The fire had already attracted the attention of others. When I turned the corner onto the funeral home’s street I could see people who’d come outof other places of business — an all night diner down the street; a gas station caddycorner from that — to gawk. A couple were on their phones, so I assumed firefighters were on their way. At least, they were if anyone had bothered to call for them. One of the gawkers looked like he was filming the conflagration on his phone, instead of calling for help on it.
None of those people were nearby, between me and the fire, or doing anything useful, though. So I ignored them. I dashed through the empty parking lot outside the funeral home and toward the tattered and burning awning over the front entrance. I could see flames and smoke behind every window; pouring out from some where the glass or seal had been damaged by the heat of the fire.
It looked like this time the fire had been started from inside, as flames weren’t licking up the outside of the building and the windows hadn’t been shattered. But if it had been started by a vampire moving in frozen time, he could have done something to ignite every room in the place simultaneously as far as the outside world was concerned. Even if the firedepartment was on its way, I suspected they wouldn’t be able to do much more than ensure the fire didn’t spread to other buildings: by the time they arrived I imagined the funeral parlor would have already been consumed to the point of collapsing into an unsalvageable bonfire.
The heat of the fire struck me before I was even halfway to the building. A sheen of cold, clammy; nervous sweat that had drenched me after Elaine left dried — evaporated? — before I reached the front door. Its absence let me pretend I wasn’t absolutely terrified of having a burning building collapse on me. My overactive anxiety, however, refused to let that help my nerves abate.
I’m dead. I mean: I’m undead. But I’m going to be dead, because I am so, so stupid! What the fuck was I doing? I mean: it’s not like Linda was alive in there. Except… the idea that rescuing her corpse might mean finding her ghost made it feel like she kind of sort of was.
Fuck me. Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me. I forced myself to barge through the funeral home’s front doors. In the foyer, heat assaulted me. Smoke burned my eyes and nose. I covered them with my hands and struggled to orient myself anyway. Fuck me! I hunched while I cursed myself, and forced myself to stop coughing by reminding myself of what Elaine had told me: I didn’t actually have to breath.
At least when this place comes crashing down it’ll save on expenses, my practical side observed while I tried to remember where anything was. No one will have to rent a funeral home, pay for me to be incinerated or for me to be buried. Talk about your two for one deals: I was going to be cremated and buried simultaneously if I didn’t hurry.
Honestly, I could understand taking pride in offering the best services for the price, but I kind of thought Mister Kallaher’s Funeral Home was going a bit too far above and beyond, there.
I turned away from the viewing room I had been in the other night. Mister Kallaher’s ghost had said they’d stashed Linda’s remains in a freezer. That meant… the basement? Yes. John had gone downstairs to get a snack from the freezers, before. Upstairs was Mister Kallaher’s personal, warded rooms. I wanted nothing to do with breaking into that.
I turned in the direction that I remembered John going the other night. I fought through the smoke and heat. Fortunately, most of the flames seemed to be growing along the cabinets and displays lining the inner walls, so I didn’t have to wade directly through the fire. Of course, that probably just meant the building was going to fall on me sooner, my pessimistic side pointed out. And as it was, the heat hurt worse than any shower I’d ever scalded myself with. And it was a fucking dry heat.
My supernaturally acute vision did me no good when it was blurred by smoke and tears that dried out before they could even spill out onto my cheeks. My nose and throat burned even though I wasn’t breathing. I stumbled toward where I thought the stairs were. The roar and crackle of flames throughout the building ruined my hearing, and I was pretty sure that the only reason I hadn’t burst into flames yet was that my clothes weren’t really real and the rest of me was subject to vampiric regeneration.
At least, I assumed regeneration was the reason for the flakes of ash that seemed to grow on and flake off of my arms and legs and face — and the steady diminishing of the buffered aura coiled around my curse.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck! I reached the stairs that led up and went past them to the open door that stood in the wall at their foot. Sure enough, a second stairway descended beyond that — but whoever had started this act of arson had must have doubled down in the basement. The heat that rose up through the door at the top of the steps was enough to dizzy me.
I staggered, slipped, and started to stumble down the stairs. These ones weren’t enclosed, like the basement stairs in Hans’ house. Instead, to my left the stairs were open to the basement. Fortunately, I caught myself against the cinder block wall on my right instead of plummeting off the other side.
Although I was more than half blind, I still managed to follow the wall down to the basement floor without doing much worse than scraping my palms and bruising a knee. Admittedly, gravity was a pretty big help there. And my regeneration mended all those abrasions just like it kept my skin from scorching or flesh from melting.
At the foot of the stairs I fell onto my hands and knees. The air close to the floor was marginally cooler — I only noticed because of my enhanced senses, I think. It was also slightly clearer: the smoke was a haze rather than a thick, roiling cloud. I scrubbed at my watering eyes — I couldn’t stop the burning sensation from the smoke, but I did manage to clear my vision. I blinked repeatedly while I tried to get my bearings in the unfamiliar room.
The basement was finished. As in: it had been finished, but was more of scorched mess now. It had once had carpet and wood paneling past the stairway. It looked like there was some kind of lift in the back — maybe for moving corpses more easily? Now there was fire everywhere.
Against one of the far walls I spotted the freezers: there were a handful of big deep freezers like I would expect to see in a restauraunt or serial killer’s garage, next to a series of small square metal doors set in the wall — like you’d expect to find in a morgue. Right. I took a half shuffle toward them, but then stopped.
The morgue drawers were closed. So were the freezers. If I were a villainous vampire trying to destroy a corpse, I wouldn’t leave it where it would be the most protected from my arson, and while those drawers and freezers were likely to be ruined and buried, I imagined they would also serve as an at least modestly effective firebreak.
So I looked over the rest of the room, which led me to blurt “oh, fuck me,” despite myself.
On the other side of the room was a metal table. It was the kind with wheels, but I almost didn’t notice those because they were buried under a pile of ash, coals, and flame that looked like had once been books and broken furniture. And on top of that bonfire was a closed wooden casket.
It was a fucking pyre. And it had already been lit.
Flames licked the side of the casket. Its finish was already discolored from the heat. The handles alongside it burned where they were flammable and glowed where the metal under the padded grips was exposed.
“Dammit!” I shouted. “Dammit, dammit, dammit!” I ran toward they pyre. I should’ve stopped time when Elaine left my side. Maybe then the pyre wouldn’t be the inferno it was now. God dammit! I should have fucking stopped time, but the best I could do now was be quick and hope it was enough. The heat was hideous: for the far too many-ith time, I felt my hair ignite as I lunged through the flames and grabbed for the casket.
I caught one of the handles and yanked, even as blistering pain made me scream and let go. My palm stuck, and burnt flesh tore away when I instinctively yanked my hand back. But I’d exerted enough of my superhuman strength that the casket was pulled off the table. It slid halfway down the pyre and clunked against the floor.
I sobbed and cradled my hand. I had burns all over, but they were healing as fast as they’d formed — even the pain in my hand was already just a phantom memory. But the buffer around my curse was perilously thin, and I was blinded from the heat and smoke. I straightened and, unwilling to grab at the casket again, I kicked it hard enough to send it skidding the rest of the way off the pyre. It scattered coals across the exposed floor of the basement — the carpet had already burnt away almost everywhere.
From upstairs I heard loud crashes as something gave way. A cabinet? A ceiling? I was too aware of the fact that I was working on a time limit. A limit that precluded second d chances. I steeled myself and then ripped open the casket’s lid. Wood splintered — one of the opposite hinges gave way and twisted apart as the lid twisted askew; another was torn out of the casket’s side. Half of the lid flipped aside, but it was the half over the body’s head and torso.
I looked at the corpse inside. At Linda. Her eyes were open and clouded — no one had bothered to close them. Her skin looked like wax — except it wasn’t melting despite the hellish inferno consuming the pyre and wood paneled walls and every other burnable thing in the basement room. Now that they weren’t overshadowed by the flames licking up the pyre, even the casket had it’s own individual flames. They just hadn’t consumed the box enough to get at the corpse inside, yet.
Oh: And in the middle of Linda’s chest was a gaping wound. A hole at least the size of my fist.
If I could have broken into a sweat I think I would have, but it was simply too hot. I was probably dehydrated. I was definitely only focusing on that because seeing Linda’s body was freaking me out even more than Kallaher’s had. But despite my escapist nature a part of me knew why I was here, and that part of me drove me to reach my awareness upward. Be quick, Elaine had said, and so I looked. I felt for my leyline connection to Linda, and I looked between worlds for her ghost — for any sign that this hadn’t been a waste of time and effort.
I felt no pull on the leyline that had connected me to the witch. I saw no sign of a ghost in the space between worlds. There was nothing there except an empty, bloody corpse.
I screamed. I screamed as loudly as my scorched throat would let me. I screamed in frustration and anger and pain. My questions would remain unanswered. I hurt so thoroughly I couldn’t even say that it was my lungs or my eyes or my skin that burned — I was simply in pain. I had run into a fucking burning building — I was scorched to the point of burning, again, even if I hadn’t ignited yet — and it was all for nothing!
I sank to my knees. My scream left me exhausted. It ended in a sob. I hoped — desperately — that Elaine had met with more success than I had. Otherwise…. I tried to stifle my tears, but I was too ashamed. Too wracked with sudden guilt.
Otherwise, what was the point? Elaine had put so much effort and time into helping me overcome my panic attacks so I could help her. She had stood up to a Director to argue on my behalf and include me. And here I hadn’t accomplished anything except wasting her time.
Wasting her time and draining my aura dangerously low.
My shoulders shook. I needed to leave. Needed to escape, but I couldn’t. Despite the pain; despite knowing the house was burning down around me, I couldn’t make myself move any more than I had been able to make myself stop time earlier. Not without help. I needed help for everything, and I still fucked it all up.
Despair. Futility. Guilt. Shame. I tried so hard. And yet I kept screwing up. And when I screwed up, other people paid the price. Hans’ and Emma’s auras were shattered because I’d fed on them. Megan was being turned into Emma’s familiar because I’d dragged her into the faerie world. Daniel was cursed twice over because I’d crossed his path and brought him to Lewellyn’s attention. Mister Kallaher had died because I showed up and the people who’d abducted him panicked. And even though Elaine had stuck her neck out to advocate for me, here I was: doing her absolutely no good in return.
If anyone deserved to die in a fire, it was me.
Fuck, at least if I died like that it would stick. No more failing people. No more coming back just to die again. One more round of agony, and then it would just be over.
Of course, as soon as the buffer around my curse gave out, I’d stop caring about my fucking failures. I’d stop being fucking depressed. No, I’d just be a psychopathic bloodthirsty self-centered predator, instead. I needed to escape before that could happen — but I still couldn’t overcome my self-loathing and despair and guilt, and knowing that failing to do so would turn me into a monster just made me start crying harder because I was fucking up again, even knowing someone else would probably pay the price.
Maybe… maybe if enough of the funeral home collapsed before my curse took over I would be too trapped for the monster to escape before it was destroyed. I’d never feed on anyone again. No one else would die because of me.
I’d only been suicidal — actively suicidal — once before. Every other time I’d considered ending it, I’d been too freaked out by the thought of the blood or the pain or the pure horror of the act of self mutilation that taking a knife to my wrists would require. Even when I punished myself — when I hurt myself to cope with the anxiety and depression and panic — I’d never done anything visible. And while I’d always told myself that was just so no one would find out; so I wouldn’t risk making my problems into someone else’s — I also knew that somehow leaving visible injuries would have been too real for me to stomach. I wouldn’t have been able to tell myself that the pain I inflicted on myself didn’t really matter, if it had left marks behind.
But in the past week I’d been murdered brutally. I’d been stabbed. I’d been shot in the head. I’d had parts of my soul ripped open, torn out, consumed. I’d been burned alive, more times than I could recollect in an instant. I’d voluntarily had chunks cut out of my arms and fed to a ghoul.
So what was once more? What was stopping me from doing something real again? Just one more time and then I could stop being a fuck up, a failure — or worse, a monster.
I could stop suffering, over and over again. I….
I could make myself go dormant. I didn’t need to feel the pain. If I separated myself from my body, would my curse even be able to keep mending it? I might be able to just let myself burn up while I watched from the tranquility of dormancy. I might be able to end it without letting my curse burn through it’s buffer; without turning into a monster… I’d just be some kind of ghost, or shade, or whatever. An otherworldly presence, permanently dormant without a body to even return to, and trapped in the burnt out basement of a collapsed building. Trapped where no one would ever walk — within the five foot radius of my awareness — where I could bother them again.
And I almost gave in to that temptation. I almost started to shut down. I almost forced myself to stop breathing, to stop sobbing; to stop feeling.
But before I could, a cool hand touched my wrist. An unnatural pressure washed over me, pushing back the heat and the smoke to the edges of the room. I jerked my head up in shock at the touch — and blind panic at having somehow been caught in the middle of one of my breakdowns. In the middle of the worst one I’d ever had! My ingrained fear of being caught out as a sniveling, terrified, neurotic freak was enough to momentarily overcome everything else.
And then it was swept away by shock and disbelief as I saw who had caught me in my self despair and tears.
Linda was sitting up. Her fingers rested gently on my arm. Her face was a picture of condescending pity. The hole in her chest remained: it was a disconcerting reminder that she’s supposed to be dead!
But she wasn’t. Even though I still didn’t sense a thing from our leyline; couldn’t read her aura down it.
“Oh, Abigail,” Linda said. “Don’t give up on my behalf. That would just be pathetic.“