Perry knew something was wrong when he woke up in a grave. His eyes flashed open. Darkness, everywhere. His breathing grew heavier as he turned his head from side to side, trying to see something in the darkness. There was nothing. Only shadows. Gasping, he raised his hands, forcing them up against the wood above him in a desperate attempt to free himself. This space was too enclosed, too claustrophobic; he felt panic rising in him like vomit, threatening to spill all over this old, worn coffin. He didn’t have a weapon. There was no way he was going to escape with his bare hands; he’d be trapped forever, breathing but not living, dead but alive. He wasn’t human – he could just feel it. Something had shifted in his soul, changed in his bones. He wasn’t Perry anymore. He was a shell. And he wasn’t supposed to be alive.
Out. I have to get out. Nothing else mattered: the crisis of what he was could wait for another time. The forty-two years he’d spent down here in the darkness fell apart to nothing. Faces melted; places changed. He just had to survive.
He couldn’t hold off the panicking for much longer. A scream rose in his throat, but he couldn’t make noise, couldn’t speak. His hands curled into fists, beating against the wooden ceiling over and over again, until he could feel blood trickling down his knuckles. Blood. Not blood. Water? Sweat? He gasped and heaved, pressing his hands against his face for a moment. He had to be calm. Had to be sensible. How would he free himself if all he could do was freak out? Perry breathed into his hands, trying to remember what he’d been told in the dead land. Breathe in for seven seconds. Hold for eight. Release for seven. He continued doing this until his breathing regulated again, and then came the second attempt.
Another punch. Another push. Another hit. The lid wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t too surprising; if he was six feet underground, there was no way in hell he’d have the strength to push all of that weight off him. He needed something else. Another tactic. Something clever.
You won’t survive, he heard the ghosts hiss. You have to use your strength. All of it; every ounce. The human body is capable of crushing bone. Stop holding yourself back.
Yes. He had to stop panicking, but he also had to stop rationalising this. This was not rational. He’d been buried underground. He’d died. He could still feel the knife buried in his mouth, could still feel it butchering his tongue. The blood came back. Filled his mouth. No escape.
He wasn’t going to give up now; anxiety would not allow him rest. Perry shifted, lifting his legs, determined that if his arms were not strong enough against the lid, his legs would be. The coffin was shallow and claustrophobic, so it took all of his effort to move the bottom half of his body up. Feet on the ceiling, heart thudding so fast in his chest that it was a wonder he hadn’t had a heart attack already, and died for a second time. Wait for it. Three...two...one...go! He pushed with every last ounce of strength in his body, pouring his energy into his calves, hoping beyond any reason that he would be strong enough to lift six feet’s worth of mud up off his coffin. The lid lifted. A muffled sound; it sounded suspiciously like grains of salt or sand being flung away. Was it working? Had some of the mud now gone?
Again. He took a few breaths, hoping it would be worth it, and kicked again, as hard as he possibly could. The sound came again. Another break; another kick. Again. Again. Again. His calves were burning, and his eyes were stinging with tears – whether from effort or an overwhelming sensation of pain, he couldn’t be sure. He continued kicking until the weight began to lessen, until it was noticeable. Then he lowered his legs and raised his arms, pushing as fiercely as he could against the wood of the lid, gasping in relief when he felt it give way above him. He pushed it to the side, opened his eyes.
Mud and dirt flooded his face, invading his nostrils and mouth and eyes. He squealed in surprise, quickly closed his lips and eyes against the onslaught. Once the mud had finished invading the coffin, Perry forced himself to stand in spite of his aching legs, gazing at his way to freedom with dark, doubtful eyes. Six feet. He was only a little bit taller; it would be quite difficult to climb out of his grave. He was a statue. His body was so stiff, he could barely twitch his fingers, let alone climb up six feet. The sky was filled with darkness, but the sight of the moon and stars staring down at him was enough to render him speechless. How different it was to the dead land. How eerie.
Perry gritted his teeth and struggled on top of the mud pile, gasping and stumbling. He wasn’t used to using his body anymore; it felt odd and alien, like he was in someone else’s skin. He hadn’t moved for so long. Hadn’t breathed. Once he’d climbed onto the mud on top of the coffin, he took a few breaths of the cool night air, his chest heaving as he tried to ignore the poisonous exhaustion seeping into his bones. So tired. So, so tired. Perry looked down at his hands, amazed to see them shaking so violently. Amazed to see that they were still hands. He’d been underground for forty-two years. Surely his skin would have rotted off by now? But here it was, pale and sickly and covered in purple-black blotches, but otherwise normal. It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. His head ached.
Once he’d caught his breath, Perry began to climb. His hands did not obey his mind’s commands, and it took him a while to come to grips with the handholds in the dirt around him. He pushed himself up. Grabbed the stones. Felt around the dirt wall for a place to hold his hands and feet. Up, up, up. His hand slipped, his foot slipped, and he fell back into the coffin. Gasping. Winded. Perry closed his eyes against the spray of dirt in his face, and opened them again, standing back up. He would get up. He would get out of this grave.
It took seven attempts for Perry to get out of the ground. In the movies, they made grave-digging, and crawling out of graves, look easy. In reality, he felt like he would never be able to breathe properly again.
By the time he’d finally managed to push himself up into the outside world, Perry couldn’t move a single muscle. He allowed his body to fall, allowed the grassy ground to catch him. It was frosted and cool against his back; idly, he realised that it was probably winter. He lay there in the grass, in the ground of a graveyard, and stared up at the stars. There was one particularly bright one just below the moon. Perhaps it was a planet. Venus. Mars. Or maybe it was just a bright star.
There was a woman standing close by. Tall, in shirt, trousers and tie; her cheekbones were high and prominent, and her eyes slanted and glinted like a fox’s. She had a shovel pushed into the dirt, and was leaning on it without a care in the world, spare hand low in her trouser pocket.
“You all right?” she said.
Perry stared harder. He wasn’t entirely sure how he was supposed to react, or what he was supposed to do. He opened his mouth, closed it again. He frowned. “What?”
His voice was hoarse and husky. Speaking was an odd sensation after so long in silence; his tongue felt thick and heavy in his mouth. He didn’t like it. Everything felt so different already, and he’d only been awake for a few hours, fighting against the weight of the dirt.
“I said, ’you all right?’,” she repeated. “You’re looking a bit...shocked.”
He stared at her, as blank a colourless piece of paper. Any and all thoughts had abandoned his mind. He had to crane his neck to look at her, but his gaze was sceptical.
Instead of answering her question, he asked one of his own. “How?”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’ll have to be a little bit more specific than that, darling. How do we exist? How do we live? How will the world end?”
He blinked. Slow, bleary. He could barely understand a word she was saying. “Uh...” he said.
“Yeah, me too,” she answered. Which made no sense.
He continued to stare at her like she was an alien from outer space – and at this point, it wouldn’t surprise him if she was. She stared back at him with a permanent smirk on her olive-skinned face. Then she said, in the same, grandstanding voice:
“I don’t know how, darling. I just heard scrabbling underground, and tried to help. So here I am.” She peered at him, frowning slightly. “So. Are you a ghoul?”
“A ghoul?” he repeated blankly.
“A ghoul,” she agreed. “Y’know. You were either buried alive and somehow managed to stay alive for long enough to claw your way out of the dirt, or you’re a ghoul. It’s one or the other. So which is it? Did you die?”
He struggled to remember. He wondered what a ghoul was.
“Yes,” answered Perry. “I...I was...stabbed. Someone tried to stab me in the chest, but something...something happened. And they stabbed me in the mouth instead. They didn’t mean to, but...”
Perry lifted his head, pointing to the scars on his mouth and chin. He could still remember the sensations; the pain. The weight of his killer, bearing down on him as the murderer straddled his sleeping body. It wasn’t the sort of thing he wanted to remember. In the dead land, he’d been told to forget. Dwelling on death is never good for the living, the man had said. Live. Love. Forget. So he’d forgotten. The memory had faded into nothing, and his dead life had become the dead land, with all its blue hues and sad wanderers. Now, however, he had nothing but death to focus on.
“Ouch. Looks like it hurt,” the woman observed. “So, darling, I hate to bring it up, but...your grave says 1940-1958.”
“Yes,” he nodded.
“1958,” she said again. The emphasis she put on the year made him frown. “Darling, you’ve been dead for forty-two years.”
He felt dizzy. Sick. Tired. He wanted to go back to sleep and pretend none of this had happened. Instead, he sat up from the floor, gazing at his grave with eyes larger than the moon hanging so high in the blackness. The stranger was right, as he knew she was; he’d died in 1958. His grave defined him:
Percival Gideon Azur
Resting at God’s side
That was all he’d been allowed to be. Percival Gideon Azur, the son of a mother. If he’d lived longer, would he have been different? A husband? A father? Perhaps even a brother; his mother had been very young when she’d had him. But no. Perry was a son, nothing more. A dead, beloved son. And he could have been so much more.
“Hey.” The woman’s voice grew gentler as she watched him stare, his lips parted in a soft, silent scream. Despite all the grandstanding, she apparently recognised pain. “It’s OK. You’ll be OK. Do you have anyone you can go to? Anyone who might still be alive?”
Slowly, he shook his head. “Ma was all I had.”
She bit her lip, looking around her as though waiting for someone to appear and give her some advice. No one did. The woman removed her hands from her trouser pockets, extending one towards him. “Stand up, darling. Let’s get that dirt off you, shall we?”
He was silent as she helped him stand; silent as she brushed the mud from his dire, black suit. Perry didn’t speak or move as the woman smiled brightly. A valiant attempt, he supposed, at making him feel better. But it didn’t work like that. He was in another century. It hurt so much he couldn’t breathe, and yet, breathing was the very reason he was experiencing this. If he’d taken that last breath in 1958 and stuck with it, he wouldn’t have to go through another century. But he hadn’t. He’d woken up again, and here he was. Living. Breathing. Doing a lot more than his mother would be doing now, whether dead or decaying.
A surge of bitterness appeared in his heart. He should be decaying. And he wasn’t. Why wasn’t he a rotten corpse? Why wasn’t he one of the zombies in one of Christopher’s stupid, wonderful comic books?
The woman reached out to squeeze his shoulder. She was wearing so many rings on her fingers; he was slightly surprised that she wasn’t being dragged off by every magnet in the world.
“What do I do now?” he whispered. His breath formed in the air. His fingers were frozen. “I have nowhere to go.”
She nodded as though she knew this would be a problem, and raised a perfect eyebrow at him. “Well, hey. I’ve got room in my apartment. You can stay there, until you find somewhere else.”
He stared at her. “Really? Just like that?” he asked.
She shrugged. The hands were back in the pockets again. “Why not? I’ve been looking for a new room-mate. My last one stole my tortoise. I turned her into a rat. It was a good time.”
“I don’t even know you,” he protested, frowning as he realised what she’d said. “Wait. You turned her into a rat?”
She bowed, with all the flamboyance of a terrible magician. Her arms were spread as though she was preparing to take flight, and she was leaning so far down her nose was almost touching the floor. Perry just stared at her, astonished. He’d seen nothing like this before; nothing like her. She was quite frightening, in her own, manic way.
“The Great Witch, Jarvia Knot, at your service,” she said, in the most dramatic voice she’d used all evening. Which was saying something. He’d never heard someone so booming before.
He was also fairly certain she’d just called herself a witch, but he had dirt in his ears, so it was probably just his imagination. Witches, he reminded himself, did not exist. Witches, he thought, were the stuff of nightmares and dreams and books.
Jarvia Knot straightened up, flashing him an eyeliner wink. “You may call me Jarvia the Magnificent, or Jarvia the Bold, or Jarvia the Supremely Awesome Witch.”
“How about just Jarvia?” he offered.
“Just Jarvia works, too,” she grinned. “So what do you say, ghoulie? You’ve got nowhere to go; I’ve got a room. It’s a pretty damned perfect arrangement, if you ask me. I’m the last surviving witch in the world, and you’re the first ghoul I’ve seen for a couple of centuries. Maybe it’s better that we stick together.”
He stared at her, feeling slightly dubious. On one hand, Jarvia Knot was a stranger who was definitely on the mad side. On the other, Perry really did have nowhere else to go. She’d called herself a witch again, he realised.
“Am I going mad?” he asked. It would make sense.
“My dear boy! What an odd question! Are you mad? I’ve no idea.”
He frowned. He didn’t think it was a very odd question. In fact, Perry Gideon Azur thought it was a perfectly reasonable question, considering the circumstances.
“What question should I ask?” he asked instead.
Jarvia Knot considered, clucking her tongue. In the silence of the graveyard, the sound echoed eerily. Perry hated it. He was overcome with a sudden sense of urgency, a need to get away from this horrible place.
“Ask the one you want the answer to,” she said finally.
He thought. He knew what answer he wanted, and she knew he knew.
“Are you...a witch?” he inquired. His voice was hesitant; his hands were freezing.
“Depending on who you ask, I am a witch, or a magician, or a Satanist.”
“I’m asking you,” he said.
This appeared to impress the Great Witch Jarvia Knot. She smiled an approving smile, and leaned forwards so he could get full view of the glint in her slanted eyes.
“Indeed you are, young man,” she said. Somehow, hearing the words young man from her was not patronising. It just made her seem older. “And quite rightly so! I’m a witch, darling.”
“But witches...don’t exist.”
“Good God, you’re right!” she gasped in mock horror, slapping a hand over her mouth. “Excuse me for a moment while I fade into non-existence.”
Her sarcasm, Perry thought, was unnecessarily brutal. Then again, he supposed he’d offended her. He’d just crawled out of his own grave, forty-two years after dying. He shouldn’t exist, either, and yet, here he was.
“OK, so maybe you do exist,” Perry sighed. “It doesn’t change the fact that this is all...this is just crazy.”
“It isn’t ‘just’ anything, my dear.”
“Right,” said Perry, despite the fact that it was not right at all.
She raised an eyebrow. “You still haven’t given me an answer,” she pointed out. “Do you want a room, or do you want to go and sulk in your grave for a few more decades?”
She was offering him a roof to put over his head; a safe haven in an unfamiliar world. He wasn’t going to get this offer again.
“Would...would I have to pay rent?” he asked. “I don’t have any money. And I don’t think I could get a job, what with the whole ‘being dead’ thing.”
Jarvia smiled at him. It was a genuine smile, though her eyes had a strange, unreadable emotion in them. “You can pay rent through labour. I need some help with my job. You look like you could be a helping hand.”
He frowned. “What would this ‘helping’ entail?” he asked.
“Oh, you know,” she waved a hand. “Nothing too serious. Nothing involving blood sacrifice, so I wouldn’t worry about that, if that’s what you were thinking.”
“It wasn’t,” said Perry.
“Wonderful. Then we should get on marvellously, don’t you think? I’m still waiting for an answer.”
Perry sighed. So tired. So damned tired. If his mother were here, she’d be shouting at him at this point: “Don’t go off to live with a strange woman you’ve never met before!” If Christopher were here, he’d be smacking him over the back of the head: “Dude, what in the hell is wrong with you? You can’t do this!” But they weren’t here. Perry was here. They weren’t going to save him; no one was going to tell him what to do this time. And Perry needed somewhere to stay, and someone to speak to. Someone who could, possibly, help him. Perry remembered what the aos sí had said to him. Don’t track down your murderer unless you have the means. With Jarvia Knot, perhaps Perry would have the means. He was awake now; alive. This was the perfect opportunity to find the person who had killed him in 1958. An option, at the very least.
He reached out, shaking Jarvia Knot’s hand with a pensive look on his face. He’d been awake for about five hours, most of which had been spent underground. Already, he was risking his life again, and doing so in one of the worst ways imaginable.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll stay with you. I don’t really have any other choice, do I?”
“Not unless you’d like to die on the streets,” she replied simply.
Jarvia Knot let go of him, smiling at him as though she knew something he didn’t. He already had a feeling he was going to regret this. It was never a good sign. She began to walk away, her heeled shoes crunching against the frosted graveyard grounds. When she noticed he wasn’t walking with her, she turned around, raising an eyebrow for what seemed like the hundredth time that night.
“Well?” she said. “I don’t have all the time in the world, you know.”
He scurried after her, wondering what in the world he’d just signed himself up to.