In The Land of the Dead
"So – why is the afterlife so much like – life?"
"I'm afraid that's a question a bit beyond my understanding, Dean Liddell," Miss Winks said, her remaining hand resting on her lap as she perched on the loveseat. "None of us know why it's here – just that it is." She chewed the remains of her lip thoughtfully. "I suppose it could be termed a sort of Purgatory? Though there's no punishment of misdeeds."
"Well, no outside punishment, that is," her half-faced friend, whom she'd introduced as Dennis Trigger, put in from the chair next to her. "No God or Devil that I've seen yet. Just angry people ready to see justice done. The bastards who come Down don't tend to last long."
"Glad to hear it," Lizzie muttered from the middle of the sofa, squeezed between Lorina and Arthur. She and her mother were dressed now – the moment she'd heard Miss Winks and company offer to come in and explain, she'd darted (well, half-darted, half-crawled) up the stairs, declaring that no man was ever going to see her in her nightgown ever again. Lorina had followed, saying, "Well, it is only polite to be in real clothes if we're going to have company, right?" Which was reasonable enough, but Arthur suspected her true motive had been to make sure their daughter wasn't going to break down in another crying fit – after all, a fellow who'd lost all his flesh had no real reason to object to someone greeting them in their night things. He'd stayed downstairs, shaking hands and learning names until the girls were ready, then leading the way into the only useable room in the house. Frankly, he'd been a bit surprised Lizzie had come back – after what had just happened to her, one could hardly blame her for sequestering herself in her room until the strangers had gone away. But while she'd clung to Lorina's arm while introductions were made, and kept shooting suspicious looks at Mr. Trigger and his skeletal friend Carlton Prince, it seemed her curiosity over their new situation had temporarily overwhelmed her fears. Either that or she's determined to keep things as normal as possible to keep the pain away. . . . He patted her shoulder, and was rewarded with a shaky smile. That's my girl.
"So am I – but is all of Oxford down here?" Lorina added, absently biting a finger. "Do we still have our neighbors on either side? Is that cafe still two streets away?"
"Is the university down here?" Arthur put in. What a thought – to be dead and still able to go to work!
"Most everything Upstairs has a counterpart down here," Miss Winks nodded. "Though they don't always look the same. I don't know who was in charge of the colors, but they've got a love of sickly green and dark purple."
"And bright blue, as you can well see," her companion Molly Gipe put in, bone hands clacking against each other. "Sometimes even people's hair will turn blue."
"Happened to me before it fell out," Mr. Prince put in jovially. "I was a pretty pale blond in life, so we think that might have something to do with it."
"Fell out. . . ." Lorina tugged experimentally at her own locks. "I can't believe we're actually going to rot away."
"It doesn't hurt," Mr. Trigger assured her, smiling. "You get used to it after a while. And you needn't let it happen any faster than you want. I could pick you up a few bottles of No-Rot this afternoon – sort of a house-warming present."
"No-Rot?" Arthur echoed, deciding not to mention that their house was quite warm enough, thank you.
"Potion that keeps the bugs out and your skin on. Old Lady Gumption's got a knack for making it. It doesn't work forever, and nature eventually wins no matter how much you drink, but it'll keep you fairly fresh for a good dozen years, if you dose yourself regularly."
"Potion? You mean like magic?" Lizzie said disbelievingly. "But that's not–" She stopped and looked down at her blue hands. "What am I talking about? I'm dead, and yet I'm entertaining people. In the burnt-out remains of my old house. If that's not magic, what is?"
"There's quite a lot you find out about the world after you've died," Mr. Prince said, chuckling. "And that's coming from an investigative reporter."
"It won't damn your soul or anything like that," Miss Winks told them. "Honestly, most of the magic I've seen is just – helpful. There's a cleaning spell where you just rub a few flakes of soap on something and just like that, it's sparkling."
"Oh, Cassandra and her friends would have loved that. . . ." Lorina dipped her head. "I wonder what's going to become of them. I'm glad they were out of the house, but. . . ."
"I'm afraid we can't really worry about that any more, my dear," Arthur admitted. "I know at least Nan Sharpe will land on her feet. She's always been a survivor. And there's always a call for maids and kitchen staff. They'll be all right. What worries me more is–" He swallowed and turned to their guests. "You haven't seen our youngest running around, have you?"
"Alice, you mean? No, I can't say I have. . .little girl, dark brown hair, big green eyes?" Miss Winks asked her companions.
"In her nightgown and clutching a toy rabbit," Lorina added. "And likely followed by a black cat and two kittens – one black, one white."
"How old?" Mr. Prince asked, leaning forward. "Younger than five, they don't tend to stay around long – and I've never seen anyone under two years old."
"She's eight – but what do you mean, you've never seen anyone under two?" Lorina demanded. "Don't babies have the right to an afterlife as well?"
"Oh, I'm sure they do – they just don't end up in this one," Miss Winks hurried to reassure her, waving her hand. "The reason I compared this place to Purgatory is because we know there's something else waiting for us too. People don't stay here forever. Some look as though they have, but eventually everyone either goes Up–" she pointed at the ceiling, then turned her finger toward the floor. "–or Down."
Lizzie frowned at the scorched rug. "So there is a Heaven and Hell?"
"We suppose – none of us have seen it happen in person yet, but we've heard plenty of stories."
"Mmmmm – and going Up sounds a lot more pleasant," Mr. Prince said. "Tinkly music and flowers as opposed to being dragged away by some horrid beast."
"Well, some people deserve the latter," Arthur said, thinking of a bearded smirk and shiny glasses. "But that does explain the lack of young children – you don't have much of an opportunity to sin at only a few years old."
"So Alice could have moved on already," Lorina murmured, eyes on the ceiling.
"Your Alice? Oh no – from what I remember, she'd want to have a good look-round into every nook and cranny before she even thought of Heaven," Miss Winks giggled. "We'll keep an eye out, but if she's not with you, chances are she's still alive."
Arthur's heart leapt. "Thank God! So she probably got out the window after all!"
"Which means she's in hospital, poor dear," Lorina said, squeezing her hands together. "I hope they've let her keep her rabbit. She won't go anywhere without it."
"I don't see why they wouldn't. . .what about the cats?" Lizzie asked. "We haven't seen them either. Which I know doesn't mean much when it comes to cats, but. . . ."
"If they've passed on, they'll turn up – animals seem as welcome as people Downstairs," Mr. Trigger assured her. "My childhood puppy was leaping all over me before I'd been here five minutes."
"Really. . . ." Arthur made a mental note to visit his parents' place and see if poor little Puff the cat was still patrolling for mice in the yard. "And after I'd been told all my life animals didn't have souls."
"Quite glad to be proven wrong myself on that one," Mr. Prince nodded. "Life – or whatever you call it down here – wouldn't be the same without my trusty chestnut Charger. Though he lost the chestnut part long ago."
"Right. . .what is it you do here, then?" Lorina inquired. "I mean – do you just pick up where you left off?"
"If you like," Miss Gipe nodded. "It's what most of us do. I spend most of my time making quilts and embroidering samplers." She grinned and wiggled her bony digits. "It got a lot easier when I couldn't prick my fingers anymore."
"I make my own little paper," Mr. Prince said proudly. "Takes a while to copy out, but I've got nothing but time. I'll have to do a piece on your arrival – what happened, by the by?"
Lizzie arched an eyebrow. "It's not obvious?"
"Well, yes, of course there was a fire, but do you know the cause? Accident?" He leaned forward again, eye sockets seeming to glint. "Or murder?"
"The latter, sadly, and you needn't sound so happy about it," Arthur scolded, frowning. "One of my students – he broke in and threw Alice's nightlight into the fireplace in the library. Between that, my photography equipment, and the gas line. . . ."
"Goodness, were you that unfair a dean?" Miss Winks joked, then winced as Arthur nailed her with a glare. "I'm sorry – you get used to making light of death after a few years Below."
"Well, we've been here only a few hours, so if you could mind your manners, it would be appreciated," Arthur said coldly.
"There's something I've been wondering – we can see and hear and smell just fine, but feeling seems to elude us," Lorina said, turning the conversation before it could become too unpleasant. "I would think it has something to do with rot, but – well, Mr. Prince, you seem able to hear us just fine, at least."
"I can see you too," Mr. Prince confirmed. "Decay doesn't seem to affect seeing or hearing at all. Some people still use glasses or carry ear trumpets, but I don't know if they actually need them or if it's just habit."
"It's another one of those 'we don't know the why, but we do know the how' questions," Miss Winks admitted. "Sight and hearing are fine throughout your stay down here. Taste and smell – only the strongest of either affects your tongue and nose. You can eat, if you like, but you're only going to taste it if you let it – sit, for a while."
Lizzie screwed up her face. "I don't think I could ever eat rotted food."
"Suit yourself, you don't have to. . .but there is a certain pleasure in it," Miss Winks said, smiling. "And learning new recipes does help pass the time. I know more about cookery now than I ever did while I was alive." She coughed and turned serious again. "As for feeling – well, that one's more or less denied us. You can tell if someone squeezes your arm, but beyond that. . . ."
"You do usually get a final half-hour to properly feel things before it all goes numb," Miss Gipe put in, then eyed the blisters and burns splattered all over Lorina and Arthur's skin. "Though I would guess that doesn't quite apply in your case."
"We were probably unconscious for it anyway," Arthur admitted, flexing his toasted fingers. "It wasn't the fire so much as the smoke that got us in the end. By the time I woke up I was already feeling pretty leathery."
"Again, you'll get used to it with time," Miss Winks assured him. "I was a mess when I first came down here, but now. . .now it's almost just like home. I'm happy enough with the life I've made. I do wish I could see my father and brother again, but. . .that's magic beyond any we know." She swallowed, fiddling with a wrinkle in her skirt. "And – how's Ned?"
The Liddells exchanged an awkward look. "He's – he got married last July," Arthur reluctantly admitted. "Funnily enough, to another Catherine – hers is just spelt with a C."
To his surprise, Miss Winks smiled – a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. "Well, it's good to know he didn't mope around about me for four years. I wanted him to move on with his life. It's much too precious to waste in constant mourning."
"He does still have that lock of hair you gave him," Lizzie said softly. "On his watch fob in a little glass case. And I think he still goes and leaves flowers at your grave. He hasn't forgotten you."
Miss Winks ducked her head, misty-eyed. "I wish I could have said a proper goodbye. To him and my family. If that infection hadn't burned the sense right out of my head before it took my life. . . ." She sighed. "Maybe that's why I'm still down here. I don't want to leave before seeing them all again."
"I think we're all waiting for someone or something," Miss Gipe commented. "I wouldn't feel comfortable seeing Heaven without my sister and niece by my side."
"Waiting for my wife and son," Mr. Trigger nodded. "It wouldn't be Heaven without them."
"I'm just not ready to give up the search for that next big story," Mr. Prince confessed with a laugh. "I guess eventually I'll get bored, but so far, this world's plenty Heaven enough for me."
Arthur looked over at Lorina and Lizzie, then turned his gaze to the ceiling. "I think we know exactly what's going to keep us here," he said. "Until I get word that Alice really did make it out in one piece, I'm not going anywhere."
"I don't blame you," Miss Winks said. "Littlemore Infirmary is down here too, and – well, sadly, people regularly pop up there. We'll let you know if anyone comes in with any information about Alice." She smiled encouragingly. "She's a hardy little creature, from what I remember. She'll bounce back."
"I hope so," Lorina murmured. "It's going to be a hard life for her as an orphan. Do you think the Hargreaves might take her in? She – well, she sort of likes their son. . . ."
"When he's not being a little snot, you mean?" Lizzie inquired, tone deeply sarcastic. "I'm half-hoping they won't. Alice doesn't deserve to be stuck with someone who calls her names and teases her and won't let her have a moment's peace!"
Arthur started at the sheer venom in his daughter's voice – as did their guests. Lizzie noticed and caught hold of herself. "Sorry," she mumbled. "I just want the best for her. And it's not being t-trapped with some boy who has no sense and already tried to hit – I'm sorry, excuse me. . . ."
She got up and fled the room. Mr. Trigger watched her go, then looked over at Arthur. "That student of yours. . . ."
"Rejected suitor, yes – but I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention that in your paper," Arthur added to Mr. Prince. "It's a very sensitive subject with her."
"That's more obvious than the fire," Mr. Prince said with a serious nod. "I'll keep it vague. Arson will be more than enough for anyone down here." He tilted his head, and somehow the change in light made it look like his permanent grin was more of a smirk. "Once that edition goes out, you're probably going to be flooded with sympathy gifts."
"I – suppose that's nice. . . ." Lorina shook her head. "Oh, it's going to take me years to get used to all of this."
"You'll be fine," Miss Winks assured her, reaching across to pat her arm. "This Land is very nice once you get your head around it. You can do as you like, so long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. And, uh, doesn't involve having children. Unless you adopt, I guess. . . ."
"Let your imagination run wild," Mr. Prince counseled, pulling his head back to let his teeth catch the light. "You're already dead – what else could possibly happen to you?"
"That's a tempting fate question if I ever heard one," Arthur said, smiling back. "We'll think about it. Right now, I think we all need a bit of time to process it all. But thank you for coming in and telling us what you know."
"Our pleasure," Miss Winks said, standing and presenting her remaining arm. "And feel free to call on any of us if you need help."
"I'll be back with the No-Rot later," Mr. Trigger promised as Arthur shook hands with their leader.
"Very kind of you – and if you could show us a preliminary copy of your paper before you start distributing it, I'd appreciate that too," Arthur added as Mr. Prince stood.
"Of course," Mr. Prince nodded. He adjusted his tie. "And don't worry overmuch about your Alice. Children are pretty tough, in my experience. And if she does pass on, at least you'll be here to welcome her. Your whole family, together again."
Arthur thought of his miracle girl breathing her last in some cold hospital room, then waking up to her blue-faced father – or worse, a stranger with his or her flesh withering away – and shuddered. "Yes, well – do forgive me for saying that I hope my family remains split for a long, long time."
That put a definite end to the conversation. After a few last goodbyes, the coterie headed off again. Arthur took a moment to make sure they were safely on their way, then shut the front door and leaned against it. Well. . .now we've got some idea of what's going on. I think. At least we can be reasonably sure Alice is alive. . .but – at what cost? Lorina's right, it would be all too easy to break something leaping from her window. . .what if she escaped only to spend the rest of her life propped up in a wheelchair, needing someone to feed and bathe her? She'd probably be wishing for death then. . .but wouldn't it be worse to die so young? To be trapped in a child's body for – for however long it took to rot away? We nearly didn't even have her, and now she's the only one left. . .how could God possibly be so unfair?
A faint pressure on his shoulder alerted him to his wife's presence. "Are you all right?"
"My head's still in a whirl," Arthur confessed, staring at the wood. "Everything's changed so fast. . .it's hard to believe just a few hours ago we were having dinner together, planning out our summer trip to Brighton. . .and I was going to take Alice to Hyde Park and send her down the slide too. She's going to be so disappointed."
"I doubt she's going to be in any condition to play on slides for a while anyway," Lorina sighed. "We – we really should just be grateful for what we have. We're together, at any rate. The Good Lord didn't separate us. We have our house, and our things. And Miss Winks and her friends were so kind. . .better we know what's happened than not, right?" She swallowed. "And – one of us got out. We have to focus on that. Alice got a chance to escape. And our deaths. . .I – I guess they were fairly quick."
"Lorina, you know that's a damn lie," Arthur said, finally turning. "We choked on toxic smoke trying to save our daughters – one of which was already past saving. And do you think Bumby would let his 'tease' go quickly and quietly? No, he wanted to draw out as much suffering from us as possible. I can be grateful that Alice made it out, but there's nothing good about the way we perished. My only hope is that the lunatic spends the rest of his life locked up in a jail cell."
"Too good for him – I want him to meet the hangman as soon as possible," Lorina growled, clenching her fists.
"And have him down here? No thank you!"
Arthur and Lorina looked up to find Lizzie at the top of the stairs. "I'm with Father – let him wither slowly under Bow Street or the like," she continued venomously. "Far away from any other girl who might catch his eye."
"Hear hear," Arthur nodded, approaching the bottom step. "How are you, Lizzie?"
A little of the fire went out of her. "Still wanting that bath," she confessed, rubbing her arms. "I'm sorry for running out like that. I just – I couldn't stop myself picturing what happened to me – and having Mr. Prince and Mr. Trigger so close did not help," she added with a shudder. "Especially with how eager Mr. Prince was to hear our story. . .can you imagine what he'd do if he knew how I'd died?"
"We won't let his newsletter ruin your afterlife," Arthur promised. Oh, like you said you wouldn't let Bumby near her again? a voice said in the back of his head, but he ignored it. "I'm proud of you for staying as long as you did."
"So am I," Lorina said, pulling herself up over the hole in the second step. "Come on, let's see about that bath. If we're going to stay here, we may as well make sure the plumbing still works."
It did, though the water that gushed out of the tub's tap in their master bathroom was a disturbing shade of green. Lizzie didn't seem to mind though, holding her hand under the spray. "I can't even tell if it's hot or cold."
"It's the hot tap, so. . .do you want any help undressing?" Lorina asked.
Lizzie shook her head. "I can manage. I won't fall apart if I'm alone, Mother." One side of her mouth quirked up. "Figuratively or literally."
Arthur couldn't help a chuckle. "Well, just call us if you need anything," he said, taking his wife's hand and pulling her to her feet. He squeezed her fingers just to remind himself she was there. This numbness was distressing if you thought about it too much.
Lizzie nodded. "I will. I won't be long."
"Take all the time you need, dear." Lorina watched as their daughter shut the door behind them. "Oh Arthur," she whispered, leaning her head against his shoulder. "I can't – how long do you think it'll be before she's herself again? That monster took so much. . . ."
"It'll take some time," Arthur murmured. "But she's strong, and a fighter. She already made quite the effort with our guests today. She won't let him destroy her."
Lorina nodded, slipping her arm around him. "At least she has us," she said. "Although I wish that weren't the case." She winced. "Er, well – I think you know what I mean."
"I do," Arthur assured her, feeling another pang as he imagined the trips Lizzie would never go on, the husband she'd never have, the children she'd never raise. The grandchildren he'd never meet. "It shouldn't have ended like this for us. It shouldn't end like this for anyone."
"No, it shouldn't," Lorina agreed. "And hopefully it won't for Alice."
"Hopefully," Arthur nodded, his thoughts turning to his little girl lingering in a hospital bed, just barely clinging to life. "But she's a fighter too. She'll do her best to pull through. I just hope the world up there treats her right." He smiled sadly down at his wife. "And as for us down here. . .we'll make the best of things. Like you said – we've got each other. That'll have to be enough."
"Mmmmmm. . . ."
Lizzie let out a deep sigh as she slipped into the tub. God, it felt good to have a hot bath. Figuratively speaking, of course – according to her skin, she might as well have been sitting in an empty tub with her clothes still on. But she had her memories of soaking on long Sunday afternoons, letting all the grime and stress of the week wash away, and those were filling in the blanks of her senses quite nicely. Besides, she was almost grateful to be numb.
It meant she couldn't feel the bruises anymore.
She shuddered as she fingered the dark blue stripes stretching across her throat. She'd been trying her best not think about the last hour or so of her life, but it seemed the slightest hint could bring it all rushing back. The way Mr. Prince's skull had gleamed in the lamplight, so eerily like his glasses. . .the memory of Alice's fight with Reginald Hargreaves, so much like how she'd scratched at his flesh. . .and now the sight of her own naked legs before her, dragging her back to her darkened room, stirring from uneasy dreams to find him already on top of her. . . . "Well, if you want it this way, Elizabeth, I suppose I must oblige you. . .stop struggling, damn it! I'm trying to – ow! Lie still! . . .oh yes, oh yes, oh yesssssss. . .you wretched tease, you know you wanted it! I'll silence you for good if you don't stop fighting!" And she hadn't stopped, couldn't stop–
So he'd silenced her.
She couldn't feel the tears streaming down her cheeks, but she knew they were there. He'd broken into her home – her home. Home had always been her refuge, even if the monster had wrangled invitations to tea and cornered her once in the back garden. Because Papa was there and he always looked after her. When he'd told them so proudly of Bumby's visit and how he'd given the bounder a piece of his mind, she'd been thrilled. Oh, she hadn't really believed it would discourage Bumby for long, but she'd hoped for maybe a week's worth of peace while the bastard licked his wounds. Instead she'd gotten pain and degradation, and a last memory of a scowling face above her and clammy hands locked around her neck. And it hadn't been enough for him to kill her – oh no, the rest of the Liddells had to go too. . .when she'd seen her mother and father at the door, more cinders than flesh, the guilt had been almost more than she could bear. If only she'd woken earlier, if only she'd fought harder, if only she'd screamed louder. . . .
Her only consolation was that Alice had somehow escaped in time. And that was poor comfort indeed. It was only too likely that she'd join them down here soon enough. And even if she didn't, what kind of life now awaited the last Liddell outside the infirmary doors? Their grandparents had already passed on, and Mama and Papa were completely lacking in siblings. Would she be shunted off into some orphanage like the kind Dickens wrote about? Or maybe thrown into early service for some cruel old crone? She pictured her baby sister, with the big green eyes and bright smile and boundless imagination, sipping thin gruel from a bowl and scrubbing floors, her spirit crushed and broken. And even if by some miracle she was adopted by a nice family, there was still the little matter of her growing up surrounded by strangers after seeing everything and everyone she loved most burn. . . .
It was too much. It was all too, too much. Lizzie plunged her head under the water, desperate to get away from the world for a while. She held her breath on automatic, then realized she was being silly and let the air go, watching the bubbles float up to the surface and pop. No burning in her lungs, no coldness in her limbs. . .she could stay down here as long as she liked. Good.
She curled up into a little ball on the bottom of the tub, pressing her forehead against her knees. The worst part of all this was, now she was expected to just go on like nothing had happened! What sort of mad afterlife was this, where you simply went on with the business of living even as you decayed into walking bone? She'd been expecting – brilliant light, a golden gate, fluffy clouds with cherubs. She would have even taken the fiery pits of Hell – at least she knew where she stood then! But no, for her crimes against smarmy, forward, disgusting undergraduates, she was trapped in a world so much like the one she'd left that it made her want to scream. How could she put up with the same dull routines and social idiocy she'd endured while alive? How could she live in this house, eat her meals, drink her tea, and not constantly wonder if – if above he'd be caught, and then – she wanted him to suffer, she wanted justice, but if it came with his presence down here, to haunt her for eternity –
What if more people came calling, wanting to welcome the "new arrivals?" What if her parents made friends – male friends? She twitched as she thought of Mr. Trigger and Mr. Prince. They'd been nothing but pleasant during their visit, but who knew what they were capable of behind closed doors? What sort of depravities could they visit on her if they decided to –
The skeleton is going to visit horrors unknown upon you, Lizzie, she scolded herself. And judging by the state of his face, Mr. Trigger's – trigger dropped off long ago. You are acting like the protagonist of a Gothic novel. Next thing you know, you'll be running around in diaphanous nightgowns and using words like "verily."
There's other men who aren't so rotted, though. And they more or less said that the utter bastards come down here as well as the good, judging by that "no outside punishment of misdeeds" comment. Mr. Prince was practically leering when he asked if you'd been murdered. . .maybe I could just spend the rest of my afterlife in my room. Lock the door for once and just – read.
That's letting him win, and you know it. They are not all out to get you. And if someone is, well, you know how to handle them now. Besides, you really want to spend the rest of your afterlife in the bed he took you in? She shook her head, disgusted at her cowardice. Mama and Papa will do their best, but – if you're going to get anywhere in this life or the next, you'd best learn how to let go. The worst has happened. It can only be uphill from here.
Her internal voice was confident, but the rest of Lizzie wasn't. The memory of her violation was simply too fresh. She ran her fingers over her belly and thighs, both splotched with dark blue-purple, and shivered. If only she could let go of him forcing himself onto her, into her. . . . The one good thing about being dead – at least I know for sure I can't get pregnant with the bastard's child.
She had no idea how long she stayed down there, letting the water shield her from the rest of the world. Time was impossible to track when you had neither breath nor heartbeat to separate the seconds. Eventually, though, she managed to uncurl herself and poke her head back up above the surface. Appealing as the idea was, she couldn't stay in the bath forever. Her parents would worry, for a start, and she'd already caused them enough pain. Better to put on a brave face and make the best of things. Besides, wrinkling is the least of my worries now if I stay in the tub too long, she thought, anxiously examining her skin. Sloughing off sounds much more likely. Maybe it would be better though. . .maybe if I weren't so pretty. . .stop it! For God's sake, you're a corpse! Who would want you now?
"Hello, new arrival!"
Lizzie screamed, slamming herself against the side of the tub. What the – who was that?! She whipped her head in almost a full circle as she searched high and low for the intruder, covering herself as best she could with her arms. How could they have gotten in, especially without my noticing?! Then again, I thought my room was perfectly safe too. . . .
"Lizzie?" Her father's voice thundered through the door, worried with an undercurrent of anger. "Lizzie, are you all right?"
"I – I–" Her eyes fell on a large green worm inching along the tub's rim. Ugh, just what she needed, creepy-crawlies on top of everything else. "I t-thought I heard someone–"
"Yes, and no need to shriek like that," the worm said, lifting its head to reveal big black eyes and a pair of plump purple lips. "I was only saying hello."
Lizzie gaped. Had – had that just – had the worm actually – "Lizzie?" her father repeated, tone more anxious by the second.
"The worms down here talk," she reported, unable to take her eyes off the creature. It stared back at her, wrapping its tail around itself so it could "sit" properly. Jane and Carol would have killed to have such a full pout. . . . "You think Miss Winks would have mentioned that before leaving."
"She ought to have, yes," the worm agreed. "Whoever she is. Anyway, I was rather hoping to get a nibble."
Realization hit, and with it a wave of nausea. "Oh," Lizzie groaned, shivering. "You're not a worm. You're a maggot. It's all right, Papa," she added, glancing toward the door. "I can deal with this."
"It's only a maggot. One smack with the scrub brush should put paid to it." Keeping one arm across her chest – those eyes were too human for her to risk uncovering herself – she began feeling around the edge of the tub. Come on, Mother always leaves it in the same spot. . . .
"Here now, there's no call for that!" the maggot protested, squirming away. "Not like I can hurt you, miss!"
"You just asked if you could eat me!" Lizzie pointed out, locating the brush. She swung it roughly in the maggot's direction like an old bristly sword. "Not to mention you're bothering me while I'm in the tub!"
"A lot of us don't ask!" the maggot replied, ducking as the tip of the brush sailed over his head. "They just burrow in, figuring no one will notice. I figure manners is a better way not to get yanked out and flung away or crushed later on. Or ejected by that No-Rot Potion," he added, pulling a face. "Not a fun way to leave a nice cozy hunk of flesh."
"Says you," Lizzie said, scowling. "This is my body. I'd like to keep it in one piece, if you don't mind. And I don't want anything entering me without my permission." Ever, ever again.
"It's going to come apart anyway," the maggot told her, inching a bit closer. Lizzie swiped at him again with the brush. "Easy! Look, even those potions don't work forever. You're going to have bits of yourself fall off no matter what you do. You might as well let someone put them to good use."
"Yes, I'm sure the Land of the Living will deeply appreciate me helping to make new flies," Lizzie said, pouring on as much sarcasm as possible. "How do you talk, anyway?"
The maggot oscillated its body in a way that suggested a shrug. "Haven't the slightest. I think it's got something to do with you lot being dead – certainly can't talk to living people. Never paid it much mind. All I'm interested in is a quick taste of your flesh."
"Why me?" Lizzie demanded. "And keep your eyes above the neck!"
"Because you're fresh! Fresh dead always tastes better," the maggot said, far too cheerfully for Lizzie's liking. "And you don't look as – crunchy – as the people downstairs."
"Those are my parents, and you will treat them with respect," Lizzie snapped, smacking the side of the tub for emphasis. "They died trying to help me and my sister escape a house fire. It's not their fault they're 'crunchy,' as you put it."
"Sheesh, you lot are always so sensitive about how you kicked the bucket," the maggot complained. "What happened to you, then? You don't look burnt."
"That's none of your–" Lizzie started, then reconsidered. Mr. Prince was writing an article about their arrival – it was certain that people would notice the difference between her state and her poor mother and father's. And then. . .oh, she didn't want anyone to know her shame beyond Mama and Papa, but she had to be ready with something. . . . "Strangled beforehand," she admitted, stirring the water with a finger. "Killed for – for refusing the attentions of a suitor." Something dripped into the water beneath her, and she reached up to wipe away the fresh tears. "Then he threw my sister's nightlight into the library to burn the house down and cover up the crime. We think my sister may have gotten out, but. . . ."
"Oooh. . .I'm sorry," the maggot said, and he actually sounded as if he meant it. "Does sound like a bad way to go."
"It was," Lizzie said, stomach twisted in a heavy knot. "God, if I could only–"
She stopped. Slowly, her other hand creeped up and touched the dark stripes on her throat again. Then she dropped her brush and extended a finger to the maggot. "You know what? Maybe we can come to a temporary agreement."
"Knew you'd see sense," the maggot said, grinning as he squirmed on.
"Temporary," Lizzie repeated, not wanting the creature to get the wrong idea. "And only certain bits, mind. I want to keep looking like me for as long as possible."
"Fair enough." He wrapped himself around her finger and looked at her upside-down. "Where do you want me then?"
"You can start here," Lizzie said, putting him on her shoulder and tapping the side of her neck. "Darker blue bits first, please. And then we'll talk about – other areas."
"All right then." The maggot pressed itself up against the bruise and started nibbling. Lizzie pulled the plug on the tub and watched the water drain away, sitting as still as possible so he could get on with things. She still wanted to get some of that No-Rot Potion in her as soon as possible. Even blue, battered, and slowly decaying, she liked her body and wanted to keep it. And the idea of something chewing on her still gave her the creeps.
But not as much as the idea of that bastard's marks marring her flesh for most of eternity.