Being back in his own body was equal parts jarring and comforting. For the first twenty minutes or so he’d felt horribly sick – his skin was ice cold, his mouth dry as coffin dust and all his joints were stiff. Once the nausea faded and his body warmed up, though, it was like slipping on an old pair of shoes – except that a demon was driving him along the highway at terrifying speeds and his dead sister was lying in the trunk amongst piles of frozen bread and steaks.
‘So,’ Darla said, winding up her window to block the sound of the roaring wind. ‘How’s it feel to be alive again?’
‘Okay. I’m hungry.’
‘For food, huh? Lucky shit. Well we don’t have time. Freya will have food for you when we get there. Can’t guarantee you’ll like it much, though. She’s always on some strange diet, trying to keep her current body alive as long as possible.’
Will didn’t want to ask what she meant by that, but after all he’d seen he knew he had to. Hell was sickening, terrible, evil, and unfair. But it was also unavoidable. Now that he’d been there he sensed it lying just beyond the folds of reality all the while, just a single death away, a few missed heartbeats, a long stifled breath – his bruised throat was a permanent reminder. The more he could find out about demons and the afterlife, the better. He sighed. ‘What do you mean, keep her body alive?’
‘She’s a Visitor – same as Dale. The way they feed is they get into a living body and just set up shop. The longer they’re in there, the more soul they absorb – that’s why Dale never comes up here if he can avoid it. Part of the reason his own soul’s in such bad shape, among other things – he just doesn’t feed it enough. But Freya’s not so thoughtful. She’ll climb in a body and just stay there until there’s no soul left and it just starts rotting all around her, and then she’ll go get a new one.’
Will stared at her, but she didn’t meet his gaze, just stared determinedly through the windscreen. She weaved between two cars and then stepped on the accelerator as they rounded a soft bend. At this rate they’d reach the coast in less than an hour. ‘She gets a new one?’ He repeated.
‘Look, we all do our best, alright? I didn’t have to eat a bloody dog earlier – I could have nabbed a baby. Then at least I’d have had enough to last me the rest of this trip, and I wouldn’t feel so sick, either. Freya’s no saint, but she takes the worst off she can find – drug addicts and suicidals and criminals. You’ll get it when you’re dead too, and you have to go find your own souls – then you can judge all you like. Till then, just shut up and help me save your damn sister.’ She took a breath and accelerated again, the force pushing them both back into their seats. Will had an unnerving image of her careening into a wall and then pointing a finger at his dead body and crowing: See! See!
‘Okay, I’m sorry,’ Will said.
She shrugged. ‘Don’t worry about it. I can’t say I didn’t have the same thoughts when I was younger. Crossed my mind to throw myself into the Void once or twice, but I never could do it. Something about seeing Hell makes you wonder that there might be no end to it, after all. Maybe you just move from one world on into the next, each one worse than the last. Horrible thought, isn’t it?’
Will didn’t reply. He rested his head against the window and watched the farmland drift by, acres and acres of green and yellow grass, home to all kinds of cows, sheep, horses, insects, birds… Life. ‘If you ate that dog,’ he said, ‘animals must have souls, too. Where do they go?’
‘Same as us. They just don’t last as long. Small souls get corrupted quicker. Or eaten… Listen, there’s some things you should know about Freya. She’s very rich, very smart, but most of all very off her nut. In other words don’t believe a word she says. There’s eccentric, and then there’s fucking crazy, and she’s the latter. Dale’s banking on her keeping you and your sister safe in her freezer room – the one she uses to keep her host bodies cool – but as far as I’m concerned it’s asking a bit much. If you want to live, I’d try not to stay dead for too long.’
They drove on in silence, leaving the farmland behind and taking a turn up a steep curve as the ocean came into view. As they climbed the winding roads, Will craned his neck to see the waves crashing into the base of the cliffs far below. Further out, the ocean was calm and shimmering with morning sunlight – the sky clear blue. It struck him as completely fake.
‘What’s the point?’ He said quietly. ‘Why live at all – if I’m going to end up in Hell with everyone else, anyway? Why bother living?’
Darla stomped on the break so hard the car nearly skidded through the barrier – which would have made his question meaningless in a few terrible moments – and they screeched to a stop in a gravel inlet by the side of the road. A truck whizzed by them, honking its horn. The smell of burnt rubber permeated the car.
Before Will could say a word, Darla had him by the collar, yanking his face so close to hers he could see – and smell – the shreds of dog meat between her snarling teeth. ‘Do you know what I would give for a single day of life? For an hour? Do you want to know what I’d do if it meant I could have an afternoon with my family again, and see everyone I left behind? Do you?’ Her slit yellow eyes burned with fury, and yet somehow they were the most human Will had ever seen them. He didn’t trust himself to answer her.
She pulled him closer, and lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. ‘We’re going to freeze your pathetic ass, and then you’re going to get your shit together and we’re gonna drag your sister’s soul from the depths of hell if it ends both of us. Every minute of life saved is a spit in the face of Hell. Understand?’
He nodded, and she let him go and settled back into her seat, breathing hard. Will supposed she was so worked up she’d forgotten she didn’t have to breathe at all. Neither of them said or did anything for a minute or two, and then at last she turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life.
‘Besides,’ she said, as they pulled back out onto the road. ‘You won’t want to be up here in the real world for a while, at least.’
‘Haven’t you worked it out, yet? Your family was murdered, and you’re in a stolen vehicle with your sister’s dead body in the back.’ She shot him a grin with the slightest hint of bitter humour. ‘You’re a wanted criminal, Will. By the end of the day, the whole country will be looking for you.’