Last Breath

Chapter Ten


The world was gone, but there was something holding her. It felt like a rope, a thin, invisible rope; she bobbed against it like a balloon on a string, lost in a night sky. I'm dead. The thought came to her, but she didn't really know what that meant anymore. If you were dead, you shouldn't know you were dead. You just were, or were not, like Schr?ding-er's cat.

I'm the cat in the box, with poison. The cat might be alive. The cat might be dead. You can't tell until you open the box. Indeterminacy.

Funny how physics didn't go away when you were murdered.

Claire thought she shouldn't be feeling anything, but she felt . . . warm. Cradled, as if in someone's arms. Safe.

The utter darkness was lifting a little, to a dark gray, and then to a pale shadow. There were things in the shadow that blurred, sharpened, became real as she concentrated. It was like watching an old black-and-white television, only she was in the television.

She was standing in the Glass House living room, and simultaneously, she was lying down on the floor, with her head turned to the side, hands flung out to either side. Her hair was covering her face. Her eyes were open.

That was the old Claire. Old Claire was lying there dead.

New Claire was standing over her, feeling a little odd about the whole thing, but not . . . not sad. Not afraid. Just interested. The cat in the box, she thought. I'm both things at once. Myrnin would be fascinated.

Now she was hearing something. A faint buzz, like electricity . . . no, a vibration. Claire concentrated on it, and realized it was a voice.

It was Eve's voice, becoming audible as she descended the stairs. Muffled, because she was rubbing her head with a towel. ". . . really pouring out there," she was saying. Eve's voice sounded different from before, but still recognizable. It rang and echoed here in this not-place Claire inhabited. "I don't think it's letting up anytime soon. The boys should be back in a couple of minutes - they hadn't gotten very far." She reached the bottom of the stairs and let the towel slip down to hang around her neck. She was carrying another one, neatly folded. "Claire? Are you in the kitchen? Get me a Coke!"

Eve started to walk that direction, and Claire thought, I'm so sorry. This was going to be hard. Very hard.

At first she thought Eve was going to walk right past her; Claire's body was behind the sofa, visible really only at an angle. But there was a thin trail of water running from Old Claire's soaked clothes, like a miniature stream, and Eve slipped in it, caught her balance, and, as she bent to wipe it up, was at just the right angle to see Claire's foot.

Eve came slowly upright. "CB?" She sounded quiet and breathless. "Oh God, you passed out again. I knew I should have taken you to the hospital. Damn damn damn . . ." She fumbled in the bag on the table and pulled out a candy bar. "I have sugar - it's just low blood sugar; you'll be okay. . . ."

Eve shoved a chair aside and knelt down at Old Claire's side with the candy bar. She started to move her, and as she did, Claire's head rolled a little - wrong, all wrong.

Eve saw her open eyes. Her blank, open eyes.

She froze. "Claire?"

New Claire crouched down, on a level with Eve. I'm here, she said. Don't be afraid.

Eve couldn't hear her at all, and her gaze remained riveted on Old Claire's body. Horrified. Disbelieving. "Claire?" It came out small and pathetic this time, trembling with terror. Eve felt for a pulse. "Claire!" This time, it was a scream, a full and awful scream.

Stop, Claire said, but it was no good; she wasn't going to be able to tell Eve it was all right. It wasn't, really; that was her body lying there. She'd died. No, she'd been murdered, silently, without a witness. And now she had to watch helplessly while Eve realized all that.

Eve gasped, paper-white under the Goth makeup, and then steadied herself. She straightened out Claire's body, opened her mouth, and breathed into her body. Claire watched her old chest inflate, then deflate. Eve feverishly counted ribs and put the heel of her hand on Claire's chest, topped it with her other hand, and began pushing, five sharp, hard movements. Then another breath. Then five more pumps. Breath.

Stop, Claire said. Eve, please! Stop!

She couldn't make Eve hear her. Couldn't make her understand that it was useless.

"Claire! Claire, come back! You bitch, come back!" Eve was sobbing now, trembling with effort. It wasn't doing any good, but she kept on trying. And trying.

There was a rattling sound from the hall. Keys in the lock.

Claire stood up and drifted that way, unconsciously moving around Eve even though it no longer really mattered. Why don't I go through the floor? she wondered, but even as she did, it felt like the floor softened under her feet, and she realized that she could go through the floor if she wanted. Or the ceiling. The only thing that was stopping her was the Old Claire viewpoint.

The locks gave way, and the door swung open, and Michael and Shane came inside. Shane shut the door and locked it, shaking water off his coat and throwing back his hood.

She wanted to freeze him like this, in this one moment, where everything was still okay for him. Where he was smiling a little, and calling her name, because he expected her to be there for him.

Then from the living room, Eve screamed, "Help me!" There was a tortured panic in her voice, and the single instant of peace and normal life shattered, gone.

Michael and Shane lunged forward, through New Claire's insubstantial body. Shane didn't pause. Michael faltered, half turned, and then kept running.

She didn't want to watch this. She didn't.

But New Claire, Ghost Claire, The Only Claire . . . really couldn't turn her back on it, either. She drifted there in the room, watching as Michael thumped down on his knees next to Eve, lips parting in horror.

Shane skidded to a halt, face gone utterly still and blank.

Eve sat back, sobbing inarticulately now. Michael moved her out of the way and put his palm flat over Claire's heart, then touched her neck.

Then, after a long, hard second, he reached up and closed her blank, open eyes, and grabbed Eve as she tried to lunge forward again. "No," he whispered. "No. It's no good. Eve, she's gone. She's gone."

Eve fought him for a few seconds, and then collapsed in his arms. Michael rocked her, and then looked up. There were tears rolling down his cheeks, and Claire didn't think she'd ever seen him look so . . . human.

He held out a hand toward Shane - to help, to hold him back, Claire wasn't sure, and she didn't think Michael was, either.

She drifted closer to Shane. Closer. I'm still with you, she said. I'm not leaving.

He wasn't moving at all. It was as if Shane had shut down, as if he was as gone as she was. She looked around, somehow expecting to see the other Shane here, where she was, but it wasn't like that.

Whatever was dying in Shane, it wasn't coming here.

"Her neck is broken." He said it quietly, in an awful, still monotone. "She didn't just fall. Someone killed her." He was staring at Claire's body with so much intensity, but his eyes seemed dark and dead. "I know who did it."

Michael slowly lowered his hand. "What?"

"I know who killed her," Shane said.

He couldn't. He'd never seen Magnus, as far as Claire knew.... What could he be thinking?

There were no tears for Shane. There was no breakdown. He was nothing but ice and steel. She'd never seen him like this, not even when he'd been at his worst and most violent. This was . . . empty, and yet still full of something she couldn't really understand.

"Shane, what are you - " Michael kissed Eve's forehead and slowly stood up. He wiped the tears from his face. "You're in shock."

"Yeah," Shane said. He still had that distant, terrible flatness to his voice. "Yeah, probably. It's probably better than what's coming later."

"Bro - "

Shane tore his gaze from Claire's body and looked Michael in the eyes.

And Michael stepped back.

"Don't get in my way," he said. "I'll kill you. I'll kill anybody who gets between me and him."

Eve stumbled up to her feet, clinging to Michael's arm. "She's dead, Shane! God, this isn't about - "

"I mean it," he said. "Don't move her until I come back. And don't get in my way."

Shane, what are you doing? Claire shouted. She tried moving through him, but if he felt a chill, it didn't register. He was too cold inside for it to matter. Stop! Don't leave!

He went into the kitchen, pulled open a cabinet door, and took one of their black ready-bags that Eve kept stocked for any fang-related emergencies. Claire drifted after him, aching for him, wanting to stop him, but there was nothing at all she could do as she watched him unzip the bag, inventory the water bottles of silver nitrate, the stakes, the crossbows.

Michael followed, at a careful distance. "Shane, at least tell me where you're going. Please, bro. Please."

Shane zipped the bag, hefted the strap to his shoulder, and looked back at him. Those dark eyes - they were pits of utter blackness. "I'll be back," he said. "Don't let them take her away."

He headed for the front door. Michael came as far as the hallway, and Eve joined him; he put his arms around her, but they were both staring at Shane. He looked back, once, but didn't say anything else as he left.

Claire tried to follow him. The closed door didn't really matter, and she passed through the wood easily enough; the thick grain floated past her vision, disorientingly real, but then she came up against a barrier. It wasn't solid, more like . . . plastic. She pushed, and it stretched.

Then it broke as she pushed harder, and she drifted a little beyond the threshold.

There was a silver curtain of rain out there, and Shane had plunged out into it, hood up, running. She wanted to follow him, but the more she drifted from the doorway, the more - tenuous she felt. Stretched. Faded.

This is what Michael meant, about not being able to leave the house, she thought. When she'd first met Michael, he'd been a ghost, invisible during the daylight hours, physical at night.

Saved by the house.

It's the house, she thought. I'm like what Michael was. I have to stay inside.

It was harder getting back in, as if she'd been caught in some unseen undertow, but Claire managed to struggle through the barrier again, then drift through the door and back into the hall.

It was so quiet. Michael was still standing there, staring, and for a moment she thought he could actually see her . . . but he was just looking into the distance, a total blank stare.

"Where would he go?" he asked. "I don't understand what - "

Eve did. She was wiping her face with a towel now, but her eyes were red and the tears seemed to keep coming. "He's going to find Myrnin," she said. "Shane thinks he did it. Because he was the one who came after them in the first place."

Michael looked down at her, then back at the closed door. "God," he whispered. "He could be right."

No, Claire thought, appalled. Oh no.

Shane would kill Myrnin, or Myrnin would kill Shane, and it was all for nothing. Nothing.

Claire stood in the center of the black-and-white living room, a ghost in a ghostly landscape, and screamed. It came out of the very core of her, a bloody and horrible nightmare of a scream, full of anguish and despair.

Eve and Michael didn't seem to hear her. Not even then.

Claire collapsed to the floor, utterly drained.

Don't, she thought. Please don't.

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