Dark Hunger


CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE



"Oh, hell," my dead stepmother, Antonia O'Neill Taylor, said again. Like dying in some car vs. garbage truck nonsense, going to Hell, toiling as Satan's assistant, and then running into me in the hellfog was a terrible thing for her. Okay, that actually does sound pretty terrible. But I wasn't having much fun, either. "What are you doing here?"

I glared at her, this nightmare of polyester, a bad dye job, and the wrong makeup, the woman who'd driven a bulldozer through my parents' marriage. One of the many strange things about Hell I didn't understand was the... citizens, I guess would be the word? Anyway, some of them looked as they had in life; some didn't. Some of them were always in the middle of being tortured. Some just kind of wandered around like they were in an airport but didn't know their flight number. Some seemed happy to be there, some bemused, some horrified, some indifferent.

My stepmother, the Ant, had been somebody in Hell (no one who knew her in life was surprised). She'd been possessed by the devil and had given birth to Laura. She was so awful that she was possessed for over a year by the devil and no one noticed. (This! This is what I was up against!) So she was the Antichrist's biological mother. (It's weird. I know. I don't understand it myself, and people have tried to explain it to me. Several times. I'm never going to get it and I'm fine with that.) Then, in Hell, she was kind of Satan's assistant/almost friend. I didn't think it was a coincidence that the first person to approach me, out of what were probably millions of souls, was the Ant.

All this to say she chose to perceive herself wearing one of her awful polyester-blouse/miniskirt combos in hot pink and black, her bright, stiff, pineapple-colored hair, and her wobbly, cheap pumps. She looked like this on purpose. There were deranged drooling serial killers in Hell who had more self-respect.

"I'm not any happier about being here than you are to see me." I'd been staring in horror so long, I finally remembered to answer her (rude!) question. "Believe me."

"You're not playing the victim today," the Ant told me sternly. "You're the one who made this mess. Serves you right to get dumped in the middle of it."

"So's your face." I was a little rattled. I managed to rally and come back with, "How'd you know I was dumped? Did you sic Laura on me?"

Her glare of dislike was so intense, it nearly knocked me over. Wow, flashbacks to my sweet sixteen party. "I didn't have to. It seemed logical. You wouldn't have come here on your own, and since you're here by yourself, I assume someone brought you. And since you're here by yourself, that same someone dumped you. And since you killed the Boss, that leaves Laura. And serves you right," she sniffed.

"Wonderful." I turned. It had taken me an hour of walking to stumble across the Ant; time to walk in any other direction. For as long as it took. Years. Decades. Whatev. "Lovely seeing you, die screaming again, 'bye."

I'd taken about ten steps when I heard, "Well, hold up."

I snorted. "Pass." Who would I run into next? Hitler? Henry VIII? Aileen Wuornos? The Boston Strangler? (Wait. Was he even dead?) Whoever it was, it would be an improvement.

C'mon, Henry! Let's rumble and then work it out over hot chocolate while I explain that it's sperm, not eggs, that determine the sex of the infant and by the way, Anne Boleyn's daughter was five times the ruler you were. Not literally. Because you got really fat at the end. Elizabeth just got wrinkled.

"I said hold up, you horrible bitch."

A vast improvement.

I heard her little tripping steps come closer. Hmm. I wasn't making any noise when I walked, but her clop-clopping was as it had been in life: tacky and loud. She expected to make that noise, so she did. Hellfog was weird.

"I suppose you're wondering what the deal is." She had, more's the pity, caught up to me and now gestured vaguely to nothing, highlighting her tacky pointy red nails. Lee Press-On stock had probably taken a hit beginning the month she died. It might not ever rebound. "With everything like this."

"No, not really. Just-" I shut up. This was no time for "I'm lost and I miss my loved ones and I'm scared, bwaaaaah! And also, I'm thirsty." I'd die again before confiding anything like that to the Ant. Also, could I drink blood in Hell? People here were probably thirsty and hungry and couldn't eat or drink, and also couldn't die (again). That was why it was Hell. No, best to keep the confidences to myself. "Just out for a walk. In the middle of a bunch of nothing. For I'm not sure how long."

"The thing is," the Ant said, ignoring my words in hellfog as she did in life, "they're all waiting to see what you girls will do."

We girls? Uh, okay.

"Maybe if you look around a little bit, talk to some people, you might get an idea."

And maybe if you ever really looked in the mirror, you'd remember that women in their forties should not wear hot pink anything, or miniskirts, unless they are Heather Locklear or Maria Bello and you, Antonia, are no Heather Locklear or Maria Bello, you're-wait, what?

"What? Get an idea?"

"You know." Again with the vague look-at-my-Press-Ons gesture. "Talk to them. See what they're thinking."

"How can I talk to them? And why would they tell me what they're thinking?" I asked, incredulous. I figured the Ant would be mean and bitchy, but not insane. Clinically, anyway. "I can't see anything and they're all out there hiding in all this... this."

"Look. Not to sound Matrix-ey, but this isn't really fog, you know. And we're not really walking. Well, you might be." She stopped and looked at me thoughtfully. "I'm dead and technically you are, too, but my spirit is here. Not yours, though; you're here in the flesh. But Hell doesn't distinguish, I guess." Another thoughtful glance in the distance. "Not unless someone tells it to. Remember the werewolf you picked up?"

"Hell isn't the dog pound, and yeah, I remember." Antonia, a former roommate, had died saving my unworthy neck, been buried, and then I'd found her in Hell and brought her back to the mansion. In her body. Which was also still in the cemetery. (None of us had a clue. We were just glad to have her back.) Then she and her boyfriend moved out. I'd gotten a Christmas card from them just a couple of days ago. The warm inscription ("We're in California and all the blondes are as dim as you") had almost brought tears to my eyes.

"Yeah, thanks for the Matrix analogy. Remarkably helpful. And you're the worst Morpheus I've ever seen."

"You shut your mouth! I'm not black!" she snapped. "That stuff about my grandma was made up."

Whoa. "Simmer," I told her. Jesus-please-us. If ever race mattered less than-than anything, I'd think, it'd be in hellfog. When stumbling around in a never-ending hellfog, were people honestly judging their fellow stumblers by the amount of melanin in their skin cells?

(Of course they were. It was hellfog!)

"Look, I don't even know for sure who's here and who isn't... how would I? Satan might have kept attendance records, but I don't. Laura probably doesn't even know. Maybe you don't, either." With the murder of her boss, the Ant was high and dry. I squashed the teensy amount of sympathy I'd felt for half a second. "It'd be one thing if I was looking for-for-I dunno, Jessica's parents?" With Jessica's endless-yet-brief pregnancy, her useless mother and father had been on my mind lately, mostly because they were on her mind. I could count on one hand how many times she'd mentioned them in the last fifteen years. I'd need both hands and a foot and a half to count how often she'd brought them up in the last month. "But how would I even know how to find them, if I ever went completely batshit insane and decided to talk to them, ever, about anything?"

"Oh, jeez! Lookit this! Lacey, look who it is!"

No, it wasn't. It sure wasn't. It absolutely wasn't-

"It's our girl's little friend! That Betsy girl!"

I turned. Not because I was in any rush to see Jessica's parents, but because the sooner I did this, the sooner I could get the fuck away from them.

And to think, I thought the worst I could run across was the Ant.

Hellfog sucked.

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