"What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." - Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette
The first sign I had that something was wrong was when she climbed out of my closet.
It was a modern, economical number with slats and white paint and I thought the ruined rotten hand that emerged from it was a trick of the light until she slid the left door open and stepped onto the carpet. There was only thin strips of moonlight falling in through my blinds, and they draped her in tiger stripes as she came across my floor. Her neck was broken. Her back was hunched. Her hair dragged long on the ground and her arms swung at her sides.
"Shh," she whispered as she caught me. "I love you."
Then she opened my throat.
I felt warmth paint my belly. At the same time, an incredible cold vastness opened up inside me. I was choking, spasming to her gentle rockings. Her cheek was pressed to mine, damp, dead skin. "Stay with me?" my wife asked.
I glanced over at my phone on the bedside table. It was a Friday night. There would be no one at work to miss me tomorrow. We could have the whole weekend if we wanted it.
I tried to answer her. Gagged. Dotted her shoulder with bloody spittle.
"Shh," she said again and hugged me tightly.
I lunged out - weak, anemic - and grabbed for the phone.
Light flooded my senses along with the scent of an antiseptic and the kiss of a syringe.
"Listen to me. You're going to be alright," someone said, just inches off my ear, but I had awoken to brightness and so I knew they were lying. "Just stay put. Take it easy. We have all the time in the world."
"You do," I coughed, my lips numb. "But it's technically better for me if I stretch this out."
I opened my eyes.
The glass case that my colleagues had put me in was largely for their protection. It had no air-holes and, but for a pair of thick gloves and a two-stage hatch built into the operator's side of the containment apparatus, there was no way for me to interact with the speaker. With Amir.
"Douglas, are you going to be difficult?" Wynn asked from the other side of the case.
I winced. Wynn was built like a fairytale princess, if fairytale princesses shot whisky and baked pot brownies. A distant part of me still thought it ought to try and act tough around young women, and so I smiled lopsidedly at her. "Give me a moment, okay?"
Amir threw me a stern look, which I probably deserved. We both knew what was at stake, but he let Wynn take him by the shoulder and lead him away.
The examination room was not vast. It had close white walls and recessed metal apertures that would spit out containment shutters, trapping everyone inside if I somehow made it out of my case. Every tile in the room had been polished to a gleaming white and the ceiling was made of solid, reinforced material unlike the simple plasterboard drops that were everywhere else in the office complex.
Against the incredible overwhelming whiteness of the room, Amir and Wynn looked like two figures caught in a snowstorm. Lost. Vulnerable. Barely even human against the overwhelming nature.
I cleared my throat. "I'm better now," I said. "What do you want to know about Lydia?"
The blanket term for us was Revenant, but when you worked in the field you always had to subdivide it. All Revenants were either Sleepers or Wights.
Neither category was particularly nicer than the other.
Revenants occurred in the absence of a proper burial. Without the proper government-ordained prayers, a regulation ten centimeter iron spike inserted into the heart, or else cremation, a body would lie quietly for a couple dozen hours before just as quietly reanimating.
Some experts claimed that you could hear a hum when it occurred. A faint buzz on the edge of perception, like ionizing radiation back-scattered from an x-ray machine. These were usually the same idiots who believed in the death-particle theory, or who thought that there would ever be quantifiable proof of the human soul.
Either way, after a set amount of time any untended cadaver would return to awareness.
What happened next depended on which sub-category it fell into.
The ministrations of death upon a body were not pretty. In anything short of an arctic climate, a whole host of bacteria would listen to the sound of eyelids closing for their final time with a satisfied smile and then begin dismantling the home they had lived in since birth.
Eyes popped. Gastric cavities bloated. Undefinable oozes trickled along indescribable channels.
And in the case of a Wight, the body then stood back up.
Unlike Sleepers, which were sad and docile and mostly just wanted oblivion, Wights had a purpose. Throughout their transition from one state of vitality to the next, they managed to cling to a single ferocious need. It could be the desire to wreak vengeance upon their killer. It could be the wish that they could just see their parents one last time.
For the dying, these motives were often wonderful. Pure.
Crossing the pale changed that.
Once upon a time, back before Lydia and the throat-tearing and waking up under glass, I had worked a case where an old woman had slipped on the stairs, fallen, and gone undiscovered in her own home. She had owned several pomeranian dogs and loved them like the moon orbiting the earth. She had not wanted them to starve while she was away.
When we finally found her, we had been forced to stake her down in the yard, pounding with hammers on a cold January morning while the sun slowly rose.
It had been the only way to keep her thrashing under control while we poured the petrol.
Of the three dogs that remained, we had been forced to euthanize two. The third survivor had hidden in a cupboard and refused to come out when she called to it. It was starved but uneaten.
Remembering her voice, all gravelly and harsh, I had not blamed it.
She had loved her dogs, but death had changed that selfless love into a need with teeth.
I thought about this as Wynn and Amir loaded me into the back of a Department van. As the weight of my glass case settled onto rubber runners and my straps were pulled tight, securing me in place, I shifted my eyes towards Amir. He was watching me, clearly unsettled, but he bit his lower lip and then said "yes?"
"Are you sure it wouldn't be easier to leave me in storage with a cellphone strapped to my ear?" I asked conversationally. "I'm happy to consult for you."
Amir's face quirked in distaste. "Brass gave us leave to take you along. They agreed with Wynn's assertion that you would make for good bait."
On either side of my case, men and women began to file in, taking spots on the benches that had been mounted to the van's inside walls. Most of them were heavily dressed, and all of them had the regulation pistol and hatchet strapped to their belts. The floor beside my feet gave a liquidy clunk, and I looked down to see a fuel tank had been loaded in next to me.
"Has she killed again?" I asked.
Wynn grabbed the last free seat on a bench and nodded curtly to Amir, who hopped out of the back and circled around to the driver's side. A moment later, the van's engine revved to life. "Douglas," she said, picking her way over the words carefully, "your wife is listed as a probable for more post-vital slayings. She loved a lot of people and she was adventurous. She's not going to stay put. We've sent the word out and requested school-closings for the county, but a lot of her students live in your community. We need to bring her down before she fixates on a target. On another target. I'm sorry, Douglas."
I thought about this. "Can you tell her students' families to keep their lights on and watch their closets?"
Wynn's lips drew together the way mine might have if I had tasted something foul. There was a momentary brightness in her eyes, like sunlight reflecting off ice. "I'm sure the Department will have a gentler way of saying it, but yes. Thank you. I'll pass it along."
"You're welcome," I murmured, feeling the brush of Lydia's teeth again at my throat.
My arms lay stiff and flat by my sides, dull and inert, but as we drove on I wondered what it might be like to brush my fingernails against Wynn's leg.
Wynn's radio barked once before Amir's voice filled the cramped back of the van. "We've had a sighting," he snapped, "down by Barrowfield and Pleasant. Someone spotted her skulking around their backyard. Protective Services moved to engage and she left. She might still be in the woods nearby."
If it had been this same time yesterday and I had not been encased in a glass box, I could have sighed.
All of Barrowfield was marshland adjoining the Clearwater river, and where it met the forests of Pleasant it turned into gloomy swamps. Worse, although there had only been spattering showers of rain outside when Amir and Wynn had loaded me into the van, now it was persistently drizzling. The steady drool of moisture over the van's roof made for a cold cadence
to my thoughts.
I imagined Lydia finding one of her students. Holding that child in her arms. Teaching it each of her fingernails.
"Can you drive any faster?" I asked.
Wynn relayed the message to Amir via the radio and a few seconds later I felt the van accelerate.
We snaked down uncrowded roads, vacant but for the occasional siren of an emergency vehicle that blared as it whipped past us. Within a few minutes we were crossing the Clearwater on Tiller's Bridge.
"I feel something," I said, at the same time the body went under the van's tires.
It was not like running over a deer. Ruminants were all stretchy and spasmy when you hit them, turning from a graceful buck into a crazed kicking tangle of venison. They would wreck your bumper and catch on your tires and make fractal chaos of your windshield.
They would not bump twice, quietly, like a speed-barrier on the way out of a parking lot.
"Stop!" shouted Wynn, and the van skidded as Amir had the same idea.
Tires grabbed, missing their purchase in the rain, and I felt my body rolling up against one wall of my coffin. We stopped and I slumped back down, head lolling in the limited space it had to loll.
"Vanguard, go. Flanks, to either side of the vehicle. Rear, cover them." Over Wynn's called-out instructions came an en-mass tromping of boots.
For most Wights, a deployment like this would have been very welcome overkill. For Lydia, I would have requested a second van.
"Found the body," crackled out a voice over Wynn's radio. "Female. Early thirties. Long hair. Two tire tracks. She's not getting back up. Permission to administer rites?"
Field rites, such as they were, consisted of a quick decapitation and an iron spike. I felt Wynn tense beside me. "Positive ID?" she snapped back.
The radio crackled again with uncomfortable static. "Body is naked," the speaker said quickly. "Features have been defaced. It matches the general build of the Wight, though, and it's not moving. Grace period on gross trauma to Revenant mobility is usually only a couple minutes. We can pin this one and go home, or we can send out for DNA testing and while it gets back up. Permission, Agent, to administer rites?"
"Granted," said Wynn. She turned to look at me. "Do you think you could ID the body for us?"
From the way she had composed herself, I might almost have missed the little catch in her throat that came when she it. As Agents, we were trained to remind ourselves that a Revenant was no longer a person. It did not have feelings like a person. It did not have wants like a person. Even the most docile of Sleepers were not who they had been when blood coursed through their veins.
The thought of some Enforcement hatchetman holding my wife's head above the coffin did not trouble me at all. And maybe that was simply a change that death had worked on me, or maybe it was because I knew that the person we had hit had not been Lydia.
"Radio Amir," I suggested quietly. "Ask him to respond."
Wynn froze like a startled rabbit, her train of thought jumping the rails to find the swift bottom of a gully. "Douglas?" she asked she thumbed the call button on her radio. "Amir?"
There was silence in reply.
"Have someone check the front of the van," I prompted.
A moment later, we both felt it. There was a groan of metal from overhead that was more than just a shifting of rain across the roof. Then some subtle weight left the top of our vehicle and landed off to one side. I felt the change in pressure on the tires cause the bed of the van to resettle just as I felt people begin to die on my left.
9mm pistols, despite what you might see in the movies, do not make cute little popping noises. They sound like localized thunder. A chorus of gunpowder voices spoke up, and through the percussion I could hear voices screaming in panic and pain.
"Wynn," I said, "you're going to lose them."
Her face had gone white, but she was still an agent trained. She snapped her sidearm out of its holster and leveled it out into the rain, finger poised outside of the trigger-guard.
"Wynn," I said, "that's not going to make a difference."
She flicked a glance at me. Sharp. Resentful. "It's not going to save you, certainly."
"Wynn," I said, "your men are dying."
As best as either of us could tell, that was true. The gunshots were slowing, voices dropping out from the chorus. "What do you want from me?" Wynn asked.
"I think I can save you," I said. "Let me out." My fingers twitched.
Wynn turned away from the open double-doors to stare at me. "I don't think that would be wise," she said. An echoing silence rang between gunshots. Someone outside moaned, his agony trailing off in a gurgle. "Can you even move?" she asked me.
I nodded. It was awkward. Jerky. The muscles bunched and fired in random clumps, yanking my head up and down like the ministrations of an inexpert puppeteer. "I can save you," I said, pressing my hands to the glass separating us.
Wynn reached for the lock keeping me enclosed and the van sagged as something climbed onto it.
In her defense, Wynn fought well. She turned and snapped off a shot that barged a hole through my wife's ribs. She corrected and fired again, catching a piece of skull into the air. But the thing that was Lydia did not care. It sprinted over the metal and caught Wynn in a kiss. She subsided to the ground, eyes closed.
"Shh," hissed Lydia through ragged lips. "Shh. Shh."
I tapped at the roof of my coffin.
My fingers were longer than I had remembered, pinched and sallow with nails that clicked on the glass. Lydia turned to stare at me, her eyes wild and hopeful. "Let me out?" I asked, and I saw her gaze drop down to the latch that was keeping me in.
She had to know that, no matter how powerful she was, she would eventually be caught on her own. She would be surrounded and dismantled or else painted into a corner of blazing phosphorous. Her remains would be rendered down to ashes, and those ashes would be dusted over the waiting cemetery plot of the person she had been.
Together, though, we would be a force this world had never seen.
"Let me out?" I asked, fingernails resting against the roof of my prison.
Kneeling down on splintered knees, Lydia lay one of her hands over mine. It was slicked in the darkest red. We could almost touch.
"I love you," she said, and there was a glint of recognition behind her eyes. A spark of horrified humanity in those rotting pits. "Shh," she told me. Or herself. Then she straightened up and walked away, leaving me trapped. Contained.
After a while sirens rose in the distance, but my eyes remained fixed on the place where she had disappeared.
"I love you too," I whispered as my body began to try to batter its way free of the coffin.