A New Life
t started eight years ago, on the day that I died. But to leave out what came before would be to paint only half of a picture.
When I was 20, 1
was a junior at
I came from a
very religious family; sex before marriage I could justify to myself because my
parents didn't know about it, and because it simply felt so damned good. But abortion? Or the prospect of becoming a single mother? Those were the roads to Hell. My parents had
very vividly painted pictures of every bone-wrenching torment I would endure if
I let them down, and the mere thought of telling them that I was pregnant terrified
me. I could still remember the strap my father kept beside his bed, and I knew
he would use it on me again, whether or not I was an adult. I hadn't thought seriously about marrying Eric
before, but suddenly there I was, dropping out of college, moving to
Eric had grown
thought there was anywhere left in
Sean was a model child. He was quiet, intelligent, sweet and loving. When I was married, my mother gave me a locket, a miniature mirror, and I kept my boy's picture in it, ever close to my heart. It wasn't an easy life, and I missed my studies and my college friends. I was always tired, and sometimes I cried myself quietly to sleep while Eric snored on, but gradually I became convinced that I had done the right thing. Nothing could compare to the happiness of holding Scan while he nursed at my breast. Nothing was as gratifying as watching Eric bounce Sean on his lap, talking in nonsense syllables all the while and smiling broadly.
Then Eric hit me.
It was over something foolish — a broken plate, maybe, or a burned dinner. He hadn't had a day off in over a month, he spent all of his free time chopping wood for our heat, and to top it all off, Sean hadn't been sleeping much lately and had taken to screaming all night. I know that Eric had hoped to continue some of his studies on his own — he'd brought several boxes of his books with him — but he hadn't even had time to touch them. I'm sure he didn't mean to hit me; the look on-his face was proof enough of that. He stared at me for a long moment, tears on his face, said he needed some fresh air, and walked outside. I cried for a while, and then called my mother for comfort and wisdom. She told me these things happened, and that it was my duty to be a good wife.
She reminded me that marriage is a sacrament, then she said she had laundry to do and hung up.
In some ways I hated my parents. They'd raised me in an atmosphere of strict, oppressive religion that didn't much help with real-world crises like this. It didn't matter what I wanted; it only mattered what God wanted for me. I didn't care what God wanted for me any more. I only wanted what I'd once had, the peace and happiness of those first months of marriage. But it was gradually fading away, to be replaced by a surliness and edginess on Eric's part, as well as a slowly shortening temper. He'd been very apologetic after the first time he'd hit me, and even bought me ice cream — a real luxury for us. He was back to his old loving self for almost a full month afterward. But it was only for a month, and then things started to go downhill.
I tried to give Eric the benefit of the doubt. I knew what a strain everything was on him — the constant work, his failure to continue his studies, Sean's screaming. His health had begun to fail a little, and he could be heard coughing loudly every morning after he woke up. I felt that it was my fault, and I tried to make it up to him by being quiet and staying out of the way. It wasn't enough.
I finally realized, one icy January morning in Sean's second year, that I just couldn't do it any more. I sat crying in our cramped kitchen, bruises on my wrists where Eric had grabbed me, burns on my legs already blistering from the contents of a skillet of sizzling bacon he'd thrown at me, and I knew I had to leave. The situation had escalated so quickly from maybe-forgivable to absolutely intolerable that I'd almost failed to react in time.
Once I'd bandaged my legs, I called my mother. Eric was chopping wood again outside, and I was sure that he wouldn't let me leave if I just tried to walk out. If I could get my parents to come pick me up, though, surely he wouldn't dare to do anything while they were around.
"Answer the phone, mom, answer the phone." I didn't even realize I was talking out loud, I was so preoccupied. Neither did I realize that the sound of the axe hitting the wood had stopped, nor that the door had very quietly opened, and that Eric was standing right behind me.
"What do you want to talk to her about?"
I jumped, dropping the phone, and turned. There was Eric, dressed in a plaid work shirt and scuffed jeans, tiny icicles forming on his scraggly blond beard, his axe held in one gloved hand.
I ran, forgetting even about Sean in the next room. I ran out the door in only a bathrobe and slippers, dead grass crunching under my feet. I ran for the woods, too terrified to think, only caring about escape. I heard him behind me, his boots loud on the path. He yelled at me to stop, and his pleas quickly became threats. Of course I wasn't dressed for the outdoors; eventually I tripped on a rock and fell. I tried to get up but he was already there, his body blocking the sunlight, the axe raised.
It hit my arm first — the arm I had instinctively raised in an attempt to ward off the inevitable. The blunt end of the axe splintered the bone with a loud crunching, and I had a brief vision of my hand and upper arm hanging at an insane angle, jagged shards of bone protruding from the skin, as he raised the axe again. I tried to scream, but my entire body was numb. I couldn't move. Blood and gristle spattered my face as the axe slammed into my body again and again, shattering bones, rending muscles. I felt something deep inside me give, and then everything went dark.
Nothing happened to Eric. He, his boyish charm and his oh-sheriff-you-remember-my-father-don't-you? attitude got away with it. He killed me and didn't spend a single day in jail. He even took my locket off my still-warm body, washed it and gave it to a liquor store owner in the next town in return for some whiskey. I wept, unable to face the idea of a stranger having my Sean's picture. The spirit of the old woman who was supposed to haunt our house found me as soon as I came through the Shroud; she tore away my Caul and took me under her wing. She was like a mother to me, and she began to explain things, to teach me how to manipulate this shadow-world. Slowly I adjusted to my new home.
At first it was difficult for me to accept the lack of any Heaven or Hell, but eventually I had to believe in the evidence of my own senses. I had left so much undone that it was impossible for me to just leave life behind, and my guilt and fear for Sean once I wasn't there to take the brunt of Eric's anger kept me always by my child's side.
I had what I wanted, at least some of the time. In the Shadowlands, my other half was weak, and I could sometimes take control — actual physical and mental control. It was wonderful! It made everything worthwhile: the beatings, the pain, the helplessness. But there was still something missing. I watched my husband, in our house, with our brat, and I couldn't help feeling that he'd won, gotten everything he wanted without price or trial. I needed my revenge. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted him to know that there was nothing he could do to save himself from me. Most of all, I wanted him to feel the way he'd so often made me feel — utterly and completely helpless.
So I learned.
I learned how to affect the physical world, even though I was no longer of it. I learned how to affect the living, though I was no longer one of them. It was difficult. Monumental. But it was worth it.
Eric had gotten away with murdering me. A heavy snowfall that evening wiped out all traces of any tracks I might have made, and Eric had carefully buried the bloody mass of skin and bones that was my body under a pile of rocks deep within the woods, where no one except for the occasional very lost hiker went. He reported me missing to the police, recovering the old college charm that had attracted me to him in the first place as he convinced them that "we had a little argument" and that I'd left afterwards. He told them he'd thought I was just trying to teach him a lesson, and that I'd be back, but that he'd begun to worry when night fell. He pretended guilt, crying as he told them that it was his fault for being angry with me.
It made me sick.
The police were naturally a little suspicious to begin with; they even searched the backyard for signs of excavation in case Eric had been stupid enough to bury me there. But the sheriff had his priorities, and they didn't leave much room for one lost woman — especially when the only available suspect was an old friend of the family.
The old woman, Mae, couldn't teach me everything I needed to know, but she did have friends. They visited once or twice a year and stayed for a while. She called them Renegades. She said that her house was everything to her and that she didn't want to leave it to help them against the Hierarchy, but that she agreed with their cause. Thus, she pretended to be a good Hierarchy servant most of the time, but she kept the house safe for her friends.
There were five Renegades who usually visited, and I learned everything I could from them. I would have traveled with them in order to learn more, but I couldn't stand the idea of being away from my child.
The first thing I learned was how to communicate with my son. He was all that really mattered to me now, and I was determined to remain a part of his life. I was a quick learner and I had every reason to study as hard as I could. I soon learned how to attune myself to Sean, and it became easier and easier to whisper in his ear. Eventually I even learned how to manifest myself, albeit intangibly, to his sight.
Sean was frightened at first, but he'd begun to be even more afraid of his father's temper. Eric's frequent girlfriends just made him nervous, so he had nowhere else to turn. I was afraid that we would grow apart as he grew older, but he was a shy child, and he never developed any real friends. The law required that Eric send Sean to school, but it didn't require him to take Sean to games, or buy him toys, or hold him when he cried.
Eventually Eric began to take his insecurities out on Sean. I cared little for the pest, but Eric didn't deserve a child at all. I wanted nothing more than to kill my husband, to see his eyes grow dim, to feel his skin cool beneath my hands.
For a couple of years a certain Renegade named Steven Ardwright had been coming regularly to the house. He intrigued me — I felt as though he was staring right through to me, as though he knew exactly what I was and what I wanted. One day he said that there was a way to go back to the land of the living, and that he could teach it to me, for a small price. I knew I had to learn it. I craved my revenge.
Eric's abuse of Sean was inevitable, of course, but my other half refused to accept this, shadow-tears streaming down her face as our son called our name. And in her refusal I saw my chance. We had learned what Ardwright had to offer, and I now knew that there was a way in which we might both achieve our goals: that she might save our child, and I might have our revenge.
Thus was the covenant made.
It was difficult at first. My muscles were unused to movement, and there were three feet of rocks and frozen dirt between myself and life. But the strength of the dead is greater than that of the living, and before long I was in the woods, crawling through the grass and rocks while my bones re-knit as best they could.
The first thing I did was to go to the liquor store. I was lucky that it was late and dark, a week night and a rural area. Nobody saw me. When I got there, I broke a window with a rock and went inside. Unfortunately I hadn't counted on the owner being there. Lucky for me he was drunk off his ass, so it was easy to hit him over the head with the same rock I'd used to get in. There was a satisfying crunch, and he just folded over onto the counter and bled quietly. In a way it was too easy — it terrified me that I might have just killed someone and I hardly felt guilty at all. Where was all of the religion I'd been brought up on? Where were my moral values? Had eight years of death been enough to counter everything I believed in during 20 years of life?
I made myself a promise not to harm anyone else. I would just take Sean, maybe scare Eric a little, and go.
But first I had to get the locket — the locket that called to me, pulled at me from the depths of a locked strongbox on a back shelf. The padlock bent and twisted out of shape at my newfound strength, and soon I had what I needed. I felt strange as I put it on; I felt stronger, but there was an odd, almost dark, quality about it that made me a little uneasy.
My relief as I was reunited with my other half was great; I had no wish to spend my brief life as a trinket in someone's collection. It was bad enough that I had to use the locket as my portal to the living world in the first place. I wanted a body. I could do some things with this one, but it was mostly under her control, and that angered me. I hated her for having what I wanted. Yet for the moment our goals were the same, and soon we were underway.
Before long I reached our back yard, and I pulled a sheet off the clothesline. I wrapped it about myself in place of the decayed tatters of my bathrobe, thankful that Eric's latest girlfriend did laundry.
When I neared the house, I heard with my death-sharpened senses the sounds of my husband and his companion breathing the slow breath of sleep, of my son snoring softly. I worked the unlocked door open and stumbled slowly to Sean's room. With the amount of noise I was making I was lucky that the master bedroom was at the other end of the small house. Still, after a moment I heard Eric's voice, muffled with sleep, over the low tones of the radio he liked to keep playing while he slept.
"Go find out what that damn kid's up to this time."
There was a murmur of assent in a woman's voice and then movement. I left Sean's room and waited in the shadows nearby. I could hear that Sean was awake, but he was probably too frightened of his father to open his door. Even before the woman came into view, I could hear Eric snoring loudly once again. Then an intense jealousy arose out of nowhere, a realization that Eric had killed me but this slut was allowed to live, and rage swept over me.
I grasped a heavy bookend in my twisted hands and swung it at her as she came out of the hallway. Before she even knew I was there, she was on the floor, bleeding from a gash in her skull. I lifted up the bookend and brought it down again — and again, and again, and again, until her head was a bloody mass of skull fragments, brains and hair. I giggled at the sound of her skull cracking until I remembered that I didn't want to wake Eric just yet. It was a good thing that he slept soundly — I could still hear him snoring.
I went to Eric's room as slowly as possible, trying to keep from waking him with my stumbling gait. His breathing was slow, soft, and peaceful. His blond hair was mussed; his mouth was slightly open. He looked, for all the world, innocent.
It pissed me off.
I climbed slowly into our bed, taking care not to move the mattress too much. He mumbled a little and rolled onto his back, and I held myself absolutely still for what seemed an eternity. If I'd needed to breathe in the first place I would have stopped then. I maneuvered until I was curled up beside him, almost as when I was alive. My hands were cold from the October earth, so I warmed them between the sheets before I touched him.
I slid my hand gently over his stomach, fingers barely grazing the skin. My lips pressed against his shoulder, then his chest, leading a trail toward his navel. He moaned low in his throat and shifted slightly, but he didn't wake up.
Patiently I worked the sheet down off his body. He was already stiffening as I reached his groin, his body remembering the touch he knew so well. Carefully I began to caress him, my dead flesh wandering over him in all the ways that used to please him.
"Oh, that's so good..." He stopped in mid-sentence as he woke up, suddenly cognizant of where and when he was, and of the fact that there was a woman in his bed, that it was his wife, and that he had murdered her himself.
His scream was every bit of Heaven that I could have wanted.
It was so difficult to keep myself from killing him. Almost impossible. But I did it. He helped by jumping out of the bed and running, completely naked, into the night. There was blood on his belly from where I'd scratched him as he'd moved, and I could hear his screams echoing throughout the house as he ran.
I called the police. I said that I'd been driving by this small house and heard screams and the sounds of a man yelling. He sounded very angry. Could they please check it out? Well, certainly, they'd be right up, and thank you very much for calling, ma'am. As I spoke with them I heard an announcer on the radio say that there'd been a break-in at a local liquor store. The proprietor had been found injured and taken to a hospital for treatment. I breathed a sigh of relief at that, thankful that I had not actually killed him.
I wished that I could say the same thing about the woman.
I wept when I saw her lying there, naked, Eric's footprints in a line through the blood, but I had little time to spare for mourning. I went to Sean's room, a little afraid of how he would respond to me, but all of my efforts to keep in touch with my child had paid off. He was a little frightened at first, and he didn't want to get close to me, but he knew me and was more than willing to leave with me. I led him out, careful to shield the sight of the dead woman from his eyes, and we ran into the woods.
At last, Sean and I were alone. No matter the problems to come I intended to raise my child, the most important thing in the world to me.
I couldn't believe it. All of that effort was for nothing; he'd gotten away. I was furious. Yes, he was in jail for the murder of his girlfriend, but what did that accomplish? Jail was a picnic compared to what I'd had planned for him. I could have stretched out his torment for days, at least, if not weeks. I would have taught him the true meaning of Hell.
Now I might
never have that chance, because I was stuck taking care of this mewling brat of
a child. It was his fault I'd gotten into this mess in the first place. If he
hadn't been born, I
wouldn't have been in
Sean gasped as I took his throat in my hands. The icy cold of my fingers and the ragged edges of my nails cut into his flesh, leaving deep marks.