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Chapter 23

Chapter 23: Keeping Watch

Sabonis struggles to force breath after breath into his reluctant flesh. I listen from across the hut, behind the partition. I can’t bear to watch him suffer.

I sit facing the door, my back propped against the central pillar—a tree trunk thicker and straighter than any I have yet seen in Lethe or Dilmun. The hooked spear is tucked under my arm, pointing towards the door opening. The ax I found by the wood pile out back rests at my feet. A crude machete fashioned from iron strapping sits on the rickety table beside me.

I expect a Collector or Facilitator to appear at the door any minute. Nerves all jangly, I whisper to myself over and over.

“They can’t hurt me.”

That’s my mantra, along with:

“I’m invincible. I’m immune. I’m exempt.”

Repeating these things out loud makes them easier to believe. That’s the theory anyway. In truth, it’s not helping me much.

Despite Alecto’s little act of clemency, I recall that several of the arrows that flew our way came awful close to striking me. Regardless of intentions, mistakes do happen in this place and far too often as far as I can tell. My Auntie’s blessing is no guarantee of safety.

I am wearing a dress now, the kind of thing an old peasant lady in Mexico might wear to church. It used to be white but now has concentric rings of brown as if it has been tie-dyed in tea. Traces of embroidery remain—flowers and ferns and little blue birds.

I found it among a pile of stained and worn out clothing on a shelf. At first I tossed it aside. No way was I going to put on a dress. But the only pants in the pile were ridiculously large. They would drag on the ground and fall down if I tried to wear them. At least the dress fit me. Something to cover my ass. That’s all.

I’m finding so far that being a girl isn’t a whole lot different than being a guy. It’s not as weird as I thought it would be, anyhow. My arms and legs work pretty much the same. I’m a bit smaller, but still strong.

It’s not like I’ve turned into a completely different species. Being human seems to outweigh the physical idiosyncrasies of gender. Who woulda thunk it? Girls are people too.

So far, anyway. I’m still waiting for the infamous menstrual cycle to assert itself, but maybe that shit doesn’t happen in Lethe. Maybe dead women like me are post-menopausal.

The light starts to fade just as I’m finally starting to calm down about the Collectors and all. Night is going to take my fear to a whole new level.

I decide to go out and pee while I still dare. I will not be roaming around this compound in the dark, that’s for sure. Sabonis has a slit toilet dug deep into the clay across a small orchard. There’s no privacy, but I prefer it that way. I don’t need anything sneaking up on me while I’m in the shitter.

I pass a pretty, little pond on the way—sandy-bottomed with a patch of pink water lilies at one end. Little, blue-bellied fish tend circular nests in the shallows. Dragonflies patrol the reeds. They’re skimmers, from the family Libellulidae. Snails traverse submerged leaves. I can’t tell what kind they are, but they’re not Lymneids.

It’s nice having a chance to appreciate the local wildlife. But it makes me wonder. How the heck did they get here?

I reach the toilet: two split logs over a pit. I have the whole squatting thing down pretty well. I no longer pee all over my feet. I squat with my dress scrunched up and one hand braced on the ground like a defensive end in a three-point stance. It helps that I’m not wearing any panties.

The hill behind me has overhanging ledges with dark holes beneath harboring caves. They remind me of the brow ridges and eye sockets of a skull. Staring. Creeping me out.

When I’m done, I rub my hands in some clean sand and head back across the orchard. Most of the trees bear tiny green fruits, unidentifiable in their infancy. But one tree has some good-sized pears dangling from it. I use the hook of the spear to cut down some of the nicer ones on the upper branches. They’re a bit warty and a little under-ripe but sweet enough to make me want more than one. Two pears and a hunk of dried fish constitute my entire intake in the two days I’ve been ashore. It’s sure to do wonders for my figure, if nutrition actually mattered in this place.

I wonder where Sabonis keeps this spare boat he mentioned. The simple quay bobbing in the lagoon is devoid of any water craft. All I see is a tiny dugout canoe upturned on the beach. It’s barely large enough to seat two. This can’t be the vessel he intended to take us out to sea.

I return to the doorway and resume my chant, muttering under my breath:

“They don’t want me. They want him.”

I have to keep it up, because the calming effect tends to fade if I go silent too long. My hands start to shake. My rate of breathing accelerates.

Weird, how I fear death so much when I’m already dead. I have proof in Sabonis as Shade that existence persists even after major bodily injury. Maybe it’s just fear of the new stuff lurking at every stage of the continuum. It makes me wonder what fears trouble Shades.

I wonder how brave I will be if and when the Collectors come for Sabonis. He expects me to fight for his soul. Fat chance. I’m hoping that the weapon in my hands will be enough to keep them away. I’m pretty sure what I will do if my spear provokes them into attacking. Run.

With that in mind, I decide to remain outside on a stump just outside the door. Out here I have two options: run or hide. Inside, I could only hide.

The orb squeezes tighter and puts on its piss-poor simulation of a sunset. The lagoon and sea beyond lose their gloss and darken. No red sky at night, sailor’s delight in Lethe. You can forget green flashes.

It’s as if someone snaps their fingers and it’s night again. The orb stays partly aglow, like a clouded moon. The feeble light gives only the vaguest definition to the landscape. I’ll be able to see silhouettes approach, whoever’s they might be: Shades, Collectors or demons unknown. What I would give to see the real moon and some stars right now.

A smattering of tentative chirps and whirs and creaks evolves into a full blown symphony of susurration as the bugs and frogs come awake. Some say insects will rule the earth after a nuclear holocaust. From the sounds of it, they probably would take over the afterworld as well.

I speculate what I should do if they take Sabonis. Stay here in this hut? Comb beaches? Eat pears? Seems peaceful enough here. Lonely, but I could make a decent existence of it as a Squatter.

Some day Gina would have to die. I hope not too soon, though I have to admit, a part of me wishes it will be sooner rather than later. If she does die, will she join me in Lethe? Will it matter to her that I am a girl now?

But what if there are other places for souls to go? Hard to believe that Lethe is all there is to the afterlife, the only path to paradise. What if I can never find her again? Ever?

Maybe that relative who Sabonis calls ‘a beast’ can help me. Maybe he’s wrong. Maybe she really is some kindly old great-aunt who only wants to tell me stories about my grandma and feed me sweets? Though, it would feel creepy meeting someone who died before I was born.

What about my other dead relatives, like Nana Tompkins, Uncle Bert—my mother’s step-brother who died of leukemia at forty-two or Cousin Joe, who committed suicide when he was seventeen? Might any of them be here?

The night orb glazes the bushes and trees with a dull sheen that clings like slime and casts squat ugly shadows that never budge. Little creatures hop across the pale dirt, toads, I suppose. I pass the time counting them for lack of something better to do.

I hear Sabonis still breathing inside. I can hear him mutter, and if I didn’t know better, I could have sworn he was praying.

Hours pass. How many, I have no way to tell. They all run together. I am certain, however, that seventeen toads have crossed before my stump. They come in two sizes: large ones that hop along straight without delay and little ones that zigzag and puff out their necks every few hops to croak. I wonder if they are different species or just different genders. I wonder if any mistakes were made in their transition to this place.

Something new slithers onto the dirt. It lingers at the edge of the vegetation, then darts across and snatches a toad in its jaws. It’s a snake. A big snake. I watch, horrified, and grip the spear a little tighter.

The snake has an upturned nose, like a little pig. After it wolfs down the toad, it comes nosing about towards the hut. I pull my feet up off the ground and onto the stump. The rest of the toads, to their credit, have fled.

I bang the end of the spear on the ground to discourage the snake. The vibrations make it coil and rear.

A glow suddenly appears on the shoulder of the hill, flickering like a torch. Someone or something is approaching. My muscles tense. Tingles jet through my skin.
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