Undead and Unsure


So here they came, Jessica's dead parents, shuffling through the hellfog with the artificial smiles that had been their trademark. Of all the hellfogs in all the timelines in all the universe, they had to etc., etc.

"So nice to see you!"

"Thank God you're here."

I raised my eyebrows at the Watsons. The last thing in life he'd said to me was, "Get your fat ass out of my house." The last thing she'd said was, "Don't forget to tell your stepmother I'm coming to her luncheon." Tough call to figure which was more scarring. They were both so horrible in so many ways it was tough to pick just one awful thing to freak out about. I don't even have the words for how amazed I am that Jessica turned out so great. It's one of those things that seem impossible, like getting books back to the libe on time every time.

"Can you believe all this?" Mrs. Watson said in her faux hearty voice. I noticed they looked (chose to look?) exactly as they had in life, him in one of his tangerine plaid sports coats, matching tangerine shirt, white tie, and red slacks, and her in one of her sparkly red cocktail dresses, seamed black stockings, and red Marc Fisher pointy-toed pumps. She was a former showgirl, and her taste for sequins had never worn off. The two of them looked like a) something a pimp would have too much self-respect to be seen in and b) someone a pimp would have too much self-respect to have hanging off his arm.

I noticed the Ant had done that thing where someone wanders a couple of feet away and looks in the opposite direction, the "you know and I know I can hear everything but I still thought it'd be fun to give you the illusion of privacy" thing. Nice of her, I guess.

If I instantly starting jogging away, would the Watsons follow me? What was worse, being cornered in hellfog where I'd have to have a conversation with these shitheads, or being chased in hellfog by these two shitheads and eventually have a conversation?

Ugh. The Tiger and the Lady (or whatever the story was called) this wasn't. Also, lamest story ever. Who writes a story and doesn't end it? Jerks.

"Betsy?" Mrs. Watson prompted. "Can you believe it?"

"Oh," I replied. This once, I hated being right. "You think we're gonna have a conversation, don't you?" The Watsons were one of my earlier lessons that things could look okay on the outside and be horrible inside. It was a lesson I would have been happy to miss. One I wished Jessica could have missed, too.

"Now, now," Mr. Watson said amiably. "I think you can agree we've been... uh... adequately punished."

"Oh, I don't know," I replied, smiling. "You're not screaming in agony and you don't appear to have been on fire for the last fifteen years. Eagles don't come and eat your liver and come back to eat it again after it grows back. You're not shoving boulders uphill only to have them run you over-squish!-just so you can start again the next day." My smile made both of theirs dry up and disappear, the first nice thing that had happened in the hellfog. "In fact, you both seem fine to me. Unchanged, even."

"We're not! We have changed," Mrs. Watson assured me. "We've been punished and, you know, we've-uh-what's the word?"

I blinked, amazed. "Is the word you can't think of repented?"

"That's it," Mr. Watson said. "That's the one."

"I get it!" I said, because I finally did. "You think I'm your way out. You think that because I love your kid I'll help you. You-" I had to laugh and shook my head. "You actually think that."

"We love our kid, too," Mr. Watson snapped.

"And we've been stuck here since we died. Life's gone on without us."

"I'll say. Did you know the president's African American?"

"We know," they replied in dour unison. They had identical "I can't believe I'm missing this!" expressions on their faces.

"Don't remind me," the Ant murmured on the off chance I wanted to deal with three asshats instead of two.

"Reelected," I reminded my stepmother, and got an eye roll for it. Sweeeeet.

"And you! Who do you think you're fooling?" Mrs. Watson jabbed a finger topped with sparkling reddish brown polish, a color that looked a lot like dried blood. Shiny dried blood. At least her nails were real. "You were quick enough to suck up to us when you wanted to get in with our crowd."

And you've got no idea all the bigotry she had to overcome to do it, I thought but didn't say. And what's up with "in with our crowd"? What, the charity circuit is high school cliques, redux?

Oh, God. What if it was? I should warn Jessica. They were always calling her up...

"Anytime we were throwing a party for the somebodies in town, I could count on the second Mrs. Taylor to sniff her way in."

"That's true," the Ant replied. I was intrigued by her demeanor for the first time in... ever? She wasn't acting like she was cornered or ashamed or embarrassed. Mostly she was radiating borderline boredom. Like whatever she'd done in life wasn't nearly as bad as what they'd done, so what was the point in discussing it? "There was a time I would have put up with almost anything to get an invite to your annual Black and White." A thin smile. "No pun intended."

"So what's changed? We're here, you're here. You think you're better because you got to run some errands for the Lady-"

"Sorry, what?" I asked, startled into taking part in the conversation. "The La-oh. Carry on." The Lady? That was the most pleasant euphemism for Satan I'd ever heard. The Malicious Tricky Horrible Jackass Bitch didn't come out so smoothly. The Lady. The Laaaaaaaday.

"-and now you're too good for us?"

"I'm too good for you because I never tried to fuck my kid. I also never found out my husband was trying to fuck my kid and then hit my kid so she wouldn't get the breadwinner locked up."

They glared at her, and the Ant stared them down with another expression I'd never seen: bored to the border of impatience, like when a hapless Girl Scout knocked on the door to hawk Thin Mints. Like they were nothing to her; barely worth getting upset over. Me, I was gaping in amazement at the second Mrs. Taylor, who for the first time ever seemed... what was the word... awesome? Yep. Awesome. It was overused, sure, but in this case it was the literal dictionary definition of awesome: inspiring awe.

There wasn't much Thing One and Thing Two could say to that, so they turned back to (blech) me. "You'll tell her we're sorry." It was astonishing to me that even in death, Mr. Watson still hadn't picked up basic niceties like please and thank you.

"I will, huh?" The Ant was doing the "I'm not really here and I'm not hearing any of this" thing again. I envied the pose. It made me wish I wasn't here and wasn't hearing any of this.

"And that it was all just a misunderstanding," his wife added.

"A misunderstanding?" I thought about how, at the end, Jessica had been reduced to waiting for her father behind her bedroom door. I say waiting and not hiding because she was waiting for him with a baseball bat. Which she used. A lot. "What'd you tell the ER docs? I always wondered." Oh, wait-they were EW docs. For some reason Marc wanted me to keep up-to-date on hospital slang. "You were sneaking into your daughter's room for some post-conference-call rape and fell on her bat? With your head and shoulder and ass? A lot? Because I would have liked to have been there for that." The thought made me gurgle laughter right in his face.

"A misunderstanding," Mrs. Watson repeated firmly. Another trait from life carried over in death. She could will herself to ignore-or unsee-anything. "And we're going to be grandparents."

I made a mental note to ask the Ant how people in Hell found out stuff. Could they spy on us? Did people who had died the day before bring everyone up to speed on current events? Was there a bulletin board somewhere? Mr. and Mrs. Watson are going to be grandparents. Mr. Miller's daughter won the Citywide Kickball Competition. Madame Drummonde's great-great-great-granddaughter is having a potluck.

"And those babies are going to be a handful," Mr. Watson said.

Babies? As in more than one? Swell. Which had a double meaning because Jessica's belly was so big! Heh, that was-shit, I should be paying attention. "Oh yeah? Suddenly you're all about the grandparent thing? You sure didn't give a shit about Jess in life."

"We did, too!" said the woman who had bloodied Jess's nose and lip for telling the truth about her husband. "I told you, we've changed. And because of your timeline tampering, Jessica's babies are very, very special. She'll need help and we're happy to step in."

It took everything I had to keep the disinterested expression on my face, because I had just been walloped with the staggering realization that Jessica's pregnancy was severely fucked up. I'd blown off her pregnancy at first because I didn't know how it had come about. In the old timeline, she wasn't pregnant and Nick had understandably and regrettably vamoosed from her life. Post-timeline-tampering, she was hugely pregnant and Not-Nick was devoted to her with zero plans to relocate. It made sense that I didn't have any of the details. I was just happy she was happy.

But no one else knew the details, either! How? How the fuck had I not realized that no one knew how long she'd been pregnant? That no one-including Jess herself-knew her due date? That though it seemed to us like she'd go a gusher any day, we were all sure her delivery was weeks or even months away? She hadn't even seen a doctor, for Christ's sake, and nobody cared! What was happening in that uterus? Suddenly I was afraid of Jessica's belly for a reason that had nothing to do with how often turkeys kept disappearing from our fridge.

"Gnnn unn," I managed. I could keep looking unimpressed, could keep from seizing the Watsons and screaming, "What do you know about this, you amoral shitheads?" and then banging their heads together for five or ten minutes, but I couldn't swallow all that rage and shock and fear and verbalize, too. Not yet. "Mrrrgggg."

Luckily the Watsons were focused on their main interest: themselves. (Okay, I was selfish, too, but I wasn't that bad. Usually.)

"Her babies are doing all that shifting," her mom was saying, "and I'll bet they'll do it after they're born, too. She'll need help. And you-you've got influence down here."

"Down here," that was funny. It was another dimension; there wasn't a "down" like there wasn't an "up." But the stuff we're taught about Hell sticks with us, I guess. Even when we're in Hell.

"No." Oh, good. I could talk again.

The damned parents looked at each other, then back at me. Mrs. Watson tried a cautious smile. "But we're sorry."

"You're sorry you're in Hell. Not about what you did to get here."

"I didn't even do anything!" she snapped. "It was all him-fucking pervert. I wasn't involved in any of it."

The only thing that kept me from killing her was remembering she was dead and in Hell. "Yeah, that whole mind-set, Mrs. Watson? That's why you're in Hell."

Her worthless husband decided to add his unasked-for opinion. "You could help us if you wanted."

I shrugged. "Maybe." In truth, I had no idea.

"You could. You got that dog bitch out of here. Everybody knows the Lady wanted to stay on your good side. And she let you kill her. You've got influence. More now than before, too."

Dog bi-oh. Antonia the werewolf. And the Watsons were wrong. I didn't get my roommate out at all; Lena Olin did it for me. It wasn't a card I could play again, even if Satan 1.0 was still alive. Influence? Someone with influence wouldn't have been dumped here, and then stuck here. Watson was wrong all the way across the board. Shocker.

"Yeah, well." And like that, I was tired. It was exhausting being around them and not putting a fist through each of their lying skulls. "I'm not going to help you."

"Who are you to judge us?"

"Exactly," I said. "I'm a terrible person. A bitch and a liar, selfish, and not any kind of a genius. And all that before I died. I'm way more horrible now. And I'm still judging you. Doesn't that tell you anything?"

"That you're not who you were before. And so you can help us."

Listen, you useless harpy, I can't even get myself out of here, you think I'm wasting frequent flier miles on you?

I didn't say that. I said, "She'll never know I saw you. She'll never know you're here. She might wonder, but she won't know. And you will never, ever be grandparents to those weird babies. They won't know you. They won't hear stories about you. To them, you'll just be something that happened way before they were born. You'll be as real to them as online banking is to me. Something they'll vaguely hear about and not be very interested in."

"You can't! Jessica would-"

"Don't say her name, you useless twat. I don't want to hear her name come out of your mouth."

"We've changed!" She kept saying it, and I was betting she even believed it. Hilarious and sad. Or just sad and sad. "We know we have."

"You haven't, though. I haven't, either. Which is why you're staying and I'm going." Mr. Watson opened his mouth and I held up a finger. "If either of you says one more thing to me, I'll tear you up. I'll go home with your guts under my fingernails."

At last, I spoke a language they understood. Because they didn't make a peep while I walked away. The Ant fell into step beside me, and after a minute or so I knew that even if I looked back, I wouldn't be able to see them.

I didn't look back. My stepmother didn't, either.

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