The ghosts follow Sephie to work again that day.
They stand outside the windows of the bookstore, staring in with hollow eyes�more of them now than a few days ago. She tries to ignore them. At least they never come inside.
Most of them, anyway.
The light dims as she’s shelving books, and Sephie turns to find her ex-boyfriend grinning down at her, pink filming his long ivory teeth. He tilts his head, shows her the still-wet ruin a bullet made of the left side of his skull.
Her hands tingle with adrenaline shock as the smell of his blood coats her tongue�copper sweetness, and beneath that the familiar salt-musk of his skin.
A wink and he’s gone, and the air smells like books and dust and air freshener again. Sephie wobbles, and the stack of books in her arms teeters and falls, hardbacks and trades thumping and thwapping one by one, echoing in the afternoon quiet. No blood stains the worn green carpet.
The third time this week. Cursing, she crouches to pick up the books, and pauses as she reads the nearest title.
Lycanthropy: An Encyclopedia
Caleb always was a smart-ass�she shouldn’t expect that to change because he’s dead.
“Are you okay?” Anna calls from across the store.
No, she thinks. Not even a little.
The sky darkens as they close, October nearly over and autumn chewing the days shorter and shorter. Purple eases into charcoal, and the grinning jack-o-lantern moon rises over the jagged Dallas skyline.
The moon doesn’t bother her, never mind Caleb and his lousy jokes.
Sephie lights a cigarette as Anna sets the alarm and locks the back door. Her hands shake, the itch in her veins more than nicotine can ease.
“You want to get some coffee?” Anna asks, pocketing her keys and pulling out her own cigarettes. Her nails are orange and black to match her Halloween hair. Her lighter rasps, and the smell of cloves drifts through the air.
Sephie swallows, her mouth gone dry. The shakes are coming on for real, her stomach cramping. “That’d be nice, but I need to run some errands. Maybe some other time.” She likes the bookstore better than any of the other jobs she’s had, and doesn’t want to get fired because someone thinks she’s a junkie.
It’s not like she can tell them the truth.
“Sure,” Anna says, waving as she turns toward her car. “See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah. ‘Night.” Sephie ducks down the alley toward the street, trying not to think about Anna’s bemused little smile.
Tonight will be bad�she hears it in the hollow roar of traffic, sees it in the halos bleeding off the street lamps. But cold sweat prickles her scalp, her neck, and chills crawl up and down her back; she can’t wait another day.
Hunching her shoulders, she slides into the ebb and flow of downtown streets.
For a few blocks everything’s okay. The night hums and chatters, traffic and voices, the cacophony of city-noises. The air tastes of exhaust and asphalt, the sewer-stench of the Trinity fading now that summer’s passed. She catches a whiff of decay, of meat, and saliva pools on her tongue. But it’s only a dead dog, not what she needs.
Then it happens, that sideways lurch in the pit of her stomach, and she’s alone on the sidewalk. No more neon and shining glass, no more noise. Dusty brick and stone instead, grime-blind windows and the moon grinning overhead.
And the ghosts.
She’s learned not to stop, not to listen to their whispers. Keep walking, eyes on the sidewalk-don’t look at those pale faces peering out of the shadows, bruised and bloody or just empty, eyes burning with a junkie’s aching need.
She knows the feeling, all too well, but she can’t help them. She can barely help herself.
Her nose wrinkles against the smell of this place. The city stinks, but at least it’s a living stench. This is dry bones and dust, old tombs.
The wind that sighs from black alley-mouths is worse�sulfur and ammonia, sickness and pain. It aches like a bruise when it touches her, makes her eyes water.
Her footfalls echo as she lengthens her stride. It will pass. It always does. She has to keep moving, out of the between-places.
But she’s a between-thing now, and she may never leave this place behind.
A breeze eddies past her, and Sephie stumbles to a halt. Rose gardens and evergreen, the smell of evenings as summer melts into autumn. The smell of her dreams.
The scent leaks from under the door of a narrow shop, its windows curtained and dull. She reaches for the knob with a trembling hand.
But her stomach cramps again, and already the braver ghosts are moving toward her, murmuring, pleading.
She turns and runs, and doesn’t stop until the world slips back to normal.
Bobet & Cask Funeral Services is long closed, but a light burns in the back. Sephie crouches in the shadow of a hedge, holly pricking her back as she finishes her last cigarette and tries to slow her breathing. Her legs cramp from exercise, but that’s nothing to the pain in her gut. She wipes clammy sweat from her face and drags her fingers through the curling cowlicked mess of her hair.
Peter waits by the back door, even though she’s early. Hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched, eyes flitting back and forth�he looks like a really bad spy.
“You should start smoking,” she says, moving out of the dark. “It’d look more natural.”
He jerks, presses his back to the door. The smell of his fear cuts through the muggy night and Sephie’s stomach growls.
“I-” He swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing. “Come inside.”
He always invites her in; he’s read too many books. She follows him down the corridor, down the stairs to the morgue.
The air smells of chemicals and death, and she rubs her arms against crawling goosebumps. Her sweat gels in the cold, sticking her shirt to her back. A body lies on a metal table, and her stomach clenches again. Peter glances at her, blue eyes narrowing, like he thinks she’ll start gnawing on an arm.
She’s not sure what would happen if he weren’t here.
He opens a refrigerator, takes out a lidded plastic bowl. “It’s heart, and liver, and some other things… A car crash, so I could take a little more than usual.”
“This guy?” She nods toward the corpse in his funeral suit, wrinkled face coated in makeup that can’t simulate living color, no matter how skillfully it’s applied.
“No, he had a heart attack. The accident was a few days ago.”
Sephie smiles, close-lipped. “Thank you.” She tugs a roll of bills out of her pocket, trades it for the container. He tried to give the money back, once, but she makes him keep it. She’s afraid he’ll ask for something else if she doesn’t.
He stands there watching her, gangly and awkward, while her fingers tighten on the plastic and she swallows hungry spit. Finally he ducks his head and retreats. “I’ll be outside if you need me.”
When his footsteps recede, Sephie sinks onto the cold tile floor and opens the container. Thin slices of organs-pomegranate heart and pinky-brown liver-and slivers and cubes of fat-marbled flesh. Once he gave her an eyeball, but it was salty and bitter and too gross even for her.
She saves the heart for last, chews it slowly, sucking bloody juice out of the muscle. Shudders ride her, and she closes her eyes against a flood of scattered images and sensations. She doesn’t want to know about the person whose heart this was.
“This is what you left me for?”
She opens her eyes to find Caleb crouching in front of her, long hands dangling between his knees. Blood and brains drip onto the floor, vanishing when they hit the tile.
“Leave me alone!” Her voice cracks. The empty bowl falls from her hand and rolls in a lazy spiral.
“Tell me this is what you want. Tell me you don’t miss me.”
She closes her eyes, pulls her knees tight against her chest.
“Tell me you wouldn’t rather eat that boy of yours. He might like it.”
A hand touches her knee and Sephie gasps, but it’s only Peter. “Are you all right?”
Caleb’s vanished again.
She stares up at Peter�she feels his pulse through her jeans, hears the nervous rhythm of his heart. He wants her. He’s afraid of her. He smells like food.
Caleb knows her too well, damn him. She’s had more than one daydream about fucking Peter on a cold steel embalming table. Some of those fantasies end with her tearing the poor boy’s throat out. The smell of warm flesh fills her nose.
She pulls away, crab-crawls across the floor and stumbles to her feet. Peter gapes; she’s getting faster.
“I’m fine.” She nibbles a drop of coagulated blood from under her nail and straightens her blouse. “I need to go.”
Peter frowns, and she can see him searching for the nerve to ask her to stay. He’s like the ghosts, needing, wanting. Whether he wants a girlfriend or a pet monster, she’s not sure, but she can’t offer him either.
“Thank you,” she says again, cutting him off. “I’ll be back next month, okay?”
He nods, shoulders sagging. “Yeah. I’ll see you then.”
And Sephie flees up the stairs, into the dark, and hurries for home.
The apartment is empty. Seth’s gone a lot lately, looking for work�jobs that pay cash and don’t run background checks. Sometimes, like this week, it’s out-of-town work, leaving her alone. Hard enough to sleep most nights, even with his steady snoring drifting down the hall. When it’s her and the echoing silence, it’s nearly impossible.
The ghosts never come too close when he’s here. This week she’s seen a few lingering near the stairs.
Even if the ghosts don’t find her, the dreams always do.
She slips one of Seth’s cassettes into the old tape deck by her mattress. Sephie teases him about his music, sad bluesy stuff a few generations before her time, but some of it’s pretty. Billie Holiday’s husky-soft voice chases away the silence, wraps around her like a blanket.
Her gun is a hard lump under the pillow; she always sleeps with it when she’s alone.
Tell me this is what you want.
She thought she was rid of Caleb six months ago, when she left him sprawled in a cooling pool of blood on a dusty Oklahoma street. Not that she could even do that herself�she had to find someone else to pull the trigger for her.
His words echo in her head. Is this what she wants? The cramped apartment, the string of lousy jobs. Gravemeat and ghosts. Seth is gone half the time, and she doesn’t dare make other friends, not even something as simple as getting coffee with Anna.
She’s wanted lots of things over the years�travel, excitement, glamorous jobs that turned out to be too little glamour and too much work. But the one thing she’s always wanted, as long as she can remember, is to not be afraid anymore.
“I’ve done a great job of that, haven’t I?” she whispers to her pillow, to the gun beneath it.
The tape clicks over to the B-side before she finally drifts off. Lady Day’s voice follows her into the dark.
She dreams of the wall again. A wall in a dark forest, stones pitted and pocked with age, veined with moss and ivy. Too high and sheer to climb, so she follows it on and on, searching for a door. Her fingers bruise the green, filling the air with its musty-damp scent, and sap clings sticky as blood on her skin. Yellow eyes gleam in the shadows around her.
Tall spindly beasts, long-armed and stilt-legged, tongues lolling amid bone-needle fangs. They never approach, never touch her, only stare and follow, muttering and laughing to themselves, singing to the swollen orange moon.
Maybe there’s no door, no opening, and she’ll circle the wall forever. But Sephie’s smelled the wind from the other side, a wind that smells like forests and gardens, like heaven. Roses and evergreen, ripe peaches and fresh bright blood.
And she knows, with the certainty of dreams, that the garden is a place for her. An Eden for ghouls and monsters, where the trees pump blood instead of sap and hearts grow ripe and beating on the vine. A place where she’ll never have to eat cold meat, never have to kill. Where she won’t be afraid.
It’s enough to keep her walking the wall, night after night, ignoring the werewolves’ snuffling laughter.
She doesn’t find the door tonight. Instead the dream splinters and she falls through the cracks, falls back onto her sagging mattress. The shadowed bedroom ceiling stares her down while Billie Holiday sings about the moonlight.
Something woke her, but she’s not sure what, until the mattress creaks and a warm weight settles over her. Familiar scratch of stubble, the salt-sweet taste of Caleb’s skin.
He shouldn’t be here, but his hands are sliding under her shirt, callused fingers kneading her ribs, and her body still remembers him, remembers when she didn’t spend the nights trembling and alone. She arches against him as his tongue traces the angle of her jaw; her fingers tangle in his wet hair.
“Tell me you don’t miss me.” His breath tickles her sternum as his fingers slip beneath the elastic of her underwear. She bites her lip and doesn’t answer.
His hair trails over her stomach, leaving warm wet streaks behind. “I would have taken care of you.” He tugs her underwear over her hips and her breath hitches. “I still need you, Sephie.” Lips press warm and rough below her navel, the pressure of teeth.
“Caleb-” And she shrieks as he bites. Light flashes in the window and she sees her blood on his mouth, his blood smeared over her breasts and belly and hands, his eyes gleaming yellow in the glare.
And she wakes with a gasp. She’s alone again, with the music and the soft sounds of traffic beyond the window, and only sweat slicks her skin.
Sephie can’t sleep again that night, and when dawnlight creeps through the blinds she’s aching and groggy. She wants to call in sick, but she gave Peter the last of her cash and the electricity’s due soon, so she drags herself into the shower when the alarm shrieks.
She searches the foggy mirror for changes, like she does every time she eats. Maybe her teeth are a hint longer, a little sharper. Her nails have thickened, so thick now she can’t chew them like she used to, has to worry her cuticles instead.
She thinks of Caleb’s bloody grin, the dark half-circles under his nails. She’s not like him, no matter what she’s becoming.
Not yet, at least.
Another day of ignoring ghosts, of dodging Anna’s questions and invitations. She aches with tension and fatigue by the time she gets home.
Caleb is waiting for her, bleeding on her dumpster-rescue couch. Sephie pauses on the threshold, nearly turns and runs.
But she’s too tired, and running hasn’t worked so far. She locks the door behind her.
“What do you want?”
“Your help.” It’s not what she expected. He’s too serious; it looks strange on him.
“My help? Maybe you should have asked for that before you started stalking me. And anyway, you’re dead.”
His eyes narrow. “Whose fault is that?”
“You should have let me walk away.” But it’s hard to stay angry with a ghost. Arguing with Caleb is familiar, almost domestic, and better than being alone.
“You weren’t walking�you were running. You wanted me to be strong. You wanted me to be scary. And then you couldn’t handle it.”
“I didn’t want you to kill people.”
“You wanted a pet monster, a killer on a leash.”
She closes her eyes. “I wanted to feel safe.”
“If I could have done that, I would have.” She feels him in front of her, though she never heard him move. His hand cups her cheek, cool and rough, his touch lighter than it ever was. If she pushes, she might pass right through him.
“How did you find me, anyway?”
“I can feel you, everywhere I go. We’re still all tangled up together.”
“I’m trying to cut myself loose.” She reaches up, not quite touching his bloody face. “I am sorry, though, about how things ended.”
“Then help me. I can’t stay here, Sephie, even for you. It’s getting harder and harder. It hurts. But the other place�the badlands�are worse.”
In spite of everything, in spite of the blood, the too-sharp teeth and gleaming eyes, he’s still Caleb. Still the boy she fell in love with. She was always a little afraid of him, but it was a safer fear than others.
“What can I do?”
“You’ve seen it�the garden, the wall. I need to go there. I need to get inside.”
“I can’t find the way in. And it’s only a dream.” But she remembers the door downtown, the smell of roses and summer.
They just have to get there, past the ghosts, through the empty places. The thought makes her stomach lurch.
But if it weren’t for her, for her fear, Caleb wouldn’t be dead. Wouldn’t need her now.
“Come on.” She touches his cold hand. “I think I know the way.”
The moon watches them as they cross the hollow city, spilling light the color of rust. In the distance something howls, like no dog Sephie’s ever heard.
The dead follow in their wake, nearly a dozen ghosts now, watching with hungry eyes.
“Have you talked to them?” Sephie asks, trying not to glance back at their silent shadows.
“No. I think they’re scared of me.” He pauses. “We’re scared of each other.”
The shop is still there�she was afraid it would vanish, that she imagined it to begin with. This time she sees the sign: The Dream Merchant. As Caleb tries the door, she turns to face the ghosts.
She swallows, her throat dust-dry. “What do you want?”
Caleb catches her arm. “Sephie, don’t-”
“We want out of here,” the nearest answers. A woman, her bone-white face mottled with bruises, hair pale as cobwebs tangling over her shoulders.
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help you.”
“Take us with you.” She nods toward the shop. “Whatever’s in there, it can’t be worse than this place.”
“It’s locked,” Caleb says, slamming his hand against a pane; it doesn’t even rattle. “I can’t break it.”
Sephie touches the door. It feels real enough, peeling paint and dry wood, cold dirty glass. She can’t see through the windows. Before she can think too long, she punches the glass.
She gasps as it shatters and pain spills hot up her arm.
The blood that blossoms on her knuckles is definitely real. The smell fills the air, bright and rich against so much nothing. The ghosts sigh like wind in the grass, and sway forward. Caleb swallows, and Sephie pulls her hand away.
Careful of the glass, she slides her good hand through the broken window, fumbling till she finds the lock. The door opens inward with a hollow rattle of bells. She listens for an alarm, but hears nothing.
The howl echoes again, closer now.
“Come on.” Caleb steers her through the door, but Sephie turns to face the ghosts.
“Follow us if you want to, but I don’t know where we’re going.”
One by one they trickle over the threshold, into the darkness of the shop. Sephie shuts the door behind them, and turns the lock. Blood drips off her fingers.
Caleb’s hand tightens on her arm. “There it is.”
She sniffs, catches the smell again, from somewhere in the darkness across the room.
“And what exactly are you looking for?”
Sephie spins, heart leaping in her chest, as a light blossoms on the stairs. Her eyes water at the sudden brightness, and she raises a hand against the glare.
“Who are you?” Sephie asks. The light is wrong, milk-blue and cold, its glare obscuring the man who holds it.
He chuckles dryly. “I’m the owner of the building you’ve broken into, the floor you’re bleeding on. So I’ll ask again�what is it that you want?”
She swallows. “We’re looking for the garden.”
The light dims enough for her to catch his puzzled frown. His black hair is tousled, shirt hanging open, and stubble darkens his jaw. “The- Ah.” His eyes flicker toward the other side of the room. “I see. And who are you, young lady? The Pied Piper? The dead are much more nuisance than rats.”
All the ghosts huddle behind her, even Caleb, shielding their eyes from the pale lantern.
“Please.” The word catches in her throat. “I’m sorry about the window. But I have to take them to the garden.”
“I run a business, not an underground railroad for the dead. Such services aren’t free.”
“I don’t have any money. But I can get some-”
He studies her for a moment, his eyes cast in shadow. “I’m sure you can. And what surety will you give me, if I let you pass tonight?”
She opens her mouth, closes it again. “What do you want?”
His smile turned her stomach to ice. “I’ll have your name, as a down payment.”
“No,” Caleb whispers.
“No, my dear. Your whole name. And I’ll know if you lie.”
“Don’t,” Caleb says, louder. He moves toward the stairs. “Leave her alone.”
The man raises the lantern higher. The light blazes, and Caleb falls back with a groan. “The name, if you please. Or I can send your friends back to the ground where they belong.”
“Sephronia Anne Matthews.”
“Excellent. Very well, Sephronia-” She winces at the sound of her name in his mouth. “-you and your friends may go down.”
He descends the rest of the stairs and the ghosts flinch from the light as he passes. He unlocks a door in the far wall; it looks like a closet, but when it opens a shiver runs through Sephie’s bones. His lantern can’t touch the blackness inside. One of the ghosts moans.
“This is it?” But she can smell it, warm and summer-sweet.
“That is the way.”
She glances at the man, her eyes narrowing. “And we can come back this way?”
“You can. We still have your debt to settle.”
“What now?” Caleb murmurs.
“We go down.” The steadiness of her voice amazes her. Her good hand gropes for Caleb’s as they step into the dark.
Down and down and down. Caleb’s hand tightens painfully on hers, and she remembers the last time they went below, the trip into the darkness that started all of this. The gravemeat, the secrets of the dead. When they first became monsters, between-things.
But this road doesn’t smell like death.
The ghosts make no sound behind them; Sephie doesn’t look back.
She brushes her wounded hand against the wall, leaving a trail of blood-better than breadcrumbs. It feels like cement at first, cold and rough, but the texture changes, becomes sleeker, slicker, ridged and curving.
She doesn’t know how long they walk, or how far. Step after step, one foot after another. The dark swallows sound, swallows time.
Eventually the wall falls away, and the smothering sensation eases. A moment later the stairs end, become a gentle slope; earth and rocks skitter beneath her boots. The air warms, and a humid breeze carries the smell of green things. The ghosts whisper among themselves. Sephie’s hand is falling asleep in Caleb’s, but she doesn’t let go.
The darkness changes ahead, lessens. The mouth of a cave-they’re almost out.
Something moves in the shadows, rasping breath and scraping claws. Three pairs of eyes burn against the black.
“What’s this now?” A rough guttural voice. Nothing that comes from a human mouth.
“Little feet trip-trapping down our stairs,” another hisses. “Is that you, merchant?”
“No, sisters. It’s the little dreamer.” And this a woman’s voice, deep and rich.
“Ahh, so it is. I knew she’d find the way eventually.”
“And she brought her friends.”
“What do you want, little ghoul?”
Sephie swallows, trying to moisten her tongue. “We want to find the garden.”
“Well, that’s easy, isn’t it sisters?”
“All you do is follow the path.”
“But you must pay the toll, to leave the cavern.”
“Yes. Passage is not free.”
“Not again.” Sephie tugs her hand free of Caleb’s, flexes tingling fingers. “What do you want?”
Even as her eyes adjust, she can’t make out the speakers. Only vague shadows and glowing eyes, gold and silver and poison green. They smell like fur, like musk and blood and autumn leaves.
One of them laughs, a chuffing animal noise. “Come closer, child.”
Caleb tries to hold her back, but she shakes off his grip and steps forward. Shadows lap over her, thicker and cooler than the air, and she shivers. Something crunches under her foot, dry and hollow; she doesn’t look down.
“What’s the price?” She searches her pockets. Coins on the eyes of the dead, but she can’t remember where she read that.
“Not that,” says one of the women-or whatever they are-as change rattles in Sephie’s pocket. “We have no use for money.”
“And I doubt you have enough for everyone you’ve brought.”
The sisters move closer, surrounding her. Hot breath tickles the back of her neck.
“Orpheus sang his way in,” hisses the shadow on her left, the green-eyed. “Do you have a song for us?”
Sephie shakes her head. Even if she could carry a tune, her voice is caught in her throat and she can’t remember the words to any song she knows.
“She’s bleeding,” the golden-eyed beast whispers.
Sephie flexes her right hand; crusted blood cracks on her skin.
“So she is.” The silver eyes lean in. “Living blood. It’s been a long time since we’ve tasted that.”
She holds up her hand. “Is this enough? Will this pay our way?”
The green-eyed sister hisses. “Ghoul blood is cold and dusty. I want something sweeter. Perhaps…” Something cool and scaly touches Sephie’s cheek and she fights a flinch. “A young girl’s tears. Yes.”
“Sephie-” Caleb’s voice drifts through the dark.
“Be silent, little ghost. This is her bargain to make.”
Long clawed fingers catch her right hand, pull it down. Hot breath stings the cuts. She clenches her fist, reopening the wounds. The pain of tearing scabs makes her gasp, makes her eyes water.
“Blood and tears, fine. Take them.”
Serpents writhe against her face, tongues flickering toward her eyes.
“If we all may name a price,” the silver-eyed woman says, “then I want a kiss.”
Sephie closes her eyes. Moisture beads on her lashes, and the snakes lick it away. The beast’s tongue laps her hand, hot and rough, rasping against the cuts. “Fine,” she whispers. “Just do it.”
A hand cups her cheek, cold and lifeless, tilts her chin up. The woman’s mouth closes on hers. Silk-dry lips, icy tongue, teeth like icicles. She tries to breathe, but the kiss steals the air from her lungs, steals the heat from her veins.
We can take it all, the woman’s voice whispers deep in the whorls of her brain. All your pain, all your fear. Even your debt. We can take everything, and you’ll be free.
She’s truly crying now, crying and bleeding and gasping for air. Snakes in her eyes, teeth piercing her hand, and that tongue in her mouth, leeching her dry.
What does that leave for me?
Nothing. You’ll have nothing, be nothing, want nothing. And nothing will ever hurt you again.
She can’t answer, can’t feel her limbs or her tongue. Caleb is shouting somewhere far away, calling her name. But she can’t answer, because she’s falling into the dark.
But the dark doesn’t want her, spits her out again, and she wakes with a gasp. Cold, so cold, and she can’t stop shivering. Caleb holds her; he’s warmer than she is.
“What happened?” she whispers.
“They’re gone. I thought you were, too.”
She sits up, rubs her stinging eyes. Her right hand is shredded, like she was mauled by a dog, but none of the wounds are bleeding. Her chest aches, and it’s hard to get enough breath.
“Where are the ghosts?” she asks, glancing around the empty cavern.
“They went on, into the forest.”
Carefully she stands, leaning on Caleb. He feels more solid now, more real. Or maybe she’s less.
“Come on. Let’s find the garden.”
A path leads into the trees, like the sisters promised. Birds and insects sing in the darkness, and animals move through the underbrush. The peach-golden moon is high overhead, dripping light through the canopy, turning all the leaves to amber and jade.
The trail takes them straight to the garden wall, and this time, the gate is easy to find. Curling iron, the bars wrapped thick with vines and flowers. One side stands open, and the werewolves are waiting for them.
This time, Sephie isn’t afraid.
“Hello, children,” one beast says. After the guardians in the cave, its growling voice is welcoming, kind. “We wondered when you would find the way.”
The wind drifts past them, flutters Sephie’s hair. The smell of the garden eases some of the aching cold inside her.
She turns to Caleb. His color is better, and as she watches, the constant dripping blood slows, dries. An instant later the wound is healed, leaving nothing but tangled dark curls.
Her wounds are still there.
“Come with me,” he says, stroking her hair. “Stay with me. We’ll be all right here.”
She leans against him, hears the whisper of a heartbeat in his chest. So tired. Not scared anymore�now she’s just numb. It would be so nice to rest.
Caleb bends down and she lifts her head for a kiss, a kiss to warm her frozen lips, to ease the memory of the cave. It could be like this here, like it was before things went so wrong.
Will Seth wonder what happened to her? Will Anna? Will they worry? She won’t be hungry here, won’t owe anything to anyone.
“I’ll take care of you,” Caleb whispers, his stubble scratching her lips.
She stiffens, turns her head aside. “You never could do that.”
“I tried to be what you wanted…”
“I never should have asked.” She pulls away, runs her fingers over his cheek. “I’m sorry.”
“What’s up there for you? What’s worth going back to?”
“I don’t know. But it’s something. It’s my life.”
She tilts her head toward the gate, and the waiting monsters. “Go on.”
He takes a hesitant step toward the garden. She waves once in farewell, then turns away. She doesn’t look back.
The cavern is empty. No one challenges her as she climbs the black and winding stair.
Halfway up, her hand starts to hurt again, and then to bleed. Not long after, she begins to cry. When she reaches the top of the steps, her chest burns, and all her weary muscles ache. But she’s not afraid.
As Sephie opens the door, the weight of her debt settles heavy on her shoulders. She pauses on the threshold, breathes in the garden’s scent again. Then she steps into the light and noise and stink of the world.
Amanda Downum lives in Denton, Texas, where she slaves as a university library minion to support her fiction habit. She doesn’t eat the students, though she thinks about it often. Her short fiction is published in Strange Horizons and Realms of Fantasy, and forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine.
“Garden” is the sequel to “Dogtown,” which appeared in Strange Horizons, and was inspired by and named for an artisan-made bracelet.