Missing, Presumed Dead – Emma Berquist

I TAKE THE PILLS WHEN THEY TELL ME TO. NOT THE Haldol, only the Ativan. I don’t need the antipsychotics; I just need to rest. I’m not sick. Or at least, not the kind of sick that drugs can fix. I know, I’ve tried them all; they don’t make it stop. Nothing does. I have about twelve hours left of my seventy-two-hour stay. It’s a voluntary psychiatric hold, so they can’t keep me any longer unless they’re willing to go to a lot of trouble. I only come here when it gets to be too much, when I can’t take one more death brushing against my skin. LA County Mental Health isn’t particularly nice, or even particularly clean, but it is quiet. Quiet and white and no one tries to touch me. For seventy-two hours I can sleep the sleep of the drugged in a locked ward, my own personal sensory deprivation tank. Our sense of touch is controlled by a complex system of neurons and pathways called the somatosensory system. Sensory receptors in our skin respond to stimuli and send signals to the spinal cord and brain.

When you feel everything, sometimes it’s better to feel nothing at all. I stretch out between the scratchy hospital sheets, the edge of the benzos starting to creep up. I tongued the other pills, then tucked them into the crease of my jeans. I don’t need them, but someone else at the club might. “Good evening, Lexi,” a voice says, and I roll over and blink heavy-lidded eyes. It’s dark, but I can just make out the figure standing over the bed. “Oh,” I say to the older man in a white coat. “Hey, Dr. Ted.” “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.

” I struggle to sit up. “Had a rough week. The last job . it was a kid.” I hate it when they’re kids; they don’t understand that they’re dead. And I can’t explain that their tantrums are drawing too much attention, that people are starting to notice the flickering lights. All I can do is tell them it’s going to be okay, right before I push them over to the other side. It feels like they’re dying all over again. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Dr.

Ted sounds like he means it; hell, he probably does. He’s too soft for his own good, the sort of person who thinks if you’re kind enough you can trust people. You’d think this place would convince him otherwise, but he’s still here, still trying. “It’s not your fault,” I say. “I needed a break. I’m leaving tomorrow.” “How is your grandfather?” he asks. I shrug. “Deda is Deda.” Dr.

Ted nods. “And you? How are you doing, Lexi?” I rub my face. The drugs are pumping through my bloodstream, slowing down my heart, and it’s hard to think clearly. “I’m . surviving,” I say. Dr. Ted is quiet for a moment. “I suppose that’s a start.” There’s a click and the door to my room opens, letting a shaft of light spill in. A nurse stands backlit, glowing like a saint in stained glass.

“Who are you talking to?” she asks suspiciously, her eyes darting around the room. “No one,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m . praying.” One corner of her mouth purses, but she’s only paid enough to check that we’re still breathing. The door closes and I’m cushioned in darkness again. “I won’t keep you up any longer,” Dr. Ted says. “Sleep well, Lexi.” “You, too, doc,” I say, but only to be polite.

Ghosts don’t sleep. The hours go too quickly, most of them slept away. The doctors don’t bother me much; free clinics are a refuge for the poor and the drug-addicted and the runaways. There are too many of us for them to get attached, and they dole their care out in small doses so they don’t get swallowed whole. I sign myself out around noon, squinting against the sun. There aren’t enough trees in LA, not enough shade. The palms don’t do anything except bend over during the Santa Ana winds and leave huge fronds in the street that people swerve to avoid. I walk to the bus stop, zipping up my hoodie even though it’s already warm out. I hate riding the bus—too many people, too many chances for contact—but I didn’t want to leave my grandfather’s Buick parked over here for three days. A man leans against the bus stop shelter and I make sure my hood is up as I turn away and shove my hands in my pockets.

He barely glances in my direction, no doubt writing me off as a surly teenage boy. I keep my dark hair shaved close, a few centimeters of fuzz covering my head. That, combined with a number of tattoos and curves that are more like slight waves, give a certain impression. People don’t bother boys the way they do girls, don’t try to crowd them, don’t try to touch them. Up close the illusion fades, but I don’t let people get too close. When the bus arrives, I head for the back, as far away from the others as I can get. I tuck my arms in tight, just trying to make it through, but I forget about the people behind me. The bus lurches and a hand clamps around my shoulder as a woman stumbles forward. My breath stops as her death sings to me; sixty-two, breast cancer. She mumbles an apology, but her hand is still on me, and it only gets worse the longer she touches me.

The smell of iron clogs my nose as the image of her pale and withered body shoves its way into my mind. I twist away, ignoring the insulted look she gives me, and lurch into the nearest empty seat. Shivers roll over my skin and I cross my arms tight against my chest until they pass. I let my head fall back against the seat and close my eyes, wishing like anything I could have stayed in that white room forever. The bus goes to Van Nuys, which is technically Los Angeles but also definitely not. It’s not near the beach, it’s not pretty, and the only actors who live here are the ones who play bodies on TV. LA is where dreams go to die. We pretend it’s perfect, hot yoga and green juice and beaches, but underneath it’s all despair. Our sunsets are beautiful because of pollution from the cars choking the 405. Hollywood is filthy, nothing but strip malls and garbage and tourists taking disappointed selfies.

Homeless people pee in the middle of the sidewalk in Santa Monica because they have nowhere else to go. Venice Beach is littered with needles and rich kids pretending to be hippies. Everyone comes here with the same stupid dream, and everyone gets crushed under the weight of it. This place is for people trying to claw their way out, or people who have already given up. All you have to do is drive by Skid Row to realize no one gives a shit about anyone else in this city. Including me. I get off not far from my apartment but I’m not headed there just yet. My grandfather’s nursing home is a few blocks away, close enough for me to visit every day when I’m not locked up in the psych ward. “Good morning, Lexi,” Nancy says when I walk in the door. “Hey,” I say, breathing in the scent of antiseptic and piss.

“How’s he been?” “He won Mr. Hardin’s pudding cup playing poker.” I shake my head. “He cheated. He always cheats.” Nancy smiles. “He was worried about you,” she says softly. “Maybe you can tell him next time you’re not going to make it?” I wince. “Yeah. Sorry, I will.

” “He’s watching TV, go on in.” “Thanks.” Sherman Assisted Living isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great, either. The staff are decent enough, but it’s old, the rec room stuffed with Salvation Army couches, the food tasteless. The rec room still smells like pee, but at least there’s a layer of burnt popcorn to cover it. I find Deda in front of the TV, his long body draped over a ragged armchair, his oxygen tank propped at his side. “Deda,” I say, pulling up a folding chair to sit next to him. “I’m back.” “Alexandra.” Deda’s shaggy brows draw together.

“Do you not watch the news? Where have you been?” He gestures at the TV, where the anchor is reporting the latest missing person. People go missing in this city like socks, bunched up and discarded, but not like this. Not four in a row, young men and women who seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth. One of them should have at least turned up on Urie’s doorstep by now, but there’s been no sign. “I’m sorry,” I say quietly. “I went to the clinic; I should have told you.” He sighs, leaning back in his chair. “I wish you would not go to that place.” My grandfather looks like a golden age movie star on a slight decline, a Russian Errol Flynn if he lived past fifty and wasn’t a total creep. He always dresses impeccably, crisp pants and shiny dress shoes.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen him wear jeans, or a shirt that wasn’t tucked in. And I would never tell him, because he worked so hard to lose it, but I love the slight trace of an accent he still has and his habit of avoiding contractions. “Some days . ” I swallow hard. “I can’t handle it, Deda. I can’t see one more death without screaming.” “Our gift makes us different, Alexandra,” Deda says. “But you do not have to cut yourself off. If you would go back to school—” “No,” I say, interrupting him. I’m not having this fight again, not now.

“Deda, please, can we . can we just watch TV for a while?” Deda’s mouth gets tight, but after a moment he nods. I scoot his tank to the side and lean against his armchair, and for an hour we pretend we’re just two ordinary people, as long as we ignore the elderly ghost slumped on the couch behind us. I don’t know why we can do what we do, why I can feel every person’s death like a brand on my skin, see things no one should have to see. Deda calls it a gift. But every time I ask “From who?”, I get a different answer. Once he told me we’re descended from Rasputin and his magic runs in our blood. Once he said we were hexed by Baba Yaga after tricking her out of her best cow. Once it was my great-great-grandfather who tried to beat death in a game of chess. I don’t think it’s a gift.

At least not the kind anyone asks for. It scared my mother. She tried her best, but she couldn’t handle a kid who talked to nothing, who saw her death before she could walk. It was bad enough her father couldn’t hold her. When her kid started flinching from her hugs, I think it broke something inside her. She stayed, though, and I’ll always be grateful for that. She stayed until it was too late to leave. Until she learned she was right to be scared. I doubt Deda even knows what the truth is. It skipped his grandfather and his older brother, but not his father.

It popped up in a few cousins still in Russia. It skipped Mom but not me. Maybe it’s a gift, maybe it’s a curse, maybe it’s just a gene mutation. Whatever it is, it’s ours to keep. My apartment is a piece of shit. It’s a studio, barely big enough to fit my bed and a dresser, but eighteen-year-olds with no money don’t have a lot of options. I could move to the larger complex in Echo Park where most of the people who work for Urie live, but I’ve always kept to myself. I don’t care that it’s small and there’s no water pressure and the window sticks; it’s enough that I have someplace that’s just mine. I take a shower, wash three days of hospital stink off of me. I’m too tall for the ancient showerhead, but it doesn’t take much to get shampoo out of short hair.

I put on my cleanest black pants and pull a gray hoodie over my head so only the tattoos on my hands are visible. Finger bones connect to wrist bones, the outline continuing halfway up my arms. They were some of the first marks Theo put on me, spells for strength and health. They’re more than that to me, though; the bones are a reminder of what’s inside, lurking just beneath the surface. Peel back a layer of skin and we’re all the same; ashes to fucking ashes, everything gets ground back into the dirt. I’m going to be late for work again, especially if there’s traffic. And there’s always traffic. I’m pulling on my boots when there’s a flicker at my left eye, and I bite off a yelp. “Fucking hell, Trevor, can you not do that next to my face,” I yell. “Where have you been?” he demands, scowling at me.

“You know the news is saying people are getting abducted by aliens, right?” “That is not what they’re saying.” “You didn’t tell me you were leaving again.” “Yeah, that’s because I didn’t want you to follow me.” Trevor steps back, looking hurt, and I sigh. He’s just a kid; barely sixteen, or at least he was when he died. I don’t know when that was exactly, but judging by his faded jeans and swoopy hair, I think it was sometime in the nineties. “I’m sorry,” I tell him, sitting back on my bed. “I needed a break from everything.” Trevor sits down next to me and bumps his shoulder against mine. I think he looks like he did when he was alive, but I didn’t know him then; maybe his bronze skin is a little paler, his dark lashes a little hazier.

He feels solid, and warm. That’s what people always get wrong about ghosts; they aren’t cold. They don’t make your breath cloud, or give you goose bumps. They’re heat and weight and the taste of metal coating your tongue. They’re energy, pure energy that makes your skin crackle and your hair stand on end. When people die, their life force doesn’t disappear; it just changes. It’s the first law of thermodynamics: energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred from one form to another. “Hey,” Trevor says. “I’m sorry, too.” “Not your fault,” I say, leaning my head against him.

It’s nice to be able to touch someone without feeling sick. Even if I still taste copper in my mouth. Even if that someone isn’t quite a someone anymore. “Did you tell anyone you were going?” Trevor asks, raising his eyebrows. I shake my head, and he looks somewhat mollified. “Not even Phillip?” I push Trevor away and stand up. “Okay, enough prying. I’m late as it is.” He spreads out on my bed and I try to ignore the red streak that blooms across his chest. He was in a bad car crash.

“Trevor,” I say, jutting my chin to his shirt. “Oh,” he says, looking down. He closes his eyes for a second, and the light flickers overhead. “Easy,” I mutter. If they concentrate hard enough, ghosts can sometimes affect electromagnetic radiation: lights, radios, once even my microwave. I have a theory, untested, that violent deaths create the strongest ghosts because they fight so hard to stay alive that the kinetic energy builds up and carries over to the other side. “Sorry,” Trevor mumbles. He opens his eyes, and the blood blinks away. He’s an old ghost, with the control that comes from practice. He still won’t change his clothes, though.

“You better not be in my bed when I get home,” I tell him. “Mm-hmm,” he answers, waving me away. “Say hi to Phillip for me.” I give him the finger as I shut the door behind me. I like LA better in darkness. The night hides the ugliness, smudges sharp corners into soft edges. The low-slung houses melt into one another until all you see is palm trees glowing in the traffic lights. None of us ever sees darkness, not true darkness. Even without the headlights, even without the high-mast lighting, it would never be truly dark. Not the way it used to be, not the way it should be.

We can’t see the Milky Way anymore because of light pollution across the continent. People don’t sleep like they should, can’t see the stars like they should. We build these cities and fill them with light and garbage and people, and then we wonder why we’re so unhappy. I take the exit slowly, running into the usual traffic as I get closer to Hollywood. Everyone comes out to play at night, and the bars are already spilling music and drunks into the street. My destination is farther down, but trying to find closer parking is a waste of time. I pass two full lots before I find a garage, and I have to drive up three flights to get a spot. It’s too hot to be wearing a hoodie, but I don’t take it off. I need something to separate me from the women in slinky dresses, from the men in tight jeans. I am not one of you; I am not here for you.

The trick is to look straight ahead, to look mean and angry at the world. It’s not exactly a reach for me. I stomp down the street, but the crowd is dense and drunk and I can’t avoid all of them. Shoulders bump mine, and I grit my teeth as deaths wash over me in a sticky gray wave. I only get flashes, but it’s enough; all these plump, dimpled cheeks, thick hair, and painted nails, I glimpse the way it ends. Throat cancer, aneurysm, pneumonia. They beam even white teeth, and all I can see are the skulls smiling beneath. Elysium is on a corner, a tall, gray stone building with an elaborate carved façade. I hate it with a passion, but a job is a job. The club has four levels, all equally loud and awful, but a line still stretches down the street.

Of course, that’s what happens when you spell people’s drinks. Not a spell strong enough for them to notice, just enough to tweak their body chemistry, make them happier than normal, lighter, more willing to dance and ignore the pain in their feet. No other place can satisfy you quite like Elysium can, so yeah, there’s always a line. The bouncer nods at me as I duck past the front door and head down the darkened alleyway. The side exit is locked, but I pound on the door with my fist. Then kick it with my boot, for good measure. A second later the door shoves open and a bald, angry face leers out. “Give it a rest, I’m—oh, hey, Lex.” Georgie’s face clears as he recognizes me. “You working tonight?” “Yeah,” I say, and he opens the door wide enough for me to sneak past without getting too close.

I’ve been here long enough that security knows I don’t like to be touched. “Haven’t seen you in a few days,” Georgie says as he lets the door slam shut behind us. “Been busy.” I walk quickly, knowing my way around; the service elevators are to the left, much plainer and emptier than the glitzy ones in the main lobby. “Phillip is around,” Georgie says, far too casually. “He’s been asking about you. Want me to send him up?” I stomp into the elevator and punch the number four. “No,” I say firmly, and the door closes on Georgie’s face. I lean back against the wall and shut my eyes while the elevator starts to move. I certainly didn’t intend to get involved with Urie’s son.

Well, at least not the first time. Maybe I should have told Phillip I was working tonight. And maybe I should have answered one of the dozens of messages he sent me. I owed him a proper breakup, but I didn’t know what to say. How do you tell someone it’s hard to kiss him when you keep picturing him dead? Phillip wouldn’t understand; he’s not like me. He has a healing gift he inherited from his mother, something small and helpful. He still has to hide what he can do from outsiders—we all have to—but it’s not the same. He can be around people, go to school, live in the light. He gets to have a life. The elevator dings and I pad down the hallway, my boots quiet on the carpeted floor.

On the other side of the wall music blares, the bass reverberating in my chest. I brace myself, then pull open the door that leads to the club, and the noise is inside my head. It’s early enough that the crowd is sparse. It’ll fill up in a manner of hours, but nowhere near as packed as the first two levels. It’s why I stick to the top; people are usually distracted by strobe lights or DJs before they make it all the way up here. I weave across the slick wooden floor, avoiding the people occupying the leather couches along the walls. The bar is long and backlit, and I wave at the girl with golden skin and fire-engine red hair behind it. “Lexi!” she says, giving me a relieved smile. “There you are.” I slip behind the bar and take off my hoodie, shoving it beneath the counter.

“Thanks for covering for me, Nic,” I tell her. “I really appreciate it.” Nicole is kind to me; she’s the closest thing I have to a friend, if I allowed myself to have living friends. She has a touch of psychic ability herself, enough to know which people to kick out when the mood in the club turns sour. Everyone who works here has at least one foot in the unknown. That’s why we’re here, because Urie found us and gave a place. He protects most of us magic types, the charmers and the forgers, the psychics and the witches, and whatever it is that I am. You need a healer, you see Urie. You need a loan, you see Urie. Without him, half of us would be living on the street, more missing kids on the news.

He keeps us working, keeps us hidden, keeps us out of jail or someplace worse. “No problem,” she tells me. “I needed the money. Urie was looking for you, though.” I run a hand over my peach-fuzz hair. “Aw, shit. What did he say?” So far I’ve avoided Urie needing me when I’m gone, but it was bound to happen eventually; ghosts have been popping up all over the place, the undercurrent of unrest in the city stretching to the undead. The money’s nice, and I owe him, but the more jobs he sends me on, the more I want to run to the hospital. “He was worried,” Nicole says. “Didn’t you hear about Marcus?” I shake my head.

“No. Who’s Marcus?” Nicole’s mouth goes flat. “Fifteen-year-old with a talent for locks. He’s a good kid, really outgoing, never stops talking. He went missing from around the warehouse.” Shit. Urie keeps good track of his people; we don’t just go missing. “How long?” I ask. “A few days. Everyone’s a little rattled.

” “Maybe he’ll turn up,” I say, but even I don’t believe that. “Yeah,” Nicole says. “Maybe.” Someone shouts at us from across the bar, and our conversation ends as we start pouring drinks. I try to remember what Marcus looks like and come up with an impression of a scrawny kid with messy hair. I don’t socialize with the others if I can help it. Now I feel doubly guilty about not answering any of Phillip’s messages. I focus on the shouted drink orders, try to put it all out of my mind. I’m a crap bartender. I can’t make Manhattans properly, I always mess up martinis, and half the time I don’t know what I’m putting in an old-fashioned.

It doesn’t matter; people don’t come here for the taste of the drinks; they come for the feeling inside them. It’s a simple spell, really, that bonds to any type of alcohol. I pour three shots of whiskey for a group of button-downed bros, not entirely sure it’s the kind they ordered. “Aren’t you a little young to be behind the bar?” one of them yells over the music. “No,” I lie, pushing the drinks across. Urie doesn’t care regardless, but I do have a flawless fake license a forger made me. Even the feds wouldn’t be able to spot it, though each of them would see something different. The man shrugs and takes the drinks with a wink at Nicole. She smiles brightly at him, which is why she gets tips and I don’t, but also why she gets hit on and I don’t. “He’s gonna ask for your number,” I tell her, leaning against the bar.

“Don’t you dare give out mine again.” Nicole laughs, an open, delighted sound that almost tempts me into a smile. Then the laugh cuts off as she spots something over my shoulder. “Uh-oh,” she says, “playtime’s over.” The stink of thick cologne wafts over me before I turn and scowl. “Hey, sexy Lexi,” Ilia drawls. “What do you want, Ilia?” He just grins and reaches across the bar to grab a cherry from the container. Urie’s nephew is twenty-two, his second-in-command, sometimes my partner and sort of friend. At least when he’s not being a pain in my ass. “Nice of you to finally show up,” he says, tossing the cherry into his mouth.

“Where the hell have you been?” “I was off,” I tell him, crossing my arms. “I don’t have to answer my phone if I’m off.” “Yeah, well, Urie’s been climbing up the walls trying to account for everybody, so next time a heads-up would be nice.” “Yeah,” I say grudgingly. “I got it.” “Good. He wants to see you.” “Now? I just got here.” “So tell it to him.” Ilia shrugs.

I sigh and look over my shoulder at Nicole. “Sorry,” I say, tugging my hoodie back on. “It’s fine,” she says, giving me a sympathetic smile. “I’ll see you later.” “Is he pissed at me?” I ask, following Ilia out from the bar. Ilia glances at me. He’s annoying as hell, but he’s always straight with me. “More worried than pissed,” he says. “I wouldn’t disappear again anytime soon, though.” “Noted,” I say.

“Any news on Marcus?” Ilia shakes his head curtly. “Nothing. Where were you, anyway?”

.

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