2,600
22.12.2018

TWENTY-TWO

Okay. Okay. Okay. It'll be okay. Just … stay calm. It'll be okay. It's okay. Okay. It's fine. It's okay. She's wrong, is all, or lying. She's not just a liar, she's the daughter of the lord of them. She's got bad intel, is all. I don't kill Sinclair and skin him and turn him into the Book of the Dead. I don't don't don't don't don't don't.

Nope. Shake it somewhere else, Satan, 'cuz this vampire queen isn't buying.

Okay. Okay! It felt good to have that settled.

I ran from the room and lunged for the closet. I could feel someone come in and stand behind me, but I had more pressing matters to deal with. I yanked open the closet door, groped for the nearest receptacle (sadly, it was a Beverly Feldman shoe box I'd stashed right after UPS dropped it off), tore the lid off, and threw up all over a lovely pair of pewter-colored gladiator sandals.

TWENTY-THREE

I'd run out and barfed and run back in so quickly, they were all standing right where I'd left them.

It wasn't true.

It wasn't.

"You can talk until you drop dead," I told the devil, furtively wiping my mouth-probably time to lay off the banana chocolate smoothies for a while-"and it won't change a thing. You'll never make me believe it. Hear me? Never. Shit, Satan, I wouldn't believe you if you told me the ground gets wet when it rains."

"Then believe me," someone said.

We looked.

Ancient Me was standing in the doorway. "I did it. You will do it."

I did the only sensible thing. I ran out and threw up again.

TWENTY-FOUR

I staggered back into the parlor, weaving like a coked-up runway model. "This is the worst dream I've ever had."

"You think you know fear?" Ancient Me asked. "I'm going through all this a second time. As if the first wasn't horrific enough." She glared at Satan. "I'm beginning to wish I'd never asked you for that favor."

"That would be two of us, Betsy."

"Don't call me that, it's infantile, you know I loathe it," Ancient Betsy shot back.

"I do know you loathe it," Satan agreed cheerfully. "Yes."

"And that right there is the source of your problems," Laura pointed out.

Meanwhile, Marc and Sinclair were looking from me to Ancient Me and then back to me again. "Okay," Marc finally said, "don't kill me yet, because this just got really interesting. So we'll put my murder on the back burner for now. And no wonder the Book of the Dead follows you everywhere! It's Sinclair!"

"It's not Sinclair!"

"It absolutely is Sinclair," Ancient Me confirmed.

"Why are you here?" I cried. "Don't you have a future wasteland to lord over?"

Ancient Betsy, wearing yet another awful gray sweater dress with pilled elbows and a ragged hem that dropped a few inches past her knees, looked more ticked than ever. "Because of you, numbskull. You'll have to fix this. I can't, more's the pity."

"How am I supposed to-"

"I. Don't. Know!" Ancient Me snapped. "But you had better figure out a way. You're the one screwing up the timeline. My memories haven't been reliable since you two showed up in my present." She jabbed a bony, unpolished finger in my general direction. "Your future."

"Okay, first? Buff the nails, Decrepit Me."

"I'm not decrepit; we look exactly alike."

"Except for your eyes," Sinclair said quietly. "Your eyes are not at all the same."

"You shut up." Now that bony finger was pointing at my beloved husband. "Quite a lot of this is your fault."

"Oh, sure, blame the victim! Buff, okay? It's not hard, and you'll feel better about yourself. You don't even have to do polish, just a top coat."

"My world is a nightmare of post-apocalyptic forever-storm."

"And who's fault is that?"

"So fix it!" Ancient Me screamed. It was so loud and piercing, I nearly heard glass cracking. No, wait … that was probably just my eardrum blowing up. "Do you hear, you stupid mewling foolish idiotic girl? Fix it! Save him! Save us!"

She seemed almost appalled she'd had a screaming tantrum, because she visibly calmed herself-a good trick, one I might have to learn, or would learn-and then looked around the room at all of us and said, "You're a stupid, stupid girl. But you might pull it off. And Marc." She nodded at him and he nodded back, looking wary.

"Uh … yeah, um, Queen Elizabeth?"

"That's a good look for you. It suits you. And you're welcome." Then she looked at the devil, who was wearing the expression of someone who thought something was gonna be a big joke … only to find the joke was on her. It was an expression I hoped to see on Satan's face a few more times. The devil looking discomfited was hilarious. "Get me out of here. Right now."

Satan shrugged, and they both disappeared.

"Ancient Betsy must have brought me back!" Marc cried when the stench of brimstone faded. Okay, there hadn't been any brimstone, but the two of them disappeared in an appropriately sinister way. "She must have gotten the devil to bring her here, find my body, and resurrect me."

"Yeah. It was a short list." I explained that I'd made the list not long after my attic breakdown in front of Zombie Marc. "Me. Laura. Or Ancient Me. And I knew it wasn't me. And then we knew it wasn't Laura. So…" I shrugged. "Like the Bad Book says, the Queene shalt noe the dead."

"Well done, my queen." Sinclair looked and sounded impressed. Which made me feel awful. I didn't want to be logical and calm and smart. I didn't want to grow into the talking ice sculpture that was Ancient Me. I wanted to be a flapping dumbass. I wanted to be the kind of person who was so dumb, when they played Russian Roulette they loaded all the chambers. I did not want to be smart. Not if it meant being her. Never, never her.

Sinclair seemed to read my expression pretty accurately, because he added, "I do not believe it. You could never hurt me, as I could never hurt you. I do not believe it."

"You do, too!"

"Very well." He instantly reversed course, the better to soothe you with, my dear. "I am not afraid."

"Well, you would be if you'd been paying any attention the last five years." I sniffed, comforted. "What are we going to do, Eric?"

"Truly things have come to a wretched pass." He put his hands over his heart and made like he was going to swoon. "Calling me by my first name, almost as if we were husband and wife. The horror of it!"

"Shut your cake slot, Sink Lair."

"Much better." Weirdly, he did seem relieved.

"We'll fix it, Betsy. Of course, I have no idea how…" Marc was stroking his chin and looking thoughtful. And Laura looked like she'd been given a death-row reprieve. "But we will."

"We absolutely will," Laura agreed. "Betsy, I'm so sorry about keeping this from you … I couldn't tell you. I thought I could fix it-head it off-if I kept the Book from you while I figured out what to do, but my mother jumped in with both feet and … and…"

"I don't blame you, Laura." Though in that moment with Sinclair I had forgotten she and Marc were even in the room. "I know you wanted to help. I shouldn't have assumed you'd gone klepto out of spite." I looked around the room at the glum faces. "C'mon, guys! It's not the end of the world. At least, not yet."

They obviously didn't believe me, but were too polite to tell me to my face. So I forced brisk cheer into my tone, as much for my own sake as theirs. If I didn't fake cheer, I was gonna go into some very real hysterics, possibly for several months.

"I'll tell you what. We're gonna fix this. And here's the fun fact: I don't give a tin shit how many laws we have to break or how much blood we have to drink. If we have to lie, we're gonna do it."

Marc was rubbing his temples and staring at the floor. "Time is a wheel."

"Don't start with the wheel … if we have to cheat, we're gonna do it."

He rubbed harder. "There's something familiar about this…"

"As God is my witness, Sinclair will never be skinned again!"

"That is sweet, my own." Which sounded sincere until Sink Lair lifted a hand to his mouth to turn his laugh into a cough ("Hee-hhmmphhhh!") and then fake-cleared his throat. (Or would it be faux cleared? Jessica's the one who took French, I'd have to ask her…) "I think I just fell in love with you all over again."

"Gone with the Wind!" Marc shouted, leaping to his zombie feet. "You're cribbing prose from the estate of Margaret Mitchell, you thieving whore!"

"Am not. And I am not a thief. Okay, I am. Who cares? Focus, Lazarus. We'll fix it. It's gonna be fixed. Okay?"

I forced a smile. They did, too, and their smiles were about as real as mine.