Dark Hunger


CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN



"This is gonna sound dumb, but I only just realized something's up with Jessica's pregnancy."

"What's dumb is that you're telling me."

"Granted, granted. Pretend you care, okay? I'm cut off from my support system today." I gestured at the hellfog. "You're my sounding board."

"I didn't do one thing in life to merit this kind of torment," the Ant muttered, but made a "come on, then" gesture.

"Stop praying to the devil; it's creepy. Okay, before Laura and I did our hilarious version of the Back to the Future movies minus the cool car and future gadgetry, Jess wasn't pregnant and she and her boyfriend had broken up. I get back and she's out-to-here preggo and the guy who isn't Nick loves her and lives in the mansion with us. Happily ever after, right?"

"So?"

"So nobody knows when she got pregnant. Nobody knows when she's due. Nick doesn't know; Jess doesn't know. I was fine with me not knowing, but it's definitely odd that Jess is as clueless. She hasn't seen a doctor. She's completely unconcerned about all of it. And none of us thought anything of it, either."

"Until you got here, right?"

"Right!" I grabbed her arm, then loosened my grip when she flinched. "How'd you know that? What's going on with Jess? Is she okay? Are the babies okay?"

"Sure." The Ant picked my fingers off her arm, one by one, like they were leeches. She looked this close to shuddering. "The Lady thought this might happen. We even talked about it a bit."

"Good. Now talk to me about it a bit."

"Ah... okay. Let's see... the best way to break this down for you. And me without my parallel universe mechanics flash cards."

"Oh, man." Stuck in hellfog. A chat with the Watsons. Jessica's scary-ass pregnancy. The Ant as my only route to clarity. God, never have I feared your wrath more. You're as vengeful as a teenage girl venting breakup rage on Twitter. "Just break it down."

"You're different since you were killed and ruined the cruise I was supposed to take with your father."

I gritted my teeth. Anything I said would make this take longer. "Yessssss?"

"You can do things you couldn't before."

"Yessssss?"

"Your friends are different, too. Or, rather, things that would have affected them one way before you died affect them in a different way. Because of who you are. Jessica's perfectly ordinary. And given her parents, she should be pretty grateful."

Don't say anything or it'll take longer. Don't say anything or it'll take longer.

"But her babies aren't. They're shifting through parallel universes. In one universe Jessica's only three weeks along; in another universe, Jessica's babies are almost full term. The babies are healthy. But they're going to be different, because Jessica hangs around you."

"Oh."

"Mm-hmm."

"That's so incredibly lame."

The Ant shrugged. "I didn't make any one of these rules. I just sometimes explain them to lost vampires."

I snorted. "Hilarious."

"The trick is going to be figuring out which babies she has. Which parallel universe they'll be from. Or will they do that shifting thing throughout their lives? That could be interesting."

"If by 'interesting' you mean 'terrifying,' then sure. Interesting it is. I'll have to figure out how to break all this to Jess. But you promise they're okay, right?" I hated showing any vulnerability to the Ant, even when she was being nicer than I'd ever known her to be, and certainly more helpful. But I couldn't keep the anxiety from my tone. It'd be hard enough to explain the weird to Jess; how could I explain if something went wrong?

"Yes, she's fine and the babies should be fine. Just different, I promise. For what that's worth to you," she added.

"Today it's worth a lot," I said without thinking, and I was so disappointed in myself I almost groaned aloud. Parallel universes! Timelines! Hellfog! All conspiring to make me not hate the Ant. Lord, Lord, what are you doing to my sense of how things should be? I got back to a less off-putting topic. "So what's with nobody noticing she's not showing and then she is showing and doesn't see doctors? How come I didn't realize what was happening until..." I trailed off. That one I could maybe answer on my own. The hellfog wasn't earth. The normal rules didn't apply. Or as Marc would say (he spent way too much time on the TV Tropes website), YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

"Yeah." The Ant accurately read my expression. "You had to end up in another world to realize what was wrong in yours. As to why none of you noticed-I wonder about my son."

My son. But this wasn't the time for a turf war over BabyJon. Although he was mine, mine, mine. "He's special," I agreed. Really special, and not just because he was the sweetest sweetie ever. He was irresistible. He even melted Sinclair's cold, cold heart like an Eskimo Pie dropped on a July sidewalk.

Even better (given where he lived), the kid couldn't be hurt by anything paranormal. He could get run over by a car, but if a vampire tried a chomp or a werewolf tried a slash, he'd shrug it off. I can't tell you how much that baby freaked out the Cape Cod werewolves. It was pretty terrific.

"I think it's something he does unconsciously, and you're all picking up on it. If you were all painting in a closed room, you'd all get headaches, right?"

"Sure." Stray off topic much, Ant? Painting?

"I think because the baby isn't concerned about Jessica's babies, you're all picking up on that, so you're not concerned, either. It's only going to affect people in close proximity."

I stopped walking and snapped my fingers. "My mom! She kept babbling something about the babies during our Thanksgiving Take Two party-"

"You had two Thanksgivings?"

"Focus, Antonia! First painting and now T-day 2? But yeah, we did so Laura would start to forgive me for killing her mom, except she dumped me here instead. Forgiveness may come later; I haven't given up hope and could you at least try to hide the delighted grin?"

"Sorry," she said, which was the purest lie I'd ever heard.

"Anyway, my mom, Dr. Taylor, would not shut up about Jessica's pregnancy. We all kept blowing her off. I remember being annoyed that she kept bugging me about it." Remembered, hell. It was downright embarrassing to recall my annoyance. Memo to me: when I get back, grovel for Mom for a couple of hours. Make liberal use of the phrases you were right all along and if only I had listened. Cue repentant gnashing of teeth and pulling of highlights.

"Yes, well. My baby's influence would be cumulative, I think."

"The painting-in-the-closed-room theory." At last it made sense.

"Yes. Your mother baby-sits my son"-I waited in dread, sure the Ant would verbally scald the shit out of me while expressing her displeasure, but (thanks, God!-at last you cut me a break) she let it go-"but isn't around him enough to-to-"

"To catch the 'no worries' germs he's putting out," I finished. Okay, it wasn't terribly scientific. It wasn't scientific at all. But it was good enough for this girl, for now. Best of all, Jessica was okay and her weird babies were okay. There were worse things. I made a mental note to keep that in mind all the time. And I wouldn't deny it was a relief to get actual proof I wasn't the worst mom ever-BabyJon could only "infect" us because he was around us so much. Maybe it was the plane-crash theory. We don't think about the millions of flights that land safely every year, but when the media flogged a crash, you felt like airline disasters happened all the time. When we weren't hunting killers or stuck in Hell, BabyJon was with us. Watching Laura beat a serial killer to death stuck in my mind more than the time BabyJon shampooed with his bowl of Cheerios. "Sure, I get it."

"Oh, goodie. I was sure I'd have to break out the hand puppets."

"You said you and Satan talked about this?"

"Yes."

"Other stuff, too, I bet."

The Ant shrugged.

"You liked her?"

Another shrug. It was like talking to... me. I instantly shoved the horrifying thought far, far back into the cobwebby recesses of my mind, never to be heard from again.

"You were her assistant for a while-by the way, that hasn't surprised any of us."

She barked a surprised laugh. "You don't know the half of it, Betsy."

"Why'd you help the devil?" I couldn't help asking; it was something I'd always been curious about. "With anything?"

"She asked me," was the simple reply, and with that I had to be content.

"So how long do you think I'll be stuck here?"

"That's up to you."

"I'm positive that's not true." I thought about it. "Yep. It's not true."

She made an odd sound (sigh/grunt? groan/mutter?) and rubbed her eyes. "Can you please skip to the part where you've learned a valuable lesson and go away, so I can go away, too?"

"Antonia. Look at my face." She looked. I pointed to my chin. "This is my serious face. My 'no, really, I don't get it' face."

"If you can't figure it out on your own, I can't help you." She paused and considered. "Won't help you is closer to it."

"Antonia. I didn't pop through the back of a wardrobe and end up here. I didn't pray to a Ouija board. I didn't lose a bet, except possibly with Jesus. I was dragged and dumped here."

"Dim. Dim bulb." She was rubbing her forehead. Cool, I got a getting-a-migraine forehead rub from the Ant! Who, after over a decade, was being upgraded from skank nemesis to worthy foe. "'From hell's heart I stab at thee.'"

"Well, I'm not too keen on you, either. And cribbing from Star Trek? Plus, keep it down. All we need is for ten thousand damned Star Trek fans to hear you and we'll be stuck in a Picard versus Kirk conversation for five thousand years." Thinking it was bad enough; hearing myself say it out loud was horrifying. "So no more Tar-say Rek-tay references."

"It's Melville, you moron. 'For hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.'"

"Gross."

"There are so many souls here. But you've seen me and you've seen the Watsons."

"Don't remind m-"

"I am reminding you, moron! Think! For once, stop your eternal fucking babbling and engage your brain!"

"I'm the vampire queen, you shouldn't talk to me like that," I whined.

She had the 'I'm counting to ten' look on her face. "You did something. Think about it."

If this was the movies and I was a stock Mary Sue character, the Ant would outwardly hate me but inwardly think I was terrific. Her sarcasm would shield her caring; her scolding would only be to help me learn. Tough love.

"I've got no idea."

"Then you're useless and you should be set on fire until you're a big useless pile of ash, you useless dumbass."

It wasn't tough love, it was zero love. And it sure wasn't the movies. Didn't Mary Sues eventually win everyone over? Tell you this: they were aggravating to read about ("This archenemy has fallen in love with her, too? It's her sixth archenemy! Not one of her nemeses has a spine!"), but the chance to be a Mary Sue? C'mon, who wouldn't? That was the life.

"Even now, even now I can tell you're not actually thinking about the problem."

"You caught me," I admitted.

"So focus!" she screamed, plunging her hands into her hair and doing a credible Elsa Lanchester impersonation. She's alive! She's aliiiiiive! "Abandon your derailed train of thought and stomp your inner ditz."

"Sure, I'll get right on that at half past never. My inner ditz and I have an understanding. And don't forget, I'm a ditz with power."

"Yes! You are! You're the one who keeps forgetting. How did you find me in all this?"

"I didn't. You found me. You came right out of the hellfog and put the cherry on the shit sundae of my day."

"I sure did." Odd (and annoying) that my cherry remark didn't get under her skin. In fact, she sounded almost... pleased? Good dog, you did it! pleased?

"And then the Watsons fou-and then we found the Watsons." I'd been so busy bemoaning my bad luck about meeting the three people in hellfog I couldn't stand, I hadn't thought about what that meant.

"You were about as happy to see me as I was to see you," I remembered. "Like I was a chore you were assigned. And... I am a chore you were assigned!"

"One of my worst," she agreed, making me happy.

"Right! Something you had to do, except in this case I was someone you had to do and we're not even gonna acknowledge the sex subtext on that one."

She nodded so hard she nearly fell over. "Agreed."

"You said I wouldn't come to Hell on my own," I thought out loud. I was essentially thinking about it as I verbalized. "Not couldn't. And then when I was bitching-"

"Sorry, can you narrow that down a little?"

"-about meeting the Watsons; give me two seconds to finish the thought, okay? I was all 'of all the people!' and you were all 'you were going to run into them anyway.' Wait. Is that right?" I thought about it. "Yeah. That's basically it. So could I have?"

She stared. "I don't-is that how you think? For real?"

"Now who's not focusing? Could I have come here on my own?" I didn't even need the nod. You know how when you come up with something and you just get that it's right? That was now. "I could have come here on my own," I said slowly. "Which implies... that I can leave on my own?"

"Yes. It implies that."

"I was thinking about you and you came. I was thinking about Thing One and Thing Two and they came. Can I..." This was too easy. This couldn't be the actual answer. "Can I think my way home?"

She nodded. "Yeah. I'm pretty sure you can."

"How? I've been thinking about how much I want to get home from the moment your kid dumped me here. I can't feel my husband, can you get that? The place where he was..." I couldn't trickle tears, but that didn't mean I couldn't cry in every other way, and suddenly it was so hard to talk. "It's like a footprint in my brain. He's not there. Just some ghost image of him. If just wanting to be back with my family is what it takes, I'd have been back about two seconds after I landed."

"Maybe you need help."

"Maybe, huh?"

She opened her mouth, and her grin widened. "Naw. Too easy. Like taking a hammer to one of those fat fuzzy caterpillars."

"I have no idea how to respond to that." Never had I said something more true.

"I think you probably need help like Laura needed help the first few times."

"Oooh, yeah! Like that bogus 'you've gotta have physical contact with one of your blood to travel between worlds' rule I am almost positive Satan made up just to fuck with me. At first Laura couldn't, and then she could, and then she got better, and now she can do it on her own."

"So... ?"

"Practice makes perfect," I finished, glum. The fat fuzzy caterpillar was sad. "Use something until I don't need the tool-or the crutch?-anymore. What, just click my silver shoes together? Lame."

The Ant didn't say anything.

I didn't say anything. But I quickly cracked under the stress of silence and said, louder, "What, just click my silver shoes together? Lame!" Still nothing. "If I look down, there's gonna be a pair of silver shoes at my feet, aren't there?"

She shrugged. "I don't make the-"

"Please stop." I looked. Yep. Sparkly silver, cute matching sparkly bows, low wide heels. The way I'd always pictured them as a kid.

I glared at the shiny things. I'd have been delighted any other time, in any other circumstance. But in the hellfog, they just looked childish. A really lame deus ex machina. A shoe ex machina. Ha! "Really, Antonia? Silver goddamned shoes?"

She shrugged with a grin. When her mouth wasn't twisted in a snarl, she had a pretty smile. "I don't make the rules. And who makes them here in the future has yet to be seen."

"Swell." I bent, pulled off Tina's socks (trudging through hellfog in socks-at least I didn't have to worry about leaving my shoes here), slipped them in my pocket, then stepped into the silver shoes. A perfect fit. Of course.

"How come they're not ruby slippers?" the Ant asked, brows arched in curiosity as she stared down at my feet. "That's what they're supposed to represent, right? How Dorothy gets home from Oz?"

"How Toto got home. I never gave a shit about Dorothy; Toto was the protagonist. Dorothy was strictly transportation. He's the only dog I've ever liked. Well..." I considered. "Him and Fur and Burr. The dog who played him got paid more than a lot of the actors, so I guess the Munchkins had lousy agents. Did you know that in the books, Toto could talk all along, he just chose not to? Baum had to retcon that one a little."

"You've educated yourself about the strangest, most useless things." Was that admiration I heard in her tone? Nope. Just loathing.

"Anyway, also in the books, they were silver shoes. They made them ruby slippers for the movie because Technicolor was a new thing and they wanted to take advantage. But in the books, the shoes were silver. And the books were a hundred times better than the movie."

"You really know a lot about shoes."

"Yep." I had to admit, they looked terrific on me. Since I was wearing them barefoot, I hoped they wouldn't shred my feet too much. Yes, I'd heal quickly, but it's never fun to grow blisters. "Okay, so. I'm not ungrateful." I could almost see the Ant physically brace herself. "But this is, among other things, anticlimactic."

"Sure it is." She laughed. "Real life often is."

"Oh boy. You think this is real life?"

"As close as we can get."

"Mmm." I looked down at my absurdly sparkling toes. "All right. So I'm gonna make with the clicking in a few seconds. Listen." I tried to find the exact right words, and couldn't, and tried anyway. "I know you didn't want to help me. Thanks for doing it anyway."

"Why wouldn't I? It was so entertaining." Then, at my look: "What? We don't have DVRs here. Watching you blunder from one problem to the next, always making it worse without a clue why, and ultimately a victim again of your own shortsightedness... this was better than a movie. A summer movie, even."

"And like that, I hate you again." Click. "Thanks again. Jerk." Click. "Also, there's no place like home. There's no race like foam. There's no laying with gnomes." Click.

"What are you doing now?" she asked incredulously.

"Hey, if it's about my brain more than the physical world, it shouldn't matter what I say, as long as I'm visualizing correctly. Ha!" I crowed as the hellfog started to fade, as my stepmother's shade started to fade. "I was right! It's working! Suck on that, Antonia! And thanks again, I guess."

She opened her mouth but I never heard her comeback. Ha! Thanks a bunch, silver shoes.

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