Ned likes post cards.
They are three weeks down the road. Between all the gas stations, Big Hurley diners, and the po’dunk motels, Ned has managed to collect a thick stack of glossy covered cards from the surrounding states.
Yee-haw from Texas! Land of Steak, Sweet Tea, and Armadillo Wrasslin’!
Ooooooooklahoma! Come for the lumber, stay for the moonshine!
Lovin’ the Extraterrestrial in all of us! Enjoying New Mexico!
Greetings from the Rockies, having a high old time!
There are too many exclamation points for Persephone’s liking. Most of those states don’t warrant that kind of excitement.
“You like the pictures or something?” Persephone asks. They are sipping coffee and settling the remnants of Joe Kerry Lawson at a truck stop picnic table. Gum is smeared on the corner of the rickety thing next to ‘Nikky + Bobby Jr’ carved in a half finished heart on the top.
“Yeah,” Ned shrugs.
“You never write anything on them.”
“Who the hell am I gonna write?” He glances up, red-tinged eyes half visible under that ridiculous mop of hair. It was long enough when he was alive, but he hasn’t bothered to cut it since, so it’s gotten longer after every meal. Persephone should offer to braid it for him.
“Mom and Daddy. Cousin Sarah. You can tell them all about your dead-life adventures. Ooh, you could tell them about Lubbock. You and alcohol, man, that was some funny shit.”
She left it up to Ned to figure out why going after drunks was not a good idea, especially frat boys after Sunday night football. Turns out Ned himself is quite a happy drunk. And handsy. And prone to eat more than he can actually hold. The hangover was hilarious, and some poor bastard is probably still cleaning gut chunks out of the carpet.
Ned rolls his eyes and goes back to thumbing through the stack. He keeps them in some kind of order, one that she hasn’t deciphered, and just looks at them.
Well, everyone needs a hobby, she supposes.
“Where to next?” Ned asks after a while.
Persephone squints at the sun riding high over the tilted Exxon sign.
“Ever been to Louisiana?”
Ned pauses and then shrugs. It doesn’t matter much to him, so long as they stop places where he can get more postcards. Though a good portion of Ned’s resentment and anger over the whole being undead thing passed after their first hunt, it still bubbles up over their connection like pus from an infected wound sometimes. He hasn’t tried to kill her again, Ned’s smart like that, but the little cogs in his head are turning all the time.
He’s thinking and planning. Biding his time. Persephone laughs and laughs inside her head.
They are so alike in some ways. Ned would have an aneurysm if he knew.
“Gotta take a leak,” Ned says after he finishes his coffee. He looks to her, waits for her nod, before he takes their trash and throws it in the bin.
When he comes back out, Persephone is in the car with the windows rolled down and some weird French pop music streaming in from the satellite radio.
She flicks a post card into Ned’s lap. He picks it up. A stupid bulldog is grinning and slobbering on the front, The Road Trip Ain’t So Ruff below it in big blocky letters.
“Something actually funny for the collection,” she says.
Ned glances back up at her, face unreadable, but the connection floods with rapid fire mixed emotions.
Persephone smiles and puts her sunglasses on. She pulls out onto the highway and glances at the rearview mirror.
Six miles behind her, a red Toyota barrels towards them.
“Go on and get something from that pizza place down the block,” Persephone says when they get a motel room.
Ned raises a fuzzy eyebrow.
“You want me to go get pizza?”
“There’s some q-tips in my bag if you’re having trouble hearing.”
“You don’t let me out of your sight ninety-percent of the time.”
“Well, guess who’s graduating to his big boy pants today?”
Persephone tosses a crumpled twenty on the bed spread and grabs her bag of pilfered clothing and toiletries.
“Whatever you get, make sure my side has pineapple.”
Ned pulls a disgusted face and snatches the money.
“You’re up to something,” he says, watching her from under his bangs. “There’s nothing to stop me from running off now.”
“‘Course not. You know how to hunt, how to eat proper, even how to clean up after yourself. I can always find you if you go, but you’re right, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from leaving.”
Ned has taken to his new state with a brutal grace that ignites a fire in her chest. It’s a feeling she feels herself when she takes down someone who gives her a fighting chase, when she has to let loose all her trappings and full out run as she was cursed to do, when she gives up everything for the moment in the hunt.
Seeing it before her, in someone she helped create, it’s heady and exhilarating.
“Then why give me the chance?”
“You like having a puzzle. Think on it a while, see what comes to you.”
She throws him a wink and disappears into the bathroom.
A few moments later the motel door closes and the car starts. He doesn’t peel out of the parking lot. Their connection stretches as Ned drives down the road and stops at the pizza place.
Well, isn’t that something.
Persephone comes out of the bathroom. She’s not surprised in the least to see the Hunter sitting in the chair by the window.
“Hey, cousin. How was the dirt nap?”
The Hunter rises from the seat. Her hands are empty, but her pistol sits on the tabletop, close.
“Not long enough.”
“Well, I guess we only have your magnificent foresight to blame for that.”
“Don’t worry,” the Hunter says. Her lips are a plump downturned frown, a red slash against her freckle dusted skin. “I learned from my mistake.”
Persephone tilts her head to the side, challenging.
The Hunter smiles now. She parts her lips and lets out a low whistle.
Flapping wings sound close to Persephone’s head. She turns, that damn sparrow skeleton comes at her face and bursts a small baggie of powder, poof. Persephone gets it in her nose, her mouth. The room tilts and she falls.
Everything goes black.
Before she knew better, before she was cursed, the girl who would become dead and Persephone used to dream about turning into a bird and flying away. Nan would tell her stories about magic and talking beasts, but they were no fairy tales. Not Disney ones, anyway; Nan told her the dark stories, the stories about girls with dirt under their nails who put poison in goblets, cut out the hearts of those that posed a threat to them, and became dragons to fend off their enemies.
“We live in a fucked up place,” Nan always said. “Little girls need knives in their hands or else the world thinks it can bend them over whichever way it wants to.”
Nan was…different, that’s for sure, but she never lied. Eventually, Persephone would fall back on those stories and they would help her survive the curse, and then thrive. Before that she wanted them to be false, and she hoped with all the strength of her tiny, still beating heart, that God would turn her into a bird so she could fly away somewhere nice, somewhere safe, anywhere but there.
God was not listening, obviously, and for all her stories, Nan could not prepare Persephone for the betrayal that eventually happened.
It always comes from where you least expect it, that knife that slides across your throat.
Still, after all was said and done, Persephone has to admit, Nan’s stories kept her alive, technically. Every story had the same advice.
Do anything you have to do to stay alive and never apologize.
Dignity and morals have no place in the real world.
Persephone wakes up as the hunter drags her out of the back of the truck. She is hogtied, and grunts as she hits dirt and rolls, wind knocked out of her lungs. She is in the middle of an open field where the rampant buffalo grass reaches towards a darkening sky. She twists her hands, but the rope digs deep.
The hunter pulls a shovel out of the truck bed and leans it against the truck. Looks like the grave will be under open sky this time. Undoubtedly deeper, too.
A flutter catches Persephone’s attention. The skeleton sparrow hops across the dirt, empty eyeholes boring into her. It flaps it’s bones and hop-scrambles up her body, tiny bone claws digging into her skin and clothing, until it is right above her.
It settles on her stomach and the spell keeping it together seeps into Persephone, a steady leak of heaviness that pins her to the ground.
The skeleton sparrow stabs its beak into her flesh.
Peck. Peck. Peck.
White turns red.
The Hunter hauls out a witches bag laden so thick with magic it clogs Persephone’s senses for a moment. Then she kneels by Persephone and out comes hex jars one by one. The Hunter lines them up next to Persephone and then produces a wicked sharp knife with a handle made from carved human thigh bone.
The Hunter nudges the bird away with a gentle hand, then slides the knife under the hem of Persephone’s shirt. The cloth parts for the blade with a faint ripping sound. Persephone shivers. Goose bumps ripple over her skin.
“I never did understand your reasoning behind all this.”
Persephone bites the inside of her cheek. The Hunter sticks the knife in the small hole from the bone sparrow. Her flesh parts just as easy as the cloth did. Fire ignites through her nerves and muscles.
“I never did anything to you. Never b-beat on you, never stole your damn barbies. What was it then? What was my unforgivable sin that justified my curse?”
The Hunter gets a slippery grip on Persephone’s intestine and gives a vicious tug. Persephone clamps her teeth around a cut off scream with the snap of a bear trap.
“Must’a been something bad.”
Persephone groans. Her intestines come out with a slick sounding pop. The hunter shoves her gut into one of the glass jars.
“You brought this on yourself,” the Hunter says.
“You cursed me first, so enlighten me.”
The Hunter presses her bright red lips together. Persephone watches through half lidded eyes. Blood coats the Hunter from finger to elbow. It’s stark against the yellow grass. Would almost be pretty, if it weren’t Persephone’s blood.
The Hunter sighs deeply out of her nose. Narrows eyes. Purses lips.
“You used to be such a nice kid,” Persephone murmurs. “Always the favorite.”
Persephone yelps as a fist closes around her kidney and squeezes.
“I was never the favorite,” the Hunter hisses. “It was always you, all about you. Nan and Uncle James, the neighbors, the teachers, Caleb-“ the Hunter cuts herself off, lets go of the kidney.
Persephone chokes on a laugh of barbed wire.
“Caleb, of course. Should have known this was all over him.”
The Hunter scowls.
“You don’t know anything.”
“You cursed me because I slept with the boy you liked. I am so disappointed, you have no idea. Holy hell, I was cursed over your fucking crush.”
“You stole him from me, just like you stole everyone else. That’s all you were good at.”
The Hunter picks up the blade again. Bits of dirt and grass are stuck in the tacky blood. The Hunter uses it to split the skin upward to her ribs. Persephone growls low and guttural. Her vision goes white and pain, God the pain, it’s coming undone by the threads and foundations all over again.
When she comes back to the present, the Hunter has added her kidneys to a new jar and is wrist deep getting at her liver.
“You think- you think everyone loved me.” Persephone hacks up blood. It stains teeth and tongue. She rolls the thick copper around and swallows it back. “So blind. I was the favorite example. I had such…spirit, they said. Worst thing a girl could have. Caleb liked that, though.”
The Hunter removes her liver. Snick.
“You weren’t missing much, though. Tiny dick, no idea how to use it. Didn’t last two minutes.”
“None of this would have happened if you had just been better, then I wouldn’t-“
The Hunter’s hands still. Persephone lifts her head.
“Wouldn’t what? Turned me into a monster like in Nan’s stories? That’s on you, little girl. You and your jealousy over a small dicked farm boy. Your sins outweigh mine by miles.”
Persephone lets her lead drop to the ground. The stars are out now, tiny pinpricks of white against the darkening blue.
The Hunter says nothing for the longest time. Persephone’s world shrinks down to the slice and pull of the blade, the warmth seeping out of her and into the ground, the steady draining of life she has taken such care to procure. Persephone closes her eyes and clamps her teeth around the whimper crawling over her tongue.
“You drove me to this,” the Hunter says, finally. The conviction wavers.
“No,” Persephone gasps. “You did yourself.”
Persephone opens her eyes. It takes a moment for her eyes to focus. The truck’s headlights illuminate the Hunter and shadow her face. A dark form stands behind the Hunter.
Persephone’s mouth stretches wide from side to side, all bloody teeth with red dripping down her chin.
“You should know something,” Persephone says. “I got smart. You know what makes the wolf better than the shepherd?”
The Hunter tilts her head to the side.
Ned swings the shovel and it connects, crack, with the back of the Hunter’s skull. The Hunter slumps over to the side, head lolling next to the full jars. The bone sparrow runs at Ned. He lifts a heavy boot and brings it down. The tiny bones splinter.
Ned stares down at Persephone, shovel in hand. He’s backlit by the truck, but she can still see his eyes, wide red and blazing.
“Hey,” she says.
“Hey,” he answers.
Persephone next wakes up in the car. She blinks slow. The car zips past blurry corn fields and the morning sun spills over the horizon like a dirty egg on concrete. She runs her fingers across her belly. Duct tape stretches over the skin, wrapped around her tight. Her organs are back in place, sort of. They slosh around inside, not attached, but there.
“How long was I out?”
Ned glances over. He sits sprawled in the seat, one elbow resting on his knee, two fingers on the steering wheel. The other hand dangles out the open window.
“Couple hours,” he says.
“I’m still alive.”
She wants to sit up, but the effort it would take is greater than her energy, so she stays where she is.
“Couldn’t kill the bitch. Tried to eat her, but it hurt too much.”
“Yeah, that happens with her.”
“Who the hell is she?”
“My cousin, once upon a time and a very bad fairy tale ago. Pissed her off, apparently. She’s to thank for the whole cursed bit.”
Ned gives a nod.
“Can we kill her?”
“Don’t know. Haven’t succeeded yet, myself.”
“Guess it’s a good thing there’s two of us now.”
“Guess so. She wasn’t expecting that.”
Ned actually smiles. It’s a nasty and sharp in the low light.
Persephone manages to tilt her head his way and studies his profile.
“What made you come for me?”
Ned shifts in his seat, doesn’t look at her. The connection is murky now, still buried beneath the pain of having her guts ripped out and played with, but it’s there. Low level thrumming, kind of like a pleasant hum.
“I felt like I was dying back at the diner. It pissed me off.”
“You still thinking to kill me yourself?”
“I have dibs.”
Persephone can’t laugh yet. She settles for a grin.
A strangled yell comes from the trunk, followed by a series of thumps.
“Figured we could experiment,” Ned says. “See what it takes to kill that woman. Picked up some dinner, too,” he says, eyes never leaving the road. “Thought you’d probably need something after all this.”
“Careful there, tiger. A girl might think you actually care.”
Ned snorts and rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t outright deny it.
How about that?
Aaaaand that concludes the Dead Girl mini series. I am working on the novella continuation as we speak. Thank you to everyone who stuck with Persephone and Ned and encouraged me to keep writing them. 😀 Their adventures have only just begun, so stay tuned for updates.