“I’m on it,” Maximus said. Just as the closest zombie latched his hand onto the side of the boat, we lurched forward and zoomed out of the way, leaving the zombie, the death, and the bayou behind.
We whirred away into the night.
“Are you missing part of your ear?” Maximus asked incredulously after a few moments.
And that was the last thing I heard. Once again, my body wanted to give up, my limbs becoming heavy, my mind shutting down like a tired old machine. Luckily I knew I wasn’t going to drown this time. I knew I was in good hands. I keeled over right onto the boat and made a note to thank Maximus when I woke up.
I was back on the goddamn row boat again. Back in the world of grey and monotony, of silky swamp water and huddled trees.
But I wasn’t alone.
My mother was on the boat with me, sitting at the end, a shawl wrapped around her. Her eyes were focused on the water, like I wasn’t even there. For once she didn’t look vaguely demonic. She looked as I remembered as a boy— a pretty woman with a lot of pain in her dark eyes.
It was weird being so close to her. I was still afraid, just as I had been when she was alive, never knowing what she was going to say or do to me. I didn’t know where we were, though I was going to assume I was inside the Thin Veil, and I didn’t know what rules applied. Was I dead? Was this my life now? Was she taking me somewhere in the row boat, someplace I’d never return from?
She began to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” again, her clear voice sending icy fingers down my spine. She sang the whole song, her voice carrying out over the water and coming back to her in harmony. I remembered that about her, that sometimes she would sing to me, when I wasn’t being terrorized of course. Only now did I realize that she’s where I got my singing abilities from.
“Declan, you have to go to sleep now,” she said kindly, still looking at the water.
I shivered at the uneasiness in the thick, grey air, at the blank look on her face. Should I say something to her? I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. She could strike fear in me like no one else could, even when she looked normal.
“Michael is in bed, he’s going to sleep, why can’t you? Why are you always so afraid, Declan? Did Michael say something to you? Is it me?”
I swallowed hard and looked over the side of the boat, to see what she could be looking at. There was nothing but water glinting under a sun I couldn’t see.
A sad smile came across her lips and she lowered her hand into the water, just brushing the surface. I had to imagine there was some younger version of myself in there, talking back.
“I’m sorry for what happened yesterday. Sometimes…sometimes I am not myself. I think it’s getting worse. But I still love you very much. You must know that, my son. I will always love you.”
I felt a lump get stuck in my throat. I nearly choked. My eyes were wet for some reason.
She went on, tears coming to her eyes too. “Please remember that. Remember this. Remember the good days when you look back. You were very much wanted by both me and your father. We will always be your parents. We raised you, it didn’t. You are our child and no one else’s.”
I had to say something. I had to know.
“What happened to you?” I asked her, my voice breaking.
She smiled again, still looking at the water. “Sometimes something very good can come from something very bad.”
“Was Michael the same?” My older brother had always been the overachiever, the sane one, the good son.
She didn’t say anything. Her face contorted in pain.
“Mother, is Michael the same as me?”
She closed her eyes and a tear rolled down. “I don’t even know your brother sometimes.”
What the fuck did that mean?
“Be strong, no matter what happens to me. No matter what happens to your father. Be good. I know you have that in you, even if he doesn’t.”
“Who!” I yelled at her, the boat rocking beneath me as I stood up, trying to get her attention. “Who isn’t good? My father? Michael?”
She finally turned to look at me. Her eyes were now empty sockets.
“Go to sleep, Declan.”
And so I did.
“He’s coming around,” a woman with a heavy Louisiana accent said. “I’ll see if I can find her.”
I didn’t recognize the voice of the person speaking and was met with a spinning head and the strong urge to vomit, all before I even opened my eyes.
Please let me not be on a boat, please let me not be on a boat, I thought to myself. Also, no coffins please.
“Hey buddy,” I heard a familiar voice say. A heavy hand was placed on my arm.
I carefully opened my eyes, blinking hard at the stream of light that was coming in through a window. My eyes moved over to Maximus who was leaning over me, his red hair gleaming from the sunlight like some ginger halo.
“Oh god, am I in hell?” I asked, my throat feeling like it had been scraped with sandpaper. “Where am I?” Panic suddenly shot through me like an arrow and I made a feeble attempt to sit up, even though every single part of me hurt. “Where’s Perry?”
“She’s fine,” he said, pushing me back down into the bed. “The nurse went to go get her. She was so worried about you she wouldn’t sleep until they gave her a sleeping pill. I think she’s passed out in the waiting room somewhere. And if you can’t already tell, yes you are in a hospital.”
I groaned and tried to reach up to my ear. There was a lot of gauze wrapped around it and my head. “Fuck me, what happened?”
“You don’t remember?” Maximus asked, pulling up a chair and sitting down.
My mind went back over the events. No, unfortunately I remembered everything until he pulled me onto the air boat.
“I remember you rescuing us. How long have I been out for?”
“Two days,” he said.
“What?!” I exclaimed. “Why…what’s wrong with me?”
He smirked. “Well aside from the fact that your body was carved up, you had a broken rib from a python, according to Perry anyway, your ear’s been Van Gogh’d, and you had a concussion from the car accident, your blood was pumped full of two poisons. The doctors are amazed you’re even alive considering how much you had in your system. I hate to sound trite, but it’s kind of a miracle.”
But I wasn’t the only one this was done to. I looked at him. “What about Rose?”
I already knew it was bad news. He dropped his eyes to the floor. “Rose is alive.”
He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “She’s…the drugs did some damage to her. They don’t know if it’s reversible. She’s in there somewhere though, I can see it. At the moment though, she can’t really talk or do anything. She can’t even go to the bathroom by herself.”
My heart jerked. “I’m so sorry, man.”
He eyed me. “No insult?”
I gave him a melancholy smile. “I’ll give you a free pass, for now.”
He bit his lip and nodded. “Well, that’s the way life goes sometimes, doesn’t it?” He cleared his throat.
Ugh. I hated feeling so terrible for the big guy. I wasn’t built for this. “So how did you find us? Perry said it was a long story and then there were zombies and she never had a chance to explain.”
He seemed happy to be off the subject of Rose. “You were gone quite a while, long enough that we were getting worried. Even Perry. We tried your phones but they kept ringing, no one picked up. I went down and asked the receptionist if we could borrow her car and go look for you guys and that was all set up when I got a phone call from Maryse.”
“Mambo Number Five?” I asked but then remembered what Ambrosia had said happened to Maryse and immediately felt bad for making a joke.
“She said she felt we were in danger and that Ambrosia was coming for her. I told her where you guys were, what you were doing, and that you weren’t answering the phone. She said Ambrosia probably already had you. We had to get out to her place. We’d then have to take her boat from there. She gave some pretty rudimentary directions: drive boat three miles northeast, turn back in at a stump with a heron’s nest on top, head down inlet, past the rotting fishing boat. All of this with a fucking flashlight. I’m amazed we even found Ambrosia’s place, actually. Then the call dropped and we never heard from Maryse again. We borrowed the receptionist’s car and took straight off after you.”
“What happened to Rose’s truck?”
“I called the cops and let them know. They eventually called me and said they found it abandoned and in a serious accident. Couldn’t find the other car at fault. Your camera equipment was stolen out of the back seat, probably from some street punks. They did find your phone though.” He fished it out of his pocket and displayed it. “Must have fallen out of the seat when you hit…whatever you hit. Was it car?”
I nodded. “I think so, anyway.”
“Did you get any footage shot?”
I shook my head. “To be honest, I was too chickenshit to be filming in that neighborhood. We were just about to come home. Rose made a wrong turn on the wrong street. The truck just died and suddenly there was a zombie mob. But here’s the thing, when I tried to start the car, it worked.” I stared at Maximus carefully as if he could give me an explanation to that.
He shrugged. “I couldn’t tell you why.”
“Well as long as you don’t call me special again.”
He gave me a dry look. “You’re sitting here and talking to me when you shouldn’t be Dex, I think that’s pretty special.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of rumpled paper. “When we got to Maryse’s she was gone, so was Ambrosia’s air boat. But she left this behind.”
He handed it to me. I eyed him suspiciously. “Holding back police evidence now, are we?”
I looked at the paper and I read it out loud, “Tell Rose that I’m sorry. It wasn’t my place to interfere. Everyone should be allowed to make their own mistakes.”
“Do you think that maybe Maryse was involved with Ambrosia’s plan somehow?” he asked.
I shook my head, wincing at the headache it brought on. My ear throbbed sharply. “No. I know she wasn’t. This is something else.” Maximus never knew what Maryse had done, that she’d discouraged Rose from staying with him after he’d gone Rogue. I didn’t know if it was my place to tell him that either, not now when his heart was a mess and Rose was an invalid. But since when did I ever play it safe?
“What it means,” I went on, “was that she told Rose not to hold on to you. She told her it would be better for both of you if you weren’t together. That she shouldn’t take the risk.”
His mouth dropped slightly. “How…?”
“Rose told me. She said she regretted it every day, letting someone else influence her decision. She said she’d rather live her days with ghosts and demons with you by her side than the alternative. You would have been worth the risk. It’s true.”