Wayward Souls – Devon Monk

Lu wanted the truck. “It’s too old,” I repeated. There were two things going against me winning this argument. One: I was dead, so she couldn’t hear me, and two: I was her husband, so she probably wouldn’t listen to me anyway. “I like it.” She ran a palm along the hood as if she could tell its life story through touch alone. With her abilities, I wouldn’t put it past her. Touching things and knowing their value was likely the only good she’d gotten out of the day we’d died. Her wedding ring, worn down to a thin gold band, winked dully in the afternoon light and caught like a sharp hook in my heart. I’d told her she could take it off. Told her she should let me go. I hadn’t won that argument either, and didn’t I love her all the more for it? “What do you think, Lorde?” she asked. “That dog couldn’t spot a bad front-end alignment if she were chewing on the axle,” I groused. The dog in question tipped her big, fuzzy black head. She was part chow chow, and part shepherd.

From the way her eyes tracked me, as I leaned against the back bumper of the truck, I knew at least one of my girls was listening. I bent forward so my face was closer to the dog. “Tell her Brogan says it has a bad radiator, it’s leaking oil, and the electrical is shot.” Lorde panted, her black tongue almost disappearing against all that black fur. She barked once. “Atta girl,” I said. “Front. End. Alignment.” She dutifully barked three times.

“Okay, okay,” Lu said. “I get it. You like the truck too.” The dog wagged her tail. I groaned. Lu plucked the weathered FOR SALE sign off the cracked windshield and marched toward the crooked front stoop of the house, determination in every lean line of her. “That was a no!” I threw my arms up and stared at the wide blue arc of Illinois sky. “You’re gonna spend twice as much time under that thing as in it,” I said. “Lu. Lula, just…touch the watch.

Listen to me. Talk to me.” I strode up to the house with her, an easy lope. Moving as a spirit through the world meant the world had very little impact upon me, and I didn’t have much on it either. Unless I got angry. Then I could tear this world to shreds. But this wasn’t something that needed my anger. A frown put three lines between her auburn eyebrows. Her wide mouth tightened at the corners like she was half chewed through a lemon. That, along with the look of resolve in her eyes, just made me love her more.

She was being a bit of a sap about the truck, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to pull her in my arms and kiss the hell out of her. “Listen.” I put a little more energy behind the command this time. Lu paused, one foot on the rickety first step. Her hand lifted toward the heavy gold pocket watch hung on a thick chain around her neck. She didn’t touch it. Not yet. She was beautiful, my Lu. Cherry hair wild around a pale face that freckled good and hard but never tanned, even before, when she was much more alive, and much more human. Now she was a thrawan—that step between being almost killed by a vampire, but not turning out to be either of those things: killed or a vampire.

I supposed she’d scan as human in any of those computerized machines the world used for medicine now. The only outward hint that she was something else, something other, was that she was incredibly strong, sensitive to magic, and lonelier than anyone deserved to be. The loneliness was my fault too. Somehow, a shred of my soul beat fiercely inside her, just as a slip of her soul had stuck deep in me. Neither of us knew how we’d traded pieces of our souls. It might have been during the attack, as I lay dying, watching the monster feed on her. Our gazes had locked and then… …then everything had gone black. It was a good blackness. Peaceful, warm. Until I’d woke into the shattering of her scream.

She: bent over my unbreathing, unresponsive body. Me: standing above myself—poor dead bastard—unable to close the deal, finish the story. There was no white light guiding me up, no red flames dragging me down. I wouldn’t have wanted them anyway. All I wanted was her. I was more dead than alive, she was more alive than dead, and as far as we could tell, we were stuck that way. After ninety years, we’d both given up on the why and had moved solidly onto the how. As in: how could we kill the assholes who did this to us? Back when we were alive—the Dirty Thirties, they called it—monsters had been on the move. Boats, trains, roads, highways did as much to move the supernatural critters across the country and around the world as it had the humans. People settled down to make homes, businesses, towns.

Monsters staked out their territories, claimed their towns, cities, and hidden patches of land. The monsters were still out there, still here, all around us. Moving as much as they liked, or staying put and setting down roots. And it wasn’t just monsters who moved through the modern world. The gods were among us, meddling in the lives of mortals for reasons of their own. I’d even heard there was some sort of town out in Oregon where the gods liked to vacation. “Touch the watch,” I urged Lu. “Ask me if I like the truck. We agreed all big purchases have to have both our approval. Remember that accordion? Or the beehives? Or that boat? Ask me, sweetheart.

” I stood in front of her and hooked my thumbs in my belt. “’Cause those tires ain’t looking too good either.” I pushed need and desire toward her, focusing hard. It was a fifty-fifty chance she’d sense me, much less hear me, but it didn’t stop me from trying. “You like trucks,” she whispered, her eyes skipping right past me to focus on the wilted patch of thistles leaning against the porch. “I like the truck. I can modify the back. Put in a bed, a light. Some of your books.” Sorrow squeezed what was left of my heart.

I reached for her, unable to stop, my fingers brushing along the side of her face, down her shoulder, her arm to rest on her wrist. Her honey-colored eyes went wide and distant. She shivered before closing them. “Plus silver’s your favorite color,” she whispered. “Ah, love.” I wanted to kiss her, wanted to feel her, warm and soft and tender in my arms. But she was mist, only the slightest sensation of warmth on my fingertips, like a dream half forgotten and fading in daylight. “Lorde and I are going to dicker the owner down by half.” She held up the sign like maybe I hadn’t noticed her plucking it off the truck. As if I’d miss a single thing she did.

“If not, we walk.” She opened her eyes, waited for me to say something else, then marched up the stairs. I chuckled at the stubborn set of her shoulders. Whoever lived in that house didn’t know what was about to hit them. “All right. All right. Give ‘em hell, girl.” I C H A P T E R T W O t was a big silver lug of a thing, sporting the newest technology of its time: an AM radio and a push-in cigarette lighter. It had exactly six hundred sixty six miles on it. Lu took it as a sign.

I took it as a sign the guy knew how to reset the odometer and might be into that show about Satan. But the seats were buttery soft black vinyl, the windows cranked up and down by hand, and the bed in back was wood and not lined with that stuff that could withstand an atom bomb. I sprawled on the passenger side of the big bench seat as she cruised down the narrow road, her window yawning wide so one hand could swim in the warm air as it rushed past. We’d left Chicago behind us, following the road past tall buildings and crowded sidewalks, then into neighborhoods with cracked pavement, old parks and older churches, until we’d threaded out into Cicero. Lu hadn’t stopped at Henry’s Drive-in for a hot dog. She hadn’t stopped in Lyons or McCook or Romeoville. When we rolled past the Rich and Creamy ice cream stand with JOLİET KİCKS ON 66 written across a giant ice cream cone set behind two life-size statues of the Blues Brothers dancing on the roof, I figured Lu wasn’t gonna stop driving all day. She was focused, but easy, letting the road spool out behind us like there was something out there calling her name and all she had to do was follow it. Illinois spread around us, flat and wide. The sun caught yellow in the deep green of cornfields and tall grasses, the sky arched in powder blue above scattered oak and maple trees.

Lorde panted like a fuzzy sentinel between us, staring out the open window on my side, but not crowding me out of my seat to get to it. I nodded at the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, the thirty-foot tall statue of a man in green coveralls and space helmet, still grinning about the silver rocket in his hands after all these years. Then I watched as Braidwood, Godley, and Gardner came and went. Lu stopped at the Ambler’s Texaco Service Station to let Lorde out onto the grassy area to do her business. The little white cottage with the green roof had been built in 1933, and pumped gas for the next sixty-six years or so. It had fallen into disrepair for some years before it was restored as a visitor’s center. Didn’t look like anyone but us had visited for awhile. I leaned against the fire engine red Texaco Sky Chief gas pumps and tipped my head to get the kink out of my neck. The billboard behind the picnic tables declared: MY FAMİLY’S DESTİNATİON İS DWİGHT ILLİNOİS. I wondered if the unimpressed man in the fedora on the sign was supposed to be Frank Sinatra.

After that, a steady row of small towns rose up and grew small as we continued on: Odell, Cayuga, Pontiac, Lexington. “Don’t name it Silver,” I finally said after we’d passed through the old growth hickory, oak, and maple trees of Funks Grove, leaving the MAPLE SİRUP sign—spelled just that way— behind. We were mid-way through the route in Illinois, and Lu was still driving. “How about Silver? That’s a good name.” Lu reached out and scratched behind one of Lorde’s kitten-soft ears. I grunted. “You’ve already named a snail, a cow, and a Studebaker Silver.” “Silver’s good. The Lone Ranger’s horse was Silver, and he was strong and reliable. Just like you.

” She patted the dash. The truck coughed, shuddered, and made a grossly exaggerated popping sound. “No, no, no,” she breathed, fighting the wheel as she lost speed. “How about Anchor?” I suggested, watching the dials bottom out and stay there. “Scrap Metal? Shipwreck? I mean, Bad Decision might be a bit on the nose, but it could work.” The truck lurched, howled at the injustices of life, then banged like a sawed-off shotgun before coming to a dead stop. She blinked a couple times while the dust kicked up from the road did a slow roll through the cab, leaving behind a layer of brown. “Or, you know, you could call it the I Told You So,” I said. “Damn-to-hell. If you are laughing at me, Brogan, so help me, I’ll make you pay.

” I grinned and leaned her way waggling my eyebrows even though she couldn’t see me. “Oh, big words. How you gonna make me any worse off than I already am, darlin’?” She thunked her head back on the bench and blew out a big breath. “It was just a few more miles.” “To the junkyard, where this thing belongs?” I asked. “We’re closer to McLean than Shirley, aren’t we?” she muttered. “Yes.” “Walk or call?” she asked Lorde. “Call a tow,” I said. “Lorde.

Tell her to call a tow.” Lorde’s ears tipped back, then forward. The road dust had painted her black coat grizzly bear brown. She hopped down to the floorboards, and scooched past my legs to stick her head out the window. Nothing but farmland beyond the railroad tracks on our right and more farmland beyond I-55 on our left. The air in the cab was warm enough even I could feel it, maybe somewhere in the high nineties Fahrenheit, which was no surprise since it was July in Illinois. I guess one of the only good things about not being alive was that humidity wasn’t much of a bother. It was a dry death. “Too hot to walk with all that black fur,” Lu said. “Let’s see what I can find.

” She reached across me, stretching for the glove box. I inhaled out of habit, wishing I could catch the deep rose and honey scent of her perfume. The glove box popped, and she dug out the cellular phone she’d dropped in there just a couple hours ago. For all that the world didn’t seem to notice my existence, and I couldn’t smell it or touch it like a living man should, everything else about me felt a lot like what living had been like. Or at least what I remembered. I certainly had my share of fatigue, hunger, and stiff muscles from too much sitting. But I didn’t need to open the door to exit the truck. It was easier to just drift through it. Lorde shifted out of my way so I could ease out of the cab to stretch my legs. I’d only drifted through living things a handful of times when I was first trying to get the hang of Unliving.

It was not an experience I enjoyed, and Lorde seemed to know that. I gave her a pat on the head, then did a once-around the truck. The sky was still blue as a bachelor button, not even a lint’s worth of cloud from horizon to horizon. The sound of faster vehicles, modern vehicles, hushed and growled and huffed down the freeway. An entire modern world that Lu and I had discovered was a no-man’s land for us. Stepping too far off the Route didn’t do either of us any good. Because it wasn’t just our souls we’d snipped and traded. Somehow that old road had a say in just how alive we could be. Close to Route 66 was good. On the Route was best.

Getting too far off it, stretching out into the modern world, was bad. The Route threaded us together, stitched us to this world with an asphalt needle. Neither of us knew why, we just knew it was true. I leaned against the bumper again and tipped my face up, imagining I could feel that sunlight on my skin, in my muscles, feel it soaking down to my cold, cold bones. The truck dipped and Lu stepped out. “Yeah, just north of McLean, below Funks Grove on Route 66. If you hit Shirley, you went too far. It’s a big ol’ silver Chevy. You can’t miss it. Yeah.

Okay. Good.” She pocketed the phone in those tight jeans she wore because she knew it drove me wild to see her in denim. “Come on, Lorde, let’s stretch our legs.” She snapped her fingers and Lorde jumped down out of the truck, her black tongue already lolling. She glanced at Lu, glanced back at me. I made with the shooing motions. “Get your walk in. No telling how long it will be until they send a tow truck. I’ll come get you when they arrive.

” Lorde sniffed at me, sneezed, then shook her head and trotted over to Lu. Lu had been doing this long enough to know I was near the truck. She held up one hand in a wave, even though her eyes were focused over my shoulder. I held a couple of fingers up to her, watched her turn and walk down the road with her hand resting on Lorde’s head. The way she filled out those jeans, Wranglers should pay that woman for carrying their label over her back pocket. She must have felt me watching her, ’cause she paused and gave her hips a little extra wiggle before striding off. I chuckled, closed my eyes, and went back to wishing for sunlight.

.

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