Death’s Game 20: Maria Sanchez

“Oh, come on!” I punch the couch before I realize what’s going on. “He was offsides! You blind, you fucking ref?”

Head shakes off the cobwebs. Eyes blink away the surprise. It’s early in the morning, about seven. I’m in a living room, watching a soccer game, clad in a Real Madrid jersey.

Soccer match, Isabel whispers to me.

I’ve heard it both ways, I say, sitting back against the couch as I start to feel a lingering pain in my back. My legs twitch with the phantom sensation of Jordan’s last moments. Gunshots echo between my ears. I’m regretting running; it got her only a few more seconds before she was gunned down and I abandoned Vaughn in the process. At least the cramping in my stomach from the withdrawals is gone, and my hands feel steady for the first time since I was in Ally’s body. Those seem to be the only positives.

The soccer match fades into the background when this woman’s phone vibrates on the coffee table. I know who it is before I even look at it. It’s Gerard, because of course it’s Gerard. My blood is already boiling, though at this point its normal state is a slow simmer just waiting to erupt so boiling isn’t much worse.

“Victoria, I have to thank you for once again aiding the cause. Now we know that Albert was protecting Vaughn even after Vaughn ruined his little coup attempt. Come find me and I’ll reward you for your contributions. You won’t be disappointed.”

“I don’t know where you are, asshole!” I have to forcefully hold myself back from hurling the phone into the carpet.

Calm down, Rebecca says. We can find him. Samantha will be able to help.

Or she’ll help us find Albert, Isabel says.

Yes, either one. We just need to go see her.

Amanda Baker, Isabel says. Lakeview Psychiatric.

Ally’s cackle cuts in over Isabel. Are you actually going to try to kill Gerard?

If I can find him, yes, I say.

You’re delirious. If Albert and Oswald couldn’t do it with a bunch of their family members, what makes you think you can?

This woman’s phone screen cracks inside my grip. Gerard’s sent everything he has at me, and he hasn’t broken me yet. I’m going to find him and if I can’t find his anchor I’m going to kill him anyway.

This woman’s body feels strong. I can see a six-pack rippling under the jersey when I walk into her bathroom. Her jaw is chiseled, her shoulders are muscular, and her legs are like stone, though there’s a catch in her knee every few steps that tells me she’s dealing with the aftereffects of an old injury. Regardless, Gerard is going to regret giving me such an athletic body if I ever figure out where he is.

Her phone says her name is Maria Sanchez. A former Division-II soccer player, which I could have guessed in a heartbeat just by looking at her. I can feel her in my head somewhere, scared of what she does not understand, scared of being forced to take a backseat in the body she spent a lifetime building into peak performance, and furious that she’s missing the soccer match she spent all week waiting for before heading into the office. Buckle up, Maria, because if work and soccer are all you miss, you’re the luckiest one here.

_________________________

Gerard, Vaughn, and Albert are all I can think about on the way to Lakeview Psychiatric. My jaw is starting to ache from clenching my teeth. If she makes it out alive, Maria’s smile might need some work after all this.

The building of Lakeview Psychiatric is not what I imagined it would be. It’s not old or archaic or gothic in its architecture. It doesn’t look dingy or haunted. It’s a large, modern, normal-looking building with plenty of windows, although its grounds are surrounded by a threatening-looking fence and there are a pair of guards out front. There’s a wide stretch of grass behind it and a long lake beyond.

The pain in Maria’s knee got worse the longer I drove, some combination of sitting in a confined space and operating the clutch in weekday morning traffic. There are tendrils shooting up and down between my calf and thigh and the back of my knee throbs with each heartbeat. Now that I’m out of the car and walking toward the front door of the hospital, I’m forcing my way through a slight limp and trying to shake away as much of the stiffness as I can.

The security guards glance in my direction when I limp past them but let me through without further interrogation. There’s a squat man hunched over the receptionist’s desk doing a crossword puzzle. He’s wearing thin-rimmed glasses and a sharply trimmed beard, his belly hanging over his thighs.

“Name of the patient you’re here to see,” he says without looking up from his crossword.

“Amanda Baker,” I say, gingerly leaning against the desk to get a break from the pain, which starts to feel better almost immediately.

“Relationship.” This time he looks up to address me, but only barely.

“Old friend,” I say after a pause.

Now he meets my eyes. “Old friend?”

“We went to school together.”

His eyebrow juts upward behind his glasses. “And where would that be?”

“Small school, you wouldn’t know it.”

His eyes narrow. “How come I haven’t seen you before?”

“It’s depressing to come see someone like this,” I say, “so I’ve been putting it off.”

He nods but it’s clear he hasn’t believed a word I’ve said. After some deliberation, he sighs and shrugs. “Fine, sign here.” He hands me a clipboard with a disclaimer. “I’ll let you see her because the guy who usually comes by a few times a week missed his appointment yesterday and she’s getting even antsier than normal.” His voice turns cold and serious. “But don’t rile her up.”

I take a long, hopefully natural breath and then sign when I realize that the look of Maria’s signature doesn’t matter. I make it up as I go. The ‘M’ swoops awkwardly. The ‘S’ is curvy and identical to the one Victoria Simone used to sign her last name. The ‘z’ is printed because I forgot how to do it in cursive. That’s not something I’ve lost since my first death. That’s something I lost because it was useless when I was seven.

Amanda’s room is on the third floor of the building. Light from the windows bathes the hallway in light, and I can’t help but get caught up in the view for a moment. It’s at once both simplistic and serene, a vast, green pasture between the building and the water, with a cloudy but calm sky and a mixture of houses, skyscrapers, evergreens, and mountains off in the distance. My body relaxes for what feels like the first time, like a massive weight has just been lifted off my shoulders. The aching in my knee gradually dissipates.

But I can’t stay there forever.

I find Amanda alone in her room, gently rocking on a chair and gazing through her window across the lake, her eyes hazy and glossed over. My escort, one of the nurses, waits outside.

“Hello, Amanda,” I say as I enter.

She looks up, a hint of surprise on her face. “Hello? Do I know you?”

Her dirty blond hair is matted and tangled, her cheeks are hollowed, and there are stress wrinkles around her eyes and mouth that add decades to her face. She’s maybe in her early thirties, but withered and skeletal, bony and pale, and I’m glad the windows in her room are closed because it looks as though she may fly away with a strong gust of wind.

“No, you don’t know me,” I say, offering my warmest smile as Isabel whimpers in my head, “but I’d like to talk to you if you don’t mind.”

The woman glares for a moment, then mutters to herself in a much colder tone, “I do not like the look of this one.”

It halts me, but an instant later she turns her head and gestures toward a rickety chair in the corner. I grab it and take my seat across from her.

“My name is Maria Sanchez.” I reach out to shake her hand, but she doesn’t move an inch.

“What do you want?” The cold tone is gone, back to her original. The rapid change in her demeanor would be striking if I hadn’t seen the same in Javier and Vaughn.

“Just came to ask you some questions.”

She looks to the side, says under her breath, “Questions, questions, questions, always with the questions, and they never want to believe the answers.”

She looks down at her feet. “I already find this new woman tiresome.”

Then up at the ceiling. “Just shut up and be glad someone wants to talk to us.”

“Talk to us, or you, or me?” she says with a chuckle as she looks back down to her feet. “This part always confuses me.”

Finally, she’s back to me. Her mouth is smiling but the wrinkles around her eyes are unmoved and the eyes themselves are icy. “Please, go on, I love answering questions.”

I’m doing all I can to ignore my discomfort, and the worry I’m getting from Rebecca and Isabel aren’t helping. Samantha is like Vaughn or Javier but somehow even worse and as I sit here watching her I realize that she’s both my past and my future: a healthy, successful woman, but one who’s been pushed so far beyond her breaking point that she doesn’t even bother hiding the five or six most prominent souls within her, choosing instead to just let them rip on unsuspecting bystanders. Even Vaughn tried to hide it.

“I’d like to talk about how you got here,” I finally say.

She leans back, pondering the answer, before looking over her shoulder and growling, “Just tell her the truth.”

Then to the other shoulder. “The truth is what got us in here to begin with!”

You could hear a pin drop in the pregnant pause that follows. Finally, she turns to me, her voice cracking with uncertainty. “We—I, I’ve been killed hundreds of times.” She trails off, surely aware of how ludicrous what she’s saying seems. “And each time I’ve been reborn with another soul inside me.”

As soon as she’s done speaking to me, her eyes lock onto her feet. “There’s no way this bitch is going to believe you.”

“Oh, I do.”

She snaps an icy glare in my direction. The look on her face is chaos. There’s anger at having cut her off in the middle of her conversation. There’s confusion that I was able to respond to something she didn’t think I could hear. There’s genuine intrigue that I didn’t dismiss it outright. She swallows. “You… what?”

“I think I’m going through the same thing you went through.”

“Impossible.” The way she says it is both dismissive and offended. She peeks her head around mine, yells to the nurse outside the door, who is leaning up against the wall by the door and peering at us from around the corner. “Is this some kind of joke?” A forced laugh follows, one trained all-too-well by the myriad psychologists who have no doubt taken one look at her and deemed her to be beyond saving.

“A man by the name of Gerard has been killing me over and over for just over a week,” I say, trying to catch her gaze. “Well, not Gerard himself, but his ‘hunters’, as he calls them.”  

Her jaw hangs open as the words wash over her, the remnants of her cackle halting, her breath a slow exhale. Her dead, gray-blue eyes fill with fear and her voice trembles. “Who sent you?”

“No one sent me, I—”

“He can’t know we’re talking to you.” There’s a dreadful immediacy in her voice, like the fear of Gerard has somehow forced all her moving parts to work in unison. “You have to leave.”

“No, but I need—”

She’s receding into her seat, shrinking away from me. “Make her leave, make her leave.” I can’t tell which one is saying this, but I suppose that doesn’t matter.

“I’ll leave as soon as you tell me a few things.” I reach over and place my arm on her knee, which seems to calm her. “Please, I’m begging, I need your help.”

“Need my help?”

Her head jerks to the side. “It could be a trap!”

“She could also be just like us,” she says calmly over the other shoulder.

“If she was just like you,” she says, looking at her feet, “wouldn’t she already know Gerard?”

She stops, looking right through me, pondering what she just said, which also piques my own curiosity.

“You actually know him?” I say. “I’ve only met him once or twice.”

Her glare returns. “Why is he torturing you?” she demands.

“I—Victoria, my original self—was hired to steal something of his.” I take a calming breath. My own memories are just as painful as hers. “A man by the name of Albert hired me to steal a small, green, pulsating gem from Gerard’s vault. Gerard caught me in the middle.”

She grins like I hoped she would at the sound of Albert’s name. “Albert…” Her voice trails off.

“Yes, Albert. Are you Samantha?”

The name catches her attention. “How do you know that name?”

“I was told by a man named Vaughn.”

She claps her hands, giddy. “Oh, you know Vaughn, too!”

Yes, but he’s in danger. They both are, Albert and Vaughn.”

Her grin turns to a frown and she looks back at the ceiling. “So that’s why wasn’t here yesterday.”

Then to her feet. “I was starting to think he was too sad.”

“Too sad?” she says, the woman who I would guess is the original Samantha. Her head looks up and down in silence, her expression anguished, but the other souls do no answer her question.

“I need your help saving them.” I just need to pull her together enough to get a cogent response. “And myself. Gerard’s torturing us all just like he was torturing you, sending his hunters after me and telling me the only way I can get free is to find him.”

She leans back and gives a knowing grin. “Ahh, now it makes sense that you found me.”

“How so?”

“Because he’s training you to be like him,” she says matter-of-factly. “He’s training you for the Children, which means you must be good at this.”

My mouth slacks open. Isabel, Rebecca, and Ally have all been pretty quiet up until now, but they each gasp in my head, a mixture of surprise, disbelief, and anger.

“Training?” The question comes from the soul over her shoulder, but only because I’m too stunned to ask first.

“Yes, training. Teaching you how to use soul magic.”

I can’t help but laugh. “That’s ridiculous, lady. That’s maybe the craziest thing you’ve said all day.”

“He wouldn’t give you a goal if he just wanted to torture you,” she says. “Gerard is deliberate. When he did this to me, there were never any goals other than run as fast as you can until he uses your anchor to find you.” She shudders, her voice trembling. “Obviously, I wasn’t as good at it as you are, and I was already part of the Family.”

Javier springs to mind, who it seemed had no purpose, no drive. Same with Vaughn. Perhaps the notes to them were not like mine. Perhaps they didn’t get any notes at all. Just wake up, die, rinse, repeat.

“This doesn’t make any sense.” Rebecca and Isabel are confused and bewildered, but the feelings I’m getting from Ally are nothing but rage. “Why torture me if he wants to recruit me?”

“You have to prove your worth. We all did to get accepted into the Family.”

Get accepted into the Family? Fuck that. He already took my family from me.”

She looks to her shoulder, a cruel laugh. “The girl says it now, but when it’s between being tortured or being part of the Family, they always pick being part of the Family.”

I feel my fists clench almost by themselves, my fingernails digging into my palms. Manipulation. Somehow even worse than just toying for me for fun. “So, you were part of the Family?”

She exhales and looks down, inward. “Yes, I was. How do you think I met Albert and Vaughn?”

She jerks her head to her shoulder before I can respond. “And you blew it!”

Then over to the other shoulder. “Blew it? I didn’t do anything but ask him about the donation.”

“That was just the end,” she growls. “You were fucking up well before that.”

She stomps her foot on the ground. I’m surprised the thin leg doesn’t break in two. “You were as close to him as anyone. Even closer to him than Albert was.”

“But you dropped the ball on the most important mission in ages and he pushed you away, and then you followed him around like an idiot to figure out what the next moves were until he caught you. You’re so stupid! You deserve all of this! And the rest of us are being punished for nothing!”

She’s jerking her head back and forth, arguing with herself. Rather, each soul within her, or the most prominent ones, are arguing amongst themselves. This does look bad from the outside, so no wonder she’s where she is now, but I completely understand. There’s no insanity here, just the emotional and fragmented souls of lives once lived trying their damnedest to gain control.

The nurse’s footsteps approach from behind and it suddenly feels like my last chance is slipping away. “All right, Amanda, that’s enough,” the woman says calmly. “We’ll have to say goodbye to your visitor.”

The nurse’s hand is on my shoulder. It’s gentle but firm, with the impression that she will not hesitate to be more forceful if I refuse.

“Samantha, please, just one last thing.” The nurse pulls me to my feet. “Tell me where Albert might be if he’s on the run. Or where Gerard is. I need to end this as quickly as I can.” My knee buckles as the nurse suddenly yanks my arm, and the rest of my words are winced through a grunt. “Please, help me avoid what you became. Please.”

Samantha’s arguments stop abruptly, mid-sentence. Her eyes lock onto my own. “There’s an old warehouse out in the industrial district, in the middle of an abandoned industrial park. There’s a basement underneath that goes much deeper than you’d expect. Last time Albert came here he said the team had just moved headquarters. You’ll find Gerard there.”

Relief courses through my veins, even as the nurse yanks me from the room. Optimism sifts over to me from Isabel and Rebecca, while Ally’s silence gives off the impression of stunned disbelief. My leads aren’t all dry yet. Hopefully this one ends better than the rest.

Chapter 19 here.

Chapter 21 here.

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