Get Off My Property!

Find an unoccupied house, make it yours, she said. Easier said than done. I thought longingly of my apartment—my old apartment—with its functional door, unbroken windows, and clean floors. Were those things too much to ask for on the dead side of town? Apparently, if the houses I was seeing were anything to judge by. And to top it all off, I could feel a headache coming on.

I stumbled over to the nearest house and slumped down against a wall shaded by a crumbling porch. What had happened to make this place such a mess? Someone must have put the effort into building the houses, but the people living here now clearly didn’t much care about maintenance. Didn’t they realise they would still need shelter when all the buildings fell apart from negligence?

The dead side of town, zombies, vampires, ghosts, estries, and whatever else I’d come across, it all seemed like some absurd nightmare. I mean, I couldn’t be a zombie. I was careful. I worked and lived in respectable places and had respectable friends. I didn’t drink, and I did not go anywhere near the dead side of town.

I reached up and ran my fingers over the raised ridges of my new caste mark. Picturing my face in my mind’s eye, I just couldn’t see it with a zombie caste mark. It didn’t make any sense. Maybe it was a nightmare. Maybe I’d wake up soon, and within a couple hours have forgotten about the whole thing.

“Oy! Get off my property!”

I stumbled as I jumped to my feet, scraping my palm against the wall as I tried to get my balance back. “Damn!”

“Did you hear me? I said get out!”

I pushed away from the wall, back on my feet, and looked up to see a transparent face glaring at me through a first floor window. A broken first floor window. “I was just sitting for a second,” I shouted back. “Touchy, much?” I added in a whisper.

“Oh yeah! Well, sit somewhere else!” The ghost (or phantom, or whatever its squiggly caste mark signified) bared its teeth at me like a guard dog warning intruders off. Given his attitude, I supposed that wasn’t an unreasonable comparison.

“What’s your problem, anyway? It’s not like I’m bothering anything.”

“Get out!” the ghost repeated. “Or I’ll scream.”

My eyebrows contracted in a frown. “Scream? What’s that supposed to do?”

The ghost’s grimace turned into a grin, and it opened its mouth wide. I was still staring at it, confused, when I heard a thin, high pitched noise not unlike a tea kettle. I remained confused as the sound grew, both in sound and, seemingly, number of pitches. At first it was just an irritant, but the sound grew, and grew, and kept growing, stabbing into my brain like a needle. I clapped my hands over my ears, but that made little difference. I had to get away. My head felt like it would explode if that noise continued for much longer. I groaned and trotted away drunkenly, desperation the only thing keeping me on my feet.

I stumbled along for about a block, hands covering my ears the whole time, before the sound finally stopped. I stopped moving and let my ears go. All I could hear now was the ringing it had left in my ears. A high pitched laugh drifted down the street towards me, and I decided to keep walking.

Friends with Benefits

As Sarai and I walked out of the draugr’s house, one of us looked pleased, while the other did not.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I asked, feeling impish.

Sarai scowled at me. “If you’d let me do it my way, I wouldn’t have been stuck agreeing to so much.”

I shrugged. “But it was faster. And is it really that big of a deal?”

“Look. The Immortals don’t enforce many rules here on the dead side,” Sarai retorted. I could already see the lecture coming: you’re new, you don’t know how it works here. “But when one of those rules gets broken, they get pissed. Vidar chooses to walk the narrow edge between breaking the rules and getting caught. Me? I’m tired of Immortals getting in my face.”

“So…it’s fine as long as you don’t get caught,” I interpreted.

“I am beginning to regret agreeing to help you,” she growled.

“But you did agree to help me. And you took me to Vidar; I wouldn’t have known to go to him, nor would I have had anything to offer. So why’d you help me?”

Sarai sighed. “That question is more complicated than you know.”

“The short answer, then?”

“I don’t like the way the Immortals run things here.”

“So why not do something about it?”

“I’m helping you, aren’t I?” Sarai increased her pace, her shoes stomping on the gravel.

“But if you have such a problem with the Immortals, it seems to me you could do a little more than help a girl who wants some vegan options.”

“I tried that before. That’s how I got stuck here.” She stopped. “Why are you still following me, anyway? I’ve done what I can for you.”

“Because I don’t know where to go?”

“I don’t care! Find an unoccupied house, make it yours. That’s what everyone else does.” She strode forward again, then stopped when she realised I was still following her.

“That’s allowed?”

“What did I just say?”

“So…people can just go and do what they want, but communicating with the living side is forbidden?”

“Pretty much, yeah.” Sarai stared at me, her expression one of rapidly disappearing tolerance.

“I swear, this place makes no sense,” I muttered.

Sarai’s stiff posture relaxed slightly. “Tell me about it. Look, I know you were just trying to help, and it’s not really your fault that you don’t know how things work here. I know there are some empty houses in the southwest corner, near the fence. I don’t know what else you can do now but wait for Vidar to get your message out.”

“I still think people should just communicate what they want instead of playing games, but anyways, thanks. You’re the only person I’ve met here who’s been at all helpful.”

Sarai  just shrugged and continued on her way. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but I was pretty certain I’d just made my first dead friend. Now all I had to do was figure out which way was southwest.

The Dead Treated to Modern Efficiency

I looked at Sarai. “Bargain?” I whispered. “I thought you said he would help me.”

“Do you get things for free on the living side?” she retorted in a normal tone of voice.

I darted a look at Vidar, but he only looked amused.

“I am dead, not deaf.”

I blushed. Or at least, it felt like I blushed. Could zombies blush? “Um…I didn’t mean…”

“I like your friend,” Vidar told Sarai.

“Yes, she’s charming,” she replied, in a tone clearly meant to be sarcastic. I decided not to be offended. “Now, I believe we were bargaining.”

The draugr’s eyes glittered. “Yes. What can you offer me?”

“I can arrange patrols.”

“Which patrol?”

“Which patrols do you need?”

I looked back and forth between Sarai and Vidar, but their expressions were no more enlightening than their words. Their poker faces were better than the ones I’d seen on actual poker players’ faces.

“Which patrols can you arrange?”

“You’re just going in a circle,” I interrupted. Sarai and Vidar both looked at me. Both dropped their poker faces in order to express their displeasure. “Well, you are!”

“This is how negotiations work,” Sarai explained, with the air of patience one might use with a child who will never understand the topic at hand.

I just rolled my eyes. “Yeah, and ‘the way things work’ is always the most efficient. This would go so much faster if you,” I turned to Vidar, “just said what you want, and you,” I turned to Sarai, “just said what you could offer. Then you find the middle ground, and then you’re done!”

Both draugr and estrie were still staring at me. Vidar had resumed his amused expression, but Sarai still looked cross. Neither showed any sign of completing their ‘negotiations’ any time soon.

“Alright, fine. Let me guess.” I turned to Vidar. “You want some patrols around dusk and or dawn to look the other way while you conduct your business.” I turned to Sarai. “And you can only arrange a certain number of those patrols without drawing unwanted attention. I’m guessing it’s probably around one or two a week.”

Now both Sarai and Vidar were giving me almost identical looks of surprise.

“Am I right?”

“Um…” Sarai looked around the room, anywhere but at me.

“Well…” Vidar looked similarly awkward.

“I’m right. So you just tell Sarai your preferences, and she’ll tell you if that’ll work. Then we can all get out of here.” I meant out of the smell, but Sarai’s instructions had been quite clear on that point. “Okay? Go.”

There was another pause as Sarai and Vidar composed themselves. Then negotiations began again—this time more efficiently.

Proposal for a Corpse

When Sarai had warned me not to say anything about the man’s appearance or smell, I had thought she was being melodramatic. The entire dead side didn’t smell so great, and I had already figured no one here was too concerned about physical appearance judging by the nonexistent upkeep of the buildings. I had thought I was prepared. I was wrong.

To say that Vidar’s house smelled like something had rotted to death was an understatement. To say that he looked like he had rotted to death was also an understatement. He looked and smelled like a half-decomposed corpse, and that was putting it nicely. I doubted there was any detergent that could get his smell out of my clothes; I was certain his face (with half his skin falling off, the other half already gone) would give me nightmares for months.

“Are you going to sit?” Sarai gestured at the armchair next to the one she already occupied.

I opened my mouth to object—I was fairly certain I had seen a cockroach disappear into the exposed stuffing—but stopped when I saw the look in her eye. Instead of running away screaming, which was what my instincts were telling me to do, I perched gingerly on the edge of the seat.

“So.” Vidar sat forward in his own chair. “What is it I can offer you, Freyja?”

Sarai tilted her head, clearly annoyed. “It’s not for me, Vidar. My friend here has a request.”

“And what can your friend do for me?”

I gulped as two pairs of eyes turned on me. I had to remind myself that I had entered this house of my own free will. “I don’t know. What do you want?”

Vidar looked back at Sarai. “Just how new is she?”

“Very,” Sarai replied, her voice bone-dry. “I had thought to negotiate on her behalf, though she can articulate her request better than I.”

Vidar nodded slowly. “I suppose that is acceptable.” His gaze swung back to me. “Explain your request, then.”

I started to take a deep breath, then stopped, opting for several shallow ones instead so as to retain my composure. As strange as the rest of this was, this I could do. “For too long, people here have taken for granted that they have to consume some part of dead bodies to survive, be it brains, blood, or something else. I aim to change that. With the right tools and research, I believe I can devise a more sustainable, plant-based source of sustenance.” I paused. How to phrase it? I opted for the direct approach. “I’ve been told such resources are unavailable on this side of the city, and that you are the person to talk to in order to obtain things from the living side. What I need is a copy of my proposal sent to the appropriate people on the living side. Can you arrange that?”

“Hmm.” Vidar looked back to Sarai. “Intriguing. You said you were willing to bargain on her behalf?”

Don’t Comment on the Smell

Sarai put out a hand to stop me as we approached a normal looking house. Normal looking by my standards, anyway, which by the standards here was quite nice, considering all its windows were intact, the walls and roof were relatively free of moss and lichen, and the small patch of garden out front looked as if it had been tended sometime in the past year.

“So, this is where your friend lives?” I asked.

Sarai shook her head. “Not my friend.”

“But I thought you said—”

“I said someone you could talk to. I didn’t say he was my friend, or that it’s necessarily wise to spend too much time in his company.”

“Right. Explain why we’re here again?”

Sarai sighed. “Things here, they’re either official, which means waiting ten years for the Immortals to give you the time of day, or they’re not.”

“Which means…”

“Which means dealing with more timely but less…savoury individuals.”

“Okay.”

“Just…do your best not to antagonise him, okay? And don’t, whatever you do, make any sort of comment about his appearance or smell.”

I sniffed. “I don’t think that will be a problem. This whole place smells like a particularly nasty sewer. I doubt I’ll notice any difference.”

Sarai just looked at me.

“Okay, I won’t say anything about the smell.”

She nodded once, then led the way up to the door. She knocked three times, then waited.

When several minutes passed without any kind of response, I frowned. “I thought you said this guy was timely.”

Sarai shrugged. “He is, compared to the Immortals.”

“Great,” I muttered.

Sarai banged her fist against the door. “Vidar!” she yelled, making me jump. “I know you’re in there!”

I jumped again at the sound of an angry roar and a series of pounding footsteps. “I thought you said not to antagonise him?” I whispered.

“I said you shouldn’t antagonise him. I didn’t say anything about myself.”

I frowned. Before I could think of a satisfactory reply, the door swung open, and I had to struggle not to gag. Sarai hadn’t been kidding about the smell. It smelled like something had rotted to death in that house. And it looked so nice on the outside, too.

“Sarai,” a deep voice growled. “I thought I told you to stay out of my business.”

“Yeah, and I told you to stop doing business that breaks the Immortals’ rules, but you never listened to me,” she retorted.

When I finally got my gag reflex under control, I looked up in time to see Sarai’s massive friend give a big belly laugh. This sent another waft of stench that made my eyes fill with water. I turned away, coughing.

“And yet here you are, eager to do business, no doubt. Come inside and introduce your zombie friend, and we can see what we might do for each other.”

No Banks, No Crossing, No Fun

“Alright. Who do I talk to about funding?” I looked at Sarai.

“What, you want to start now?”

“Is there some reason to wait?”

“I just figured…” Sarai looked away.

“What?” I demanded. “That I’m not serious?”

“Well…”

“Of course she didn’t think you were serious,” the vampire snapped. “It’s a nice idea, but it will never actually work.”

“And why not?”

“Let’s see…” He held up a finger. “One, it’s probably not even possible.” He put up a second finger. “Two, no one will listen to a zombie long enough to even think about handing out money for some crazy experiment.” He put up a third finger. “And, of course, there’s no bank or investment service or anything like that here on the dead side to get funding from.”

I looked at Sarai, but she still wouldn’t meet my gaze. I crossed my arms. “Fine. How do I contact the living side, then?”

“You can’t cross over.”

I glared at the vampire. “I’m not trying to cross over. I just want to contact some people.”

“Not allowed to contact family either.” The vampire put his elbow on the counter and leaned his chin against his fist. His expression was one of resigned boredom.

I gritted my teeth. “Wasn’t talking about family.”

“I don’t see why not,” Sarai added, finally rejoining the conversation. “There’s no specific rule against it, and it’s easy enough to leave a message with one of the border guards or transitional authorities.”

“Don’t encourage her, Sarai,” the vampire growled. “Next she’ll be wanting to cross over and make a speech about vegan zombieism.”

Sarai gave the vampire a look that I wasn’t sure how to interpret, her eyebrows lifted and her lips pressed together. “Just because you’ve resigned yourself to the way things are doesn’t mean the rest of us have.” She turned to the zombie child. “Meredith, can you make it back to your mother by yourself?”

The child scoffed. “Of course I can. I’m not a baby. Mommy says everybody has to be able to take care of themself.”

Sarai smiled. “Of course.”

“Bye Sarai. Bye Vincent. Bye Margot.” And, apparently dismissed, the child turned and scurried off, quickly disappearing into the maze of streets.

“Come on, Margot,” Sarai said, heading back toward the gate. “I have an idea of who you could talk to.”

I hurried after her. Finally, someone who would listen and actually help.

“Your funeral,” the vampire called after us.

Pointless or Practical

There was a long pause as the estrie, the vampire, and the zombie child all stared at me. It was the vampire who started laughing first—a snort followed by poorly concealed snickers. The zombie child picked up his cue and giggled. Only Sarai gave me the respect of not laughing in my face, but her slight smirk suggested she was barely concealing the urge.

I glared around at all three of them. “I’m serious. What’s so funny about a vegan alternative to brains?”

“Margot,” Sarai began delicately, “don’t you think someone would have come up with a solution like that if it was possible?”

“It is impossible if no one bothers to try!” I retorted.

The vampire gave another loud snort. I glared at him, but he just continued to laugh.

“Maybe that’s because it’s just not practical,” Sarai suggested, her tone that of a person trying to talk someone off a ledge. “Imagine the knowledge and resources that would have to go into an experiment like that, with no guarantee of success.”

“Imagine how much more practical it would be if we didn’t have to harvest the dead bodies of the living side anymore.”

“That’s only if it works.” The vampire had stopped laughing, but he still wore a mocking smirk. “No one’s going to help you, and you’ll only have a couple weeks to work before you go brain crazy.”

“Why don’t you?” I crossed my arms and stared the vampire down. “You said you were vegetarian before you turned. Why haven’t you tried to find an alternative to blood?”

“Because it’s pointless! Do you know what it feels like to dry out and shrivel up? Vegetarianism is not worth that. And I’d bet veganism isn’t worth going brain crazy either.”

“So you’re weak,” I countered.

He slammed his fist into the counter, denting it. So vampire strength wasn’t a myth. “There is no point talking to you, is there? Just wait until you’ve gone a couple weeks. Then you’ll see.”

“Or maybe I’ll find a solution and I won’t have to eat your brains or go brain crazy.”

“If you found a solution, does that mean I wouldn’t have to drink the brains anymore?” the zombie child asked, her eyes wide.

“You wouldn’t have to drink brains ever again,” I confirmed.

“If you can figure it out,” the vampire sneered.

I rounded on him, but Sarai cut in before I could speak. “Think about it realistically. Would you even know where to start?”

“I’ll have you know I’ve studied both biology and nutrition.”

“Zombie nutrition?” the vampire asked with a snide smile.

I quelled him with a glare. “The first step would be to identify what about human brains prevents zombies from being overcome by the urge to consume them.”

“Maybe because it satisfies the urge,” the vampire suggested sarcastically.

“Funny,” I retorted. “But I somehow doubt there’s some special ingredient in brains that’s impossible to replicate.”

“You know, if she had the time and resources, she might succeed,” Sarai told the vampire.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. Those things are huge roadblocks all by themselves,” the vampire muttered.

I chose to ignore his pessimism. I could do this. I could make this happen.