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Dead Endings: Chapter 8

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“Nine minutes,” Elizabeth said.

Cailen stared at the small white business card without really seeing it. Her mind had gone blank. A terrible, helpless blank.

Precious seconds ticked by as her eyes numbly traced the bold orange lettering of her friend’s calling card. Gabriella had been so pleased with herself when she’d had those printed, too.

“Eight,” Cailen heard somewhere, barely acknowledged in the background of her thoughts.

Awareness swirled above her. The bald interest of the spirit overhead chilled the temperature rapidly. It had a clarifying effect on Cailen’s brain, even as her panic reached a crescendo. As her breath misted in the air, things crystallized.

She had two choices: let Gabriella walk into a knife unawares, or–with full awareness–Cailen could face the knife herself.

That was it, really. Gabriella could probably kick Elizabeth’s ass if she knew she was a real threat, but Cailen was sure that Elizabeth had called her over under sympathetic pretenses. And as for herself…the moment Cailen opened up to Ethan would be the end. The spirit wanted Elizabeth to join him, and Elizabeth was determined to have company along the way.

Once Cailen boiled things down, there was no question, really, which she would pick. She just wasn’t sure if she had the courage to say it out loud. There had to be some way out of this. Some way to bend it back in her favor, even just a bit.

Cailen cleared her throat. “She knows,” she lied. “She knows it’s you. I told her back at the bar your story was bullshit and you must be involved.”

Elizabeth grew even more still under the shadows by the door. Then she smoothed the sides of the coat again, her hand brushing lightly along the side of Cailen’s battered phone.

“No,” she retorted. “Or you would’ve said that about ‘crying chick’ in your text.”

Cailen blushed furiously.

“You even had another glass of wine,” she continued. “Not very cautious, if you thought it was me.”

“I’m an alcoholic, I can’t help myself?” Cailen tried.

The curls bounced as Elizabeth shook her head. “Six minutes now. And I don’t even know if that’s accurate–she could have taken a taxi. She did sound really worried about you. Maybe she’s here already,” she added, shifting on the steps as if to rise.

“Wait!” Cailen shouted. “Just wait! I’ll do it!”

Cailen thought she could make out the barest of human shapes crawling along the ceiling as Ethan’s focus sharpened at her words. Hands, maybe, by the piping. And a face, lips curling slightly.

Fury surged in her veins at that smug expression. Could ghosts feel smug? Well, she would show the bastard. Ethan and Elizabeth could go fuck themselves. She had an idea. A horrible, unthinkable idea that she didn’t want to dwell on too long, but it was all she had. She just needed to stall a little longer. Gabriella had to get there at the exact right time.

“And if I do this, you’ll leave Gabriella out of it?” Cailen pressed.

“Yes.” Elizabeth’s hands twitched on the silvery gray fabric of the coat. She leaned forward and Cailen saw the naked excitement there. “I just want… We just want to be together. To end it.”

The woman’s expression curdled her stomach, but Cailen jumped on it. “It must have been hard, waiting so long,” she offered.

Elizabeth didn’t seem stupid, but something this painful, this obsessive surely needed an outlet. It worked on TV, anyway.

Elizabeth hesitated, but Cailen was rewarded with a harsh whisper. “Yes.”

“You must have loved him a lot,” Cailen prompted.

Silence, and then Elizabeth said, “I stayed with him, through everything. Even when he…he turned on himself, I stayed with him. In life…”

“And in death,” Cailen finished for her.

Elizabeth’s ravaged eyes bore into her. “Enough. I’ve waited long enough. I just want it to be over.” She stood, cell phones spilling off her lap and clattering on the cement landing. The business card drifted down beside them.

Cailen sucked in a breath and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to steel herself. Four minutes? Three minutes? Would it be enough?

Gabriella, Cailen thought. Please don’t be late. Please come charging in. I really, really need you.

She opened her eyes. Elizabeth was right in front of her now, knife griped tightly in her left hand. Cailen thanked whatever gods there might be for that. A small advantage, if she remembered her anatomy correctly.

“Do it,” Elizabeth commanded.

The ghost pulsated like a thundercloud above them.

With a grimace, Cailen dropped her defenses. Mostly.

Ethan’s spirit swooped in, a churning mass of mad joy and need. The effervescent energy washed over her, permeating her flesh.

She could feel the ghostly reach seizing control of her muscles. And she let him, almost to the edge. The barest flick of her dislocated pinky gave her a breath-catching jag of pain–and a hair’s-breadth of agency.

The spirit settled in, filling Cailen with the disorientating duality of being possessed. Her vision and muscle memory felt disjointed and ill-fitting. Ethan seemed to struggle with her small size, though she doubted he’d ever found such a complete body before. As spirits normally had no shot at possessing normal people, the ghost had only played with the weakened and dying vessels of Elizabeth’s victims. Cailen’s body, however, was the whole package.

He flexed her fingers experimentally. Cailen could only watch through her double vision, quartered off in a section of her mind as the spirit steered.

Elizabeth watched with rapt attention. “Ethan…?” she ventured.

“’Lizabeth,” said the spirit through Cailen’s mouth. It was halting, almost guttural. Cailen’s trapped consciousness cringed at the sound.

“I missed you,” the spirit rasped.

Elizabeth’s face broke into smile. Contrasted with the deep shadows, it was a slash of white in the dark.

The woman surged forward to wrap her arms around Cailen’s body. It was a distant feeling, muted by her periphery state, but Cailen thought she felt hot tears soak into the back of her shirt.

“Free me,” Ethan grated through her as he pulled at the bonds tying them to the pipes. Elizabeth quickly cut them free, and the spirit pushed Cailen’s body upright. Elizabeth backed up a few paces to give them room.

“Ethan, I…”

The spirit strode forward, wrapped Cailen’s fingers around the other woman’s throat, and squeezed.

“Together,” he said. “This time…I’ll help you.”

Elizabeth gasped and shuddered in their grasp. To Cailen’s horror, she didn’t struggle to free herself. More tears leaked down Elizabeth’s face as she gave a tremulous smile. Driven by Ethan’s joy, Cailen’s lips twitched up in an answering rictal grin.

Cailen had hoped for at least a little banter before the two lovers moved on to the main event, but it seemed she wouldn’t be granted that luxury. She could still see the knife in Elizabeth’s white-knuckled grip, and a sudden tension in the woman’s neck signaled impending intent.

As subtly as she could, Cailen tried to twitch her left hand. Ethan’s hold was so nearly absolute that even coordinating the slightest roll of her hand required titanic effort. But she managed it, and edged her dislocated pinky harder into Elizabeth’s neck.

The resulting sparks of pain rocked Ethan’s grip on her. Cailen snatched back a little more control and crushed the pinky even harder.

The shock of it forced an involuntary intake of breath from their shared body, but this time, Ethan’s stranglehold on Elizabeth’s neck only tightened. His awareness surged back at Cailen and she rallied for more power, hoping against hope to throw him.

It wasn’t enough, though. She had guessed it wouldn’t be. Cailen had welcomed him into her flesh, and not much short of Gabriella’s holy wrath would dislodge him. But knowing this, Cailen’s true purpose wasn’t to buck her rider–it was to leverage just enough control to do what she was about to do next.

She felt rather than saw Elizabeth’s arm pull back. The veins in the woman’s neck stood out like cords as her elbow arced up.

With fear-fueled desperation, Cailen laser-beamed everything she had into seizing control of her own right arm, and she wrested it from Ethan in time to grab Elizabeth’s hand at the wrist. Unable to stop the downward momentum of Elizabeth’s swing, Cailen simply redirected it and guided the knife into her ribs on the far right side, just under the breast. Her suspender snapped as the blade cut through elastic and muscle alike.

Surprise stilled the room. Elizabeth’s eyes bulged as she sucked in a harsh breath now that only one hand was around her neck. Cailen released the other hand and they both stared down at the knife jutting from Cailen’s torso.

Shock, pain, and terror washed over her, but instead of succumbing to it, Cailen used it like a battering ram. Emotion and sensation were translated into raw, blunt force spiritual power that she employed to shatter his ghostly control.

Pain had worked to dislodge spirits from Cailen in the past, and allowing herself to be stabbed was a whole new threshold of trauma to apply to that. And so, perversely, the action that had always given Ethan a foothold in normal people had given Cailen the wedge she needed to drive him out.

And there was a bonus this time–the pain trigger also served like a slamming cage door, it seemed. Ethan had been fully committed to her body and then deprived of any connection outside of it, so he couldn’t escape. His ghost fluttered around inside her like a moth caught in the palm of her hand.

She looked up and met Elizabeth’s wild eyes.

“Ethan–”

Cailen pivoted on her right foot and kicked the woman with all the force she could muster.

It bowled Elizabeth over, but her grip on the knife yanked it out as she fell back. Cailen was nearly pulled with it as it caught on her ribs exiting, but she staggered back and clutched her side. Through the white-hotagony, she somehow had the presence of mind to sidestep Elizabeth and make for the door.

Stupid, stupid!

She’d wanted to keep that knife in. A wine bottle without a cork only ended in tragedy. The hand pressed at her side was warm and now very, very wet. She tried not to dwell on it as she scrambled up the steps and through the doorway.

With inelegant haste, Cailen burst through the opening and careened off a wall that suddenly sloped sharply to the right. She lurched forward and tore open another door at the end that led up some stairs and into a darkened room.

Panic-laced seconds ticked by as she tripped her way up and fumbled for a switch. The sound of movement in the hallway behind her from pulled a hitching cry from her throat that scared her even more.

She found the right button; illumination burst over a white-walled foyer littered with rain boots, recycling bins, and old newspapers. She saw a door at the far end that was blessedly open, with wood flooring beyond it.

A yell that was more screech than scream erupted up the stairs behind her. Cailen gave a little scream of her own before she stumbled for the exit.

She slammed the foyer door behind her and skidded over stained planks towards another door, this one large and bright green. Wan gray light leaked around closed blinds on either side of it and through beveled glass squares set into the frame. Her left hand, cold and numb now, fumbled at the knob while her dislocated pinky flopped uselessly in tiny bursts of pain. She barely got the top lock undone before Elizabeth came hurtling from the room behind her.

“Give him back!” she screamed.

Cailen’s hand slipped from the knob and she fell sideways to avoid the other woman’s charge. Elizabeth thudded into the door above her. She had the knife.

Cailen kicked her viciously in the knees; Elizabeth stumbled back against a coat rack. She rebounded quickly, and Cailen avoided the next stab by going for Elizabeth’s ankles. The woman fell over, knife clattering free.

Both of them scrambled for the blade, but Elizabeth was closer and reached it first. She slashed back, catching Cailen from cheekbone to the tip of her ear. Cailen squeaked and reached out for something to defend herself with. She got a hand on the coat rack and pulled it, coats and all, onto Elizabeth.

Elizabeth vanished under the mass of coats, allowing Cailen precious seconds to back up and stand using the door to steady herself. When the curly head finally emerged from the pile, Cailen kneed Elizabeth squarely in the face.

Elizabeth fell back with a squawk, and Cailen leaned heavily against the door, breathing hard. That little move had cost her. Blood saturated her shirt on the right side, clammy and sticky all the way down to the waistband of her pants. She couldn’t really feel much besides a gaping ache in her side now, and she was very, very cold.

Ah, shock, she thought. My old friend, Just give me a few more minutes. She turned, pushed on the brass handle, and bolted into the chill morning air…

Right into Everett.

Hand poised above the buzzer, the look of comical surprise on his face mirrored her own. Behind him, by the road, Gabriella waved off a taxi.

Cailen didn’t give him any time to collect himself, though, as a surge of intense emotion from the spirit trapped within her tipped her off to the movement behind.

“Knife!” she screamed in his face.

His eyes widened.

To Everett’s undying credit, he reacted almost instantly. He folded her into his arms without a word and twisted from the doorway, falling back in the same moment.

The knife came down on the sleeve of his coat, and the thick fabric blocked most of the edge. They rolled as they landed, Everett cushioning them both with a grunt.

A pair of boots clicked past their faces as Gabriella charged up the paved entryway to the apartment building. Cailen’s view was partially obscured by Everett’s shoulder, but there was no misinterpreting the scuffle of feet and yells. Like with Everett, it seemed Gabriella needed no memo on the situation. Crazy people wielding knives said a lot at first glance.

Everett pushed them up into a sitting position just as Gabriella slammed Elizabeth into the ground, arm leveraged behind the sobbing woman’s back.

“What the hell is going on?!” Gabriella shouted.

Everett looked at Cailen, Cailen looked at the quivering knife stuck in the cast on Gabriella’s arm. Dazed, she asked, “What happened to your arm?”

Gabriella turned to her, gaped. “You’re the one leaking all over the place! Shit. Everett! Call an ambulance!”

Everett seemed to finally notice the blood on Cailen’s clothes. His eyes were transfixed by whatever Cailen felt dripping down her cheek. She gave him a wan smile.

It was nice and warm next to him. She wouldn’t mind staying there.

Gabriella pushed Elizabeth aside and ran over to them. “Everett!” she yelled.

He started violently and got out his phone. Gabriella turned her out of his arms and looked her over. She hissed when she lifted Cailen’s hand from her side.

“You…you keep your hand on that,” Gabriella breathed, her voice shaking. “It’ll be fine, it’ll be…”

“It’s okay,” Cailen said. “You got here right on time.”

“On time for what? A bloodbath?!”

Cailen couldn’t figure out why there were tears in Gabriella’s eyes, but she guessed she was pissed. Cailen could agree with that. She was pretty pissed, too.

“She said she called you. She was going to kill one of us either way, so…”

Gabriella stared at her.

“And,” Cailen wheezed. It was getting harder to speak. She tasted copper now, too. Goddamned lungs. Something wasn’t working there; she fought to catch her breath.

“…I had a plan. It worked, see?” Cailen held up her hand, fingers curled like she held a butterfly. Through the cage of digits she saw the dawning realization on Gabriella’s face. Gabriella could surely now feel it, him.

“Oh Lord, why’d you do it, Cailen?” Gabriella cried.

Cailen blinked, surprised. She weakly took her friend’s hand.

“Because fuck them, Benitez.”

Cailen barely noticed Everett put his phone back in his pocket. “They’re coming. Five minutes out and…” He swallowed whatever else he was going to say.

Cailen followed Gabriella’s gaze to Elizabeth. The woman was on her knees now, her dirt-streaked face peeking out of her mass of long, curly hair. The eye Cailen could see stared sightlessly past them and into the distance.

“Do it,” Cailen gurgled.

Gabriella hesitated.

Cailen felt frustration stir in her numbing body. From Gabriella’s perspective, maybe, Elizabeth was a pitiable sight. Cailen had no doubt that Elizabeth had been pushed past the point of reason long ago. It didn’t change the fates of the three people who had taken the knife before her.

“Jacob, Portia, Christopher…!” Cailen growled at Gabriella. Blood flecked from her lips by the time she got to Christopher. She might have to add herself to that list, at this rate.

Gabriella bowed her head. Then she squeezed Cailen’s hand. Warmth transferred in that squeeze, and light surged down her arm.

Cailen had never been on the receiving end of one of Gabriella’s exorcisms (conscious, anyway), but it had always looked very pretty to her. Being in the midst of that glow was blinding, but not painful. It was like taking a bath in air. Pure, sun-infused air.

Ethan’s spirit beat against that heat, but he was erased, piece by piece, in seconds. Cailen was alone in her head once more. Gabriella sighed.

Elizabeth stiffened, then stood.

Cailen felt Gabriella and Everett tense as she did. Everett tried to slide from around Cailen and stand as well, but Gabriella pulled him back down and added the pressure of his hands to the knife wound on Cailen’s side.

Gabriella rose and ripped the knife from her cast. She tossed it aside. “Easy now,” she said, as if talking to an agitated animal.

Elizabeth ignored her. She turned left and right, chin lifted, searching. Her hands trembled as she felt the air and clearly found nothing. After a long moment, her fingers closed into fists at her sides and she grew very still.

“He’s gone,” she said.

Gabriella nodded.

Elizabeth’s eyes were wide and hollow. A spasm passed over her face, and it seemed like tears would come, but nothing did. Her expression settled into a blank mask.

The distant sound of sirens bled in behind the rumble of trucks and early morning traffic. Everett’s head perked up against the lightening sky.

Elizabeth ran. Gabriella shifted her weight, ready to intercept her, but the other woman gave their little huddle a wide berth as she dashed by. Everett yelled after her and Cailen followed her with her eyes as the woman sprinted for the road.

Gabriella was one step into a chase when Elizabeth slipped between two parked cars and threw herself into the street. The SUV barreling down the road didn’t even have time to honk.

There was a crunch and then a muffled thud as Elizabeth disappeared under the vehicle. Over the pop and hiss of the driver’s airbag, Cailen thought she heard a scream.

She was too sleepy to think about it, though. She was warm and safe and could finally give in to the velvety blackness of sleep. And so she did.

Proceed to Chapter 8, page 2–>