"No. No." I tried to think of something to add to that. "Oh no. No."
My mom's smile sort of fell off her face when she got a good look at who was in the kitchen. "Ah," she began, not a little worried to see a police detective looking like he wanted to shoot her daughter in the face (and that just for starters). Then she noticed the zombie. "Ah? Marc? Betsy told me you were … ah…"
"I got better," he replied, the soul of politeness.
"And … Laura, hello."
"Hi, Mrs. Taylor," the Antichrist mumbled, taking a second from glaring at the devil to stare at the floor.
"And Jessica, you're looking … very, very healthy."
"Hi, Miz Taylor. We're, um, sort of in the middle of … uh … something?" She looked at me for help, but I was sort of frozen with the sheer horror of the moment.
My mom knew I was a vampire, but I hadn't had the time (or inclination, to be brutally blunt) to bring her up to speed on Satan, Zombie Marc … oh, all sorts of things. She knew I'd accidentally FUBARed the timeline, but didn't know many gory details beyond that. And I had never told her about Ancient Me, or the wretched future awaiting humanity. But I'd probably have to bring her up to speed right now, since there were two Betsy Taylors less than ten feet apart…
"Meh!" BabyJon was perched comfortably on Mom's hip, drooling and content, and reached chubby arms out to both Betsys. (That was a sentence I didn't think I'd ever have to say or write or think. Both Betsys? Why not just say both Michele Bachmanns? Both Kanye Wests?) "Beh? Muh! Geh-neh. Muh!"
"I'm confused," my mother said, looking from me to Ancient Me and back to me. "I'm sure there's some sort of supernatural/paranormal explanation, though. Which one of you do I need to scold for not returning my calls yesterday?"
Busted. I raised my hand. Ancient Me was, if anything, more shocked into immobility than I was. She just stared at my/our mom with eyes that got bigger and bigger.
Yet again the kitchen door swung open (I was so rattled, I could barely concentrate on what was happening in the room, never mind also listen for footsteps) and Tina was framed, wild-eyed, in the doorway. Since she'd probably been reloading shells in the basement, she'd really flown up all those stairs. "Dr. Taylor, Her Majesty is very busy so please come with me right now I'm sorry she can't see you right-dammit."
"Nice try," I said, because it was. And I was doubly glad for the effort, because Jessica, Marc, and Dickie all got the giggles. "However this shakes out, I'm probably in huge trouble, but I appreciate the effort, Tina."
"Huge trouble," my mother agreed, managing to smile graciously at Tina and frown sternly at me with the same expression. Someone who didn't know her would worry she was having a stroke. "But I do see you're busy, and I shouldn't have just dropped by with the baby."
"He's my baby, Mom, of course you should have. I'm just sorry I can't take him back just now."
"Clearly not." She was trying to look at everyone in the room all at once. "I think that would be a very bad idea. But later, when you've taken care of business, you can plan on sitting down with your old mom-"
"You're not old." I smiled at her, my mother, whose fierce intellect was matched only by her diabolical sense of humor. My mother, who'd started going prematurely gray in high school but always looked good. "You'll never be old."
"-and telling me the whole odd story. Flatterer. But until then, I-yeee!"
She'd said "yeee!" because Ancient Me had crossed the room in half a blink, had flung herself at my/our mother and my/our son, and was holding them in a pretty firm clutch while muttering into her hair, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry, Mom. Please. I'm so sorry for what happened to you."
"I, uh, don't know where to look," Marc whispered.
"I'm not sure there's anywhere we can look," Jessica whispered back.
"Let go of her! Get your fucking hands off my mother!"
I'd started forward, only to be frozen by my mother's sharp, "Elizabeth Taylor!"
"Sorry, Mom-I told you to let go!"
Ancient Me looked up from embracing Mom. "Don't talk like that in front of her!"
"This … is … so … splendid," Satan sighed.
In evil, horrific unison: "You shut up!"
"Elizabeth! Elizabeths, I mean." Mom looked surprised at what she had just said, but rallied. "Ah, both of you, stop it. Grown women-"
"You don't know how grown," I tattled, pointing at Ancient Me.
"At least I'm an adult," Ancient Me fired back.
"And acting like children. Stop it at once. Think of the baby!"
"Meh," the baby added, swinging fat feet stuffed into tiny navy blue socks.
"Now, er, you two behave. Ah … do I know you, ma'am?"
"No," the devil replied. "But I know you, Dr. Taylor."
"Oh. You look familiar … there now, hon." Distracted (and who could blame her?), she patted Decrepit Me on the shoulder. "It's all right. Whatever happened, I know you did your best."
"I did," Ancient Me replied with an earnestness that would have been touching if she wasn't so gross and ancient and evil and wearing stolen clothes. "Only it wasn't good enough. And nothing seemed to go right after that." She glanced at Marc. "Not one thing."
"Irrelevant, if you gave it your best shot."
"I disagree, Mom."
"We'll talk about it another time."
"There is no other time." Was that … ah, man … did Decrepit Me's lower lip actually tremble? Oh my God, if that wicked bitch started to cry, I was going to lunge for Nick's gun. I wasn't sure who I'd shoot, but just getting my hands on a weapon sounded like a good idea. "There never was."
"Then you'd best work on the things you can actually fix, don't you think?"
Old Me bit her lip, then nodded.
Marc's hand shot up, like the kid in Algebra who wanted to know when the next pop quiz was. "Question?"
"She won't tell you," I said, shaking my head. "Whatever it is. She won't. She's gotta be all cryptic to protect the timeline that's already been hosed."
"Well, I do," Ancient Me said, having the audacity to sound hurt.
"Dr. Taylor, please allow me…" Tina stepped forward and relieved Mom of the diaper bag. "I'll be happy to show you to your car-"
"I know the way to my car, Tina," she replied, exasperated.
"So sorry Her Majesties can't assist you themselves at this time, but her-their-schedules are sure to clear up very soon."
"That's a lie," my mother said, smiling, but allowing Tina to herd her out, "and you know it."
"Don't forget, our house, Thanksgiving dinner, Thursday," I called after her.
"How could I? You hate-" And then the door mercifully swung shut.
I buried my head in my hands. "Jesus Christ."
"Say it twice," Ancient Me muttered. I bit my lip, hard, so I wouldn't laugh.
I much preferred loathing her to liking her. And I sure as shit did not want to feel sorry for her.
So how come I did?
"I should pop by more often," the devil decided. "That was fun."
"Why are you here?" I asked, going from relieved to pissed. "Lose a bet?"
"Oh, just keeping an eye on things."
"You can't watch us on your plasma screen in hell?"
Satan shrugged. She was wearing a black suit this time-she didn't wear red anymore. She had told Laura it was beyond cliched. "Next you'll want to see the pitchfork," was how she had put it. Hey, nothing wrong with the classics.
"It's not as much fun not being there when it hits the fan," Ancient Me pointed out.
Satan quit smirking and looked like someone had jammed a lemon through her teeth. "Touchier than usual, darling? Careful. Someone might think your faith has been shaken."
"My faith has never been an issue."
"What are we talking about?" Marc wondered aloud. "I'm having a little trouble keeping up with the cast of characters. Is there a reason why both Betsys and the devil and the Antichrist and Jessica and her belly-"
"Faith isn't anybody's issue," I said, exasperated. "We all know there's a God, we just can't be sure He's not on permanent vacation."
"Hold up," Nick/Dick said. "It's not that simple."
This time we all heard the footsteps. Someone in a hurry, not bothering to be quiet. I was almost afraid to see who was about to join the madness.
The door swung in. Antonia peeked in. "What the hell's going on in here?"
"We're having a debate," Satan said helpfully. "About-"
"Don't care." The door swung shut. The footsteps went the other way.
"I never thanked you for taking her off my hands," Satan commented.
"I knew you agreed too quickly."
"Yeah, great, listen-getting back to what we were talking about, I don't remember seeing a white light," Marc protested. "So we don't know there's a-"
"Oh, of course we do," I snapped.
This was a bad idea. A very bad idea. I knew better. We all knew better. We'd all been in chat rooms. Debates over religion were a baaaad plan. Next we could start chatting about abortion. And then politics … that'd go great. "We know there's a devil, right?"
"Here!" Satan said brightly, raising her hand.
"Ergo … right?"
"Huh. Well. I guess … but it seems like a cop-out." Marc was looking from Laura to Satan and back to Laura. "Knowing. You know?"
"It's worse than that."
"How can it be worse?" Nick had started making himself useful by putting away the rest of the groceries. Jessica had produced the sadly depleted bag of chocolate chips and started munching by the handful. "This thing people have had wars over. Slaughtered entire civilizations over … you just know. Kind of cool, maybe."
I shook my head. "You think it's easier, not just having faith in God but proof of God?" This time I did hear footsteps, and knew my husband was just outside the door. Tina must have given him a heads-up. "Not only do I know there's a God and a devil, I know He knows little kids starve to death and get raped. He knows there are suicide bombers and leukemia and plague. Shit, if you believe the Bible, He's sent plague."
"Okay…" Dick still looked doubtful, but I noticed Marc was paying close attention. Made sense … he'd died, and by his own admission, there had been no white light. So what did that mean for him? For any of us?
Sinclair silently stepped into the room and nodded at me. I wasn't sure what that meant … he was still keeping his thoughts to himself. Smart man.
"God exists, and He's got a little explaining to do." Rattled by my husband's appearance, I tried to gather my thoughts. "I-I don't mean to rain on your parade, but I think in a lot of ways, it's worse to know. 'God works in mysterious ways'? More like, God's a dangerous lunatic and needs to be stopped."
"I didn't think of it like that." And Marc sounded like he hadn't wanted to think of it like that.
"Sorry," was all I could think of to add.
Satan was smiling at me. Brrrr. "So you're a dystheist."
"Yep. That's me all over." I wasn't gonna ask. I wasn't gonna ask. I wasn't-
"You think God exists, but isn't all good."
"Yes! Holy cow, I am a dys … dis … what you said I was. That's me all over: God's an omnipotent entity that is so powerful yet disliked, like the DMV."
"I'm not saying this isn't interesting," Jessica began, sitting down and sighing with audible relief once she was off her feet, "but maybe we could make some sandwiches or something while we crush each other's deeply held beliefs?"
"Interesting that you should feel that way about God, when you're the one running around mucking up the timeline." The devil made this observation in a perfectly pleasant tone of voice.
"Well … I … um…" Damn. She had me there. Stupid impressive-looking black Donna Karan suit.
"He has an entire universe to look after. You only need tend to the needs of the undead."
"And it's ridiculous that I should have to do that," I added. At their stares and raised eyebrows I added, "What? I've always maintained it's ridiculous that a thirty-year-old unemployed office worker has to be the boss of a bunch of ancient vampires, all old enough to be their own mommies."
"You're wrong," Ancient Me said. She'd poured herself another glass of milk … hope she was a little more careful with that one. "They need a leader … a good one, not another Nostro. Otherwise…" She shrugged and took a sip.
"Seriously? You guys?" Jessica wriggled in the wooden kitchen chair. "We're really gonna keep debating about God and the universe and vampire bosses and stuff? What are we, freshmen in college?"
"Otherwise what?" Sinclair asked Ancient Me.
"Otherwise the future," she replied, and took another sip. I had the distinct impression she was rattled to be talking to him.
She is, my own.
Ah-ha! There he was.
"The bottom line is, you had no business to be screwing with the timeline." Unfortunately, she wasn't at all rattled to be talking to me. "Either of you." She nodded at Laura.
"Hey, I'm with you! I'm with you, for once, a hundred percent." I turned to address the group-and what a group!-as a whole. "You guys. Haven't I been saying it all along? Isn't it just the most fundamental thing you've ever heard? I, Elizabeth Taylor-"
"Oooh, she's calling herself by her full name and also referring to herself in the third person." Jessica looked at once interested and terrified. "Brace yourself. This will not be cool."
"-should not be the boss of you! Any of you! I have never, ever refuted that."
"You've also never accepted it. Instead of hiding from your-"
"If you say 'destiny' like we're stuck in some lame made-for-TV sci-fi geektacular miniseries, I won't be responsible for what I do to your face."
"-responsibilities, you should embrace them. You don't want to rule? Boo fucking hoo. You're the queen. You don't want the timeline to be changed? Tough nuts; it is, so you'll have to deal with it. Not talk about it. Not bitch about it. Not wish it hadn't happened. Deal with it now. You want other people to police themselves? If we could do that, every cop on the planet would be out of work … would have been out of work for centuries. We needed cops a thousand years ago and we need them now and we'll need them five hundred years from now and a thousand years from now. And do any of you know why?"
Satan raised her hand. Luckily, Ancient Lecturing Me ignored her. "Because as a species, we are not toilet trained! Betsy: either you are, or you aren't."
"In charge. So: yes or no? Are you, or aren't you? That's it." She finished her milk and set down the glass. She stood. "That's all there is."
And walked out.
"Maybe a ham sandwich?" Jessica asked. "Or an omelet? Who wants eggs?"
No one wanted eggs.