I’m jarred awake by an alarm at six in the morning. It’s still dark and the message on my phone screen says “stretching”. The room is freezing, the bed is soft, and my eyelids are heavy. There’s no way I’m getting up for that.
It comes back only five minutes later, and five minutes after that. I’m about to go for a third snooze, reaching again for the clock, when I notice a deep sadness in the pit of my stomach. Not of fear or terror at my situation, but, apparently, for the simple fact that I’m trying to go back to sleep. This woman, whoever she is, really had her heart set on rising before dawn, and I guess I have no choice.
The sadness dissipates somewhat as I sit against the wall at the head of the bed, pulling my feet to my chest and wrapping the blankets tightly around me. My head spins as I sit up, clouded with a groggy, clumsy feeling that I cannot quite describe. This woman is an early riser, but perhaps not entirely used to it. Or she’s drunk. Either way, I’m bundled in a cocoon nodding back off to sleep when my phone goes off on the bedside table.
It’s Gerard, and this time I’m almost giddy to see what he says.
“I must admit, I laughed when they told me what happened yesterday. It seems they underestimated you. A foolish mistake, and one I won’t soon let them forget. Before, it was just for my own goals. Now, it’s personal for them. Good luck.”
Accomplishment courses through me, followed by the warming embrace of hope: there was no mention of the Guilty Man, which means they didn’t know he’d helped me. Thanks to him, I can find the owner of the anchor I have in my den, and perhaps between the two of them they can lead me to Gerard so that I can finally end this.
I exit from the text message back to the home screen to start my typical research into who I get to play for the day. The phone shakes, either because this woman has a slight tremor in her hands or because I’m getting cold.
It horrifies me how nonchalant this routine has become, but I can’t dwell on it; if I ever pause to think I’ll be gripped by the irrepressible despair that’s always lurking on the periphery. Not today, Despair. Go away, come back later. It’s like a nursery rhyme, the kind of nursery rhyme you sing to yourself when you realize you’ve forgotten how many deaths you’re responsible for and can’t even remember some of the names.
The phone’s background catches my attention. The woman looks mid-thirties, with a warm, amber complexion, full lips, a happy grin. The man is fit, his neck muscles bulging enough for them to stand out but not be off-putting. His grin is strong and confident as her own; hard not to be when you look like that and you’re the second-most attractive person in your relationship.
A glance down at my hand tells me they aren’t married. In fact, when I scan the bedside table, the only pictures I see of this woman and what appears to be her friends and family, but none of him. There’s a picture in the center that’s sitting facedown, with a nearly-empty bottle of cheap vodka next to it.
Queasiness as soon as my hand touches the frame and I’m fighting off tears by the time I look at the picture. It’s of the two of them at Christmas, and it leaves me blackened and bruised. The name ‘Troy’ is on my lips just before the vodka. My chest burns.
Part of me wants to quit researching, but there has to be more to this woman than an ex-boyfriend and an affinity for cheap liquor.
Her Facebook picture is of her and Troy. Her name is Vivian Bates. She has a master’s in chemistry and works at a lab about twenty minutes away. Otherwise, nothing but selfies. Selfies in cities, selfies on mountaintops, selfies in jungles.
The queasy feeling grows stronger. I know I have to research Troy, because if I’m going to be this woman I need to know what happened. Did he die? Or did they just break up?
His name pops up as soon as I start typing in the search bar, and I see from her history that she searched him six times yesterday and a few times the day before. The thumbnail of his profile picture shows him and another woman. My thumb hangs over it while I catch my breath, but now I think I know what I need to know: he didn’t die, just broke up with her.
“Vivian. It’s just a boyfriend. There’s so much more to life.” Memories of Donavan and Javier flood in from some deep recess as I say it and for a moment I’m stricken with my own loneliness. “Sometimes, the only thing worse than being alone is being alone after losing people you loved.”
I’m a mess by the time I rise from the bed, finding it hard to tell whose depression I’m carrying or what effects are still lingering from the alcohol she surely drank herself to sleep with. Last time I woke up, though, I was at my wit’s end looking for any way to get out of this loop. Now I have someone on the inside who is willing to help.
I shoot off a text to the Guilty Man to try to set up a meeting, ask him what we’re going to do, how I can help get rid of Gerard.
Waiting here won’t do anything, Isabel says after I’ve been staring at my phone for about thirty seconds.
I agree, Ally says. This life is boring so far.
As I’m contemplating what I’m going to do, the alarm on Vivian’s phone goes off again, this time with the description “early morning workout”, as though there is another scheduled for later in the day.
“Just how much of your life do you have planned out, I wonder?” I say it to whatever’s left of her, which is perhaps nothing other than a deep depression.
Scanning through the phone’s calendar is terrifying. Every hour, on the hour, throughout the rest of the day has an item attached to it, and none of them look anything like relaxing. It takes me nearly ten minutes to go through and erase them all. Whatever portion of my being is influenced by Vivian feels guilty, but the rest is liberated.
What’s the plan? Isabel asks as I finish clearing the last of my schedule.
The Guilty Man didn’t tell us much, I say, laying back in the bed, but he did tell us how to find the soul in an anchor. I think it’s time we pay one a visit and see what they know.
Wait, you have an anchor somewhere? Ally questions.
This is from before your time, my dear, Rebecca says, no doubt remembering her own death.
So when you find the owner of this anchor, you’re not going to just snap and kill them are you? Isabel says.
What I did as Ally was embarrassing. I won’t lose control again.
But if you kill them, they’ll just come back anyway, Ally says.
Too much blood on my hands. If I’m going to get out of this alive, I can’t just go around killing people.
It feels as though Ally wants to respond, but Isabel cuts her off. Do you think they ever came back into your hideout?
What hideout? Ally asks.
It’s my life’s work. I picture the thicket, the ladder, and the door. Then, my mind moves to the keypad combination to get inside. It’s only been a few days since I’ve been there, but as I run the combination through my head, a cold sweat comes over me. Half the numbers are missing.
Shit, I think we have a problem, I say, my heart poudning, I can’t remember the combination.
Don’t worry, Isabel says. When you forgot how to hotwire a car, I made a pledge to remember stuff like this. You’re not in this alone.
I’m on a bus full of people. Standing room only. Sweaty. Smelly. Bodies pressed against bodies. It’s hard to tell why, but I love it.
If I had to put my finger on it, I’d say it was because I’ve been alone for so long, talking to myself, always feeling like I’m under threat, that my life as Ally has renewed my sense of strength. For a day, a whole day, I had the upper-hand. They’ve been doing this for decades, hundreds of years, however long they say, but for a minute I was in control. Now, when I see all these people, they don’t look like threats to me. They look like they always did when I was Victoria: people trying to get by, suffering through their day-to-day that just happens to include a ride on a bus that’s packed tighter than a sardine can. Isn’t that what the majority of life is, just suffering through shared experiences?
There is a nagging suspicion, though, one I’m pushing off as far as possible, one I’m convincing myself doesn’t exist. I’m trying not to think of the Guilty Man, but it’s been an hour and he still hasn’t responded. Every time I check my phone, a little bit of my confidence erodes. Is he really working to help me? Was that all just lip service? Or was it something even worse: Gerard having fun by getting my hopes up?
When I was getting ready to leave I found a few small bottles of alcohol in Vivian’s purse. I down one as covertly as I can, but it’s impossible to hide from the man standing next to me. He gives me a look of utter disgust, likely at the fact that I’m drinking before even getting to the office. He’s lucky he doesn’t know why.
The bus takes me to another less crowded bus that takes me to a bus stop within walking distance of my thicket. Everything looks undisturbed from a few days ago, save for some animal tracks meandering around the well.
My hand shakes as it hangs over the keypad.
5-9-8-1-0-3-9-6-8, Isabel says. The door swings open on the final number.
Without thinking, I down one of the small bottles of alcohol as I walk inside. The whole place was a wreck when I left so it’s impossible to tell if someone else came here in time since, but it looks the same as I remember. Then again, I knew the passcode when I was here last and forgot it in between so I don’t know how well I can trust my memories these days.
My hands tremble at the desk and I hold my breath as I open the drawer. The anchor harmlessly rolls out to greet me, the pledge underneath it.
Wh— Ally gasps and then trails off. What is this? What is that paper with it?
This is an anchor. I grab it and hold it up to the lights. It still looks cloudy and feels heavier than it ought to. Every so often it vibrates like it’s trying to jump from my hand, though that may just be Vivian’s alcoholic tremor. The paper underneath is some pledge to Gerard and ‘Morta’s Children’.
What was the word to track the owner again? Ally asks. ‘Invenerable’?
No. My memory may be failing but I remember this.
I squeeze the anchor out in front of me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do other than say the word, so I focus my mind on it and block out everything else as much as I can.
There’s a sudden rush through my arm up to my head. It nearly knocks me over, not exactly painful or unpleasant, but powerful and unexpected. I’m unsteady, falling a step backward and snapping my eyes closed from the recoil.
The world on the back of my eyelids is not blank. I didn’t notice in the few instants before that I was seeing double: my physical vision, and whatever you would call something completely inside of your head.
I’m flying through the sky. I can’t feel the wind or control where I’m going, but like a dream I’m speeding through the clouds above the city.
Now I’m descending. The clouds disappear behind me. I’m above the buildings, so close I could reach out and touch them.
Closer to the ground now, in some complex of fountains and finely manicured lawns. Then into a row of trees that line a sidewalk.
There’s a man leaning against one of the trees, smoking a cigarette and humming to himself. For an instant, it feels like I’m either going to crash into him or go right through him, but, as quickly as it started, the journey comes to an abrupt halt right in front of his face.
The image holds steady for a moment before black encroaches from the corners. He’s mid-thirties, gruff, fair skinned, a scar on his cheek, with deeply inset eyes that seem to bulge as he shifts them side to side. I commit every feature of his face to memory as the image slowly fades away.
That was a wild ride, Rebecca whispers.
If I had a stomach to vomit, I think I would have, Isabel says, laughing
With a grin on my face, I take a deep breath, stuff the anchor and a pledge into my pocket, and head for the door.
It takes me a couple of hours to get to where I’m going because of traffic. I hop off the bus and find the thickest set of bushes before dipping in and grabbing the anchor from my pocket.
This time the flight is over almost before it begins. The man is still nearby.
I mosey through the complex, scanning every face I see. The grounds aren’t empty, but foot traffic is light considering it’s midday and drizzling, and a few minutes after I arrive I find him sitting near a fountain.
No sense in questioning him out in the open, so I crack another bottle from Vivian’s purse and lean against a tree.
What’s up with you suddenly drinking so much? Rebecca questions.
I look down at the bottle in my hand. I think she’s an alcoholic. I keep getting the urge to drink but it comes back a few minutes later. I don’t even feel drunk.
That’s fortunate, because being drunk right now would be suboptimal, Isabel says.
True for most situations, especially this one, I say, taking another sip and watching the man. Our conversation comes to a halt as he pulls out his phone and stands to leave.
The man meanders for a while before returning to the trees at the edge of the park where I first saw him. We’re completely alone. Now’s my chance.
My footsteps are silent and quick. I might have lost other parts of myself, but Victoria’s well-honed ability to run quietly at full speed remains.
I grasp his shoulders and throw him against the nearest tree and then deliver a quick, decisive jab to the throat when he moves to fight back.
The man collapses at my feet, clutching his throat and gasping for air. Holy shit, Victoria, Isabel mutters.
Don’t worry, I’m done. Squatting, I try to catch a glimpse of his face. He’s terrified. I just wanted him to know I was serious and didn’t want to waste any time.
“I’ll wait here until you can speak.”
“What do you want?” he wheezes a minute or so later.
“I want Gerard.”
“Who the fuck is that? I don’t know any ‘Gerards’.”
“I don’t have all day,” I say, retrieving the anchor from my pocket. “I believe you lost this.”
He gasps and his eyes nearly pop out of his skull. “Where did you get that?”
The pledge comes out next. “It was with this. ‘I pledge my loyalty to the Children, their cause, and my liege lord, Gerard of Meath’? That’s what it says, right?”
“How did you—”
“I found it where I died,” I say. “Some time ago, in the vault of a building owned by Deane Turner. You were there that night, weren’t you?”
“That was you?” His mouth hangs agape while Ally groans something in my ear. “That was my first night as an official member of the Children.”
Makes sense he’s new, considering he forgot the most important thing he owned, Isabel says.
So disappointing, Ally mutters. I mean, I know Gerard is torturing us and all, but you’d think his followers would at least be mildly competent.
“I’ll give these back to you if you tell me where Gerard is,” I say to the man.
He shakes his head. “I can’t do that. How do I even know you are who you say you are? This could all just be a test or some payback for me forgetting my anchor.”
I hold the anchor out toward him, just out of arm’s reach. “I’m not messing around. I’ll destroy this thing right now if you don’t tell me where he is.”
He tries to take a deep breath but coughs through the end. “They don’t tell me much. I’ve never even been to Gerard’s place.”
In a quick motion, I thrust the glass orb over my head and then feign that I’m going to slam it into the ground.
He lunges to where the orb would have gone before realizing I was bluffing. “Okay, you win,” he says with a sigh.
Ally scoffs in what I assume is pity. So weak. I can imagine her shaking her head. Might as well just kill him right here when we’re done with him.
“There’s a big warehouse in the north end of town, down the road from a department store. Looks like it’ll fall down any day.”
I can picture the place in my mind. “I always thought it was abandoned.”
“It was before Gerard moved in,” the man says, pausing every few words as though he is forcing himself to continue, his face wracked with guilt.
Pathetic, Ally mutters, almost to herself. Just put him out of his misery.
I agree, I say.
“Great, thanks.” I look from him down to the anchor in my hand before heaving it into the ground between us. It shatters.
His mouth is hanging open, his eyes wide. I can’t tell if he’s enraged, terrified, or just devastated. Hopefully all three.
“Welcome back to the world of the living. Don’t waste your second chance.”
Are you all happy now? He’s still alive, but he won’t be bothering us any time soon.
It’s a trek to the warehouse and it takes me over an hour to get there on the bus because Vivian doesn’t have a car and I don’t want to draw attention to myself by stealing one.
The place looks as abandoned as ever, with holes in the roof, rusted siding, potholes littering the gravel parking lot. It makes sense Gerard would operate out of something like this. It’s nondescript and vacant enough that you’d never think a man who considers himself a god would live there.
The front door creaks in the wind. I slowly pull it open to find a completely empty warehouse floor. In fact, not just empty, but clean. Not a speck of dust despite what the building looks like on the outside, other than the pools of water forming under the holes in the roof and along the walls from the holes in the windows.
My hopes are high for only a moment before they crash and burn. As I walk inside, my foot kicks a rock, which had been holding down a small piece of notebook paper. The middle of the paper is still dry.
“Good work Victoria. I have to say, you’re full of surprises. When we first started, I expected you to be huddled in a corner, crying and talking to yourself by now, but here you are, evading my hunters and finding our hideout only a few days after we moved to our new location. You’re not helping as much as I’d like, but I’m impressed you’ve made it this far.”
At least he’s impressed? Isabel says over my rage.
Ally’s voice is almost whimsical, like she’s mocking me. You really didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?
Don’t you want to get out of this? I snap at her. What are we going to do now?
Pull yourself together, Rebecca says. Not everything is lost.
But we have no more leads left. This was it.
We’ll figure something out, Rebecca says. We’re getting better, and the Guilty Man is still out there.
I pull Vivian’s phone out of my pocket. No texts. No messages. I suppose the Guilty Man is still out there, but it’s getting harder to keep going, and I only have one last bottle of alcohol in my purse.
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