A Life in Six Payments

by Daifuku Hoyako (惰猪腹 ほや子)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/95711.html)

“I’ve changed my mind,” Mari said while she tried to negotiate the curving on-ramp at seventy.

Her shoulder angel, who had sounded like Bridget for the past forty years, told her to slow down before she killed someone and stomped on its imaginary passenger brake. Her shoulder devil told her that only pussies yielded to traffic when merging.

“I know it was my idea,” she continued.

She unbuckled her seatbelt and rooted in the glove box to find a half-empty pack by feel. She was ready to eat a cigarette, anything to get her fix. She wanted that simple, gut-level pattern of craving and indulgence. She glanced at Bridget in the rearview. She was bundled head to foot, but Mari had kept a little space free over her face, so her closed eyes were just visible from the front seat. Even if Bridget wasn’t currently breathing, she wouldn’t like to feel suffocated. Mari rolled the unlit cigarette between her fingers. She wasn’t allowed to smoke in the car. The first hard intake of smoke came with a side order of guilt and she promised she’d detail the car herself when everything was over.

“But I was under duress, so I might not have been using my best judgment. Yes, it qualifies as duress if I need to fuck right the hell now and you’re making conversation instead.”

Traffic was pre-dawn light. The last of the weekend partiers were giving way to Monday’s bleary-eyed citizens, armed with their coffees and windows opened to the cold freeway air. Mari blew past a man steering and holding a cup with one hand and operating an electric shaver with the other.

“It’s just that I’m not normally allowed to bring people back. I mean, if we all did it, even once, people would be stacked three deep these days. There are rules for this sort of thing.”

Mari felt the pull of her destination, a string that stretched between it and her soul. Or what passed for a soul in her, she thought. But she kept looking for a familiar off-ramp and finding none. Cameron rang a bell, until she remembered that, yes, in Murray Creek, Arizona, Cameron went somewhere useful. Here, it just turned off into a big stretch of nothing on her mental map.

“Fine, so I don’t usually follow rules. But this is a big one. Yes, bigger than that whole charming the judge fiasco. That was a parking ticket compared to this.

“Also, did you have to move so far away? I for one am grateful that your sister can’t drop in every Saturday for tea, but driving for an hour to get to a cemetery is not what I needed to be doing right now.”

Mari flicked the butt of her cigarette out the window and watched the cascade of sparks trail behind the car for an instant.

“Bri, there are—I can’t believe I’m saying this—there are consequences for everything. I didn’t tell you everything that night.”

Mari lit another and puffed on it fitfully.

“It’s no big deal, I guess.”

She looked back at Bridget, swaddled in their favorite blanket. She might have been sleeping. Or maybe she was feeling sick and Mari was taking her to the hospital. Even that would have been an improvement. Mari tossed the cigarette and put the pack back in the glove box.

“Except, it’s a bit of a deal with the devil thing. I, uh, I have to give some things up in exchange.”

The car rattled as it hit a pothole. Good ole transportation department standards. If it is smaller than a Mini, it can stay. Mari looked back at Bridget again. One bluish hand had slipped out of the blanket and hung over the edge of the seat.

“I’m sorry, babe,” Mari said.

She reached back to push the hand back up. It slipped again and the whole arm was visible. Mari took a shuddering breath and scrubbed at her face.

“Just hang in there. I’ll fix everything. Just- Just hang on.”

The freeway was starting to fill with cars and the road was a shimmering tail of red lights ahead of her. It was barely four.

“When this is over, we’re moving to some nice retirement community. Don’t give me that bullshit about there being nothing to do but gossip and bingo, either. If I can cope, you can too. Anything so I never have to sit through commuter traffic again.

“You know I don’t really mean it, right? Not about the traffic. About our deal. I wouldn’t ever go back on my word. You know how much I want you back. I can’t go an hour without you.”

She twisted her arm around until she could link her fingers with the stiff ones behind her. Cold. Bridget hated the cold. She should have brought gloves for her, a jacket, and, oh, jeez, shoes. She forgot shoes. She had the blanket. She could bundle her up and crank the heat. Then they’d be home and they’d lie down in their huge bed with the down comforter and all the pillows. Mari would even let Bridget stick her icy feet all over her if Bridget wanted. They’d make love until they were sweating and sucking the air right out of one another’s mouths just to get a breath under all those blankets. Bridget would practically crawl inside Mari to get at all that heat she craved. In the front seat, Mari shifted so her jeans tightened through the crotch in the best way possible.

“I swear, I have never once, and let us all recognize how long I’ve been doing my job, never once had the smallest inclination towards necrophilia. But I told you nothing could ever make me want you less. I keep my word, don’t I?”

She squeezed Bridget’s hand. The contrast between them was starker now. Mari’s skin looked like it had been carved from black rock next to Bridget’s, which was pale and softly wrinkled.

“I’m just getting pre-necromantic ritual jitters. Don’t matter, do it? Couple hours and this will all be a memory. Yeah.”

The cars in front of her went from sixty to zero in less time than it took to yawn and Mari slammed on the brakes, cursing a blue streak the whole time. Her tires smoked and she gripped the wheel hard enough to leave permanent dents in her hands, but she did not hit anyone.

“Goddamn, good-for-nothing, cock-sucking commuters! You okay back there, baby?”

Mari had fastened the seatbelt around Bridget with her lying sideways. The belt had held her on the seat, but now a leg and an edge of lacy nightgown were exposed along with the arm.

“We’re almost there. I think. Can I just mention again how morbid it is that your family had a plot picked out for you since you were a child? I’m all for getting your affairs in order, but really.

“Now, if you had put me as your next of kin and filled out all that power of attorney paperwork, we wouldn’t be having this problem. We could have picked out a nice place somewhere closer to home.

“Of course, I think that requires that I have the papers to prove I’m a real person. Which I still haven’t gotten a hold of. Really should have done something about that. This sort of thing never used to matter. You know, they used to accept just a little X on the line if you couldn’t read or write. None of this social security number nonsense.”

Mari was weighing the soothing effects of a good rant about bureaucracy against the likelihood of missing her exit. So she did not notice the black and white car that kept pace with her for several minutes or the flashing lights that came on when he dropped behind her until they were joined by annoyed little bursts of siren, like the police cruiser was reluctant to use it at all. Mari looked back at Bridget, half visible and very much dead, then to the police car following her.

“Oh, fuck.”

“Oh, fuck.”

Mari had intended the move to consist of five elegant miles of bare leg sliding through the open window, followed by the attachment of her own lovely mouth to that of her girlfriend. What she got instead was an unsteady wobble that almost sent her through the not yet open window; a twisted ankle on the way in once it was open; and a swift trip to the floor for her ass.

“Whoa, hey, what happened?” Bridget asked while she hoisted Mari up with a hand under each of her arms.

“I came by way of the dead rat on the fire escape,” Mari said and hooked her arms around Bridget’s neck. “It’s been dead a little too long.”

Bridget leaned back against the kitchen counter and let Mari rest all her weight against her. Mari settled her head on Bridget’s shoulder and pressed groggy kisses to the side of her neck.

“Your bosses really should look into company cars. This whole teleporting out of dead things routine is nuts.”

“Eh, Public Relations eats up all the budget these days. I’m fine.” Mari hooked her leg behind Bridget’s knee and stroked the inside of her thigh against the soft scratch of Bridget’s wool trousers. “How was your day?”

Bridget hummed and slipped the cool tips of her fingers under the hem of Mari’s skintight shirt.

“I talked to the insurance company and got a list of the technicians they cover.”

Mari pulled away enough that she could slide both hands down to Bridget’s breasts then just held them there, sharing warmth.

“I got St. John to swap shifts with me,” Mari said. “Starting tomorrow, I work nights part-time.”

Bridget paused to give Mari the look that meant “what about dinner?” and Mari responded with the look that meant “seriously, who cares about food?” Bridget grinned and pulled off Mari’s shirt.

“Have I mentioned how weird it is that the grim reaper works a rota?”

Mari unbuttoned the cuffs of Bridget’s shirt then swept off it and the sweater on top in one move.

“You didn’t have to,” Bridget said when her head was free again. “I could have asked my sister to drive me.”

Bridget shivered and the next thing she knew, Mari had her bundled in blankets on the bed, surrounded by down and fleece on all sides except the front, where Mari was stripping her methodically.

“Bullshit. I’m going with you.”

Mari leaned between Bridget’s legs and pressed her small breasts against her there, tickled by the crinkle of dark hair.

“‘Sides, he was desperate for the extra hours. He’s going for high point in October.”

Bridget laughed and twisted her hips up. Mari slid her hands under Bridget’s ass and squeezed.

“Mm. Also disturbed by the employee of the month competitions.”

“We make our own entertainment,” Mari said and licked along the crease of skin between Bridget’s pubis and the soft swell of her stomach.

Bridget shuddered and sank back on her pillows. Mari scraped her long nails down Bridget’s hips and zigzagged across her thighs. She pressed them to each knee and spread them out like spider legs. Bridget laughed and groaned and squirmed.

“Quit that,” Bridget pleaded. “Come here already.”

Mari did it again.

“Make me,” she murmured.

“So much work,” Bridget said.

She twisted a hand into Mari’s hair and guided her up and into a kiss. Mari tried to tease Bridget’s tongue into her mouth, tried to turn the kiss fast and hot, but Bridget just open up under her to be plundered. Mari shifted and Bridget placed wet, sucking kisses on whatever skin was offered to her. She pinched a tiny fold of skin, making Mari hiss and strain against her, and watched the bruise fade. No mark ever stayed on Mari more than an instant and unlike Bridget, there had never been any parents or colleagues to hide them from.

“Listen. There’s something I need to talk to you about,” Bridget said.

Mari whined and straddled Bridget so she could kiss and bite down Mari’s chest. Bridget slipped a finger into her and gave her clit barely there caresses.

“Can’t it wait?”

Mari circled her hips and ground down against Bridget’s stomach, trapping Bridget’s hand between them.

“No. I need to say it now.”

Mari scooted forward so her knees were almost under Bridget’s shoulders. She pinched and stroked Bridget’s nipples. When they were hard and goose bumps radiated out from them, Mari angled her hips over one breast and rubbed herself against it. The nipple bumped against her clit on each stroke. She grinned down at Bridget, who was watching intently.

“Okay, shoot. I’ll just continue what I’m doing here, if that’s quite all right.”

On a forward stroke, Bridget kissed her thigh, then her belly, never looking away.

“What if I lose them?”

Mari stopped and cupped her hand around Bridget’s cheek to tilt her face up. Her hips stirred, restless and wanting, no matter how noble her intentions.

“We’ll get you falsies. Nice, big ones. Or one of those funky water bras.”

“It doesn’t bother you? I mean, you’ll still want me like you do now?”

“Bri, you could have fucking antlers growing out your ass and I wouldn’t want you any less.”

She took one of Bridget’s hands and pressed it to her labia. Their fingers slid slickly against one another.

“Does it feel like I don’t want you?”

Bridget’s thumb gave firm strokes to the root of her clit.

“Well, it hasn’t happened yet.”

Mari felt the first waves of heat washing through her body. They were almost better than the orgasm that would come later. Almost, she thought, but not enough to pass on the main event.

“Don’t bother me with trivial facts right now.”

“You know the doctor is telling me to be hopeful, that the chemo should take care of this.”

“It will,” Mari gasped out as Bridget worked two fingers inside her.

“But if something goes wrong, I want to have my affairs in order.”

Bridget hadn’t stopped fingering her, but her eyes had gone glassy and didn’t even look at Mari. Mari sighed and pulled Bridget’s hand away. She moved next to her, tucking one arm under the pillows and wrapping the other over her belly.

“Baby, really, isn’t this something we could talk about tomorrow morning?”

Mari nuzzled her face against Bridget’s neck and heard the little hitch in her breath. She pressed an open mouthed kiss to the thin skin there. Bridget shifted, torn between embracing Mari and letting her continue what she was doing uninterrupted. Mari tightened her arm over her, holding her in place. Then she sucked. Hard. Blood vessels breaking to form a bruise felt like the fizz of soda against her lips. Bridget arched like Mari had hit her with electric shock. Mari had been allowed to do that maybe a dozen times in Bridget’s lifetime with her.

“God, you’re so impatient,” Bridget growled as she rolled onto Mari. “You’re what, two hundred something now? Haven’t you learned to pace yourself?”

Mari laughed and let her tongue tangle with Bridget’s until she licked and nipped over to her ear, her collarbone, her shoulder.

“There’s my girl,” Mari said. “Teach me, if you think it’s so great.”

“Too right I will,” Bridget said. “I was trying to have a heartfelt conversation with you.”

Bridget cupped the back of Mari’s neck and pulled her up for a brief but blinding kiss. Then she shoved another pillow under Mari and let her head drop back again. Mari smirked and pulled Bridget’s hips forward.

“I guess I owe you, huh? Better come on over then.”

Bridget straddled Mari’s face, bracing one hand against the headboard and smoothing the other over Mari’s hair. Mari cupped her hands around Bridget’s ass and spread her labia with her thumbs. The first touch of her tongue made Bridget jump, like she was still surprised by the feeling. Mari teased her with little dips inside and broad sweeps that ended with swirls around her clit.

Bridget made a few encouraging noises at first, but she finally fell silent. The only sounds were the wet, obscene noises Mari made and the scrabble of Bridget’s nails against the wall where she had braced herself. She would be clawing at the plaster, Mari knew, getting it under her nails in her frantic grasping. Mari very carefully applied her teeth, scraping and sucking. Bridget held Mari’s head in place and bucked against her. Mari dug her nails into Bridget’s hips and wondered if it was possible to kill your lover with too much good sex. Through it all, Bridget never made a sound, even when she came against Mari’s tongue. She just pressed her forehead to the cool wall and shook in time with her frantic heartbeat. The muscles in her legs twitched under Mari’s hands and she stroked up and down the sweat-slick skin, soothing even as she coaxed out every last ripple of orgasm.

“Wow,” Bridget said as she leaned back and rolled off of Mari. “Also, we should argue more often.”

“Funny lady,” Mari said and used a corner of bed sheet to wipe her mouth.

Bridget flipped an edge of blanket over herself and curled up against Mari with her head on her shoulder. One hand stroked her flat stomach and occasionally flicked away a bit of white plaster.

“Now, what was I saying?”

With anyone else, Mari would have thought that statement was a joke, even a goad for a second round. But no, Bridget had learned, mostly from Mari, the fine art of not shutting up.

“You’ve gotten way too patient in your old age,” Mari whined. “Not to mention sadistic.”

“Old age, hah. I’ve just been studying you.”

“Okay, okay. What do you want to talk about?”

“I want you to help me. I don’t want my family to take over everything just because they don’t know about you.”

“I don’t think I’m qualified.”

“Mari…”

Mari pressed her nose to Bridget’s hair and inhaled the scents of printer ink from work, lemon shampoo, and the Bridget smell of heat-light-words. Bridget smelled like life eternal to Mari, which was something she hadn’t believed in before and hadn’t seen since.

“Look, this is one of those sausage and politics moments,” Mari said.

“The common link being phallic substitution problems?”

“What? No. Jesus, you’ve been around me too long.”

They both paused. Was this what everyone had to go through, Mari wondered, these awkward silences when anything you say has a double meaning? When “too long” can only mean “not long enough” and “I love you” starts to sound like “goodbye?”

“I mean, you see how something is made and you never touch the stuff again.”

“Death.”

“It’s a fucking bureaucracy.”

“I get the feeling you aren’t complaining about power of attorney for gay couples or the price of caskets,” Bridget said.

“You want to believe that people get their fair share of time, that there’s some grand design behind it all,” Mari said in a rush, her arms tightening around Bridget. “And I’m here to tell you, it’s a bunch of paperwork and some poor schlep like me acting as chauffeur. How can you tolerate a world that cruel?”

Bridget laughed and it sounded to Mari just the same as crying.

“Maybe it is that cruel. But what choice do I have? I don’t want to be cheated out of my time.”

Bridget looked up at Mari and held her eyes.

“But if this is all the life I get, I’m satisfied. I have no regrets.”

Mari looked away.

“Don’t say that. You can’t-”

“But I will. You know that. You told me that the day we met. Everything dies in its time.”

“What if there was an alternative?”

Mari tried to keep her voice casual and kept her eyes locked on the safe territory of the ceiling.

“Like what?”

“I can’t stop death.” Mari swallowed against the bile rising in her throat. “I can’t save you. But it wouldn’t have to be over.”

“You could give me the rest of my life? A second chance to die of something else? That doesn’t sound too appealing.”

But Mari could tell she was thinking about it, gears spinning in overtime. Mari rubbed the bridge of her nose. This was not an appropriate use of one’s afterglow.

“No. It’s all or nothing, baby. If I bring you back, you’d be like me. Just, just existing.”

And hadn’t that been what Mari most envied in Bridget: the intensity of her life in the face of the meaty beating the world could give you? What she offered in exchanged seemed so pale and watered-down in comparison.

“There’s a price for everything. What happens if you do this?” Bridget asked. She could have been talking about financing a new car. “Would it take life from someone else?”

“No,” Mari said with an intensity she didn’t really feel about protecting the lives of others. “You would have forever, no strings attached, no human sacrifices, no selling your first-born.”

“In exchange for what?” Bridget persisted.

“For nothing,” Mari said. “It’s a, call it a perk of the job. Listen, don’t worry about the details. But-”

“Do you want my permission?”

Bridget sounded like she no longer believed what Mari was saying. Like maybe she had only been playing along all these years and was still convinced Mari was really a chartered accountant.

“I am asking if that is what you want our contingency plan to be. You wanted to make arrangements. Can you, would you be okay with the one I’m offering?”

“With living with you for the rest of whatever forever consists of? Oh, there’s a hard decision.”

Mari tried to keep her voice neutral, but it was like drowning man trying to correct his swimming form.

“You don’t have to decide right now.”

Bridget gave her a stinging slap on the thigh and simultaneously cuddled closer for the ultimate mixed message.

“Stupid. The answer to that is yes.”

“This isn’t just about me getting to keep you. I want to do this for you too and if you end up wanting to go off on your own—”

Bridget’s hand was hot against Mari’s stomach and left behind a damp patch that felt like it froze when the air hit it. Bridget poked her in the ribs.

“That isn’t flattering. Also, completely untrue. You would tear the world apart at its seams to stop me leaving. And you know what? It’s nice to be wanted like that. So cut the crap.”

“Are you saying…”

“Yes. If it comes to that, I choose your way out. It’ll just go on the list of abominations I commit for love.”

And you could call Mari morbid, but she was grinning like an idiot and hot all over again, compelled to fuck after avoiding death by a biological imperative she wasn’t supposed to have. Now that the sixteen ton weight of uncertainty had been lifted off her chest, she felt light enough, safe enough, to roll Bridget and settle over her with their legs interlocked.

“While we’re talking of committing abominations for me…”

“Yeah?”

She rocked herself again Bridget’s leg.

“There is one other thing you could help me with.”

Bridget kissed her and ended it with a soft tug on her lower lip. She murmured against her mouth.

“I’ll take care of it.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Mari said and tugged on the cord that kept her charm bag around her waist. “I wasn’t even speeding, was I?”

She opened the pouch and the car filled with its scents: grave dirt and cinnamon, vanilla and dried blood, bone and hot peppers. She took a pinch between her fingers and placed it on the tip of her tongue. Then her tongue smoothed it across her gums and teeth, bringing the heat and sting of the pepper and the grit of things long dead. The car was filled with deep shadows and white light from the headlights of the cruiser. Mari rocked her body forward and back to a rhythm as real to her as the invisible strings that drew her to the graveyard.

“Breath and bone,” she chanted, “breath and bone. In the graveyard, dig your own.”

The cop was out of the car, swinging the beam of his flashlight up to the back window of her car. The burning in her mouth increased. Her eyes watered, leaving streams of white down her face as though they had flowed through and washed away dust.

“Seed and spit, seed and spit. In the bedroom, dance on it.”

Her whole face felt swollen and hot. Her body rocked of its own accord, beyond her control. She breathed in pants and gasps. The flashlight shone in the side window. A finger tapped on the window. Mari mashed her hand against the control panel by her arm and the window started down.

“Blood and breast, blood and breast,” she continued, barely lowering her voice. “In the drumbeat, forget the rest.”

“What was that, ma’am?”

Mari snapped her head around. She knew what her face would look like to him, streaked white on black down her cheeks and flushed purple. She looked like the devil, the thing that lurked in the darkness and the too-dense forest, the thing that could hunt you even in your own house, the thing that would never stop haunting you.

“Nothing at all, officer,” Mari said faintly. “Is there a problem?”

His hand went to his badge, the soldier taking up his shield.

“You’re not wearing a seatbelt,” he said as though she might argue with even that fact.

“Oh, brilliant,” Mari muttered and kicked at the back of the foot well. “Way to be stealthy.”

“Also, your plates are expired. License and registration, please.”

Mari slumped back against her seat. All the irritation drained out of her and she was left with just heat and… what? Grief? Loss wasn’t supposed to have any meaning for her kind. She wiped at her eyes, smearing the patterns on her cheeks. Professional detachment. So why did she feel like someone had used a dull spoon to scoop out her insides?

“She told me she could take care of these things. Said she wanted to.”

“Ma’am? Are you alright?”

“I know I’m not any good at these things, but it’s not like I get much practice, do I? The guardians of the dead don’t exactly pay ‘lectricity bills. She still could have let me help a little.”

The beam of the flashlight shifted to the backseat and Mari felt more than saw the way it swept over Bridget’s body, the pause on the plump thigh, the hand bruised from too many I.V. needles. He came back to Mari’s face. He was young, she saw, the strong lines of his jaw covered in the stubble of one too many nightshifts. He wore a thin gold band on his left hand. He was probably just a rookie and this was almost definitely his first dead body. Mari almost envied the surprise and sorrow on his face.

“I’d like to help you, ma’am, but I’m going to need you to step out of the vehicle,” the cop said weakly, like the routine lines would protect him.

“I don’t have any license,” Mari said. “And the plates are expired because my girlfriend was dying and didn’t get around to that stuff. So just shut up and go away.”

“Are you drunk?” The cop asked like this was the first time anyone had been drunk behind the wheel.

“No, I am not drunk, Officer Dim. I’m just very sad. Here, check my breath.”

She lunged for him and hooked an arm around his neck. She barked both their heads against the frame of the window, but she had sealed her mouth over his and when he tried to protest, her tongue snaked into his mouth. He tasted of coffee and nicotine gum and his mouth had the unpleasant early morning taste of the badly-rested. He would have pulled away, could have easily broken her grip, but her magic was strong and fast. The flashlight clattered to the asphalt. With one kiss, all the heat in her body snapped into his like one nesting doll into another. Then he had his hands in her hair and was humping the car door, which, ow, didn’t even look like fun, but he was going at it with the single-minded drive of a man this close to coming in his pants. Their lips separated with a smack and she pulled on his wrists to free herself.

“Now you go on home early and have a bit of fun, darling, courtesy of Mari La Croix,” she suggested as though to one hypnotized.

He whimpered and tried to crawl through the open window to get to her. Mari remembered that once, she had enjoyed this part of her job, stuffing passion into a person and watching the results. Even after Bridget, it had still been amusing, even if she walked away each time alone. Now, it was just a useful tool, about as much fun as a nail clipper.

“Look, clear off. I don’t have time for you.”

She popped the latch on the door and pushed it into him. He tumbled backwards. He landed with his back to the guardrail and fumbled open his pants. He grunted and moaned with every touch of his hands.

“Sorry, buddy, but this really is the easiest way out for me and I’m in a terrible hurry.”

He arched and shot as soon as his hand closed around his cock. How had she ever found that sexy? Where was slow, glorious build-up to orgasms that went on for whole breathless minutes? Even the noises sounded crass to her ears.

“Hurry up,” Mari muttered. “Get back in your car so I can leave.”

Shaking with the aftershocks of his magic-induced orgasm, Officer Dim staggered to his feet. He gave Mari a vague wave. He was grinning. Mari shook her head. As soon as he was in his car, she pulled back into traffic.

“When that boy gets home, he’s going to give the missus the ride of her life,” Mari said. “She’s going to owe me a thank you note. Possibly a fruit basket.”

She checked on Bridget in the rear view one more time. You knew you were in deep when you could sense disapproval from a corpse.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“Don’t look at me like that,” the girl said two inches from her mother’s face, almost stepping on her little sister.

They were almost identical. Both had their pale straight hair cropped close to their heads and mother and daughter looked equally comfortable in their conservative skirt suits. How disturbing for a teenager, Mari thought, to have your own old age stare you in the face each morning.

“Can’t you behave yourself?”

“I showed up, didn’t I? That was your heartfelt request, if I recall.”

It was the perfect suburban fight. No raised voices and no swearing. Just a sense of seething hatred that might eventually come out in murder attempts and social sabotage.

“Show a little respect for the dead,” the widow said.

“Why? I didn’t when he was alive; why start now? It’s not like he’ll know the difference.”

“Just get in the car.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll find my own ride home,” the girl.

The widow grabbed her arm, but the girl shook her free.

“Go on, Mom. Make a scene. I bet Dad would have loved that.”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

“I’m ashamed of something, alright.”

The widow took her younger daughter by the hand and pulled her away, the angry set of her shoulders highlighted with pads and black silk crepe. The girl walked up the slope of the cemetery, away from the cluster of plots and the bench that bore the family name. She was headed for the Memorial Flame that watched over the military section of the old cemetery. Mari moved away from the huge oak she had been holding up and fell into step with the girl. She looked over at Mari and smiled. Cold. Imperious. Pissed as hell.

“Can I do something for you?”

“I was watching the dog and pony show,” Mari said and tilted her head to indicate the disbanded funeral party.

“My father.”

“They sure had a lot of good things to say about him.”

The girl snorted, a delightful, unladylike noise. With enough training, she might even learn to swear. Mari grinned and danced around to walk backwards, facing the girl.

“Whenever they say a guy was ‘beyond reproach,’ ya know what I think?”

The girl frowned. She didn’t rise to the bait, so Mari, always accommodating, gave it to her anyway.

“That they never managed to pin anything on the bastard.”

A laugh exploded out of the girl. She clamped a hand over her mouth. Mari pulled it away.

“This place doesn’t hear enough laughter. Let it out, baby girl.”

Mari was older, a great deal older, but she only looked twenty to the girl’s seventeen. And the girl mostly made up for it by dressing like a legal secretary. Mari walked backwards and watched the girl systematically check her out. Mari had no doubt that a right proper family like hers only talked to black folk if they were the help. 1968 had been a weird year, getting weirder. Mari was glad she was just part of the cosmic background. But the girl met her eyes with a challenge, like Mari still had to prove she was Part of the Solution. Mari watched her very pretty lips while they asked her question number one.

“When they said he provided his family with everything, what did you think then?”

“Absentee workaholic,” Mari answered.

“Gawd, yes, totally.”

Suddenly, the legal secretary was gone and she was just a girl, a little too smart for the company she kept and tired of pretending otherwise. They reached the memorial and sat down on the raised ledge that circled it. The girl sat with her legs primly crossed. Mari sprawled, arms and legs going everywhere, so that no matter where you started, your eyes always ended up at her crotch. Her cut-offs were faded to arctic white.

“Full of love,” Mari prompted.

“Had, like, a herd of mistresses,” the girl answered with an eye roll.

“Ouch. What else?”

“Gave to his community?”

“Needed a tax write-off,” Mari said.

“Or the publicity. You’re really rude,” the girl said. “Just an observation. I don’t mind.”

“There isn’t a hell of a lot I hold sacred. And dead folk aren’t one of those things.”

“Why did you follow me?”

Mari could tell that wasn’t quite the question she wanted to ask. It was something more along the lines of, what sort of person hangs around in a graveyard of their own freewill and are they likely to have an axe anywhere nearby?

“Looked like you could use a friend. I had been watching the funeral anyway. I live over there.”

Mari pointed to the house, more of a shed, which was tucked between trees at the very back of the cemetery.

“You’re the groundskeeper?”

“For the moment. It’s just a side job, really, but it gives me a place to bed down.”

“It’s got to be lonely,” the girl said.

“Is that a come-on?” Mari asked. “Because I wouldn’t object to one from you.”

The girl laughed.

“Can you honestly tell me that a line like that works on strangers?”

“Mm, pretty often, really.”

“Then I’d better not be a stranger,” she said and put out her hand. “Bridget Baron.”

“Mari La Croix. As in Baron Industries, the steel-and-whatever-else-makes-money company?”

“The same.”

“You’re an heiress, for chrissake. What are you complaining about?”

“I never asked to be. I don’t want anyone’s freebies.”

“I think they’re properly called gifts.”

“Well, I’ll learn to accept them when I find a use for them other than supporting my own lust for luxury.”

“You could support me,” Mari suggested cheerfully and pulled her to her feet.

“And from what do you require saving?” Bridget asked as they walked towards Mari’s shack.

“Well, I’m terminally underpaid. Criminally overworked. Tragically undersexed.”

“Somehow, I doubt that last one.”

“My dear, are you suggesting you think I’m easy?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Bridget said.

Beside the shack was an old oak that had been there before the graveyard, possibly before the town. In time, it had claimed a headstone for itself, wrapping it into the trunk and raising it higher with each year of growth. Bridget stopped beside it and ran her fingers down the face of it. They came away grey with mossy dust.

“I don’t ever want to have a funeral,” she said. “I don’t even want to be buried. I’m not going to have a slab of stone with my name on it for people to weep over until they go back to their lives and let it crumble to dust.”

Mari slouched against the door of the shack, though she knew it was likely to collapse under her.

“What about dying? Are you going to avoid that too?”

“Got any suggestions?” Bridget snapped.

“A few.”

“It just made me so mad,” she said in a child’s voice. “I knew my father and he wasn’t any of the things they said. And they knew it too. But he’s dead now, so we’ve all got to be real nice about it.”

“Heaven lets people believe that when you die, you turn into the person you were supposed to be,” Mari said.

“And what do you believe?”

“That they are pretty much the same people, still self-centered, still mostly dull, still in a big ass hurry to get who knows where.”

Mari opened the door.

“Have some tea with me.”

“More come-ons?”

Mari shrugged.

“After this place, I could use the company of the living.”

“You spend a lot of time around dead people?” Bridget joked.

“One hundred sixty-four years, two months, and eleven days.”

The girl was quiet for a minute. She stood with one foot poised to step over the threshold.

“Kidding or…”

“Not kidding.”

“So are you, like, here to take me away? Am I going to die?”

Mari took her by the hand and led her in when she still hesitated.

“Everyone dies in their time.”

“Everyone dies in their time.”

St. John took a swig from the open bottle of rum that rested on a nearby grave marker. He lounged on the grass with his legs stretched out towards Mari, clad in tight leather and a jean jacket. He was the picture of arrogant sexuality. Mari had it on good authority though that the bulge in his leather pants was thanks more to a liberal application of socks than to natural gifts.

“She’s special,” Mari said and took the bottle away from him. “She deserves more. And stop drinking that.”

“Everyone thinks they’re the exception. We’re not in a business of merit. We just move the merchandise.”

“She’s mine,” Mari ground out between her teeth.

“Oh, come on. What do you want this one for?”

“Seriously, shut up and help me call the others.”

St. John rolled his eyes, but he lit the stumpy candle while Mari poured a circle of rum over the plot of earth that Bridget’s family had assigned to her. Bridget was stretched out on it, her blanket removed and only her thin nightgown covering her. Mari touched a fingertip to her cheek, sunken from too many weeks of nausea and exhaustion. St. John opened his charm bag and Mari followed him. They each scattered a pinch of the contents around the circle.

“Hearken to me, masters of the cross roads, shearers of the flesh threads,” Mari called out in a loud voice. “Your people call you, arbiters of last days. The matter is before you.”

Mari upended the bottle of rum onto the ground just above Bridget’s head. When the last drop fell from the bottle, they appeared. They were a matched set of massive beings: one was a large-breasted woman with a penis; the other was a burly man with a vagina. They went naked, Mari thought, to maximize their ability to make an impression. They liked nothing better than hearing people exclaim over them, no matter the reason. It was seldom praise.

“Who calls us, those who decide the routes traveled by each soul? We are not to be trifled with,” said the right hand one with the face of a man.

“We were fucking busy,” said the woman.

“More like busy fucking,” St. John said with a wink to Mari.

“I called you, with the consent of the guardian on duty in this matter,” Mari said and tipped her chin towards St. John.

“What matter is that?” The woman asked.

“The path of Bridget Baron,” Mari said, “collected this past night by Marc St. John on your orders.”

“Wait a tick,” the woman said. “I think I’ve got that one.”

She snapped her fingers and a scroll of paper sealed with wax appeared in her hand. She popped the seal with a red lacquered nail and passed it to the man. He unrolled it and read, with the woman looking over his shoulder like the neighborhood gossip. When they finished, he rolled up the paper and flicked it away. It disappeared in midair. Of course, Mari thought. They weren’t going to tell her what fate had in store for her lover. Where was the fun in that?

“I want a reversal.”

“There will be no such action taken,” the man thundered.

“All the paperwork is filled out and she’ll be on her way as soon as it’s processed,” the woman said.

Mari took a deep breath. She had known there would be no way to bluff her way out of this, even if St. John had been willing to put his neck on the chopping block to help her, which he hadn’t been. The department was fanatical about paperwork. Everything would be signed and dated in triplicate, stamped by every goddamn department, typed in blood, the whole shebang.

“Fine. I’m requesting a formal audience with her soul as critical material.”

“Fill out the forms and we’ll see you in a week,” the woman said and turned to go.

“Actually, if you check with Internal Affairs, you’ll find that the forms have already been submitted and my appointment time is right about, oh, say, now.”

Mari’s mouth twisted in a parody of a smile. St. John might not have been willing to help her, but other people were and she had called in every last favor she had on the books. The two glanced at each other and each conjured an appointment book into their hands. They looked up at Mari, glowered for a moment, and looked at the books again. When they finally tossed the books aside, they were frowning or, in the case of the woman, pouting.

“You dare much, in doing this. Tread carefully, lest you incur our wrath.”

“Yeah, okay,” Mari said with as little care as possible, “I’ll get right on that. Now, are you going to hear me out?”

“Well, the secretaries wrote it down, so it must be so,” the woman said.

“We will summon the soul in question.”

With a flicker like a television set on the fritz, a hazy image of Bridget appeared. She floated as though suspended in water. Her eyes were open, but she did not see anything. Mari reached for her, but her hand passed through the specter and the concentrated essence of Bridget washed over Mari.

In the space between an inhale and an exhale, Mari felt everything that had happened in Bridget’s life. She felt the slow acid burn of every argument with her mother. The pleasure of nursing that occupied the entire mind of her infant self. The ache of joints and the sting of scrapes from childhood to deathbed were on her for one moment of combined agony. She knew the solitary comfort of a quiet night at home alone last summer and the mad press of humanity at a disco sometime in the eighties. And woven in and out of those moments of sensation was the low rumble of love. It was a belly ache and an orgasm and a blow to the head all at once. Mari might have felt guilty when she saw how right Bridget had been when she said she had no regrets. But she also saw a spark, a pinprick of light against night, and she saw the way it lit up everything from beginning to end. And with grudging reluctance and a burst of pride that left her reeling, she recognized it as herself, as Bridget’s vision of her. So she pulled her hand away and turned on her bosses with confidence.

“I’m taking her back. You won’t be sending her on her way anywhere. You’ll be giving her the same deal I have, but no contract and no job. Just life. You’ll make her healthy, but you won’t change anything else about her body. Understood?”

“And why would we do that, honey?”

“Because I’m invoking the Law of Preference.”

The resulting roar was, Mari though, a tad melodramatic, even for a necromantic ritual.

“You can’t do this,” St. John said.

“The organization will not stand for such action!”

“Are you crazy?”

“Are you drunk?”

“Why does everyone think I’m drunk this morning?”

“Because you’re trying to throw away your career and yourself,” St. John said.

“You have heard what the price of the Law is, haven’t you?” The woman asked.

“I lose all my magic,” Mari answered. “I turn in my charm bag and walk away.”

“La Croix, listen,” St. John said in a friendly, coaxing voice. “Think of life without our magic. That little episode earlier today, for instance.”

“Heard about that, did you?”

“Are you telling me you’re willing to give up having anyone you want? Going anywhere and doing anything because no one can resist you? This is who we are. No tart is worth giving up that. If you like them so much, find another one, a few even. But let this one go.”

The rum bottle shattered when it connected with St. John’s cheek, breaking bone and shredding skin. He staggered up again, clutching his face as it mended before her eyes.

“You silly bitch, it was just a bit of fun!”

“What if we refuse to acknowledge your invocation?” The man asked.

Mari tossed aside the broken bottle.

“Oh, you so don’t want to go there. There are higher powers than you and if I have to take this to them, I will. The Law is on the books; I have every right to invoke it.”

“Yeah, it’s there, but nobody ever uses it because it’s crazy,” the woman said. “Do you want more benefits? Because we can work something out.”

“No, I do not want benefits. After two hundred years of this job, I’ve earned a mother-fucking retirement package!”

“This decision is irreversible,” the man said.

“I get that,” Mari said quietly.

“Very well. Begin the ritual. The paperwork will be processed later,” the woman said with a flip of her hand.

Mari took a utility knife from her pocket and flipped it open. She knelt next to Bridget and settled the candle on her other side. She untied the strap on her charm bag and tugged open the drawstring. She rested the knife on Bridget’s palm. She held the bag over the candle flame and slowly tipped it. The contents started to pour out, a few grains at a time, then in a steady trickle. The wind caught and carried away bits, but the candle consumed most of it. A black, burning smoke rose into Mari’s eyes.

“From blood and bone,” she whispered, “from street and home, I call what breathes and breeds.”

The stream of dust increased and the flame grew taller.

“What flies and creeps, what dies and weeps, I call in faith and fury.”

The flame towered and stayed that way, even when Mari set down the empty bag. She pulled her shirt off. Bare to the waist, she continued to chant, her voice growing louder.

“In witness bear, in lovelorn care, I shred and shed my body.”

She curled Bridget’s hand around the knife and held it tight with her own. She moved them together and set the tip of the knife against her breastbone. Their hands were unsteady and she had to twist her own arm around to guide their motions. The cut wavered, but the blade sank deep and was so sharp, it took a moment before the pain hit and the blood rose. Mari ground her teeth. The wound started to close. Using her free hand, she dug at the wound, holding the sides of the cut apart. Tears streamed down her face and breath roared in and out of her lungs. She moved the knife to the left, onto the inner edge of her left breast. She cut again and carved free a narrow strip of loose flesh. She placed Bridget’s hand at her side again and took away the knife. In her left hand, she held the hunk of flesh. The hole on her chest was starting to knit shut, but more slowly, as thought it was waiting to see what would happen.

“The payment made, the table laid, I call the dead to the feast,” she said through clenched teeth.

Mari opened Bridget’s mouth with a trembling hand. The blood-slick skin clung to her fingers when she placed it on Bridget’s tongue. She pressed her jaw shut again and left behind two dots of red on her chin.

“My own is lost, my own the cost. I call her back to me!”

The image of Bridget, which had hovered as an impartial witness to the happenings, faded to white mist and whisked itself back into Bridget’s body. Everything was still.

“Baby?”

Bridget inhaled deeply through her nose and started to choke. She thrashed and tried to turn over. Mari clamped a hand over her mouth.

“No, baby, you’ve got to swallow. Do it quickly.”

Bridget struggled and her eyes rolled, unseeing, but she finally swallowed, her throat tightening and relaxing under Mari’s hands. The candlewick exploded, splattering Mari with hot wax, but she had Bridget cradled in her arms and was beyond noticing. St. John reached down and picked up her empty charm bag. He passed it to the man and the pair disappeared instantly. St. John turned back to Mari.

“I hope you know what you’re getting into.”

“I hope you know what you’re getting into,” Mari said as she put the carton of milk next to the orange juice and tray of eggs.

“I have held a job before,” Bridget said. “How long do you think I’m going to be able to use this social security number? Am I going to need a fake I.D.?”

Bridget bent over the kitchen table and squinted at the application forms. She chewed on the end of her pen.

“Beats me. But I talked to one of my former coworkers and got the number of the only other person this side of the Mississippi to quit the job. I thought we could compare notes.”

“That’s nice, dear.”

Mari smirked and dumped a sack of apples into the drawer.

“Also, I was thinking of selling small children to gypsies. It should cover the rent on this place.”

“Good plan,” Bridget mumbled.

Mari leaned over Bridget’s shoulder and plucked the pen out of her hand. Bridget sighed and leaned back into her.

“I think you need a break. You were this close to agreeing to mow the rainforest for quarters.”

Bridget turned and snagged a kiss.

“They really need to print these forms in a bigger font. Couldn’t you have brought me back from the dead with 20/20 vision?”

“Mm. Sorry, but I like you just the way you are.”

Mari led her over to the sofa under the window and sprawled across it sideways with Bridget using her as a pillow.

“You should think about working somewhere as well. I know we don’t need to eat, but I intend to have at least one meal a day, plus rent and shopping. Extra income would be nice.”

Mari reached behind her back for whatever was stabbing her. It turned out to be a bottle of lube. She thought it wise to always be prepared and stuffed it between the cushions again. She massaged her fingers through Bridget’s hair, which was thick and full again, if still as short as ever.

“And I think that an eternity of working retail is the definition of hell for some cultures. I’ll enjoying being a lady of leisure for a while more.”

“Okay, but I’m not sharing the apple pie with you,” Bridget said with a shrug. “I have to draw the line somewhere.”

“Right. Of course,” Mari said and thought, better to know where the lines are now.

“Is something wrong?”

She winced. That obvious, huh? It had only been a week since the graveyard incident. Mari wanted to make things easy for Bridget, not arouse her suspicions.

“Of course not. What could possibly be wrong?”

Bridget was silent for a moment then went on.

“I was thinking, in a month or two, that I would contact my sister. That would be long enough for me to have gotten well, don’t you think?”

“Sure. That’s a good idea.” God, did her voice have to squeak like that when she tried for intensely cheerful? “Maybe even talk to your mom, you know.”

“Ah, yeah, I don’t think so. I’m only willing to torture myself so much.”

“There are other things, too. You wanted to try ballroom dancing classes, right?”

Bridget gasped and clasped her hands to her chest.

“You mean embarrassment is no longer a fatal disease for me? Joy of joys!”

“Har har. Isn’t there something you want to get out and do? Something you couldn’t risk before?”

Bridget shrugged.

“Maybe. I’m not saying I’ll take up base jumping, but there’s certainly time to spare for hobbies now.”

“There you go.”

Bridget craned her head around to look at Mari then turned around entirely so she lay on her belly between Mari’s legs. She wrapped her arms around Mari and rested her chin on her chest.

“Real answer this time: is something wrong?”

There was no escaping. Mari couldn’t even break eye contact without being obvious about it.

“I thought we’d get more time together before you went back out into the working world.”

“I haven’t even gotten the job yet. I’m not going anywhere.”

Bridget kissed the hollow of her neck.

“Not yet.”

Her head snapped up so fast, she grazed Mari’s chin.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing!”

“Don’t you dare go passive-aggressive on me now.”

“I thought you were going to rest.”

“Oh, for the love of—”

She stormed into the kitchen and started unloading half the things Mari had just put away. She slammed a box of pie crusts onto the counter. Mari watched as she did the same to an apple then poked sadly at the resulting bruises on it. She got into the rhythm of paring and slicing each apple. Mari ventured over and hopped up on the counter. She chewed on a piece of apple peel. Bridget squeezed lemon and dusted sugar and cinnamon over the apples. She brandished a fork at Mari’s hand when she tried to take a third slice from the bowl.

“Do you regret it?” Bridget asked as she picked at the firmly stuck top edge of the rolled pie crust.

“What?”

“Bringing me back.”

Mari gripped her shoulder and she paused in pressing the bottom crust into the pie tin.

“How can you even ask me that?”

She made Bridget touch her hand to the spot on her chest where they both knew a scar still marked what Mari had done that night.

“So why the attitude? Was there something wrong with the way I lived before? Are you unhappy?”

Mari fidgeted and made little notches with her fingernails in a piece of peel. Bridget put the tin in the oven.

“I’m afraid.”

Bridget took a deep breath.

“Of what?”

“Now that you’re well and, you know, immortal, I’m afraid that you’re going to go out into the world and leave me alone. And I’m afraid that if I hold onto you, you’ll get bored and do it anyway.”

Bridget finally met her eyes. She quirked an eyebrow at her.

“I could have sworn we had this conversation once before.”

Mari huffed and tossed aside the apple peel. Her fingers were sticky with juice.

“That was a long time ago. Maybe now that you’ve tasted freedom, things will be different.”

“Freedom? Look, is this about baking a pie?” Bridget pointed at the oven. “Because I meant it when I said I would eat it all myself. You’re not chaining me in the kitchen against my will, if that’s what you think.”

“Not exactly,” Mari mumbled.

Bridget braced her arms on the counter and leaned sideways into Mari.

“Can’t we just pretend that I never died in the first place and go back to living the way we did?”

“But it changes everything,” Mari said and knew she was whining, but couldn’t help it.

“Not everything. There’s one thing.”

Bridget pulled Mari down from the counter and into her arms. Even with the padded bra, Mari could feel the difference between Bridget’s natural breast and the replacement for the one she had lost, the price she had paid even before her brief death. When naked, their scars aligned and Mari felt the familiar flush of heat at the mere thought of Bridget’s body. As promised, nothing had dampened her passion. She linked her hands behind Bridget’s neck and leaned into her.

“What’s that?”

“How I feel about you.”

Mari felt her stupid grin spread from ear to ear.

“Yeah?”

Bridget closed the distance to kiss her, sweet and slow and promising a million lifetimes’ more.

“I’m not going to change my mind.”


Note: After I started to write this, the vast quantity of pink ribbons in my periphery finally wiggled into my brain and I realized that it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I’m afraid that my story doesn’t really have the optimistic message this month calls for and I hope no one thinks less of me for it. Also, the biggest possible thanks go to my beta, my alpha and omega, mutecornett.

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