The Living Side is Weird

Norene was a banshee. She had visions of ordinary, living people becoming undead, and for some reason screamed every time she had one. One of those ordinary, living people she’d had a vision of was me. Of course, she didn’t share anything else about that particular vision. What she did share was how odious it was to have to report every ‘scream’ as she called them, how her visions were the most entertainment she ever got, how preachy her sister could get about banshees living on the dead side, and a lot of other things I immediately forgot as soon as she moved on to another subject. She was a chatty one.

“I mean, because banshees are technically alive, you know. So I can see where she’s coming from, but at the same time, does she really think complaining about it’s going to make any difference? She’s certainly not going to convince the living side people that screams aren’t annoying that way. Is it true there are rules about crossing the street on the living side?”

It took me a couple moments to realise that Norene was expecting an answer. “What? Uh, yeah…”

“That just seems so strange to me. Can’t people figure out how to cross a street without rules to tell them how to do it?”

“Uh, well, it’s not really like that…”

“What’s it like, then?” Norene stopped walking and turned to face me, her expression like that of a child at a toy store. “I’ve only been to the living side once, when I was training to be a driver. But then I screamed, so they fired me. I’m not very good at controlling my screams.” She ducked her head slightly so her hair fell in front of her face, like she was ashamed.

“Wait, what was the question again?” I’d been so busy trying to follow Norene’s story that once again I’d missed the fact that she’d stopped talking and was expecting me to say something.

“What’s it like on the living side?”

“Well…” I looked around. I wasn’t sure where to start. “I mean, it’s a lot cleaner. And the houses aren’t falling apart.”

“Really? Does everyone there know how to fix things?”

I frowned at her. “No, there are people you can hire for that.”

“Oh, so like the drivers or the border patrollers? Except they fix houses?”

“Well, no, not really. You have to pay them.”

“Huh. The living side is weird,” Norene concluded.

Well, that was one way of thinking about it. I couldn’t help but think Norene might be the strangest person I’d met since arriving on the dead side.

“Thanks, anyway.” Norene was walking again, and I jogged a little to catch up.

“What for?”

“Most don’t like to talk about the living side. Makes them miss it, and all that. Me, I guess, well, I can’t miss something I never knew, can I? But I’m always curious, because everyone seems to think it’s so much better than here.”

“That’s an understatement,” I muttered.

“See? Just what I mean.” She shrugged. “But here’s all I’ve ever really known, so I’m not stuck dreaming of better times.”

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A Fairly Usual Scream

This place was insane, I decided, tilting and shaking my head to see if I could get rid of the ringing in my ears. Eating human brains and drinking human blood, creatures that could possess people, creatures than made bizarre screaming sounds, none of it made any sense. I wanted to go home. Home, where I kept my living space neat and clean, where I had a bed and a kitchen and all the other things I needed. Home, where no one would even think of eating human brains. No, instead I was homeless in a strange place with nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat, and no clue how I was going to get out of this mess.

Another scream pierced the air, and my first instinct was to crouch down in the fetal position with my hands over my ears. It took only moments to realise that one, covering my ears hadn’t done much with the last scream, and two, this was a normal, human scream of someone in distress. And no matter how strange this place was, it hadn’t changed me so much that I could resist the cry of someone in need.

I turned a corner just as the screaming stopped, and spotted a woman with long, dark hair. If it wasn’t for the fact that she was the only person out on the street, I would’ve said she couldn’t possibly be the screamer. She didn’t look frightened or angry or sad. She did look mildly annoyed as she brushed long strands of hair out of her face.

Even so, I couldn’t just walk away. “Are you okay?” I asked as I approached her.

She continued fixing her hair, then looked up at me. “Hmm?”

“Are you okay?” I repeated. “I heard you screaming.”

“Fairly usual one.” She wrinkled her nose. “And now I have to drop everything to go report it.”

I blinked several times, trying to fit her response into some sort of sensible answer to my question. “Huh?” I finally grunted, my mind a blank.

“I mean, as these things go. It’s just annoying.” When I continued to stare blankly at her, and expression of understanding flickered over her face. “Oohh, you must be new. Sorry, I didn’t think.”

“Uhh…” I responded coherently. “Screaming. You were screaming. This is usual?”

“I’m a banshee.” She pointed to the circular caste mark around her mouth. “When people die, one or another of us wails for them and gets a vision. I usually get the undead ones. The ones becoming undead, that is.”

“Right…”

“Hey, I think I remember you. One of the more entertaining visions I’ve had, that’s for sure.”

“What…?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m Norene, by the way.”

“Margot,” I replied mechanically.

“Well, I’ve got to go report it, anyway.” She started to walk away. “You could come along if you want.”

“Okay,” I agreed. My mind was too scrambled to think up any other response.

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.”