It’s a shade after ten when I get to the community gym a few blocks from my parents’ house. Donavan was a morning person. Victoria was not. Whenever he asked her to come watch him play basketball she was too sleepy, too busy, too hungover from the night before to drag herself out of bed. Now she’d give anything to watch and know he knew she was there.
The sounds of squeaking sneakers and a small but cheering crowd prepare me as I approach, but my heart still stops when I walk into the gym. I want to cry when I see him, but instead I find a seat like I’m just some random person in the crowd, which to him I am.
The first thing I notice is Donavan’s face. There’s a mess of stubble on his cheeks and neck. Though it’s only been a week since I died, his cheeks look hollow underneath the hair. His movements on the court are a step slower than they should be. His limbs are leaner, wirier. The trademark grin is there—you could never take that away—but today it looks forced, like he’s hiding something he never knew before. It strikes me that his small afro looks matted and unkempt; he was so good at taking care of it before I left but looks like he hasn’t bothered since.
I don’t know what I was expecting, I say to whoever is listening. He was my best friend. He was always going to take it harder than anyone else.
I’m so sorry Victoria, Isabel says. I never gave her this luxury like I did Rebecca. All she wanted to do was see her boyfriend, but I’ve been so caught up in my own needs that I disregarded hers. Hell, even giving Rebecca the closure she needed was only because I needed her on my side rather than working against me.
It’s excruciating having Donavan so close yet be unable to speak to him and having Isabel sob in my ear isn’t helping me hold back any of my own. I had hoped being here would bring me joy and remind me who I was before meeting Gerard, but instead I feel even worse than I did before.
In fact, coming here was a mistake. I need to leave.
“Go Donavan, go!”
I’m just about to get up when the woman’s voice turns my head. There’s a scramble for a loose ball. Donavan comes out with it on the other side, nothing but open court in front of him. He hasn’t even gone a step before she screams again.
“That’s it, Donavan!”
He’s two steps ahead, now three, passing the top of the key. I’d forgotten how fast he was. How high he could jump. For this moment at least, he’s back to his normal self. He throws it down with easy grace that not even a week’s worth of suffering can take away from him.
No not grace, but efficient displeasure. Without joy, but simply because he was there and it was the thing to do.
My neck snaps to the woman. She’s next to her husband, her long, soft hair in a ponytail. He has a bald head and large mustache, with muscles bulging under his sweater.
My parents. James and Elizabeth.
I stare at them for a moment, recognizing them only from the Times article. The people who raised me and provided for me. The people I stole for. I barely recognize them. I was able to hold back the tears when it was just Donavan, but the levee’s broken now.
The tears cloud my sight as I run down the stands to the door. Through them, my mom looks thinner than I remember, and my dad’s mustache is ragged. His eyes meet my stare, and they look as hollow as Donavan’s cheeks.
Two more rows of bleachers and I’m on the floor, walking as fast as I can out of the gym, the only thing keeping me from completely breaking down the knowledge that drawing unwanted attention to myself in front of my family would only cause more issues if the Sadistic Woman or Cruel Man were nearby, especially since Gerard goes out of his way to help them.
There’s a set of stairs around the corner from the gym just beyond a drinking fountain. It’s not perfect, but it’s the most secluded place in the entire building. My body crumples to rest upon them, tears streaming down my face.
I’m there for a few minutes before I hear voices and footsteps from the gym. They’re on a break, running to get water. There’s a dozen or so distinct, breathless voices, none of which are my brother’s. My parents must have brought him water, and for that I’m glad.
No one seems to notice me. The crowd swells and then dwindles, drinking, laughing, talking about the game. All while I’m quietly sobbing on the staircase, not bothering anyone but myself, a ghost. I look up as the voices fade.
My heart jumps to my throat. He’s there, walking toward me, a grim look on his face, an empty water bottle in hand.
“Are you all right?” Donavan asks. He looks almost skeletal. Eating is one of his favorite pastimes and I’ve managed to take even that from him.
“Yes. Thanks for asking.”
“Are you sure? You don’t seem okay.”
“Yes, I’m fine,” I say as I stand. “I’ll be going now. Sorry to concern you.”
“Do I know you?” he says.
My voice catches in my throat. “No.”
“Okay.” He trails off. “If I can do anything to help, let me know.”
“Thank you.” There’s so much I want to tell you.
He speaks again as I’m walking away.
It stops me dead, mid-step, my foot hanging above the ground.
“Victoria, you should not have come here. Don’t you remember what happened to Jenny?”
“You would shatter into little pieces if the hunter made your brother attack you.”
It takes a moment to process the words. If the hunter made your brother attack you. “Are you the man who was watching me on the train? Where are you?”
“What do you mean where I am? I’m right in front of you.”
“Can we go somewhere and talk?”
“Not right now. I just couldn’t let you risk your family like this. No matter what you think you’re getting out of this, it’s not worth it.”
“Don’t worry, I wasn’t getting anything out of it.” Nothing but pain, anyway.
“Good, don’t do this again.” He looks away, then under his breath whispers something I barely catch.
Donavan blinks his eyes a half-second later, shaking his head like he’s fighting off a fog.
There’s nothing to say, so I continue toward the door. Behind me, he utters something that’s like a dagger to my heart.
The mist outside covers my tears. The wind whisks away the sound of my sobs. Seeing my reflection in the puddles on the side of the road reminds me that Britney McCray had a life, and while it may be over now that I’m here, the longer I last the less likely someone else has to suffer the same fate.
It’s a long walk to Javier’s apartment. There’s nothing special about the place; just a large, gray, rectangular building that’s about eight stories tall and stretches for a quarter of a block. There are bars on the windows, more to keep jumpers in than predators out, and a large, metal gate at each entrance to the street, one on both ends of the building.
There are no intercoms or keypads at the gates, but they’re only ten feet tall and scalable. My feet touch the ground on the other side in a few breaths, something Victoria did mostly out of principle but which Britney has to do because she cannot just text Javier to have him let her in.
The inside of the building is drab. Rows of apartments that look identical from the outside and show very little variation on the inside. I’d say it was depressing if I hadn’t also spent years of my life in a nearly identical building a few blocks over even though I always knew I could do better. To me, an apartment is like a mediocre job or boyfriend; it’s boring but dependable and the times you realize you’re truly unhappy are far enough apart that it doesn’t weigh you down in between. You stick around because it’s easy and hope when something better comes along your fear of the unknown doesn’t keep you stuck right where you are. I was just waiting until Donavan was out of school, and then I’d move somewhere tropical. Or until my parents retired. Or until I got bored of what I was doing. None of that matters now. Victoria Simone was too comfortable to take anything better than mediocre. She’d regret it if she weren’t already dead.
Javier’s apartment is on the fifth floor. It’s easy to tell his door from the rest because it’s the only door that has a keypad above the doorknob. He kept telling me to add one to mine, but I just kept putting it off. In the end, I suppose it didn’t matter, but the irony of a person like me living in such an insecure apartment isn’t lost.
Thankfully, I still remember his keycode. His apartment is just as I remember it, something I don’t fully appreciate until it slaps me in the face. This is, without a doubt, the only familiar thing I’ve seen since Jenny died, aside from Donavan and my parents this morning, and the weight of that nearly knocks me to my knees. The smell is the same. The furniture is where it’s always been. The stupid posters on the walls. All of it. Even the kitchen table, with a plate and glass of water in his favorite spot, facing the TV.
A plate and glass of water? That strikes me as odd. The water is lukewarm, but the plate has scraps of food not old enough to be something Javier left behind.
I’m curious, so I open the refrigerator. It’s full of the kind of food he would buy and there’s a recent receipt on the counter. His bathroom has the same soap, the same toothpaste, even the same toothbrush. His clothes are strewn about his bedroom like whoever was here was looking for something. Searching for clues? One of Gerard’s goons? No…
The hair stands up on the back of my neck as I begin to understand. It’s been just over a week since I died. Javier is either still alive, or he’s become so lost from dying so many times that he’s trying to live his normal life as though he never died at all.
Javier’s desk is messy and unorganized, but nothing jumps out at me other than an old framed picture of his family. Next to the couch, under a bag of half-eaten Cheetos, is a laptop. The glass screen is shattered and the hinge is destroyed, like someone tried to punch a hole in it. I could maybe find his tools lying around and hack in, though I doubt at this point I’d be able to see anything on the screen to make it worthwhile.
I head back to the bedroom. It’s a mess of dirty clothes and old shoes. The dresser drawers are either hanging open or upside down on the floor. The sheets smell soiled. The closet is littered with miscellaneous boxes and other storage he was too lazy to unpack when he moved in and eventually just forgot about.
There’s a safe in the back of the closet. He trusted me with his life, but never the contents inside. If there’s anything he wanted hidden from me, anything at all, it would be there.
Only problem is that I was the safe-cracker and he didn’t even own the tools. The only thing I can do is try to figure out the code.
It’s a digital keypad with a screen that has room for three numbers. I try the most obvious combinations first: parts of birthdays, addresses, phone numbers, even one-two-three just to see how lazy he was. All fail, and eventually it says I’ve been locked out for five minutes for trying too many times.
There’s a box atop the safe. I rummage through it while I’m waiting for the timer to run out but find nothing worth my time. I’m about to put it back where I found it when I realize there was a baseball card sitting underneath the box.
It’s a crisp and unbent Barry Bonds card. He’s wearing a white uniform and in the middle of throwing. I turn it over and look at the back. Underneath his height, weight, and birthdate is a single row of numbers that look like gibberish to me. I want to toss it aside, but something holds me back. It might mean nothing to me, but it might have meant everything to Javier.
I study the row of numbers. It’s from 2001. He played in 153 games. I didn’t know there were that many in a season. He hit 73 home runs. That seems like a lot, but what do I know? Underneath the column that says “BA” is a value of .328.
That last value screams out at me. Three-two-eight is a three-digit number, as is one-five-three, or even one-two-nine or one-three-seven, both of which also appear on the card. I type in three-two-eight.
The safe swings open. I would almost laugh at how he left a key so easy to break if I wasn’t horrified by what I find inside.
It’s completely empty, save for three items: a handgun, a pre-written suicide note, and a single bullet. I always knew he was on the edge when I found him, but never realized how close he stayed. Of all the things he never wanted to lose, it was the power to end his own life he chose to lock up and make sure it could never be taken away, and now even that is gone.
Are we sure he’s really dead? Rebecca asks.
Gerard mentioned it, but he could be lying.
But obviously he still living here, Isabel says. Maybe he made it out somehow?
He was like a brother to me, but I’m not lying when I say there’s no way he would have made it out of there alive.
What if they let him live because he betrayed you? Rebecca says.
I let the question hang, fighting the urge not to snap at her. She means well, and it’s something I never would have considered otherwise. I doubt it. I saved his life and took him under my wing. I don’t think he’d throw that away.
Where’s he at, then? Isabel asks.
If he’s still living at home, then I have a good idea of where he might be.
Javier’s favorite bar was The Steel Goblet. It’s a unique place. The bartenders are clad in medieval robes. The bouncer is dressed as a knight, his armor shining in the dim kerosene lamplights and the dull but very real steel of his longsword safely sheathed at his belt. The patrons are the kind who would commandeer an entire field for their LARPing event, an event that from the outside you may find strange but once you partake in you could never get enough of. Victoria spent more than a few Saturday afternoons with Javier as Volterra, the Lightning Witch, and despite how odd it was at first, she loved every damn minute of it.
The bar specializes in mead and ale. After scanning the room and finding no signs of Javier, I order a cinnamon apple brown ale and move to an empty table that has a clear view of Javier’s old seat, which is empty between two other groups of people but has a half-empty cup of mead covered by a coaster in front of it.
Rebecca scoffs, with no attempt to hide the judgment from her voice. This place is weird. You were friends with these people?
No, not really, I say, shifting uncomfortably in my seat, but ‘these people’ are just as much people as anyone else. I’m glad there’s a place like this for them to spend their time.
I sit there alone for a few minutes, sipping my ale and letting my mind wander while waiting for whoever is drinking the mead to return. My thoughts eventually land on the ‘Mr. Turner’ the security guard at the building of my first death mentioned and I instinctively remove Britney’s phone from my pocket almost without even noticing.
The website for building lists a ‘Deane Turner’ as the owner. The man’s personal website describes him as a tech billionaire and lists a building downtown—a different skyscraper than the one I just visited as Rebecca—as the location of his personal office, as well as several others that he owns in the area. When I need to find him, I’ll look at his office first, and then branch out from there if I can’t find him.
After a minute on my phone, I feel eyes on the back of my head. Expecting one of the hunters, I slowly turn around, but I’m treated to a far-creepier and not at all unsurprising sight. Victoria was as much a regular as you could be in here without truly being one; Britney is new and beautiful and out of place and getting ogled at like there’s no tomorrow. That I’m one of only a handful of women in the entire bar isn’t helping either.
My cheeks tingle with embarrassment and I down the rest of my drink to take some of the edge off. This body is exhausting. All I want to do is look for Javier, but I can just feel that one or more of these men will walk up and try to talk to me.
Yes, okay, sometimes this place can be a little weird, I say as I watch a man come back to take Javier’s old seat between the two groups, but the people here don’t mean any harm. They just aren’t used to someone like me.
The man in Javier’s seat is sloppy and rotund, wearing a plain, gray shirt that is about three sizes too small and a pair of sweats that are stretched so far that I’m surprised they’re holding together. He belches and adjusts himself without regard that other people might be watching before downing what’s left of the mead he left behind.
Is that him? Isabel asks.
Could be, judging by the fact that Javier was thin and in decent shape and this guy looks like he’s trying to wear children’s clothes.
I watch the man while waiting for one of the groups next to him to move. After ordering another cup of mead, he hunches over it like it’s some precious commodity he’s trying to protect. Meads are a dime a dozen in a place like this, so that can’t be the case, unless he’s Javier in a new body and is desperately trying to hold onto whatever he can that reminds him of himself. I can empathize with that.
The man in Javier’s seat says something under his breath. I can’t hear it because I’m too far away, but I can see his body move as though he’s conversing with someone. The man sitting next to him with his back turned, however, can hear what he’s saying, and glances uncomfortably over his shoulder before shaking his head at the rest of his group. A few moments later, the entire group grabs their belongings and makes their way toward the door.
I intercept them on the way out. “Is that seat taken?” I ask the man who was closest to Javier’s seat.
“It’s empty,” he says, “but that guy over there is a whack-job.”
The man in Javier’s seat glances at me when I sit. “Don’t worry, lady, I’m not going to try to talk to you,” he says with a heavy slur.
“You do more than enough talking to yourself,” he mutters under his breath as he takes a sip of mead.
That would strike me as odd if I didn’t have two voices in my own head as well.
“Good ale, huh?” I say, turning to him.
The man takes a long drink and then tilts his cup so I can look inside. “No ale for me, just mead.”
I smile but we return to our awkward silence a moment later. He side-eyes me every few seconds in between drinks. Finally, to himself, he whispers, “Maybe she just likes mead. Could ask her if she wants to try it.”
“Someone who looks like that?” he questions himself before I hear him downing the rest of his drink. “No, she doesn’t want anything to do with me, not now at least.”
“Barkeep,” the man says. “More mead.”
“You don’t know that she doesn’t want anything to do with you,” he says after taking a sip. “Maybe she likes what’s inside. I’ve seen worse looking men than you get a girl like that.”
He chuckles to himself. “What’s inside? Even you’re scared of what’s inside.”
I pull my phone out nonchalantly so that I can get a better look at him through the corner of my eye.
“Me scared?” He shakes his head, then quickly stops when he notices I might be listening. “You’re the coward, you bastard. Just talk to her.”
“Oh, come on pull yourself together.” He finishes his newest cup in a second gulp. “One of you in here is normal, I’m sure of it.”
Like clockwork, the bartender is back with another round. “Being normal or abnormal doesn’t matter now,” the man I think is Javier says to himself. “In fact, nothing matters now.”
“Good call, friend. Seems we should be trying to do something about that.”
“I’d call drinking until my liver fails ‘doing something’, even if it’s not what you had in mind.”
“It’s stupid, is what it is. Your liver won’t ever fail if you keep letting yourself get killed.”
He raises the cup to about eye-level as though he’s toasting with it. “Then here’s to lifetimes of drinking all I want without any consequences.”
“Oh, there have been plenty of consequences,” he says to himself, “but I just don’t think you realize it.”
“Nah, man, I’m good.” He softly curls his fingers into a fist and gently pats it on the bar. “Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
If I have to keep listening to him talk to himself I might finally break. “Is that cherry melomel?” I ask after tapping him on the shoulder. “One of my friends use to love cherry melomel.”
“D-d-do you want to try it?”
The liquid is tart and sweet and fills me with a nostalgia I did not think possible. “You know, I never liked it back then,” I say, smiling to keep the sadness from my eyes, “but I can see now why he liked it so much.”
“It’s an acquired taste.” He takes another drink. I can tell how nervous he is to be talking to me, which is probably the overweight man’s personality more than anything else.
“It seems you’ve acquired it.”
“Only recently,” he says, “but I like it. I never went out much until a little bit ago.”
Only recently. Javier loved mead for as long as I knew him, which suggests he’s not in full control here. Just how many are in there, I wonder.
He’s talking to himself again, muttering how he’s always loved it, always loved this bar. There’s Javier. “So, what do you do for a living?” I ask him.
He looks shocked by such a personal question, or, at least, I think so at first before gradually realizing what I mistake for shock is actually a genuine confusion, like he’s got an answer that is forever just out of reach.
It’s a simple question. What do you get up and do every day? Everyone can answer that, even someone who’s unemployed. That he can’t tells me two things, from which I can infer a third. First, no one personality is in charge, so he can’t settle on an answer. Second, his mind is so scattered he doesn’t realize how strange it’s coming off that he can’t answer. Third, I can only guess this is what happens when one single soul is not strong enough to keep the others at bay. I’m Victoria. For now, I know that, but every death brings another voice or vice or foreign feeling, and it’s easy to see how the path leads to becoming just like Javier if I let it. I hold back a shudder as I consider the thought. I have to take a few deep breaths when I realize what’s already happened to my closest companion.
“It’s ok, I don’t really know what I do, either,” I say, if only to save his embarrassment. “How long have you been coming to this bar?”
“It’s not a bar, it’s a pub.” That’s a Javier answer. He always got furious when I called it a bar. “For as long as I can remember, but to tell you the truth, I don’t remember much these days.”
“I understand, you’ve had a lot to drink.”
“I don’t think you could understand.”
“You know, my friend used to sit in this exact seat,” I say, “but then he got in some trouble and we haven’t seen each other for a while.”
It takes a moment for him to wade through it. I study his face. There’s no higher thought, no direction, no realization. His eyes are twitching, his mouth quivering, both seemingly unconscious.
“I’ve been coming here for years and I’ve never seen anyone else sit in this seat. It’s my seat. I think I’d notice if someone else had been sitting in it.”
An empty shell. My heart drops. The ghost of Javier. Or, rather, the ghosts of Javier and however many other men he’s meshed with, all clinging to life inside the body of this man, fighting for superiority.
“Do you really not know what I’m saying?” I gently put my hand on his arm. “Javy.”
The name’s weight sobers him. He repeats it a few times, letting it roll off his tongue in a cadence. Javy. Javy. A hint of recognition passes over his face when he’s finished.
I nod. He nods. We stare at each other until the dam breaks. There are tears in our eyes. We’re embracing. His body swallows me whole. It must be a sight to see.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. For a moment, at least, I see him behind the man’s eyes.
“I—where else am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to be doing?”
“Are you still living at your old apartment?”
“Yes. No matter where I go, I always want to come back.”
“Let’s go there so we can talk.”
He downs the rest of his mead before slapping a few bills on the bar and getting to his feet. Halfway to the door, he turns to me, an empty look in his eyes. “Where are we going, again?”
There’s a sinking feeling in my chest. Javier is gone as quickly as he came. I pat him on the back and tell him to follow me, which he does obediently, repeating the question a few times before we get there.
The apartment’s familiarity is more depressing than it was earlier in the day. I left hopeful that Javier could help me figure out what to do. Now, I can barely look at him.
We’ve been sitting in Javier’s living room for a few hours, watching television and drinking stale beer I found in his fridge. In all that time, I’ve been making small-talk with the various ‘people’ inside his head and he has yet to make a reappearance.
In all, I’ve counted at least five personalities, which can be differentiated by their tones, their word choice, how they interact with each other when he mutters under his breath, and how they interact with me. There’s the angry one. There’s the smart one. There’s the one who begs Javier to come out so the two of us can chat. There’s the one who’s afraid of me. And finally, there’s the one who’s so attracted to this body I’m in that he stares at me like he’s thinking of eating me.
It catches me off-guard. When I look over, he’s staring at me.
“Welcome back,” I say, smiling. He nods, but that’s it. “Do you know who hired us?”
“No, I never got anything more than what we were supposed to steal and where they wanted us to leave it.”
Not only torturous seeing him, but torturous and pointless.
“How many times have you died, Javy?” I ask, saying his name as an attempt to try to keep him in the present.
“I lost count after three or four. Everything is running together.”
“Are you being tortured by a man and woman?”
“Always a man. He doesn’t seem like he enjoys it.” I can see the pain of what he’s recalling on his face. “There’s this… hollow look in the man’s eyes. I don’t think he enjoys it.”
“Fucking Gerard and his goons.”
In the state he’s in, it’s not worth explaining. “What happened to your laptop?” I ask instead.
He shrugs. “I got mad because I couldn’t remember the password.”
“Was there anything important on there? About the job?”
“Like I said, Vic, I didn’t know any more than you did.” His voice starts to crack. “I—just—I can’t remember anything anymore, and I have these huge gaps of time where I completely forget where I was or what I was doing.”
I put my hand on his shoulder to comfort him, but he begins to sob as soon as I touch him. “It’ll be okay, Javy. We’ll get through this somehow.”
He curls into a ball on the couch. “I’m scared. I don’t know what to do. I just wait until the guy comes to kill me, and then I find my way back home. Every day is the same. He’s probably out there right now waiting for me.”
“Does he ever kill you here or the Steel Goblet?” I ask.
Silence, for a moment.
“Does who kill me?”
“The man who hunts you?” I say, but from the look on Javier’s face, I can tell he’s gone. “Does he ever come here or the bar?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The rest of the night is a blur, and Britney’s phone wakes me sometime just after eight the next morning. Her friends and family have been reaching out non-stop.
So, now that our best lead is gone, what are we going to do? Rebecca asks once I’m fully awake.
I think there are two things we can do, I say, looking out the window at what appears to be a cold, overcast morning while I try not to focus on Javier. Maybe, if we give Gerard what he wants, he’ll set us free. The odds of that seem slim, though, and we don’t have the information he needs.
Would you really just give him what he wants after all of this? Isabel asks.
I don’t want to, believe me, but it might be the only way. He has all the cards and I know the two of you don’t want to end up like Javier.
But you can’t let him win.
It’s not like I want him to win, but what are my other options? Neither responds. The only other way would be to figure out where his anchor is and break it. We might be able to do that by interrogating Deane Turner or asking the Guilty Man for help if we ever see him again.
Hopefully one of them knows where his anchor is, Isabel says.
They just need to know where Gerard is, I say. I doubt he would leave his anchor in that vault, which is why I wasn’t too sad when we couldn’t get in there a couple days ago. He probably keeps it closer now, so if we find him we find his anchor.
Britney’s phone goes off in my hand. I open the notifications and start clearing them out. One text, though, catches my eye. It’s from a blocked number.
“Good morning, Britney. Your friends and Family are worried and your boss is pissed. I let you off the hook yesterday as a reward for beating my hunter, but that’s the last favor you’ll get from me. As of this morning, the game is back on. My ‘dogs’, as you call them, will be out there looking for you until you give me what I want. The fate of your friend Javier is waiting for you if you insist on resisting. He was too easy to break and became a bore. You, on the other hand, are intriguing. I’m enjoying the little game we’re playing, but my patience is running thin.”
There’s a tinge of fear at the prospect of becoming Javier, as well as the thought that Gerard knows I’ve been talking to Javier at all, but at this point the man’s threats of more punishment cannot motivate me any further. They’re a distraction more than anything else.
Before leaving, I write Javier a note that I hope he’ll be able to understand. If I can help him I will, but I confess that I can make no promises.
There are a few bags of tools next to his apartment door. I grab a small bundle of rope and stuff it in my waistband. After one final look, I quietly close the door behind me, the last vestiges of my natural life severed.
Chapter 8 here.
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