Warning: Melinda’s retinas might not be the only ones burning! So bright!
Oooookay. Well, that was the weirdest thing Melinda had ever had happen to her and there had sure been a lot of weird things happening to her lately.
She had fought hard to get a barely-conscious April down the stairs and to the front door, feeling her friend tense up as they approached it. Then, as she wondered what the heck to do next, the room had been filled with a lurid green light that had gradually gotten brighter and brighter until all she could see were the wiggly veins in the back of her eyes.
Something warm and soothing bathed her lower limbs, rising up her torso, like wading into a warm sea. Melinda felt it seeping through her skin then flowing back out, almost sentient, almost hesitant as if whatever it was couldn’t decide whether to stay inside her, or not.
She’d clutched April, using April’s confusion and fear to cover her own – she couldn’t be scared, she wouldn’t be scared. She had to be brave, for both of them.
The invisible waves had no problem flowing into April and filling her. April became warm to the touch, lit from within. Melinda’s fingers traced her friend’s soft skin, this light pulsing through her like an imitation of a heartbeat. April felt alive.
She’d barely had chance to embrace this thought when it was gone. It was all gone. Melinda reached out her fingers to clutch at the fading comfort of this sensory bath, but it slipped through her like she was nothing.
Maybe she was nothing. Maybe this is what happened when a vampire died. Without a soul there was nowhere for them to go, they simply ceased to exist.
Was it her imagination or was this old house getting draughtier?
As the blue sky broke through this hazy blanket, a threatening heat blistered her skin and burned her retinas like no brightness could.
She called out into the void and felt a warm arm loop around her waist in response. She could detect a delicate, herbal perfume that had been dabbed on to a pulse point, inches from her nose. Melinda’s whole body, starving and lost in this crazy dream, pulled her towards this solid beat, her confusion and bewilderment blurring the edges of everything she thought she knew, of all the control she thought she had. Her lips were so close to this tantalising source; she could already tell this mystery drink would be divine.
Was she dreaming? She hoped she was dreaming. She was loathe to fight it. She deserved it. Watcher, just allow her this.
The very tip of Melinda’s cold nose brushed the searing heat of flesh. Her fangs extended, that icy coldness across her skin, her eyes stinging as she changed form. But this wasn’t like her usual change of form. This was lighter, purer.
Like her whole body had been disintegrated into powder and blown apart from the core. She was aware of each fragment of her being as it floated detached from the others. She reached out to grasp the warm body before her or to find April alongside her in the aether, but her touch would not connect. She was dust, she was nothing.
She hadn’t got a cohesive thought in her head. In that moment, she simply had to let go and just…
Melinda had never really thought about what the afterlife might be like, but she hadn’t anticipated there being ceramic pigs there.
She scanned her surroundings as they pieced slowly back together, until she noticed the silhouettes of three men. Their voices exploded into her consciousness, like someone had just turned the volume up. The first one most definitely a stranger, but the other two…
“Seriously; everyone knows you don’t click the ads,” rang the youthful drawl she didn’t recognise. “The ads are bad. Aw shoot; not this virus again. It took me days to get rid of it last time…”
“You’re a man of broad tastes, Vatore,” chimed in a softly-spoken older tone that almost sounded like… Broof? There was laughter in his words. “Very broad…”
“I’m not,” protested a deep, sizzling crackle that was definitely Caleb. Ugh. Melinda rolled her freshly-reformed eyes; all hope that she’d made it to the Good Place evaporating at his voice. “There was a woman, she made me do it. Not this woman, a different one. A younger one. Blonde…”
“I suppose ‘grey’ is almost blonde,” maybe-Broof chuckled. “And when you’re three hundred then yes, I suppose a human pensioner is going to seem young.”
“No. She was blonde,” Caleb explained. “And she was young. Twenties, maybe? I don’t know, I’m not great at that. And there were no men shown in any of the pictures; I don’t know what all those men are doing there. Well, I know what they’re doing, but I didn’t ask them to do that.”
“Ugh, Cal,” came a weary groan accompanied by lots of tapping. “How many things did you click on before I walked in?!”
“A couple,” Caleb said quietly. “…of hundred.”
“I… dude, how did you get onto this site? Wait. Did you enter my bank details?”
“No. They were already saved.”
“Damn,” new voice muttered under his breath. “That’s my §247 savings gone. Probably my identity too. No wonder Lils never let you near these things.”
Lils? Melinda thought. Lils as in ‘Lilith’? Was she here too?
“I’ll buy you a new one, Wyatt.”
“A new laptop or a new identity?” Broof joked, clearly finding the whole thing very amusing.
“I think I’m gonna have to take this out to the yard and shoot it,” Wyatt groaned. “It’s riddled.”
Melinda’s limbs were leaden, condensed. She felt sick to her stomach, listening to the distant voices of these three men intermingled with multiple robotic moans, exaggerated grunts and the kind of language that Faith so often favoured. As confusion turned to complete discomfort, another voice drifted from above her, thankfully drowning everything else out.
“Oh, for goodness sake, boys. If you must view those disgusting sites, must you do so in my kitchen?”
Three frantic faces turned towards her.
“Mum! I thought you were going to call?”
“Change of plan,” came the soft reply. Melinda rolled her head up to see that it was once again resting on a shoulder. It took her a moment to recognise it as belonging to Lilith’s friend. She dragged her gazed along the slender, powdered neck but oddly it no longer appealed. As she lost interest, she noticed April out cold on the shoulder opposite.
Lifeless, once again.
“April?” she whispered, but her voice sounded like Caleb’s and within seconds he’d pulled the limp girl into his arms and was holding her firm against him, snarling at Sage.
“What the hell have you done?!”
Melinda flinched as Caleb’s eyes glowed, but Sage was unaffected.
“I haven’t done a thing, sweetheart,” she sang. “But you can easily fix it. Take her. Hold her close, there’s a good boy. Broof dear, if you could take this shell-shocked little one through to the sitting room, look after her and Wyatt, for the love of the moon, turn that filth off!”
Melinda had never been this close to Broof; he looked so much younger than she remembered.
“Can you walk?” he asked softly.
Oh, that voice. Melinda could’ve cried. That gentle, familiar, kind voice that had opened doors and covered tracks for the last ten years of her life. Melinda couldn’t bring herself, in that moment, to wonder why he was here – wherever here was – instead of in jail, or to acknowledge that his stable pulse was sending her bananas. Relief washed over her at the appearance of someone solid and dependable, and she nodded. “I think so.”
As Broof guided her towards a door and she following trustingly, she glanced back over her shoulder to see Caleb still clinging to April, focused entirely on her. Even just this tiny action seemed to be stirring April from her daze.
The rotting fopdoodle.
Had he been here all this time? Watching gross movies and hanging out with the boys when April was snared in his trap, wilting and suffering, waiting for him? It irritated Melinda to no end that Caleb was the one who could just swan back in and be the hero. Whatever April said, however much she protested, this scene didn’t lie; Caleb was the one who April needed.
Whatever hope she had that she could save April, take her away and start again, died the moment April came back to life in Caleb’s arms.
“I missed you,” she whispered.
Melinda turned away, torn somewhere between the ultimate joy at hearing April’s voice and heart-wrenching grief at what she’d used it for. Broof gave her a look that conveyed his understanding or, at least, his sympathies. But a lifetime of being paid to know everything and say nothing was deeply ingrained into the bearded man so naturally, he didn’t speak.
Melinda was tired of it; tired of feeling like her insides were being wrung, tired of being used like a comfort blanket. And for what? For fricking what?!
I missed you.
Jessica had deliberated over her outfit for a good half an hour, fussing with her skirts and trying to find a blouse that didn’t look mismatched, which was hard when all she had was the clothing Pixie had dropped by for her.
Pixie was great – she’d been a lifeline connecting Jessica to the outside world – but her fashion sense left something to be desired.
Jessica selected an embroidered blouse and plain, pink tennis skirt and took one more, long glance in the mirror. She couldn’t help but let her gaze wander to her belly, still flat, wondering how long it would be before it ballooned out and forced her out of the gym and into sweatpants and baggy jumpers.
The orderly had been waiting for Jessica outside. Their patience was most unusual and it made Jessica nervous; why was it so important to look presentable for these visitors? What on earth could Gloria and Beth Wangshaft want with her?
Her visitors appeared to be having a tense exchange when Jessica entered the visitation room, Jessica could have sworn she heard the words ‘be nice or die’ but the pair fell silent as Jessica approached, further arousing her suspicion. Gloria’s face still bore that ‘something stinks’ expression, but Beth offered a cool smile, gesturing Jessica to a seat opposite that she took, tentatively.
Neither woman offered a greeting. Jessica wasn’t sure if she should speak or not but didn’t have to deliberate for long.
“I suppose you’re wondering why we’re here, Jess?” Beth said. Jessica winced at the shortening of her name. She didn’t mind being called Jess, really, more that she it felt so forced and overly-familiar in this bizarre situation. Jessica nodded and Beth smirked. “Go ahead, Glore.”
Gloria rolled her eyes. It was clear to Jessica that she was here under duress. She coughed politely and folded her hands in her lap. “Beth feels—” she began, eliciting a swift elbow in the ribs from her mumsy daughter-in-law, “Ow! Fine! We feel that Wilbur may have been rather impulsive in his judgement in sending you here.”
Jessica blinked in surprise. “You do?”
“I suppose. That is not to say that you couldn’t benefit from a little structured therapy, some guidance – ow!” she hissed as she got another elbow in the ribs. “But Beth – we – believe that can be done in a less institutionalised manner, certainly. Although we can’t be seen to be getting soft on your kind, there’s certainly capacity to reduce the situation to something less… media intensive shall we say.”
“Right, of course,” Jessica lubricated the conversation, politely.
“Goodness knows we have enough attention as it is,” Gloria continued. “With William absconding and this nonsense with the Moss girl, and now the press are sniffing around because of that police chief – Wilbur just had to visit him that morning, the blithering idiot—”
“Oh for arse’s sake,” Beth groaned. “If you beat around this bush any more, Gloria, it’ll be bald as a baby’s backside. Jess,” she said pointedly, looking directly at her. “Pack your bags and sod off.”
It took Jessica a second to recover from this onslaught of crude language before she really understood what she was being told. “I’m free to go?”
“Yep,” Beth confirmed. “And I’m hoping you’ll be happy to return to work because with Ralf being gone and all this crap happening, I don’t have time to be filing reports about shoplifting and all that other bollocks.”
“But I’ve been suspended. Mr. Wangshaft—”
“Has been overruled,” Beth snorted, gesturing between Gloria and herself. “If he thinks I’m running the WBPD single-handedly he can bugger right off.”
Jessica faltered. “You’re running the police department?”
“I am,” she muttered, “Like I’m not in charge of enough.” Beth huffed, blowing her hair from her eyes. “You’ll be working for me. Reporting to me. We’ll hire someone for patrol. You’ll be on desk duties, mostly; can’t risk any harm coming to that nooboo now, can we?” She stared Jessica down, the corner of her mouth lifted into a smile that Jessica couldn’t read. “I can probably sort out a little pay rise, too. Help you to get a nicer place. What do you say, Jess?”
Jessica clenched her jaw, her warning alarms sounding in her crowded head. Nothing about this felt right, or sat right, but Jessica was far from afraid. If she had to sum up how she felt in one word it would be: curious. Clearly, neither woman before her gave a hoot about her, or how she might be feeling about the loss of Chase, of Ralf, of being locked up and made to look in the wrong, to look crazy. This U-turn was not a move in her best interests or an act of kindness. She doubted anything the Wangshafts did was ever in kindness.
No. This was strategic and highly suspicious.
Jessica would go home, cry her heart out, plan and theorise in that order, but right now there was only one way to behave. She smiled brightly, tilting her head to convey her friendliness and reaffirm to Beth that she was the someone pliable and naïve that they clearly believed her to be.
“That sounds wonderful!” she gushed. “Thank you so much for this opportunity! I won’t let you down, Beth! Can I call you ‘Beth’? Should I call you ‘Boss’? Chief? Mrs. Wangshaft?”
“Definitely not the last one. Beth’s fine,” Beth replied tersely, Jessica’s cheer clearly grating on her. “Good stuff, Jess. I’ll see you at the station, first thing tomorrow.”
“First thing tomorrow,” Jessica repeated. “I can hardly wait!”