come to meet Sarai, and the bhoot’s reaction when Sarai told her I was a zombie. She’d been perfectly happy to talk to me and invite me into her house so she could possess me until she’d learned what I was.

“Not everybody.” Norene nudged me with her shoulder, recapturing my attention. “I like zombies just fine.”

I snorted, appreciating the sentiment even if I wouldn’t admit it. “Yeah, but you’re strange.”

Norene sniffed. “Am not.”

“Liesel said it, not me. Also, you sound like Hugo now.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” she countered.

I just rolled my eyes. Norene could act like Hugo all she liked, but she wouldn’t draw me into the role of Meredith.

“Are you two going to chatter in my space all day, or should I go elsewhere to find my usual peace and quiet?” a childlike voice, pitched in a low growl, demanded.

“Hello Beathan,” Norene replied, cheerfully ignoring the grouchy tone. “This is my friend Margot. She’s living with me now.”

“Why should I care where some thrice-cursed zombie lives,” he retorted.

Looking around the room, I still didn’t see anyone. And it wasn’t like there was anywhere to hide, either, unless the creature could somehow hide behind cobwebs. There was still a chance he was invisible, too, though Norene had claimed that wasn’t the case.

“You don’t have to care, I’m just telling you anyway. Plus, she’s new, and she has good stories about the living side. Did you know they have rules about crossing the street there?”

I heard a snort. “Stupidest tripe I’ve ever heard.”

“Also people who spend all their time fixing things, and—”

“Didn’t I tell you to leave?”

“Actually, you asked if we were going to stay here or if you should find somewhere quieter,” I retorted. Great, now I was speaking to disembodied voices. Maybe I was going insane.

Well, better insane than a zombie, and it was already too late for the latter.

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A (Not) Invisible (Not) Friend

The Law Office was empty. Not closed, like any normal office would be when there was no one there, just empty. By the look of things, the place was often, if not usually empty. Just wonderful.

“You weren’t kidding when you said they wouldn’t care.”

“Why would I be kidding?” Norene seemed entirely unconcerned by the situation.

“I didn’t really think you were, I just figured if the Immortals bothered to have a law office, then they would at least ensure that someone actually worked there. Here. Whatever.”

Norene frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean there’s no one here!”

She blinked at me. “Of course there is. You can’t expect him to come out straight away for a stranger, can you?”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded, my patience nearing its end. I gestured at the empty room full of little but dust and cobwebs, much like the less-inhabited rooms in Norene’s—our—house. “This place is empty, and probably has been for years!”

“Hardly.” Norene giggled.

I gaped at her. “What?” I snapped my mouth shut and frowned. “Are you messing with me?”

“No…” A second giggle made me very much doubt her denial.

“Norene, tell me what’s going on right now!”

She just smiled at me, her eyes drifting to a spot somewhere over my shoulder. Which, I realised rather belatedly, she’d been doing off and on for nearly the entire conversation. “You can show yourself, you know. She might be grouchy and yell a lot, but she won’t bite.”

My eyes narrowed. Either Norene was actually, genuinely insane, or there was someone standing behind me. I spun around, but all I saw was the dusty desk and equally dusty bookshelf that I’d seen when I first walked in. So…Norene was insane? I couldn’t quite believe that. Strange, yes. At times unbelievably naive and at others surprisingly insightful, absolutely. But not hallucinates-random-people insane. I liked to think I would have noticed by now.

“Norene…” I growled. Then something occurred to me. “There’s not an invisible person in charge of this office, is there?” Please tell me the person in charge here wasn’t invisible.

But Norene just giggled again. “No, not invisible, just shy.”

“Okay…” I took a moment, counted until I felt calm enough not to yell at my housemate (I only had to go up to five, for which I was unreasonably proud), then breathed out in a heavy sigh that then triggered a yawn. “Care to introduce me to your shy friend, then?”

“I don’t really know him well enough to say he’s a friend—I’m not sure anyone knows a trow that well, they’re just like that. It might help if you looked less angry, though.”

Shy—angry—yelling… I glared at Norene. “You set me up. You said this would be fun. You didn’t say it would be fun at my expense.”

Norene smiled, still wearing that innocent expression I was beginning to think was little more than a mask. “You wanted to come here,” she countered.

“You could’ve told me!”

“You wouldn’t have listened.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that.

A Face Full of Angry Zombie

I gritted my teeth as Norene continued walking as if she hadn’t just dropped a massive bombshell on me. She could be irritatingly oblivious at times, but if I was honest with myself, it wasn’t her I was angry with. I was angry with the situation, with the zombie who’d managed to do the one thing I desperately wanted to do more than anything else, then had used that incredible opportunity to turn me into a dead…thing. I was angry with the Immortals, with the vampires (and not-vampires) tasked with guarding the fence, with the fact that I had to rely on others to tell me what had even happened.

“Law Office,” I remembered suddenly. I’d asked Sarai who to speak to about unregistered possessions. “Law Office,” she’d said. “It’s right up by the fence.” She’d also said no one would care, but I wasn’t sure I actually cared just now. Maybe they wouldn’t listen. Maybe they’d ignore me entirely.

Maybe what I really wanted was to give someone who could, if they wanted, do something about the situation a face full of angry zombie. The x-shaped caste mark that now disfigured my face was good for intimidation if nothing else.

“Norene,” I said, interrupting whatever she’d been chattering on about while I’d been lost in my own thoughts. “Show me to the Law Office?”

Norene looked over at me with confusion in the way her eyebrows drew together. “Why there? I was going to introduce you to some of the other neighbours.”

“I want to speak to someone there.”

“Why?”

“I need to speak to them about how I became a zombie.”

Norene just stared at me. “Why there? They won’t care.”

That was what Sarai had said, except where Norene’s bluntness was innocently factual, hers had come with a good dose of irritation. “I need to yell at someone,” I replied, exchanging bluntness for bluntness.

Norene’s expression cleared. “Oh, okay. That could be fun.”

“Fun?” It seemed Norene had passed her confusion on to me.

“Sure! It’s not like you’ll be yelling at me, right?”

That was…a surprisingly good point. “No, you couldn’t have done anything about the situation.” Of that, I was fairly certain. The only people who’d seemed to actually listen to Norene so far were Meredith and the draugr, and the latter only because she had information he wanted.

“You can’t do anything about it either.”

I decided to ignore that observation. “Just lead me to the Law Office, alright?”

“Alright,” Norene agreed with a shrug, turning around to head in the opposite direction we’d been going in before. “It’s a bit of a walk from here, but there are a couple interesting places on the way. Then I can introduce the neighbours when we’re all done. That might be better, actually, because then…”

Cast Out and Covered Up

Liesel’s house, unsurprisingly, looked no different from any other I’d seen in the neighbourhood. But while her house wasn’t terribly interesting, Norene’s stories about her certainly were.

Apparently, the grumpy ghost in charge of banshee scream reports (and whatever other paperwork the Immortals demanded) had been a Nixie before her death. Unlike others of her kind, she had abandoned her family’s home on the river in favour of living in a shared house with several human women.

“She wanted to be a librarian, see,” Norene explained as she led me away from the now empty house. “She liked the physicality of paper, but all the river-folk preferred to keep their stories and history in oral form.”

“What did her family think of that?”

“Oh, they disowned her.” Norene’s tone was light, indifferent to the gravity of the story she was telling. “Cursed her so she was stuck in her human form and could never return to the river, at least not the way she used to.”

Well, that explained how they’d become friends. Not that I doubted Norene’s ability to make a friend of whoever she chose to, but despite her gruff manner, Liesel had seemed genuinely fond of Norene.

“She always said she didn’t really mind, but I think she just wouldn’t admit to missing it.”

“Would you, knowing you didn’t have a choice in the matter, but that it was your own choices that had lead you there? At least your family still wants you back,” I pointed out.

Norene just shrugged. “I don’t want to go back.”

“And if you did, later on, but couldn’t?”

“Maybe, I guess.” She paused. “I don’t know. That’s the future. Now I’m going to show you where some of the other zombies live.”

“How many other zombies are there right now?” Would I meet the one who’d turned me? Would I even know? Would they?

“I don’t know,” Norene replied with a shrug, breaking my train of thought. “I don’t think anyone pays enough attention to the zombie population to be able to tell you that.”

I snorted. That tracked with pretty much everything I’d been told about zombies and how people treated them. “Yeah, no one notices until one accidentally gets loose on the living side or something.”

“Not really,” Norene disagreed, treating my comment as serious rather than sarcastic, as it had been intended. “No one’s seemed terribly bothered since you were brought over.”

I stopped, staring at the back of Norene’s head as if that would allow me to look inside. “Are you saying I was turned by a zombie who’d slipped onto the living side?” I demanded. If so, that meant I’d been right. I wasn’t supposed to be here. Someone else had screwed up, badly, and I was the one being punished for it.

Norene turned, seeming not to expect my surprise. “Didn’t they tell you?”

I thought back to my time in the cells, first with the werewolf, then with Vincent the vampire. Hadn’t the werewolf said something about me wandering over to the dead side? “No. No, no one told me that.”

“Huh. I guess that makes sense. The Immortals wouldn’t want anyone to know about something like that.”

There were so many things wrong with that statement. I didn’t even know where to start.

No Flying for the Wicked

Norene bounded down the stairs so quickly that she was already waiting in the open doorway leading outside by the time I reached the bottom of the stairs.

“Are you coming?” she chirped impatiently.

“Did you grow wings or something when I blinked?” I retorted. “Of course I’m coming, just at a more reasonable pace.”

“Banshees don’t have wings.” Norene seemed to think about that while I crossed the short distance to join her in the doorway. “But now I wish we did. It would be nice to be able to fly. Then I could get a look at the living side without crossing over.”

“Given the chance to fly, looking at the living side without crossing over is the best you can come up with?” I shook my head. “You could bypass the fence entirely and actually visit the living side if you wanted.” Which begged the question, why did estries like Sarai and spriggans like Jowan stay on the dead side at all?

“But that’s against the rules.” Norene started down the path to the street.

I followed. “I thought we’d already established you didn’t care much for the rules?”

Norene gave me the sort of look that might have expected to see on Sarai’s face. “The banshee rules, sure, but it’s the Immortals who say we’re not to cross over without authorisation.”

“Hmm.” That was actually a very good reason. Generally one did their best to avoid attracting the notice of the Immortals if at all possible, and breaking their most important rule was a quick way to draw their attention.

“Just imagine the view,” Norene continued wistfully. “Like from the window on the top floor, but better. I’d be able to see so much!”

“What about me?”

Norene grinned at my half-teasing, half-whiny tone. “I’d carry you with me, of course.”

I hid a smile. “Glad to hear I wouldn’t be forgotten in favour of a pretty view.”

“Of course not,” Norene assured me seriously. “Views are nice, but friends are much better.”

“I was joking, Norene.”

“Friends are still better than views,” she insisted. “Anyway, look.” She pointed at one of the nearby houses. “That’s where Meredith and Hugo and Jane live.”

The zombie family’s house looked little different from any of the other houses I’d seen here on the dead side: it appeared to be close to falling apart, with weeds growing in every possible crevice and crack. The path to the front door, on the other hand, was kept neatly swept of dirt and debris, which seemed very like what I’d seen of Jane.

“Mommy!” a young, female voice wailed.

“It wasn’t my fault!” another young voice countered.

And there were the children. I turned to Norene. “Where to next?”

Norene considered this for a moment. “Do you want to see Liesel’s house from the street?”

“Sure!” Anything to get away before we got drawn into the children’s drama again.

Norene didn’t seem to notice my urgency, but nevertheless led the way to the end of the street and around the corner before we heard any more of whatever the children had gotten up to now.

A Very Frustrating Person

“Maaargot?”

I jumped, grabbing for the railing to prevent myself from tumbling down the stairs. Norene was standing right behind me. Right behind me. “Don’t do that!”

“Don’t do what?” Norene didn’t move. If she were any closer, I would be able to feel her breath on my face. “And be careful with that railing, I don’t think it’s very sturdy.”

Of course it wasn’t sturdy. I very much doubted anything here was. “If you come up right behind people like that, you’re going to scare them.”

“I’m sorry.” Her apology sounded sincere, but she still showed no sign of moving.

Giving up on Norene getting the message, I took a couple steps backward up the stairs.

Norene followed, remaining exactly one step down from me. “Are we not going upstairs?”

“Yes, we’re going upstairs.” I turned around so she wouldn’t see me roll my eyes. When we reached the top of the stairs, I turned back to face her. “What was it you wanted?”

“Are you angry with me? Do you want to be alone now?”

“No, I want to know what you wanted to tell me.”

“Then why are your arms crossed?”

“My arms aren’t—” I uncrossed my arms with a sigh. “I’m not angry, just a little frustrated. Will you please tell me what it was you were going to say?”

“What I wanted to say when?”

“When you said my name. On the stairs.”

“Oh, yeah. I forget.”

“You forget.” Great. She nearly makes me fall down the stairs, I fail to communicate, and now she couldn’t even remember what it was she wanted to say in the first place. “You can be a very frustrating person, you know.”

Norene blinked. “I’m sorry. Should I leave you alone now?”

“No, I just—”

“I remember!”

“What?”

“What I was going to ask you.”

I didn’t groan. I didn’t roll my eyes, or sigh, or otherwise express frustration. “And what were you going to ask me?”

“What are we going to do now?”

To be fair, it was a fairly forgettable question. But we’d gone right past ridiculous a couple minutes ago. “Why would I know that any better than you?”

“I suppose you wouldn’t,” Norene agreed. “But I thought you were probably going upstairs for a reason.”

I shrugged. “Not really. It’s just a little cleaner in my room.”

“That makes sense. You really like things to be clean.”

And now intuitive Norene was back. Though I wasn’t exactly subtle or anything. “Well, what do you think we should do?”

Norene stared into space for a full minute. I could only assume that meant she was thinking, so I waited for her to speak. She brightened, her eyes refocusing on me. “I know! I’ll give you a tour!”

I frowned. “Didn’t you already give me a tour?”

“Noooo… Oh, you’re thinking of the house. I meant the whole dead side.”

“That’s actually a really good idea. Lead the way.”

Norene started down the stairs. “Did you think I wouldn’t have a good idea?”

There was no way I was answering that.

Mommy’s Funny Friend

“Hello!” Norene greeted Jane cheerfully as soon as we walked in the door.

“Hello,” Jane replied with a smile.

I looked around the room. “Uh, Norene?”

“Yes?”

“Where are the children?”

“Oh, they decided to play hide and seek.”

Why did I have a bad feeling about this?

“Hugo! Meredith!” Jane called out. “Time to go!”

Silence. Then a series of thumping noises made us all turn towards the stairs in time to see two small zombies come rocketing down the steps.

Great. I scowled at the children. “I believe I told you two to stay downstairs.”

“No, you just told us to go back downstairs,” Hugo retorted.

Meredith gave a cheeky smile. “You never said anything about us going back up again.”

“Besides, we got a closer look at your amulet-y thing,” Hugo added.

“Mommy, can a witch make a magic thing for someone without magic that’ll punish people they don’t like?” Meredith shot me a smirk that seemed to age her ten years, straight into adolescence.

Jane, however, merely looked amused. “Now how would I know that?”

“Because of your funny friend,” Meredith replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Hugo nodded his agreement.

“Funny friend?” Norene asked with her usual unconcerned innocence. “Who’s your funny friend?”

“A long story for another day.” Jane beckoned the children toward her. “Time to go now.”

“But mommy, she said it would take all our fingers and toes off!” Meredith whined.

“Really? And what exactly did you do to provoke that sort of reaction?”

“We were just playing!” Hugo protested.

“You said she was boring,” Meredith accused.

“So?”

And you wanted to play a prank on her.”

“So did you!”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“Hush, you two!” The immediate silence Jane triggered was impressive, as was the way both children stopped making faces at each other and look obediently up at their mother. “I said it’s time to go home. That means going out the door without any more arguing.”

Jane herded the little terrors out the door before they could pick a fight, either with me or with each other. She paused in the doorway. “Thanks for looking after them for me.”

“Any time!” Norene called back as the door shut behind the zombie family.

“Any time? Really?”

“What?” Norene shrugged. “I had fun. Didn’t you have fun?”

“No.”

“Not even when you threatened to hex them with a dust bunny?”

I smiled in spite of myself. “No.”

Norene gave me the side-eye. “Right…” After a pause, she said, “Do you know what a funny friend is?”

“Hmm.” I put on a fake thoughtful expression. “Well, I suppose I could call you my funny friend.”

Norene stuck her tongue out at me, but was clearly smothering a laugh.

“But no, I don’t know what Meredith meant when she said that.”