I knew I was dead. It’s not something I could exactly ignore. Which had been hard enough to admit. It was when I was staring down in dismay at the blood on my pretty sweater, thinking that there was no way in hell -pardon the death pun, death makes me weird-it was ever going to come out, it really clicked for me that I was dead. On the plus side, I suppose that being dead, I didn’t exactly have to worry about things as trivial as stains. Even when it was my blood soaking the stomach of my sweater.
“Dead,” I repeated through blue-tinged lips.
“Dead.” the tall, willowy, glowing woman before me confirmed.
I frowned, still looking at the blood that coated my favorite mint green hoodie. “Are you sure?” I rubbed blood reddened hands against my jeans, but it still did nothing. It had been doing a whole lot of nothing for the past ten hours.
“Ms. Valdez, please. We’ve been over this,” Rose the Ghost pressed one faded hand against her eyes, “We need to move past this and talk.”
“Move past it?” I repeated, “Move past the fact that I just died? That my life, my family and friends and everything that meant anything to me is now gone?”
“Yes.” Rose met my eyes, “Yes, past all that. We need to know how you died, so we can understand what to do.”
“What are you talking about?” I gave up trying to rub the blood from my hands, instead I turned to examine my surroundings. To my left was a forest, stretching around to behind me. The trees were thick, supple and faded to varying shades of red, yellow and orange. I wondered if it was some ironic joke that the tress were dying too. In front of me, behind Rose the Ghost, the ocean stretched out for miles. It was still, no tide, no fish jumping. Just ... still. To the right was the black fog wall that I’d come through when I’d died. It was the only thing that was moving; a mysterious breeze swept across it, making it ripple and twist.
“...Valdez...” Rose snapped her fingers in my face, bringing me back around, “Look, Ms. Valdez, this is important, we have to talk now. It’s impetrative.”
“Esmeralda” I interrupted, “Call me Esmeralda.” I moved around Rose, towards the ocean. “Where are we?”
“I thought you said we had to talk,” I sighed, “Can’t you just tell me now?”
Rose fell into step beside me, “That’s the name. This place, its called After.”
“After?” I said it to myself a few more times, “Why?”
“Because this is the place where everything comes after death.”
So simple and yet so complex.
After death. I was dead. Gone. Departed. Lifeless. Dead.
“What do we need to talk about?” I didn’t look away from the ocean, the stillness relaxed me. It calmed me when I felt like raging for a fate that was delt to me too soon. I scowled out at the water, when did I turn into a ‘why me’ person?
“You need to think back, to the night you died,” Rose turned to face me, I could feel her eyes on my face, but I didn’t turn, “Think, Esmeralda. What happened?”
At first I didn’t want to answer, I didn’t want to go back. I thought instead of the way Rose sort of just floated above the ground, her dainty feet brushing the sand. That didn’t last long. My eyes closed and I had no control over my mind. Unfortunately, I accidentally thought of exactly what I was trying not to think of but instead of being filled with the memories of it, all I felt was a flash of pain, the sense of betrayal and disbelief, and then nothing. I opened my eyes, meeting Roses’ lavender gaze, “I don’t know.”
Rose nodded, “Okay, that’s okay. It’s common not to remember. Your mind has built up a block, it doesn’t want to relive that moment. Which is understandable.”
“Rose, why is it so important that I do remember?”
She faded a bit more, so much so that I could see the outline of the forest behind her. “Oh, um, well it’s just that... you see, there’s...we need to know what happened in order to make the next move.”
“The next move? Rose, I’m dead, remember? Isn’t this it?”
A faint smile ghosted (ha-ha) around her pale lips, “Not hardly. This is more ... the foyer of Death’s doors. For most anyways.”
I caught the muttered thought, “Most?”
Rose sighed, which seemed tricky as she didn’t need to breathe so there was no air being expelled, “It’s why we need to know how you died. If you died by natural causes, or if you died on accident, then you can pass over the Gate.”
Rose gestured to the ocean, there floating over the sky blue waters, was a golden bridge that hadn’t been there before. It stretched, I assumed, to the other side of the ocean. Except, about halfway across it blurred, fogged and disappeared into the same black substance that made up the wall I’d come through. “The Gate.”
I stared, mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the Gate. It shone in the sunlight, though no sun could be seen. The reflection in the still water below looked just as real as the Gate. “Wow. It’s...” Words failed me.
“I know,” At the reverence and desperate longing in Roses’ voice I turned back to face her. She had no certain emotion on her face, more like a tidal wave of them. The only one I didn’t see was happiness. She must have sensed my staring at her because she relaxed her features into a beautiful empty canvas. She blinked her heavily lashed eyes at me and gave a small smile - it lacked truth. But kudos for trying. “Anyways, if you die by unnatural causes - being murdered, then you can’t pass over the Gate.”
“Harsh. Why not?”
“Nobody knows. It’s just the way things are.”
“What happens if you try to cross it?” I asked.
“Nothing. You just can’t walk into the fog; it becomes solid.” Rose crossed her arms, “We need to go see the Sisters. They can help you remember what happened to you. Probably.” Rose turned towards the forest. “Let’s hope they can.”
“Why? What happens if I was murdered?” Even saying the word made me feel sick. My whole body rebelled at the thought of it.
“You won’t be able to move on.” Rose reiterated.
“Were you murdered, is that why you’re here?” I asked.
When Rose hesitated I bit my lip sheepishly, “Sorry, was that a personal question?”
Rose gave me a small understanding smile, “It’s okay. You’re new. Yes, it was personal but I suppose since I’ve asked you to remember, the least I can do is tell you.” she paused -steadying herself? - Then said, “I can’t remember.”
“You can’t remember?” I was starting to feel very much like a parrot.
She shook her head, her strawberry pixie cut brushing against her neck, “My mind never got over the shock of death. It built up a wall so strong that even Johnny couldn’t break through it.” Judging by the way she said the name, I figured this Johnny character to be a big deal.
“Johnny?” I asked, I followed along beside her, towards the brush.
“Johnny Storm. The go-to guy for everything from regaining your memory to becoming a poltergeist. He used to be a Guard, but he rebelled and now he’s Rogue. Advantageous friend, dangerous enemy.”
“Guard? Rogue?” My head was spinning from all the new information I was trying to digest.
“Oh, sorry. There are rules here, for those of us who stay. There are Guards, who uphold the Law. Johnny was one, but soon after he joined, he rebelled. Nobody knows why, only that he turned Rogue faster than anybody in our history. It takes a catastrophic event to turn someone Rogue.” Rose stopped at the edge of the forest, gazing through the trees, and “Johnny was only in the Guard for three weeks. To turn somebody Rogue within that short amount of time, after he’d just sworn the Oaths and swore on his blood... it would have taken many, many catastrophes.”
I nodded, “Poor guy. So what does it mean to be Rogue?” I lifted a branch out of the way, only to watch as Rose faded until she could pass through the branch. “Neat trick.”
“Being Rogue means that you have forsaken the Guardian. The Guardian is the leader of the Lost - that’s those who stay here, in the foyer of Death’s door.” Rose supplied before I could ask. “The Oaths are only known to those who take them; though we suspect they’re along the lines of swearing obedience and your life to the Guardian. Johnny is the strongest of all the Lost, he’s held onto his humanity. That ability is very ... sought after among the Lost.”
“We’re lost, Esmeralda. After so long, our memories begin to fade, our mind begins to wilt. We forget who we are and where we’ve come from. We fade until we are just a body. It’s sad to watch and horrifying to think that it will happen to us all. It’s why we’re called ‘Lost’.”
“It happens to everybody?” I whispered, wide eyed.
Rose gave a small shrug, “There are only a few who have been able to hold onto their humanity. It takes a great amount of emotion to work. And I mean a lot. Love, anger - they are both the main ones. Emotions like depression, when felt to the level in which love and anger are deemed useful, is in fact very, very harmful. It’s dangerous to let your emotions get out of hand; they’re all you have to keep you ... you while here. Johnny still has all of his humanity because he can control his emotions. He is hated and admired.”
I nodded, a bit frantically, “Right. Okay.”
“I’m sorry for scaring you, Esmeralda. It wasn’t my intention,” Rose apologized, “It’s been a while since I’ve talked to anybody that will still react like a human.”
“How long?” It was probably a personal question, but I was losing it and needed a distraction.
“I died in July of 1885,” Rose announced. “I have a little bit of control over my emotions so the madness won’t begin until I hit around three-hundred years here.”
I hadn’t known Rose long - not even a day yet. But I still hurt at the thought of her going mad in only a hundred and seventy-three years. That seems like a long time, but I bet it would go by fast for Rose.
We were silent for a while, just the sound of twigs and leaves crunching under my feet. I looked over and noticed that Roses’ feet didn’t even touch the ground but I was too scared to ask when that would happen to me. Being dead was more stressful than I’d imagined. Not that I’d really had much time to think about it. When I was alive, I’d been immersed in my studies, in tutoring. I’d thought high school had been a lot of work - it had nothing on college. A flash of memory went through my head; I was walking across the parking lot towards my dorm. Somebody was with me.... Just as quick, the memory was gone. Leaving a head ache in its place.
Pressing a hand to my eye, I rubbed gently, “Hey, Rose?”
“Hmm?” She’d pulled up the hood on her white robe, it covered her face from my view beside her.
“Who are the Sisters?” I asked. Rose stopped at a fork in the path and turned to look at me.
“They are Seers.” Rose said, “They see things where others cannot. They specialized in magical things when they were alive. Things that will help you remember what happened to you.”
“Did you go to them?”
There was a pause, “Yes.” She started down the right trail.
“And it didn’t work?”
“No. They couldn’t get past my walls.” Rose looked over her shoulder, “My mind is too strong.”
“Are you sure they can do what they claim? Maybe they’re just lying.” I suggested slowly, wary of stepping on any toes.
But Rose nodded in agreement, “They could be. It’s an easy way to get emotions.”
That startled me so much that I lost my footing, I tumbled to the ground. Staring up at Rose I gaped, “What?”
Rose tilted her head to the side, “Nothing’s ever free, Esmeralda. Not even in death.”
“But they’re going to take my emotions?!”
“Relax. I’ll give them some of mine. You’re probably too new, you’re emotions are too strong and would drive them mad.”
I got awkwardly to my feet, “Why?”
Rose tilted her head to the side, “You ask that a lot. They’d go mad because they’re old. Over five hundred years since they’ve died. And they weren’t young when they died. Since your brand new, you’re emotions are still completely human. They couldn’t handle it; they can only handle muted emotions of the older Lost,” She reached out and brushed some twigs from my arm. Her touch felt like a dash of cold water. “Come on.”
We set off again, me lost in my thoughts and Rose... well, she was inside her mind too, I suppose. The forest around us was quiet. No sounds of animals, no other people, er, ghosts, wandering about. Thought if they were, I guess they’d be floating like Rose. Being dead is weird; my emotions were higher than when I was alive. I felt more, I could feel the fibres of my sweater against my arm. I could feel the denim of my jeans against my legs and my pirate boots felt extra comfy. The only downside was that I could feel the bleeding wound just as much. It hurt like a son of a bitch. Throbbing pain burned its way through my stomach. But it was tolerable - I doubt very much that I could walk around normally if I’d still been alive. Another advantage; pain is muted...but then, isn’t everything?
It was a while later, after an hour of walking, that I noticed the light begin to dim. I thought nothing of it - I’d never experienced the fear of the dark that most kids go through. So I was unaffected by this until Rose grasped my arm and sped up her pace. Let’s just say it grabbed my attention.
“What’s happening?” I demanded while trying not to trip over anything.
“We can’t be out after dark,” Was all she said. Her hood fell down as we rushed along the path. The path began to thin as we began to all out run.
“Why?” I had to ask.
“We can’t be caught by Guards.”
“Why?” I repeated. I was beginning to annoy myself with that simple word.
“Because forcing your memory to return has been banned. It’s been deemed ... not safe.”
I jerked to a halt, “Then why are we doing it?”
Rose sighed, “Look, Esmeralda. This place, After, isn’t as easy going as it seems. There are rules, there are punishments. It’s not that much different from a regular human town except that we’re all dead. And a bunch of other stuff, but we’ll get to that later. Point is, I like you - what I’ve seen of you in the eleven hours I’ve known you. And it’s because I like you that we have to risk visiting the Sisters so you can leave.”
“To pass on. To cross the bridge. Enter the Gate.” Rose pulled her hood back over her head, “This place is different that the haven it used to be. It’s no longer safe. Now, please. We must get to the Sisters’ home. And besides, it’s not really dangerous. The Guardian has just deemed it so, so that he can still have people to rule over. He hasn’t been made aware that you’re here yet. But soon he will be and unless you have your memory when he does, you’ll be stuck here forever. Or he’ll kill you. Trust me, you do not want to die here.” Rose took my hand, “I wouldn’t let you do it if it wasn’t safe, okay?”
I followed my gut. I nodded, “How much farther?”
“Just around that boulder up there.” She gave me an encouraging smile as we set off again.
My heart was racing as we caught our breath -well, while I caught my breath- in front of the Sisters’ front door. They lived in a small (and I mean small) wooden house. A brick chimney was spewing smoke in a homey kind of way. When Rose knocked on the door, I took the time waiting for somebody to answer to look around the property. It consisted of a small garden with varying amount of unidentifiable plants twisted around each other, a small pond with fish and frogs all around and in it, and a small alter with a dozen black candles half burned spread across it. No deity of any kind was present. Strange.
The whole property was closed off by a little wooden fence; it had ivy wrapped around it. The paint had faded from it, as well as the house, giving it a rundown look. My eyes passed over the woods on the other side of the fence and for a moment I could have sworn someone or thing was staring back at me. But I blinked and it was gone.
The door behind me opened slowly, revealing a small girl of about seven draped in a brown dress, carrying a Colman lantern. She blinked her big brown eyes up at us, then stepped back to let us in. She didn’t say a word. Rose took my hand again and gave it a squeeze as she led me inside the dark house. We waited for the little girl to shut and lock the door and take her place in front of us. She walked silently, bypassing a staircase and several rooms loaded with couches and pillows. The only light came from the lantern she carried, and the soft glow that surrounded Rose. There were melted candles everywhere. All black. The little girl stopped at a door, standing back she motioned for Rose to open it. Odd, considering there was no handle.
Stepping forward, Rose pressed her hand to the door. A hum sounded, and the glow brightened around Rose’s hand. Moving back, she pressed me against a wall as the door swung open to admit us. Rose turned to the girl, nodding her head in respect, she turned to the stairs.
I opened my mouth to say ‘thank-you’ but I only got out the first syllable before Rose clapped a hand over my mouth. I turned my eyes to look at her, and she gave me a look that conveyed her message quiet clearly. She would do the talking. All of it.
Turning back to the girl, Rose nodded again. She had to clear her throat before the child took her eyes off of me. I was grateful when she did, her gaze, those haunted eyed, made me feel naked.
Nodding back at Rose, the girl set her lantern down on the small table by the door and walked off down the hall. Rose didn’t take her hand off my mouth until the girl had disappeared around a corner. Then she turned to me and hissed almost silently, “Never, ever, ever, thank a Lost.”
“Why?” I asked just as quietly.
“Because it binds you to them. To verbally acknowledge that they assisted you, no matter how small, means you are indebted to them. They can ask anything of you and you have to do it. No matter what, Esmeralda. Do you understand? They could take your emotions, your life, or your soul. Whatever they wanted, you’d be forced to give it to them.”
I stared down the hall way where the little girl had disappeared, “She seemed so innocent.”
“She’s Lost. Completely and totally lost. She has no emotions left, she feeds off of the little that the Sisters give her. She became unhinged a couple hundred years ago. She will turn from innocent to malicious in point-five seconds. She is no child. ”
I nodded numbly, allowing Rose to pull me down the rickety steps and into the basement. Rose had thought to grab the lantern so I could see fine. But that didn’t make it any less creepy. The stairs underneath my feet creaked ominously. Probably not a good sign. The wall paper was peeling off the walls, in some places it looked like some creature had raked its claws across it.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I whispered.
Rose halted where she hovered above the steps, “I don’t know. But anything is better than nothing.”
“What about Johnny? You did say he could help before.”
Rose whipped her head around, “Don’t mention that name in the Sisters’ presence.”
“Later, Esmeralda. We’re no longer alone.” Rose was still looking at me, but she noticed the twin figures down at the base of the curved stairs before I did. The figures were standing so close together it was like they were one. Slowly, Rose and I continued down the steps. They backed away as we reached the basement floor. But only about an arms width away.
Black cloaks covered their entire bodies. We all stood in silence for a few minutes before the Sisters turned and led us farther into the basement. It was a good thing Rose still had a hold of my hand, or else I probably would have booked it out of there. Her hand tightened around mine like she had read my thoughts.
The farther into the basement we went, the colder it became. I figured the Lost didn’t feel temperatures. But I still could. And by the time the Sisters stopped by a round table with four plush (but dirty and ripped) chairs, I was shivering. I could see my breath in front of me as I sat down. Rose scooted her chair closer to mine unobtrusively. She didn’t say a word, so neither did I.
The Sisters lowered themselves into their chairs slowly. When they were seated they raised gloved hands and pushed back their hoods. When they did I sent a prayer of thanks to my brother, Lachlan, for teaching me how to play poker and therefore how to keep a poker face. I don’t want to say they’re disgusting, but they came very, very close. Scaly skin was flaking away, sunken eyes were rimmed in red and black. Their highly arched brows were penciled in. Their skin was the color of pea-soup- which had never been one of my favourites to begin with.
Not taking their eyes off of Rose and me, they pulled off their gloves. I wished they’d left them on. Gnarled fingers ended in sharp, ragged nails. Placing their gloves on the table, they both turned to Rose. Thankfully.
The Sister on the left spoke first, her voice high and piercing “Rose, dearie. What brings you by?”
The other Sister chimed in, her voice a deeper but no less blood curdling version of her sisters’, “Not back to try on your memory again, dearie? It’s getting a bit sad.”
I frowned over at Roses’ frozen face. She’d tried more than once?
“No, Tillie, I’m not here about my memory.” Rose tilted her chin towards me, not taking her eyes from the Sisters, “I’m here about Esmeralda’s memory.”
Tillie shot her eyes to me, then leaned closer to her sister, murmuring, “What d’you think, Millie?”
Millie tilted her head towards me as well, her beady eyes gleaming, “Too new. Rose, dearie, you know we can’t help you without payment. And we cannot take this young girls’ emotions just yet.”
I didn’t like the sound of ‘just yet’.
“I am aware,” Rose said calmly, “You may take some from me.”
“Rose,” I began under my breath but she cut me off by squeezing my hand sharply.
“Well, now, dearie. That sounds fair to me. What about you, Millie, does that sound fair?” Tillie purred.
Millie smiled silkily, “Yes, it does.”
“Well, now. Payment first. And we shall need a drop of blood from the girl.”
I’m right here, I thought to myself, then corrected that thought. Never mind, I’d prefer they didn’t talk to me. Or look at me. Or breathe near me. Or take my blood. Or - hold up. Rewind.
“My blood?” I asked, “Why?” I ignored the violent tensing of Roses’ hand in mine. No way was I letting them poke and prod at me without answers. Maybe not even then.
Millie turned that nasty smile on me, “Magic requires blood, dearie.”
Tillie reached under the table and pulled out a small, rusted metal box. Lifting the lid she pulled out a vile, a knife and a mortar and pestle. Millie reached into her bosom and pulled forth a bag of weeds. Looking through it she frowned, “Out of rat root. Call Chloe to fetch some more, Tillie.”
Tillie nodded and reached to the wall beside her, tugging on a string she rang a bell that sounded throughout the small house. A few seconds later haunted eyed child appeared with a small crate of weeds. She was dirty, but didn’t seem to mind as she trooped forward and set the crate on the table in front of me. Catching my eye as she turned, she smiled a cold smile that left me shivering.
Rummaging through it, Millie came up with a rubbery root. Smiling grotesquely, she tossed it into the mortar, along with a dash of a vile smelling liquid. I struggled to keep my poker face when they each leaned over the mortar and spat in it. Looking up, Tillie reached across the table, her palm up. “Your hand, dearie.”
I fisted my free hand in my lap, not wanting to let her bleed me. Rose squeezed my hand until I looked up at her. “Trust me.” she whispered. She looked over at Tillie, “I’ll do it.”
Millie didn’t look up from the mortar and pestle she was jamming together. Tillie, on the other hand, lost a fraction of her smile. “Beg pardon, dearie?”
“I’ll cut Esmeralda. I’ll need the vile, the knife and a swab of alcohol.”
I looked down at my stomach - was I the only one who had noticed it was bleeding? “Rose,” I said quietly, “Can you see the hole in my stomach?”
Rose raised one brow, “Yes. Why?”
“Well, can’t you just swab it for blood? Why do you need a new cut?”
“That wasn’t made for magic, dearie.” Millie said, and I looked up to meet her eyes, “That was made on the purpose of killing ya. We just need to recover your memory.”
“A new cut must be used for a new purpose. To use an old wound could be dangerous.” Tillie added with that smile.
I swallowed. So I’d never been good with blood. Sue me. Rose tugged on my hand again, “Trust me.” she repeated. She turned to the Sisters, who after a pause handed her the vile, knife and a swab of alcohol.
Rose pushed up the right sleeve on my sweater, exposing a tan forearm. Brushing the swab over the middle of it, she gave me a smile, “Just relax. It’ll hurt less if you can relax.” Not taking her eyes off me she said to the Sisters, “One of you needs to hold the vile under her arm.” Slipping her palm back into mine, she brushed her thumb over my pulse. “Breathe,” she whispered.
One of the Sisters came around the table and crouched down beside us, but I didn’t dare move my eyes away from Rose’s lavender gaze. Nor she from mine. She was still rubbing her thumb across my wrist, and it was starting to relax me. I felt it when she drew the blade across my arm; it was like a paper cut met a bee sting. Only lasted for a couple of seconds before it faded, so it didn’t really bother me. Rose tipped my arm, allowing a trail of blood to flow into the vile held at the ready.
Rose smiled at me then, her pearly whites bright, “It’s over, Esmeralda. It’s done.”
I blinked, then looked down at my arm. Sure enough there was a small slash across my arm. Rose swabbed it again with the other side of the cloth and pulled my sweater back down. “We’ll patch it later.” she promised.
On the other side of the table, the Sisters were mixing my blood in with the rat root, vile liquid and their spit. Rubbing at my arm, I frowned over at them. “Now what?”
Identical smiles bloomed over their faces, not at all attractively.
“Now,” Tillie began, stirring the concoction, “Rose gives us a pinch of her emotions. And then...”
“You drink.” Finished Millie.
I felt my poker face slip, my draw drop.
Rose watched me in silence, her face composed.
“I ... what?”
Tillie answered, “You drink. If you want to remember, you will drink.”
“You spat in that!” I protested.
“It was necessary for the magic.” Insisted Millie.
“That doesn’t change the fact that it’s completely unhygienic.” I pointed out.
“Esmeralda,” Rose said, “They know what they’re doing. Disease has no effect here. You can’t get them, spread them. And any sicknesses you had when you were alive were killed when you died.”
“It’s still spit,” I hissed, “It’s gross.”
Millie lost her smile, “Do you want to know what happened or not?” she said impatiently.
I sighed. This had better work. I nodded reluctantly.
“Rose, dearie, we need some of your emotions then,” Tillie smiled, handing over a larger knife with a curved blade and some sort of inscription on the bone handle. I tried not to dwell on the fact that it looked suspiciously like a human femur. Reaching across the table, Rose picked up the knife and then brought it to her chest. She parted her robe and I saw the ghastly wound that had taken Roses’ life. Holding the knife up to her heart, Rose closed her eyes and breathed out slowly. As she did a glittering white substance leaked out into the blades curved edge. The Sisters cackled with glee while I sat there, dumbstruck at what was happening.
I felt the urge to slap the blade away from Rose so strongly I had to clasp my hands together to keep from launching myself at her.
After a few more seconds, Rose drew the blade away from her chest and carefully handed the blade back to Tillie. As I watched, the wound in Roses’ chest faded and then was gone. Looking up I caught her eye, “Later.” she mouthed.
Our later was filling up.
“Now you,” Millie thrust the mortar across the table at me.
Grimacing, I leaned forward and picked it up. It was surprisingly solid for something so ... broken looking. Trying not to look to closely at what the mortar held, I tipped my head back and dumped it into my mouth. Quickly plugging my nose, I swallowed.
Dropping the mortar to the floor with a clatter I clutched at my stomach. Fresh blood coated my hands as I writhed in pain. A pain in my head expanded, dark spots danced across my vision and it became hard to breathe.
I didn’t notice when I fell off my chair and onto the cold concrete. I didn’t notice when I started to foam at the mouth. All I was aware of was the pain shooting through my body because of the memory that was trying to break through.