Meet Ava Birch
That Ghoul Ava
It’s Sunday. I hate Sundays. If cornered, I’d say I hate Tuesdays, too. They’re just such Nothing days. Oh…and it’s snowing; but I love the snow, so it makes today a bit of a wash.
Wait! I’m being so rude. My name is Ava Birch. It’s pronounced Ay-va. I’m not some shiny, white robot in a Disney flick in love with a trash compactor, so do not call me Eee-va. Oh yeah, and I’m a ghoul.
Now before you get all weirded out, I’m not a zombie and I’m not a deranged vampire. I don’t lie in wait for innocent men, women, and children and feast on them. I eat the already dead. And no, I don’t hang out in graveyards and dine on those about to be buried. Do you know what sorts of things they pump into dead bodies? Then I suggest you read Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain by Jessica Mitford.
Ghouls, for those of you in utter confusion or sucked into the strange alternate realities that besmirch a ghoul’s good name, eat the dead. We aren’t contagious. We can’t bite or scratch you and turn you—a good thing for those who have found themselves in my bed—into one of us. (Poor, unwitting necros.) From what I understand—I’ve only met one other ghoul and he wasn’t very helpful—our condition is genetic. Then, we have to die in such a way that enough remains to come back.
I’m sure there are a thousand things I could tell you, but I’m equally sure that, if it’s important, it will come up over the course of events. What you do need to know is that I’m no Betsy Sinclair or Amanda Feral! I’m pretty sure my love of blue eye shadow, 80s fashion sense, and adoration of Poison—the group, not the substance—would prevent me from ever being confused with the likes of them.
Did I just mention Poison? I’ve got to admit, if Brett Michaels ever succumbs to his illness, I may have to rethink my dietary rules. If I could manage to sneak his cold, blue body from whatever morgue he ended up in? Mmmmmm…Brett Michaels.
I had a thing for C.C. DeVille, but he got all clean and sober. That skinny little bastard will probably live to be ninety. That’s a bit too stringy for me.
Anyways, I’ve digressed enough. Back to me. How did it all start? And what were those first few weeks like? Chances are, if you’re reading this, you know tons about zombies, vampires, and maybe werewolves. Unless of course, your exposure to the undead consists of that silly Twilight crap…yuck! Well, I’m here to tell you that the undead aren’t all sexy twenty-somethings or pretty boys with six-pack abs.
I was thirty-two when I went through The Change. It was 1999, and I was not—in fact—partying like the song suggests. That year was terrible. My husband left me for a girl he was having a not-so-subtle affair with from his office. I can’t be too mad; I’d had a fling of my own with a bartender at the restaurant where I was a waitress. Still…I wasn’t gonna run away with him or anything. It was casual flirting that lead to sitting in a car after work passing a bottle and a joint back and forth. One thing led to another, and pretty soon we were doing the ‘back seat mambo’ while Every Rose Has Its Thorn played on the car stereo.
The autopsy on my marriage went something like this: we were married for six years; stopped having regular sex after two; and were down to birthday and anniversary sex after four. Last I heard, Edgar was still married to that sl—. Excuse me, to that sweet girl. They even had twin girls. Good for him…them.
The worst part about the divorce was that I was a waitress. He was/is a rising executive in an advertising firm. I ended up in a rundown apartment complex in Southeast Portland. He has a gorgeous colonial in Tualatin. I didn’t ask for alimony, and since we didn’t have any children…I was pretty much back to square one.
I never cared much for school. I met Edgar at a party thrown by twice-removed mutual friends. Honestly, I wasn’t gold-digger. We met. We hit it off. The freaky sex was fun. Marriage just sorta happened. I wish it was more exciting than that, but real life seldom is.
After we split, I tried to reinvent myself about a dozen times. Somehow, I always ended up waitressing in places with party atmosphere bars, going home—or at least to the parking lot—with too many co-workers or big tippers, and waking up with that gnawing sense of self-loathing.
When I looked in the mirror, I saw a used car. Sure, my Elvira-length, jet-black hair, gray eyes, and, oh yeah, thirty-eight DDs looked good. The time hadn’t run out yet on my hourglass figure, but I could see a few cracks here and there. Crows were definitely perching on the edges of my eyes, and my once-flat belly was developing a bit of a speed bump. Hey! I did say I was thirty-two.
One morning I just fell off my mental ledge. I’d woke to a phone call from my most recent boyfriend who decided that he needed to “at least try and give an honest go” at being a good husband to his wife. That meant those plans we’d made for my thirty-third birthday the next week were probably scratched. Somehow, I ended up standing in front of my medicine cabinet. A moment later, all my prescription bottles were empty…along with the half a bottle of white zin I had left over from the previous day’s lunch.
Now, I don’t know all the mojo and hocus pocus that went on. What I do know is that I woke up two days later on my bathroom floor. I admit I sat there wanting to cry, but nothing happened. That should’ve been my first clue. I mean, it was like my brain was telling me I was sad, but the voice in my head trying to pass on that message was two doors down and had a rag stuffed in its mouth.
When I stood up and looked in the mirror, I did one of those “Eek! I saw a mouse!” squeals. My eyes were (are) black. I don’t just mean the pretty part. I had two shiny black orbs staring back at me. Then I did something a bit silly…I blinked a few times like that might help.
After I got over trying to fake out my reflection by jumping out from, and back in front of the mirror a dozen or so times, I huffed a stand of hair out of my face and ventured into my apartment. That was when I got surprise number two: it was the middle of the night. My place was shrouded in darkness. Of course that had me dashing back into the bathroom. Nope, the light was definitely out. I could see in the dark! Weird. Right?
So many times, you hear about people turning Were or Vamp—or whatever else there is to turn into—and there is some sort of guide or helper that shows up to at least walk them through those first awkward steps. Hell…even Buffy had Giles. Guess who showed up to help poor little Ava? Nobody. Well, there was that one guy…but that was way late and I mostly had it down by then.
While I was wandering around my apartment amazing myself at things like how well I could see—even when I stepped inside my closet and shut the door—I smelled it. How do I describe it? Imagine your favorite food is cooking in the kitchen. Now, multiply it by about a hundred so that the smell seems to be seeping into your pores. It’s so thick that you taste it in the back of your throat. Got it? Well it’s like that coupled with a weird homing beacon thingy so you know exactly where to go to serve up a big plateful.
Here’s where it gets yucky. I could feel my mouth doing…something. I resisted the pull of the homing beacon (which is apparently quite a feat for a ghoul) and ran into the bathroom. Then I did another one of those “Eeks!” only this time it was like I’d seen a machete-wielding serial killer. My mouth had changed all right. A set of razor-sharp chompers had sprouted, complete with fierce-looking fangs—upper and lower—replacing my normally pretty white teeth that mommy and daddy spent a fortune on when I was younger. I don’t care who you are, headgear in sixth grade is far more embarrassing than your first bra or first period.
So I’ve got this wood chipper for a mouth now, and even worse, my toothy grin could be substituted for a close up from something out of Shark Week. You’ve heard the expression ‘ear-to-ear grin’? Well, I actually had one!
By now, there is this disgusting strand of drool dangling from my chin. I want to be totally mortified, but that smell seems to be physically pulling me towards it. The next thing I know, I’m in the parking lot of my apartment complex, and in what seems like two steps, I’m past the dozen or so parking spaces and standing beside the big, green Dumpster for use by the tenants. There is a vile, nasty, seeped-in-his-own-filth wino sprawled on the ground. He may as well have been a plate of cheese-stuffed tortellini with pesto and caramelized garlic.
I stared down at him. He was so grimy and shaggy. He had that Unibomber beard going on, and the hair on his head was matted, sticking out from under a beanie that looked to have been dipped in motor oil.
Oh well…presentation isn’t everything.
Before I knew what was happening, I was chowing on my wino-buffet. When I was done, I gurged up his clothes, shoes, ratty socks, and that beanie like a cat with a hairball.
I was still in a bit of a daze when I got back to my apartment. My brain was trying to process what I’d done, but I couldn’t muster up even a teensy weensy bit of revulsion. After brushing and flossing and brushing again, I flopped down on my couch. Then, that first beam of sunlight shot through my partially open curtains. It was like a laser trying to burn through my skull.
I was literally climbing my living room walls to get away from it. My fingernails had become vicious claws. Huh. That’s interesting. I’m fairly certain that was the extent of my thoughts at the moment. That, and Sunlight bad! Ava no likey!
The lesson I took away from that was, if I’m spooked or threatened, I get all ‘scary monster’ with long claws. Did I fail to mention that my toenails had done pretty much the same thing, ruining a perfectly good pair of Nikes? I tried to imagine the look on the face of that little Korean lady who I went to on the rare occasions when I could afford to treat myself to a mani-pedi.
Anyways, I spent the rest of that first day in my bedroom closet. Funny thing was that I didn’t actually sleep. I heard everything going on around me. I heard the mailman slide my bills and all the advertisements addressed to ‘occupant’ through the slot on my door. I heard the children in the complex leave for school and eventually return. I heard that sleazebag neighbor, Elliot Richards, kiss his wife—who worked two jobs to his none—as she hurried off to catch the bus. Twenty minutes later I heard Belinda Beatty, the nineteen-year-old slut with two kids from two different fathers who lives off welfare and a little undeclared babysitting money—along with whatever she wrings out of the guys like Elliott who she visits at all hours of the day—knock on his door for a mid-morning bang. I do believe I told you I live in a slummy little apartment complex.
Funny thing, while I was sitting in my closet, avoiding sunlight, listening to a forty-year-old perv play out some sort of sick fantasy with a nineteen-year-old hussy, my nails sprouted. It’s like my Hulk powers! I get scared or angry and my hands and feet go all switchblade.
I was going just a little crazy when I discovered that I can dial my attention around like a radio. I even have a bit of a SEEK function. My downstairs neighbor had a home visit by his parole officer. The Hispanics four doors down were watching one of those over-the-top telenovelas. The managers were making a list of all the folks who were late with rent. I wasn’t on it…
So I sat there all day doing the equivalent of channel surfing. At some point, it struck me: my phone hadn’t rung. I didn’t recall seeing the little flashing light indicating that I had voicemail. Nobody had knocked on my door to see if I was okay.
I didn’t matter.
At some point, I had fallen through the cracks. I was indistinguishable from all the other anonymous faces in the crowd. Not even my work had called. At some point, you’d think that at least my place of employment would be… aware?...concerned?...something.
I tried to cry again…but nothing happened. And even more interesting, my claws didn’t come out. I couldn’t muster the tiniest bit of anger over the lack of reaction that my possible disappearance had created…or not created?
Finally, darkness fell and I ventured out of my little closet. I went into SEEK mode just to get an idea of what everybody around me was up to. It turned out to be a whole lot of nothing.
It was weird. In my neighborhood, women didn’t just go out for a casual stroll. In fact, any female out wandering the streets around these parts is either apparently looking to score drugs or turn tricks. Now, in my defense, I was not really aware of those facts when I left my apartment.
I heard a few “Hey, baby!” and “How much?” comments along with a laundry list of non-prescriptions available for “reasonable prices” or an exchange of services. Half I’ve never heard of and a quarter that I don’t believe are actually possible. (The services, not the drugs.) The drugs I’d mostly heard of from the high school kids that live in the complex.
So…you ever go to the mall and wander around for no reason? What am I saying…of course you have. Anyways, you walk past the food court and you aren’t even thinking about food. Then…you see all those neon lights and perfectly placed display pictures that show burgers with a thick slice of tomato that has a curious beading of moisture even though it is jutting out from a bun that has oddly symmetrical sesame seeds seductively toasted to a perfect shade of tan. You totally weren’t hungry. Yet, before you know it, you’ve got a hubcap-sized cinnamon roll, a triple latte, and a bag of jelly beans in every flavor known to man, woman, or beast.
Apparently, people who are dying—whether it is from the slow poison of drugs and alcohol or the silent killers Hep C, AIDS, or an undiscovered, soon-to-blow aneurism—are like giant crock pots giving off the scents of simmering goodness. Normal people who bustle past those undesirable folks who wander the streets of the city have no idea how much death or near-death they brush past every single day.
It might surprise you that, of the newspapers that still actually print obituaries, only a small percent of the people who die each day are given a mention. First off, somebody has to care enough to tell the voice message of whatever poor sap is assigned the thankless job of writing them.
Let me take a moment to make a point. How many of you actually know the names of your neighbors? On both sides? Now…a step further. What about the person two doors away? See what I mean? I’m just as guilty. I mean, I knew faces, and sometimes I would realize that I hadn’t seen a particular face for a while. Not that I ever followed up on where he or she or they disappeared to. They were usually replaced by a new person that I wouldn’t ever know.
The fact that I’d not been seen or heard from in three days and nobody noticed was an introduction to just how easy it is for people to go missing without it mattering. And that’s when I realized that I’d never go hungry. Sorry…I just went full-blown activist for a moment there; back to my walk.
I was amazed at the sights and smells. And even stranger, I couldn’t smell body odor or people’s woodstoves and fireplaces. I could smell the dead and dying. At the moment it was just the dying. That’s when I passed by a couple of regular old garbage cans. As a former self-professed chocaholic, I could almost tell you just how dark or milky a chocolate was by smell.
Coming from those garbage cans was the most sugary sweet smell I’d ever experienced. I mean I wasn’t even a little bit hungry…I guess from the previous night’s wino. Still, there I was digging through the coffee grounds, empty cans, eggshells, and razor blade cartridges.
No! I didn’t eat it. I’m a ghoul, not some sort of mindless eating machine. Well…unless my hunger reaches a certain point apparently, but that is a story for another time. The tiny thing was blue from cold, but my senses told me it was still alive.
I scooped up the poor thing and loped (I know! It’s crazy. Ghouls don’t really run…we lope) to a nearby gas station. I think the young man behind the register made dirty in his underpants. Yep. I forgot all about my eyes…the whole ‘all black’ thing. That along with my primer-gray skin tone and the fact that the yummy smell had made my teeth go all Bruce-the-Great-White-Shark.
“I found this in a garbage can.”
At least that’s what I tried to say. Ghouls can’t talk when their teeth drop and the jaw widens. Who knew! I imagine it sounded more like grggh-mmph-shrush-grnglz. The kid did something fairly predictable. He fainted.
Fortunately, I spent eight months in a job just like this. So, I ripped the vest off of Mister Sleepy and wrapped up the babe. I tucked it in the kid’s armpit and moved the little plug-in heater close enough to keep the infant warm. Next, I went to the backroom, snapped off the doorknob and took the digital video recorder. (Wow. It was a VHS back in my day.) Then I flipped the phone off the hook with my claw. Oh…didn’t I mention that I was very angry? Why? Are you asking me why? Seriously? The whole finding the baby in the garbage can thing…hello? So I dialed 911 and then I split. It was the best I could do. (Good news…the next day…on the television…Mister Sleepy was getting the hero treatment and the baby was reported as “recovering nicely” in a local hospital.)
Once that little chore was handled, I went back to the scene of the crime. I wasn’t an expert, but the fact that the little baby wasn’t dead meant whoever (Is it ‘whoever’ or ‘whomever’? I never know which one to use) had done such a terrible thing should be close. Well…unless it’d been some sort of drive-by ordeal. But at the time, I was fairly certain in my belief that the responsible party was near. Standing in the shadows, I went into SEEK mode.
“…can’t stop the crying, I’ll give you a reason…”
Something told me that I’d found what I was looking for. Now I got my first chance to practice a couple of those skills that I’d unwittingly discovered I possessed. I kept my focus on that voice and locked on to the blood trail.
“…don’t think I’m supposed to bleed like this.”
“Have a lot of experience squirtin’ out babies, do ya?”
“Just put on an extra pad and quit’cher damn blubberin’.”
I so didn’t like this guy.
“I still don’t know why we couldn’t have taken the baby to a church or hospital,” the female voice managed through sobs.
“And answer a bunch of questions? Probably end up talkin’ to the cops? How you think that ends up?” Hating him more every second. “Or maybe you want the cops to take me in.”
“No, Greg,” the girl whimpered.
I’d found them. It was one of those pay-as-you-stay hotels. Or is it motel? I never really knew the difference. Anyways, they were on the ground floor and towards the back. A few of the units had the soft glow from a lamp shining in the window. Not a single one had their curtains open even a crack. I fought to maintain my focus, but I was getting bleed over from nearby rooms. Great…it was like scanning a porn channel.
Thankfully, once I was right outside the door, I could keep out everything but the couple…or as I was coming to think of them…dinner.
“…at least put him on somebody’s porch and rang the bell or something?”
“It’s done, Lisa!” Greg-the-bastard snapped.
I heard more crying start up. A few seconds later, the television clicked on. The inane chatter and yelling in those stomach churning voices told me that they were watching that ridiculous Jersey Shore show. That was the last straw… somebody had to die.
I tried the doorknob. No surprise, it was locked. Plan B. I knocked. I heard the blessed muting of the television and a bit of scuffled movement.
“Keep your ass in the bathroom,” Greg-the-bastard whispered. Too bad for him that I have this freakish hearing. I actually felt him lean his body against the other side of the door. Remembering my eyes…and teeth, I dropped my chin and let my hair fall down into my face a bit. “Who is it?”
Crap. I just realized I can’t talk when I’m rocking the Sharkmouth! I made a garbled, slurring noise and hoped that maybe I sounded like a junkie or a drunk. If I guessed correctly…
The sound of a lock being turned was quickly followed by a door being yanked open. How I love it when I’m right.
“What the fu—”
My head popped up and his voice just simply stopped. I reached out and grabbed him by the throat before he could finish peeing his pants. What is it with people and their bodily functions around me? My claws sank into the flesh of his throat and I had no problem stepping into the room and shutting the door with my foot.
By now, Greg was flopping and jerking like a fish on a hook just pulled onto the dock. It made me briefly remember back to when I was a little girl. My dad’s idea of a father-daughter outing was a trip to a river where we would spend the day not talking while holding a pole with a line in the water, waiting for a fish to bite. How come I hated that so much, but when he died of a heart attack shortly after I turned fourteen, I missed it so much? Hmm…
But back to Greg. As his blood gushed from the holes in his throat, he began to smell like fresh baked bread. I’m pretty sure I started to drool. Then he did that jitterbug shake and went limp in my grasp.
Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.
At some point I sat down at the foot of the bed to enjoy my meal. I was ‘gurging up socks, pants, tenny runners and underpants when I heard the muffled shriek followed by the thud. It seems that Lisa had poked her head out of the bathroom and promptly fainted. She wasn’t dead…just…resting. I went back to eating.
After I finished, I went over to the prone figure sprawled on the stained and over worn carpet. I felt my mouth changing back and my claws were retracting, which got me to wondering. I guess I wasn’t hungry or mad anymore.
I took a good look at the girl I’d laid on the bed. She seemed awfully young. I began poking around the room and eventually found her purse. A driver’s license! Ah-ha!
Lisa Jenkins. The girl in the picture had that I-just-passed-my-driver’s-test grin on her face. Her sandy blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she looked every bit the age of seventeen. The girl sprawled on the bed was sporting a bad dye job. The unnaturally red hair was in need of washing, and the face had grime in some of the creases around the eyes and where the dimples poked in around her cheeks. But under all of that, I could see hints of the seventeen-year-old in the picture.
Then I found the wallet belonging to the currently-digesting-in-my-belly Greg Pitts. Well, well…it seems Greggy-poo was forty-one. Now isn’t that special. Things were starting to get clearer.
I went into the bathroom and washed my hands and face. The Sharkmouth and the claws were gone, but the icky skin tone—slate gray—and the scary black orbs where my eyes should be were still a problem. Wait! I’d seen something on the nightstand. I hurried over and scooped the dark sunglasses up and put them on. Next, I dimmed the lights and then sat down on the ratty, burnt-orange chair beside the bed and waited.
After about an hour, Lisa began to stir. She rolled onto her side facing away from me and I heard her yawn. After a little stretching, she eased onto her back again. She must’ve thought it’d all been just a bad dream.
Then she saw me.
“Please don’t scream,” I said, trying my best to sound as unthreatening and non-ghoulish as possible.
“I can explain.” I can? “But you need to calm down and not get crazy.”
“Ummm…” I wasn’t stammering like her, but all of a sudden, I was the one tongue tied.
“Take off his glasses.” Lisa was struggling to sit up. Just a hint of attitude was poking through the surface.
“You probably don’t want me to do that,” I cautioned, folding my hands in my lap.
“I don’t know who you think you are, but—”
“I’m the one who found a baby in a trash can last night,” I snapped, cutting her off. Great, I could feel my fingertips and toes starting to tingle. Deep breath, Ava. Wait…do I breathe? I pressed my lips together and glared daggers through the dark lenses of the sunglasses. I held my breath and counted. When I hit twenty without feeling anything, I distracted my anger by marveling at my lack of need when it came to respiration. Meanwhile, Lisa was building up a new head of indignant steam.
“…saw you doing something to Greg. But your face and your hands…” She was trying very hard to reconcile in her mind something she knew for certain that she could not have possible seen.
“So what are you gonna do?” I blurted. “Call the cops?”
Her face changed. Ha! I thought. Gotcha there, Little-Miss-Smarty-pants. She was caught and I was certain she knew it.
“Look,” I tried to sound pleasant, “I don’t know why you are worried about Greg. He sounded pretty much like a total jerk. And I’m guessing that he was the father of your baby. Last I checked…that makes him a bit of a pedophile. Actually, scratch that whole ‘bit’ part; that is sort of an all-or-nothing deal. And, if you carried that baby anything close to full-term, you got knocked up at sixteen. That’s why he didn’t want you going to a hospital.”
“But…” I could see her seeking some sort of defense. Lisa wasn’t a dumb kid…just misguided.
“When did you run away?”
“I didn’t,” she mumbled, her eyes going down and suddenly finding something interesting about the hands in her lap.
“Folks kick you out?” What is it with parents? Okay, your kid screwed up. Is tossing them into the street and simply turning your back to the problem really a choice?
I reached over and took Lisa’s hand. I saw and felt her flinch.
“You’re hands are freezing.” She pulled away and had the decency to blush.
That’s because I think I’m dead and now I eat people. Nope, can’t say that. At least not right this minute. I’d have to save that for later.
“How ‘bout you come home with me,” I suggested. “This is no place for a girl to be calling home.” Not that my place was all that much better.
“I don’t even know you,” Lisa said, but I could tell that her attempted hold out was a mere formality.
“Ava Birch.” I stuck out my hand.
Obviously she still remembered my cold touch because she scooted back a bit. Then she seemed to catch herself and sat up straight like she was gathering all her inner strength and resolve. I noticed how she pressed her lips together and that was the first time that I would wonder just how much of a monster I’d become after The Change. I’d have other epiphanies, but that’s for a later time.
“Lisa Jenkins,” she said and shook my hand. Points for her, the wince of revulsion was hardly noticeable. “So, what’s your deal?”
I glanced at my watch. It was almost five. The sun would be coming up soon and I needed to be back home.
“Let’s talk as we pack and go,” I urged.
“Are you like a…vampire?” Lisa asked. She sounded unsure of herself. As well she should, asking such a silly question.
“No.” I stuffed a wadded up bundle of her clothes in a grocery bag. Of course, I was no longer certain that vampires were a myth. After all, I was a …what? At that moment, I didn’t know what I was.
“Did I try to eat your brains?” I snapped.
“Is that what zombies eat?” Lisa ducked into the bathroom to grab some things. “I thought they ripped out people’s guts. I saw this weird mini-series called Dead Set at Brenda’s Halloween party, but—”
“I’m not a zombie.”
That’s what I said, but at that moment, I wasn’t a hundred percent certain. I didn’t know what she was talking about, the last horror movie I’d seen was Friday the 13th, part 3. It was awful. I’m more of a Sleepless in Seattle girl.
“Well, you’re not normal,” Lisa said, standing in the middle of the room holding two grocery bags with a carry bag slung over one shoulder.
“We can worry about this later,” I huffed. Suddenly I had this urge to find out what the hell I was.
We left the rundown room with the big, dark stain on the carpet that used to be Greg Pitts. Even if somebody called the police, there wasn’t all that much to go by. I had Greggy’s wallet, which, minus the thirty-two dollars it once held, I stuffed into a garbage can that was sitting on the curb waiting to be picked up that day. Besides, places like that don’t want cops crawling all over the place. I’d almost be willing to bet everyone who frequented that dump had a record…if not outstanding warrants. No…Greg was probably sucked up by a Stanley Steamer rented from the corner grocery store. I never heard anything about him on the news that next night, or any other night for that matter. The big story was about the ‘miracle baby’ and the heroic gas station attendant. Lisa didn’t cry…much.
When we got back to my place, I let Lisa have the bed. Fortunately for me, she was out like a light in no time. I ducked inside the closet just as I heard the daily ritual of daytime begin. My phone still hadn’t made a peep, and continued to remain pathetically silent all day.
I heard Lisa get up once and make her way into the bathroom. I was batting around a bunch of very lame excuses that would make my being in this closet sound reasonable. Nothing really stood out, but fortunately, Lisa flopped back onto my bed and was back asleep in minutes.
I spent the day experimenting. I played with my SEEK ability. I tried to make myself mad so that my claws would come out. I figured it might be useful to have those weapons at my beck and call. Unfortunately, my claws aren’t like most of the men I’ve had in my bed…they knew I was faking it. However, I was able to bring on my Sharkmouth. All I had to do was think about my last meal. Sadly, it didn’t work when I thought about all my former faves like chocolate, bacon, and Ben and Jerry’s. In fact, thinking about ‘normal’ food didn’t do a thing for me.
If I could have cried, that would be worthy of my tears, that’s for sure. Just because I don’t respond to those things doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about the special place a pint of Chunky Monkey or a tube of chocolate chip cookie dough had for me on one of those crappy days when nothing went right, or my PMS was worse than normal.
I poked my head out when the little crack at the bottom of the door was dark. Lisa was still sleeping. I didn’t smell anything, so I figured that, at the very least, she wasn’t dying. I let her be and went out to my living room.
I was sorting her clothes so that I could wash everything when I heard a knock at my door. The thing was, I knew as soon as I heard it that it wasn’t really an actual knock. Whoever it was had placed their hand on the door twice. That ‘knock’ wasn’t meant to be heard by anybody other than me.
I focused my hearing on the other side of the door and heard…nothing. No breathing. No rustling of clothes. In fact, it was a complete absence of sound. Hmm. There went my grizzly bear claws. Fear brings them out. Who knew?
I moved to the door and, like a total airhead, put my ear to it. Yep, my super-hearing didn’t pick up anything, but maybe if I place my ear to the door I’ll get something. I considered peeking out my curtains, but that seemed silly. Do people really think they can move their curtains and somebody standing outside won’t see? And seriously? Besides the breeze, does glass really protect you from anything?
Still, a girl can’t be too careful I took off my sunglasses. There was something about this stranger at my door that made me want to be at my scariest. I thought about last night’s snack. Yay! Sharkmouth! Now I was ready to open the door. I grabbed the handle and pulled the door open, ready to pounce.
“Mrrgmph!” That was supposed to be “What the hell do you want?” I need to remember that I can’t speak with Sharkmouth.
“Miss Birch?” A woman was standing at my door. She seemed to take the whole monster version of me in stride. I’m pretty sure she stifled a yawn!
“Murgl?” Stupid Sharkmouth.
“May I come in?”
I cleared my head of all thoughts of food and wiped the thick, syrupy strand of drool off my chin. “Sure,” I said after an over-exaggerated swallow.
The woman stepped past me and I realized that all my claws had retracted as well. I closed the door and clicked on a lamp. My guest was trying to politely find an uncluttered section of my sofa to sit on.
“My name is Morgan,” the woman began, and then paused. She looked around with a raised eyebrow, quickly stood, and went to my bedroom. She turned with an angry look on her face. “I was led to believe you lived alone.”
“Oh,” I hurried to the door, edging past to close it, “that’s Lisa,”
“You’re childless,” whispered Little Miss State-The-Obvious. “And you have no siblings.”
“She’s a friend.”
“You don’t have any friends.”
“And you’re kind of a bitch,” I huffed. I felt my fingers and toes start to tingle.
“Oh please,” Morgan said flatly, glancing down at my feet.
“How about you tell me who you are and why you’re here,” I demanded.
“I told you, my name is Morgan and—”
“Morgan what?” I interrupted.
“What…like Cher or Madonna?”
“Sure.” Ooo, somebody was getting ruffled.
“Okay,” I agreed. “But what do you want? I’m guessing you are some sort of scary night creature. That would explain why I couldn’t hear or smell you. Also, that might account for why you don’t seem to care that my eyes are like two black marbles, my mouth looks like something out of Jaws, and my fingers and toes sprout Ginsu Knives when I get agitated.”
“You failed to mention your unnatural pallor.”
“Your skin tone,” Morgan sneered and made an attempt to sound like she was talking to a six-year-old. “But I’m here on business.”
Okay, I thought, maybe I am stupid.
“You tried to take your life recently.” That was a statement, not a question. “When you came to, it was to…this.” She said it like it was something dirty.
“Fine,” I said with a nod. “But you haven’t really told me anything about why you’re here or who you are.”
“I’m a psychic,” Morgan stated that like it meant something. When it was obvious that I didn’t have even a smidge of a clue, she continued. “I have a link with anything undead in my territory.”
After rolling her eyes, she went on to explain that the fiction out there had it all wrong. Sure, vampires and such were real, but they didn’t run the show. Many cities—not all—had psychics. Not the kind on television commercials or with cheesy ads in the papers. Real psychics don’t tell futures…per se. What they can see is something to do with a person’s proximity to death. Their other big ‘power’ is the ability to locate undeath. That is what makes them so powerful. A city’s psychic can tell where every vampire, ghost, shade, wraith, poltergeist, and yes, ghoul is located. That is what makes them so powerful…as well as feared.
“Van Helsing was a psychic,” Morgan said. “But what the stories didn’t talk about was the fact that he found religion,” she said that last word like it was dirty. “He decided to use his powers to try and eradicate anything undead. Dracula was simply a big name, sorta like the Oprah of the times.”
“So this whole undead thing,” I’d stood there listening long enough and had questions, “it ties to me how?”
“You’re a ghoul.”
Well…there it was. At least now I knew…sorta. I didn’t have even the slightest clue what a ghoul was…is…whatever. It must’ve shown on my face.
“You feed on the dead.”
When she said it like that, it sounded so gross. But this was a big moment for me…now, at least, I knew what was going on. Okay, I still didn’t know what was going on, but I knew what I was. That counted for something.
“So, what’s that mean? Being a ghoul sounds a bit vague. I know what a vampire is and a ghost…some of those other things, though…” I shrugged my shoulders.
“I just told you,” Morgan said, not sounding at all like she was talking to the class idiot. “You eat the dead.”
“People? Animals? You’re being a bit vague.” I did my very best to not sound like I was whining. Also, I’d just used the word ‘vague’ twice in a sentence which made me feel smarter.
“Actually, ghouls are fairly rare.” Then she went on to explain that it is something genetic. She also explained that we put off pheromones in life that repels most people. Most ghouls come into being after suicide. Only, we couldn’t have done anything like blow our brains out, because that is unrecoverable. Hanging causes something to go wrong and makes the ghoul crazy. That is one of the big tasks of the psychic. They have to put down the messed up misfits of the undead community. Also, they are the welcome wagon; hence, this visit.
“But I’ve got so many questions,” I insisted. “You haven’t told me that much.”
“I told you that you’re a ghoul and that you eat the dead,” Morgan said, like that explained it all.
“Well, there is one more thing that I am required to tell you.” Morgan glanced past me to my bedroom where Lisa lay sleeping. “The undead don’t like publicity. They keep to themselves. Occasionally, one or two will get a craving for celebrity. But fortunately, nobody ever really takes it seriously. However, if you start showing up, making the public aware of us as a collective whole…you will be extinguished.”
“So much for selling my memoires,” I sighed in my best overdramatic and sarcastic manner.
“Actually, you’re free to write whatever you want.” Morgan ignored my sarcasm. “The market for that sort of thing is really booming. Nobody believes it, and it makes an okay living if you can hit it big. The key is to find a willing face.” Once again, she looked past me to my bedroom.
“Lisa?” I asked.
“Well, you only have two choices with her at this point.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“She knows your nature. Plus,” Morgan raised her voice a bit, “she’s been faking being asleep and has heard all of our conversation. At this point she is a liability and can either be your front, or tonight’s dinner.”
Then Morgan did something that caught me totally off guard…she winked! Actually, her voice filled my head; telepathic…why not? If she tried to tell anybody, she’d be considered crazy and probably get pumped full of meds. But it’s fun to put a little scare into them every once in a while.
I heard feet hit the floor. Lisa came scrambling into the room. She saw me and stumbled, I forgot that I was no longer wearing the glasses.
“W-wait a minute!” She shot what I imagined to be a pleading look my way. “I’m not gonna say anything, promise.”
“Yes,” Morgan nodded with even less emotion in her voice than she expressed on her face, “well, that’s up to Miss Birch here. After all, it will fall on her if you become a problem. I’ll be leaving now, my dears. If she decides to kill you and eat you…well…ghouls are notoriously sloppy eaters.”
And with that, she turned and left. That didn’t stop her from telepathically laughing in my head. I was pretty sure I didn’t like Morgan.
I turned to Lisa who took an unsteady step backwards. The look on her face was one of fear. Seriously? I thought. I saved her ass last night and this is how she was gonna react?
“Boo!” She actually jumped. “Oh knock it off,” I snapped.
“I’ll do it!” Lisa interrupted me.
“You’ll do what?” I went over to my sofa and flopped down, turning on the television.
“I’ll be your front.” Lisa took a few tentative steps into my tiny living room.
“Like Morgan said.” Lisa came and sat beside me. She did her best to maintain eye contact with me. Points for her. “But the first thing we need to do is get you some glasses…and a cane,” she added as an afterthought.
“Sure,” her face brightened, “for when we go out.”
“Not following you.”
“People will think you’re blind,” she explained. “Then, if we go out someplace in public, nobody will think you’re weird for wearing dark glasses inside.”
Well, that’s clever, I thought. “And what about my skin?” I held up one gray hand and wriggled my fingers in front of her face.
She sat quietly for a few seconds, and I could tell she was actually trying to figure out an answer. It was like watching a sunrise. I watched the idea dawn and solidify on her face! It’s actually much cooler than it sounds.
“Airbrush,” Lisa said, her face beaming.
I was about to comment when the news spouted off about Miracle Baby and the Gas Station Hero. It was like witnessing a landslide. The expression on Lisa’s face crumbled and went from happy to miserable. They say it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile. I wonder how many it takes to look like your heart has been torn from your chest.
“Hey!” I snapped my fingers in front of her face. “That was yesterday. Just like that baby, you have a fresh slate in your life…starting today.”
I admit that was a pretty lame pep speech. I mean, it was no Braveheart soliloquy, but I was going off the cuff here.
“I don’t know what kind of life you were living before,” I put my arms around Lisa and she didn’t even flinch, “but it can change starting today. Look at me. I was a divorced, childless waitress who wasn’t even missed when I didn’t show up for work for like three…now four…days! We have no place to go but up!”
“So what’s your plan?” Lisa sniffled, her voice muffled from her face being smushed into my shoulder.
That was a good question. What was my plan? The whole memoire thing would be fun, but my life—if you take out the whole part about my having died and come back as a ghoul—had been fairly uninteresting up to this point. I had to do something worth writing about.
“We could be detectives,” I offered.
“Really?” Lisa sounded skeptical and pushed away from me, wiping her eyes. “And just what do you know about being a detective? Don’t you need some sort of license?”
I had no idea. And she was right. I was pretty sure I’d be a terrible detective. When I watched any of the numerous crime-drama shows on television, I never figured out whodunit until the climactic reveal at the end. In fact, I usually bought into whatever misdirection they used to implicate somebody completely innocent. Nope, being a private detective was probably not a good idea.
“Well…we don’t have to figure it all out today do we?” I asked, trying not to sound hopeless.
“True,” Lisa agreed. “Besides, you should probably try to figure out what being a ghoul is all about. That Morgan lady wasn’t very helpful.”
“That’s for sure.”
“Like…how often do you need to eat? And didn’t you ask about animals?”
“Yeah!” I exclaimed. “Although I can smell varying degrees—at least in people.”
So I explained how things smelled to me and how, when somebody was maybe dying that I could smell that, too. That led to me explaining how I’d found her. To her credit, Lisa listened and didn’t cry or anything as I explained about finding Miracle Baby. She did get a funny look on her face when I told her how I trailed her by scent. Of course, now she didn’t have anything beyond what I would come to recognize as the normal death-by-aging smell.
“Then let’s go outside,” Lisa got up and went into my room to get her coat. “How hard can it be to find a little road kill?”
We went outside and wandered the streets for a couple of hours. I probably should’ve figured it out for myself based on that. Nope…animals—at least as far as dogs, cats, squirrels, possums, skunks, and the biggest raccoon I’ve ever seen—don’t do a thing for me.
However, I did run across this old woman, at least I think it was an old woman, pushing a rickety shopping cart who was probably a chilly night away from being dinner. She smelled so delicious that I went all Sharkmouth, and she was across the street and two blocks ahead going in the opposite direction.
It was during this little outing that Lisa and I first met somebody who would become my nemesis for life…err…afterlife. You know what I mean. Her name is Belinda Yates, and she is a vampire.
We’d just finished wandering aimlessly in search of road kill. Lisa wasn’t feeling all that great; probably a mix of just having a baby without proper medical care and not eating. She got all stumbly and staggery and then started slurring her words a bit. I couldn’t help but feel just a little responsible. She should’ve been back at my place resting.
It was late, so we ducked inside a twenty-four hour Safeway. Since I was wearing sunglasses and a coat, I hoped I wouldn’t stand out too much. We grabbed a loaf of bread, some generic peanut butter, (Hey, I’m not made of money…this was before I came into all that cash, but that’s a story for another time) and a box of super-duper maxi pads.
I ran my debit card through the thingy and held my breath. Yay! I still had money in my account! Lisa grabbed a pad and convinced the kid working the register that it was in his best interest to let her use the bathroom despite their “off-limits” policy between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. Something to do with how she would be dripping blood on his freshly waxed floor. Of course, she was also waving the pad in the boy’s face. Young guys are so squeamish when it comes to women’s bodily functions.
That reminds me of this time I was on a date with this hunky mechanic. He took me to see a professional baseball game up in Seattle. We were having fun, enjoying the Sunday afternoon sun and a frosty cold beer. I’d taken a fairly large swallow and…well...beer has bubbles. I still recall the look on his face after I let loose with this boilermaker-sized belch. I spent the rest of the game wondering if it would’ve been better had I puked on his shoes…but I’m rambling.
So I was sitting on a stack of dog food waiting for Lisa when I smelled it. The best comparison I can think of is that it was like smelling this yummy chocolate cake frosted with the goo that builds up in the bottom of your kitchen garbage can.
I noticed that the cashier had gone strangely slack-jawed. He was staring straight ahead at nothing. When I looked up from reading the curious ingredients of the particular bag of dog food I was using as a chair, she was standing right in front of me. It was weird because I hadn’t seen a thing or even heard her with my super-duper hearing.
“What are you?” the silky voice of a phone-sex operator whispered.
I looked up at the most disgustingly beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I mean this girl would make those Victoria’s Secret runway models seem plain and frumpy. All this and she was dressed in jeans and a GLEE tee shirt. Her impossibly blonde hair was in braids that hung past her shoulders in a sexy-schoolgirl look, and she was staring at me with wide, blue eyes. She had that look about her that screamed “unattainable” and “Hey, mister, I’ll let you touch my naughty places if you buy me something sparkly!” at the same time. If you aren’t sure just exactly what I mean, then catch one of those tabloid television shows the next time they run footage of the most recent “girlfriend” of Hugh Heffner. Seriously, what eighteen to twenty-two-year-old girl doesn’t dream of jumping in the sack with her great-grandpa? There I go…rambling again.
So, this absolutely gorgeous girl who doesn’t look like she can be old enough to vote is looking down at me like I’m something she almost stepped in. I get over my surprise of being snuck up on, glance at the clerk who now has a long stand of drool hanging from his chin, then back up at the expressionless face that was starting to show hints of confusion around the edges.
“I,” I pulled my glasses off and fixed her with my shiny black orbs, “am a ghoul. And you…” I made an over exaggerated sniff her direction, “…stink.” That was probably the moment any chance we had of being friends went bye-bye.
“Well…” she let her little fangs pop out, “I’ve never actually met one of those,” she said, making it sound like I was, in fact, something she’d barely avoided stepping in.
“That makes us even,” I stayed calm, but I felt my fingers and toes tingle. I saw her eyebrows twitch just a bit which I’ve discovered is the equivalent of total astonishment on a vamp. Funny thing about vampires, they look like heavily-Botoxed has-been Hollywood stars. I met this one guy…so fat that his chins had double chins, but he was a vamp, and his face looked so freaky. But that’s a story for another time, back to the Bitch-in-blue jeans.
“Is it true you eat the dead?” There she went again, sounding so freakin’ superior.
“Is it true that you suck?” Not overly witty or clever, but I was not quite on my game yet.
“I assume you’ve met Morgan.” It wasn’t a question.
“Well…my name is Belinda Yates and I am the Queen of the Kiss here in Portland. You might just come in handy.
“Yes, sometimes one of my children gets a bit carried away. Disposal of the body can be such an inconvenience.” She glanced over her shoulder, and that was when Lisa stepped out of the back where the bathroom was located.
“Ava, do we have enough for a so—” and her voice just stopped.
I peeked around Belinda, trying not to notice or feel just a hint of jealousy at how perfect her butt looked in her jeans. So not fair! Lisa was about four steps up the aisle and was frozen with her mouth open and the same stupid look on her face that the drooling clerk had.
“Excuse me?” I glanced up at Belinda, prepared to ask her if she knew what in the hell just happened. That’s when she vanished…sort of. The next thing I know, she’s standing way over by Lisa—behind her actually—sniffing her like she was a rose.
“Hey!” I called, getting up off my throne of bagged doggie chow. Belinda looked up, her mouth open to fully reveal her fangs.
“Yes?” she didn’t really seem to speak, but I heard her just as clear as when she was standing right in front of me.
“Were you thinking of taking a bite out of my friend?
“This…thing is a friend of yours?” If she’d been looking at and treating me like I was a big pile of poo, she seemed to think even less of Lisa.
“That girl,” I said, flexing my claws a bit, “is Lisa Jenkins…and yes, she is a friend of mine.”
“I thought you said you met Morgan.” Belinda stood up and quit sniffing Lisa’s neck.
“Then you know the undead don’t have friends.”
“She wasn’t all that helpful,” I said with a shrug, but I thought I remembered some snarky little remark about me not having any friends.
“Listen, ghoul,” there she went again with the snotty attitude, “I smelled something and found…this.” She plucked at Lisa’s sleeve. “What say I drain what’s left?” Belinda sniffed Lisa again. “She’s running a bit low anyway. Then you can gobble down the left overs.”
Then it hit me. The smell. It was pouring off of Lisa. Hmmm. So proximity to a deadly situation causes the smell. That might even have some practical uses.
“Mrymph shnrill zrgun.” Dammit! Stupid Sharkmouth. I tried to focus my smell the same way I did my hearing and tweak it over a few inches to chocolate cake and garbage scum—that would be Belinda by the way.
“Ooo, look who’s a hungry girl!” Belinda moved back over so she could lean in and close her chompers on Lisa’s neck.
“Actually,” I said after wiping a bucket of drool from my mouth with the back of my coat sleeve, “I was saying that if you bite her, I will make it my personal goal to eat you…no matter how foul you may smell.”
There was that eyebrow twitch. The day would come when that would scare me, but now I just didn’t see it as any big deal. My claws were still out—literally and figuratively—and I took a step or two forward…which put me just out of arm’s reach of the stuck up little vampire bitch.
“Fine,” Belinda sniffed and stepped away. I thought for a moment that she was gonna throw a tantrum right then and there. “But I will be speaking with Morgan. And I don’t think she’ll take kindly to a mortal being privy to our world.”
And that quick, she was gone. Seriously. One blink and nothing. Well, nothing but her lingering and unpleasant odor.
“Nobody likes a tattletale,” I grumped.
“Huh?” Lisa shook her head a few times and then focused on me.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Fine,” Lisa said with a shrug. “Why?”
Great, I thought. I glanced back at the clerk and felt a tug on my sleeve.
Ooops. I put them on very casually with my back turned and then took Lisa by the elbow. “Time to go home,” I said.
And that’s exactly what we did. Over the next twelve years, I would meet plenty more vampires, piss off Morgan about a jillion times, and learn to really hate Belinda. But…those are stories for another time. All you really need to know is that I’m a ghoul, my name is Ava, and Lisa Jenkins is my best friend in the world.
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