I'm sitting on a hard, wooden bench in a long, lonely corridor, waiting, but I don't know for what.
The cinderblock walls are painted white and there's nothing to look at, no artwork or bulletin boards or even graffiti, just unrelieved rectangles. The hallway stretches off into the distance, without doors or windows, just light bulbs in little cages clinging to the acoustic tile ceiling. It could be a very big building, or it could be underground, for all I know.
Is this a dream, isn't it?
I feel like I should do something, but I can't seem to move. Is this place a waiting room? tunnel? bunker? Bunkers are what they have in wartime, and we're at war, Heaven and Hell are rumbling. The Apocalypse is coming.
Memory kicks in then. No, this isn't a dream. I'm dead, and what's more-
"Mama!" I holler, sitting up straight. "Mama, can you hear me? Where are you?" There's no answer.
She sacrificed herself, I remember now. Because the Hellhounds got me in that town where Death was rising, and we'd set a trap...guilt washes over me and I squinch my eyes shut so I won't start to snivel. Harvelles don't snivel.
When I open my eyes, the walls have changed. They aren't cinderblock any more, and they aren't plain. They're painted with Egyptian-looking designs-I've watched my share of Discovery Channel shows about mummies and pharaohs and all that, so I recognize the style of them—and they're bright with color and touches of gold. There are flaming torches on the walls, and the visibility is down to ten yards or so.
I'm naked, not even wearing one of those backless hospital thingies, not a femme fatale in any sense of the word except dead. On the positive side, I'm not torn up, either, none of those pesky Hellhound bite-marks….
This isn't a dream. This is some kind of weird-ass afterlife I've conjured up from watching so many documentaries and those 'Mummy' movies too many times. I halfway expect Brendan Frazier to pop through a trapdoor. As afterlives go, that would definitely prove it's Heaven.
In the blink of an eye, the wall is no longer solid. It ripples like the curtains in Cleopatra's boudoir, hieroglyphs swaying with faint movement. I'm not sure I want to know what's on the other side, but I'm not about to sit on my ass for eternity, either. That's not my style.
Gripping the bench, I'm trying to nerve myself up to stand up when I hear a suggestion of sound.
A hand that isn't really a hand parts the draperies and in steps...something. It's at least seven feet tall, and looks like a big black dog walking upright. It has a long, wedge-shaped muzzle, and for a moment, all I can think is, "King of the Hellhounds". But that's not right, I realize, staring at it.
Egyptian, dead, not a dog, a jackal... "Anubis?" I say doubtfully, and he smiles with a great many teeth.
"Yes. Very good, child, I am he." His voice is deep, like Darth Vader, and his tone is more than a little patronizing.
Part of me wants to say that I'm not a child, but to a zillion-year-old Egyptian god, uh, yeah.
"You are," he confirms, tone solemn, but I hear it as "Duh! Of course!".
"Is my mama dead, too?" If she is, it's because of me. I don't want her to be dead. "Is she here?"
"I have no knowledge of that. If so, she is not here."
"How can I find out?"
"You must understand, in the normal course of events, you would have been plucked by a reaper. They are the dominant claimers of mortal souls in this time and place. However, because of the upheavals going on in the Christian pantheon, we were able to collect you."
It sounds to me like all those reapers in Carthage were there for Death's big entrance, and Mama and I slipped through the cracks. Wherever she is, I hope she's happy.
"What happens now?"
"You will be judged." Whatever that means….
I shiver, and it isn't because it's cold in this place. Or even because I'm naked-I mean, I don't think I've done anything really terrible in my life to be sent to Hell for, and me hunting has helped people, but I've back-talked Mama and run off on her and there were the times….
The curtain parts again, and we're joined by another god. It's a safe guess; he's as tall as Anubis is, and his head is some kind of bird. Not any bird I recognize. I know the god Horus is a falcon, but those look similar to a hawk or an eagle, and this guy has a regular Cyrano of a beak.
I'm trying frantically to come up with his name, I don't want to offend him, at least I'm pretty sure it's a "him", he's so tall, taller than Sam, I wonder if they stopped Lucifer, or did they get reaped, too, and who is this guy?
"This is my colleague, Thoth." introduces Anubis. I should feel self-conscious, standing here with two very strange men in loincloths and me without a stitch of clothing on, but I'm more worried about this judgment business.
"Or you may address us as Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel," says Thoth politely. He sounds birdlike, like five hundred pigeons cooing in unison. Behind him, the curtain is no longer a curtain. It's a wall again, painted with intricate murals and neat cartouches.
Egyptian afterlife…I think there's a boat involved, although I might be confusing that with the river Styx. And An-Mr. Jacquel-said I'd be judged. Mr. Ibis is tinkering with the kind of scales that are usually shown for my zodiac sign, Libra.
"Excuse me," murmurs Mr. Ibis, and reaching out, his hand seems to enter my chest. I'm too surprised to move, then, with a little pop! it comes away holding my writhing, pinkish-red heart. It squirms a bit in his downy hands.
He sets the heart on the scale, and detaches a feather from his belt. I remember now-they weigh the heart against the feather, and if the heart is heavier, that's bad. Something eats it.
It's a very elegant feather, mind you. It's about two feet long and pale as mist. By contrast, there's nothing elegant about my heart, which is very solid and messy-looking.
There's so much I feel guilty about, lies and petty grudges and carelessness. I'm sorry for bad manners and hanging up on telemarketers and swearing at other drivers and flipping them off and driving like I was trying to qualify for Daytona. I copied Kelly Johnson's homework all the way through 10th grade chemistry, I took money from the register at the Roadhouse because I worked hard and Mama never would pay me for my time, and I hustled pool and rolled a drunk or two who'd had gotten grabby, and I should have slept with Dean, damn it, but how'd I know it really was my last night on Earth?
"Oh my," says Mr. Ibis, regarding the scales.
"That figures," Mr. Jacquel says with a curl of his lip.
I look from them to the scale. It's just hanging there. The heart hasn't made it drop like a rock, which is a relief, but the feather isn't weighing it down, either. Does that mean I'm going to be stuck here forever? Because that's about five minutes away from getting really old.
"The scales balance," Mr. Ibis informs me. "You may choose."
"Choose what?" I ask dubiously.
"Your afterlife," growls Mr. Jacquel. "Choose, or we can choose for you."
He sounds like he means business, and I'm flustered enough that I don't think about it, just say what comes to mind, which is, "I want to go back."
"Go back?" echoes Mr. Ibis, like a parrot. Probably not a suitably reverent comparison. I hope he can't read minds.
"Excuse us." Jacquel drags Ibis out through the curtain, which only remains a curtain for as long as it takes for them to exit, so I can't listen to what they're saying.
Do I really not have a heart any more? I wonder. I attempt to take my own pulse, but I'm not that good at that at the best of times.
What was I thinking, to say I'd go back? I could go find Mama and Daddy, follow the Yellow Brick Road, find out if Rock and Rock Heaven really does have a hell of a band, not go back out there with Lucifer and Death and Hellhounds….
"It's your choice," Mr. Ibis tells me as he reenters. There's no sign of the scales; this time he's carrying a small tray. On it are a small beige square, a shot-glass full of what looks like red wine, and a brown bottle moist with condensation.
"But!" Mr. Jacquel says sternly, "only because of the extraordinary circumstances. End Times, and all that, I would have voted to feed your soul to Ammet-he's always hungry these days-but Mr. Ibis pointed out that as someone who's been active in the struggle to regain order, you might actually be of more use to us alive than dead."
"Thank you," I say to Mr. Ibis.
"There is one slight formality," he says apologetically. "First, you must eat every crumb of this." He hands me a wafer from the tray.
The thin square is about the size of a soda cracker, but thinner. I open my mouth wide and pop the whole thing in. It's dry and as my teeth crunch down on it, my mouth is filled with the dust of old, dry bones, Grit and sand settles against my gums and makes me choke. I clamp my lips shut with determination; every crumb counts. My jaws work but my throat doesn't want to swallow.
Eating Thanksgiving dinner wouldn't take as long as chewing and swallowing this damn cracker. Hell, cooking Thanksgiving dinner wouldn't take this long.
When I finally manage to gag down the last bit, after I've run my tongue around my teeth to make sure I haven't missed any, I look up at Mr. Ibis. He hands me the shot-glass of ruby red liquid.
If the cracker was bones, I don't even want to think about what this stuff is.
I upend it fast, like Mama taught me. It's way worse than tequila.
The red substance tastes like copper as I imagined it would, but the texture is what's really nasty, It's like pennies liquefied into glue, I cover my mouth with my hand to keep it in, but it's horrid, especially on top of that emery board of a cracker.
"Next," I say resolutely when my mouth is clear again.
I sniff warily at the bottle he hands me. It smells like beer, that's one aroma I do know, but when I tilt it up and take a sip, well, it's the best freaking beer I've ever tasted, and I've been sneaking beers since I was a bitty little child. I've sampled an assortment of beers, because Mama tried to stock variety at the Roadhouse. We got hunters from all over, and our route guy was obliging about bringing us a case of this and a case of that. I am a beer connoisseur.
And this-is the nectar of the gods. It's liquid sunshine, sweet and mellow. It gets the revolting taste of blood and bones out of my mouth, and somewhere in the middle of that lovely, cold bottle, the knot of tension at the back of my neck dissolves. The buzz feels good.
I have no trouble chugging the brew; when the bottom of the bottle is angled toward the ceiling and I've gulped the last of it, I lick the neck to make sure I've gotten every possible drop.
"Oh, all right," says Mr. Jacquel with a sigh. He's resigned himself to not feeding my soul to the Ammet, whatever that is.
"This way, Miss," Mr. Ibis invites me, holding back the curtain. On the far side of it, the real world seems to come into focus; my companions are no longer hybrid creatures, they're two gentlemen of color, faces lined and silver-grey threads in their hair, wearing neat, dark suits
We're in a basement, from the looks of it. There's a furnace, shelves holding things like cans of paint and brown cardboard boxes, and over in one corner, something I've only seen in old movies: A washing machine with a wringer on the top. I glance toward the place where we emerged, and it's a plain cinderblock wall.
Mr. Jacquel ignores me. If life were a movie, they would've cast Samuel L Jackson as him-he's got that kind of presence-though he's at least as old as Bobby Singer. Without a word, he strides across the basement and climbs a flight of wooden stairs without effort.
It's all so prosaic that now I feel naked. "Um," I say looking at Mr. Ibis and blushing, "Could I get a shirt or something to wear? Please?"
A clothesline has been stretched from one side of the room to the other. Mr. Ibis goes to this and selects a crisp white lab coat-there are several hanging there-and offers it to me. Yes, he's still very tall and extremely slender. His skin is the color of cassette tape, and he wears little gold-rimmed glasses perched on his generous nose.
Beggars can't be choosers, as Mama…used to say. Not says. Mama's gone, and I've passed on my chance to see her again, maybe forever. I reflect on that as I button up the coat, which is a little too long. It probably looks like a cross between a summer shirtdress and Nerdy Nurse.
"I hope you won't be offended by my colleague," Mr. Ibis murmurs. He still sounds like a chorus of pigeons. "He finds it difficult to surrender souls; we get so few these days. Also, Mr. Jacquel has been upset by the news of late. If something isn't done quickly, our lives are all forfeit, man and god alike. That's why I was moved to grant your request: Either you'll be helpful and save us all, in which case you'll have earned your reprieve, or we'll all be dead in a matter of weeks or months and one soul more or less won't really matter."
"I'll do everything I can," I promise. "Do I really not have a heart any more?"
"Think of it as a metaphorical heart, my dear. It's a stubborn creature, still very much anchored to life. I suspect that's why it balanced the scale. Unfinished business can trump death."
That's not news to any hunter, I think, but keep it to myself.
We ascend the wobbly wooden steps. I don't feel like Persephone emerging from the Underworld, I think as we enter a kitchen where everything is as old as the washer downstairs. More like Alice pulling herself out of the Rabbit Hole.
When I leave a little while later, I'm wearing some grubby canvas Keds with my Nerdy Nurse "dress" and carrying a plastic grocery bag with food and water and a map, showing the route from the Ibis and Jacquel Funeral Home in Mississippi to Carthage where the Rising had taken place.
Cairo is in the extreme northeast of Mississippi, and Carthage is in southwest Missouri with a sizable chunk of Arkansas between them. I've got several hundred miles to travel, because there are a lot of twisty hills between here and there.
I'm lucky enough to catch a ride with a mom and two kids-Crystal's my age, and she's got twin boys who are a handful. Her husband is deployed to Iraq, and she's taking 5-year old Trent and Travis to visit her family in Jonesboro, which covers a good chunk of distance right there. She's just happy to have another adult to have a sane conversation with.
I make up a story about myself, telling her about being robbed and car-jacked and no family nearer than Missouri, but I suffered a blow to the head and can't remember their phone number. I swear, it sounds like something from daytime TV, but she buys into it and picks up the tab for lunch when we stop near Germantown.
Crystal is a nice gal; she gives me some money for food and a motel and drops me off at a truckstop as she gets off US62 to go to her folks. I hope they survive the coming Apocalypse….
I'm walking by the side of the highway, doggedly heading northwest. What strikes me as bizarre is, although it only feels like a few hours—a day at the most-since I'd been mauled by those Hellhounds, it's the middle of May. I've lost a full six months! I've already decided that if I can't find anything out in Carthage, I'll head up to Bobby Singer's place. If I'm really lucky, I can find and hotwire Mama's van.
Spring has come, and it's a warm afternoon. I pause beneath a shade tree to study the map again. At some point, 62 turns into 63 and swings north—I hope it's clearer in real life than it is on the map—but that's not for another forty miles or so, I calculate, holding my finger against the scale bar and multiplying to measure the distance.
Trudging along, I keep thinking about Mama. At the end, she accepted that I was All Grown Up, so I don't feel like I have unfinished business in that respect, but the idea that she's gone kills me. I feel really alone; there's no Roadhouse any more, and I've had a little while to get used to that idea, but no Mama? I don't know if I'll ever get used to that.
I figure at this time of year it'll be light 'til at least 7PM, so I'll keep going at least to the next town. I slightly regret not stopping in Jonesboro and finding a Wal-Mart, because the Keds aren't the greatest shoes for a long walk.
A group of leather-clad bikers roar past. Lucky them, they're moving fast.
A moment later, they've turned around and come back the other way.
Oh shit, I think as I hear them rumble up behind me. I'm unarmed, underdressed, and wouldn't it just be ironic if I got ganked by them after everything I've already been through?
When I get a closer look at them, I'm every so slightly reassured to realize that they're women. Tough-looking women, but I'm pretty sure I'm safer with them than I would be with guys.
One of the helmeted women dismounts from her cycle and comes closer. There's something familiar about her, I think, just before she opens her mouth and hollers, "Joanna Beth Harvelle, what are you doing running around without any panties on?"
"Mama?" I whisper in disbelief, as she tugs off her helmet. It's a one-two punch; Mama's alive, and she's a total badass in black leather.
Then she throws her arms around me and we cling to one another for a long, long time.
She explains, when we've both stopped laughing and crying, that the women she's riding with are the Valkyries. Fittingly enough, they're based out of Valkaria, Florida, and this is their second day on the road. They're headed for, where else? Carthage, Missouri.
There are about twenty of them, all big, blonde Amazon-types. Their leader, Helva, looks me over. She nods to Mama. "She'll fit in with the rest of us. She can ride with you, but we'll have to get her into suitable clothes."
To my amazement—although the last five minutes have been pretty amazing already—Helva passes the word, and the Valkyries start going through bedrolls and backpacks and saddle bags hunting for clothes to fit me. A couple of them hold a blanket up as a screen so I can try things on. The women range in age from younger than me to older than Mama, and they're all sizes, so finding things to fit me isn't a problem.
"There's not much left of Carthage," Mama tells me as I hold a pair of jeans against me to see if they'll fit. "Once we're there, though, Shana can do some divination and maybe give us an idea of where to go next. If the divination doesn't work, we'll head up to Bobby's, see what he knows."
I'm glad to know that my fall-back plan matches hers. "I'd like to retrieve the weapons stash out of our van, too," I say, and Mama nods, looking surprised, like I've thought of something she didn't.
In a little while, I've got on a pair of blue-flowered panties, Levis, a tee shirt from Ron Jon's Surf Shop, ankle boots, and an awesome black leather jacket with long suede fringe. It's way retro, and I hope I get to keep it.
There are dark clouds in the distance as I climb onto the bike behind Mama and wrap my arms around her waist. We're flying down the road into the face of the storm to end all storms, and we might not get through it alive,
Wouldn't be the first time.