It’s dark and I can barely see anything, save for the rectangular outline of some sort of metal panel on the wall. The air is cool and motionless, almost suffocating. I’m standing completely still, my breaths the only sounds I can hear.
Tools jingle in my belt as I shift uneasily in my stance. Groggy, I feel around until I find a flashlight stuck between a screwdriver and a radio.
The sudden change from dark to light is nearly blinding and I nearly fall as I recoil backward. My thoughts are scattered. Confusion accompanies rage which accompanies surprise which accompanies fear.
“Yvonne?” I whisper so quietly that I can barely hear it. “Yvonne? Are you there?”
She was never really here, Victoria, Isabel answers. Other than that scream.
Hearing her words almost put me at ease. Can you cause pain to something that no longer exists? To a being that is already dead?
Isabel gets there before I do. Victoria, what you did was awful. The pit in my stomach grows. Taking a body that’s not yours and getting it killed like that? How do you sleep at night?
“I don’t sleep at night.”
“Is everything okay in there?”
The woman’s voice comes from behind me. I swivel and bath the tiny room in light as I look in her direction. I’m standing in a walk-in closet, with beautiful clothes hanging along the walls and less-beautiful clothes piled up on the ground beneath them.
I’m wearing thick jeans and work boots, staring at an electrical panel I cannot begin to understand. I’m an electrician. No wonder the room is dark.
“Everything’s fine,” I say through the wall after a notification rings from the phone clipped to my belt.
Footsteps slowly recede from the doorway and I look back at the panel, still unsure of what anything does.
Dammit, what are you doing? It’s the same gravelly voice I just used, only this time in my head. Don’t you dare make me look bad in front of a customer!
Open up the fucking panel and get to work! Time is money, and Rebecca Taylor isn’t in the business of losing business.
Oh, sorry, Isabel says, I don’t think you quite understand what’s going on.
I understand well enough. While you two were off sleeping I was here watching that pompous son of a bitch walk my body into this closet, write out a text, and then leave me here without any control until you woke up. He ran away when he heard me yelling at him.
“I don’t think Gerard runs away from anything,” I say, keeping my voice down as much as I can.
He said he was on a crusade and that I was a necessary casualty.
Sounds like him, Isabel says.
I can see the electrical panel in the light from the flashlight. There are switches for every room and major appliance throughout the house, which, from the size of the panel, I’m guessing is massive.
Okay, unscrew the sides and pull it off, Rebecca says. I obediently do as she commands, until my screwdriver freezes on a bold on the lower right corner of the panel.
What are you doing? Rebecca says.
I don’t know who that is, but you’re letting her get in my way.
I shove the screwdriver back into my belt. “No. She can’t have died in vain. I don’t have time to waste here.”
I feel my feet wanting to turn back to the panel. One of them even drags along the carpet as I walk.
The woman outside peeks up from her cellphone. She looks worn but pretty and slim. She’s maybe in her forties, but it’s difficult to get a good look under the dim light flittering in through the windows along the wall next to her.
“Is it fixed?” she asks.
“Everything looks good,” I force out louder than intended, trying to drown out Rebecca’s protests.
The woman reaches to the nearest light switch. A moment of anticipation swallows everything else before she flips the switch. My heart drops only slightly when nothing happens.
“Just kidding.” I say as I force out a laugh. “I need to get something from my truck.”
The house is cavernous, and the woman leads me out after it’s clear I have no idea where I’m going, remarking that I’m not the first contractor to get lost in here and I won’t be the last. My hands ball into involuntary fists as Rebecca screams in my ear, as though her anger is filtering into my own emotions.
I didn’t work this hard so that you could make me look like a fool.
A white van with the words “Taylor Electric” is in the driveway. It’s beaten-up, dented, and has a cracked windshield, but the feeling of pride I get when I look at it nearly has me skipping as I approach.
So, you own your own business? Isabel asks.
The best damn electrician around, Rebecca says. And you two made me look totally incompetent.
“I’m sorry,” I say after looking over my shoulder, “but you’re caught up in something out of our control.”
Like hell it’s out of your control, Isabel says. If you weren’t a criminal you’d still be alive.
“You have no idea what it’s like,” I say after taking a seat behind the wheel. “I might have been a terrible person, but sometimes being terrible is the only way to survive.”
The keys jingle in my hand and I can feel Rebecca’s rage flaring. What the hell are you doing? I’ve got a customer! Go do what I came here to do!
The engine roars to life. “Sorry, I’d love to stay here and do your job, but I don’t want any more blood on my hands. You haven’t been around long, but I fucked up and got someone killed. I don’t want the same to happen to you.”
Where are we going? Isabel asks over Rebecca’s protests.
“I don’t have the information Gerard wants,” I say, pulling Rebecca’s phone out of my pocket for navigation, “but being an electrician is too good an opportunity to pass up. We’re going to take the fight to him.”
There’s a message on the screen when I open the phone. It’s a text Rebecca must have written out before I took control.
“Good afternoon, Rebecca Taylor. This is your God. This is my game, and the rules are simple: you give me what I want, or you suffer. The only rule is that you have to play. Those who don’t play along will last a long time. Years even. Dying day in and day out, losing piece by precious piece. You’ve already lost basic parts of yourself without even knowing. Can you imagine what a year of this feels like? Ten years?
Give me what I want and end your suffering. Yvonne was your punishment. Let’s hope you learned your lesson when you killed her.”
He knew exactly what he was doing to me and what I would do to Yvonne. He wanted her blood on my hands and the guilt on my conscience. What a waste. He could have taught me his stupid lesson without getting someone else killed in the process.
The woman who owns this house must have heard the engine because she’s standing on the porch, quizzically staring at me over her coffee as I pull away. Rebecca grunts in my ear and tries her best to lift my foot from the gas, but I stomp it down even harder and squeal my tires in reverse out of the driveway.
The building I died in is exactly like I remember: a soulless, modern, glassy skyscraper in the heart of downtown. It’s tall, but not as tall as the one around it, which I imagine must just kill the man who owns it.
Rebecca is still protesting when I park the van across the street. The ride into downtown was jerky and uneven, partially due to the traffic, partially due to the van, but mostly because she’s been fighting against me every step of the way. I’m drenched in sweat under my coveralls and my hands are shaking as I turn off the ignition.
It’s not lost on me how much different this is than with everyone else. Jenny and Isabel fought, but it was weak, and I can’t tell if I’m getting weaker myself or if Rebecca is just so damn prideful that it makes her stronger.
So, is this how you did it in your own life? Isabel says. Sit outside in some innocuous van and case the building before breaking in and stealing some innocent person’s money?
I don’t remember Isabel being this combative in our previous lives, but that was before I killed Yvonne. “Yes, sometimes when planning a job, but I’ll reiterate that I never stole from someone who would really suffer for it, and I did it to survive.”
Or to help my family survive but explaining all that in this state would make me crumble, and I need to be strong. My thoughts turn to my brother, Donavan. It was all for him and my parents. I never had a chance at the honest life I wanted to give him. Maybe he won’t now, either, but the insurance payout he and my parents get for my death should set them up for years.
A thought crosses my mind and I reach down for Rebecca’s phone. I’ll look up my name. It’s been a few days since I died, and I want to see if they know the whole story yet.
The first result is a news story that says I was found floating in the Sound the day after I was killed. It’s still a mystery as to how it happened, and nothing of the article mentions my profession, so, for now at least, they don’t know I was a criminal.
At the bottom of the article is a picture of us all on a vacation we took when I was in my early twenties. I put fifteen grand in my parents’ mailbox one day and then spent months trying to convince them to keep it and use it for something nice instead of just paying off bills. We’re at some beach in California. It was the first time any of us had ever been to Disney Land. My hair is flowing in the wind and blocking half of my brother’s face. My mom and dad look proud of the experience they have finally been able to give their children after all those years of struggling. We’re beaming. Our legs are covered in white sand. The sun is high overhead. I am completely unprepared for this picture, and like the waves behind us my emotional state is crashing.
Shit, Victoria, pull yourself together, Rebecca says when I put my face in my hands. If anyone sees me like this, I swear to God I’ll kill you.
I’d love to cry to myself, but I have no idea where the hunters are and I don’t have time to waste. No one looks twice as I walk across the street and enter the building.
Inside is a basic office building with a dozen companies in total stretching up the tower. A bored-looking young man is on his cellphone behind the security desk.
Is that the Cruel Man? Isabel asks when the man looks up. He speaks before I get a chance to respond.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he says.
I glance over his shoulder at the company directory on the wall behind him, picking one at random, and then gesture down to my toolbelt. “Yes, Black Bear Technology called and said they were having electrical problems.”
That catches him by surprise. “Weird, they usually let me know if they need something.”
“Maybe they did, and you were on your phone.”
He looks away, embarrassed.
“Don’t worry, we all do it,” I say. “Why do you think I’m an electrician? No one understands what I’m doing, so I can take as much time as I want.”
Rebecca scoffs in my ear, but I ignore it.
“Well, they’re on the twelfth floor, Ms…?”
“Rebecca Taylor from Taylor Electric.”
“Great,” he says, typing something in the background. “I’ll buzz you in.”
“Actually, can I check the main breaker in the basement before I head up there? It might be something really simple and I wouldn’t need to disrupt their business.” I have no idea what I’m talking about, but he seems to buy it even though Rebecca’s groans in my ear.
“Okay, good idea,” he says. “I’ll just shoot them a quick call and let them know you’re here.”
“Oh, please, don’t worry about that,” I say. “Let’s not bother them if we don’t have to.”
He shrugs after thinking about it for a moment. “Okay, that works.” He types something and then looks back at me a few seconds later. “I just let you into the basement. The elevator is behind you.”
That was surprisingly easy, Isabel says as the elevator descends. I didn’t think he’d let us in so quick.
I don’t like this, Rebecca says. I worked hard to get where I’m at, and you’re just out here making a mockery of it.
“Sorry,” I say. “I need to come down here and take a look around.”
Don’t say sorry if you don’t actually mean it, Rebecca says.
“I am sorry. I just don’t want anyone else to die.”
Except for my career.
I don’t think you fully grasp the situation, Isabel says. The likelihood of us being around to see your career fall apart is virtually non-existent, especially with Victoria at the controls.
The elevator stops, so I don’t have time to be offended. The door opens a moment later.
It’s just like I remember. The basement is long and open, with pipes and air vents in the ceiling that run both along the concrete walls and down the middle. It’s dark, illuminated by weak, industrial lamps that hang from the roof. There are two doors off in the distance; one of them into the grand vault I was murdered in and the other into the small office I’m here to explore and that I know will hold the key to escaping Gerard’s game. Various other doors and hallways jet off here and there, but if I remember the floorplans I studied prior to the job, I suspect the main breaker is in the office anyway.
Two armed guards flank the elevator door and another two do the same to the vault. Less security than last time, but still something. I suppose there was more last time because Gerard knew something was about to happen, which might mean that right now he’s not expecting anything.
One of the security guards turns to me when I walk out of the elevator, a tall man with long arms and tattoos that escape onto his hands from underneath his too-tight suit.
“You the electrician?”
“Yes,” I say, and before I can take another breath he’s motioning me to follow him down the hallway toward the office. I walk a few feet behind.
Halfway down, he stops and turns to me. “What company did you say had the issue?”
“Black Bear Technology.”
“Strange they didn’t tell one of us there was an issue,” he says as he leads me down one of the hallways that jet off from the main length of the basement. “They’re supposed to let us know so we can call in the usual contractors.”
I stop for a moment and let him get a few steps away before following. We’re not going toward the office, even though that’s where the main breaker is.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
We’re just entering the hallway. He speaks without looking back. “We’re going to Black Bear’s basement breaker. It’s just around the corner.”
Liar, Rebecca says. A company up there won’t have its own breaker down here. There’s switch gear and a transformer for the whole building in the basement and maybe an electrical panel, but a company all way up there won’t have anything of its own in the basement.
“I’m sorry,” I say, looking longingly at the office as it disappears from view. “Do you mean the switch gear or transformer for the building?”
He chuckles lightly and then turns. “Oh, yes, sorry, I meant the transformer. It’s this way.”
The way he says it puts me on edge. His face is contorted into what I think is supposed to be an embarrassed grin but comes off as something more menacing. It strikes me how much taller he is than I am, how much stronger. If I were Victoria, I could put him down. Sadly, Rebecca is not Victoria, and I’m trying to ignore the tingling in my chest from the instinctual fear that suddenly rushes through me.
I don’t like this, Victoria, Isabel says. He’s either the Cruel Man or a well-meaning security guard, but he was testing you there.
And you just barely passed, Rebecca says.
The man leads us down a narrow hallway toward a room along what I surmise is the edge of the building. The door is white with a red placard that says “utilities”. Everything is so confined. I can’t help the tremor in my chest.
He unlocks and opens the door, and it’s even darker inside than it is in the hallway. After motioning me to go inside, he moves aside and stands at attention next to the door, his hands together below his waist, his arms flexing through his shirt, and his face indiscernibly serious. I try to hide my fear as I walk around his broad shoulders and into the darkness. After a quick breath, I find and flip the light switch along the wall.
The lights have the unmistakable sixty hertz whine of older industrial electricity. They click on and illuminate painfully slow, but as they do I see the room is tiny and almost completely empty, save for a wide, gray, metal cabinet along the wall opposite the door.
The switchgear, Rebecca says.
I run my hands along the cabinet. “What do I do with it?” I whisper as I click my fingernails against the metal to drown out my voice.
Open it up, dummy.
I grab the handle and pull open one of the cabinet doors. The tangled mess of wires, panels, buttons, clamps, and tubes might as well be hieroglyphics.
Oof, this thing is ancient, Rebecca says.
I look it over for a second as though I know what I’m doing, hoping the that Rebecca will help me out of pure pride. The man, who must have been watching me the whole time, clears his throat.
“Don’t you need to turn off the electricity before you mess around with this stuff?”
My back straightens, but my mind freezes. For a painful moment, everything is silent. “Don’t worry, I’m just looking at this,” I say, though the words come more from Rebecca than they do me. We turn, Rebecca and I together, to the man before she laughs and walks past him.
“Let’s go into that office and look at the main panel,” she says. The man grunts in agreement and then slides past her.
There’s a long sigh of relief and I reach to my forehead to wipe sweat from my brow. My hand, however, stops in place only inches from where it started, tense and completely still while my other arm sways naturally with My stride.
What? I try to move her arm again, but this time rather than moving away from Rebecca’s body it folds back to her side. What is going on?
It’s my turn now, Rebecca says. I have a husband and kids. Like hell am I going to let you take that away from me.
No. My voice cracks as the realization hits me. No, give the body back to me!
It’s my body, Victoria. You’re unwelcome here. What you’re doing is unnatural.
I know it’s unnatural! It’s not like I chose to do all this!
She walks behind the man, but her stride is forced and unnatural as she fights against me. When a quiet, struggling squeak escapes her, the man pauses and glances behind him but we both force a smile to put him at ease. Once his eyes return forward, we’re back at it.
Rebecca, this is Victoria’s mission, Isabel says. I know she’s not the best, but if you don’t want more people to die, you need to let her do what she needs to do.
Thanks? I say, still struggling against Rebecca.
You both shut the hell up, Rebecca says. You’re already dead. This is my life and if you think I’m just going to move aside while you take everything from me, you’re very mistaken.
Trust me, I say, you’re a marked woman. You’re going to die whatever you do, especially if you do this. They threw me out of a plane in one life and then chased me down and killed me in another. They’re coming for you.
You’re just weak, she says. A fool who lets herself get killed. I’ve been proving people wrong my entire life and this Gerard will be no exception.
They’re going to get you, and your death will be for nothing.
She misses a step, stumbles forward, and nearly rams into the man from behind. “Whoa, sorry, I wasn’t paying attention,” she says before she pulls her phone out of her pocket. “Distracted, sorry.”
“No cellphones,” the man says. I can feel him starting to get suspicious. He might not be the Cruel Man, but he can still see when something’s not right, and he can still do what security guards typically do when something is amiss.
Why are you even bothering going into the office, then? I ask.
Because at this point I have to. It would be even more suspicious if I didn’t look at the panel.
We’re almost to the office door. Every second is arduous; her body is dripping with sweat underneath the coveralls. Her forearms are cramping from clenching her fists and her stride is like a baby deer first learning to walk.
The other guards watch us as the man leads us to the office door. Rebecca glances in their direction and from the looks she gets it’s obvious they know something is wrong but they don’t move from their posts.
The man we’ve been following opens the door and then turns to her. “Are you okay?” he asks, genuine concern filtering into his otherwise serious voice.
“I’m fine,” she grunts, “just a little nervous about all this security.”
The man laughs and walks into the room. “Mr. Turner runs a tight ship.”
Whatever anticipation I felt coming into the office is tossed aside when I see it in all its glory. The room is tiny and non-descript. There’s a desk with a computer in the center close to one of the walls, a few filing cabinets, a couple chairs, a fake potted plant that provides the only color that isn’t gray or brown. On the wall behind the desk is what looks to be an electrical panel. This whole basement excursion has been a waste; nothing important could be hidden in a place like this.
Mr. Turner? Isabel says. Who is that?
I have no idea, I say through my exhaustion.
Rebecca moves to the electrical panel and opens the door. Black switches run up and down in columns, some flipped left and others right. To be honest, I have no idea what any of it means other than if you break into a house and the power in a room is on you might try to flip the switch in the other direction. That’s the extent of it, so in this case it would be nice to lean on Rebecca for knowledge I don’t otherwise have. Lean on, not be replaced by.
She starts unscrewing the bolts that hold the panel in place. I focus all I can on the screwdriver’s revolutions, trying to slow them. It’s counter-productive, but it’s the only thing I can do right now that won’t make us immediately stand out to a man who is already suspicious.
Unscrewing the bolts is slow business. The first couple come out with ease, rattling to the floor beneath her because she’s too focused on fighting me off to bother with catching them. The next one comes out slower, and the one after that takes what seems like a full minute to unscrew.
Finally, the screwdriver stops mid-turn on the fifth bolt, just hanging there, pressed in hard but not turning. I can feel the sweat on her body, the heartrate, the cramps in her arms and legs. She’s gritting her teeth so badly I’m worried one will crack, and when the man asks again if everything is okay she can barely speak.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Would you mind grabbing me a glass of water?”
His voice tells me unsure. He leans out the door and calls the request down to one of the other security guards.
Dammit, go away, Rebecca says. Let me do my job so I can get back to my family.
I focus as hard as I can to keep my voice internal, something I’ve never done when in the driver’s seat. I need to do what I came here to do, or else more people will die.
Fine, let them get killed instead of me, she pleads. Just please, let me go back home.
I’m sorry, but I have to do this, I say as I yank the screwdriver away from the wall with all my strength. Rebecca stumbles backward, nearly falling before she throws a foot out to catch us. The screwdriver clanks to the ground and bounces aside.
The two of us are wrestling for control. Her body is moving against itself, barely staying upright. I have one arm, and one leg. When I try to get the second arm, she takes her second leg. When I try to take the leg, she fights for an arm. We’re grunting and groaning with no thought whatsoever about what the man behind us might be seeing. Isabel is yelling for us to calm down but we’re way past that.
We finally lose our balance, and she falls to one knee.
“Get out of my head!” Her hands clutch her temples when I focus on her legs to keep up upright. “Leave me alone!”
We’re on the ground, writhing and struggling.
“Holy shit!” the man yells as he runs down the hallway. “Holy shit! I need help!”
Rebecca and I struggle against one another, but I can feel her slipping ever-so-slightly, until I finally get enough control to pull her body to its feet.
“Sorry, Rebecca,” I say, rushing to the desk, “but I can’t let anyone get in my way if I’m going to stop more people from dying.”
I rifle through the desk, being careful not to drop anything or let anything important slip through my fingers. There are four drawers, two on each side stacked on top of one another, the top one short and the bottom one taller, as though it’s intended purpose was as a mini-filing cabinet. As expected, the first two drawers are full of useless junk: paperclips, pens, notepads, nothing important even to the owner of the desk.
When I pull the third drawer open, a fist-sized, glass orb clanks down toward the handle. I watch it roll to a stop, mesmerized by the strange, vibrant, pulsating light emanating from within it. It looks translucent on the edges and opaque in the center. Goosebumps spread across my body. I hold back a scream.
What is that? Isabel says.
I can barely keep my voice steady. “An anchor.”
Slowly, almost painfully, I pick it up and study it. It’s heavier than it ought to be, like it’s incredibly dense. It’s too cloudy to see through. I remember mine being translucent when Gerard held it out to me, but his gem was like this: cloudy in the center and translucent on the edges, like there’s a massive storm within it. Whenever the light pulses, the orb seems to want to move. I catch my breath when I realize I haven’t taken one in an eternity.
Your anchor? Isabel asks.
For a moment, I consider the question. Maybe an anchor starts translucent and when you bind it to a soul it grows cloudy? Mine was here that night, so it would make sense if this was it. I hold my breath and focus on it for a moment, but it feels cold and foreign in my hands.
No, not my own. It doesn’t feel right. If it was mine, I think I’d know.
Who’s then? Isabel asks.
I slip it into my pocket. That’s a great question. Mr. Turner’s maybe? Someone else’s?
As I ponder the thought, I look down into the still-open drawer and see a small piece of paper I hadn’t noticed. When I pick it up, there are a few lines of text scrawled on it in a steady but unrefined hand.
As a member of Morta’s Children, I, _______, pledge my loyalty to the Children, their cause, and my liege lord, Gerard of Meath. As a corpse springer, I am theirs to command as they see fit. I am the soul that controls the bodies of men, and the hand that guides the actions of those both feeble and stout, significant and unknown, virtuous and wicked.
I nearly gasp as I finish reading. What the hell is this? Some sort of initiation thing?
Seems like it, Isabel says.
I read it over once more. Morta’s Children. Corpse Springer. Gerard of Meath. “What kind of name is ‘of Meath’?”
Your guess is as good as mine, Isabel says, but I just heard the elevator. You need to get going.
She’s right. Stuffing the note in my pocket with the anchor, I quickly shut the desk and return to the electrical panel. I gather the bolts and screw them back in, finding it much easier than when I took them off. Funny how not fighting against yourself makes even the most menial tasks so much more pleasant.
When the security guard rushes back in with an EMT, I’m just finishing off the last bolt. The man gasps when he sees me standing next to the panel, fully composed, cheerily smiling to myself.
“What the hell?”
I turn to him. “What’s wrong?” I say, looking from the guard to the EMT, a chiseled man about Victoria’s age who looks good in his uniform. “Did something happen?”
“What? No—” The security guard looks back and forth between me and the EMT. “—you were on rolling on ground screaming!”
I tilt my head in mock confusion. “Must be someone else. I think I’d remember something like that.”
“No… what?” the guard says, locking eyes with the EMT, who looks bored and annoyed now that sees what he was called to. “You were—”
“Actually, I’m done down here,” I say, putting my screwdriver in my belt and walking past both men. “I need to go back to my van before I can go up to Black Bear.” I turn to them. “Do one of you gentlemen mind walking me to the front door? I hear Mr. Turner runs a tight ship, and I don’t want anyone to think I’m snooping around.”
The EMT laughs and steps forward while the security guard wears a dumbfounded look behind him. The two of us are nearly out of the room before the security speaks again.
“No, dammit, wait! Get back here! You need to explain—”
“Man, come on,” the EMT says. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but you’re wasting everyone’s time.”
The security guards stops in his tracks, his eyes locking on my own before shaking his head and turning away.
The rest of the walk is a breeze. The EMT and I smile at the other guards as we walk onto the elevator. When we get back upstairs, the security guard in the lobby is waiting for us. He looks shocked that I’m walking on my own, given what the other guard must have told him, but doesn’t stop us from walking out. The EMT and I part ways as he walks back to his ambulance and I to my van, a hitch in my step from the heavy glass orb in my pocket.
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